(222): How Things Fall Apart: Images of my Hometown in Memory

Someone else’s Ritz Theater, but the sign is verrrry similar! Image (cropped) by Ritzville Ritz via Flickr. License.

When I was a teenager, my hometown featured a block-filling antique building downtown that used to be the post office; but at the time, it harbored a hodgepodge of tiny businesses, most of which I ignored as background but one which caught my fancy. It was the used bookstore, and it seemed to me both vast and cramped.

As one entered the store through the narrow frontage, there was a long checkout desk to the left and an ill-lit cloister of closely packed shelves, roughly sorted (i.e., not really sorted at all). In my memory, it had the feeling of a monkish library; I felt the pull of the image in my head as I read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and even the reading of that book is far back in my memory. So this dark book repository was like a memory twice removed, a mere shadow.

And yet, were I to drive the 600-odd miles to my hometown and drive to the downtown, I would see the building I remember, where this place had been long ago. But that building has been restored in a fantastic city gesture of gentrification, and the façade is unrecognizable.

There was a full upstairs realm in the old post office that featured apartments; at the time, they must have been very low rent apartments, because I recall (my one attempt to storm the second floor) the strong smell of urine and a drunken man peering out of one of the doors, yelling at me. I was chicken, and I ran back down the stairs, back to my car, my best friend right with me, both of us giggling and imitating the man: “Heah heah!” The low nasal sound of his voice lives in my memory, one of the many images of the place.

Back in the bookstore, the shelves extended back into the bowels of the underground; the floor was uneven, concrete, and it descended a full half story (or so it seemed) into an even less organized realm of dusty volumes. It was here I uncovered a Thomas Hardy novel from the 1800s, entitled A Pair of Blue Eyes. It had a certain weight to it. I bought it, but now I no longer know what became of it. I wasn’t even into Hardy; we just happened to be reading his works in high school English.

Down the street from the old post office, on a cross street, was the old downtown theater, the Ritz, where I first lined up in 1977 to see the new sci-fi epic movie Star Wars. I would return to that theater 7 more times just to watch it again. It featured huge cockroaches that would fall from the ceiling onto the heads of unsuspecting moviegoers in the front row. I was careful to sit several rows back. The Ritz has long since been defunct; I don’t even know what it was reinvented into; the last time I saw it, it still had the tall lighted sign that heralded it, reaching way up to the top of the high building front, four huge letters R-I-T-Z. They were no longer lit up. There was a For Rent sign in the window.

Yet further still was a hidden place, a mere set of two glass doorways along the strip of the same street the Ritz resided on; it was a movie pub. One side housed the bar, where adults enjoyed glasses of beer in near darkness; beyond a curtain to one side was the movie theater, at which I saw my first David Lynch film: The Elephant Man. The atmosphere in the theater seemed to echo the shadowy black-and-white of the film; somehow we seemed to be a part of the proceedings.

I’m not sure I could even point out where that place was anymore. It has been over 10 years since I returned to my hometown. The memories have a certain character, but I feel that they sit dormant, decaying inside my mind. Things fall apart in there, but I hope that, in the pieces that fall around me, I can pick up and reconstruct some bright new reality with the old character. We are all of us searching for something from the past, that time of less entropy, a time when the images were sharp and immediate. These are a few of my pieces.

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