Dead End

It says a lot about me that the local cemeteries are my favorite place in Batavia. As a kid I spent many summer days, alone, riding my bike over to the cemeteries, and the industrial ruins that sit like a wedge dividing our town into a North & South side. I don’t know why, but it has always drawn me to it. I’d walk the rows of headstones, and read the names and dates, and wonder about the history and the lives that went before. The three cemeteries on Harvester Avenue, are among the most sylvan, and shady spots in town, and I have always felt at peace there. Maudlin children, and Gothic kids everywhere can sympathize, but sometimes life was easier among the dead, than it was among the living.

This past Sunday, I drove over to the cemetery to pay a visit to Dad’s grave, and ended up wandering those shady lanes for an hour, alone, looking for something that I felt like I lost once. It was still there. The emptiness, the peace, the silence.

When I started this blog in 2009, I felt like I had so much to say, and so many stories to share. Now, in the summer of my 44th year, I find myself returning again, and again, to the same places, only to find that the words I have already written about them, sum them up so well I have little left to say.

So I’m saying goodbye. Again.

I’ll still be working to publish the book of historical fiction based upon the E.N. Rowell murder from 1883, and once that is complete, I will most likely move onto compiling the stories, fragments, and memories that I have written here, into some sort of cohesive whole that I also hope to publish. Thank you for all the time you’ve spent reading 20 Prospect, and stopping by the front porch to chat. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

So I leave these words like footprints, pressed into cement, and recorded for posterity. May they someday inspire another introverted child to pick up a pen, and go exploring.

Boo Radley Summers

Do you remember when life was simple? When you woke up in the morning, lay in bed watching the sunlight streaming into the bedroom, and wondered what you should play today?

They say that youth is wasted on the young. I’m not so sure. The kids sure seem to enjoy it. And they are still kids. Nine and Ten, the height of childhood, old enough to ride the big rides at the Amusement Park, and still young enough to squeal with delicious terror. Adulthood is something enigmatic and distant, like a mountain range that never seems to get any closer. Yet mystery still lurks in the shadows, even though you feel protected and immortal. Oh, those Boo Radley summers. They lasted an eternity.

You never see the end coming. It comes on so slow, you look up one day and it is there. When I was a kid I used to have a re-occurring dream. In it I was playing with the kids on Prospect out in the middle of the street like we always did. When looking up through the ceiling of maples I saw a spaceship descending slowly, coming for us. Suddenly, I was overcome with fear, and began running for home, looking up to see the ship advancing on us. Suddenly the world was different, the reality that we knew was over and a new one was descending out of the sky. I never understood that dream, but in true Ray Bradbury fashion, I think I get it now.

The ship descending slowly towards us was adolescence. Like adolescence it never announces it’s coming until you realize one day it has arrived. Then everything changes. From age 13 until 17, our bodies convulse, and transform like Dr. Jeckl becoming Mr. Hyde. We become grotesques, long legged, knobby knees, our bodies too big and awkward for us to control. The face that looks back at us from the mirror takes on different proportions. Our noses, and ears suddenly stick out like a caricature.

I can remember the trips to Dr. Trifthauser’s. From 6th to 10th grade, I made a monthly visit to sit in that chair and have my braces torqued and adjusted. It was a form of medieval torture, as if the good Doctor, in his garish golf pants, were trying to extract a confession from me. Six chairs in a big room, facing a wall lined with one long carpeted bench, on which the youth of Batavia sat in silence, waiting for their turn. Kids from every elementary school in town, all together in the torture chamber on the second flood while their Mom’s waited outside.

In some ways, the Orthodontists’ office was the symbolic event that revealed the bonds between us and our families were about to be supplanted by bonds between us and our fellow prisoners, in a coming of age ritual that never made the pages of the National Geographics hanging in the magazine rack. For six years we would be prisoners in our own bodies. Serving time as the Inquisitor did his best to extract a confession for crimes we had yet to commit. Is there anything more unjust in life than adolescence? Is it any wonder that when we are finally released we go crazy with our new found freedom, and race headlong to try out the tools of adulthood which we are so unprepared to use?

So let the kids play. Let them be kids. It will be over all too soon. All we can do is to love them, and prepare them for what lies ahead. There is no point in telling them. They wouldn’t believe us if we did.

Little House in the Big Woods

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always had a weakness for falling in love with places. Perhaps it was the excessive amount of time I spent being carted around in the front seat of a Chrysler to sibling’s parades, and sporting events. Or maybe it was the interminable summer vacations to Florida in un-air conditioned automobiles with AM radio. Whatever the reason, I have always had a weakness for day dreaming about life in places seen out the window of a car. Each town we passed, each farm, each house on a hillside, I would lose myself in daydreams of what it would be like to live there. This affliction continued when I left Western New York behind and took to the road. Criss-crossing the country I would search for that one perfect place that would demand I stop and call it home. Of course, no place was ever alluring enough to overcome my desire to see what was over the next hill, or around the next bend. Life is like that.

Thankfully, in Mrs. 20 Prospect I found a reason to stop circling the country and plant roots. If not for her I’d still be wandering. And yet, even though I have lived in one place for 17 years now, I still can’t help but daydream when I’m traveling. As much as Minnesota is my home, there’s nothing about our little inner ring suburb, or 50’s Rambler that convinces me that this is the place where I want to grow old and die. If only I had a million lives to try out a million different places. I like to imagine that when you are dead your soul gets to go around and hang out in all the places you never got to when you were alive.

Last weekend we visited my In Laws in Eau Claire, a small city in a big landscape. One of those places that I can’t help but be drawn to. I brought along Isabella Cuevas, as I like to do when the weather is nice, and slipped out of town for a 3 hour ride through the hills and valleys of Eau Claire, and Trempeleau counties. Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite places in all the earth to ride a bicycle. Perhaps it reminds me of Western New York, or maybe East Flanders. The rolling hills, and farmlands, interspersed with remnants of the real “Big Woods” of Laura Ingalls Wilder fame, are covered with small two lane farm roads, and dairy farms. Each ridge promises a view, each valley a twisting descent. The farm roads don’t adhere to any modern road building standard, and the grades can be short, steep, and leg snapping. Perfect for cycling.

I rode for 3 hours, and had I not been exhausted, I could have rode for another 3. Each crossroad called for exploration, and it hurt to have to adhere to a schedule, and route. Every time I spend a weekend doing this, I end up going online and looking at homes and property in the area, which only serves to torture me more. Some people dream of retiring to malarial swamps in Florida, or sun blasted desert in Arizona. I dream of retiring to a little house on a ridge-top looking out over a big river., with enough land around me to make neighbors a theoretical concept. It’s the hermit in me that dreams of a life of walking the dogs in the woods, riding my bike in the hills, and watching the sunset from my porch.

I don’t know why I do this to myself. I have no intention of moving until the kids are out of high school, and I am less dependent on the financial benevolence of my dark corporate overlords. Yet I find myself continually searching jobs listings and property listings in the hope that I find that one perfect place that was made for me, where I can eek out a living teaching at a small college, and spend my days reading and writing. Whenever I get caught in that funk, the only thing I can do is tell myself, “10 more years. Keep cashing those checks and squirreling money away.” And keep on riding. Always keep on riding.

Dreaming in color

I present to you a collection of color photographs from the Library of Congress that I came across (and posted) a few years back. These photographs have an un-earthly, ethereal quality to them that I cannot describe. The subjects seem to glow, or radiate light. The appearance of a world caught between the medieval and the industrial revolution, is amazing enough. To see that world in such vivid color is astounding. The pictures possess a dreamlike quality that makes them seem at once familiar, and entirely foreign to our eyes.

These photographs were taken between 1909 and 1915 in pre-Soviet Russia. They are the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, a Russian photographer who developed a unique process for creating color photographs. The Prokudin-Gorskii process was an ingenious photographic technique that captured images in black and white on glass plate negatives, using red, green and blue filters. A single, narrow glass plate about 3 inches wide by 9 inches long was placed vertically into the camera by Prokudin-Gorskii. He then photographed the same scene three times in a fairly rapid sequence using a red filter, a green filter and a blue filter. The images were then presented in color in slide lectures using a light-projection system involving the same three filters.

In the early 1900s Prokudin-Gorskii presented an ambitious plan for a photographic survey of the Russian Empire to Tsar Nicholas II. His plan was to use the emerging technological advancements that had been made in color photography to systematically document the Russian Empire. Through such an ambitious project, his ultimate goal was to educate the schoolchildren of Russia with his “optical color projections” of the vast and diverse history, culture, and modernization of the empire. Winning the support of the Tsar, he was provided with a specially equipped railroad car darkroom, and two permits that granted him access to restricted areas and cooperation from the empire’s bureaucracy. Between 1909-1912, and again in 1915, he traveled through eleven different regions of the Russian Empire, recording daily life among the Empire’s diverse ethnic groups, Medieval Orthodox Monasteries, and the railroads and factories of an emerging Industrial society.

