Literary Yard

Search for meaning


Non-Fiction: My Search For Another Man’s Old House

By: Brett Busang

old houseColumbus, Ohio is where my mother went to college for a few years; the painter George Bellows first noticed that he could draw the straight line that is said to elude non-artists; and where James Thurber, known for his accident-prone relations, came of age, kicked around newspaper offices, and eventually left to enlarge his reputation and become lesser-mensch to the world.

I never gave much of a thought to Columbus until I read Thurber, for whom it was an obliging source of good material. As far as I know, he didn’t address it face-to-face until he was an older man shoring up a life no one else was equipped or motivated to remember. And so it fell to him to summon up all of the important people who’d streaked, or sauntered purposefully, through his earlier years. He put all he could conveniently write into a jam-packed reminiscence called The Thurber Album, which I could not help – once I got started on the thing – reading over and over again. The people in it reminded me a bit of my mother’s family, who settled in Northern Kentucky and, during the Depression years, Southern Indiana. Some of their chronologies neatly correspond. My grandmother was born in 1890; Thurber in 1894. My favorite Aunt – who’ll appear in another connection – was born in 1913, when Thurber was at – or about to be at – Ohio State, where my mother went over thirty years later. There was also this parallel: in those days, you did something and stuck with it. All of my mother’s people were lifelong something-or-other’s. My grandfather was an accountant, until the Depression sidelined him; his brothers were farmers and storekeepers. There wasn’t much downsizing or career-hopping in those days – perhaps the only certainty in a calamity-rich world in which whole towns and villages were lost to disease and disaster; friends and family were gone in a trice; anything and everything was terrifyingly vulnerable. While I would not wish to undermine our undoubted advances in global communication, I think we may have lost something in the translation from a regionally-oriented mindset to a world-oriented one. It’s not a world that encourages one-to-relationships.

Where The Search began. (Being of at least lifesized proportions, "The Search" has been capitalized coolly and deliberately.)
Where  The Search began. (Being of at least lifesized proportions, “The Search” has been capitalized coolly and deliberately.)

I am not at the age Thurber was when he wrote this book, but I was in a sort of backward-looking phase of my own and wanted to walk in Thurber’s footsteps for a while. I am fortunate enough to be self-employed and can afford, now and then, to loaf constructively – or unashamedly, rather.

I’d bought a van in North Dakota, where the days are short, people honest, and everybody who is marginally conscious knows what his neighbor is doing. Any whiff of chicanery is immediately smelled and the culprit is snubbed, ostracized, or outed in ways that are not so demonstrative as they can be in the East, but certainly as effective. If somebody had sold me a lemon, for example, the whole town of Hillsboro would know about it and the “evildoer” would be collared somehow and brought, if not directly to justice, then to me personally, where I might confront him (or her) and get it all out on the spot. This self-correcting system provides the best possible protection for the uneducated car buyer. Under its stern and savvy auspices, only the most audacious evildoer would even think about trying to pull a fast one on you. And so, it was under this community-oriented umbrella of customer protection that I was able to buy the van that would enable me to drive cross country in a matter of days in a sort of comfort I had never dared to seek back East, where car dealers are a dreaded species and chicanery is a common enough thing to completely paralyze a potential customer and banish him (or her) to the Metro. Not a bad thing necessarily, but it’ll only get you to Maryland.

In a matter of four days, I was able to drive cross-country to DC, stopping outside of Columbus to sleep, and driving in the next day to look around for a while. South-Central Ohio was a bit off the route I’d decided to take – though there is no direct route from North Dakota to Washington, DC. (Try it. You’ll never get out of Chicago.)

