My neighborhood is small, the town it’s in is small too. From an outsider’s perspective, our little corner of the world has nothing to boast of. There is one stoplight, a grocery store, a drug store, an ice cream shoppe, and a gas station. The biggest event of the year is the Tomato Show, which is a street fair that showcases tomatoes and anything you can make with tomatoes. But living here is as exciting as the big city, you just have to know where to look.
There is a lady who lives on the corner of my street. She never speaks but is always in her garden. Old and crooked, she tirelessly toils in the little patch of ground where her plants thrive. Her floppy straw hat bounces as she tills the soil by hand and whenever you see her it covers her arms like elegant ballroom gloves. Neither her hat nor her flowered mu-mu makes her a remarkable sight to behold, it’s the twinkle in her eyes as she gazes across the span of grass she calls her own.
Often, I wonder what she sees when her looks become distant and soft. Most times she stares through the narrow gap between her house and her neighbor where in the distance you can barely make out rooftops from Main Street. Does she remember all those years ago when the liquor store caught fire and burned half the town? Can she hear the horses and smell the mill whose building still stands vigil at the end of Main? What things she could tell me, if only I asked.
At the other end of the street is a man, young and vibrant. He is always moving and never rests, mowing and weeding and washing. His lawn is neat and tidy, yet his children can be heard calling for him and always the same response, “In a minute!” From the middle of the street I cannot see their faces, but I know their disappointment. He works, all the time, and does chores when he isn’t working. If only he knew that his biggest job lay with the kids who only want a little of the attention he gives everything else. Where the Garden Lady is the past, this man is the future. With his nice cars and expensive possessions, he pays no attention to the little things in life that matter.
My neighborhood is Purgatory, not past and not future. Somehow the little clapboard homes have grown modern appendages, new structures that are ungainly and unnatural. Woodsmoke blends with the smell of exhaust fumes, corn fields meet gas stations and faded bomb shelter signs rust beneath new neon signs mounted to old brick storefronts. I love this place, with its confused and disjointed image. Here everything new was once old and everything old is made new again.
At night I sit on my porch and can see the glow of the furnace at the factory across town. It’s warm light is a reminder that even though the shops all close at six, the whole world is not asleep. The train tracks are gone now, ripped from their place in the ground last year, but if you are quiet and use your imagination you can almost hear the hiss of the steam engine stopping at the grain elevator. In this place where doctors offices are old houses, the Amish sell their wares by the shiny new park, and sometimes the only restaurant is a pizza shop, I have found home.
Maybe tomorrow I will finally go talk to Garden Lady and ask her what she sees. Maybe I will go tell Busy Man that time runs through our fingers like sand in an hourglass. Or maybe I will just look around and see all the things I see, smiling because it may be different tomorrow but it will be the same. It’s dark now and the burning eye of the furnace is peeking above the trees outside my kitchen window. Tonight I fall asleep with a promise of tomorrow and a message from the past, and that is what makes this place special. Not everyone may see what I see, but the ones that do love this neighborhood just like me.