David Kirby :: My Hometown ::


Southern Legitimacy Statement: I spent the first twenty-four years of my life in the South, so when I started looking for jobs, I decided I’d live anywhere but. I ended up with five job offers, all in Southern cities. I remember thinking, somebody’s trying to tell me something here. 

My Hometown

Do you love your hometown? Hate it? Meh?
I grew up in Baton Rouge – pretty corny!
Now I live in Tallahassee, which is cornier still.
Salman Rushdie gave a talk at my school once,
and afterwards I went up to him and said, “Hello,

Mr. Rushdie, my name’s David Kirby, did you
know that Tallahassee is the only city in the world
that contains the name of Allah?” and Mr. Rushdie
replied, “Well, David, there are many cities
in the world and many languages, so we don’t know

if that’s true.” If you think about it, he’s right,
also if you don’t think about it. It’s December 7,
1984, and Bruce Springsteen is playing at
the Donald L. Tucker Center here in Tallahassee,
and between songs he asks the crowd if they like

their hometown, and everybody goes, “Boo, hiss!”
and makes the thumbs-down sign because when
you’re young, you’re not supposed to like anything,
since everything you have is handed down
to you by your parents, deeply flawed human beings

who are unable to do anything right in comparison
to the flawless individual you’ll be when you
are their age, and then the Boss starts to sing
“My Hometown,” which is a song about how
a smart person loves his or her hometown

even though the stores on Main Street are vacant
and the mill closed and the jobs are gone as well
because you might not know it but your hometown
is inside you at this very minute, working tirelessly
to forge that future self who’s going to step confidently

onto the scene a few years from now and solve
all of your problems and the world’s to boot.
You’d be crazy about your home town if it were Florence
and you were living there in 1472 like Leonardo,
whose contemporary Benedetto Dei said, “Beautiful

Florence has all seven of the fundamental things
a city requires for perfection, including “a large, rich,
and elegantly dressed population” as well as
“masters in every art” and “a river with clear, pure
water” as well as a university at which “both Greek

and accounting are taught.” Leonardo himself
was illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed,
and at times heretical, yet Florence flourished
in the fifteenth century because it was comfortable
with such people. Imagine if Lorenzo de’ Medici

had sold caps that said “Make Florence Great Again”
to supporters who, drunk with fury, held rallies
in the Piazza della Signoria and threatened
to beat up or jail or deport anyone who wasn’t
exactly like them. Myself, I like Pittsburgh

though I’ve never been there. I’ve seen pictures
of those bridges, though. Pittsburgh has hundreds
of them – 28 across the across the Allegheny,
Monongahela, and Ohio rivers alone, including
the Roberto Clemente Bridge, the Rachel Carson Bridge,

and the Andy Warhol Bridge, these being named
for a star baseball player, a pioneering environmentalist,
and a visual artist described as a genius by some
and a charlatan by others, though my favorite
is the Hot Metal Bridge that once carried railcars

full of molten iron fresh from the city’s blast furnaces.
There were giants in those days, or at least the bridges
of Pittsburgh look as though they were built by people
twenty feet tall wielding these gigantic wrenches to
tighten bolts the size of dinner plates. What are bridges

made of now? No telling, but they’re all a little
too arty for me, whereas the bridges of Pittsburgh
look as though they’d actually rust were it not
for the fact that they’re all painted yellow thanks to
an 1899 ordinance stipulating black and gold as

the city’s official colors, these being the ones used
in William Pitt’s coat of arms, and who wants to go
around painting everything black? I would also like
to know more about the city of Ys, pronounced “Ys,”
which was built off the coast of Breton by King Gradlon

on land reclaimed from the sea and surrounded
by a dike through which ships could pass when its gate
was opened. The royal palace was made of marble,
cedar, and gold, and Ys itself was said to be
the most beautiful city in Europe. It sounds to me

at least as snazzy as Leonardo’s Florence and
probably was until it turned into a veritable epicenter
of iniquity under the influence of Gradlon’s wayward
daughter Dahut, who once took as her lover a knight
dressed in red who was really the devil, and when he

