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.

Haunted

New England is haunted. I suppose you could say the same for places like New Orleans, San Francisco, and Chicago. But I’m a life-long New Englander and have the most experience with this area. And besides, it’s almost required by law around here for us to be ego-centric jerks about this kind of thing.

Take a step in any direction around one of these towns and you’ll inevitably come upon the resting place, dwelling place, or meeting place of the deceased folks who lived and worked and fought there and probably invented something annoyingly vital like shoelaces or love songs. I only recently discovered a new piece of history hiding in plain sight on a busy boulevard in a town just a couple of miles from where I live. It’s a granite plinth that marks the spot of The Black Horse Tavern. On April 18, 1775 The Committee of Safety (very believable name) met in The Black Horse Tavern for a heated discussion about British oppression. I assume they were just about to get their act together and really, we mean it this time, do something about those crap policies when they woke up the next day to find the Revolutionary War was happening. Talk about your two birds, one very, very large stone situation. The granite piece sits at the edge of a sidewalk alongside a BP Gas Station. Maybe one day they will add another marker: This site once a shrine to fossil fuel, late capitalism, and man’s audacious stupidity.

I like encountering these traces of our forebearers. It’s nice to know that we’re not the first ones to screw things up or make some solid improvements that just might outlive us. I enjoy standing in front of a house clearly removed from this century. Maybe it’s a neat, boxy Georgian-style house with its regimented window placement and demure, chaste doorways (suck it Federal-style with your lofty balconies and fancy friezes). I read the little sign that tells me this house belonged to William Braddock, 1770 and make my brain squint trying to imagine Mr. Braddock at home. Maybe he’s seated at his desk, oil lamp burning low, his head tilted toward a piece of paper, a quill in hand as he ardently writes—a letter, a poem, a treatise against those damn, oppressive British policies. A life runs outside the lines of history.  

It was a friend of mine who told me about The Black Horse Tavern. She was doing some ancestry research and discovered family ties to the place. She asked if I wouldn’t mind going over to photograph the marker to give her a better perspective of the surroundings. As I stood there, I realized I had probably walked by this spot dozens of times without noticing the granite post. To see or not to see, that is the question. I apologize for nothing, Shakespeare.

Ghosts always announce themselves. But is it the wind? The cat fooling around with something? The back stairs settling? Better not to look too closely, not to notice too much. How comfortable we’ve become substituting whatever is bleating from our pocket-sized technology for wonder and curiosity and astonishment. And so New England spoils me with its old timey, spooky burial grounds pressed up against regular houses and its moss-covered statues and deserted hulls of textiles mills waving as if to say “Look at me! Look over here! Wrap your dumb mind around something completely different for a change!”  

Because once you start noticing, you can’t not notice (I apologize for nothing, English teachers). It adds up. All the weird, interesting, unsettling, funny, beautiful things—past and present littering your everyday—jumble together in the strangest and most interesting mosaic. You tuck these things away in little storage units like old library card catalogues. Without even trying, your cache of brilliance and creativity and introspection and insight and empathy and curiosity and appreciation and idea-having balloons. It’s the best kind of bloat you’ve ever experienced: all of the pleasure and none of the guilt. No, it’s definitely not the wind or the cat. It’s just you—haunted.  

Even Longfellow Got the Blues

Every neighborhood has a party house. In the quiet, tree-lined streets just blocks away from Harvard University in the 1850s, that house was the Longfellow’s. Celebrated poet and Harvard professor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sure knew how to throw those ragers. On any given Saturday night, you might arrive with a bottle of wine and a festive cheese plate to find Charles Dickens standing by the fire place droning on about one of his new “little stories” set around the time of the French Revolution (Yawn–save it for your editor Chuck, this is a party!). Transcendental philosopher and literary goliath Ralph Waldo Emerson might be smoking cigars in the library with Dom Pedro II, the King of the Empire of Brazil. Fanny Kemble, the Idina Menzel of nineteenth-century theatre could be found entertaining guests around the Longfellow’s great dining room table. To be a cool kid invited to this kind of A-list hangout, which tells you a lot about what I consider “cool,” is all I can think about when I duck under the rope that cordons off one of the house’s side porches meant to keep out “other” tourists, but not a hometown tourist like me, and climb up on the porch to peek in the windows like some kind of burglar at her first day on the job.

Even before it was a host to nineteenth-century artistic, political, and cultural hipsters, the Longfellow House was already at the epicenter of history. Built in 1759, it remains a stately mansion constructed in the Georgian style, which is architectural shorthand for elegantly boxy with ornamental columns. The house sits back from the road, accessed through a gate and up a long walk leading up a several flights of stone steps to the front porch. It’s painted a cheerful lemonade yellow with crisp black shutters. There’s a tranquil garden tucked into the northeast corner of the property behind the house with paved walkways and arching, white trellises. Longfellow lived there for more than 40 years, and it’s easy to see why.

