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« In Which We Return To Something Like Pasture »



On my birthday I realized the most complicated relationship in my life was a geographical one. This didn't make me feel any better. Baltimore was endearing there was, for example, the gala I got to attend where the mayor wore stilettos and Dee-Lite played “What What In the Butt” for all the rich grown-ups to dance to. And yet somehow it was not enough. People told me I should stop talking about leaving, maybe take a road trip instead. Feel it out. But the week before I left town, I saw five dead birds, and one that was dying. I regarded this as an omen I was suddenly really into omens and told everyone I was in the market for a new city.

In true rebound fashion, I drove my Volvo through places with a similar aesthetic of collapse, but where the houses came in different shapes. This was late October, early November, an ideal time to look at things teetering between the bleak and the beautiful, and to feel that sort of teetering within yourself: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, home. I got oil-painting clouds, a gaudy sunset in Detroit, bleak Ohio rain, the kind of foliage the northeast pretends to have a monopoly on. All the small towns were named after other, more desirable places: New Paris, Miami Valley, El Dorado. It seemed that none of us wanted to be where we were.

Except, that is, for me. I didn't particularly want to be in Ohio or El Dorado or Baltimore, but I did want to be in my car, my own cozy speedy ecosystem, moving between these places. Having the same feelings about different things was like having different feelings, for a while. I daydreamed the Rust Belt still-lifes I'd paint when I got home: The handsome handymen of Pittsburgh-Detroit-Columbus-Minneapolis. Twilight with cows. "Entire block for sale!!" Sincere Auto Care. In Indiana, a gas station named GAS, a liquor store named BEVERAGES, a budget motel named BUDGET MOTEL, all within a mile of each other: the surge of joy this gave me was pure, even though (or because) none of it had anything to do with the clutter of my daily life.

Staying in strangers' houses was like dipping a toe into various potential futures. In Minneapolis, I made pancakes with a man named Waffle, who then beat me at backgammon, and everyone was a puppeteer. In my Chicago future, I was married to a graphic designer, and we used cloth diapers. Pittsburgh-me had fantastic leg muscles from biking up the hills. Also, she had learned how to weld. I was infatuated with all these Rachels, but none of them seemed worth settling on, and I was aways eager to meet another. (Maybe she would have exciting tattoos!) So I took the scenic route out of town and had an eruption of feeling every time a crowd of birds lifted into the sky. If I wanted a place artfully vacant enough to fill up with myself, Detroit seemed like the perfect fit.

The city's appeal and opportunity, people like to say, is in the absence of things. "We’ve got all this empty space in Detroit," a 33 year-old owner of an accessories boutique told the Times last year. Red lights start to seem optional when there are no other cars in sight. Backyard chickens are for dilettantes; in Detroit, they keep goats and pigs. I was sleeping on a friend-of-a-friend's couch, in a house he didn't pay rent on because he was hanging drywall and tending the garden and generally making sure the place didn't get burned down.

Three days before I got there, he had bought the sky-blue Victorian down the block for $500. In Pittsburgh I had bought some biscotti that I planned to give as gifts to people who hosted me, but I was embarrassed to even say the word "biscotti" around this guy, so they sat in my car getting staler. Grand, abandoned Detroit, dotted with wide grassy lots where buildings had been, and burned down, and returned to something like pasture. Here, maybe, was a place wild enough to be worth settling.

I liked how time, too, was funny and open there. When your house cost $500 and you farmed the vacant lot next door, the idea of a career sounded like a relic of that old economy people prayed to in quainter, plumper cities. And besides, there were no jobs.

My host and I took his pitbull for a walk in his bad and beautiful neighborhood as the sun was setting. He wanted to show me his new house, with its backyard sugar maple Even though I stopped myself from taking any photographs of artfully collapsing buildings because I was trying to impress him, I did say that I thought the tall trees lining the sidewalks were pretty, majestic even. He laughed and pointed to a neighbor's van with one corner of its windshield shattered; a majestic branch had broken off a majestic tree and fallen such that it broke through the glass and pierced the van's dashboard. It was stabbed in there so deeply that the neighbor hadn't been able to pry it out. So he just drove around like that, in a Phineas Gage van, although he would have to figure out something better once the serious winter started to set in.

It seemed as clear an omen as anything else, though what it was trying to tell me, I hadn't quite figured out. Once he unpadlocked the front door, we had to feel our way around the rooms (and why had I assumed that the lights would work in a $500 house?). Over the past three years, there had been a foreclosure, and eventually an eviction, and maybe also a squatter. And was it out of spite, or panic, or resignation that these people had left the house so stuffed with stuff? I hovered on the threshold of rooms made impassible by moving boxes full of dirty sheets, cheap plastic toys, enough holiday decorations to cover all the bases. There were dishes in the drying rack by the sink. They'd left their pots and pans in precarious stacks on the kitchen floor, like a booby trap for nighttime prowlers. Or like a booby trap for people like us.

I'm back in Baltimore now, still thinking about that house. I had long car rides to consider its implications, its small human story something less epic than an omen, and infinitely more sad. Wherever you go, there you are, sure. But that leaves out the other important part. Wherever you go, there is there, too. No $500 house is unhaunted, and all the handsome handymen are alcoholics, and Pittsburgh only has 59 sunny days a year. No city is empty, no whitewashed barn is without its ghosts. Maybe you brought some of the ghosts with you. But most of them were there already, and you were just driving too fast to see them.

Rachel Monroe is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Baltimore. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find her website here.

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Reader Comments (3)

love this
November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterYvonne
I liked this a lot.
November 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill

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