Placing home

Launching into Limbo

Your hometown is a place where, at any given moment, you might know four different routes to the nearest grocery store — one of them being a hidden shortcut that avoids all 5:00 p.m. traffic along the way.

You’ve traversed these roads so many times, you could probably complete the journey based on muscle memory alone. In fact, if you were to close your eyes at the wheel, I bet you could steer your way to that supermarket crash-free — or, at the very worst, with only a few minor damages left behind. (Please, nobody try this at home.)

Granted, the downtown of my small suburb, Larkspur, consists of a single street stretching no more than three blocks north to south. So perhaps this is an easier assertion for me to make than it is for you. Regardless, everyone knows their hometown well.

And we all know our neighborhoods even better.

Over the years, mine has become firmly embedded in the annals of my childhood. The trees I pass, the benches I sit on, even the sidewalk cracks I trip over — all of these summon distinct memories in my mind.

Here, look.

That’s where my sister got stung by a bee in the ninth grade. Naturally, she didn’t enjoy it, but I found the whole thing pretty darn amusing. And that creek down the street — that’s where I walked with a girl on my second-ever date. We held hands, I think. This right here was the chosen finish line for the two-block, 1:00 a.m. race I had with my friends one night. I came in third. And that bench under the tree over there — that’s where I’d rest my heavy backpack during walks home from school on hot days. Every one of these localities recalls a particular experience in my life, all of them inextricably intertwined with the landscape I inhabit.

This connection to my neighborhood and town is one that has been developed and nurtured over time. The three of us met more than 12 years ago and, like a group of strangers introduced for the first time, we slowly began getting to know one another — there were names to exchange, stories to tell and memories to make together.

But if my neighborhood and hometown are my close friends, then my home itself may as well be an organ in my body, so attuned I am to its rhythm and pulse.

Nothing captures the essence of home like a mastery of the household shower handle — and I’m proud to say that over the past 12 years, I’ve achieved just that: Turn it a hair less than a quarter of an inch shy of perpendicular, and you have the ideal combination of water temperature and pressure spraying from the shower head. Wait 4.23 seconds, and you’re golden — you have my word.

For my whole life, my intimate link to the place where I live has remained characteristically singular. Children experience all sorts of different situations growing up, but I’ve only ever known one home. Sure, my family has moved around a little bit (I was born in San Francisco and have lived in three houses since), but never have I resided in two separate places simultaneously.

All that changed, though, when I started at UC Berkeley last fall. While I never could bring myself to call my dorm room “home” (that remained a special title reserved for home home), my new second neighborhood began to feel wonderfully familiar.

Today, walking down Durant and Channing and Telegraph, I recognize the same kinds of special landmarks that I do in Larkspur — a stop sign here, a bench there, a storefront two blocks over, a certain square on the sidewalk down the street — all of which summon distinct and meaningful memories from my first nine months in Berkeley. There is an understanding here that is starting to feel a whole lot like home.

And it will only grow stronger. Now that my roommates and I have officially signed the lease on our new apartment, I am firmly and explicitly grounded in a second home — one that, though only 15 miles away, is strikingly separate from the place where I grew up. I have both physically and metaphorically left the nest. It’s a summer nest now.

And while I don’t yet have a couch in my Berkeley apartment (or a desk or a chair or Wi-Fi or even a bed, for that matter), we do have a shower handle.

OK, fine, this new one’s more of a knob really than a handle, but we can work with it.

Jericho Rajninger writes the Thursday column on the liminal space between childhood and adulthood during a summer home from college. Contact him at [email protected]