The first inhabitant of the house was an Englishman named John Vassall. He inherited a house on a large tract of land alongside a major stretch of road initially named The King’s Highway, now Brattle St., when he was 21. When I turned 21 I was a sophomore in college. I got a new stereo to listen to my bitchin CD collection from Columbia House Records. The Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume 2 never sounded so sweet, I assure you. John Vassall might have been just a teensy bit privileged. And in classic trust fund child style, he tore down the existing house to build the current mansion as his summer residence.

Vassall was pretty happy at 105 Brattle St. until the fall of 1774 when a little something happened us Massholes like to refer to as The Revo-FREAKING-lutionary War. We are also fond of bragging that this was, “the most wicked awesomest of all wars” because the “Brits might have stahhhted it, but we frickin finished it!” That is an historically accurate quote. Vassall was loyal to King George, which was going to be a very big inconvenience. That September Vassall packed up whatever wasn’t nailed down and fled to England. The Patriots confiscated all of Vassall’s properties, yelling “How do you like THEM summah houses?”

As the war got underway Boston was the first stronghold to see conflict. General George Washington set up his headquarters in Vassall’s recently vacated house in the summer of 1775 to oversee what would become known as the Siege of Boston, which lasted for ten months (so, you could say it was siege-light).

Washington’s Apothecary General (real job), Andrew Craigie, purchased the house in 1791. He lived there until he didn’t—because of the dying in 1819. Craigie undertook massive renovations to the house—adding on beautiful porches flanking both sides of the house, turning the library into a massive ballroom—and died leaving his wife, Elizabeth, in financial straights. At the time women had very few rights. They could not vote, could not attend college, and could not own property. They could, however, get saddled with their husband’s debt. The technical term for this type of gender disparity is “utter bullshit.” Like many of her peers, Elizabeth was enterprising, resilient, and creative. She earned money by opening the house up to borders. One of those borders was a young man with dark eyes, unruly hair, and genuine puzzlement about all of the snickering and smiling whenever he introduced himself as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow was just starting a professorship at Harvard College when he boarded at the Craigie home. It would be the house he eventually owned and raised his family in. It was also a creative sanctuary for Longfellow. He occupied a study on the first floor, the same room that had served as General Washington’s office. There he wrote many of his most enduring works such as the poems “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Village Blacksmith” as well as the epic poems The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline, underneath the gaze of portraits of his buds like writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and painter Eastman Johnson, who went on to co-found New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. What a drag to have such slacker, nothing-burger friends. And also, Henry: no pressure.

The house is under the management of the National Park Service. In non-pandemic times, it is open for tours. I am out of luck on the recent Sunday morning that I visit and have to settle for creeping around the exterior and surrounding grounds. But even that proximity does the trick: I am nearish to “the room where it happens” (sorry Hamilton, get used to that over-use). I think this is part of what plays into what brings us to visit these types of places and motivates their careful and earnest preservation.

I want to plant my feet in the spot where General Washington looked out toward the Charles River to gauge its traffic—friend or foe. I want to slip into the cracks of history to get closer to the people who made it. This probably makes me weird, but hardly unique. Isn’t this why we collect things like Beatles memorabilia or outbid someone for JFK’s slippers? We want to scratch the itch to transcend our ordinary, regular selves and be a tourist in someone else’s life. But all vacations must end. As any of these individuals would tell us if they could: real life is not lived in preservation. And maybe that’s also what draws me to find out more about the lives lived behind any four walls. It’s inspiring to try and siphon a bit of greatness from a historical person or place, but it’s much more satisfying to leave reminding myself that at the end of the night, Dickens still had to go home and write the damn thing and even Longfellow got the blues.

Thoreau Back

I spend twenty minutes wandering around a paved path that loops up over several short grassy hills trying to find “Author’s Ridge,” the plateau where Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau are buried. There is big nineteenth-century nerd energy here in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord Massachusetts.

Designed in 1855, the landscape architects chose the “garden design” approach, a popular new trend in cemeteries at the time. When I read about this, I pictured a group of white, male landscape architects sipping brandy and smoking cigars in a tavern talking about the “next hot thing” in the cemetery game:  

Water, boys! Its all about the ornamental ponds and the like. Makes people feel less sad about their dearly departed Abigail whilst standing on a footbridge, feeding the ducks and the like. If only the Internet existed, we could tweet the crap out of this stuff and the like.  

What this actually means is that Sleepy Hollow unfolds as a rambling, meandering space. Gently sloping rises give way to gravestones set in among thick strands of trees and lush, flowering shrubs. The layout invites strolling, exploring, visiting, and generally spending time in a place where time is glacial on the surface and irrelevant underneath. It’s easy to lose yourself—literally.

