Sunday, January 06, 2008

Shop 'til you drop a history lesson

It was one thing to live in Orlando for a year without once visiting Disney; it's quite another to live in NYC for 7 years and not once visit a single historic site. Even more sad than that is how I came to realize my ignorance of the area's incredibly rich history: I was shopping.

On Sat., Jeremy and I did our bi-annual "yes, we really are poor" reality check: a drive out to Mendham, NJ, for pub grub and then The Mall at Short Hills for "silly bourgeois upstart, are you looking for a price tag?" Along the way, I saw many gross things (mangled deer on the side of the road, Newark, etc) but one sign in particular got me thinking: "Washington's Headquarters." That's all it said on the side of route 24 -- typically cryptic NJ signage. I guess they mean, "exit here if you'd like to see one of George Washington's many headquarters from the American Revolution."

In light of how much time I'd just spent looking for a Coldstone ice cream shop at Short Hills (they don't have one! I'm starting a petition!), I suddenly felt very stupid for not making an effort to see a single brick laid in the tri-state area during this country's founding.

The realization sank in today when I met Shay for brunch at the Cheesecake Factory out in Huntington (Long Island). In addition to the typical LI strip mall/Starbucks/strip mall/gas station scenery, I noticed signs and stores named "Whitman." A pattern started to emerge and by the time I got to brunch, I realized I was in the heart of Walt Whitman's birthplace (the sign across from the "Walt Whitman Mall" said so).

How did I not know this? I've studied "Leaves of Grass"...surely my Norton American Lit Anthology mentioned that Whitman also bought chinos at the Gap. Seriously, I didn't know Whitman was from LI (or that he lived most of his life in Brooklyn!). My ability to live -- and, of course, shop -- in such close proximity to history while being so ignorant of it is frightening.

Yes, naming a mall after one of America's most anti-commercial literary giants may be a cruel disrespect, but it's okay for 2 reasons: 1) Whitman would've LOVED Abercrombie & Fitch; and 2) it alerts ignoramuses like me to sites of historical significance.

Maybe I'm being too hard on myself. I mean, isn't history everywhere? Even when I was living in Coral Springs, FL (ew, I just threw up a little), surely there was something of historical significance nearby? Hmmm. On second thought, pro'ly not. The place was a bug/gator-infested swamp just 20 years prior to my arrival. But it's hard to forgive myself, especially when I make such an effort to seek out history when I travel, read nothing but books about history and was so moved by my visit to DC that I cried on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Actually, I was briefly inspired to check out local history in mid-'07 after reading "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation," a really great book by Joseph Ellis. One of the chapters is dedicated to the Hamilton-Burr duel that took place on the cliffs of the Hudson (about where Weehawken, NJ, is today). That got me thinking, "hmmm, maybe I should check out..." but then I got distracted by a shiny object.

So, that's a New Year's resolution for 2008: see at least 3 historic sites in NY/NJ/CT/RI/MA (any one of the states I'm in throughout the year -- shouldn't be hard to fit some field-trippy sight-seeing in, right?).

Just remembered that Coral Springs has some historical significance beyond being partly to blame for the Everglade's destruction: woolly mammoth bones were uncovered while they were building the community I'd later live in (Parkside townhomes).

No comments: