In this fascinating book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder takes us inside the everyday workings of Northampton, Massachusetts—a place that seems to personify the typical American hometown. Kidder unveils the complex drama behind the seemingly ordinary lives of Northampton's residents. And out of these stories he creates a splendid, startling portrait of a town, in a narrative that gracefully travels among past and present, public and private, joy and sorrow.
A host of real people are alive in these pages: a tycoon with a crippling ailment; a criminal whom the place has beguiled, a genial and merciful judge, a single mother struggling to start a new life at Smith College; and, at the center, a policeman who patrols the streets of his beloved hometown with a stern yet endearing brand of morality—and who is about to discover the peril of spending a whole life in one small place. Their stories take us behind the town's facades and reveal how individuals shape the social conscience of a community. Home Town is an unflinching yet lovingly rendered account of how a traditional American town endures and evolves at the turn of the millenniums.
Chapter 1: Townie
He grew up here. He was the youngest of Jane and Bill O'Connor's seven children. His oldest sister called him Todder when he was an infant. His high school friends shortened up his surname and rechristened him Oakie. To teachers and other adults he was usually Tommy. His wife would call him Tom. All his nicknames and the diminutive accompanied him to adulthood. If you do all your growing up in the same small place, you don't shed identities. You accumulate them.
One day when he was ten years old, Tommy O'Connor's Little League baseball coach made him the starting pitcher. A signal honor, but then Tommy couldn't get anyone out. He walked the first batter, and from their lawn chairs on the sidelines the parents called, "Make him be a hitter, Tommy." So he threw an easy one right over the plate, and the batter nailed it. His teammates in the field behind him did as they'd been taught: they talked it up, they chattered, squeaky voices calling, "Hum chuck, Tommy. No batter, no batter. Hum it in there, Tommy baby." He threw harder and walked the next two batters. He eased up and the next kid hit it over everything. Many games of Little League reach this kind of impasse. Five runs in, the bases loaded once again, and still nobody out, the fielders grumbling, the parents looking on in silence, all except for one, someone else's father, who cares more about a good ball game than his neighbor's son, and shouts, "Get him outa there, for Christ's sake!" Tommy stood on the mound, staring at his shoes.
The coach called time and went out to talk to him. If sports build character, they can also test it prematurely. What if the kid can't take it? What if he begins to cry? "You all right?" the coach asked.
Tommy lifted his eyes toward the sky. It was a fine summer afternoon at Arcanum Field. Not a cloud in sight. Tommy looked back over his shoulder, as if just making sure. Then he looked at the coach, and he smiled. "Think it might rain?" he asked.
The coach told the story to Tommy's father, Bill, the treasurer of Hampshire County and the region's preeminent master of ceremonies and after-dinner speaker. Bill put that story about Tommy in the vast repertoire he employed at the Elks, the Legion, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the John Boyle O'Reilly Club, the family's kitchen table. There it grew as smooth as the bits of glass that Tommy found on the beach during the family's summer camping trips to Cape Cod. Tommy's mother kept scrapbooks about him, even when he was an adult. He was her last child, the youngest of the six who survived. He had brown curly hair, and a little cockeyed grin that made girls and women smile back.
Tommy spent his childhood and adolescence on Forbes Avenue, just off Elm Street and a few blocks from Smith College, in a quiet neighborhood of both grand and ordinary homes. He was raised in a wood-framed house that a family of modest means could afford back then. The house was full to bursting with exuberant youth, and the neighborhood was so full of children that Tommy never felt a need to go beyond it, except for the sake of adventure. Early on summer mornings he would stand on the sidewalk in front of his family's house and hear a cry or lift it first himself -- "E-awkee!" -- and then the same call, from voices that hadn't changed yet, would sound up and down the streets, and soon barefoot children would appear from all directions, apparitions out of the gray dawn. Tommy's friend Rick emerged from just three doors up Forbes Avenue, and from their homes came Ethan and Lisa and Bobby and half a dozen more. They'd converge on the sidewalk and make plans, naming destinations -- "Meet ya at the Hill," "Meet ya at White Rock," "Meet ya at the dirt mounds."
The fastest, easiest route to Hawley Junior High -- named for a local Revolutionary War patriot -- would have been by sidewalk, but Tommy and his friends rarely went that way. From September until June they traveled with their bookbags through the backyards of the Elm Street neighborhood, sliding through hedges, ducking under fences, wading through snow. They paused to gather chestnuts at Slawson's chestnut tree, for the after-school chestnut wars with the Washington Street kids. They crossed the Smith College campus, past stately buildings and views of Paradise Pond, though years would pass before Tommy noticed the postcard beauties of the place. It was just their playground then. They stopped outside the college art museum and climbed on the Rodin, a statue called The Walking Man. They detoured through the backstairs spots that made perfect hiding places during games of Kill. They hunted frogs in the pond beside the college greenhouse, until someone came out and chased them away -- class consciousness began to bloom in Tommy at that pond, the day he saw a group of kids and a teacher from the private Smith day school catching frogs without interference. The campus was so rich in diversions -- the Foucault pendulum inside the science building, which they set swinging wildly; the elderly college security guards, Creepy Kreps and Mooney, whom they could usually get to chase them -- that by the time they'd passed under the Romanesque shadows of the town's public library, they were nearly always late for school.
Tommy's world widened bit by bit, to take in other neighborhoods and villages within the town such as Bay State, Leeds, and Florence, and every widening seemed dramatic to him, a journey into a vast territory, called Northampton. But the old neighborhood remained its center, and the friends from it his most enduring. The oldest friend of all was Rick Janacek. Tommy knew him before he knew Northampton. Rick was left to play at the O'Connor house when Tommy still slept in a crib. He was two years older, and became something like a leader for Tommy and many of his gang. "Let's go see what Rick's doing," he'd often say, on the mornings when Rick didn't join them on the sidewalk outside Tommy's house.
The O'Connor family had lost a child some years before, but the Janaceks' misfortunes were astonishing. Two children had died in infancy from blood disorders. One had cerebral palsy. In the most lurid of the family's catastrophes, the second son accidentally shot and killed the eldest. Not long afterward, that second son lost half his arm in the meat cutter at the family store. And a year after that, the family store burned down. The city took up a collection. Tommy's father had organized the fund-raiser.