I double back to where I started and stand in front of a site map that is unhelpful, mostly because I can’t read maps unless they are of the children’s placemat menu variety. On my right I hear two women approaching down from another hilltop path. I hear one of them say something about “the Winona Ryder version” and I know they are talking about one of the film adaptations of Alcott’s Little Women. Out of the corner of my eye I see one woman make the universal “just over that way” arm gesture. A lucky break! I give them a decent lead and start to quite conspicuously tail them. I am struck with the certainty that I would have easily died in the first five minutes of any war regardless of domestic or foreign soil.

As I come closer to the bottom of the ridge, I note a modest outcropping where one might even park a car and a large, freshly painted sign reading “Author’s Ridge” with a bold arrow pointing up a steep incline. Helpful now that I’ve arrived. Sure.

The two women have long outpaced me and are already drifting from site to site when I get to the top. The ridge sits toward the back of the cemetery. A line of trees forms a natural barrier along the back slope and further beyond that sits a huge expanse of what appears to be wetland and woods. If you’re going to submit to the belief of an eternal, physical resting place, you might as well splurge a bit on the drapes.

I feel a little dopey being up here, a little touristy on home turf. But these are my people. Language lovers, word warriors, creative weirdos—they used their gifts and skills to, as Georgia O’keefe said, make their “unknown known.” And the world was changed forever because of it. No pressure. A highlight reel of these American literary all-stars:

Louisa May Alcott wrote WOMEN’S FICTION (all those emotions, gross); her enduring work was the eventual classic Little Women. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote several novels, including The Slut Shaming Handbook, known by its more popular title, The Scarlet Letter. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a writer and philosopher considered the father of transcendentalism (we don’t know who the mother was because PATRIARCHY). This was a set of philosophical ideas about the inherent purity of man and nature. His essays, speeches, and lectures took on big ideas about things such as self-reliance, individualism, and the relationship between nature and spirituality (that last one made the Catholic clergy very grumpy; they were absolutely not having this nonsense about Jesus being a tree. Hard pass). Henry David Thoreau was a gentle, somewhat introverted naturalist who wrote about the environment and pressing issues of the day such as abolition and the importance of civil disobedience. Most consider Thoreau’s master work his book, Walden. In it, he chronicled that time he lived in a one-room dwelling, which he built himself, on the shores of Walden Pond (about a mile outside of his hometown of Concord) while not Instagramming it.

The writers are clustered together with their families. Spouses, children, siblings. The Emerson family plot feels like a VIP lounge. Cordoned off with chains, the site contained several generations of Emersons. In the middle, front and center, sits Ralph Waldo’s headstone. Strike that: head boulder. He rests beneath a large, tall slab of jagged granite. It rises up over everything like a harvest moon. It’s quite beautiful. In the light, the white granite assumes a purplish hue. It’s all rugged and misshapen and if you squint and fantasize just a little bit, you can almost see the gouges left by the picks of the quarrymen who excavated the hunk for old R.W. (Side note: That’s what I would have called him back in the day: “Nice starched collar, R.W. Turn your head in that thing much?” This would have been considered a very sick nineteenth-century burn, I assure you). Big man on campus, Emerson. Message received.

I lingered a little in front of Alcott’s grave, which consists of a small rectangular stone, not much longer than an envelope, just wide enough to contain her name. That day there was a bouquet of dried flowers left to one side. Someone had also stuck pencils around her stone to form a border. It reminded me of a kind of summoning circle, a protective enchantment around the writer whose words endure, whose works continue to fuel the dreams of others. The pencils were new. Unblemished yellow and smart pink hats, stilts for walking across the centuries.

I breezed past Hawthorne (sorry Nate) and came to a stop in front of the person I was really here for: Thoreau. I am team Henry David. A high school English teacher taught on the transcendentalists and it wasn’t too long after that I read Walden in its entirety. In later years I picked through his other writings—essays and books—along with his journals. Thoreau’s genuine and unapologetic love, curiosity, and reverence for the natural world in its entirety from the ice crystals forming on the pond in October to the birds nesting in the trees around his property is inspiring. He exercises this extreme care and attention to whatever it is he’s immersed in—land surveying, plant collection, a canoe paddle up the Concord River—that feels increasingly rare in our twenty-first century sound bite-skim-centric-plagued lives and also like the antidote.

Thoreau does not want to disappear into the hills and live in a hut (no Wifi? We are not barbarians, Henry David!). Rather, it’s how he found his way to things that he truly cared about and then proceeded to forge a life committed to honoring those interests with authenticity and integrity that makes me fan girl for Thoreau. That takes more bravery and grit than hanging out in a cabin in the woods.  

