By Sophia Smith
The sunny 101 highway shoots your car like an arrow straight north through the verdant farmlands. A green sign flashes “Petaluma, Population: 60,000.” This is your queue to direct your beat-up station wagon to the off-ramp and roll into your home town. New developments have begun to crop up, creeping closer to the freeway. The shiny billboards in front of the construction site show a beaming family of four centered in a comfortably generic living room. The people on the billboard are immortalized in a cookie-cutter vision of Anywhere, USA. This is Petaluma: a perfect snow globe of suburbia.
Now the off-ramp has faded away, and you are avoiding Main Street. It is a Tuesday afternoon, and the SUVs stack up in identical congested lines at 3pm, ready to drive the children to their after-school soccer practice. You skirt the high school by a distance of a few streets, and in five minutes you have arrived at your destination: the Phoenix Theater. You can feel the polarity between the suburban block and the theater’s boundary as your wheels roll from smooth pavement to the crunching, dusty rocks of the Phoenix’s parking lot. You lock your car and turn the corner to the main entrance.
The gray, art deco theater meets the cracked sidewalk right where the dirty stains fall through the cracks. You sit on the tiled breezeway in front of the locked glass doors, on the cracked ground next to the cigarette butts, and you count the number of cars that go straight across the avenue even though the sign says “right-turn only.” You get to nine before Tom Gaffey comes around the corner to unlock the door for you. He smiles wide, happy to see you, but his eyes are sad and distant as he reaches for his impressively jangling key ring.
“Hey kid, what’s happening? You just get back into town?”
“Hey Tom, uh yeah, I was looking at some apartments in San Francisco. Tryin’ to move out of my mom’s place before summer starts, get myself a job down there.” Gaffey undoes the padlock and opens the door for you. He follows you inside, offering attentive grunts and rubbing his balding head.
“Right on. Well, hey, kid, don’t forget about us here, we’ll miss you when you leave.”
“Oh Tom, don’t be dramatic. I’ll keep visiting when I’m living in the city. It’s not that bad of a drive.” Tom grunts in assent, but has nothing to say, so you continue, “How’re things around here? Did you get that grant proposal approved for the summer music classes?”
Tom heaves up a powerful sigh. He’s got a big manilla folder in his hands, stuffed haphazardly with papers.
“Shit, I gotta tell ya, kid, it’s been real tough around here with the bad publicity. The Downtown Association is up my ass with complaints. Know what happened last weekend?”
You shake your head, but Tom is beginning to heat up and needs no prompting, “Sophomore at Petaluma High decides she wants to get shit-faced and come down to the show here last Friday, she’s too fuckin’ drunk to walk up to the box office, ends up passed out in the parking lot… Vomit! Everywhere! I had Gabe working security in the lot, he called the ambulance, got her outta here. Close fucking call of alcohol poisoning. Fifteen fucking years old! Now I got the parents trying to rip me a new one. They’ve got the whole Downtown Association lobbying to get rid of our concerts. They don’t care that those shows are the only source of funding we got. They know that if the shows go, the whole theater is fuckin’ done for, and that’s what they want.”
“Don’t worry about those assholes, Gaffey. It’s not the theater’s fault that kids get bored in this lame little town and drink themselves stupid. That’ll happen no matter what. If the theater can survive burning down to the ground twice, it can survive this. Just tell that Downtown Shit-Committee that I, for one, am so much better off because of this place.”
Gaffey shrugs and waves his hand indifferently, but before he turns away you glimpse proud satisfaction leak from his eyes. Grunting and clearing his throat, he makes his way down the side hallway to his cave of an office. You are left alone inside the cold theater.
You know that the Phoenix Theater, like its namesake, was born again from its own ashes after being engulfed by fire. It was reborn thirty years ago to become a home: a home for the youth and run by the youth. Now that Gaffey has disappeared to his office, you make your way down the main floor to the piano room and sink down on your favorite couch. You immediately spot some fresh graffiti that was certainly not present yesterday. The lines are clean and even; they are the work of a hand with the muscle memory of a million practiced strokes. Even something as small as a new tag makes you smile. The Phoenix is always changing, and when you are here you find it possible to forget about the suburban snow globe of a town outside the theater walls where everything is kept pristine and predictable.
Slowly, the after-school crowd trickles into the building. You hear the clank of skateboard trucks on the quarter pipes as someone else begins to pick on a guitar. These kids flock to the building for the freedom to skate and to make music. These kids are here for the same reason that you are: to be yourselves. This place is void of city noise ordinances, “No Skateboarding” signs, and strict vandalism laws.
After several moments of reclining on the couch, you rise and imagine that you are transcending your own ashes. At home, at school, and at work you are expected to live up to others’ presumptions of your identity. The theater holds no expectations for you. It is a fluid place of artistic sanctuary begging you to take control of your own identity. Not far from the couch is the grand piano. The keys have been graffitied with a silver paint pen, but the sound is pure and enduring. You let your fingers play on the ivory and soon the room is full to bursting with your song. The melody is fast and catchy, and your fingers prance from key to key effortlessly. You are doing your part in perpetuating the theater’s tendency towards change. You played a different song yesterday, and tomorrow you will play a new one.
After winding down your fingers to the conclusion, you allow another kid to take over the piano. You venture outside again for a breath of fresh air. The suburbs surround the Phoenix on all sides. The manicured lawns, the painted fences, the permit-only parking: it all reeks of a glittering snow globe. It paints a pretty picture so that the suburbanites might feel comfortable with their lives here. You see a jogger, a dog-walker, a mother pushing a stroller; none of them heard your song. It makes you feel special to have a clandestine practice room that most people never discover. Most people in this town are stuck in ruts; they do the same things every day. They burn themselves down, wallow in their ashes, and are ignorant as to how they might lift themselves into something new.
You feel bad for the suburbanites. Although you were raised amongst them, you feel as if you are of a different breed. They see the theater as an ugly blemish that poisons their tiny uniform world, but you feel differently. The theater has taught you to transcend the familiar, to welcome change, and to have the strength to cultivate your own identity above and beyond others’ expectations.
Had the theater never risen from its ashes, you might have found yourself loading into a cookie-cutter SUV and heading to soccer practice with the other children. Had the theater never risen from its ashes, you might believe that your only identity is the one defined for you by teachers, parents, and bosses. Had the theater never risen from its ashes, you might find that you had never risen from yours, either.
Published on page 54 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.