In a 5 a.m. frenzy to get my baker daughter to work on time I thought about the buildings I passed (going ever-so-slightly over the speed limit and just bowing to the stop signs). The Liberty Throwing Company chucked and clucked behind its grey-painted windows. Early shift workers were at the helm of machines that make spandex threads. I once bought a car from a woman who worked there, and this is why I know the secret behind the name.
St. Hedwig's school sits squarely on Zerby Avenue and promontory in my mind. My daughter's first lessons in socialization, organized religion, and education were in that building. I walked her a mile from home every day to Kindergarten, through the baseball field behind the Russian Club, past a few barking dogs and their fences. It was there at the school that I directed a play called Princess Grey and the White/Black Knight. The entire school community (and my mother) rallied to make it happen - props, costumes, cardboard painted set pieces. The janitor shared his lighting talents with me after revealing he'd spent years in backstage work at a theatre in New York City. I see him now at the mini-mart every morning on Main Street. He is frail and thin. His teeth are missing, but he still smiles and always remembers me.
The school sits empty now, the by-product of diocesan budget cuts. The teachers have found other jobs and moved away. Weeds grow in every crack on the sidewalk where I once stood to wait with other parents for the dismissal bell at 2:05. The kids used to rush out in a whoosh of whoops, and their backpacks made them look like multicolored turtles.
The ungroomed and well-pruned shrubberies of side street homes collect snow in January that turns them into iced cakes. In spring, birds make them sing. Fans rest unevenly in windows of houses in the summer. This morning I noticed a home with two fans whirling away in the bedroom windows of the upper floor. It created a wonky eyed monster.
Most houses here lean like drunken uncles (to borrow from Carl Sandburg). Mine subsidences have been known to open up and swallow entire houses, or children on the sidewalk, or pets. I listen at night for the tell-tale "crack" that I'm supposed to hear before the ground opens up and gorges on clapboard. We only own the surface of our land here, and keep insurance for any greedy gulpings of earth. Owning land at all is such a strange concept.
A sprawl of progress neons "The Ave" as we call it. Planet Fitness runs in place under its bright yellow apex, Price Chopper shares a stripmall with what I've dubbed "World Domination Buffet," Radio Shack, and Blockbuster. Cole Muffler makes a good landmark and a joke - the neon sign blinks out certain letters suddenly turning it French - "le muffler." When a Lowe's Home Improvement Center moved in, they paid off a small church on the property they wanted and moved it up half a block. The day the church was on wheels, the entire town came out to watch it move.
Main Street is congested from sprawl traffic, but no one stops to eat at the Mexican restaurant whose owners painted a sunset mural on the front, or the barber who still has a working awning that he cranks open every morning. His storefront is filled with dollhouses. The old coin shop closed a few months ago when the borough bought it (rumor has it they are demolishing old buildings and putting in a stripmall), and had to pay to clean out three floors of accrued errata from a determined collector. I once took a coin in the shop for appraisal. It was worth nothing, but the shop was piles of fascination. War medals, buttons from ancient elections, metal detectors, and coins in their plastic protective cases. The helmet of a knight sat in his storefront window.
I love to walk and see what neighbors have put on their porches, plant in their gardens, and note the oddball personalities of mailboxes.
We leave a free book box on the stoop of our gallery and studio so the neighborhood has access to free reading material as they walk to and from work, or the sprawl of The Ave. It gets brisk traffic. Sometimes it gets a candy bar wrapper or two, and sometimes people donate bags of paperbacks.
I live here. It's imperfect, weedy, unkempt, off-plumb, full of strangers and friends. The energy of the past toil of our fathers was washed away in a flood that dissolved their progress. Sadness followed and lingered, closed shops, broke wills.
I live here to give my energy to this place. To stand on a school stage and hang a backdrop of roses that a 6th grader painted, to make a space for the arts where people are welcome to share their ideas and poetry, to share books, to plant flowers. I can live anywhere I want, but I choose to live here, and I owe it the best of my life.