My beloved Aunt Bee (everybody should have one) owned the first old cars I’d ever driven in. They were dangerous rattle-traps that were road-worthy in the same sense that drunken people are pedestrians. They started fitfully and held the road with a sort of senile abandon that allowed you to feel the breath of mortality firsthand. To her credit, my Aunt Bee was benignly oblivious of mechanical shortcomings and didn’t think anything of cranking up the speed to give us the thrill-ride of our lives. I would come across these old cars in the back of her house in Beech Grove, Kentucky, and feel a sense of closure that is very unusual in the young. They were finally where they needed to be and could no longer scare anyone. These were the automobiles of my youth and I don’t think I ever got over them.

Holy Cross Church, whose deep- toned bells set the leisurely pace of James Thurber's early years. This is HIS photograph.
Holy Cross Church, whose deep- toned bells set the leisurely pace of James Thurber’s early years. This is HIS photograph.

People in Thurber’s world also had “automobiles”, which you might operate by cranking first, then sticking a key in afterwards. No car of this era is blood relation to the puddle-jumping vehicles Thurber got around – or often stopped dead – in. I have never owned such a comfortable thing as my Hillsboro, North Dakota van, and am not sure I want to get used to it. For a while there, I couldn’t even open it; I had to be told I couldn’t just go out there and pull, with increasing savagery, at the doors in order to breach security and take possession. I would learn that all a sane person has to do is hold this wafer-sized thingy in his hand, press the button that says “Unlock”, and the whole thing opens up for you. You can try any door and it’ll open. Press “Lock” and you can’t get in for love or money. Such astonishing ease is anathema to anybody who, at bottom, believes that things are inherently transparent. Sure, you have to know something about anatomy to be a surgeon, but you get to what’s in there by cutting. Once you’re in, you’re golden. Once you’re in, the world makes sense. The inside and the outside connect. With this little thingy, the connection is moot. You don’t get in by cutting or pulling – and that bothers me. I suppose that is why I can more easily identify with Thurber’s world – and with Thurber’s father, Charley, in particular. His endearingly anti-mechanistic nature is what got me hooked on the whole clan. I’ll let Thurber tell it: “. . .he was always mightily plagued by the mechanical. He was also plagued by the manufactured, which takes in a great deal more ground. Knobs froze at his touch, doors stuck, lines fouled, and the detachable would not detach, the adjustable would not adjust. He could rarely get the top off anything, and he was forever trying to unlock something with the key to something else.”

How could I not read on? Here was a man indelibly after my own heart.

Here’s another thing I liked as I read on: To get in Thurber’s world, you can’t just press a button – though there were plenty of them in his day. You’ve got to push a door to unstick it. You’ve got to whap the newspaper on the side of a chair in order for it to unfreeze. You’ve got to roll out the dough, grind the coffee beans, leash up the dog. Things don’t come easily, and that’s why things also fall apart. To see our worldly arrangements as fragile things is the only sensible conclusion a thinking person can make. Yet even if the sturdiest stuff may eventually crumble, that’s no reason not to build it as well as you can. There’s hope in this philosophy – a necessary ingredient in an accident-prone cosmos. I would learn this all over again when I was in Columbus proper.

Thurber's madcap mother in a behave-yourself pose
Thurber’s madcap mother in a behave-yourself pose

When you travel somewhere nowadays, you don’t go directly in to the place itself. You first stay somewhere off the highway, commercial and comfort haven to the economy-minded since the demise of our nation’s Downtowns. Yet as the last few minutes of the Old Year waned, I wanted to go straight into town and managed to find it quickly and easily – a piece of luck that always manages to get me lost an hour later. James Thurber’s Model-A world was nowhere in sight. I had, in fact, landed in a place very much like Washington, DC: a place teeming with opportunistic policemen, daredevil drivers, and one-way streets that came up at you out of nowhere and forced you, willy-nilly, onto them until you could find another one-way out of them. When I arrived, minutes after twelve a.m., the giddy New Year was in progress. Drunken revelers thronged Broad Street, dressed, for this time of year, without much trepidation for the flu that comes in from the cold air first – or so my mother always told me. After a number of experimental turns, I found myself heading away from the city, past old-timey lofts that were no doubt condominiums and impressively monumental forms that had once performed economically viable functions, to warrens of two-lane roads that swamped my sense of direction and led to whimpering threats against deities known and unknown; presidents sitting and retired; girlfriends who’d failed to understand my seething independence of spirit and dumped me. As is often the case when you are groping, an accidental solution comes to the rescue and you’re back on track again. (When I checked what I’d done on a map the following day, I found I’d cut a huge swath through the Western side of town, doubled back, and popped in the same old way I’d started. Such things can only happen when you’re totally, but fluently, lost – that is to say, when you know absolutely nothing, but are fully confident that it doesn’t matter in the least and you’ll get to where you’re going just by staying the course. It is the luck of the blind, the faithful, the ignorant, and the damned. An old coach of mine liked to say, when you got lucky, that you were “cheatin‘ real good.”)

This second time, I was able to see certain sights Thurber had written about in his later years, when he was working hard at summoning up remembrances conscious contemporaries could just barely grab a-hold of (though barely, in Thurber’s case, was more than enough.) Yet with so many drivers’ nerves electric with the New Year virus, all I could do was see familiar landmarks in passing, such as the Columbus Dispatch Building, with its huge blazoning neon sign that said “Ohio’s Oldest Newspaper.” It was in this handsome, turn-of-the-century structure, cheerfully over-decorated for the holidays, that Thurber came to know the unsinkable Norman Kuehner, city editor of that newspaper during the Twenties; Billy Ireland, a Chillicothe boy who became the region’s most beloved cartoonist; “paragrapher” Bob Ryder, practitioner of an art long dead. Here the young reporter traveled in a tight circuit from State House to pressroom until the hard-fisted Kuehner relieved him of this necessity and let him out into the world. In those days, you paid your dues to one person.

I figured everything else could wait until tomorrow. No sightseer can ever drive fast enough to suit the fizzier native -who’ll tailgate preposterously and use his horn as a siren. Nor should you ever hold up a drunk who knows where he’s going; in fact, you should probably follow him.

I ended up staying in a Motel Six – the sort of place where reservations are made without fanfare, and in the company of people who are both sleep-deprived and party-crazy. The couple in front of me couldn’t seem to concentrate on the procedural aspects of getting registered. “So I do pay you now or I don’t?” the guy was saying. The clerk talked them through it in a way that was both diplomatic and efficient. (“All guests pay in advance.” “Oh.” “All you’ve got to do is take this key and slip it into the door,” she said. “I mean, it is a key; it just doesn’t look like one.” “Oh.” “Just go past the set of doors that face this side of parking-lot, turn right, and there it is.” “Oh.”) I had to watch the guy take the “key” and fiddle with it while conjuring a fake door and standing in front of it. His girlfriend had wandered off and bought a soda. “So you just slip it in?” “That’s all there is to it,” said the clerk, who had picked up the phone and started talking to somebody else. Yet the pantomime (“Oh, I see it now!”) had worked; the two shuffled away to their room, leaving me to get processed. It was around one-thirty. The New Year’s frenzy – still audible above the traffic-sounds – was dying down. Yet people were still swerving into the parking-lot and charging towards the registration area as if whatever New Year’s resolutions they’d been contemplating in the car had taken effect that moment. While presumably dedicated to a night’s rest, the “bowels” of a place like this never sleep.

Yet every off-the-highway hotel is different. There had been no bullet-proof glass in any of the other hotels I’d stayed in. Nor was I given the sort of credit check in St. Paul that appeared to be essential in Columbus. I was, as all mildly paranoid people are, pleasantly surprised to learn that my credentials were okay, and was given the same sort of key you can slip in next to your debit and Petco Club membership cards. The desk clerk was just able to muster the usual pleasantries that might’ve come a bit easier hours before, but she did it and I was grateful to her for making the effort. “Thanks,” I told her as she faced the next person.

Of all the places I had stayed on my eastward journey from North Dakota, this particular hotel provided the most refreshing sleep, the least objectionable hygiene – even the fluffiest towels. Motel Sixes are known for being cheap – and comfortable maybe – whereas the other two I’d stayed in raised (and dashed) expectations with a heavy hand. I’d had high hopes of my off-the-highway motel in Madison, Wisconsin, but a wire connecting my refrigerator to a rat’s nest of other hardware shorted; a continental breakfast – promised to me the night before – was swept away at nine-thirty instead of ten o’clock. Worst of all was the muffled din of twenty-hour Spanish network television that provided a soundtrack to the twenty-four hour lifestyles of the resident workforce. When I checked out, I realized I could say nothing of these minor disturbances. The bland, but complaint-annihilating cheerfulness of the region was proof against it.

Here’s how it went:

CLERK: How was your stay?

ROOM-HOLDER: Trouble free, except. . .

CLERK: I’m glad. I see you’re all packed and ready to go now. Today will be an excellent day for traveling.

ROOM-HOLDER: Yes, I just heard that on the Weather Channel. But there was one little thing. . .

CLERK: We certainly hope your stay was a pleasant one. And please remember that, for a limited time only, you can get free credit for future stays at this establishment if you fill out this card.

ROOM-HOLDER: Well, it was a little thing, so I’ll let it slide. Thank you.

CLERK: No – thank YOU!

What can you possibly do with a person like that?

I entered Columbus again on New Year’s Day. It was briskly cold, with a wind that will have a bite to it in February. I parked the car on Broad Street and started walking westward towards town, with a little reporter’s style tablet full of information about people and places. I followed the numbered streets. On 5th was the Holy Cross Church, which, as Thurber said, tolled out the half and quarter hours when he was a young man working to register old-style Republicans with the eccentric Mr. Ziegfeld, a feisty intellectual who – as “smart” people rarely do these days – made his living as a carpenter and general repairman. Hearing the deep-toned music of the Holy Cross bells one day, Ziegfeld asked: “You want to argue about God?” Not an easy man to spend a day with, but Thurber wasn’t used to such people anyway.

My little tablet was also pressed into service as a sketchbook. Before I reached 5th, I made a few thumbnails of the leftover places before which parking-lots often roll, largely uninterrupted, to the big skyline or the new baseball stadium. Homeless people were wandering around, talking to themselves and to me – though the social efficacy of both was about the same. Back on Broad, a big insurance company had a Christmas display up that was museum-like in its size and grandeur. Here were the wise men, Mary and Joseph, and the manger, with its teeming animals, big as life, rigged above eye-level for both security and maximum exposure. There were even some people, in the dead wastes of this New Year’s Day, studying it and commenting on it. In DC, such a thing might not have survived the holidays. Somebody in DC might risk parking alongside of it and carting the whole thing off one shepherd at a time. This may suggest that Columbus is more a law-and-order town than Washington is; it may also give further credence to the idea that people in the heartland are more sensitive to the gewgaws and graven imagery of Christmas. Perhaps it’s just that nobody in his right mind cares to ruin a bang-up display that’s only out once a year. There seemed to be a much greater sense of thrift here than in Washington – though perhaps anyplace on earth would seem thriftier than our nation’s capitol, from which emanates (and just as often encloses) an astonishing largesse that hardly ever gets to the people for which it is intended.

Across Broad and down 5th I looked for, but did not yet find, Holy Cross Church, whose deep-toned bells might, for all I knew, have been in an antique shop or country museum somewhere. It took another dog-leg in the road to get me to the old church, but the sight was almost reassuring – here was an indisputable link to a past that had been, thus far, in short supply. The church stood all by itself on a block you might see almost anywhere in the lower Forty Eight. It had been casually barbered of its history, and was flat-sided except for this incongruously distinguished building. The scene was somewhat reminiscent of Richmond’s East Broad Street, where a fine granite church of the pre-Civil War era can be stuck, like the footnote it has become, between space-hogging structures that bespeak Southern charm in a very strange language. It was across the street from Holy Cross that the fantastic Margery Albright lived out four decades of her long life, in a “two-story frame house” that “was one of the serene, substantial structures of my infancy and youth, for all its flimsy shabbiness.” No shabbiness here. There wasn’t much of anything at all. But it was New Year’s day and everything that looks merely empty on any other day will have a sort of heightened emptiness on New Year’s because nobody’s around expect the odd sightseer, the self-medicating wanderer, and the ghostly presences that tend to stage the same sort of reunions living people do.

The capper, from which 921 is notably missing.
The capper, from which 921 is notably missing.

I drew a cramped little sketch of the century-old church as it tolled for me and moved south along Fifth until I came to a sort of crossroads; to the East stretched a flat and nearly treeless desolation that seemed to define “sea level.” There was nothing on it but an off-hours establishment that must cater to a forgetful clientele; a furniture company that seemed – to judge from the factory-era detritus – to resist becoming an artist’s loft; some sort of clinic the sick had decided to abandon. I went that way because I’d parked the van along East Broad and could feel it near me; there I could re-group, gather fresh information, and plan my next assault.

In the van, I flipped through my text, The Thurber Album, to the pictures. Opposite some group shots of Thurber’s clubby mom was a picture of the oldest of the Thurber houses – not the museum, which everybody in Columbus knows about. I would now attempt to find this iconic structure where beds fell out of windows; a dozen dogs had surged up at a sour relative; strange and uproarious plots were hatched against real estate speculators – and all sorts of other things Thurber didn’t have the time to talk about, or re-invent, in his later years.

The house the Thurber family had moved into over a hundred years ago, and occupied at the turn of the century before moving to Washington, DC, stood well past the old city limits. A housekeeper had thought of the area as downright creepy; tangled greenery and spooky-looking oak and walnut occupied the next, and final, lot – beyond which Indians might have pitched camp for all she knew. I kept that image in mind as I drove – though, writing fifty years after the fact, Thurber had already claimed the area for urban development. I expected that a few more houses had sprung up around there; perhaps there was no natural creepiness left at all.

Taking Bryden Road, where Thurber’s herbalist grandmother, Margaret Fisher, had grown up, I began my search for 921 Champion Avenue, a foursquare house with a smallish yard and a somewhat oversized front porch, under which terrified Thurber children had run to escape various calamities before the turn of the last century. Thurber’s mother, an actress by compulsion, had probably lingered on this porch to relive any number of successful assaults on the fourth wall, while Charley Thurber, an even-tempered man of extraordinary latitude, had no doubt paused there and thought: “What’s next?”

Thurber had said of it: “Almost all my memories of the Champion Avenue house have as their focal point the lively figure of my mother.”

Here is my favorite story – with certain small, but necessary deletions – about her, as told in The Thurber Album: “Only a few months after poor Mary borrowed the neighbors’ dogs, she “bought” the Simonses’ house. It was a cold, blocky house, not far from ours, and its owner had been trying to sell it for a long time. It was generally believed that Harry and Laura (the house’s owners) would never get the big, damp place off their hands. Then, late one dark afternoon, a strange and avid purchaser showed up. It was my mother, wearing dark glasses, her hair and eyebrows whitened with flour, her cheeks lightly shadowed with charcoal to make them look hollow, and her upper teeth covered with the serrated edge of soda cracker. On one side of her, as she pressed the doorbell of the Simonses’ house, stood a giggling cousin of hers, named Belle Cook, and I was on her other side; we were there to prevent a prolonged scrutiny of the central figure of our trio. Belle was to pose as my mother’s daughter, and I was to be Belle’s son. Simons had never met Miss Cook, and my mother was confident that he wouldn’t recognize me. His wife, Laura, would have penetrated her friend’s disguise at once, or, failing that, she would surely have phoned the police, for the weird visitor seemed, because of her sharp, projecting teeth, both demented and about to spring, but my mother had found out that Laura would not be home. When she made herself up, an hour before, I had watched the transformation from mother to witch with a mixture of wonder and worry that lingered in my memory for years.

