No one complained about the closing of State Street more than me.
As a Putnam Heights resident at the top of the hill, the idea of shuttering the primary thoroughfare to all my favorite places (Revival Records, the children’s museum and my beloved barber, Ed) seemed like more than mere inconvenience. It was the opening salvo to war.
Never mind the necessity of the task — the project’s commitment to driver, pedestrian and biker safety, not to mention a much-needed upgrade to our ancient utility lines. Self-absorbed member of the 21st century that I am, when word came down of the upcoming construction, all I saw were literal and figurative roadblocks — both of which seemed destined to spoil my summer.
Farewell public library! I wept. Bon voyage, Phoenix Park!
My bemoaning continued, though it did little to slow the invasion.
One morning I woke to find an excavator rolling into place, followed by a loader, followed by some concrete-crushing mammoth that appeared to have rumbled forth from the Pleistocene age — its thunderous hooves pounding the pavement to smithereens.
Following that first day of construction, my family and I embarked on an evening stroll to survey the damage inflicted upon the street just a few blocks from our home. We were hardly the only ones. Many of my more curious neighbors wandered alongside us, “oohing” and “ahhing” the destruction which, we all had to admit, was at least a little cool. Our shared exuberance was so palpable that, had there been corn dogs and cotton candy, we might’ve mistaken our obstructed road for a street carnival. How wondrous it was to wander that street wholly liberated from the threat of traffic. And what a pleasure, too, to hear the silence that came from that emptiness. We crossed the street to Jaycette Park without fearing for our lives, and immediately, the kids latched themselves to the paint-chipped playground equipment.
“You know,” I whispered to my wife as we watched them play, “I think I could get used to this.”
On the second night, my son and I boarded our bikes and returned to the newly closed street to gauge the construction crew’s progress. Our tires crunched over the gravel as we came to a halt beside the excavator blocking the rubble-filled street. Its enormous bucket, we determined, could’ve held half the city. And its boom, it seemed, might’ve plucked up any building in town. We examined the street end to end, marveling at how much had changed over the course of a day. How quickly our once-familiar slice of the world had become foreign to us.
On the third night we returned once more on our bikes, though this time, the conditions of our mission were quite different. The sun had set, and all our fellow rubberneckers appeared to have turned in for the evening. We were alone, at last, amid all that emptiness. Guided by our bike lights, we noticed a detail that had only revealed itself in the darkness — the reflectors on the “Road Closed” barriers flashed orange, brief eruptions that lasted no longer than a firefly. They were so mesmerizing that we followed those blinks until we’d ridden beyond the last of the blinks. Then, when the path was no longer clear to us, we moved beyond those barriers to explore our neighborhood’s lesser-known streets. We pedaled past the places we knew in favor of those we didn’t.
In that humid and bug-filled nighttime gloom, we saw our neighborhood with fresh eyes.
How, we wondered, had we never noticed those houses, that church, that playground?
Since we’d already brazenly violated bedtime, rather than risk the skinned knees that would surely come from burning rubber, we pedaled toward home at a leisurely pace. It was summer, after all, and we convinced ourselves we could make up for lost sleep the following morning. We reveled in our newly-discovered world — never mind that we lived just a few blocks away.
Every sight and sound and smell now suddenly seemed entirely new to us. Including the four-legged silhouette that prompted my son to screech to a halt not far from his former pre-school.
“Dad,” he whispered. “Look!”
The doe, so busy nosing her way through the front yard clover, paid us little mind. We were just a stone’s throw away — we might’ve harmed her — though perhaps we were not as threatening as we imagined.
Her mouth full, she momentarily glanced our way to see what tribute we might offer her. We had nothing — no salt lick, no carrot, not even a pocketful of clover.
She forgave us our trespass, returning her attention to the bounty of the yard. But we couldn’t break our attention from her.
Not that a deer encounter is particularly rare in our neighborhood (I refer you to my neighbors’ nibbled gardens for proof). But under the circumstances — a night ride with a person I loved along a car-free, tree-lined street — the sighting seemed to take on new significance. How easy it is to overlook the wonder directly before us when we’re so focused on the world beyond our view. The road construction allowed us to look closer, deeper and longer at the place we thought we knew.
No doubt I’m giving the State Street closure too much credit. After all, my son and I might’ve managed this same experience regardless of the barriers that have momentarily bound our world tight. But because it happened to have happened under the circumstances in which it did, State Street surely deserves at least a little praise.
When life gives us lemons, we’re told to make lemonade.
When it gives us a road closure, we might as well seek beauty in the detour.
Next Saturday: Patti See suggests putting away your watch while the sun shines and just live.