All of this had happened before Rick and Tommy were born, but Tommy heard the stories, of course -- "the old Irish," as his father called them, whispering that the one Janacek boy was maimed in fateful retribution for killing the other. Between Rick and Tommy, those troubles remained for years a thing known and not discussed. Rick didn't bring up the subject, and Tommy didn't want to meddle. Family was a sacred subject even then for him.
The hallway outside Rick's bedroom always seemed to be half filled with boxes. You got past by walking sideways. Rick's house always seemed dark, heavy-curtained, a bit eerie, but that didn't bother Tommy much, partly because of Rick's mother, who was forever feeding Tommy snacks and loading him up with boxes of damaged crackers to take home. Sometimes when he came looking for Rick and Rick wasn't there, she invited him to sit with her on her porch, and talked about relatives and people she knew who were doing good works, while feeding him another snack. She brightened the house considerably for him.
In the background of a group of old snapshots, a corner of Rick's bedroom appears -- a crowded bureau, a clutter of coats and shirts hanging on a wall, and a desk completely covered with model paints, the pieces of a model in progress sitting on some newspaper. A heavy curtain blocks the window. Tommy, who is just eleven, stands in the foreground, pink-cheeked and chubby with a Dutch-boy haircut, striking various poses: joyfully giving Rick the finger, spraying deodorant at Rick, and, wearing a maniacal grin, holding the deodorant can as if to spray an armpit with it. Rick took the pictures from his sickbed. He was laid up for six months with a badly broken leg, and for six months Tommy visited him after school, almost every single day. They spent the countless hours of Rick's convalescence playing an early electronic game called Talking Football and building models. Rick's creations had a craftsman's perfection; Tommy's had gobs of glue hanging from their joints.
A friend two years older is a prized possession when accomplishment is still marked by years acquired and inches grown. Tommy pestered Rick for information about the adult world. Rick had Playboy magazines. He could answer some of Tommy's insistent queries and clear up his wild misconceptions about the facts of life. Tommy got drunk for the first time with Rick: he threw up on the couch in Rick's living room; Rick walked him home, put him to bed, and cleaned up the mess. One day when Tommy was fifteen, Rick said, "I got a joint." Rick held up a bedraggled-looking thing vaguely like a cigarette.
"What are you gonna do with it?"
"Want to try it? Nobody'll know."
So it was that for the first and last time in his life Tommy tried to taste an illegal drug. In his memory, it only made him cough. He still thought they'd tried to smoke oregano.
Tommy was a tender child, utterly dependent on his parents' affection for each other -- bawling, he vividly recalled, when they got into mock arguments. He shared a room for years, and the same bed for several, with his older brother Jack, who was big, handsome, and wild. He adored Jack, and was, like many little brothers, oppressed by him. Tommy came to adulthood with a proclivity to worry, which seemed allied with the anger that he felt when someone tried to "get over" on him, and maybe that was part of the residue of growing up with Jack. But they were great friends now, and Tommy had decided to feel grateful to Jack when he returned to his memories of childhood. In that fine, assembled place, Jack had toughened him up -- cured Tommy of his fear of the dark, for instance: when their parents went out, Jack used to lock Tommy in the basement and turn off the lights.
On one day out of many like it at the O'Connor house, Jack slapped Tommy and Tommy started crying and Rick said, "You're disgusting." Jack said, "Yeah. Mama's boy." Afterward Rick started saying to Tommy, "Why don't you stand up to him?" And one day he did. Tommy actually wrestled Jack to the ground, and looked up at Rick with startled eyes, as if to say, "Wow, it actually worked." Then Jack recovered and pummeled Tommy once again. But this was the beginning of Tommy's years of fighting back, a period that ended in a donnybrook conducted all over the O'Connor house. It concluded in the cellar in a draw, when he and Jack realized that one of them was going to kill the other.
By then Rick no longer guided Tommy. In many ways their positions had changed. By the time they got out of high school, Rick would say to mutual friends, "I taught O'Connor all about life. And he came back and told me what it was like."
Tommy was the kind of student about whom teachers say, "If only he'd apply himself." He was also the kind that teachers remember with special fondness and amusement out of the legions they've taught. One of his report cards read, "He's doing better. But he's still talking." Through every stage of school, he was surrounded by the warmth of popularity. Though he was hardly the best student or athlete, his high school classmates chose him to deliver their commencement address. "No jokes," the faculty adviser said, and Tommy obeyed. His classmates tittered anyway.
Rick grew taller and handsomer, but Tommy had the charm, and the first girlfriend. For a while Rick and another pal, Mark, tagged along when Tommy went out on dates. Then came their Smith College days. Some doctors and professors lived in their neighborhood but Tommy and Rick belonged to the quotidian part of Northampton, the part that ran the stores and local government and policed and plowed the streets and went to public school and attended high school football games on Friday nights and listened to the local AM radio station. To date a Smithie was, as Rick would put it, "every townie's dream." Tommy accomplished that first. His parents couldn't afford to send him away to a private college. Tommy lived at home and worked his way through two state schools in the region. The initials on his sweatshirt, "HCC," stood for Holyoke Community College. Now and then he told a Smithie they stood for "Harvard College Crew." He brought Rick along to parties at Hopkins dormitory, where they became something like mascots, interim boyfriends for the young women whose real ones weren't around. For Tommy too, these were mere flirtations with another life. He always felt a slight relief in June, like the feeling of returning home, when the Smithies left and he went back to older, native friends.
A lot of friends eventually moved away. Tommy stayed in town, and he became a local cop. In his neighborhood this wasn't an unusual thing for a boy to do when he grew up. Several had become cops -- Tommy's brother Jack in Richmond, Virginia; Tommy's friend Mark on Martha's Vineyard; and also Rick, who joined the Northampton force a couple of years after Tommy. But Tommy's case was special. For as long as anyone could remember, he'd dreamed of becoming a policeman. At five years old he stood in the middle of Forbes Avenue dressed in a round postman's hat and pretended to direct the scanty traffic. In fourth grade he founded the O'Connor Detective Agency. He borrowed his father's old sewer commissioner's badge. His family's garage was the station house. Most of his friends were deputized. They made up flyers and distributed them around the neighborhood: "If you have any mysteries or anything missing call the O'Connor Detective Agency." Soon bikes expanded their territory, and took them into the old downtown.
