Stranger

The Silver Comet Trail west of Dallas. May 2020. Photo by me.
 
As much as we my try and unless we are born somewhere and grow up there we are unlikely to fully understand a place or know it. It is also possible to unlearn or misunderstand a place if we leave it for decades and both the place and us change. I would like to think I know the county where I grew up, Paulding County, Georgia, but I do not know it anymore. It changed dramatically since I left and I cannot claim to know it today. I knew it for what it was. It is an old lover that broke up with me or vice versa and has undergone a significant transformation. I see the scars and few landmarks that I remember like an age faded birthmark on a thigh that my hand rested on a time long ago. It is familiar and foreign. It is a stranger and I am a stranger too.

On Saturday I was on my way to Alabama and I stopped to use my phone for a few minutes in Paulding County. I was at a shopping center on the old U.S. 278 at Georgia Highway 120. It was the second shopping center I remember as a child and was called Paulding Place. It was built after the Paulding Plaza further up the road that had the only theater in the county, the Ace Hardware, Fotomat, Ben Franklin's and Jack's. 

Paulding Place was smaller and newer. It originally had a Winn-Dixie grocery store and a Revco drugstore as the main anchors. The shopping center is a setting for a few scenes in my books, Dweller On The Boundary and Terminal Wake. My mother bought groceries there for several years, I would have film developed at Revco and I would ride there with my grandfather to pick up an Atlanta newspaper from the machine on the sidewalk. My mother and I bought a Christmas tree one year in the parking lot. It was a place of commerce and not a lovable place with its asphalt parking lot devoid of trees and at times impossible to get into or out when the road out front was the main road in the county. In the 1980s, how much time had my mother lost waiting to turn right out of the parking lot and then turn left on 120 years ago when the roads were different?

I remembered standing in the checkout line on a Friday evening with my mother as a boy of twelve. I watched a boy I knew from school getting something from one of the gumball machines near the door. He was the real life boy behind the character of David The Bishop. I remember hoping that he would not see me, but he did and came over. He was eager to talk with my mother and tried to convince her that I should spend the weekend at his house. I was not in the mood for it and wiggled my way out of it with an excuse. He and I were so intellectually similar that it scared me sometimes. We were not physical mirrors of each other, he with his blonde hair and me with my dark brown or his brown eyes to my blue ones. It was our thoughts, thought processes and desires that ran on the same tracks. He understood better than I did that we were not strangers.

Today, the shopping center is rundown like most modern disposable buildings become and a discount furniture store is in the old Winn-Dixie building. A common reaction might be to say that it is sad to see it that way, but it was not the place that I missed. I cannot shed a tear or become sentimental over a declining shopping center. It was the people from decades ago that meant something to me doing the simple, everyday routines of life that I missed.

Paulding County was so rural then that it was difficult to avoid classmates away from school in the few places we had to shop for food, basic supplies or clothes. That was not always a problem, but it was not always welcome either.

The population of Paulding County in my lifetime:
1970 population 17,520
1980 population 26,110
1990 population 41,611
2020 population 168,661

I was born in 1973 and graduated high school in 1991. During that span there was small, incremental growth, but it remained a rural place. By 1990 it began to feel less so as more fast food restaurants sprouted and shopping centers spread over the pastures and woodlands. It was discomforting to watch the slow motion disintegration of what I knew. The boosters of progress and growth would disagree, but I loved the county as it was. I did not want it to change and that was an impossibility. I am thankful to have missed the explosive growth that forever changed the place in the last twenty years.

I think about the people that I knew then that never left the county. How do they feel about it? Are they the frogs in the pot of water that has the temperature slowly raised over time until it boils? Do they not notice or mind it?

I have lived too many places and too many cities to become too attached like I was to Paulding County as a child. Where I live now was once a plantation that was later divided into smaller farms and then finally became a subdivision in the 1990s. The barn for the old farm sat on some of my property. It is unlikely that I will come to know this place or understand it like I once did my old home. As my first year here closes out, I know few of the names of the roads in this area and I am not too concerned about it. I realize that there are few places or people that we can ever truly know as life is only so long and the world is so big despite what the internet would have you believe as it warps your sense of time and scale. Perhaps today people are too busy promoting themselves and navel gazing for the superficial likes and comments of social currency to look at the world around them. They see the reflection of their own eyes staring back at them in the shiny glass and nothing more. Our cell phone cameras are often pointed in the wrong direction and we miss what we were supposed to see - the chance encounter in a checkout line or the similarities that hide behind the obvious differences. David The Bishop, like Paulding County, might now be a stranger too.

I did not stop for long in Paulding County or I would have felt as though I might not escape it again, if I ever have.

The Beatles - I, Me, Mine