Thoreau’s grave is toward the back of his family plot. His marker is marble, about the size of a lunchbox, engraved with his name. A simple headstone for a man who was anything but. There were no offerings at Thoreau’s grave that day. It’s a common practice to leave a stone or rock on someone’s gravesite as a sign of respect and remembrance. Others believe that a stone placed on someone’s grave keeps their soul tethered to this plane. I believe we can’t have too much Thoreau in the world. I hunted around in the dirt nearby and found a small flat stone, worn into a slight oval shape, perfect for skimming over sparkling waters on a summer day. I placed it gently on the top of Thoreau’s grave and set off back on the path leading me down from the ridge.

We Are Here

It’s a time to get real cozy with your local surroundings. Maybe you never noticed that house three streets over with the chicken coop in the far side of the yard. Maybe you were tempted to slip a note in their mailbox offering to trade toilet paper for eggs. Maybe you changed your mind because that’s like swapping the Hope diamond for a handful of acorns. One of the places I recently became aware of in my own back yard-ish a beautiful rambling preserve that sits on 80 acres of wooded land known as the Brooks Estate.

The Brooks family were part of the Puritan migration to Massachusetts in the 1600s. Thomas Brooks settled in the area in 1660, promptly securing 400 acres of land for his family, like any self-respecting white colonizer would. The family made quick roots for themselves, reproducing successful and noteworthy progeny like runners of string beans for more than a century. A John Brooks served as Governor of Massachusetts from 1816 to 1823. And decades before, in 1775, records show that an Edward Brooks took up arms against British soldiers on that April day when the first shots of war rang out from nearby Concord, Massachusetts. The story goes that Edward’s wife, Abigail, served cocoa to the scrappy, New England Minutemen as they traveled passed the estate back to Boston after the battle. I’m hoping there was something stronger in those mugs than chocolate.  

The family amassed its fortune first through farming in the 1700s, and later, in the 1800s, through savvy business ventures in marine insurance, which has to be as glamorous and high-stakes as it sounds. The Brooks family had a lot, and they gave even more: they donated money to build schools and churches, to commission artworks and underwrite public projects. And like a lot of their fellow Massholes, they were also slave owners.  

The partial remains of a long brick wall sits 50 yards of so from what is now the main entrance to the grounds. It fronts a shallow stand of scrubby woods bookended by houses in a residential neighborhood. The smart red bricks stand out from the low rock wall running on either side; it stands out from everything around it, giving it that anachronistic feel like finding a payphone in Silicon Valley. A plaque placed on one side of the wall commemorates it as The Slave Wall: built in the 1700s as part of the entrance to one of the main properties by an African man named Pomp who belonged to the Brooks. Later when I looked online to find out more, I read that the Brooks owned slaves from about 1720 to 1783 when Massachusetts began to gradually phase out the abhorrent practice. The historical documents I read noted that even though the Brooks were not “industrial-scale slave owners” (because: better?), their role in the historical institution of slavery is “definitely the low point in their history” (also: understatement of the century).

As I continued on with my walk through what remains of the estate grounds, I couldn’t stop thinking about Pomp’s wall. And that’s how it kept coming back to me, not “the slave wall,” but this person’s work, a record of their being. There was a body, a human being, an entire life in every brick, ever drop of mortar that went into making what is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, even as it was created under untenable circumstances. I was here, it seemed to say. I was a life and a soul and had a story of my own. I was here. I mattered. I existed.

There are so many historical nooks and crannies in New England that it often seems like you can’t take fifteen steps without stumbling upon a house or park or rusting boat anchor bearing a marker that tells of its significance. I’m that person who stops to read those while the person I’m with keeps walking before getting a block ahead and realizing they’re down a plus one. Plaques and markers give us facts, but not the story. The facts help us to not forget, but the story helps us to remember. Pomp’s story, which will likely never be truly told, is our collective story right now: the people behind doors and plastic barriers and protective gear. I am here. I matter. I exist.

These mornings when I’m out for my walk, I pass new relics of a nascent history, of stories in the midst of their tellings. Sidewalk chalk drawings of hearts and flowers and rainbows, of statements in blocky text that read things like “We’re in this together!” and “Stay positive!”

I see drawings tacked onto the window panes of houses and doors. Cheerful scenes rendered in magic markers, shining with the kind of undefeatable optimism that only children seem to have in infinite supply. On other doors and fences and on a few car windows I see messages of gratitude and encouragement for healthcare workers, mail carriers, food delivery people, and first responders. I know these missives repeat and multiply in cities and towns and neighborhoods all over the country like kaleidoscope images. It’s the most impressive bucket brigade in the history of the world. A call longing for response.

There are human beings behind the walls with stories of their own. We recede behind our masks and coverings. We isolate and pull further inwards like collapsed stars. We wait and watch the sky for a sign that the weather is shifting. And we still find ways to reach into the breach to find one another, affirming we are here. We matter. We exist.