persuaded her to open the gate so he could leave
early the next day, Dahut stole the key from around
her sleeping father’s neck and opened the gate
to a wave as high as a mountain that submerged
the entire city, though the king and his daughter

were able to escape on his horse, which is when
a saint appeared and said, “Throw the demon
thou carriest into the sea if thou dost not desire
to parish,” so Gradlon pushes Dahut off and the sea
swallows her and she becomes a mermaid or maybe

a morgen, which is like a mermaid without the fish tail.
There’s also this little town in Finland called
Kauniainen (pronounced COW-nee-AY-nen)
which is said to be the happiest place on the planet
because Finland was named the world’s happiest country

by a UN agency in 2018 and then a survey taken
a few months later found that the 9,600 residents
of Kauniainen were the most satisfied in Finland,
which is like saying your neighborhood was voted
the nicest in your hometown and that, because you

are the nicest person in your house, possibly because
you’re the only person in your house, you are
the nicest person in your town, but whatever. Even Finns say
they’re melancholy introverts, and the suicide rate
in that country is higher than it is in many others;

there’s a Finnish proverb says that if someone smiles
at you in the street, that means they’re either drunk,
crazy, or not Finnish. Professor Frank Martela, who
researches well-being at the University of Helsinki
and grew up just a few miles from Kauniainen, says

we don’t really know what we’re talking about
when we talk about happiness. Is it daily joy?
A feeling of satisfaction that waxes and wanes over
one’s entire life but is more often present than not?
“It’s a bit ambiguous,” says Professor Martela,

though all Finns enjoy a universal medical system,
free university education, and affordable child care,
and little Kauniainen itself has more than a hundred
sports and cultural facilities – music schools,
a ski slope, a skating rink, an adult education center

where one can throw pots, sing in a choir, paint replicas
of Orthodox Christian icons, practice yoga – all
subsidized by the local council. Who cares if
you can’t define happiness? If you’re working on
your triple axel at the ice rink or trying to knock out

a better likeness of Saint Jude than the ones Lumi
and Toivo are working on at the table next to yours,
you’re too busy to wonder if you’re happy or not,
so maybe Kauniainen would be the best place
to live after all. When I started looking for teaching

jobs, I decided I’d live anywhere but the South
since I’d lived there my whole life, but the offers
I got were from schools in Virginia, Georgia,
Texas, and Florida. Looks like Allah wants me
to stay in the South after all! Okay, let’s go back

to Ys. Did you know that “Paris” comes from
“par Ys” or “similar to Ys”? Ys was said to be
the most beautiful city in Europe until Dahut screwed
everything up, so when Paris is swallowed by the sea,
a once-unlikely scenario seeing as how it is located

some 350 miles inland from the Atlantic coast
yet one that is increasingly credible in the era
of rapid and seeming unstoppable climate change,
Ys will rise from the waves, meaning American
college students will go there on their spring breaks

and semesters abroad instead of to Paris,
and before you say there is no such mythical city,
let me point out that locals observe that when
the sea is calm, you can hear the church bells of Ys
tolling softly beneath the water. The new Ys

will be beautiful again. Why not spend a day there
when you feel like it? You’re happy where you are now,
but you’ll be happier still if you go away for a while
and come back; even the folks in Kauniainen want
to get away from time to time. There’ll be cheap flights

to Ys daily as well as a ferry with board games on deck
and a full bar, and a bridge is in the works, not
the new arty kind but one of those sturdy yellow
Pittsburgh bridges, although the actual paint shade
is Aztec Gold, a classier name than “yellow”

and about a hundred times sunnier than “black.”
In 2001 a planning commission proposed that
some of the bridges be painted in different hues,
such as Perfect Peach and Purple Ice, but that idea
went nowhere when too many Pittsburghers

said they’d feel silly driving over a bridge painted
Purple Ice to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose
team colors are, wait for it, black and gold, then
driving home again over a bridge painted
Perfect Peach, especially if the Steelers lose.

You love your hometown. Still, the new Ys is as
bright as a diamond. Should we have a look?
Come on, I’ll take my unicycle, and you can sit
on my shoulders. Don’t worry, Dahut’s
not there anymore – well, she is if you want her to be.