Although I grew up in a former mill town in Southeastern Pennsylvania, I’ve always been a Cali girl at heart. Not simply because I love the ocean and warm weather – truth be told, I’m far from a beach bum – but because La La Land is the perfect culture to indulge my quirkiness. Where else can a chick rock sandals and sip smoothies in winter?
I’m an original Valley Girl. As a tween, I lived on Basin Street in Norristown, a place called The Valley because the community of rowhouses where we lived was situated at the bottom of a hill, flanked by open fields. It’s the place where I got into my first fist fight, where I truly felt like an outsider – a black girl who couldn’t dance, who didn’t know how to jump Double Dutch, who didn’t speak slang. The sounds of sneakers slapping on asphalt often floated up to my bedroom window as the girls on my block practiced their drill steps in the street. During those times, I’d be lounging on my bed, reading a horror novel or MAD magazine. Even when I tried to fit in, I was still a nerd rocking an asymmetrical haircut, listening to Salt-n-Pepa on my boom box and putting gaudy bamboo earrings on layaway. Those were the trappings, or rather, the disguises, most inner city girls with a love for Poe adapted to survive.
It’s one thing to write about the place where you grew up when you’re 3,000 miles away. The demons of childhood are more easily managed at a distance. It’s another thing to recall wearing your otherness like a tattered shawl when you’re a few blocks away from the home of your youth. The taunts that you spoke “like a white girl,” the snickers at your hand-me-downs. But more so than verbal or physical threats was the threat of poverty. It’s hard to see yourself as destined for greatness when you’re surrounded by metaphors for despair – the valley, the basin, the bottom. Even the name Norristown sounded like a dumping ground for hicks, so I always told people I was from Philly, some eighteen miles away. At an early age, I yearned to be someplace else. The characters in the Agatha Christie novels I read at eleven where always going “on holiday” to an exotic locale – Monaco, Belgium, Spain. When I glanced out the window of the tiny room with peeling paint where I slept at night, I didn’t see stoops and uneven pavements – I saw lofts and manors and castles in the countryside.
I hadn’t planned on coming home.
When we left Los Angeles on August 1 to embark on our cross-country Escape from Beckyville book tour, the plan was to be gone for a month, traveling as far east as Atlanta. The one suitcase I carried was filled with sandals and summer clothes. But once on the road, we started getting offers to do readings up north, and I knew I couldn’t bypass the former mill town where I spent my formative years.
I dreaded driving the streets of my hometown in a big purple van – a sistagirl ice cream truck. It’s always been my fantasy to return to the streets that scarred me as a success, a small-town girl who found fame and fortune in the big city. But it seems I’ve done the reverse of that Hollywood trope – a small-town girl who finds a modicum of success in the big city, who loses the little success she had, and returns to her hometown – population 32,000 – to struggle.
Lurking beyond any notions of success or failure is the thought that my soul has been homeless for many years until I moved to L.A., that my soul has never had comfy shoes and a warm bed awaiting its return. As if preparing me for a cold reception, my van was drenched in a downpour as we inched up 95 North toward Pennsylvania – the harbinger of Hurricane Irene and the first storm of our travels. Folks in PA, black folks especially, are quick to break out the winter coats at the first hint of chill, unlike their Cali counterparts who can be found in fall wearing halter tops and pee-toe shoes. There I was in the rain wearing flip flops and a jean jacket to Wal-Mart, certain that some black chicks were standing nearby watching me dodge puddles, calling me a white girl behind my back.
It’s amazing how the desire for acceptance doesn’t shrivel up and blow away like dandelion spores in the wind once we graduate from high school. It’s not that I’m necessarily looking for approval in the town of my childhood. Maybe I simply want the freedom to celebrate my quirkiness wherever I go – to eat water ice on a chilly October afternoon, to go for days without combing my hair, to walk through fallen leaves wearing open-toed sandals.
Maya Angelou once said, “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” I’m going to be in Norristown for another month, doing readings and book signings in the surrounding areas. Although I never considered the boxy red row houses and narrow streets of this town as my true home, there’s still time to broker a belated peace with my past. There’s still time to build a nest from the twigs and grass of new memories. I can start by loving the small things. The American flag flapping from the porch of every fourth house I pass, the potted chrysanthemums dotting the front yard of my neighbors, the wind chimes singing at my mother’s back door.