I didn’t intend to live my life in Tallahassee. I’m not sure exactly where I expected to spend my days, but I know it wasn’t in a small Southern city that’s about 200 miles off the beaten path to anywhere. I’ve moved away several times, but keep finding myself back in this somewhat sleepy town. At this point in my life, it’s where I’ve lived longer than anyplace else. For better or worse, it’s become home to me.
When I came to Tallahassee in January 1988, I was 23 years old and I told people I was moving to attend Florida State University. In reality, I was seeking to escape the social conservativism and the lack of opportunity of Pensacola. I came with almost no money, no place to live, and no job. I had a friend here, so I slept on his floor for a few weeks while I got a job and found a place to live. I registered for classes at FSU, but could only take two because that’s all I could afford.
Those were great days. I met interesting people from all over the world at FSU, many who remain valued friends. I explored the campus and Tallahassee. I found places like the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, treated myself to whatever books they recommended at Rubyfruit Books, ate dinner at Morrison’s Cafeteria whenever I could afford it, and expanded my culinary tastes at the Pocket Sandwich Emporium where I got my first taste of humus. Through the campus I was exposed to the arts, ranging from the depressing films of French Cinema to raucous musical theatre performances, to poetry readings at the Warehouse on Gaines Street, when it was still an undeveloped warehouse district.
My life in Tallahassee has blossomed beyond my wildest expectations. A few years after landing here, I met a woman at the synagogue whom I would marry 10 years later. We just celebrated our 15th anniversary. Our home is not just where we live, but a vessel of artifacts from the life we’ve lived together. Pieces of pottery and art are collected from trips we’ve taken. Photographs are scattered throughout the house of the people we love, such as childhood pictures of nieces and nephews who are now grown adults. Looking at our dining room table, I recall the memories of the many dinners shared there with friends and family and hear the echoes of the stories and jokes we shared. Beyond the walls of our house, I have decades-long friendships with many people in the local community. I have been a member of my synagogue for more than 20 years, and I have been entrusted to be the current president. I have my friends from the Rotary club, the legal community, and even some old friends from my days flying airplanes.
What makes us call a place home? Is it simply time spent in a location, property ownership, or the fact that our possessions are collected there? For much of my life, I identified home as a small town in upstate New York. My family had deep roots in the local community, having lived there for more than 100 years. With a large town square shaded by massive elm trees, it was an almost idyllic place to be a child. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t change much. I’ve gone back to visit many times, but I don’t know if I’m going to do that again. Our old homestead is still there, as are many of the people whom I knew growing up, but it doesn’t feel like home anymore. The reality is that blight killed the elm trees, the old homestead has been somebody else’s house for more than 35 years, and while old friends will give me a polite “Hello”, there’s nobody there who longs to see me anymore.
I suppose that if someone forced me to define what makes a place home I would say it’s the place where we find connection. It’s where people look for our presence as part of their definition of the place. It’s a place where we can see our lives and our worth reflected back to us.