Paved Paradise

I pass by the parking lot a few times a week on my routine walks. It’s a small square of concrete that belongs to a 3-story apartment building. The building is unremarkable—a brown paper bag of brick with mid-sized bay windows facing a busy street that’s kind of a junk drawer of places: two-family houses, sketchy real estate offices, a hardware store from the 1950s, a laundromat that doubles as an art gallery (totally real), and, in my opinion, the crown jewel of the stretch: the Ace of Fades barber shop.

I can only imagine that the units inside the building echo the forgettable exterior: a lot of wall-to-wall beige carpet shampooed a thousand times, but not enough to chase away the dingy, baked-in dust hue; white appliances in galley kitchens with once-was-white linoleum and particle board cabinets; bedrooms just big enough to hold a king size and maybe a skinny table and lamp from IKEA, but nothing else (sorry Aunt Sally’s antique brass mirror, you will not be going through to the next round). I could have easily spent the rest of my life not noticing this place if it weren’t for the compact, granite memorial marker parked smartly in a neat bed of mulch at the edge of the lot.

Living in New England for as long as I have, which is my entire life, you become accustomed to encountering plaques, markers, memorials, etchings carved into the walls of moldering,  decidedly very haunted stone houses at any and all intervals around the region. It’s totally normal to be out walking your dog, head down a side street you’ve never been before, and run across a Colonial-looking house with a sign that says “Here lived Bratten James Willoby III who invented the horseshoe and fought off sixteen Redcoats in the fall of 1778 with nothing but an oil lamp and his Bible.” Who needs historical reenactors when it’s literally just outside your door?

And because I’m a history dork, I’m compelled to stop, or in some cases go completely out of my way, to read this or that marker or sign. I’m partly genuinely fascinated by lives lived centuries ago on that particular spot. I believe in mining the past to understand the present; to help us not lose too much sight of our common humanity; to see how far we’ve come; to chart a better way forward or die trying. I also take snobbish pleasure from knowing arcane, esoteric things that others don’t or, more accurately, wouldn’t because they have rich, interesting lives that involve summoning cars and throw pillows and designer drugs using Alexa-the-techno-genie. I am not fun at dinner parties.

So it was on the third or fourth time walking by that I noticed the granite slab out of the corner of my eye and stopped to check it out. Maybe the whole property was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Maybe it was a speakeasy during prohibition. Maybe a group of women lived here who worked in the Boston shipyards during World War II, but were actually spies smuggling messages and cured meats to aid our boys overseas. New England is one big history buffet. The neatly lettered engraving on the granite face read:

This parking area in memory of Stanley Dudek

25 years of dedicated service to the people of the Medford Hillside

Well. I had questions. Who are you Stanley Dudek? A very lazy, one-page Google search turned up nothing. I found out the Hillside is the name of the neighborhood, first developed in the 1870s. Unless Stan was a time traveler, he wasn’t around for the neighborhood’s inception. So what exactly was he doing in service of the “people of the Medford Hillside,” which also makes it sound slightly culty or, at the very least, secret society-ish (the money and power kind, not the blood oath type). But really what I couldn’t stop thinking about was: you apparently did some pretty wonderful, probably selfless, most definitely generous things for others and THEY DEDICATED A PARKING LOT TO YOU, STAN. A place to leave your car, maybe smoke a cigarette, enjoy the occasional beer-in-bag whilst leaning against said car, have that last fight with your boyfriend at 3 AM in the cold, heartless, icy apocalypse of a February morning. So, really, this is the shining tribute you could come up with for your great pal, Stan?

I’m not judging. But I am judging. Peoples’ dying wishes come in all shapes, sizes, and unusual objects. Hunter S. Thompson stipulated his ashes get mixed with firework powder so that BOOM POW went Hunter all over the place. A long-time Marvel Comic’s book editor asked for his remains to be filtered into ink used in one of the comic’s titles. A company called LifeGem offers to turn Mom, Dad, or Uncle Stevie into a beautiful (and completely, totally, absolutely, 100% cursed) diamond. All of it is weird, but seems to capture the spirit (no pun intended) of the deceased. Stan’s parking lot, though. Now that I just found bleak, a little too on the nose in terms of our utilitarian existence.

Unless, of course, this is really what Stan wanted–this granite stump nestled into a 5×6 piece of dirt and mulch declaring Stan’s dominion over a practical, unassuming parking lot. Maybe that’s who Stan was at his core: a regular Joe carving out a regular life, doing the best he could with what he had, and, along the way, trying to make life just a little bit better, a little bit easier, for his fellow Hillsiders. Most of us are probably very fortunate to be remembered at all—let alone in any flattering way, which is why you must designate someone to erase your browser history.

All the best myths and tales-of-old give us heroes wielding crappy second-hand swords, royalty dressed in rags, peasant girls who possess all the power. The extraordinary always hide in plain sight. Maybe it isn’t so far-fetched to think of Stan’s lot as reliable, familiar, and even welcoming in a world where those things and the people who share those qualities may be hard to come by. After all, one building’s parking lot may be someone else’s paved paradise.

2 thoughts

  1. As I head into the backstretch of a surprisingly ordinary (spoken as an insult a la the movie American Beauty) life, a parking lot marker seems like an achievement. Sure, there’s the blog, but how long will that sit idle before WordPress takes it down for good?

    1. I agree, Jeff–we’re lucky to be remembered (and fondly) in whatever form that takes! I’ll settle for a planter, a park bench, a penny at the bottom of an Italian fountain 🙂

Leave a Reply to Jeff Cann Cancel reply