Back then, in the early seventies, Northampton's Main Street looked like a lot of others in New England towns -- the upper stories of many commercial buildings abandoned, some of their windows covered in plywood; moneylending and furniture stores occupying what once had been prime commercial space. Pleasant Street off Main was essentially a skid row, lined with buildings sheathed in tar paper and with what the local cops called fighting bars, where brawling men rolled around on sawdust-covered floors. The lovely old train station was crumbling, its roof half caved in. Downtown had its attractions, though: Charlie's, where Tommy and his pals bought penny candy, and old drugstores with creaking wooden floors and soda fountains that produced ice cream sodas, cherry Cokes. On their bikes he and his deputies followed suspicious-looking cars down Pleasant Street. In Tommy's memory, he got so good at mimicking a siren that now and then a driver actually pulled over, and he rode by looking innocent.
In junior high, he joined the Police Explorer Scouts and stayed with them through high school, and in due course he went from being a ward of the town to one of its wardens, dressed in blue polyester. In all his dreams, Tommy spent the rest of his life in Northampton. He made a plan. He would remain a cop and rise to sergeant -- and no higher for a long time, because higher office meant mostly desks and paperwork. He would marry and have a bunch of kids who would reenact his own Northampton childhood -- why not, when his had been so nearly perfect? And then after he retired, he would run for mayor.
By the end of high school he'd already met the woman he wanted to marry, Jean Kellogg, a Yankee girl from a small neighboring hill town. She wasn't so sure about him. He courted her assiduously, and eventually won her over. They made an old-fashioned couple, for the 1980s. He and Jean bought a house. Tommy was supposed to move into it, alone: Jean didn't want to live with him before their wedding. That was fine with him -- he knew his parents wouldn't approve. But when the day arrived for him to pack up and leave his childhood home, he felt overcome by the prospect. He said he couldn't do it that day, he had to deal with an emergency at work. So Jean and his mother did the packing for him, and Jean fixed up the new place. Tommy was twenty-three, with his own bachelor pad, and he knew he should feel emancipated. But when he climbed into bed that night, all he could think about was home. This was the first time in his life he'd gone to bed without saying good night to his mother. He called her up.
"You did it to me," he said. "Your youngest is gone."
She didn't take the bait. "Yes. Yes," she said wearily. "Good night."
After a few years of marriage he and Jean began trying to conceive a child. None appeared, but they assumed it was just a matter of time. Meanwhile, Tommy's professional career proceeded much as planned. As the years went by, he rose through the ranks on the Northampton force, from patrol officer to detective, and finally, after ten years, to the sergeant in charge of patrol on the evening shift. He now commanded half a dozen young officers -- a well-trained, grown-up version of the O'Connor Detective Agency.
Superficially, Tommy had changed. He had been a chubby little boy, and trim and handsome in his twenties. Now he was about six feet tall and burly, not fat but with a layer of flesh concealing muscle, and his curly hair was gone. If he was going to be bald, he'd decided, he'd be bald emphatically. Sergeant O'Connor shaved his head into a great expanse of skin and shined it up with aftershave before he went on duty. "Helmet Head," one of the other sergeants called him. Without hair above, Tommy's large nose looked larger. At times on duty, his face looked hard, which was the effect he aimed for. The skinhead look was meant to be part of his policeman's uniform, but it didn't entirely conceal the softness of his hazel eyes.
In crayon on the wall inside his bedroom closet on Forbes Avenue Tommy had written:
TOM O'CONNOR SEPTEMBER 29, 1972
I WANT TO BE A POLICEMAN
I AM IN SIXTH GRADE.
Twenty-three years later, the inscription remained in the closet. Tommy went up to his old room and looked at it once in a while. It was like opening a scrapbook.
Sometimes Tommy O'Connor would be out on patrol at the summer evening hour when streetlights began competing with the sky, a thick forearm resting on the windowsill of the supervisor's cruiser, and he would find himself driving down Elm Street on the hill above downtown. As he approached the Smith College gate, Northampton's quintessential landscape filled his windshield -- a green wedge of the Holyoke Range above the Victorian rooftops of Main Street. For a moment he'd imagine he was driving, not toward the center of Northampton, but into a western place at sunset, into a cowboy, frontier town, framed against real mountains.
The Mount Tom and Holyoke Ranges arise just beyond the southern border of the town. The Connecticut cuts a gap between them. They aren't really mountains, just a line of steep green hills. But in Tommy's windshield, they always looked more distant and much taller than they are. They looked grand and not quite real. They looked like Northampton's painted backdrop, and they gave him both a faraway and a comforting feeling. They made Northampton seem like places that he'd never seen, and yet defined the cozy scale of a place he knew by heart -- miniature mountains for the miniature city that lay before him down Main Street.
A real Main Street, U.S.A., in general outline much the same as the dying downtown he'd known as a boy, but utterly transformed. Trees along the sidewalks decorated rows of refurbished nineteenth-century commercial buildings, three and four stories tall. Most were made of brick, with fancy Victorian cornices at their rooflines, all slightly different and all of a piece, like faces in a human crowd. Most of the public buildings stood apart, some behind tall trees and little lawns -- the old stone courthouse, the old First Church, the Unitarian Universalist Society, city hall (the Castle, as some called it, because it looked just like one, with crenellated turrets on the corners of its roof). Downtown had a little park, Pulaski Park, wedged between Memorial Hall and the Academy of Music, America's first municipally owned theater, where Jenny Lind sang in the middle of the nineteenth century. Tommy couldn't drive down Main Street -- no one could -- without feeling the presence of history. Layers and layers of past were sedimented under the broad, curving avenue, the bottommost layer dating back to 1654, to a settlement made of wood on the first dry land above the ancient riverside cornfields of the Indians. Downtown's principal streets still followed the Puritan settlers' paths. Main Street still climbed their Meeting House Hill.
In the downtown now before him, the old crumbling train station was entirely restored. It had become a busy, fancy restaurant. So had a lot of other once moribund storefronts. Downtown encompassed only half a dozen city blocks. It was just a patch of city. But it now contained about forty restaurants serving a variety of national cuisines, eleven jewelry and twenty-two clothing shops, a dozen bookstores, seven crafts and art galleries, several nightclubs, two movie theaters. The plywood had come off all the upper-story windows of the commercial blocks. Lawyers and psychologists and hair salons now occupied the second floors. Tommy vividly remembered the era when, after graduation day at Smith, a stillness settled over Main Street and lingered for the summer. Now it was as if he'd blinked and looked again and the place was packed.
