Tuscaloosa By Natalie Peeples
When I first moved to Chicago I'd sit down and unfold a map and study it at night to try to drill in which streets were North/South, which were East/West. My sense of direction is not a nice neat and logical grid, but rather a tangle of landmarks tied to moments that have stuck in my mind. Because of this, the only place I know like the back of my hand, the only place I can get around without thinking is my hometown.
I grew up in Tuscaloosa, a mid-sized city in Alabama, spent all of my formative years there and went to college there. I knew all of the hidden gems and shortcuts. I knew how to get around the slow train that stopped in the middle of town and where the best spot to see a sunset was. I also knew every neighborhood and which Taco Casa was closest to it. I knew all of these things not because I knew the cardinal directions or had a GPS, but because 15th Street is the street the cheerleaders would go to before games to get smoothies and McFarland was what we'd take to go out to dinner before prom and 69 North was what took us out to the lake. This isn’t about how well I knew this place, it is about the day that it became unfamiliar to me.
On April 27th I was at a Kinkos printing out my final college project. That day there was a storm system moving through the country and I knew there were tornados touching down in North Alabama. When you live in tornado alley, you start to recognize the sour yellow sky and even learn the smell that seems to hang in the air when a storm is coming. As I was leaving the store, I heard the sirens blaring, which meant there was a tornado in the area. I called my old roommate to see if I could stop at her apartment to take shelter. She wasn't there so I kept driving. I made it home and went down to the basement with one of my roommates and the dog. We sat and listened to the weatherman. My mom called to make sure I was inside and told me she was watching the tornado go down 15th Street. It is huge, she said, before the phone went out. The weatherman sounded strained over the radio as he stopped describing the storm pattern and location and said, “All we can do is pray for these people.” In the basement of our old, rickety house on 7th street, my roommate and I heard the train whistle of the funnel cloud and eventually felt the ominous shift to stillness outside.
While we were underground, a tornado that was half a mile wide had destroyed 12% of the city I grew up in. We left our house and walked outside to what continues to be the most surreal sight of my life. Hundreds of people walked the streets where electric poles had fallen, houses had been leveled, trees left as splinters in the ground and huge steel billboard poles had bent at 90 degree angles. No vehicles moved on these busy streets, some lay upside down, covered in a film of dirt. I don't remember hearing any sounds, just seeing everyone emerge into the day to see a landscape completely changed.
The big streets were still recognizable but when I'd walk back into the neighborhoods I could no longer tell where I was. I'm in Forrest Lake, I thought. Am I? I can't know for sure. Every sign was gone; every landmark was changed. The yellow house on the corner where I turned to go to work was gone, nothing left but rubble and in the center, an untouched bookcase. The parking lot where I'd stopped on the way back from Kinkos, hoping to meet my old roommate, was filled with cars crunched and totaled with a dusting of debris. The tornado left an 80-mile path of destruction that was a mile and a half wide at its largest. It had killed 65 people, including 6 students, including one of my sorority sisters, thrown from inside her house.
That week, the University cancelled the remainder of the semester and sent students home. No one took finals. My class's graduation ceremonies were postponed indefinitely. Students left as others flowed in to help us recover, most notably, President Obama and for some reason, Charlie Sheen. For the next few weeks radio stations didn't play music or commercials, just people announcing where food was needed, where a chainsaw could be used, and what rumors were false. Newspapers listed who was lost and who was found. Just months later, I left Tuscaloosa and I haven't lived there since. It was the strangest and worst time to leave. Each time I go back it seems to have transformed completely.
The feeling of realizing that the world spins on without you in your old hometown happens to most people who move away, I think. For me it happened in an instant. Each time I return home there are new condos and restaurants and tiny new trees planted in the holes left by the uprooted water oaks. Tuscaloosa, in many ways, is better than it was before. It is newer and fresher and full of optimism. Though the bent billboard pole still sits morbidly on the corner of 15th and McFarland, if I remember correctly. When I'm back in town I can find myself sad that some of my memories seem wiped away, my sense of direction, gone. At the same time, I find myself moving a little easier through Chicago. Not because I've gotten any better at using the grid or ever know where the lake is but because I know there's secret parking on Wabanisa by my old house, or that Elk Grove is a curvy treelined shortcut because I took it when I went on one of my first dates. Also, there are plenty of horrifying barf-related stories burned in my mind that help me navigate Wrigleyville. It will take me a long time, if ever, to know where I'm going in Chicago but I'm ok with being lost until then.