When I arrived in Albuquerque, I had a few hours to kill, and I explored a neighborhood called Nob Hill, close to the university campus. I breathed in the mountain plants and beheld the adobe houses everywhere, and it had been twenty-four years since I’d spent more than a few days here, but it still felt like home.
As I approached Gallup from the east, the shapes of the buildings—the gas stations and auto parts stores and restaurants—were all the same, even though they are all different businesses than they were in the twentieth century. I drove in a car I thought of as invisible i.e. it’s so generic that it can follow you for miles and you’d never notice, and I coasted down Coal Avenue, my favorite place to go when I’m downtown. An entire block of the street was gone. Aside from that, it looked great. The coffee house that had opened up after I started college has been renamed and expanded, and the ratty, crumbling apartments that had housed several of my friends have been given a fresh coat of paint. On the other hand, the department store across the street is exactly the same, and so is the Crashing Thunder Art Gallery a few businesses down. The New Mexico souvenirs store now sells CBD products.
On day two of my return to Gallup, I started to entertain fantasies about quitting my job and settling down there. The dating scene is terrible, but I have no interest in that kind of thing. I have three friends there already, which is more than I have in DC. This would be a good place to retire.
By day five, I’d had a chance to look around. The elementary school my dad taught at is gone. There’s not a molecule of it remaining. My middle school had been expanded by erecting these Borg-cube-like buildings. My high school has been completely rebuilt, though the roof is still that familiar zigzag shape, making me suspect they built on top of the original. Lots of familiar buildings have unfamiliar storefronts, Comics, Cards & Games, for example, had been replaced by a sign that simply says “Waxing.” However, from a distance, Gallup looks the same as it did when I grew up here. The Gal-A-Bowl hasn’t changed its cheesy sign, El Sombrero is still there, the courthouse is a masterpiece of Southwestern architecture (just don’t look at the modern office buildings springing up around it).
If I look closer, the stucco on the house I grew up in has been replaced with aluminum siding, the Pic-A-Flic video store I once relied on is now a payday loan place. The theater where I went to the movies by myself for the first time at age nine (Godzilla 1985) is now boarded up. A lot of businesses are boarded up, actually, while other businesses, mostly the ones downtown, have been given facelifts. Gallup in 2022 looks like the Gallup of 1994, but it’s not. It can’t be.
Even the people I’m seeing are the same, but not really. My friend from high school kept up her enthusiasm and her bright smile, but she’s an accomplished professional now, not a giggling cheerleader. And then there’s Shane. Shane is a special case because we’ve led parallel lives that occasionally intersect. When I met him in Gallup, he was an artist and fixture in town who went to bed in the same studio where he created his paintings. When I pulled up to his place in Gallup last week, I found an artist and fixture in town who went to bed in the same studio where he created his paintings. But when I looked closer, I could see many differences. He has two children now, one of whom is twenty-four and living in New York, like I once did. He has less hair. Money is no longer the precious commodity it once was. There are hundreds, as opposed to dozens, of paintings leaning against the walls. If I moved down here, I’d have to navigate a Frankenstein recreation of the city I grew up in, and I don’t think I’m ready to do that. On my way to my hotel, there is a sign for a diner that was once a Gallup landmark. The diner itself is gone, now a weed-infested parking lot. The ghost diner speaks to me. It says, “Don’t look back.”