"Writers, particularly novelists, are linked to place," Joyce Carol Oates has written. Home is "where you find yourself in your most haunting dreams. . . dreams most embedded in memory." For her, home is "upstate New York—the rural crossroads of Millersport, on the Tonawanda Creek, and the city of Lockport on the Erie Canal." I've long been aware of her links to my hometown.
Joyce Carol Oates and I were born four years apart in the same Lockport hospital. She attended early grades in a one-room schoolhouse near those rural crossroads and "between the ages of 11 and 15—through sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth grades," was a student first at John E. Pound Elementary School and then at North Park Junior High. John E. Pound was a short walk from my home. When she was in sixth grade, her classroom on the second floor, I was in second, my classroom on the first floor; we may have passed each other in the halls. Our junior highs were different—mine was Emmet Belknap—and she attended high school elsewhere. We never met.
Yet particulars of her Lockport life match mine so well I almost feel her presence in my hometown memories. She writes about the Lockport Public Library, "beside the dull red brick of the YMCA" (I swam there sometimes) and across the street from Lockport High School (replaced by a new building elsewhere when I was in junior high). She thought the library had "the look of a Greek temple . . . with elegantly ascending steps, a portico and four columns," set back past a gated wrought-iron fence and "very green jewel-like lawn." How often I crossed that lawn, climbed those steps, sometimes sat there with friends reading books we'd just checked out. I remember the spacious interior and the stairs to the basement children's section.
"What I most love about Lockport is its timelessness," she claims. She thinks the Erie Canal, "so deep-set in what appears to be solid rock, you can barely see it unless you come close, to lean over the railing of the wide bridge at the foot of Cottage Street," is what "resurfaces in dreams" of people who move away. She remembers the canal locks and boats passing through; recalls standing on the Big Bridge and feeling "a sensation of vertigo as you peer down at, or into, the canal 50 feet below." I crossed the Big Bridge alone on Wednesday afternoons for religious instruction at St. Patrick's, passing my father's Presbyterian church and a Ford gumball factory; with friends I clambered below it in search of pet baby alligators flushed into the canal.
She remembers being "a solitary individual mostly walking—walking and walking—along the streets of downtown, and along residential streets; over the wide windswept bridge above the canal at Cottage Street, and over the narrower bridge, at Pine Street; on paths above the towpath, winding through vacant overgrown lots in the vicinity of Niagara Street; and on the shaky pedestrian bridge that ran unnervingly close beside the railroad tracks crossing the canal." I too walked all those streets alone, crossed that footbridge with friends, and climbed onto the supports of the railroad bridge. One kid who jumped from there into the canal almost drowned. The footbridge shook when trains crossed above it.
Oates remembers "the dreary Lockport bus station, located near Lockport's largest employer, Harrison Radiator" where her "father worked as a tool and die designer for 40 years." My grandfather and his three sons also worked there. Perhaps one of them knew Fred Oates. My mother and I sometimes rode the Greyhound from that station to reach my eye doctor in Buffalo, crossing Tonawanda Creek and turning at Millersport. Watching movies before catching her bus home after school, Oates thought the Palace Theatre "a place of romance" because of "its baroque splendors—gilt-framed mirrors in the lobby, crimson and gold plush, chandeliers, Oriental carpets." She preferred it to "the less reputable Rialto," a grittier theater where I often enjoyed popcorn, two boxes of candy, a cartoon, a double feature, and a Saturday serials chapter. The Palace seemed too posh for me.
Oates' return to Lockport in 2009 to speak at the Palace Theatre likely occasioned those memories of her school years. Our youths in Western New York have a lot less in common if we step back from the article's focus and deeper into memoir. But often another's writing will not simply take me away into the landscape of her experience but simultaneously return me to the landscape of my own memory. As she says, "Writers . . . are linked to place" and sometimes, when readers are linked to the same place, it heightens the connection between them.
Note: More of Oates in Western New York
Oates, Joyce Carol. "American Gothic," The New Yorker, May 8, 1995: 35.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again," Smithsonian Magazine, March 2010.
Oates, Joyce Carol. The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age. NY: Harper Collins, 2016.