The visitor and the stranger

On Monday, I woke up early and drove to the city where I grew up, where my family still runs a Honda dealership, to have the oil changed in my car. I made it there early, under cover of darkness, and walked around the empty streets of downtown for a little while to kill time before the hour of my service appointment. Going back is like walking into a museum of my own past: here is the street where I drove sagging Plymouth K-cars for driver’s ed, there is the library where I checked out Captain Toad books, over here is the café where I crumpled napkins between sweating hands while learning what you are supposed to say when you are on a date. I remember the streets but not how they connect—can you turn left on Pearl or not? Dirty snow sat piled up in the corners of empty parking lots. A former warehouse was demolished, a riot of splintered two-by-fours.

Leaving downtown, I took the new parkway which makes a beeline towards the highway, in order to see a piece of new infrastructure which had been promised for decades, a public investment greatly reduced in ambition by the gradual shrinking of municipal budgets. The parkway leaves from the Millyard which was our turning-around point on long runs in high school; blue lights illuminate the river crossing and trick you into believing that you’re in an exciting city. I can imagine coming here for the first time and looking with wonder and enchantment at the tall Millyard chimney looming over the brick buildings which line the winding river in rectangular patterns—I can imagine it but I cannot do it myself.

A yellow school bus was also taking the parkway as part of its morning route, and we pulled up side by side at the stop light on Broad Street. I looked up at it and saw a boy, elementary school age, looking into the distance through a frosted-over window. How many days had I sat on yellow school buses in this city looking out into similar distances, bored, hopeful, afraid, lost in the mesmerizing feeling of watching the seasons go by? This intersection did not exist when I was young. Its neatly-lined curbstones have not yet been caked by years of springtime mud, its yellow and white lines have not been worn away by the work of a million passing tires.

The bus pulled forward to turn left, and farther back I saw a girl in a hijab, caught in the same farawy expression as the boy in the front row. Maybe this bus is going to my old elementary school, maybe this girl will enter her school-lunch number into the same keypad on which I used to type mine, maybe she will pour her leftover milk into the same ten-gallon bucket where I used to dump mine. I remember a Tunisian in first grade and an Egyptian in sixth grade, but I do not remember any hijabs—only in textbooks. Has this girl been listening to the news, have she and her parents been sick with fear and confusion about the viciousness which now swirls everywhere around us? As she looks into the distance, backlit by the dawn which glows over the highway, is she wondering, worrying about America?

On the car stereo, a woman singing: “The hungry fools who rule the world can’t catch us—Surely they can’t ruin everything—I just want, want to be here with you—Not bracing for what comes next.” A reasonable enough request, but it seems like a plea.

I am sitting in the waiting room while my oil is changed, and CNN is talking about the president. My grandfather came to the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century as a citizen of the Ottoman Empire. Political violence was tearing the Balkan Peninsula apart at the time. In 1910 Albanian rebels occupied railroads and assasinated Ottoman generals. By the end of the decade, the United States was at war with the Ottomans. Five decades later my grandfather was the American owner of a thriving car dealership in New Hampshire. Six more decades after that his grandson is sitting listening to pundits, their voices and their high heels like knifepoints, explain why refugees from Syria, from the former Ottoman Vilayets of Aleppo and Damascus, should be banned from the United States. I am sitting beneath the television and a row of tired, middle-age suburbanites look back at me without emotion towards the screen. They go back to tapping their phones and wondering when their cars will be ready.