“Harry Simons, opening his front door on that dark evening in the age of innocence, when trust flowered as readily as suspicion does today, was completely taken in by the sudden apparition of an eccentric, elderly woman who babbled of her recently inherited fortune and said she had passed his house the day before and fallen in love with it. When she praised every room she stumbled into and every object she bumped against–she wouldn’t take off her dark glasses in the lamplit room–a wild hope must have glazed his eye, disarming his perception. He admitted later, when the cat was out of the bag, that Belle’s idiotic laughter, and mine, at everything that was said had disturbed him, especially when it was provoked by my mother’s tearful account of the sad death of her mythical husband, a millionaire oil man. But idiocy in a family is one thing, and money is another. Mrs. Prentice, or Douglas, or whatever she called herself, was rolling in money that day. She upped Simons’ asking price for the house by several thousand dollars, on the ground that she wouldn’t think of paying as little as ten thousand for such a lovely place. By this time, she was overacting with fine abandon, but the overwhelmed Simons was too far gone in her land of fantasy for reality to operate. On her way out of the house, she picked up small portable things–a vase, a traveling clock, a few books–remarking that, after all, they now belonged to her. Still Simons’ wits did not rally, and all of a sudden the three of us were out in the street again–my mother who had been my grandmother, her cousin who had been my mother, and me. I feel that this twisted hour marked the occupation of my mind by a sense of confusion that has never left it.”

Those who had built up Bryden Road were obviously in love with the pattern books of fin de siecle America. Here were turrets and gambrel roofs; ornate gingerbread; pieces of errant brick that resolved themselves into checkerboards and other fine geometries; iron finials, shamelessly stuck-up bits of peaked roof and high-end gable; oval arches under which, no doubt, countless spectacularly caparisoned brides had passed on their way to more sparely dressed honeymoons. Yet, past Parsons Street, where the city of Thurber’s day started to fray a bit, Bryden Road began to look tatty. Many of the big houses were no longer the pride of homeowners, but refuge for large families who might want all the extra space for reasons other than pure aesthetics. Signs of poverty began, in fact, to crop up, not only in the houses themselves, but in sidewalks that swerved a bit out of line; exhausted-looking shrubbery that obviously clipped itself; and in an overall mood that seems to be characteristic of discarded, forgotten places – a kind of resignation that comes from nowhere and everywhere. If there is such a thing as a “spirit of place,” this urban backwater had fallen into a chopfallen sense of its glory days – which no living person could remember. People who do reasonably well in life generally choose where they want to live; it seemed that the people who lived on, and off, Bryden Road were stuck there.

Yet I saw no overt signs of a collective angst. There was plenty of activity, and none of it I would necessarily identify with that of my own neighborhood in Northeast DC, a notorious hotbed of drug dealing, turf warfare, and (you guessed it!) rampant gentrification. Kids were running around, on bicycle and on foot; old people were measuring each step as they walked from one opened door to another; young adults were removing garden tools from the backs of pickups and taking them off somewhere. In other words, the level of activity was pretty high and the nature of it absolutely normal. Old Bryden Road and its various offshoots were most certainly alive, just not fixed-up. I had nothing against that. Most of the places I’ve lived in have met that description.

All the streets off Bryden Road are one way and run north/south, so in order to get all the way to 921 Champion Avenue, I had to go about ten blocks south of Bryden and, when I got to Champion, make a sharp right and pull a bit off the side of the road into something that was neither ditch nor curb, but had the unredeeming characteristics of both. I had to do a little puddle-jumping just to get onto the sidewalk. Having front-loaded myself, however, I got my bearings quickly enough and was able to navigate like anybody else. Had anybody had noticed my awkward landing? Apparently not. Was that good? Bad? I didn’t know.

