Travel in the magic city

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

This summer I moved to a new neighborhood that happens to be much nearer the freeway that divides my city. My house is less than a mile from an on-ramp, though you wouldn’t guess it in this quiet and wooded neighborhood; you can’t hear the traffic on a still evening, and my yard backs up to a seven thousand-acre research forest. Now, I have lived on the edge of this city for sixteen years, and I have always avoided the freeway unless I was traveling some distance and needed to hook up with the interstate at the far end of it; I almost never hop on for just an exit or two. I could say that my distaste for the freeway comes from knowing what its construction did to the old and vibrant black neighborhoods it tore through fifty years ago, but I’m not actually that pointlessly principled. Nothing I do will those neighborhoods back, and I won’t make an academic justification for what is, at bottom, a visceral dislike of divided highways.

Since I moved in, it has slowly dawned on me that I can get practically everywhere faster by taking the freeway. (Likely this would have been obvious to anyone else sixteen years ago: as I said, it’s visceral.) But it has at the same time dawned on me that I might be eroding other, existing neighborhoods by using that freeway—not directly, not by physical or economic means, but simply by changing my perception of them. Where once I drove past strip malls and gas stations, through old neighborhoods holding their ground and neighborhoods that are well on their way to gentrified, noting the changes that happen day by day and week by week, I find myself getting downtown more often by exiting my own neighborhood onto a strip of blacktop that could be anywhere in America and emerging a block or two from my destination. For all that I see of what’s in between, I may as well be asking Scotty to beam me to church, or to the grocery store.

It’s increasingly clear to me that what lies in between matters, deeply. Not long ago I had to answer an icebreaker question: If I were given a free round-trip airline ticket good anywhere in the world, where would I go? It should be said that I hate icebreaker questions, and characteristically I found a way to be contrary. I’d cash in the ticket, I said, and take the train across the country, with no particular destination in mind, stopping here and there in small towns I’d never heard of, eating with the locals and hiking their woods and touring the local museum or seeing the world’s largest ball of twine. A smart-ass answer, as I’m afraid everyone quickly realized, but it’s also true: I’d rather see what’s in between, and I’d rather take my time about it—in theory, at least. But apparently not when I just need to buy some groceries. Continue reading “Travel in the magic city”

Cake. Pinups. Cherry.

In Plymouth, a little town off the Albemarle Sound, I stopped for coffee. This is how old Plymouth is: It is so old that the streets leading from the highway downtown to Water Street are named for presidents. Washington Street was blocked off for roadwork, so I took Adams downtown and Jefferson back out. On Water Street I found the Plymouth Bakery, where one table was occupied by two men and a woman, probably in their seventies. One of the men was hitting on the waitress, who was maybe sixty. Her name was Cherry. She asked if they had saved room for a piece of cake. Continue reading “Cake. Pinups. Cherry.”

The words we leave behind

1. Ordered descent

On the wall by the stairs of my grandmother’s house she hung trivets of the kind you might find at a tourist trap. Rough cast iron, self-consciously old-timey, painted with whimsically tacky messages. Four of them in a line, so you could read as you descended:

Come in, sit down, relax, converse. Our house doesn’t always look like this. Sometimes it’s even worse.

and

I’m not a fast cook, I’m not a slow cook. I’m a half-fast cook!

When my grandparents packed up the house and moved into a retirement community I asked for the trivets, but it was only after she died that I noticed the penciled notes she had made on their backs: LT. END, LT. MID, RT. MID., and RT. END. Removing the trivets from the wall to paint, she had labeled them so they could be returned promptly to their proper position. Whimsical, but ordered. They are scattered now, one in my office, one in the kitchen, two boxed in a closet. But I like to think they will be reunited someday, and I will know how to arrange them when they are. Continue reading “The words we leave behind”

We Dare Defend Our Rights

Read enough history and you find yourself crowded by the dead. They mill about as palpable as the living, and more numerous. Stoop to retrieve a slobbery tennis ball and assailed by the recollection that your yard was once a great plantation you may rise to find yourself surrounded by toiling slaves whose worksongs are insufficiently energetic for their driver. Hiking past a grave you may see a dead woman seated on her grave, her face like a hologram appearing old or young depending on the angle, and her legs accordingly decrepit or dangling childishly. Mention this to others and you will be regarded as the boy in the movie who claims to see ghosts or hear poltergeists, and to be fair, there may be only the finest line between historical awareness and otherworldly madness: either way, you see things that aren’t there. Continue reading “We Dare Defend Our Rights”