Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again

The celebrated writer returns to the town of her birth to revisit the places that haunt her memory and her extraordinary fiction

"For residents of the area who have gone to live elsewhere, it's the canal—so deep-set in what appears to be solid rock ... that resurfaces in dreams," says Oates. (Landon Nordeman)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

For my predominant fear, for years, was that I would miss the bus, and miss school, prospects to be dreaded. And there was the daunting fact of the bus itself—Where would I sit each morning? With whom?—most of the other passengers were adults, and strangers.

Here began my “romance” with Lockport, which I experienced as a solitary individual mostly walking—walking and walking—along the streets of downtown, and along residential streets; over the wide windswept bridge above the canal at Cottage Street, and over the narrower bridge, at Pine Street; on paths above the towpath, winding through vacant overgrown lots in the vicinity of Niagara Street; and on the shaky pedestrian bridge that ran unnervingly close beside the railroad tracks crossing the canal. Many days, after school I went to my grandmother Woodside’s house on Harvey Avenue, and later on Grand Street, across town; after visiting Grandma, I took a city bus downtown, or walked; to this day, I have a proclivity for walking—I love to be in motion, and I am very curious about everything and everyone I see, as I’d learned to be as a young child; and so I have felt invisible also, as a child feels herself invisible, beneath the radar of adult attention, or so it seemed to me at the time. For Lockport, which I’d previously experienced only in the company of my mother, my father or my grandmother, seemed very different to me, when I was alone. The small city—26,000 residents in the 1950s, now 22,000—became an adventure, or a series of adventures, culminating with the Greyhound bus to take me back home to Millersport.

Very few girls of 11 or 12 would be allowed today to wander alone as I did, or to take a bus as I did; to be allowed, or obliged, to wait for long headache-wracked minutes—or hours—in the dreary Lockport bus station, located near Lockport’s largest employer, Harrison Radiator, a division of General Motors where my father worked as a tool and die designer for 40 years. (Why Daddy didn’t drive me into Lockport in the morning and take me home in the late afternoon, I have no idea. Was his work schedule just too different from my school schedule? There must have been some reason, but now there is no one left to ask.) What a desolate, ill-smelling place the Greyhound bus station was, especially in winter!—and winters are long, windy and bitter-cold in upstate New York; what derelict-looking individuals were to be found there, slouched in the filthy vinyl chairs waiting—or maybe not waiting—for buses. And I in their midst, a young girl with textbooks and notebook, hoping no one would speak to me, nor even look at me.

I was prone to headaches in those years. Not so severe as migraines, I think. Maybe because I strained my eyes reading, or trying to read, in that wanly lit, inhospitable waiting room, as on the jolting Greyhound bus itself.

How innocent and oblivious the 1950s seem to us now, at least so far as parental oversight of children is concerned. Where many of my Princeton friends are hyper-vigilant about their children, obsessively involved in their children’s lives—driving them everywhere, calling their cellphones, providing nannies for 16-year-olds—my parents seemingly had no concern at all that I might be endangered spending so much time alone. I don’t mean that my parents didn’t love me, or were negligent in any way, but only that in the 1950s, there was not much awareness of the dangers; it wasn’t uncommon that adolescent girls hitchhiked on roads like Transit Road—which I’d never done.

The consequence of so much unsupervised freedom was that I seem to have become precociously independent. For not only did I take the Greyhound bus into Lockport but from the bus station I walked to school; while at John E. Pound Elementary, I even walked downtown at noon, to have lunch in a restaurant on Main Street, alone. (How strange this is—wasn’t there a cafeteria in the school? Couldn’t I have brought a lunch packed by my mother, as I’d brought lunches in a “lunch pail” to the one-room schoolhouse?) Though I rarely eat in any restaurant alone as an adult, if I can avoid it, I loved these early restaurant excursions; there was a particular pleasure in looking at a menu, and ordering my own food. If any waitress thought it was peculiar that a girl so young was eating alone in a restaurant, it wasn’t brought to my attention.

Later, in junior high, somehow it happened that I was allowed to see movies alone at the Palace Theatre after school—even double features. The Palace Theatre was one of those ornate, elegantly decorated dream-palaces first built in the 1920s; there was also, across town, the less reputable Rialto where Saturday serials were shown to hordes of screaming children. Of the prominent landmarks of Lockport, the Palace Theatre resides in my memory as a place of romance; yet romance fraught with some anxiety, for often I had to run from the theater before the second feature had ended, leaving behind its baroque splendors—gilt-framed mirrors in the lobby, crimson and gold plush, chandeliers, Oriental carpets—to rush to the bus station a block or two away, to catch the 6:15 p.m. bus marked Buffalo.

In the shadowy opulence of the Palace, as in an unpredictably unfolding dream, I fell under the spell of movies, as I’d fallen under the spell of books a few years earlier. Hollywood films—“Technicolor”—coming attractions—posters in the lobby: here was enchantment! These movies of the 1950s starring Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe—inspired me to a cinematic sort of storytelling, driven by character and plot; as a writer I would strive for the fluency, suspense and heightened drama of film, its quick cuts and leaps in time. (No doubt, every writer of my generation—of all generations since the 1920s—has fallen under the spell of film, some more evidently than others.)

From time to time, solitary men “bothered” me—came to sit near me, or tried to talk to me—quickly then I would move to another seat, hoping they wouldn’t follow me. It was safest to sit near the rear of the movie house since ushers were stationed there. Once, sitting near the front, I felt an odd sensation—my foot being touched lightly—held, or pinched—as in a ghost-grip. To my astonishment I realized that a man in front of me had reached down somehow through the back of his seat to grip my foot in his fingers; I gave a little scream, and at once the man leapt to his feet and fled to an exit at the side, disappearing within seconds. An usher hurried down to ask me what was wrong and I could barely stammer an explanation, “A man—he was sitting in front of me—took hold of my foot.”

“Your foot?” The usher, a boy of 18 or 20, frowned in distaste at this prospect, as I did—my foot! In some old shoe!


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus