Once upon a time, I lived in a boxy, badly-built house with a person with whom I had considerable disagreement over what are surely a relationship’s most important parameters. Should a person wed? Should a person buy a house, hold down a job with more than the minimum responsibilities attached to it, make sure one had health insurance? Should a person have children? He felt that the answer to any and all of these questions was a resounding no way; I — under my breath, behind his back, in my dreams — thought certainly yes.
Anyone with half a brain could see just how short-lived a union like that was going to be.
But because the two of us were clearly lacking in the brains department, for a while we lived together in a boxy, badly-built house in an area of Austin that has since gentrified itself out of existence, next door to a person whose house was equally as boxy and as badly-built, though he owned his, and we just rented ours.
This neighbor had certain traits Austin tended to favor back in those days: he had a job he’d held for years and what he considered a comfortable living arrangement. He’d long ago answered in the negative every single question the two of us were struggling over. He had no savings, no significant other, no children. He was in his forties or fifties — because we were twenty years younger than he was, we found it difficult to tell the difference. He had put together for himself a life that was completely serviceable and streamlined, a life that contained no fat. His furniture was crap, his house was dirty — but he was free, or at least believed himself to be so, which might be the same thing in the end.
He also happened to be, he told me the first time he knocked on our front door, extremely good at finding things, and he’d just that day found an earring he thought I might like to have. He offered it up to me, in the middle of the palm of a hand held flat.
I was not about to wear an earring my next door neighbor had found somewhere, no matter how beautiful it might be, but I’d grown up around people who found — or longed to find — things. At age 5 my brother found a 50 dollar bill in a grocery store. For many years my father was very good at finding college class rings. And at that particular point in my life, I already happened to be working for someone who claimed to be very good at finding things, someone who considered himself extraordinarily lucky and would in fact in a few years go on to win the lottery — twice.
All of which might explain why I would follow that neighbor into his dim, dusty living room to see the collection of things he’d found.
Earrings, bracelets, necklaces, old coins, new coins. Passports. Keys. Expensive pens. Wallets. Dollar bills. I’d never seen such riches. You found all this? I asked. Just lying on the ground?
It’s all in how you look at things, he told me. You have to see everything in front of you a certain way.
The only way I could imagine this strategy working was if you spent your life doing nothing but looking down at your feet.
Years after the boxy, badly-built house, at a point when I’d had just enough career successes that I would be able to keep alit the tiny flame of career for another ten years, for six months I lived at the end of a oiled caliche road. Beyond two gates I had to climb out of my car to unlock and then lock again.
Every time I left the property or came back to it, the heavy links of chain that secured those gates left on my hands the mineral smell of metal and flecks of rust, and after a while, it just got to be too much trouble — to go anywhere I didn’t have to. Besides, after such a build-up — out of the car, drive through gate, back in the car; repeat — what could the white-painted house that sat at the end of the road and the acreage that surrounded it possibly be, but some sort of precious treasure, hidden away, locked up for safekeeping? It was like something from a fairy story!
While I was in the white-painted house at the end of the caliche road, I was working on a book, in what had to be the most conducive surroundings for book-writing ever, but even in such places one can’t write 24/7, so every day at about four in the afternoon, I knocked off work, turning off my computer and setting off to walk the 200 some-odd acres of cedar scrub and limestone that stretched beyond the house’s front door like a sea.
Sometimes, I walked along the creek that wound through the property downstream, along a flood plain of smoothed rocks above its banks that seemed to be the easiest course: past hillocks of juniper grass, skirting the thickest fretwork of the cedar’s painful branches. I went where the land told me to go, because for the first time in my life it seemed best to have no direction of my own, no agenda.
Other times, I followed the game trails that stitched the property together, and one afternoon, when the fall light contained the pale thin yellow wash of beaten egg and wind blew the long grasses between the cedars sideways and silver, I stooped to examine something the ivory color of old bone that lay in the middle of the path deer had worn along the backbone of the hill.
And that —that was the first arrowhead I ever found. And as I stood there fingering the dips in flint mottled like old china, I realized that —it’s true — once you know what to look for, you know what to look for, and you’ll never mistake an arrowhead for something else.
These days, I live nowhere near light of such a rare vintage, or such wildness. When I step outside my front door in the mornings, the sound of Interstate 20 is borne toward me, rising and falling, as ever-present as those long-ago cedar, but creating a very different sort of sea.
Some mornings, the police helicopter beats beats beats the bush of our quadrant of southeast Atlanta, some afternoons — particularly on sunny Saturdays — so many walkers pushing baby carriages or being pulled along by dogs amble along the sidewalks that you might mistake these blocks for Mayberry, instead.
There are a few of us, though, for whom walking is more than just a fair-weather avocation. The sikh who walks quickly, a white blur moving quickly through the neighborhood before daylight. Curtis the toothless addict, who was the first person to welcome us into the neighborhood ten years ago, with a knock on our door at 11 p.m. and a garbled request for money. The woman who walks, rain or shine — for hours — pushing a triple stroller freighted with swaddled sleeping infants.
Fixtures of the neighborhood all, and all, I suspect, pegged as just a trifle loony. And I, I am afraid, am one of them. But oh— if you want to know a place, really know it, maybe you have to walk it.
John Graves, a Texas writer who writes of land and our connection to it as well as just about any writer I can think of, in one of his books said something that’s stuck with me for years, something that might apply just as strongly to urban Atlanta as it did to the Texas he was writing about —
when you’re somewhere you don’t especially want to be and don’t belong, you tend to wall yourself off from sentience like a hibernating bear, whereas in surroundings that you care for and have chosen, you use eyes, ears, nose, tastebuds, and whatever other aids you can muster for reception. You notice. And, noticing, you live.
When I moved to Atlanta, I didn’t care for it, particularly, and the fact that I was living here seemed less a choice than it did a cruel fate. But when you walk around a neighborhood for ten years you begin to notice things, and sharpened observation of a thing might be that small first step —toward love for it.
There are hawks that ride the thermals above the interstate here; who troll convenience store parking lots for pigeons. There are hickory nuts, and figs, and dandelion greens — such plenty! There are ukelelehs with missing strings, left at the curb outside the church that ministers to the mentally ill, and punched metal tokens uncovered in the parking strips in front of Edwardian bungalows, and the whisper of instruction barely readable beneath their grime when you wipe it away with a thumb: Good For One Fare. There are art-deco vanities missing only a single shingle of veneer and wheat-sheaf pennies, dated 1951.
The subway token I gave to Elder Girleen, who tucked it away in her box of treasure. The wheat sheaf penny I handed to Younger Girleen, who accompanied me on the walk I was taking when I found it.
You’re a good finder, Mama, she told me as she studied it.
It meant more than most of the accolades I’ve gotten in my life, that momentary praise.