The place where you spend your formative years can draw you back with the pull of a magnet to metal. Or it can repel, the desire to divorce yourself from prickly memories trumping all else.

I have a difficult relationship with Tallahassee, the small north Florida city where my family landed in the mid-1970s. A place that was largely black and white then and had little room for shades of brown. “Is your mama black or your daddy black?” was the first question I heard at Amos P. Godby High School. 

Tree-lined Miccosukee Road
We felt lost, after living in places that were far more cosmopolitan, after Kolkata, our home. There wasn’t even an Indian restaurant in town then; just a handful of desi families who gathered, it seemed, almost every weekend to cook for each other and talk about the homeland.

I graduated from high school in Tallahassee. And earned both my degrees from Florida State University. Every hard lesson I learned about life was learned in the house off Chapel Drive and in apartments I rented along Pensacola Street. Or in late-night sessions at the Grand Finale and the Office Lounge. And in classrooms in the Bellamy Building and the newsroom of The Florida Flambeau.

My mother suffered a stroke there, an event that changed all our lives overnight. I was married and divorced there. And by the time the 1980s were coming to a close, I felt claustrophobic and yearned to pack up my red Toyota pickup and race out of town. 

That day came soon after and for the past two decades, Tallahassee has just been a place for me to visit occasionally, a place where I can never get lost on streets that remain familiar and yet, feel like a stranger every single time. 

Many of my close friends who left town returned to settle in Tallahassee. It was a good place, they said, to raise kids, to own a house, to live life.

Their claims were affirmed today with the survey results of the Coral Gables-based Washington Economics Group, which listed Tallahassee as the Number One spot for Baby Boomers to retire. Climate, cost of living, access to health care and other services and amenities. All that plus the benefits of living in the shadows of two state universities and a large community college. You get opera, theater, music and poetry — big city stuff with small town comfort.

Most of the other cities on the Top 10 list are also in the South. Atlanta was Number Five, which may seem amazing to many of my northern friends who often knock me for having lived here so long. I have always told them all the same things that surfaced in this survey: I get to live a big city life with the comfort of a small town. I could never own a house and garden so close to downtown in New York or Chicago. Or afford to keep a car and get to work in 10 minutes.

The survey’s findings were not surprising to me. But Tallahassee’s top ranking bopped me over the head; made me think about my own past.

I  am guilty, perhaps, of subconsciously blocking out all the good that I had there as though to justify my own decisions. But that’s not fair. 

So here’s to Tallahassee. And to all my dear friends who chose to live there. Good on you. You won’t have to move again for retirement heaven.

At Week’s End

In 1983, I began working for a newspaper called the Florida Flambeau. It was run by Florida State students mostly but was not affiliated with the university and had established itself as a strong, independent, progressive voice in the Tallahassee community. I had never taken a journalism class (there was no J-school at FSU). I only knew how to write academic papers and had just finished my Master’s thesis.

The Flambeau opened my eyes to a whole new world. My mentors there — Michael Moline, Eileen Drennen, Curt Fields, Michael McClelland, Steve Watkins (to name just a few) — taught me to ask tough questions and write with clarity and punch. Most of all, I learned that journalism was always about seeking truth. Our motto was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We wrote about the world around us — the university, the legislature, executions, migrant workers. We wrote about music and film that was edgy and off the mainstream radar and published a great entertainment section called At Week’s End.

This past weekend, some of us Flambeau alums attended a reunion in Tallahassee. Though we had our differences, though we screamed at each other, we have a bond that no one can ever take away.

We had more wrinkles and gray hair. Some of us were even grandparents. We’ve all moved on in life. Some are successful journalists — my dear friend Diane Roberts does commentary for major newspapers, NPR and the BBC. She is a respected author and a professor of English. Others are lawyers, artists, musicians, lobbyists.

But it was almost as though 25 years had not flown by. We were just as we were at the Flambeau. Almost. And I was very glad for it.

Here’s to all of you Flam alums. And to the next reunion!

%d bloggers like this: