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.  

Quitting Winter

Winter, I’m giving notice. I’m quitting. I’m out. I’m done-zo. No need to bring in HR for an exit interview. I barely have anything in my desk anyway—a packet of tissues, a pair of mittens, a small box of festering despair. You can burn my file. I was about to do that for warmth anyway.

This is the time of the season that breaks me. I think if you conducted an informal poll of New Englanders, the non-skiers, non-snowboarders, non-cold-weather-activity-enthusiasts, and I’m including the people who think it’s perfectly fine to jump into the ocean in the middle of January all in the name of charity (I see what you really are: equal parts decent and Vulcan), you’d find that many of us start to come apart at the seams right around now.

It’s the cold, the cold, the savaging cold. The raw, icy, forever damp, splits your skin, freezes your lungs shut like a vault, fuses to your goddamn bones, cold. There’s a lyric from a Patty Griffin song that comes to mind: “Where I come from/winter’s long, gets into your boots.” I hear that line and instinctively my toes curl to escape the swampy chill. Griffin knows what she’s talking about. She grew up in Old Town Maine, a small, rural town located about 3 hours from the Canadian border. Single digits make for a balmy October. In January and beyond, the thermometer plunges and stays well below zero. It comes as a shock to no one from around here that Griffin ended up settling in Austin, Texas.

It’s also the weather, the weather, the unforgiving weather! The wonder and novelty of the early snowfalls in December and January have faded, or as B.B. King sang, “the thrill is gone.” Those storms made us all briefly entranced. Like Dorothy stepping out of her house and past the unfortunate remains of the witch she just smoshed, into the glorious landscape of technicolor OZ, we marveled at the world transformed. We gawked at how the snow turned the gnarliest, sickly-looking house on the block into an iced gingerbread castle. We blinked at this newly made place in astonishment even though it happens every year; it’s remarkable how the first snow of the season manages to feel like the first discovery of snow itself. If only all of life held even a thimbleful of that kind of mojo.

But now: the cold air turns stubborn, refuses to give us more than a few degrees in either direction. The snow, the beautiful, sparkling stuff that looks like it belongs in a diamond engagement ring commercial, turns mean, unyielding. It gathers itself into small icebergs that squat on street corners. Sometimes they marshal themselves in a chain along the edge of a sidewalk like security guards standing at the apron of a stage at a Taylor Swift concert. The snow becomes leaden and dense; it fuses into a special type of hardpack with a polymer make-up of cement and Gorilla glue. In the city, streets shrink to half their width. Cars parked on the street become ensnared. Up and down the block, they look like insects wrapped neatly in spider webbing. Some are tilted uncomfortably on banks, as if The Hulk was in mid-lift when he got a phone call that his wife was going into labor and he dropped everything and ran. Driving is a dicey situation. These are the days that try men’s souls and side mirrors.

Why do I live here? This is also a question that circulates among us on Facebook and in text messages, accompanied by crying emojis and images of places like Bali and Costa Rica. It’s like we’ve collectively given birth and forgotten the pain and hardship of the experience, cheerfully signing up for the next one. It’s seasonal amnesia. Because prior to this period of winter slog, we are chirpy assholes about how lucky we are to live short distances in nearly any direction from the coastline and mountains and lakes and national parks and big cities along with small, historic towns. We’re eager to brag about the seasons—like, we have all four, you guys—as a selling point: #leafpeeping, #NewEnglandFall, #NewEnglandblossoms, #beachday, #ShutUpNewEngland. If there ever is another civil war, New England will get preemptively kicked out of the union for our unsufferable elitism alone.

I know there are plenty of other states with a love/murderous rage relationship with winter. Minnesota, Nebraska, Alaska, both Dakotas—you win a prize for hardest seasonal pounding. I’m not unsympathetic. I just think you know what you signed up for moving to places where the wind doesn’t just come sweeping down the plains, it wrecks them and everything in its path. You clicked “agree” after not reading the terms of service. New Englanders are both gold-medal level whiners and stubborn old goats. You’ll never get us to admit you have it harder than us.

But this year I mean it; I’m not playing around. That’s it—khattam-shud, the end. I pile on my padding to take my usual morning walk and consider my options. I could live on a houseboat in the Aegean sea. I could become one of those RV people who rove the nation, their homes on their backs like diesel-fueled turtles, visiting places to get enough of my season on before splitting. A few more far-fetched ideas come into view: join Space Force, learn to hibernate like a grizzly, grow gills and take to the ocean.

My mind is so busy sketching my escape that I hardly notice coming to the fork in the bike path. Most days I veer left, a little on autopilot, following the natural continuation of the route. For some reason, that morning my feet turn me right. I cross over a busy road to pick up this other branch of path that I’ve never been on before. There’s a sign at the edge of a wooden fence telling me I’m at the edge of a wetlands preservation and restoration area.

This might not be startling if it weren’t for the fact that the bike path bisects city territory, only slightly insulated from the urban junkscape—highways, apartment complexes, shopping centers. But here I am, suddenly transplanted to Narnia. Wooden footbridges snake over marshy inlets serviced by the nearby river. Snow covers much of the landscape, but stalks of tall, tan reedy things and bushes palming bright red berries growing all over the perimeters create a painterly scene. Stone markers announce the habitats of animals, insects, and native plants. As if to give it all the touch of an attraction at a Disney park, I encounter a stoic blue heron, a squadron of ducks and geese, more cardinals than I’ve ever seen in one place, and a burly hawk perched in a tree.

I visually gobble up all of it, but it’s the hawk that makes me stop and really ogle. She literally doesn’t have to do anything but sit there to be fearsome, awe-inspiring, totally badass. She indulges me anyway. Arching her wings she drifts a few feet away to settle on a nearby utility pole. She swivels her head in a way that feels like a challenge, as if to say: “Yeah, I can make this thing my tree if I want to. You got a problem with that?” No ma’am, I do not. I’m standing off to one side as joggers and people out walking dogs breeze past me. Are they getting any of this? I take what feels like a million photos of this majestic bird, not registering that my hands are freezing. I’m too busy marveling at this incredible landscape, that should not even exist, but has been hiding in plain sight all this time, right where I live! And there is nowhere else I’d rather be than in this sublime, wild place, here, in the middle of winter.

Timing Is Everything

The heron glided silently along the river’s surface like a heat seeking missile. The snow had been falling softly for hours. The landscape blanched like an over-exposed negative. Street signs, trees turning black against the blank canvas, the occasional fearful, red flare of break lights were the only distinguishing markers. It was a not unpleasant disorientation. These days, variety in any form is welcome.

I almost didn’t go down to the river. I had gotten about half-way, slipping and sliding along what I assumed to be sidewalks, wading into snowbanks to avoid getting clipped by the plows out roving like East German gestapos. My camera thudded against my coat, already warped with layers. I cradled it awkwardly. I had it wrapped in a thin, waterproof covering that came with my camera bag. It worked similarly to one of those flies that go over tents and about just as effective.

It was beautiful to be out in the snowstorm. It was work to be out in the snowstorm. Both things can have equal weight. As I trudged, halting every so often when something caught my eye, my mind picked up its own badminton game. The volley:

Haven’t you been out here long enough? It’s kinda cold (whine). You still have to walk back home, you know. Not like you can just pop into a café to get warm. What do you think this is? 2018?

The response:

(Eye-roll) It’s not that cold, c’mon. And it’s gorgeous out here! You’re lucky to even be out here! And haven’t you had enough of the couch and the blanket and the bag of salty chemicals and the book you’re not even pretending to read anymore and the vague sense that your brain is slowly turning into some kind of viscous molasses-like substance that any day now will just start to ooze out of your ear and pool in a puddle of sap that you’ll notice with only the smallest register of astonishment but mostly disinterest because really this seemed like a foregone conclusion after months of festering existential ennui?

Point. Set. Match. I kept moving.

And so it was that I put myself on the trail that runs along the river, which had become one of my favorite and reliable walking destinations in these past months of restriction and caution. It’s not a spectacular route. There are no rocky outcrops singing with the crush and crunch of roiling waters. No bends delivering a stunning vista of hills and fields. No tire swings dangling over irresistible drops into deep kettles of water. The river is an urban waterway—functional, hearty, modest, a sports bra, a metal thermos, a well-oiled baseball glove passed down from parent to kid. Boston’s lumbering Charles River can have the pizazz and the tourons that come with it.