From one summer evening to another, the scene through the cruiser's windows looked much the same. The yellow streetlights and gaily colored lighted signs above storefronts illumined crowded sidewalks, down which flowed a mainstream of the middle-aged -- mostly white, but with some black, brown, and Asian faces. They made up the human background of downtown, normal-looking and casually dressed, in slacks and jeans and khakis, in sandals on these summer nights. Men and women, women and women, strolled arm in arm past the street musicians. Now and then Tommy would see a cellist seated on a chair outside a coffee shop, or a troupe of Bolivian panpipers on the sidewalk by the Unitarian church. Most evenings the more ordinary sounds of a steel drum, a guitar, an accordion, a saxophone, came in the cruiser's open windows as he drove slowly by. Lines spilled out the doors of restaurants. People with that drifty academic look headed for the readings at the bookstores, and people of the avant-garde, in collarless shirts, the occasional beret, headed for the old bank building that had been recycled into an art gallery. Tommy would glance, and glance again, at the little knots of costumed youth loitering in Pulaski Park and by the Information Booth -- skateboarders with their baseball caps turned backward, homeboys with baggy pants and gold chains, Goths in torn black clothes, adorned with spiky jewelry. Often, out in front of the Haymarket coffee shop, a group of Gothically attired youths sat in a circle on the sidewalk -- some of Northampton's vegetarian anarchists, talking revolution and for now impeding only foot traffic.
The new downtown was lively and various. And, remarkably to Tommy, it was very peaceful. In the crowds, he spotted the familiar faces of city officials, local entrepreneurs, lawyers and judges he knew from court, doctors and professors from his old neighborhood -- people who rarely got in the kind of trouble that he dealt with, though some of their children did. He would watch through his cruiser's windows as, unbeknownst to them, those respectable citizens walked down the sidewalks right beside drug dealers, local felons, a paroled murderer or two. Many of the people on the summer streets came from out of town, looking for a good time. From years of checking license plates, Tommy knew that on any given summer evening some visitors, sometimes more than a few, had long and violent criminal records. Yet there hadn't been a murder on the streets of Northampton for two years or, for several, anything more than minor disturbances on Main Street. Tommy thought his department deserved some of the credit. "I think some local officers have made it hard to be a criminal here," he said. But he felt that something more mysterious than good policing had to be at work. He gazed out the cruiser's windows at busy, peaceful Main Street, and he shook his head. "I don't know what it is about this place. We get some serious criminals here, but they always seem to do their bad deeds someplace else." He put on a homeboy's accent. "Up here they're chillin', chillin'."
Tommy had a gift for mimicking accents. His own had the plain sound of what linguists call standard American English, a sound typical of Northampton and the region. One heard many nonnative accents around town these days -- Brooklyn, Asian, East Indian, Latino. But once an accent is established in a place, it tends to stick, surviving immigrations. Probably because Northampton was settled by people from Connecticut, the local accent lacked the broad "a" of Boston. Tommy's was as plain as New England accents get.
Northampton was an old Yankee town twice altered fundamentally, first by nineteenth-century immigrations from Ireland, Canada, and Poland, and much more recently by an influx of generally well-heeled members of the well-educated class, the people largely responsible for restoring downtown, and for redefining it. Current local theory divided Northampton in two opposing camps: a trendy, liberal-minded part made up of newcomers and nicknamed Noho, and a mostly native part called Hamp. According to this theory, natives were supposed to take politically conservative stands on every issue and to resent the changes newcomers had wrought, especially the revision of downtown.
The distinction was too neat, but not entirely inaccurate. Most of the natives Tommy knew did their shopping on King Street, the town's shopping strip, a slice of chain department stores, auto dealerships, fast-food restaurants. They didn't shop downtown much because its stores were expensive and didn't sell many necessities -- in all of downtown now, you couldn't buy a wrench or a tenpenny nail.
Tommy never shopped here anymore. "What would I buy?" he said, glancing at the boutiques. "Maybe a pair of sandals to write my Ph.D. thesis in." He wasn't fond of his hometown's new, prevailing politics, a kind of Democratic liberalism that described itself as progressive. In recent years it had displaced the old ethnic Democrats like Tommy's father, and, it seemed clear to Tommy, now wanted to exclude them altogether -- conservative "old Democrats," in the parlance of the new ones now in control of city government. For years Tommy's father had presided at every Democratic mayor's inauguration, but not, rather pointedly, at the most recent of those. His father's jokes, it seemed, were thought to be unsuitable for current sensibilities.
One evening Tommy spotted a man dealing drugs right out in the open, in front of a Main Street coffee shop. A small scene ensued: On a crowded sidewalk, a bald-headed, burly cop running his hands up and down the pants legs of a young black man, who stood with his hands behind his head, protesting loudly, "Man, why you hasslin' me?" And, about ten feet away, a white woman with a silk scarf around her neck, watching the proceedings like an angry sentinel, hands on hips, glaring at the cop.
No doubt this woman was a well-intentioned citizen, summoned to moral outrage. It was reasonable enough to see what she saw -- one of society's vulnerable members suffering from the prejudice of an agent of the law. She couldn't have known that the man Tommy was frisking often worked for him as a drug informant and also dealt drugs himself, or that he had a long criminal record and a history of psychosis. But to Tommy, the angry-looking woman was the prejudiced one. He imagined that he knew exactly what was going through her mind. "Obviously I'm hassling a black man, and the next thing I'm gonna do is call him the n-word," he'd thought as he'd glanced at her. Her silent reproach got to him. "It almost makes you feel like you're doing something wrong," he told a fellow cop afterward, back at the police station. Then he repaid the woman in kind. He put on a falsetto, a parody of the voice he imagined for her: " 'How can that bald-headed cop indiscriminately pick on that nice man just because he's black. I know a black man. I don't know his name, but I've actually sat down at a table and spoken to him.'" Angrily, Tommy had concluded, "Yeah, well, she wouldn't like it if T.C. was selling drugs to her kid."
