My mom tells me that when I was a very small child, specifically on our trip to Montreal in 1967 for the World’s Fair, I was fascinated by “No U-turn” signs. Like so many things we hear all our lives about our childhood, I’ve sort of absorbed this as gospel truth and even convinced myself that I have some memory of it, when in fact I’m sure I really don’t. That’s part of how we process the past, creating digestible tidbits that we can organize into stories whose plots vaguely resemble our lives. Ironically, the real constant in these stories is that in real life, there aren’t really any U-turns. It’s a one-way street and there’s only forward momentum–even though it sometimes doesn’t seem that way.
Nostalgia (the late, great Herb Caen called it “the white man’s burden”) and the study of the past are both my passion and my career. Personally, I spend a lot of time thinking about the past. I can rattle off milestones and anniversaries, tell you what I was doing twenty years ago on a given date, and produce with reasonable accuracy a list of past tenants of any given building or plot of land which was part of my routine in the past. When I visit a place where I’ve spent a lot of time, my natural inclination is to reflect on my time there and to explore the area, looking for whatever relics might remain. Lord knows I’ve done a lot of that on this site, and at times when my life is unsettled, I’m even more prone to it. Witness this account of my 2001 trip to Atlanta, which strikes me as a pretty good example.
So far, I’ve lived what I think has been a pretty interesting life. I’ve made some very stupid mistakes and some incredibly brilliant moves. I regret none of them, including all those years I spent in San Francisco. Despite all the whining I did in the later years (none of which I regret either), that was one of the most important periods in my life. Without having experienced it, I wouldn’t even resemble the person I am today. And I generally like the person I am today, thanks.
One thing I recognize, though, is that my years in San Francisco are part of my past. They’re an important part and a part that I enjoyed, but they’re not something I’ll ever experience again. I could move back to San Francisco tomorrow and probably have some sort of life. I could eat at some (but sadly, not all) of the same restaurants and even cruise some of the same bars. I could even start working at Kinko’s again. But I will never again be a 28-year-old experiencing it all for the first time in 1992. I will never again be happy living in a dingy hovel just beacuse it’s within walking distance of the sex club. It can never again be the same. In fact, within a year or two, it already wasn’t the same for me. To be honest, the version of it that I recall today probably never quite happened either. The tendency is to dwell on the highs and the lows rather than on the mundane middle ground that is the majority of our life experience at any given moment. We tend to remember the joy and the drama and to have very little recall of the tedium of getting to and from work every day. And trying to park the car. And doing the laundry. And the lines at the grocery store everywhere.
An analogy that only I could come up with is that it’s like visiting a Lucky supermarket in San Francisco. Lucky was a chain that was absorbed into a bigger chain more than ten years ago. It didn’t work out well, and the Bay Area locations were sold to a different chain a few years ago, and this company restored the Lucky name and the old logo. But the restored logo doesn’t make it a Lucky store. There will never be Lucky stores again as I remember them. These are just Save-Mart stores with Lucky logos and a bunch of vintage photographs (many of which I supplied, but that’s a different story).
I don’t miss San Francisco (or Charlotte or Atlanta) so much as I miss being a lot younger in a very exciting place and time. That’s not coming back, no matter how much I may want it to, and it’s become very important to me in the past couple of years to realize that and start looking at the future rather than the past. As an individual, I’m shaped by my life experience, but there are some parts of that experience that are over now. It’s not that I’ve gotten old and “changed my evil ways” or started moralizing. I don’t drink now because I don’t like how it makes me feel. I don’t smoke because I’d like not to die anytime soon. I don’t spend lots of money on clothes and other doodads because I just don’t care that much about “fashion” anymore. I don’t chase boys because I found the one I loved and chasing other ones stopped seeming like something I wanted to waste time and energy on. It’s not that I regret doing any of this stuff in the past. I merely realize that it’s just that: part of my past.
That’s not to say that I don’t think of the past; I think of it very often and quite fondly and it colors every decision I make. I just recognize now (or at least I’m trying) that there’s no turning back. There is only the present and the future. So much has changed in my life just in the past six months that even the July version of my life is now irretrievable.
There are no U-turns in life. And that’s probably a good thing so long as you’re not counting on one.