09 August 2009

The other way of stopping

It's a bit like a nightmare, the sort where you revisit a place that you know too well, a place where you can trace the contours with unerring accuracy, a place where you recognize a divot in the mortar between the bricks.

What possessed me?

That's always the question.

There are places in this world where I do not travel, places too well known to me. I turned my back years ago, and I haven't returned. This is called moving forward. It is also called survival.

It's just photographs, I thought. Siren call. But we know what the sirens did to those who heeded their song.

I clicked on the map, and traveled down Swan Road.

There once was a small strip mall, a place that I spent a considerable portion of my childhood in the company of my grocery-seeking mother. The grocery was there, next door a small department store, further down a pharmacy. In the other direction, a variety store, where I spent countless hours mooning over items that I would save all summer to buy: Barbie dresses, craft supplies, a paint-by-number kit for a friend's birthday. They always wrapped the packages for free, and made the best and most beautiful and lavish ribbons.

All gone of course. No more grocery where SH, who went to my high school, but bagged groceries on weekends, would deliberately push a line of carts into me, and then blush violently. Ah, the joys of teenage affection. My mother was always amused that he would make a point of carrying her order out to the car, inquiring as to my whereabouts if I was AWOL of a Saturday.

Lucky Wishbone is still there, and I wonder briefly if the light in the center of the neon sign still flashes intermittently as it once did. They had the best French fries.

My high school. The park behind it now fenced in and gone to dirt. The tennis courts where I dramatically splattered myself one morning playing tennis with a friend. I still bear the scars on my elbow and knees. I remember not the pain, but the certain humiliation of being a teenager with scabby knees. The baseball diamond where I'd sit on spring afternoons alternately reading Dickens and watching the varsity baseball games.

If I turn up that road, I will find the house in which I spent 15 years. I am not tempted.

Traversing north, I am struck by the gracelessness of this place where I once rode my bike back and forth, traveled endless miles to and from school. It is unkempt and charmless. Buildings, though familiar shapes, are no longer places I recognize. That one was the "Insurance Place," so called by my brother and I who could see it, all aglow at night, from our bedroom window. Once, there were two palm trees in front of the facade, uplit, and we learned, through observation and boredom, that the lights went off at precisely 10 pm, the same time that we could hear the announcer on the television in the living room intone, "It's 10 pm. Do you know where your children are?" Somehow, watching the lights go out became a summer evening event, one we looked forward to with glee. It seemed like such a wonderful secret to hold.

The "new" Circle K (as opposed to the "old" Circle K on Fifth Street) has since become a paint store. When we were preteens and ran in packs, collecting bottles to turn in for a nickel that could in turn be spent on a Hershey bar or sour apple gum, we watched the construction of the new Circle K with pleasure. It was closer to home. Its frozen drink machine was new. The displays were prettier, which somehow made the sunflower seeds more alluring. The concrete walkway was clean, not yet marred with circles of discarded gum.

The funky little row of shops on the east side of the street remains, but I can't tell if the Coffee Pot Cafe is still at the end. The hair salon endures, still bearing the same name. We'd look at it in wonder as we passed in the station wagon en route to Sunday Mass, carefully reading the signs in the windows showing the services that were available. We didn't know what "rolfing" was, only that it sounded vaguely disturbing.

I am sad that I never thought to go into the Coffee Pot Cafe.

There is the bank that always seemed to get robbed, and the funny little house with the pretty red and white awnings. It used to have a cupola on the top that put me in mind of a widow's walk, but some unimaginative owner has long since removed the tiny lookout.

The blue gas station--did it used to be Ernie's Garage?--is still across the street from the church. The church itself is there, changed but not, yet somehow diminished. I travel down the street, looking at the exterior, what used to be the convent. The camera has captured a car pulling out of the driveway. The line of eucalyptus that used to run between the parking lot and street is gone. I prowl along and turn right, skirting the back end of the school and the yard--all fenced in now--where once we played kickball and keep away, where I ran track. I spot the window that was in the late Sister AM's room, from whence we would sell snacks at recess. I can almost smell the brine from the enormous jar that held the big, soft dill pickles, a nickel each.

Another right and I continue south. Mrs. T. used to live across the street from the school. She was one of my mother's professors when my mother started back to school, and Mrs. T. hired her to clean house. It was mostly a kindness, and I would go along, to help my mother finish faster. Mrs. T. had enormous shopping bags full of books, mostly goofy romances, and she offered to let me borrow any that I wanted to read. I read hundreds of them.

When I turned the corner, the lighting changed, and it is suddenly sunset at my old school. The light is low in the sky, and it looks so right, it almost gives me a chill. As I move along, I marvel over the fact that the school yard now has actual play equipment. We had four-square on the blacktop in my day, standard Catholic school recess option, bouncy red ball included. Further south, the buildings housing classrooms start again, and I see what time and generations of children have done to the venerable red brick of the walls. Again, the grass is gone, which befits a desert, but I feel slightly bereft. We used to play on that grass on the rare occasions we were picked up from school.

It strikes me as I look how pretty the buildings seem. I always liked the little details in the brick but I find myself catching my breath abruptly when I see the old wrought iron gate. How could I have forgotten those gates, which were not only functional, but almost whimsical? Someone had had fun creating the curlicues that made the gate look light and lacy, and they looked even more delicate than I remembered, though I know from experience and trying to uncurl them that the beautifully fashioned iron was anything but delicate. They never gave way to even our most strenuous exertions.

My heart catches on the memory of standing at the gate, running my finger round and round the iron until I came to the final curl where I was left with nothing but a faint stain of rust on the tip of my finger.

Go listen to some good music: "The Other Way of Stopping" from the album Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police. What a terrible thing Google Street View really is.

No comments: