170718 Curiosities served
2004-08-01 6:44 PM
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When he was about twenty-four, Barry Lopez wrote this in his Desert Notes:
I would like to tell you how to get there so that you may see all this for yourself. But first a warning: you may already have come across a set of detailed instructions, a map with every bush and stone clearly marked, the meandering courses of dry rivers and other geographical features noted, with dotted lines put down to represent the very faintest of trails. Perhaps there were also warnings printed in tiny red letters along the margin, about the lack of water, the strength of the wind and the swiftness of the rattlesnakes. Your confidence in these finely etched maps is understandable, for at first glance they seem excellent, the best a man is capable of; but your confidence is misplaced. They are the wrong sort of map. They are too thin. They are not the sort of map that can be followed by a man who knows what he is doing. The coyote, even the crow, would regard them with suspicion.
I first read that passage—coincidentally, when I was about twenty-four—as an excerpt in PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon’s cultural geography of Chase County, Kansas. The concept resonated strongly with me [as it did with Least Heat-Moon, he subtitled his book (a deep map), insisting on the parentheses). Eight or nine years before, I’d started doing a kind of priming the pump writing exercise I sometime or another dubbed “anecdotal geography.” This basically involved me—or involves me—taking some paper and a pen on a walk or a bike ride, stopping frequently to scrawl some notes or make one of my inept attempts at a drawing. Deep map. Okay.
So, finally finding myself well and truly engaged in the project this journal was designed to chronicle, the writing of a novel, this afternoon I unexpectedly picked up that old writing habit and dusted it off. I put a notebook and a pen in my pocket, and took a very slow bicycle ride around our neighborhood.
Our neighborhood does not have a name and thus no real status, either official or traditional, as a “neighborhood.” I think there are several reasons for this, mostly having to do with transitions. What I’ve chosen to designate as “our neighborhood” is a rectangle here in Lexington, having as its long sides Maxwell Street and High Street and as its short sides Limestone Street and Rose Street. The neighborhood is dominated by three institutions: the University of Kentucky and Samaritan Hospital along the southwest (Maxwell Street) side and the Calvary Baptist Church along the northeast (High Street) side. The university contributes to the neighborhood’s status as a student ghetto—there are only a handful of owner-resident single family homes in the area and the typical lease on the hundreds of apartments covers a nine month August to April period. The church serves a community of well-off white people, few of whom, I suspect, live within American walking distance of its sprawling campus full of old buildings, most of which have been expensively repurposed into counseling offices, worship centers, and “YouthZones!” The hospital supports a foundation and a handful of medical offices in addition to the main building itself. People associated with Samaritan leave the neighborhood at the end of their shifts if they work there, or when they’re well (or, I suppose, dead) if they’re being treated there. Of the three, only the church is actually within the rectangle, with the university and the hospital lying on the other side of Maxwell.
In addition to the transient nature of the people most frequently found here (students, patients, Baptists) the rectangle also exists in a transient state itself, as a buffer region. The University and the hospital are on the other side of Maxwell. Downtown is on the other side of High. The historic South Hill neighborhood is on the other side of Limestone and the outer reaches of the Woodland Park neighborhood are on the other side of Rose. This is the place between those other places, and in fact, our apartment is very close to the center of the rectangle.
Since this isn’t one of the square states out west, our rectangle does not lie on a cardinal axis. The long buried Town Branch dictated that streets in this part of Lexington run along a northwest/southeast line. I’m writing a book that concerns, in part, rivers and streams in Kentucky that achieve a kind of forced sentience. The Town Branch doesn’t figure into the book, but I wonder now what it would think of its imprisonment beneath Water and Vine streets downtown, or about the fact that every new construction project the city undertakes along its drainage invariably includes an elaborate water feature.
But Water and Vine aren’t in the neighborhood. Instead, it consists of four Streets and four Avenues, three Courts, a Place and an Boulevard. Their names are: Limestone Street and Maxwell, High and Rose, as has been said, and; Rodes Avenue and Lexington, where we live, and Stone and Kalmia, and; Chrysalis Court, Warren, Hagerman; the Place is Lyndhurst, after a person unknown to me, the Avenue is Martin Luther King, though of course it wasn’t always. There are also many interconnected parking lots and driveways, and one unnamed and unclaimed alley (directly across the street from our building, actually), mostly in the more commercial “Limestone half” of the rectangle.
It’s not an easily understood grid, but it is exactly one mile around if that appeases your sense of order.
Here are some things I saw on my bicycle ride today:
• At the northern point of the neighborhood, in the intersection of High and Limestone, the Indian restaurant wasn’t open yet. It’s the latest in a long line of failed businesses in that location, all of them being unsuccessful successors to the legendary Lexington nightclub, the JDI. JDI stood for Jefferson Davis Inn, because the space is located in a building the eventual Confederate president kept rooms in when he was a student at Transylvania University in the 1820s.
• It was Sunday, so in fact none of the businesses along Limestone appeared to be open. Not Failte Irish Imports under its American and Irish flags, where we once dragged Gavin J. Grant because Scotland and Ireland are practically the same thing (right? ha ha! look at Gavin sputter!) only to discover that enough people actually think that very thing to have caused the proprietress to lay in some Scottish and English items to appease her geographically and culturally challenged clientele. Also closed were Consalvi’s Fine Tailoring with its empty, dusty display window, and Hanna’s on Lime, the business day breakfast/lunch spot next door. The Community Action Council’s “Suited for Success” interview suit consignment shop is open only by appointment, and nobody had one when I was riding by.
• At the Maxwell end of our block’s worth of Limestone, I found that the Kitchen Supplies & Scales shop was closed, as it has been every single time I’ve ever passed it. The sign on the door says “If you need help in KSS, please come over to New Age Gifts.” The dust on the top of the vegetable steamer in the window was as thick as ever, and the increasingly sun faded print on the box still said “made of heat resistant polypropylene.”
• The next building down the street houses a new age gift shop, but not the one that can give you any help with KSS (I did mention that we’re near a college campus, didn’t I?). It’s called The Gate and is to be admired for the consistency of its graphic design. I was trying to decide whether to trust the “open” sign and lock up my bike when a young lady walked up to the door and peered inside. “Do you work here?” I asked her. “Are you open?” She said, “No and no.” Then she took some keys out of her bag, opened the door, and went inside to turn the open sign off.
• I didn’t check to see if Ink Underground, the tattoo shop in the basement below The Gate, was open.
• Between The Gate and the cluster of commercial buildings at the other end of the block, there are a few inhabited apartment buildings, two huge brick ruins (the placards say “Declared Unfit for Human Habitation,” the letters are red but they are not tiny or along the margin) and the interconnected set of old houses called the Kendall House Motel. The grounds of Kendall House are in pretty good shape, but there are clearly no tenants. It’s an odd, rambling structure, a conglomeration of multiple buildings that has in turn been subdivided into one and two room apartments. I’ve never seen anyone around the place, so I rode around back to the parking lot, where I met Vahram, who gave me the lowdown.
Vahram was painting a building contiguous to the Kendall House parking lot. I asked him if he knew anything about the building. He was a friendly guy, a neighborhood guy (he lives over on Kalmia, pays $375 per month for a one bedroom, plus utilities, but utilities don’t run much) and he told me that when the innkeeper died ten or fifteen years ago, nobody wanted to buy the place “as is.” But since it’s been designated a historic building in a historic district (that side of Limestone is technically in South Hill, I guess) then it can’t be torn down. So it sits, and whoever owns it now pays a maintenance man to live in one of the apartments and keep the lawn mowed. Me, I think Richard Butner should buy it.
I pegged Vahram as Italian from the way he spoke, but he told me he was from Armenia. That was only part of the story though. His family escaped Soviet Armenia when he was two, first to Turkey (“But we could not stay, because Turks and Armenians, you know? They killed one and a half million of us.”) then to Milan where he pretty much grew up, explaining the accent. Then some time in Germany, then, in 1978, Lexington. He works as a maintenance man himself, for a local entrepreneur who’s most famous project is a pizza place housed in a former synagogue, though I prefer to think of the guy as one of the supporting sponsors for the local bicycle racing team.
I thanked him, and pedaled onto the next street, the U shape of single laned Chrysalis and Warren Courts. I stopped to write down some of the things I’d seen so far, and two cars (one driving the wrong way on one way Warren) met each other in an impasse right next to where I was crouched. A well fed frat boy type got out of one of the cars, looked into the other, and said “Dude, check this out!” before he pulled a six pack of Corona longnecks out of his back seat. The driver of the other car got out and said, “Dude, check this out!” before he turned up his car stereo very loud—Van Morrison, I swear to God, “Domino”—and pulled out a drum stick and a cowbell to play along.
I’d only done one street and a piece of another, but I came on back here. I hadn’t been by High on Rose, the YMCA, or the Kentucky Humanities Council yet, but my hand was getting tired.
So, y'all know how this works. Click on the comments button and tell me about your neighborhood.
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