My first memory involves the sidewalk in front of 20 Prospect. I must have been 3 years old at the time, and it was summer. Green, luscious summer. The dappled sunlight shone down through the leaves of the giant silver maple tree. I was sitting astride my tricycle looking down the sidewalk. It seemed like an endless highway stretching out in front of me. It was so intimidating, and yet so inviting.
As for my bike, it was a vintage 1950’s Firestone Tricycle. Gold, and white, with a streamlined fender. It looked like a late 50’s Cadillac, and had already served a decades worth of kids by the time it reached me.
But this is not a post about the lost bicycles of my youth. It is a post about the sidewalks of Batavia. They were the first highways that I knew. The first roads to exotic locales like Rheinharts and the Rowell Mansion. Mom and Dad would take me for walks in the old green buggy, or pull me behind them in the old Wagon. The short walks entailed going “around the block”. A feat as impressive as circumnavigating the globe. (In 1971, the globe was quite a bit smaller.) Or on a special occasion, an evening walk to the Dunkin’ Donuts around the block on Ellicott Ave. The beginning of a life long love for Bavarian Crème donuts. (My mouth is watering just typing this.)
The Silk Road, Route 66, the Appian Way, all of them began with the sidewalk out front of 20 Prospect. Take a step onto it and you could go anywhere. As I grew older, these sidewalks became my highway. Year by year, the circle of my freedom expanded. By 2nd grade I was walking home from St. Joe’s. Not the direct route down Washington Avenue, lest I run into the Heathen Huns from the Junior High School, but the circuitous one down Summit to North Street, then up the hill to Richmond Ave., through Centennial Park, past the Rowell Mansion and down Prospect. I walked them in the summer, when they radiated heat, and in the fall when the leaves scuttled like crabs across them. I walked them in the winter, when they were buried beneath snow deep enough to get into my boots, and in the spring when the water bubbled up through the ice sheaf’s.
I knew those sidewalks block by block, and square by square. The bright white cement blocks, the little rectangular bluestone ones, the cracked and broken ones heaved up by the roots of maple trees trying to break free. The diversity of those sidewalks was entertainment to my wandering eyes. I would walk the streets looking down, memorizing the new blocks, the ones with initials carved into them when still wet, “Jimmy 72”, looking for colonies of ants to squash beneath my Keds. It kept me from having to make eye contact with strangers, and from tripping over a crack and chipping another tooth.
The diversity of the stone and cement blocks was as great as the houses on the streets I walked. Century old Greek Revival, Victorian’s and Queen Anne’s, and more recent Colonials, Arts and Crafts, and Bungalows lined the streets around 20 Prospect. The streets of Batavia were old back then, and they are old still. The bluestone slate sidewalks on Ellicott Ave have been there for over 100 years, their chipped and worn slabs bearing a patina left behind by generations that walked them. Responding to each step with a hollow thunk, that shivers through the bones of your legs.
As I grew older, my purpose changed. Walks with the dog to Centennial Park and beyond, became long walks in the darkness to escape the house and be alone with my thoughts. These were the years when Batavia felt like a prison, and I wandered every street and sidewalk, pursued by ghosts, and searching for a way out. I found one eventually, and once gone, I never really returned. One of last walks I took in Batavia was the summer that Dad died. We went for a walk with Mom and Dad, down past Notre Dame, toward the Veterans Hospital. It wasn’t until that walk that I realized how weak his heart had become. We had to stop several times, and in the end I jogged back home to get the van and go back to get them. He passed away less than a month later.
Since that time, I make a point to go for a walk during every visit. But now that the ancestral home has been sold, the walks don’t have the same meaning. There is no front porch waiting for me, like a pier thrust out from the house, to welcome me home. There is only the endless flow of sidewalks, like a labyrinth. They lead around in circles, while I stumble over their cracks like a Minotaur, searching not for a way out, but for the way back in.