I just finished devouring “S-Town,” a new podcast from Serial and This American Life. I expected the story to follow in the true-crime footsteps of its predecessors and, for the first few installments at least, that appeared to be the direction it was heading. Lured by the promise of a small town whodunit, journalist Brian Reed falls instead into the life of John B. McLemore, a contradictorily misanthropic and charismatic horologist. The product is, without spoiling anything, much more compelling that any small town / true crime / anything I’ve consumed in a long time.
It made me think about where I come from. If you had asked me in high school, I would have told you I was living in an S-town (short for Shit Town, the name McLemore gives his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama).
But now I love it. In a very un-pop punk (or maybe very pop punk, I’m no expert, ask Dom Polsinelli) turn of fate that my mom has only been predicting since the hatred began, I feel deeply nostalgic for my hometown. At first I wasn’t exactly sure how I got here, to this weird state of pseudo-heartsickness for a place I’d hated with all the angst of my adolescence.
I grew up in Austin, Texas, the very blue capital of a very red state that I loved to hate. And, while Austin has grown up quite a bit in the years since I left it, the LA-expats gentrifying the East Side or the 10 new buildings on the skyline aren’t why I’ve grown nostalgic for it.
I’ve fallen in love with my hometown by watching movies in, around and about it.
The first time I registered my hometown on screen was in “Whip It!” the Drew Barrymore / Ellen Page movie about roller derby girls. I rented it on iTunes to watch on my tiny iPod Nano screen on an airplane because it was in my Genius recommendations (that sentence really captures a moment in technological time). And, despite watching on a screen the size of a thumbnail, I was struck when Ellen Page got off the bus in front of Lucy in Disguise. Not only was it Austin, it was my Austin, a part of my hometown that I could recognize in a moment.
But the real king of Austin movies is, of course, Linklater. In Austin, “Dazed & Confused” has this odd sort of cultural currency whereby it’s everyone’s favorite movie and still impossibly cool.
Maybe because of my age or maybe because of the type of quiet, artistic kid I was growing up, I’ve always been partial to “Boyhood.” And in the years since it came out — right around the same time I put my hometown in my rearview — I’ve come back to it again and again. And that has to mean something. “Boyhood” isn’t anyone’s bingey Netflix go-to.
The facts of my life and Mason’s in “Boyhood” are more dissimilar than they are alike. Cosmically, I had it much easier: consistent father figure, no abusive stepparents. But emotionally, I see a lot of myself in him. I can recognize the sort of detachment that comes with growing into shyness and introspection.
Little things overlap — we’re almost the same age, we both discovered a love of art in high school, we both went to the “Harry Potter” midnight releases (at the same bookstore nonetheless), camped in Big Bend.
But what really gets me, what gets me every single time, is that scene in “Boyhood” in the bowling alley. Because that’s my bowling alley. That’s Dart Bowl. It’s a space I inhabited long before I saw it on the screen. I’ve eaten the enchiladas and rolled my eyes over not being allowed to get bumpers in that same physical space. I went there with my middle school gym class and for my brother’s birthday parties. Each time I see it I get this pang in my heart, a little gasp of recognition. And I’ve not completely figured out why, even now, I get emotional thinking about a bowling alley in North Austin.
It’s the space and the recognition of space that makes me feel the most nostalgic, even when the facts of our lives line up — like when I went to an Astros game for my birthday — seeing a physical space I’ve spent time in is more powerful. When Mason and his father go camping in Perdernales State Park, the shrubby cedar trees and clay creek beds look like home. The natural space makes me feel heartsick for the creek behind my own house.
And I feel proud in an odd way when I see the landscape of my childhood on screen. Movies like “Boyhood” give me the strange opportunity to see the details of my own life through someone else’s eyes. In that way, “Boyhood” feels like my memories, but it doesn’t exactly look like them. That level of detachment gives me the distance, which, in addition of my current physical distance, to learn to love the place I’d dedicated my teen years to hating.
And so, I wonder how the people of Woodstock, Alabama that listened to “S-Town” feel about their hometown after having someone else — an outsider — tell them a version of its story.