In the ugly fall of 2001, right before I started only wanting to eat toasted fontina on bread, my OhioanIowan friend (then just Ohioan) flew to Ithaca for a long weekend in October. On the Saturday of her trip, we packed a gargantuan picnic lunch and headed westward to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. We took our passports along; we'd been warned that drivers' licenses, much less simple word of mouth, wouldn't be enough to get us in and out of Canada anymore. And she wasn't going to see the Falls only from the American side, not when the Horseshoe Falls are so very fine. Not when the overlooks on the Canadian side put you so close to the water falling over the rock ledge that you can actually imagine needing the warnings posted in pictures, that circled-and-cross-hatched stick man (universal symbol of someone about to do something hideously stupid) with one leg thrown over a railing, headed for the water. Every time I stand at that railing and watch the water, I lose myself, transfixed. Just before it plunges, becoming white and iconic, the water seems to pause at full speed, never to stop but always to become preternaturally calm, its bottle-green surface impossibly clear, impossibly shallow. It looks as though one could wade, could walk right out onto those rocks and feel the water rushing against one's ankles but never need to think about withstanding its force.
Given the weird persistence of my Falls-walking fantasy, it's no wonder that the first time I waded in the gorge north of Cornell's campus, I was worried I'd get swept over a cliff.
This post is not about Niagara Falls.
Or at least it won't be anymore, after I show you this picture, which I really think is marvelous (not least because damn! it's cold at Niagara Falls most of the time, even when it's not winter, and the guy who took this picture not only visited the falls but even went on the tour under the falls--in February):
In a way, what I'm doing with this post replicates, in reverse, what I did to my friend on our way to the Falls. That day, we took a detour on the way to the Falls, instead of detouring at the Falls (which I'd highly recommend, if you ever have the chance--even if you just do a quick drive-by, it's worth the effort). When I was little--from about 13 months until about 7.5 years--I lived in suburban Buffalo. Upstate New York, you're starting to see, was my stomping ground several times. In fact--I should have mentioned this yesterday--I have photo documentation of the fact that my loyalty to Wegmans was well developed by the time I was four. (The picture: me, standing on a kitchen chair, beside a kitchen table covered in brown paper Wegmans bags. And a six-pack of Tab in glass bottles.)
And so, when my friend and I headed west to the Falls, we first swung a little ways north, to East Amherst. I had printed out directions from Mapquest; the last time I'd been in East Amherst, I wasn't yet old enough to drive, and I wasn't sure I'd remember my way. As we drove up Transit Road, though, something strange happened: I did remember. There was the Wilson Farms on the corner of Transit and New. There was the weird not-quite-right turn back onto Dodge Road, and then the left onto Old Oak Post. And then, I said, "There's our house." We were coming up to it from behind; it's a two-story yellow house on a corner. My friend said, "It looks like it's in pretty rough shape." And indeed it turned out to be in more than rough shape.
We found out part of the story about what was going on with the house when I saw my old babysitter--the one you know as the woman who introduced me to MTV and David Byrne, when I was six--come out of her old house, eighteen years on from the last time I'd seen her. Because I have a constitutionally low level of self-control, I parked the car and ran over to greet her. After the inevitable shock had passed (and I understand this shock better, now that one of my own babysitting charges has shown up as a full-grown adult here where I live and work), she explained the strange saga of the empty yellow house. Its owners had left town and the house had started to fall apart; the city persisted in posting notices (like the one we could see from across the street), detailing the repairs the house required, but the owners were equally persistent about ignoring those notices. The basement had, somehow it was known, flooded. The place was possibly not structurally sound. (Trying to find you a good image of this subdivision a few minutes ago, I instead came across a series of articles about East Amherst's sinking homes, many of which are in my old neighborhood. That structures are sinking in East Amherst comes as little surprise, really; one of the bowling alleys my mother and I frequented when I was small suffered a similar fate. As did the older Wegmans in Ithaca, come to think of it.)
After we left my no-doubt-relieved former babysitter to head off on her drive, my friend and I crossed the street and started prowling around the house. Peering in through the family room's front windows, I saw the American Eagle wood stove my parents had installed when I was three; now it was sitting in the middle of the otherwise empty family room. I craned my neck and pressed my face to the glass, but I couldn't see much more than that one room. We walked around the house, and I described the rooms that corresponded to each of the house's windows. I stared at the backyard willow tree, on whose lowest branch I repeatedly skinned my palms while trying to swing in my youth. I told the story about the time I left my red sled in the backyard for a few minutes during a snowstorm, only to lose it altogether until the snow melted a week later.
Finally, my friend pointed out that we needed to head toward the Falls if we wanted to have a decent amount of time there before nightfall. We didn't take any pictures; we just got into the car and drove away.
It wasn't until we were on our way back to Ithaca after the Falls excursion (which, I have to add, garnered me one of my favorite objects, a small plastic snowglobe reading "Niagra Falls," courtesy of my friend) that it occurred to me that we could probably have broken in to the house without much trouble. It was such a strange thought that my friend finally pointed out that I hadn't stopped talking about the abandoned house since we'd left it hours earlier. "It's really under your skin, isn't it?" she asked. I tried to explain why:
When you leave a house and others move in, that house becomes theirs. This particular house had become its next owners', back in 1983. I'd seen it in 1984, and it was no longer mine. I didn't belong there; I didn't even particularly want to be there. The place that had known me knew me no more.
But when subsequent owners, however far down the decades, leave a house behind, it can become yours again. My wandering memory slipped in at a crack at the side of a window, slithered around the wood shutters in the family room and up the little half-step into the kitchen hall, up the green-carpeted steps, past the dark blue-stripey-flowery-patterned wallpaper, past the nook where the old trunk used to sit--the trunk on which my mother and I are sitting in the picture my father took after we got home from my preschool graduation, while I was still wearing not only my Burger King crown mortarboard but also my new Timex digital watch--and it ended up back in my bedroom, back in my bed, back in a re-placed series of sounds and sights: the trees full of birds in the yard in the summer, my father shaking the trees in that darkening blue dusk, so that the birds would fly around the block before flocking back into the trees and starting all over; the sound of the bug zapper outside my bedroom window; the passage of headlight illuminations around the edge of my ceiling; the sound of a plane going by, far overhead, absolutely confirming my conviction that I'd be able to hear when my mother passed over us on her way to her first quilt retreat, in Nantucket.
In short, I had retaken imaginative ownership of the old house.
My parents swung past the house during their October excursion a few years ago, while I was living in Rochester. It was reoccupied and seemed to have been refurbished. My imagination still hasn't moved all the way back out.
This post wasn't meant to be about the house in East Amherst at all. It was meant to be about hinges. They'll wait for another night.
sources for tonight's images: 1) Daredevils of Niagara Falls: A History; 2) a Flickr photostream; 3) a site featuring vintage postcards of Buffalo and environs; 4) the site of an MIT student to whom I really have to hand it for having braved the cold and ice to see the falls in February; 5) an Illustrated History of the Missouri Botanical Garden.