STOCKTON, Calif. -- When Thomas Wolfes You Cant Go Home Again was published in 1940, the author had been dead for two years, and each time I come to California Im reminded that you can go home again, but its not really home anymore.
The streets are familiar but the neighborhoods have changed. On one side of town the scents of tomatoes fill the air. Several canning operations produce products that end up on Georgia grocery shelves. Tractor-trailer trucks laden with tomatoes dot the highways, and the scent, at least to me, is very pleasant. Nothing like the paper plant stench that floated through the air in Macon for decades.
As I headed to the east side of town, where I still have cousins, there is early morning smoke as people prepared their large grills for a day of selling barbecue on the street. This is where I grew up -- Stockton -- a place that in many respects, reminds me of Macon, but is very, very different.
If you judged Stockton by its cover it would be a neat place. Parks are everywhere. Its clean and downtown looks vibrant with a renovated Fox Theater where I used to watch James Bond movies and saw Easy Rider in 1969. Now, a couple of blocks away is a multi-screen theater. The Fox has reverted to concerts and other types of live performances.
The north side of town is gorgeous. Several communities take advantage of the San Joaquin Delta and artificial lakes dot the developments. But move to the south part of town -- where I grew up -- and there is a much different tale.
The homes where I slept are still there, but demographic changes in the neighborhoods have struck like an earthquake. The places are familiar, but its not the same. Home? Not anymore. Its like contrasting Saint Andrews and Bloomfield. Its not that either is bad -- its just very different.
Stockton, until the Detroit bankruptcy, suffered the largest municipal bankruptcy in history -- and the people who represent this place are none too happy about the federal governments pledge of $300 million to help out the Motor City. No help is coming to Stockton.
Im here, not to critique the city, but to support my friend, Rodney Milton. He lost his wife, Veda. She was only 58, and I know one of the titles he never thought hed carry -- along with son, father and husband -- is widower.
When he called me about an hour after her passing, I felt as if I had been sucker-punched. I couldnt get my breath. I was his best man at their wedding 40 years ago, but more than that, I had known her since she was about 10 years old. Ive known her mom, brother and sister since I was about 13 years old.
I took the opportunity to get reacquainted with the city before the memorial service. I visited old haunts. For my early morning walk, I went to the University of the Pacific. Yes, there are sections I recognized, but there were other newer buildings doting the campus I had never seen before, from the new student center to the sunken field where I once sweated bullets during football practice; now theres a soccer facility (Pacific cut its football program after the 1995 season).
I headed out to where I used to live, from the Sierra Vista projects to homes on Ophir and Ninth streets. The grocery store that used to be a landmark is no more. The alley behind it where I used to pick up the Stockton Record for my morning deliveries, is impassable.
No, you cant go home again. Homes change. At the service I saw many people I had not laid eyes on for 40 years. God, they looked old. Then I looked in the mirror. Im not the person who left this area 33 years ago. I often thought I could go home again, but this time I realized, it is home no more. When the plane touched down in Atlanta, I could have kissed the ground. I was home.
Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraphs editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet@crichard1020.