The morning was brisk.
Fallen leaves blanketed the cemetery walkways. They were the envy of any artist – the colors, the symmetry, the piles of ordered chaos. This was God's work, if you believe in such a thing, and he was showing off again. Stray birds, among them a few robins, flew into the surrounding trees and hugged the spindly branches as I passed. The few leaves that refused to surrender their grip weren't enough to shroud them or keep them from the cold.
The Plane Street project is almost complete. All that remains is pouring the sidewalks and applying the final road surface. A few weeks ago, when the street was thoroughly excavated and taken down to the dirt, I almost imagined some traces of the past could be found there, some childhood memories long buried under the road layers. Long ago, that neighborhood was part of my universe, and maybe some of the sights and sounds of previous years could have gotten trapped there, like insects in amber, or fish in a frozen lake.
Maybe the voices of children on their way to Manor School were somehow etched into the asphalt, ready to speak again, given an adequately advance technology. Or maybe images of us kids were somehow exposed onto the emulsion of the street, as we rode our stingray bikes in the summertime to the corner store at Plane and Manor for a twinsicle or an ice cream sandwich or a 10-cent bottle of Coke.
Maybe even fossilized records of snows and rains of years past were archived there, of kids wearing rubber galoshes and yellow raincoats to fend off the weather. All that could have been trapped there and released into the ether when the road was excavated.
Because there's more to that street than just blacktop and bricks and concrete: shadows of children at Halloween canvassing the neighborhood in ridiculous costumes, knocking on doors begging for candy; autumn leaves and horse chestnuts of yesteryear, covering the sidewalk and clogging the gutters. Each brick that was recently removed from the sidewalk held the footfalls of those who had walked there, the echoes of folks who had gone before.
The engineers and road crew would probably never understand any of this, but I know - despite the modernization - there are still some truths buried there.
It was reassuring to see that the cherry tree is still alive in my old backyard. It must be at least 60 years old. Its black bark withstood many winters.
Dogs barked at me at various times from several backyards along the way. There's a tradition in the lower part of town of tying your dog out back or giving him the run of the yard - but barely any attention - and letting him bark viciously at every passerby.
As I dodged the dog shit and spit and chewing gum on the sidewalk lining Locust Street, scrutinizing my path with every step, I occasionally glanced up to see that Columbia has a split-personality. One part of the split looks like a town that's given up on itself. I searched for an appropriate metaphor. It's an erstwhile high-roller gone from riches to rags, gone totally to seed. Or a whore who lost her last dregs of self-respect, willing to consider any offer, but ultimately getting few offers at all, except from the broken, the derelict, the hopeless – those who've lost their last dregs of self-respect. Or maybe it's a zombie, a creature that walks and functions as though it's alive but is without hope and will and insight; it is fundamentally quite dead. Or maybe it's a self-contained hell that some alien civilization designed to hold and punish its most violent and insane criminals. Or maybe it's any metaphor you choose if you paint it the color of denial, resignation, and muted desperation.
From the symptoms - cracked paint, cracked windows, cracked souls - one should be able to diagnose the disease, but it's elusive. Is it apathy? Moral decline? Something else?
Columbia survives because it stands atop its heritage, a rich past filled with pride of vision and accomplishment and ambition. But today the town speaks in riddles rather than dreams. We're promised revitalization while properties are bought virtually at pennies on the dollar and refurbished as rentals. Pawn shops proliferate. The railroad, once a thriving conduit that made Columbia a wealthy hub, has gone from boon to bane. Now the town is just a place the train has to get through to reach more affluent destinations. The cracked sidewalks, weeds, and trash-riddled streets do nothing to reassure that the town is revitalizing, nor do the legal notices posted on doors.
I'm being harsh, of course, and maybe a little unfair. But only a little.
Hope lives on, because it has no choice. It lives on in the little shops that are continually resurrected in various forms; in the mainstays such as Hinkle's and Stover's; and in the banks and churches. (What's the saying about Columbia – a bar on every street and a church on every corner? Or is it the other way around?)
Some brick sidewalks survive around town, on Second Street, and on Cherry Street above Sixth, to name a few, and I'm thankful for that. I like how they recall the simplicity of a former era. I hope they never get replaced. They're a direct link to the past.
At the Turkey Hill Minit Market next to Royer's Flower Shop along the highway, a small group of men had gathered to drink coffee and smoke and shoot the breeze, as men are wont to do. This gathering is usually a Sunday morning ritual, a kind of informal secular congregation, but I'm guessing they gathered a few days early due to the holiday. Or maybe they were getting out of the house for a final taste of freedom before the social obligation of celebrating the holiday at home with family and friends. I wondered what they would say they are thankful for.