Some natives, particularly those of Tommy's father's generation, actively avoided Main Street and its spectacles -- the people in outlandish costumes and the women with butch haircuts holding hands and kissing. The people of Hamp were supposed to feel deeply aggrieved that their town had acquired a national reputation as an enclave of lesbians. Unquestionably, some natives did feel that way.
Tommy couldn't claim that some of his best friends were homosexuals, but three of his favorite colleagues on the force were openly gay. So were two of his favorite crime victims, a lesbian couple whose house had been robbed -- he'd solved the crime and they were grateful, and so was he, for their gratitude. Imagining homosexual sex made him uneasy, and he couldn't keep from imagining it. But lesbians here didn't commit any crimes to speak of, and they'd shown themselves to be some of Northampton's most conscientious parents. "Lesbians are great!" he once exclaimed, catching sight of several female couples as he cruised down Main Street. "Gimme more! Why? They don't cause any trouble."
One thing that had certainly improved in Northampton was the police force. In the late 1970s, a local cop was indicted for attempted murder, and two others went to jail for burglarizing stores. Other malfeasance was dealt with quietly, and the force had essentially been rebuilt around the time Tommy joined. A young cop once said to Tommy that he couldn't imagine cops beating up prisoners in Northampton. "It used to happen," Tommy replied. "And that's one reason why it doesn't now." On this subject his tone was as righteous and reflexive as the one he imagined around him on Main Street. "There's an extreme brotherhood among police," he liked to say. "But I wouldn't stick up for a dirty cop. No way, shape, or form."
Tommy expressed most of his views as declarations, and his views of Main Street were declaratively mixed. He stopped the cruiser at pedestrian crosswalks before people had even left the curb. He did this partly to set a good example for the other drivers, but it wasn't really necessary. Once they hit downtown, most drivers seemed to become pacified, to rediscover manners, to remember driver's education. People could amble across Main Street with alarming carelessness. Some cast lofty glances at the cars. Especially at cop cars, Tommy thought. "Gets my ass out," he muttered, remembering a young woman who had walked, slowly and haughtily, in front of his cruiser the other night, even though he had his blue lights on.
He watched the pedestrians pass before his windshield. On any given summer night, they might include, mixed among the average-looking, a couple of young women with garlands in their hair, an earnest-looking young man with a slinky ferret on a leash, a woman in a pair of platform shoes so tall they nearly qualified as stilts. "How can she do anything serious in those shoes?" said Tommy. A man in a black cape, carrying a wand. "There goes Mr. Magico. Why doesn't he make himself disappear?" A former mental patient, a special ward of Tommy's and of some other cops, striding across the street, lifting his knees high, his fingers splayed rigidly apart. He wore a furry hat with a feather in it. "I believe he'd call that a plume," said Tommy. A group of boys and girls with burgundy hair, orange hair, India-ink hair, hair that stood up in spikes like a rooster's comb. He'd asked one of those kids for the secret: heavy applications of Ivory soap. He liked these motley promenades. They enlarged his town. He hadn't had to leave Northampton to sample the sights of urban America. The world had come to him. "In downtown Northampton, every day is Halloween," he said. "And every night is New Year's Eve."
On a summer evening, stopped at the central traffic light on the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets -- no right turn on red allowed -- Tommy peered at the bumper sticker on the car in front of him. question authority, it read. Sergeant O'Connor's jaw stiffened. He started talking softly to himself, as if talking to the driver, saying, "Free Tibet. Save the whales. Hey, dude, go for it all. I hope you make a right turn now." But then, a moment later, a beautiful young woman appeared on the sidewalk. Her hair was dyed green, yellow, and white. She had a ring in each nostril and, hanging from her septum, a beaded chain that looked just like the pull chain on a lamp. Tommy's eyebrows rose. His eyes widened. His tongue came forward, almost between his teeth, almost ahead of his words. He looked ten years younger, or maybe ten years old, like the boy who used to go to special classes because he stuttered when he got excited. "This is the greatest community to live in!" he exclaimed. "All the lunacy, that's half the beauty of it. This is a great town to work in. What other town this size has this much going on at night?"
In a decade of police work, Tommy had seen a seamy side of Northampton, and through it a spectrum of dispiriting human qualities, including, in one appalling murder case, the very incarnation of what his parish priest had meant by the word "evil." A lot of people never saw that side of the town. Tommy suspected that a lot of residents didn't think that it existed. He felt impatient with their naïveté and he felt protective of it -- rather like the parents who want their children to know the world has many dangers, which they don't want them to encounter. "We deal with the same people over and over again, so that the rest of the people don't have to deal with them. We're like trash collectors," Tommy said once, in a tone that carried more pride than complaint.
Working here as a cop, he often said, had cost him his innocence. But the loss hadn't simply come with the job. It had also been a project. As a young cop, he'd gone with older ones to houses and apartments that had corpses in them -- some of which no mortician's art could make presentable. Tommy often cracked jokes at the scenes. Once, while watching the medical examiner peel the scalp off a body, he was reminded of the reflection of his own shaved head in the mirror, and he said, "See, everyone's bald in the end." And everyone in the autopsy room had laughed. A joke made him feel alive in the presence of death, like carousing at an old-fashioned Irish wake, and when he was a younger man, a joke had also made him look worldly-wise in the presence of older cops at the scene.
Maybe he had managed to lose his innocence, but he hadn't lost his capacity for repossessing youth. One time he was rooting around in a trunk at home and found a wig and fake mustache that he'd worn in his years as Northampton's drug detective. He held them in his hands, smiling at them. Utter boyhood reclaimed his face. "I'm saving these," he said. "If we ever have a kid, he'll love to play with them." He added, "I know I do."
The town and childhood were inextricably connected for him, and in spite of all the newcomers and the alterations on Main Street, a great deal of Northampton still felt the same. When he drove away from festive Main Street near the end of the evening shift, he found himself almost at once in dim and quiet places. He might have left a party around a bonfire on a beach and, one sand dune away, found himself enveloped by the immensity of night. A mile from downtown, out past the college and the hospital and the fields of the Smith Vocational High School Farm, Northampton's village of Florence would look as calm and quiet as a churchyard. Florence used to be Tommy's beat. He'd patrolled it on the midnight shift for years as a young cop, through its almost always peaceful slumber. He passed through Florence often in the evenings nowadays, but he'd gone for years without seeing it in its early-morning hours.