Prokudin-Gorski would leave Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually settled in Paris. His work remained with his family until the U.S. Government purchased his slides from his heirs in 1948. The Library of Congress recently undertook a program to digitize these slides and present them in an online exhibition. All of the following photographs are copyright the Library of Congress, and Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. I hope you find them as fascinating as I do. For more info visit the Library of Congress exhibit here:

This photographic collection preserves a past that no person alive today can recall witnessing with their own eyes. They are snapshots of a colonial Empire stretching from the wild edges of Eastern Europe all the way to the Pacific and the borderlands of China and Mongolia. They are a reminder of the astounding size, and diversity of the Russian, and Soviet Empires, and how pre-modern they truly were at the beginning of the 20th Century.

This amazing monastery looks like an Alien Spacecraft landed in the countryside

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?

The Emir of Bukhara (present day Kyrgyzstan)

This one gives me goosebumps, and I'm not sure why

If these factories look jarring and out of place to our eyes, imagine how they appeared to the Russian peasants that saw them for the first time

How I would love to know the life stories of these three girls

The shining city on the hill from Revelations

Another haunting photo from the Brothers Grimm

The ferryman at the River Styx

This could have been taken in my backyard, and may be the the most achingly beautiful portrait ever taken of the untamed, wild beauty of lilacs

The Powers Hotel, 1883

As Jennie started down the stairs into the lobby, she could see Johnson seated upon the round sofa at the center of the room, his hat in his hands, resting upon his walking stick, a white flower in the button hold of his lapel. He stood as soon as he saw her, walking across the room to meet her at the bottom of the steps. Taking her hand her kissed it, and asked, “How is it possible that you are even more beautiful now than the day I met you?”

“Well Mr. Lynch, I see you are as good a liar as you have always been, and I thank you for it,” she said as she smiled.

“My God, but it is good to see you again,” he said, as he looked into her blue eyes, and Jennie could see that he meant it.

“I can’t believe it has been so long,” she told him, “Seeing you now I feel as if you have been with me all the time.”

Indeed, she thought, he had been there within her heart throughout the long months of separation. How else could she explain his presence in her room those nights when the bed was so cold and empty?

“I trust that you have found the accommodations to your liking?” he asked, knowing full well how the cosmopolitan surroundings excited her.

“Of course! What is not to love?” she said, “There cannot be a finer hotel in all the country. Although I should find even a barn agreeable if you were to be in it.”

Extending his arm, he said, “Come, let me show you the rest of the city”

Jennie took his arm and they stepped out into the bright sunlight of the street. Arm in arm they strolled through the crowds on the sidewalk, fully absorbed in their conversation. Lynch seldom took his eyes off of her, and seemed to be hanging upon her every word. Stopping for dinner in a restaurant full with the business crowd, she felt as if she were the center of attention. The eyes of all the men seemed as if they were upon her as they talked and laughed.

Leaning across the table he whispered, “You have no idea how difficult it is to be this close to you, and not be able to hold you in my arms.”

Jennie blushed, and felt a tingle of excitement as she glanced around to see if any of the people sitting near them had heard.

“Let me take you back to the hotel,” He said, “where I can kiss you without worrying about prying eyes.”

“Why Mr. Lynch,” she responded, “you will have to wait until after dinner before you can have your desert.” Feeling the thrill of the power she had over him.

Climbing the stairs to her room, she glanced behind to make sure that they were not being followed. Even now, in a city where they were both strangers, she couldn’t help but feel as if she was being watched, and the feeling only made the moment more exciting.

As soon as they entered the room, Johnson turned her to him, and bending down kissed her full upon the lips. She put her hands around the bulk of his shoulders, and he lifted her feet from the floor with his strong embrace. Kissing passionately, they pulled and tugged at each other’s clothes until nothing more stood between their embrace. Carrying her to the bed, he lay her down upon it.

The breeze from the window stirred the drapes, and light shone in shafts across the floor. Outside the noise of the streets echoed between the buildings, but all Jennie could hear now was the sound of their breathing, as they rolled about on the sheets, Johnson’s strong hands upon the small of her back, as he rolled her on top of him. Her hair fell in a wild tangle about his face, and still they kissed, heedless of the world around them.

