MANASSAS, Virginia—You can’t get a good sour pickle in New York anymore. Not that I would know, my parents tell me. While it’s probably a good thing that abject poverty and infectious disease are no longer defining characteristics of the Lower East Side, a fact remains a fact—with the tenements eventually went the art of the sour pickle.
You can, however, still get your hands on a decent prune Danish, if you’re so inclined. When Juan at Andre’s Hungarian Bakery had wrapped one for me, I was ready to cross the Mason-Dixon.
I like to visit Virginia: it’s pretty and home to animals that aren’t rats-with-wings. But mostly I like Virginia because there, on a hill, are two eighty year-old kids at heart who love me very much. Fate and force of will have meant that my grandparents were never in one city for long. A little incongruously, they ended up in the American South, where a street urchin from Antwerp drives a tractor and a little Viennese girl cooks venison from neighbors’ hunting trips.
My bag slid forward as the Northeast Regional train ground to a halt. I checked to make sure that my vestigial pastry hadn’t been harmed. Then I looked out the window—Manassas, my favorite stop.
I understand, theoretically, that New York City is not somehow “exempt” from American history. British prison ships, draft riots, Boss Tweed—it feels wrong not to go on. But imagining Gotham’s past, I sometimes struggle to make out texture. It’s hard for me to accept that Peter Stuyvesant did not get off the boat and stop for “The Post,” or that the Battle of Brooklyn wasn’t over a parking space.
In part that’s because, for me, the city’s a little soiled by the routine of everyday life. But it’s also because the historical dust has little time to settle before it’s kicked up by pedestrians and cabs in the conversion of present to future.
Virginia is different. It doesn’t seem to break character. Looking out at Manassas, I could conceive of Thomas Jackson becoming Stonewall at the First Battle of Bull Run; I could imagine seeing bearded infantry, bayonets, and hardtack and hearing the “Battle Cry of Freedom” (which was written a year later, but just go with it).
I’d be lying if I said that I found all history interesting—there was some stuff about ancient clay pots in tenth grade that I could have done without. Often it’s the truly tragic that holds our attention: the hinges of the doors to the past are greased with blood. But I like to remember. And, I like to think (and by “think” I mean steal from the Gettysburg Address) that it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
A few stops later, I got off the train and into my grandparents’ Jeep. We drove from the Charlottesville station to their rural house, built in 1824. I wondered what its first owner, a sea captain who freed his slaves upon his death, would make of us—a bunch of foreigner-Yanks whose life circumstances were determined by a war between the European states—enjoying his Virginia. But as my grandmother bit into her Danish, I also didn’t care.
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