One night he agreed to work a tour as the substitute sergeant on the midnight shift. Florence still went to bed early. The morning of his brief return to Midnights, Tommy discovered that the village still woke up early, too. At four a.m. the lights went on inside the Miss Florence Diner -- Miss Flo's, the village's old central landmark, quaint-looking enough to have made it into several coffee-table books. For old times' sake, and feeling hungry, Tommy pulled up beside Miss Flo's right at four, for the first time in half a decade. He opened the door, and he thought he must be dreaming. There behind the counter, scrambling eggs as always, stood the bent and twisted figure of Battlin' Bob, the short-order cook, as ever undeterred by his disabilities. Tommy stood in front of the counter in his sergeant's uniform, looking around, his eyes growing huge. The same small group of men, less one, sat in the diner's booths. And not just any booth, but each in the same one he had occupied five years ago. In a moment, the paper man came in with a stack of the Springfield Union-News. Tommy looked at his watch. It was the same paper man, and he was right on time, five-years-ago time.
Tommy turned to one of the men who sat drinking coffee in a booth. "Joe, you're still here! How many years since I used to come in here?"
Joe couldn't remember. He filled Tommy in on what had happened since he'd been away. There wasn't much to tell. The missing regular had died. Joe himself had retired from construction work but still got up and came to Miss Flo's before dawn every morning.
"You're still here!" Tommy said again.
"I'm in the same pew, too," said Joe. "Nothin' ever changes, huh?"
One thing Tommy liked about his job was that every evening brought something unexpected, but he'd never liked unexpected changes in his own life -- maybe because, on the whole, his own life had always seemed so well arranged.
A few years ago he and Jean had moved. It was because of his job. Tommy found a message spray-painted on the North-ampton bike path: FUCK O'CONNOR'S WIFE BECAUSE SHE LIKES IT. Then someone he arrested said he knew where Tommy lived and at what hour his wife walked their dog. So he and Jean bought a house in a neighboring town. The night they moved into it -- he hated the whole experience -- Jean pointed out to him that, so long as they lived here, he wouldn't be able to run for mayor of Northampton.
"I never thought of that!" Tommy had yelled. He'd felt sincerely upset.
Their new town was rural, Republican, and Protestant, but only a few miles from downtown Northampton and from Mike Bouley's garage, where Tommy still got his car serviced, and Ed's Electric, where he got appliances fixed, and the Dunkin' Donuts on King Street, where he went for his coffee while on duty and the woman at the cash register always called him "honey," and the Look Restaurant, where he usually ate when he ate out and where, without his asking, the waitresses placed his order for him, saying, "I know. A tuna melt and a chocolate milk." And he was just a short drive from Forbes Avenue and his childhood home, where his father still lived.
Tommy's mother had died suddenly, in 1994. He was on duty and made it to the emergency room just in time to say good-bye. He couldn't go back inside that place for months. Jean said he had to put a stop to this, and face the ghost in the ER. He finally forced himself. Walking into that brightly lit place, he felt sweat trickling down his back beneath his protective vest.
Now, more than ever, his father's house pulled him toward it. In the winter, after snowfall, he'd steal ten minutes from his sergeant's duties and shovel out his father's driveway. One morning he arrived at the front door and asked his niece, who was staying there for a few months, "How's Himself today?"
"I don't know," said the niece. "He hasn't gotten up yet."
Tommy brushed past her, ran through the kitchen, and bounded up the stairs. He came back a few minutes later, his face flushed. "Sleeping like a baby. Phew."
Almost every evening around six, Tommy turned his cruiser back toward Forbes Avenue, heading for supper with his father. A meal eaten on duty was, in police parlance, a "forty." He was allowed about half an hour for his. Sometimes Jean joined them, and did the cooking.
As Tommy drove down Forbes Avenue, he noticed small changes in the old neighborhood. That house he remembered as run-down was newly painted. That old barn they'd used as a fort during those chestnut wars had been made into an artist's studio. And there weren't nearly as many children around. But oaks and maples taller than the houses still lined the narrow street, their roots wrinkling the sidewalks, and the O'Connor homestead was essentially unaltered. Tommy entered through the kitchen door, and on most evenings his father, Bill, turned from the stove and right away seemed to stand behind an imaginary podium. "Well, Tom, I was walking around this morning, and I was singing, and I thought of a great song for Northampton. 'I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus.' Now whaddaya think of that? It's a hit, isn't it?" Then his father made his laugh -- it was famous in old-time Northampton, one grand exhalation, mouth opened wide.
Tommy smiled, thinking, "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I hope he doesn't use that one at the St. Patrick's Day breakfast."
Bill O'Connor was seventy-nine, and spry. He had long ago retired from his day job as treasurer of Hampshire County; before that, he'd run an insurance business, so small that when he sold it and entered politics, the entire operation fit in a shoebox. His work now was entirely as an Irish storyteller, a seanachie. He always presided at Northampton's St. Patrick's Day breakfast, and the phone still rang with requests that he serve as master of ceremonies at functions in the city and region. Bill rarely refused.
Physically, Tommy didn't take after his father. For one thing, Bill still had his hair, and his nose made a fascinating sharp left turn. Bill used to tell Tommy and Tommy's older brother Jack that his nose was wounded on the beaches of Normandy. Bill really had been there, in the navy. But his nose was congenital.
Years ago, when Tommy and Jack were making noise at bedtime upstairs in this house, their mother would come to the door and say, "If I hear another peep out of you two, your father's coming up." "Peep, peep," he and Jack would say in unison, and then, as threatened, Bill would arrive, sit down on their bed, and start telling stories. They had counted on this. A forty at Bill's house was nearly as predictable. On the nights when Jean wasn't there, Tommy and his father both pitched in at the stove. Then they sat down at the long kitchen table, the one Tommy had always known, Bill at the head and Tommy to his right, and in a moment, without preamble, Bill started telling a story.
