I looked in the rearview mirror at the deserted highway that had once been the business route of Route 66, all I saw was a ragged old man with a bottle in his hand vomiting in the gutter. Could've been Edgar Allan Poe, or Ira Hayes or Stephen Foster. Could've been me, I thought, given the wrong blood lines and the right heartbreak. By the time I got to the corner where the old drugstore once stood, the people and the shadows had gone and so had just about everything else in the neighborhood. The old store stood somber as a shipwreck on some forgotten floor of some uncharted sea that Columbus had missed on his way to discovering the Bank of America.
It was growing dark by the time I pulled over to the side of the street to look at the vacant buildings. It wasn't the kind of neighborhood you'd really want to be in after dark, or any other time for that matter. There was a time back in the 40's, 50's & 60's that all the big names played the Nat Ballroom across the corner. Now there were several different kinds of clubs up and down the block. The street seemed to become a little more populated, if you wanted to call it that. The people seemed to cling to the shadows and the shadows seemed to cling to the people. Like heathens or whores or other biblical types, they huddled together beneath burned out street lights waiting for the sun to take them away.
This corner was as quiet as a country graveyard.
I took out my flashlight and headed for the door of the dark and forsaken old structure. It didn't look like a major B&E job because the front door was standing open off its hinges. 40- 50-60 years ago this place had been brimming with guys and girls, juke box music, sodas, milk shakes and malts, love, laughter and intrigue. You didn't have to say, "Joe sent me." to get in. I wasn't sure who had sent me, but whoever it was had a pretty sick sense of humor. It was a stretch to imagine that there could be any relic of the past still around the inside of this old building.
The flashlight revealed years of disuse and abuse. It looked like a crack house that had seen better days. On the floor instead of furniture, were boxes, blankets, broken wine bottles, butane lighters, dirty chore boy, and an old shopping cart that stood in a cobwebbed corner. It was asleep, waiting for a happy suburban shopper to roll it home.
I worked my way back to where the soda fountain once stood. I had to duck around old water pipes some still leaking water where the floor was rotting away. It was like watching ancient gnarled limbs leaking the lifeblood of a bygone era.
On a dusty shelf nearby was a rain soaked makeup bag and cosmetics kit, possibly left by street prostitutes who had come here to get high between tricks, Then I shined the light to the corner and saw the beauty herself, she'd probably been to long and heavy to carry away like everything else that had once been in the place. It was the old fashioned soda fountain counter that as a teen I had made root beer floats, served countless sodas, after school and on weekends. I propped up the counter so I could look at the top of it. I found an old rag and began wiping off years of dirt, grime and dust. As unlikely as it seemed, even time had not erased the initials carved into the counter top so many years ago.
I couldn't shop at the old corner drug store anymore. Just about everything has been forgotten within the dusty book jackets of what we call history. Of course yesterdays triumphs and tragedies may well be tomorrows' trivia. Who could tell the difference? Walking down these lonely dark streets? Maybe you would find what you were looking for. Maybe you thought that you'd been following your stars then one dark and lonely night, just like this one, you looked up at the clear Texas moonlit night and found that it was none of the above.
After a few blocks the old buildings became busier, trendier, authentic places populated by last years people. I like last years people I decided. Maybe I had been wrong, maybe it wasn't dark outside after all, maybe it was just the mere absence of the human spirit. Time passed slowly like rush hour traffic of the mind.
My eyes lowered to the sidewalk, some little things always tend to slip through the cracks in the sidewalk and our souls. I walked in the direction the sun had gone down, once this had been a great neighborhood. About 80 years ago my father had spent a summer working for a Polish man selling vegetables to housewives. The polish guy had a horse and cart and loaded it up with fresh vegetables from the farmers market, then proceeded down the streets and alleys shouting out the produce available. My dad rode a top the cart.
Clotheslines hung like medieval banners across every backyard as the horse and cart plodded along. My father ran the purchases to the housewives as they wiped their hands on their aprons.
My dad told me the one word the peddler yelled most often. The word was kartofle. It means potato in Polish.
Now 80 years later my fathers oldest son was walking down the same streets, looking no doubt at the same buildings now boarded up clinging to each other for dear life.
The vegetable peddler was gone. The housewives were gone. The clotheslines were gone. My father was gone. All that remained were some trashy vacant lots, a few sad buildings, and an occasional alley leading from nowhere to nowhere.
I paused and looked around the once alive neighborhood. The air turned an almost primordial cold that seemed to come from somebody else's iceage. I peered out at the desolate landscape where every now and then the dull glint of old buried railroad tracks became visable below the dirt like scarred, submerged hard to find veins of a dying junkie.
"Kartofle", I said.
There was no one to hear me except some street person sitting on the steps of a darkened doorway, he just kept his eyes down.
Either he wasn't polish or he didn't want any potatoes.
My mind was still at work, even in its troubled and confused state, it was processing the past looking for an answer from a world that didn't give a damn.
A light rain began to fall and in the ancient glow of the streetlights, there seemed to form a canopy of hope over the city and the world. There are five and a half billion people and four hundred gorillas left, I thought, and though I wasn't exactly sure which group I'd rather hang out with, I was finally beginning to have some fun at the party.
3 months ago