My street, Laurel Lane, is only one block long, but I wouldn’t make much of that.
At one end is a creek bordered on each side by a strip of park land where people walk their dogs or stroll in solitude or chat amiably in twos and threes or otherwise give off a sense of calm order.
The creek begins at 33rd Street two blocks to the north where, depending on the weather, it either flows or trickles from a concrete tunnel large enough to stand up in. That’s not its beginning, of course; it starts on the slightly higher elevation at 45th Street as water that drains off the grounds of the Austin State Hospital. It then makes its way unseen beneath houses and apartments and streets till it emerges in my neighborhood.
When my sons were young and we lived by the creek, the neighborhood children found the culvert to be one of those mysterious places that children must have – like the wardrobe that opened into Narnia. Actually, the opening under 33rd Street was more like the scary house where Boo Radley lived; through that tunnel inmates could escape from that place formerly named the Texas State Lunatic Asylum. Maybe that’s how the homeless pfft master came to prowl the area. I’m not sure who gave that joyless creature his name. Maybe it was one of my boys. Anyway, the name fit him well. He shuffled around talking to his demons and spitting and spitting and spitting as if to rid himself of them, each time making a pfft sound.
The part of the creek that’s near my house has little water except after heavy rain, but as it continues south, crosses 29th Street, and flows into the campus of the Presbyterian Seminary, the ground rises as if in solidarity with the higher purpose of the institution, and it cuts a deeper trough and begins to show signs of being a serious year-round stream. Past the seminary, it passes through the University of Texas campus, merges with another creek, and eventually empties into the Colorado River bound for the Gulf of Mexico.
In mornings, students flow south like the creek. This parade along the creek and up the incline to a rendezvous with enlightenment – or less grandly, with vocational training – looks a lot like the one I was part of half a century ago. To be sure, these young people are less innocent than we were. There are other differences too, but my editor has persuaded that if I were to point them out, I’d come across as cranky and rigid, and it’s better not to display that part of me in print.
At the other end of the one block that is Laurel Lane is busy Speedway Street. I don’t know how it came to be called that, and I prefer it that way. Google and too-ready access to facts is taking the fun out of speculating. I do know that in the 1920s, when the neighborhood was being developed, Speedway was the only paved street in the area. Presumably, traffic moved relatively speedily on it, and I guess that’s how it got its name. In any case, on principal, I’m not going to the public records to research the question.
At first light this time of year, newspapers lie along the front walks of most houses. I find many pleasures at that hour – waking up beside my mate, having a little chat with my cat BK, drinking coffee, checking the Table of Lesser Feasts and Fasts to see who the church calls to mind that day – the usual stuff. But nothing compares with going out to pick up the papers. It has been twenty-eight years since I lived where I could do that, and I’ve missed it. Turning on the porch light is like the bell that signals the entry of the priest and the commencement of Mass. The slow, almost ceremonial stroll in my cassock-like bathrobe out to the sidewalk suggests more of the same. It’s a ritual for a time when rituals are often scorned. Not only that, picking up the paper is a continuation of an action I began in 1950 when, as a paper boy, I was at the other end of he process.
The neighborhood doesn’t have alleys, and the developers are to be faulted for that. Alleys are a nice touch. Stuff happens in alleys. But almost as satisfying, I have a wall around the back yard where a big black and white cat often sits, usually in the same spot, and keeps an eye on us. For some reason I can’t begin to understand, I like that.
In the two or three weeks that Ann and I have lived on Laurel Lane, we’ve met several neighbors. They seem, well, neighborly. A new baby next door on one side. Older, presumably retired, people on the other. A cat lady down the block.
In some ways, this neighborhood is like much of America. More so, even. In keeping with the nation’s growing secularism, people on my block don’t go to church much. At least I don’t see them doing so. Political yard signs strongly suggest agreement as to which party is the good one. People in the other party live in some other part of town. So do people of color. Alas, what could be more American than those things?
In other ways, the neighborhood is un-American. For one thing, it’s a mixed-use neighborhood. It’s surrounded by apartment buildings full of students, and some occupy rent houses within the borders. Having a car (or two) is less important for us than for most Americans. When it’s not too hot (as it is for much of the year), I can walk to the grocery store, restaurants, doctors, dry cleaners, church, and concerts featuring music that is not amplified and includes not a single guitar.
Like most Geezers, I spend a good deal of time thinking about the past. Increasingly so as the years add up. Living on Laurel Lane encourages that. Over the years I have lived in four different houses on nearby 33rd Street, so for me, local memories are as thick as cedar pollen in spring. There was that summer evening, for example, when friend Jack and his German shepherd, Charlie, walked over to visit. I opened the screen door a crack, and Charlie pushed past me, trotted over to the couch, raised his hind leg, and relieved himself, making clear why he’d washed out of guide-dog school. And then there was that party where two professors argued about whether the correct spelling was “Vergil” or “Virgil.” I won’t go on. The stories aren’t that interesting to anyone other than me.
On the other hand, no matter how strong the old-man urge to dwell on the past, I’ve lived in few places that offer the possibility of living in the moment. It’s almost a demand. I don’t know why that should be. But when I go out to pick up the papers in the morning, that’s how it is here.
That said, I do miss Martin Agronsky’s voice on the kitchen radio when I’m working on breakfast.
(If you weren’t around to enjoy Agronsky’s dignified, well-performed delivery of news and analysis during the 1940s, you can listen to a sample here