He had hundreds of stories. Many were tales of the good old days in Northampton politics, when the town still had more than a smattering of Republicans. There was the one about the bibulous city councillor -- "He was a Democrat, usually," Bill said -- who went to a meeting to cast his vote on the Yankee Republican side of an important issue, but disappeared on the way to city hall. The mayor, a Yankee Republican, declared that the councillor had been kidnapped. Actually, two old Democrats, one Tunker Hogan and one Wally Puchalski, had intercepted the councillor and offered him the sort of bribe he found irresistible. The three men spent the evening drinking in the Polish Club bar across the river, where they watched the TV news story about the councillor's kidnapping.
Tommy gazed at the old man, and scraped his right thumbnail, deformed from high school football, against a front tooth. Jean liked to study him at these moments. Listening to his father's stories over supper, dressed in his sergeant's uniform and fearsomely equipped, his gun on the table, Tommy looked, Jean thought, just like an eager child.
Bill took a bite of supper, and resumed. "Now it's after midnight. As I found out later, they decided to bring him home."
"And you were nowhere around at that point," said Tommy.
"No. I was home with my wife," said Bill.
The councillor lived at the top of a steep grassy hill, and he was now asleep. His kidnappers, Hogan and Puchalski, had to carry him up the slope. They made an awkward pair of bearers, one too big, the other too small. "Hogan's a big man, oh, Hogan's over three hundred. I can see him now. He had a little pin head," said Bill. He added, "Puchalski's frail. Frail all over." Puchalski once defeated Bill in a mayoral election and used to run the city from his candy store. The two kidnappers weren't entirely sober themselves, and they managed to carry the councillor only halfway home before they slipped and fell in a heap on the grass. Then Tunker Hogan, who liked a bit of mischief, reached over and took the still-sleeping councillor's pulse. "Son of a bitch, he's dead!" Hogan said to Puchalski. "You killed him!"
"Puchalski believed it," said Bill. "I think he was thinking of resigning from politics, and isn't it funny, he went on to be mayor four terms. And Hogan says, 'I'm not gonna get caught in this thing. I'm goin' to my car. If you want to come, all right.' So. They both ran away."
"They left him lying on the grass?" said Tommy.
"They left him lying on the grass," said Bill sadly.
"One of them thinking he was dead!" said Tommy.
"And the Recreation Department picked him up later in the morning," said Bill.
The next night he might tell about the time when he was a boy and his mother sent him to pay a long-overdue doctor's bill: he hands over the dollar bill his mother has given him, and the doctor says to his nurse, "My God! This boy is paying for his own delivery." And maybe the night after that, the one about Puchalski and his cronies stealing the U.N. flag from city hall and pleading patriotism when they got caught, Bill saying, "I never laughed so much. That was politics. It made no sense at all." Sometimes he told a story that Tommy hadn't heard before, but the routine was always about the same. After supper Tommy helped clean up, then strapped on his laden gunbelt. As Tommy headed for the door, Bill said, "Hey, thanks. Thanks for visiting an old man."
Tommy looked back quickly, in time to see his father winking.
Like one loved long ago, Northampton has saved many keepsakes, among them old journals and diaries, and stored them in Forbes Library instead of in bureau drawers. The most important come from a nineteenth-century newspaper editor and antiquarian named Sylvester Judd. He gathered up a huge assortment of documents and memorabilia about the town in its colonial youth. He recorded this story from the time of the seventeenth-century Indian wars: Samuel Strong and his son left town one morning to fetch some grain and were ambushed by Indians. Other townsfolk heard the shots and came running. The boy was dead, Strong only wounded. But he imagined he was dying as he was carried back toward town. "He used to say that when they reached a hill where Northampton could be seen, he took, as he supposed, one last look at his beloved home and town, with feelings that cannot be described."
As for his own feelings about Northampton, Judd was usually reserved. In his journals, he mainly recorded small details of the place, the locations of its houses, the clothes its people wore, its daily temperature. But there is feeling here. Surveying Judd's old documents, so intensely local and precise, you sense that he was working in an already retrospective frame of mind, trying to construct the entire place without him in it. Once in a while he got carried away and made what, for him, amount to exclamations. He might have been writing to an old flame to tell her how she once appeared. Of a Northampton winter scene in the 1840s, he wrote, "The night was very still; no wind, and the trees this morning are if possible more resplendent and glittering in the morning sun than yesterday. It seems an enchanted scene from the Arabian Nights. The trees seemed filled and covered with transparent silver like foliage." After you have spent some time with him in his journals, you can feel the disappointment with which he wrote this entry, recording the town's nighttime and early-morning sounds during the summer of 1842: "I have heard no whippoorwills this season." Judd must have been overwhelmed with pleasure when, three summers later, he sedately wrote: "A whippoorwill was heard at Broughtons Meadow April 28th and it has been heard there every day since -- early in the morning and evening."
People who spend their lives in one small town don't necessarily grow blind to it. Some natives of a comely place take its beauties in so deeply that the place becomes almost identical with the senses that perceive it. Since marrying Jean, who was geographically adventurous, Tommy had traveled some, on vacation trips. But his journeys were few. He'd never seen the West Coast. He'd never seen New York City, though it was only a three-hour drive away. When he did travel, he carried Northampton with him. If he saw a pretty hillside belonging to another place, or smelled another place's river, he knew those things by contrast and comparison with the hills around Northampton and the great river that made its eastern boundary. These were, for him, reality. And if he woke up somewhere else, on a vacation trip or in the neighboring town where he now lived, and heard a whippoorwill outside -- three syllables, the first and last accented "Whip-poor-weel, Whip-poor-weel" -- he would be transported back to his bedroom on Forbes Avenue. Opening his eyes to the gray daylight in the window and listening to that ancient song, he'd remember himself remembering, "Oh yeah, oh boy, it's summer." In his mind's eye, his frayed shorts lay on the floor, right where he had left them. He'd pull them on, hurry through breakfast, then run out to meet Rick and his other friends on the street.
In his first years as a cop, when he worked the midnight shift, and it was very early in the morning and almost everyone else was still asleep, Tommy would drive west toward the forested part of Northampton. Out Ryan Road to West Farms Road, then up a dirt track toward the top of a hill that he thought of as Turkey Hill. There, deep woods behind and an open vista before him, he'd get out of his patrol car, his coffee cup in hand, and, gazing toward Mount Tom, watch the sun rise over a corner of Northampton. He could see some of the town laid out below and imagine the rest, and he felt lordly, watching Northampton emerge from the dark, almost as if he were watching its creation, almost as if it all belonged to him.
