It’s impossible to appreciate a neighborhood through the windshield of a car. Whenever I drive down Welland Avenue, I have to focus on jaywalkers, mobility scooters and shopping-cart-pushers, so worlds beyond the curb remain somewhat unreal.
Even when I ride my bike, a steel-framed contraption as heavy as Pittsburgh, the movement is too quick for serious reflection.
But when I walk, I see everything and that presents its own set of problems because the slow-moving world is an overwhelming collection of litter. If I see a cracked coffee cup and a single rain-soaked slipper, my mind will connect the objects in bizarre ways. Logically, the slipper and coffee cup must have bounced out of an overflowing garbage can, but I’ll imagine I’ve stumbled on evidence of an early morning kidnapping. Somewhere, a victim with coffee breath and one bare foot is kicking at a cellar door trying to escape.
A handful of wilted flowers in the corner of a bus shelter must mean that someone was jilted at the altar. At the very least, someone planned to strew flowers on a relative’s grave but after ruminating about their shared experiences said, “fuck it,” and walked to bingo instead.
Like most poor neighborhoods, Welland Avenue is slightly embarrassed by its dead flowers, lost slippers and coffee cups, and tries really hard to overwhelm the debris with false positivity. In early morning sunlight, the sidewalk pretends to be a creek, meandering around gnarled trees and splashing past small cabin-like residences. It’s a clever imposture and I sometimes believe I could fish in that sidewalk.
Of course, the things that hide in concrete are trickier than trout, and harder to pull to the surface.
Houses lining the sidewalk creek have cheerful, quirky decorations, as if they were happy family homesteads, not shitty bits of transient rental housing. One front garden has a collection of childishly hand-painted stones. Each rock has an inspirational slogan, like “You Rock!” or “No moss, here!” The next-door neighbor has stapled an old section of garden hose to a gate, with decorative curls and switchbacks as intricate as illustrations in the Book of Kells.
Unfortunately, those scraps of optimism are arm-wrestling a much larger opponent, a strange, oppressive force that wants everything to work out for the worst, no matter how hard anyone tries. It’s easy to imagine someone using one of those cheerful, hand-painted rocks to smash a window, and steal the child’s art set; you can almost see the garden-hose sculptor having a public meltdown and being dragged back to the psych ward where he’ll draw intricate designs on the bathroom walls with his own excrement.
Sometimes, it appears that nature itself has thrown in the towel. The city has planted fruit-bearing trees along the boulevards, but salt spray and car exhaust has stunted their growth and ambition. Mulberries and Damson plums fall from ragged branches and bounce onto the sidewalk, and the fruit just says: “That’s it, I’m too tired to move. I’m not even going to roll onto the dirt to germinate, I’m going to stay right here on the concrete like a wino who has tripped on his own shoelaces.”
One enterprising resident hung a welded, heart-shaped chain on an exterior wall to frame the street number, 178. The chain was once a cheerful epoxy red but a few harsh winters have peeled that coating away and the metal now leaks rust all over the clapboard. Why didn’t the person who crafted the heart maintain it? Maybe she was kidnapped while drinking her morning coffee, maybe she dropped a handful of flowers in a bus shelter and rode to the end of the line.
That’s Welland Avenue: hearts that are actually welded pieces of chain leaking something that only looks like blood.
On my last walk, I saw a beige vinyl loveseat tipped upside down in a trailer. That loveseat was cracked and split as if a spaceship had dragged it too close to the sun. I assumed someone was carting junk to the dump, but I was wrong, it was being moved in the opposite direction. A young couple bounced down the front steps of a duplex, then wrestled that dilapidated piece of furniture up to the entrance of their new home.
I watched as the loveseat fought them all the way; it grabbed the doorframe with both vinyl arms and begged to be taken back to the trailer. It didn’t want to go inside the duplex, it wanted to go to the landfill where it could finally relax.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” a voice said. A smiling three-legged dog urinated against a mailbox, just a few feet from me. The dog looked wise, but it shouldn’t have been capable of human speech.
The young couple still struggled with their loveseat.
I rubbed the back of my neck. Maybe the couple wasn’t dragging a shredded piece of furniture up those duplex steps just to entertain me. Maybe that loveseat was the best piece of furniture they owned. Who knows, the underlying structure might have been sound and, with a blanket to hide the scars, the couple would be perfectly happy snuggling and watching TV.
The three-legged dog loped down the sidewalk, without saying goodbye.
The young woman suddenly dropped her end of the loveseat and shrieked with laughter. Her boyfriend laughed as well and they both gave little waves when they noticed me watching.
But the loveseat wasn’t laughing, it still looked angry.
From its tilted point of view, I was a pathetic voyeur, an angler casting and retrieving, hooking colourful bits and pieces of other people’s lives and reeling them in. The couple got back into position and hoisted one end of the loveseat up, rotated it, then rammed it through the opening. Before it disappeared, the snarling piece of furniture extended a beige middle finger, a final insult to me and any other tourist who happened to be carp fishing in America.
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Image by Khalid Mehmood from Pixabay