The made love, again, and again, stopping only when the sunlight faded, and the darkness crept from the corners of the room. She spent the night sleeping with his arm draped across her shoulders like a blanket, the sheets pulled down, and the evening air cool against her skin.

When morning came, she woke to the feel of his soft kisses upon her neck. They made love again, then lay in each others’ arms, looking up at the ceiling.

“My dear, the thought of leaving is like a knife blade in my heart” she told him, tears welling in her eyes.

“Shh…” he consoled her, “we may be parting for the moment, but it will not be forever.”

“I wish we could be together like this every night,” she told him, “I feel as if I am only alive when we are together, and all the rest is just a dream.”

He said nothing, but turned her face towards him, and kissed her on the lips.

“Jennie, as much as we want it, it cannot be,” he told her, “You must get back to your life, and your home. In the mean time, I will carry you with me in my heart until we see each other again.”

She closed her eyes and wept quietly against his chest.

The Artist

Sleep recedes like waves washing down a beach, and slowly I begin to wake from the deep fathoms of slumber. 3am. I rise in my nightly ritual of stumbling to the bathroom, arms extended like curb feelers, and make my way through the obstacle course that is our bedroom. I worry that I’ll wake the dogs, but they snore on. It’s even too early for them to want to patrol their yard. Returning to bed, I roll over and sigh. My mind is playing back the scenes of my dreams like a flickering home movie reel and I know there will be no more going back to sleep…

Limbs outstretched like arms, the maples reach into the velvet darkness. It is late on a summer evening, and all of Prospect Avenue is dark. People murmur quietly on the front porches in the late summer swelter. In this pre air conditioned world, the only sound is the quiet breath of the wind and the whirr of window fans. I walk my bike down the gravel driveway towards the yawning mouth of the old barn, wondering as always what might be lurking inside its musty bulk. That’s when I hear it. A sound as natural to our street, as a mother’s heartbeat is to an infant. From 3 houses down, Mr. Carmichael clears his throat.

I look across the back yard and see a single square of yellow burning in the shadow; the light from his den.  In all the known world of my 10 year old experience, the Carmichael’s is the only house with a den. The exoticness of a room dedicated only to a father always intrigues me. A haven from floral prints, and doilies, it is a world of hard carved decoys, and cast metal soldiers; books line the shelves, and a walnut stained writing desk holds the tools of his trade. We know that the den is off limits when we play at Peter and Danny’s, but the gravity of the room always pulls us into it.

While most Dad’s carry lunch boxes to work, and wear work clothes when they leave in the morning, Mr. Carmichael wear a coat and tie. He is older than the other Dad’s, and has lived here all his life. His history on our street is measured not in years but in geologic time. The resident historian of Prospect Ave., he knew the little old ladies when they were still young.

While we run and play through their yard like any other, we somehow know that his property is different. A tall man, with a deep voice, and a stern look, fear is the wrong word to describe how the little kids feel about him. It is more like respect and deference we would give to someone from another world.

He sits beneath the light of his desk lamp in his den working through the dark hours of a summer night. Pen and pencil in his hand, he is drawing. A newspaperman by trade, his real profession is that of an artist. Stand in the red, sandstone edifice of the Richmond Library, and you will see his drawings on the walls. They record the history that urban renewal has worked so hard to erase.

In my mind’s eye he is always drawing in his den, pausing to clear his throat, a reassuring sound, like the chirping of crickets in the night. Families have come and gone from Prospect Avenue, our own clan arriving in the late 60’s, and leaving by the early 00’s, but I cannot imagine the street without his presence. The last tie to the original residents, once he was gone, the oral history of the neighborhood was gone with him. If only I had had the courage, and the foresight to sit with him, and ask him to share his stories.

A barn owl hoots in the darkness, and I drop my bike inside the door of the barn, and run back to the safety of the porch. It seems like the world I know is solid, and permanent, but in only a few years it will all begin to fade away. Piece by piece, and person by person, the neighborhood will be renewed. The stately maples will slowly succumb to age, and the City’s chain saws, until what is left is a shadow of the place I knew. The houses still stand, and a new history is being written with each passing day, but the world that I knew lives only in the quiet of the night. The images flicker across the canvas of my mind, and are recorded here like drawings of a city that is all but forgotten.