Years ago, on foot patrol downtown, he'd walk into an alley off Main Street and imagine that a great metropolis lay at the other end. But he knew he was scarcely a big-city cop, and, he often told himself, he was better off for that. A lot of those cops spent half their careers doing nothing but traffic work, whereas he dealt with all sorts of crimes and problems. Real trouble arose less frequently here than in many places that called themselves cities, but he figured he could work in Northampton for forty years and, on the day he retired, his successor would still have plenty to do. In the meantime, he'd be working in a place where, he often told himself, a cop could make a difference.
It would be hard to prove that police work matters more where it's needed less, but sometimes he could have an effect inconceivable in a large and violent city. One day back in 1993, a former member of the Latin Kings gang hailed Tommy and told him that a carload of Kings had just tried to abduct him. And they would have succeeded, this young man said, if Tommy hadn't happened to drive by and scare them off. "The Kings got a termination out on me," the former member said. Tommy took off after the car. He stopped it at downtown's busiest intersection, right in front of the courthouse. Although he knew he was on shaky legal ground, Tommy ordered the young men out of the car and searched it -- the kind of decision that had made him most unpopular among several local defense attorneys.
A crowd of citizens had gathered on the corner. Aware of many eyes on him, Tommy thought he might as well state his case publicly. He'd found necklaces of gang beads in the car. He held them up for all the crowd to see, and he bellowed at the young men, "Gang activity in Northampton will not be tolerated! You will not come to Northampton wearing your colors and displaying gang signs!"
The young men denied that they were Latin Kings.
Really? Tommy asked. Then how come they were wearing T-shirts that read ALMIGHTY LATIN KING NATION?
"Yo, man, you can have my shirt," one of them said, disrobing on the spot.
About a year after that incident, Tommy was talking to a former gang member named Felix, a young man he'd known as a baby. Tommy asked him if many gangsters came to Northampton, and Felix said, "No, not too many, man. They don't want to come here. They get hassled by cops. Yeah, they say you, O'Connor! They say you go up there and the bald-headed cop takes your shirts!"
It isn't given to many to know a town as well as Tommy knew Northampton. A state detective friend who had never worked a long time in one place occasionally called Tommy to ask for information about Northampton residents. A certain person had come to his attention. Did Tommy know him? The detective would start laughing as Tommy answered, without a moment's hesitation, "Yup, he's going out with Daisy. Hangs at the Information Booth. Drives a blue Mustang. You want the license number?" This really was the right-sized town for him. Working here, he could arrest the person who was selling cocaine to his friend's kid. He could make a gang think twice about colonizing the place, just by taking a youngster's T-shirt.
He was thirty-three years old, and it seemed like an enviable way to spend the next thirty years, working in a town he could see entirely and feel he understood, all in one view from the top of Turkey Hill. Tempting from up there to think that he could protect it all, and keep it just as orderly and safe as it had seemed when he was a boy.
On his way home to Jean after the evening shift ended, Tommy almost always took a last drive down Forbes Avenue, through his old neighborhood. This was called performing a check on "the well-being."
One summer evening, Tommy had been sitting with his father on the screened porch facing the street, and he'd seen a couple of young men he knew very well playing hacky-sack in the front yard of the house next door. A heroin addict and thief, and a drug dealer supposedly connected to an Asian gang from Lowell -- both had moved in next door to his father. Tommy was sitting there, astonished, when a car pulled up and another familiar young man got out and walked up the path to that neighboring house, carrying a huge, potted, robust-looking marijuana plant.
Tommy went inside and called Peter Fappiano, the current drug detective, and told him to come in the back door of his father's house. Together they wrote up an affidavit for a search warrant. They found the pot, but not the pot, as Tommy put it. They couldn't arrest his father's new neighbors. So Tommy called the owner of that house and told him about his tenants. Tommy also told the landlord the government might confiscate his house -- which was most unlikely. Tommy laid it on thick. By the end of the conversation the man was apologizing. Two days later those renters were gone. "It's not the neighborhood for them," Tommy said afterward. "Even if they hadn't been doing anything wrong."
All had been peaceful ever since, and was peaceful still on these summer nights, as he made his last night watchman's checks on Forbes Avenue, his car windows down, the cicadas and tree frogs filling up the air with insistent, inland sea sounds, summoning memories. The morning cry of "E-awkee!" The delicious feeling of grass and pavement on bare feet -- you went barefoot and toughened up your feet, because that was what Indians did. Driving slowly down Forbes Avenue, the place full of living ghosts, he could imagine the promise of snow in the warm moist August air. It wouldn't be very long before he and his pals had headed out for fresh territory, dragging toboggans toward Hospital Hill.
Tommy would pause in his car for a moment in front of his father's house. Thinking of his mother, he looked for the flickering light in the living room windows that signaled Bill was watching TV. Then he drove away toward bed, the world of home and neighborhood and town still intact behind him.
"[Kidder's] smart and gently ironic writing is always good company."
—Ben Yagoda, The New York Times'
"In Tommy O'Connor, Kidder has given us that rare thing, a rich likeness of a breathing, complicated human being."
--The New York Times
"A book about the fabric that holds a town together... it proves drama, large or small, is found in unlikely places."
"...at times hilarious, at times painful, and altogether spellbinding."
—Jonathan Harr, author of A Civil Action
"...a grand vision of a small place."
"...nothing less than a valentine to a place and the people who nurture it. It may be Kidder's best and most elegiac work."
— The Philadelphia Inquirer
"A remarkably detailed, accomplished, and empathic portrait....Kidder's acutely observed, crisply written, and utterly absorbing documentary proves that there is nothing on this spinning earth more amazing and full of grace than everyday life."
--Booklist (starred review)
"Kidder's protagonist...is Northampton itself. And there's no better way to see it than with a Kidder's-eye view."
--The Boston Globe
"Home Town is a masterwork."
--Grand Rapids Press (MI)
"Kidder is a master of the nonfiction narrative, one of those rare writers who can make a reader forget the story and instead experience the sensation of life happening before his or her eyes. In doing this so well, and in getting it right, Tracy Kidder transports us to an ordinary place where ordinary people live ordinary lives -- and every bit of it is fascinating."
--The Sun (Baltimore)
For the full text of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's review of Home Town in The New York Times Book Review, click here.