Here are some notes I made a few days after I’d come and gone:

Thurber’s old nabe is a bit long in the tooth, but there are few teeth actually missing. This is why the vacancies at 9– and 921 are so anomalous. While I was looking in wild surmise at the empty lot that had been the scene of Thurber’s event-filled early childhood, a young black man, who’d been watching me from the nearest house to the north, asked me what I was doing. Shrugging with what I hoped would indicate both wonderment and frustration, I explained the nature of my visit.

“There is where the author James Thurber used to live. When he was a boy.”

“Right there?”

“Right there,” I answered.

Lemme come see.”

Like a true interloper, I waved him graciously toward a site he probably knew intimately. He was, however, curious about this new dimension, this secret layer I had brought with me from God knows where.

“What’d he write?”

I rattled off some titles.

Ain’t hearda them,” he said, without any attempt to back away from a brand-new thing.

He told me his name: James.

“You’re in good company,” I said, studying the lot. I kept on wondering aloud about how strange it was; James, for whom all of this information was brand-new, may have thought I was a realtor with a somewhat more interesting “line” – a more civilized approach to selling off the neighborhood.

It had been raining for the past couple of days. The brown dirt – from which any lawn-grass had, for the most part, shied away – was pocked and muddy. There were no trees at all. It was as if a small glacier had passed over the spot Thurber’s house had once occupied, driving everything out and leveling off the place it had vacated. The scene was not uniquely depressing. Houses are fragile things. I’m always surprised, whenever I visit a neighborhood like this, at how many of them are still standing. However, this vacancy was a strange one, given that it was presided over by such overwhelmingly perfect attendance. These – Thurber’s and the house next door – were the only houses that were missing. On the entire block, and for many other blocks around. The creepiness the old housekeeper felt lay not outside of the house, but within and around it. So many of the stories I’d read suddenly lacked a setting. No, this was not uniquely depressing; the depressingness was, in fact, fairly mundane. If every vivid locale needs to be among us, perhaps we are the unimaginative race God may think we are. Perhaps the stories can resonate all the more clearly, not being dependent on an actual place. The house I grew up may well disappear – but I doubt it. It’s too mediocre not to be saved; too bloody average for a developer to slice up; too wedded to its fellows to be crushed for its own sake. It’s also doubtful that anybody will be as concerned about its longevity as I am – expect, perhaps, for the people who happen to be living in it. While strange and raucous stuff happened there, I have not as yet recorded it. Nor could goings-on at my house possibly compete with so many of the block’s other families, who, I can only hope, made notes and kept journals. For all I know, the whole damned block may acquire a literature of its own and become a shrine.

“Here. I’ll go get my book and show it to you.”

Suiting action to word, I went over to the van and got it, skipping to the place where the old picture was. On my way back, a little girl popped around the corner and nearly ran into me on her bicycle. I dodged a bit too late, but she missed me and kept riding – though, as I turned around to find James, I noticed that she’d stopped to get a good look at me, the man who had dared to step in front of her as she was just riding along minding her own business in her own neighborhood. She studied me with that unmistakable combination of inquiry and suspicion kids everywhere use to both defy and scope out their elders. In attempted reparation, I made a sort of “Who me?” gesture, which appeared, after a few beats, to satisfy her. She jumped on the bicycle, rode it hard down the block, and didn’t look back.

Thurber’s namesake suddenly and unaccountably lost interest after I showed him the picture of the old house. He said “Nice meetin’ you, sir” and went back to where he came from. I did too – though I stuck around for a while and made sketches. And then, after finding a dankish place in which to answer a particularly urgent call of nature, I found the highway and started driving northeast towards Pennsylvania.  


(The author is based out of Washington, DC.)


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