Missing what we never knew
By Ed Sedarbaum
Published in the North Adams Transcript / March 26, 2007
Off to visit my parents, born in 1909 and 1913, I shoehorned my bulk into a seat on an airplane, a contraption flown only by experimenters and daredevils at the time my parents were born.
Nestled in my lap was my latest find from the North Adams Public Library, founded in 1883. The frayed covers held the collected speeches of Mark Twain, who was still alive when my father was born. Even with all that sepia dust in my atmosphere, I wasn't prepared for the discovery that the volume in my hands was published in and probably had been on and off the library's shelves since 1910. It had been waiting for me on those shelves since the year Mark Twain died, since my father was 1 year old!
My first reaction to the book was reverence and responsibility. I felt I should draw on white curator's gloves before I dared to touch those ancient pages. My second reaction was a flood of nostalgia.
Wasn't it weird, I thought, that the sight of this copyright date had set off a wave of sentimental longing? Not nostalgia for my parents, who are still with me to be enjoyed. Not for Mark Twain, whose rambunctious personality I can enjoy today no less than I would if I had read this book on publication. Certainly not nostalgia for the transportation vailable between Massachusetts and Florida on the day the book was published. The seats might have been wider, but the road was rougher and dustier.
No, it was nostalgia for something that never was mine to miss: the good-old days of my adopted town.
This wasn't the first time since arriving in North Adams four years ago that I fell victim to such an attack. The first time it hit me, I wasn't even sure I would succeed in relocating here. Which is why I was searching for the cheapest possible bed. Walking down Main Street, I saw a sign in a window: "Stock Shelves for Sale." Martin's Shoes, which I learned that day had been fitting North Adams feet since before Mark Twain's speeches were published, was going out of business. I bought two sets of shelves, nailed them to each other side by side and lowered them face down onto the floor. I had a platform bed!
If that bed is ever lifted off the floor, someone will find a curious surprise a small card taped to one of the shelves, hand-lettered with "Men's Dress Size 8." I had no idea how long that card had been there when I discovered it, but the decision to remove it didn't feel mine to make. A part of the town's history, Martin's Shoes, was already disappearing, and an unaccountable nostalgia warned that it would be a desecration to remove even this meager remnant of that history. I wonder, will I be there to preserve that card the next time it sees the light?
Coincidentally, it was another shoe store, Kronick's, that launched my second bout with nostalgia. Walk north on Eagle Street from Main, lift your eyes above the roof line on the west side of the street, and you'll see a faded (and, sadly, fading) advertisement painted on the wall: Kronick's Enna-Jettick Shoes for Women $5-$6. I've always been a sucker for sights like that stereoscopic slides, antique postcards, hundred-year-old newspapers.
Painted wall advertisements came to my attention in the 1980s, when I read about a young man with AIDS who had himself become obsessed with them and was snapping photos of them all around New York. Facing his own death (much more of a certainty in the early years of the AIDS epidemic), surrounded with death (as we all were in the New York gay community at the time), he saw these rapidly fading wall paintings not as things that were dying but as disappearing ghosts of things already dead. Understandably, he identified and wanted to preserve them as best he could.
I photographed the Kronick's sign. Looking at it was restorative, helping me recover from two other sets of photographs a North Adams librarian had shown me when I first came to town.
One set held charming views of Main Street in its heyday, with sidewalks full of people moving between the flourishing stores, the three movie theaters and impromptu visits with friends and neighbors encountered on the sidewalk. The second set chronicled the demolition of Main Street to make way for the magical transformation people believed urban renewal was guaranteed to bring. Two sets of "ghosts," the photographer with AIDS would have said, one you would yearn to preserve and another you wish you could wipe from your memory.
Instantly, when I saw those North Adams photos, I was in the grip of something I didn't have a name for. But by the time I photographed the Kronick's sign, I had already encountered and preserved "Men's Dress Size 8," so I knew the diagnosis: extreme nostalgia for something that was never mine to miss.
Maybe it's easier to deal with nostalgia for the ghosts we have known; at least we've had the chance to enjoy what we're now missing. After four years in North Adams, I now have my own growing collection of favorite places, people and moments to reminisce over someday. Sitting in my parents' house in Florida, reading Mark Twain aloud to his near contemporaries, I promised to bring his speeches back to the North Adams Library none the worse for wear.
Ed Sedarbaum works for the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition in North Adams.