In my hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania, my childhood friend Jordan Digiacomo’s parents owned a combination laundromat/carwash/dry cleaner called “The Purifier.” Around the holidays they would also have a house cleaning service. Eventually, Jordan’s parents got divorced and his mom opened up a new, rival combination laundromat/carwash/dry cleaner with a house cleaning service around the holidays called “Stacey’s.” The funny thing was, her name was Leslie.
What this example goes to show is that besides the fact that the past is the only thing that’s real and knowable, since the future’s neither and the present’s ephemerality makes it imperceptible, the light reaching your eyes is already old, the past has all your happy memories and best experiences, even the ones you do not remember; the past has your mom; the past has people in love and people crying because we can lose so much in this precious, sacred life. I do not need to tell you this because humans all find the past beautiful. An imagined future is just an idealized past.
The City of Philadelphia is a beautiful example of the past.
I remember on the unseasonably warm afternoon the people of Philadelphia existed beautifully in Rittenhouse Square, sitting in benches or on the grass, walking to get somewhere or meet someone, playing music for tips, getting signatures for causes, evangelizing, playing board games, reading, talking, writing, drinking coffee, smoking tobacco and smoking marijuana and living well but gently. I do not know any City very well, but if the people of New York are substantial and formidable, the people of Philadelphia are honest and vulnerable. Most of the people on the street look happy, but you can easily imagine them crying. The teenagers and college students break your heart as they are so transparently in the bloom of their youth. It is a romantic and a practical City, where everyone seems charming including the hipsters and the businessmen. All sorts of people walk the streets, comfortable being around all sorts of people. A number of eccentrics preach religiously on the street corners, and young women hand you the business card of a yoga studio and ask “Do you meditate?” Everything is sort of shabby and sort of classy at the same time, and everything is old fashioned, and it seems for a moment American civilization is not a contradiction.
Indeed, even our present problems are only the fulfillment of historical promises. We can only explain Trump’s victory by examining the past. But the debates around the reasons for Trump’s victory are only important insofar as they reveal the divisions which are tearing apart American society and making everything politically impossible. Our national problems did not start with Donald Trump. Since around 1968— and maybe even before— our problems have been remarkably constant. The economy has been largely dysfunctional with only a few breaks during the peaks of stock market bubbles. Access to our educational system is increasingly unequal and untenable. The transportation system has been growing inadequate, debilitated, and unsustainable. The environment is facing collapse. Universal war seems like a very realistic possibility. Democracy seems non-existent and perhaps even undesirable. The young are disillusioned. And politics of whatever kind, electoral or activist, do not seem to accomplish much anymore, in part because political coalitions seem impossible to form in a society where the different social groups seem so intensely isolated from each other.
I will now tell you some of the most dear things I miss about the past.
I miss not feeling so lost. I miss being news editor of the Phoenix. I miss crying the second day of college because my childhood was over. I miss having first period English with my two best friends during senior year, and I miss having eighth period study hall every day. I miss driving around with my friends. I miss going to assemblies and making fun of everything with my friends. I miss mowing the lawn in the summer. I miss going to high school football games. I miss having more of the Beatles to listen to. I miss becoming obsessed with Kanye West. I miss the first time I drove alone. I miss walking to Wawa in middle school to buy the “New York Times.” I miss Ash Wednesday when the priest would whisper to you “Remember man you are dust, and to dust you shall return” and make a cross with ashes on your forehead. I miss the last days of school. I miss real Christmas trees and snow and sledding and summers at the JCC pool. I miss cameras. I miss film and papers being stacked on the stairs of my house. I miss drinking Shirley Temples at Edgemont Country Club. I miss going to Christmas Mass with the family when the priests would squirt everybody with holy water and burn incense. I miss being a kid and my dad would pitch a whiffle ball to me and I’d hit it. I miss forgetting to write my name at the top of the paper. I miss the ocean when I was a kid. I miss going to my aunt’s deli in Avalon, New Jersey and if I kissed her she gave me gum. I miss going to Blockbuster every Friday. I miss worrying about the price of gas. I miss making fun of George Bush. I miss being forced to play golf and then afterwards drinking soda and eating hot dog in the snack bar. I miss reading the comics from the newspaper on Saturdays. I miss crying in elementary school because they cut down all the dandelions.