Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Don’t wait a minute more, downtown

I don’t think there has been a single time when I have mentioned (to suburban friends) that I am moving downtown that I haven’t gotten some version of the “I’m so jealous” response. I truly believe our cities have been abandoned by hoards of reluctant sheep following some powerful force that drags them from vibrant urban communities to the stripped of any heart and soul suburbs.

And I am not even talking about leaving behind the downtowns of Manhattan or Chicago. I’ve moved to Madison’s downtown which, forgive me, little city, is hardly the epicenter of urban buzz. But it does have a buzz.

It’s for the kids that we leave all this, isn’t it? We buy houses with gardens and we let the children make loud noises because there are no neighbors above or below. We learn how to tend to tomatoes and flowerbeds and the kids go to proximate schools and have neighborhood friends to kick a ball around. They splash in wading pools while their dads grill meats on Sunday evenings.

Until we find that we need a new roof and the tomatoes rot and the kids have to drive everywhere and you hope they avoid intoxicated friends who incidentally are also horrid drivers. One year we take a long hard look at the four walls that we call home and we find that they’re, well, crumbling. And at night it’s quiet. Very quiet. Six-feet-under-type of quiet.

Downtown. Walking with crowds again, to and from work, looking at store windows, smelling not the roses but the coffee. Stopping to drink it. Getting home late, waking early. Watching construction workers leave their trucks in a vacant lot and move with their huge lunch coolers toward the newest condo project a few blocks up.

I was in my mid twenties before I set foot in a suburban house. Honest – I had never been in one before.

I’ll never forget the feeling when I woke up for the first time in our own house. One small daughter, another on the way, two cherry trees planted by me, next to each other, a yard where I put in coreopsis and campanulas (yellow and blue). It seemed right then. Almost like playing house.

Downtown. Bright lights and promises.

ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies

I am at the wine store, taking back a couple of bottles of booze that I had in the house, ones that were never used and will never be opened. A random bottle of scotch (I am so much not a scotch drinker). Gin from unmade martinis. Recent acquisitions, made in anticipation of neighborhood gatherings that were to combat somber times and bleak winter nights.

Returning unused alcohol has this wonderful effect of clearing irrelevant nonessentials and restoring nice sums of cash into your wallet. It's very forward looking. It’s as if you’re saying – damn it, I am not all about martinis you know. I am selective! That was then, this is now. It's summer edging into fall. Different times, different moods.

Joe, the owner (yes yes, it’s Steve’s Liquor Store) is an old friend of mine. We have known each other for almost twenty years. He looks at me, my handful of bottles, my receipts and says: you know I have been away in France for a while. So what’s going on in your life anyway?

Don’t you just hate this? Three people behind you in line (listening?) and you get asked “what’s happening in your life?”

He gets my thirty second version of the events of the year (as, therefore, do the others in line; it's awfully quiet at Steve's Liquor). I suppose there is some pleasure in crafting a response that leaves the person gaping and scrambling for an appropriate reply. People are used to "nothing much" and "fine, how about you."

I remember a year ago when I ran into Joe and he described for me the ordeal of taking his aging father to get retested for a driver's license. Life cycle events, marking the passage of time. Sometimes the events are tame, other times -- not so much.