For me, the waning days of summer always bring to mind the city homecoming fair that took place at the end of every August in my hometown of North Olmsted, Ohio. The fair, a celebration of the city’s past and present, was held at the North Olmsted Park, located right around from my childhood house, and was a weekend-long affair that always began on the last Friday night in August and ran through late Sunday afternoon.
I can recall the mystery, allure and romanticism of that city fair from the eyes of a child. At night, when the traffic noises had quieted, you could hear the excitement of the fair through the open windows of my bedroom. The cranking of the carnival rides, kids screaming, cotton candy machines swirling, grills sizzling, and rock and roll bands playing from the gazebo. Man, I wanted to be there; I wanted to be grown up enough to wander through the crowd and absorb those noises and smells and to feel like a part of the community.
By sixth grade, I was deemed old enough to venture up to the park during homecoming, as long as I was with a group of friends. If we were a pack we couldn’t get into trouble, right? Actually, I hung out with a good bunch of kids, and the heightened feelings and butterflies we felt around girls were more exciting than any mischief we might get into. Even as an awkward kid who didn’t attract many girls, it was still a great feeling to have.
Something happened during the transition between ninth and 10th grade, though, and the fair was no longer exciting; rather, it had become a quaint symbol of complacency. In my arrogant teenage mind, I looked at the hundreds of folks who had grown up in North Olmsted (and still lived there), and thought, “I’m not going to be like them. I’m going to get out of here.” Instead of looking forward to the fair’s wondrous foods and prizes, I looked forward to pointless nights of cruising the Metropark valley in the back of some guy’s Escort while the radio blared acts like the Who, Lou Reed and Joe Jackson.
I was exposed to a lot of Jackson in the ’80s. Although he was past his commercial peak, the angry snarl and the thoughtful lyrics were something that appealed to me — in fact, a quick trip through my collection reveals that I own more Jackson albums than the Who or Lou Reed combined.
The homecoming fair also became something of a nuisance in high school; it became an obligation, in particular the homecoming parade that took place on Sunday morning. As a child, I watched with pride and fascination as my father, the band director, would lead the high school marching band down the main street to the park. By the time I was a member of that band, with my father still leading the way, pride turned to fear of screwing up, or suffering the mocking stares of people on the street — and by the time I was in college, I was never around for those fairs. My classes always began in the middle of August and I tried to find reason not to go home so early in the semester. That fair was a symbol of my childhood, and I would always look at it that way.
Something about having children causes us to reach back into their memories and relive some of those candy-colored moments of youth. Sure, there are always the bad times you try to suppress or laugh off, but my good memories tend to outnumber the bad. Obviously, some of my good memories are times spent at that park on ridiculously hot and humid afternoons and the cool, star-filled nights when you couldn’t walk ten feet without bumping into someone you knew, or who knew your parents, your brother, your sisters.
I wish I still lived in a town like that. The closest we have is the small cul-de-sac where many of the neighbors meet on the street each night, or the small school where Julie is the head of the PTA and they all know our kids. I guess that’s somewhat the same, but we don’t have a fair quite like the one in my hometown.
Joe Jackson wrote a song about hometowns for his 1986 record, Big World. In its original version, “Home Town” is a quick, perky number performed by a band that includes Jackson’s longtime bass player, Graham Maby. That original take was filled with the same sneer and vinegar that I loved about him. However, in 1999, he recorded a live album, Summer in the City , containing a new take on the song, one much more reflective and one that really captures the feeling of a man looking back on his life. Lines like:
“Of all the stupid things I could have thought
This was the worst
I started to believe
That I was born at seventeen”
“But we never leave the past behind
We just accumulate
So sometimes when the music stops
I seem to hear a distant sound
Of waves and seagulls
Football crowds and church bells
And I . . .
Wanna go back to my home town
Though I know it’ll never be the same”
These lines feel deeper than they did back in the ’80s, perhaps because Jackson’s new take digs deeper into the lyrics and the inherent sentimentality of the song. By just singing solo while playing the piano, Jackson takes us all back to our hometowns, even if for just a brief time.
The artist has gone on record as saying that the newer version is one he prefers to the mid-’80s rocker. I have to agree with him. Joe rerecorded “Home Town” for Two Rainy Nights, a live album released in early 2004. This version is just as wonderful as the previous (though I prefer Summer in the City as whole better).
I’m a mutt of a European background, just another white kid from the ‘burbs. I spent a great deal of my youth searching for my heritage. It took me moving away and starting a family of my own to realize that my heritage lays in the worn-out playground equipment and beaten ground of that city park around the corner from our house, where the baseball fields felt like an afterthought and there always seemed to be a blood drive at the community center or boy scouts camping in the open fields.
North Olmsted is where I’m from, it is my heritage, and it is my hometown.