Dispatches From the Imaginative Childhood of a Future Pilot
Or, How an Atlas is the Most Transportive Book of All
I’m thirteen. It’s after school. I’m in my room, at my desk. I look out the window over the driveway and toward the garage. It’s late autumn and it’s almost dark out. There’s frost in the corners of the window and snow is falling.
I look across the room, at the light-up globe on my dresser. I go to it, flip the switch on its cord, and watch as the darkened sphere turns blue in the failing light.
I return to my desk. I sit down, pick up my pencil with my left hand, and rest its tip on the sheet of graph paper. I love airplanes and cities and so, not for the first time, I’ve drawn a simple map of the world. I’ll draw a line that begins in one city and ends in another. But which city to start from?
I set down the pencil and look around my room again: at my model airplanes perched on my dresser, on my desk, and next to my old Snoopy on my bookcase. There’s a green-and-white Lockheed TriStar and a mostly white McDonnell Douglas DC-9. On the plane I assembled most recently, a gray DC-10, I notice that the decals aren’t attached very well.
Maybe, I think, I could have done a better job, but these decals are a pain. You have to soak them in a bowl of water until they loosen from their backing, then align them on the aircraft’s fuselage or tail without tearing them, even as they’re drying out and curling up. Sometimes I ask myself if I really like assembling model airplanes; maybe I only like having the airplanes afterward.
The flagship of these models is a Boeing 747 in the blue-and-white colors of Pan Am. On a December night two decades or so from now, an hour before I pilot an actual 747 for the first time, from London to Hong Kong, I’ll walk around the plane to conduct the preflight inspection and when I look up at its sail-like, six-story tail fin I’ll recall this model, and this window by my desk, and the view it offers from a house that by then will be the home of someone else.
I look back down at the page. Now, where… ?My city is where I travel to when I’m sad or worried, or when I don’t wish to think about what I don’t like about myself.
I could start from Cape Town. A cape with a town on it. From this far—from Pittsfield, the small, upland Massachusetts city where I was born—Cape Town is only that, a name.
Or I could begin in an Indian city. New Delhi—the capital, I’m reminded by the star that marks its location on the globe that’s shining on my dresser.
Or Rio de Janeiro, whose name comes from a bay that an explorer mistook for a river on the first day of a now-long-gone new year. I pause to consider if that can be right. Is that how Dad explained the city’s name to me after I told him how much I liked it? Dad lived in Brazil for years before he moved to New England. He’ll be home from work soon. I’ll wait until I see the red brake lights of his gray Chevy station wagon as he drives carefully through the snow that will muffle the car’s noise on the driveway below my window, and then I’ll go downstairs and ask him to tell me again about the City of the River of January.
I could start in Rio. It wouldn’t be the first time. But the best thing about today is the snow. So the air route I draw this afternoon should depart from a cold place. Boston or New York, perhaps.
Boston, our nearest big city and the state capital, is where my parents met. It’s around two and a half hours east of Pittsfield. I visit Boston once or twice a year, on day trips with school or my family—to the science museum, the aquarium, or my favorite skyscraper (which is blue, as is nearly everything I like best). From its observation deck you can look east toward Boston’s airport and listen to a radio tuned to the voices of the pilots flying to and from it.
Boston, then. I’ll start in Boston.Back then, a city was almost nothing more to me than its name, and I loved some names much more than others.
Today’s destination, meanwhile, is not a real city; rather, it’s the city I’ve liked to imagine since I was maybe seven years old. Its location changes occasionally, as does its name. But no matter where I draw it or what I call it, it’s the same city to me.
My city is where I travel to when I’m sad or worried, or when I don’t wish to think about what I don’t like about myself, such as the fact that I’m unable to pronounce the letter r, and therefore many words, including my own name. It’s also where I go when I want to escape my dawning awareness that I’m gay.
A few months ago, for example, the youth group my brother and I attend, the one that gathers on the second floor of a church here in Pittsfield, held a session about “human development.” We were invited to write on cards any questions we didn’t want to ask out loud. One of the leaders collected the cards and a few minutes later read my question to the group: Is there a way to not be gay? He paused, and finally answered: I don’t know of a way.
Instead, he said, it’s something people come to accept about themselves. And when I realized that he was looking at me, and how much I feared what he might say next, I turned my eyes away from his, and toward the lights of my imaginary city.
I also like to go to my imaginary city at more ordinary times: when I’m doing things I don’t enjoy, such as washing dishes or raking leaves; when, in school, I get bored or lose track of what the teacher is saying; or when it’s late and the house is quiet and dark but I can’t sleep and so I look out my bedroom window and I see how blue the night is and that it has started to snow, and when I lie back down and close my eyes I see the same snow falling past the towers of my city.
It’s an autumn afternoon, maybe in my senior year of high school. Class has finished for the day and I’m walking up East Street to Pittsfield’s public library.
The official name of the library is the Berkshire Athenaeum. For years, I’ll think of this term, athenaeum, as unique to Pittsfield, as naturally as I’ll fail to see within it the name of the goddess Athena, or the name of the distant city of which she’s the patron, though these could hardly be more clearly spelled out by the black metal capital letters that form the sign on the library’s red-brick façade.For years, I’ll think of this term, athenaeum, as unique to Pittsfield, as naturally as I’ll fail to see within it the name of the goddess Athena, or the name of the distant city of which she’s the patron.
My ignorance of the roots of the library’s name will persist into my twenties, until I see a reference to another athenaeum, one from ancient Rome, which, I’ll learn with surprise, was the athenaeum: the academy and intellectual repository founded by the emperor Hadrian, who also reinvigorated the city of Athens. For now, though, I know of only Pittsfield’s athenaeum (Latin motto: Optima seculorum in secula servare, To protect the best of the ages for the ages); indeed, it’s one of the buildings I know best in the world.
Our athenaeum’s two entrances, from two parallel streets, arrive on different levels. One entrance leads to the lower floor and the children’s section. It’s near a book drop, where, when I was little, books released from my hands would land with a satisfying but—given the care with which I had been taught books should be handled—worrisome thud. Right inside, past the water fountain, is the checkout desk, one of the few places where, in my memory, Mom will always be twice my height.
The library’s other entrance, from the next street to the west, leads to the upper floor and the adult section. If I come here on my lunch break I typically sit by the north windows, which, depending on the season, offer a view into leafy branches or down onto the snowy streets. In winter, I’ll often leave my coat on while I read, despite the nearby radiators, as waterfall-like blasts of cold air run down the tall windows and over me. It’s a sensation that will return to me years later when I’m studying meteorology as part of my pilot’s course and the instructor urges us to stop thinking of air as a continuous mix: instead, we’re to think of parcels of it, moving in relation to other parcels.
In these years I am already dreaming of becoming a pilot, and so on many weekday visits to the athenaeum, I fill out a form to request the latest issues of Aviation Week. Today, though, I bring a large atlas to a desk. I sit down and open a page at random. As I do so, I lean back in the library’s simple wooden chair, and wince as I think—as I still will decades from now at such moments—of another wooden chair, which stood around the table in our dining room at home.Today’s destination, meanwhile, is not a real city; rather, it’s the city I’ve liked to imagine since I was maybe seven years old.
When I was younger, Dad and I often browsed our family atlas at the table there. Back then, a city was almost nothing more to me than its name, and I loved some names much more than others.
Seoul, and its easy elision with “soul.” Las Vegas, which I thought referred to multiple examples of the bright star Vega, not to a Spanish word for meadows, which made an already mellifluous name so pleasing that decades later, when I find myself walking through Las Vegas to get a haircut or a burrito and I stop to wait for a light to change, and I look down and scuff my sensible forty-something pilot shoes through a burned-up pool of dust, some part of me will be standing in the other Las Vegas, the starry one that a mistranslated name once conjured.
Here in the athenaeum other names come to me as I dare to lean back: Lisbon, Lisboa. Nairobi. Geneva—Genève in French and Genf in German, Dad told me. Tokyo, the Eastern Capital. Beijing, the Northern Capital.
Now I close my eyes and it’s as if I’m not in the library, but seated at home, at the dining room table. It’s a few years ago and our atlas is open and I am not leaning back in my chair because Dad is there next to me. Riyadh is an agreeable name, we decide; I love the r even if I have trouble saying it. Toronto—three short o’s, but the middle one different—has a good rhythm. And despite my speech impediment I’m okay with Toronto’s central r; I’m sure that if I had to say the city’s name, context would lead anyone to add the sound I cannot. Den Haag, The Hague—The Hedge, Dad explains. The next time I alter the name of my imaginary city, I’ll remember: If you can call a city The Hedge, then you can call a city anything you like.
And Los Angeles, of course. Among all the city names printed on the pages Dad and I are turning, not only is it my favorite, but I’m struck by how vast its position reveals the U.S. to be: the city appears to be nearly as far from us as Europe, and neither Dad nor Mom have ever seen it.
Excerpted from Imagine a City by Mark Vanhoenacker. Copyright © 2022 by Mark Vanhoenacker. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.