I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I hate my former hometown of Salem, Oregon. For those of you who read this and for whatever reason love Salem, that’s cool – I’m not saying that Salem is bad, I’m just saying that it’s boring and slightly depressing. As you’ll remember, I spent the Memorial Day weekend in sunny Reedsport, population 4500, and I actually found it marginally more entertaining than Salem, if not just for the novelty factor of sporadic bear attacks. There is about as much going on in downtown Salem at any given time as there is going on in downtown Reedsport, which might make sense until you consider that 150,000 people live in Salem and none of them, it seems, can think of anything to do after the The Honeybaked Ham Store closes at 5:00. Fortunately, my family moved to Portland just after I left for college, so now Salem is little more to me than a wide spot on I-5 and possibly the only city in Oregon to put a half naked golden pioneer on top of the tallest building in town.
It so happens that my friend Alexander, who once climbed 40 feet up a drainpipe on the side of a Kohl’s and would have made it the whole way if a cop hadn’t stopped him, just returned home to Salem after six months of various kinds of Army training in the deepest, darkest depths of Georgia. Seeing as he was back in Salem and there’s nothing on my agenda until this Friday at 10:00, I journeyed with some friends back up the road to visit. So yes, I suppose you could say that I did sort of go to Salem on a vacation – but in my defense, I’d much rather be in Salem than the dorms right now.*
*Somebody else vomited in the hall. I’m not even kidding. That’s two people puking in nearly the same place in our hall in practically three weeks. And the rumor is that the latest expectoration contained macaroni and cheese – and I don’t doubt it. Do you know what it smells like up here? You can’t even guess. Pick the worst thing you’ve ever smelled, and then pack it into a small space, and then have 40 guys who don’t bathe regularly live in it so that the smell will gradually get worse, sort of like interest in a bank account, only instead of generating money it’s just generating more of the absolute stankest odor in the history of stank odors. It smells like Satan’s jockstrap in here right now.
Alexander has not changed much since I last told you about him – he’s still frighteningly creative, disturbingly funny, and forever the Mozart of making silly noises. Now that he’s got Army training, however, he’s all that in addition to being a killing machine; and mind you, he was no slouch in the killing department before he went into the service (he’s really good at twirling and subsequently hitting things with sticks – it’s a wonder to behold). The main thing the Army changed about him is his physique: He used to be a lot stronger than me, but now he’s as strong as God and I’m as strong as week old celery.
One day over the weekend, Alexander invited me to go running with him. Now, I really hate running. My legs get tired, my lungs feel cold, and passing children say, “Gee, Mister, you’re sweating like a man but you’re prancing around like a lady!” In my opinion, if I’m going to be running, there had damn well better be a Velociraptor behind me. However, I’ve polled most of the girls I know and they all rate my butt at roughly a 6 out of 10, so I figured that running was my only chance of ever achieving the sculpted, Godlike ass society dictates I should have, and so I agreed to go running. I knew it was a mistake as soon as we started, because it took about three steps for Alexander to gain a considerable lead and for me to start seriously considering throwing up. Not long after, Alexander gained such a lead that I couldn’t see him anymore, and then I took the wrong path and wound up in a bizarre part of the park I’d never been to before and probably would have half jogged, half staggered all the way to Manitoba had Alexander not used his Army tracking skills to find me and guide me back to civilization (near the monkey bars).
“Relax,” He said to my stinking, panting self. “We’ll do some cooldown exercises.”
This was, of course, more incomprehensible military jargon. When I, a civilian, think of a “cooldown”, I think of my parents’ definition of the word, which generally involves gin, peanuts, and making fun of the neighbors. However, as I found out, in the military a “cooldown” is about the same thing as a “fatality” in Mortal Kombat, wherein you rip out the guy’s heart and scream at it while his dead body writhes on the ground. Alexander glibly taunted me as I struggled to do the exercises he did, exercises whose innocuous names like “leg lifts” or “push ups” don’t come close to describing the inherent horror of their effect upon the person doing them. We finished off with something called “The Body Destroyer”, which sounds like some sort of excruciatingly painful torture device but is, in all honesty, a hell of a lot worse. Lie on the ground with your arms stretched over your head and try to elevate both your arms and legs a few inches off the ground for as long as possible. Side effects include long lasting muscle aches and insanity from the white-hot blinding pain.
Salem is a lot like Alexander, in that it too has changed in a few subtle ways that cause me great anguish. The ugly billboards along Commercial Street, one of Salem’s main thoroughfares, have disappeared, replaced by video billboards so colorful that you could pour Skittles into your eyes and get roughly the same effect as looking at one. A Carl’s Jr. has opened next door to the Adult Shop out on Mission Street, ensuring that you won’t have to walk far if you want to eat a Six Dollar Burger while perusing the blowup dolls. And my alma mater, Sprague High School, decided to really sock it to the senior class by forcing them to wear bright orange robes at the graduation ceremony this past Friday, yet another Salem experience that can best be likened to pouring Skittles in one’s eyes.
However, once again like Alexander, Salem has also stayed the same in many ways. The streets pretty much roll up at 5:00 – we were downtown at a little past 6:00 and found nearly every store, including the gargantuan Salem Center Mall, to be closed. Banks, coffee shops, bookstores – everything was shut up tight. The police department closes at 7:00 in Salem, but fortunately the criminals all close at 6:30. The streets were so deserted that we could’ve performed open-heart surgery in the middle of the road. The only other people downtown were a group of middle schoolers who implied that we were gay, to which I tearfully replied that it took one to know one. Now more than ever, Salem has a vaguely apocalyptic feel – desolate, empty, and full of savage children with nothing to lose.
During one of the few moments that Alexander and I weren’t talking about Firefly or making silly noises, he mentioned that he’d never realized how much he disliked his hometown until he came back from training. I, having resented Salem for several years, was surprised that it had taken him this long, but I agreed that it was sort of a shock to come back and see how things had both changed and stayed the same. I guess, when you think about it, home is supposed to occupy some sort of special place in your heart, warts and all. But really, I think that what makes home so great is the people, and the bulk of the people I loved in Salem have gone on to bigger and better things, and/or died. When the people I formed connections with are gone, I can’t help but take Salem at face value: A suburb of a suburb, a mere place to put people, like a filing cabinet with a meth problem and poor public transportation.
Now, of course, there’s always going to be a part of me in Salem – in the teachers from my school, the parents of my friends, and my friends themselves whenever they’re home from school. It’ll be great to see all these people again over the summer; what isn’t so great is that we’ll have to make sure to have all our fun before the town closes at 5:00.
Truman Capps loves to complain about Salem’s lack of night life. He also loves to complain about the very active and loud nightlife right outside his dorm room.