The seemingly unremarkable nature of this stretch feels like a challenge to me. I return and return and return and I always find something that not just catches my gaze, but holds it. I keep expecting the well to run dry and then KERBLAM! I’m 25 feet from the shoreline and just happen to glance to my left, the snow raining down harder now, and I’m gifted with the spectacle of this ethereal creature that seems like she belongs in Jurassic Park than in a suburb of Boston in 2021. And it feels staged. It feels very Disney theme park, cue the animatronic bird to give the tourons a thrill. It works. I’m standing stock still as if breathing too heavy will make it all disappear. I see a couple about fifteen feet ahead of me, a little closer to the edge of the river in the same pose. Witnesses to this strange and beautiful synchronicity of things—the snow, the river, the bird generous enough to give us a viewing, and the astonishing ballet of moments divided into what appears on the surface as random decisions, arbitrary maneuvers, orchestrated by something unseen, but not unfelt, bringing us all to this spot at the exact right time.  

Into The Mystic

The first snowstorm of the season came on hard and fast. Streets became slalom courses. Trees dripping with meringue. The world finally hushed and stilled for all the right reasons instead of for all the strangest ones.

Snow needled my face as I carefully made my way through the slippery, thickly carpeted streets down to the Mystic River. Named “missi-tuk,” which means “large estuary,” by the Algonquan first nation tribe, the Mystic originates north of Boston. It snakes through various communities like East Boston, Chelsea, Charlestown, eventually cutting across Medford, where I live. In addition to being an old waterway, the Mystic has historical significance. That’s one of the things I love about living in New England—you can’t get more than a mile in any direction without running across a house that belonged to a Puritan shoemaker or, if you’re in the historically sexy town of Salem, Massachusetts, the park where they hung witches. New England still pulses with the heartbeat of generations past.

Touching upon so many towns, the Mystic quickly became a major artery in the new colonies. In 1774, 260 British soldiers rowed from Boston up the Mystic to an area in Somerville known as Winter Hill. They marched about a mile to an old stone building where the Puritans stored the largest supply of gunpowder in the region: The Powder House. The British raided the supply, touching off a regional skirmish that came to be known as the Powder Alarm (the colonists were not known for clever branding). Later on, the Mystic supported a thriving shipping industry. The creation of the Middlesex canal joined the Charles and Mystic with the Merrimack River that bypassed Lowell, a center of industrial revolution in the 1800s. Schooners cruised the watery highway transporting timber and molasses for rum distilleries between Medford and the West Indies. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refers to Paul Revere galloping along the Mystic on April 18, 1775, warning patriots against a British attack. The Mystic has seen some action or, to put it another way: if these riverbanks could talk.

Despite its importance, or, at least, former prominence, the Mystic is missable. It’s not very wide or pronounced. Trees and houses line its banks along with the depressing cache of litter. Its waters are the color of dirty, boiled laundry. Swans, ducks, and geese make homes in its reedy shoreline. For all of its former prominence, the Mystic has made itself quietly unobtrusive in the midst of urban sprawl. Kind of like an elderly retiree.

It’s possible to feel sorry for a field, to pity a patch of woods, to have remorse for a river. I know this because I feel bad for the Mystic. And I’m not ashamed of my sentimentality, which in these parts is usually spent on mourning the loss of a beloved dive bar or pining away for world championship banners. It’s our lack of empathy for nature that has put us, in some cases, literal hot water.

In the many months of staying close to home, I’ve gotten to know this part of the Mystic and appreciate her humble beauty—the way the water mirrors a Tiffany blue sky in May, how the trees along her banks explode in golds and oranges in the fall, turning the landscape into a Bierstadt painting. Resilient. Generous. A place, like a person, contains multitudes.

Reaching the overpass where the Mystic flows under, I sunk in the snow up to my shins, enjoying the quiet, deserted atmosphere. Maybe it was like this in 1630 or 1790, nothing to obscure the river or detract from her power. Patches of ice and snow spread out from the shoreline, the water turning a lethal blue under the stormy sky. The Mystic resting like a sapphire necklace against a pale neck—luminous and precious and enduring.