Yesterday, weary of the restlessness that has followed me around for two days, I gave up the pretense of getting some pages one and drove to the downtown library. They had a particular book I wanted, but the destination was less the point than the escape. I took care of the little bits of work that had to be done yesterday, then fled into the bright blue and yellow day. On my way down the highway, I tossed around possibilities–what else to do downtown. Where to park, which shops to browse. Maybe I’d have a salad at Phantom Canyon, or have coffee at the Starbucks on the corner of Tejon and Bijou. (Every Starbucks, as you know, has its own spirit. This one is a hotbed of thirty- and forty-something Match.com first dates and young urbanites who live in the lofts sprouting up over the shops.) Once, I would have gone to Michelle’s but that’s gone now.
To add a little soupcon of interest to the ordinary journey (I really could only spare a couple of hours), I decided to pretend I was a tourist in my own town, that I had flown in for a conference and had some time free to explore the immediate area.
First the library. The downtown, or Penrose branch, of the library has an entirely different vibe than the East Library, which is where I usually go. Both are quite large, and both have wide windows opening on the western view of burly mountains, belly up to the horizon, so big you have to bend down to see the sky over the top of them. In both libraries, people sit in the chairs facing the view and read, or simply contemplate the scenery.
Downtown is a library I know from youngest childhood. I remember when they built it, all glittery quartz walls, and a statue of a naked man in front. (I was shocked that my mother let me look at it. Right at his penis, carved in brass.) Now, the non-fiction stacks are downstairs and there are usually at least a few homeless people—99% of them men—reading or wandering or just sitting quietly. They’re not allowed to bring in big packs or sleeping bags, but I like that they can come in and hang out. If I were a homeless person, the library would be the place I’d go to escape the realities of my life. I am not a homeless person, after all, and I escape there quite a lot.
I found the book I was looking for, Paul Theroux’s Kingdom by the Sea, and one other that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, since a travel writer at Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Jerry Dunn, recommended her—Jan Morris’s Journeys. And yet another, which is what happens to me at the library. It’s so easy to get drunk on all the choices and fill your arms and carry out those giant stacks of books you can’t possible read in three weeks, but—you know, it’s worth a try.
I left the books in my car and wandered toward Tejon, trying to keep that loose mind, admiring and aloof, a traveler’s observation, but it wasn’t that easy. I decided that I didn’t want to walk by the place where Michelle’s used to be, whether it is full or empty, it would make me sad. (A tourist would never know it was there, or that it mattered, or what it was). Instead, I wander up Cascade. And there, ahead, is a funeral parlor I’ve been inside—I remember suddenly that it was my Aunt Barbara, for whom I am named, and we were all in shock because it was so sudden and she wasn’t very old.
Step back. Observe.
But…there, across the street from the parlor, on Boulder, is the beautiful little park surrounded by tall apartment buildings, where my mother says we lived when I was a baby. I love to think of my teenage parents living in their first apartment in a Colorado summer. Objectively, I admire the mountains towering over the buildings, gold like necklaces still hanging across their chests.
I decide to go to Poor Richard’s, the last remaining bookstore downtown, where I’ll get a cup of coffee and browse. There are not many people out on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. A few students from the high school, a few more from the college up the road, a tidy woman with her tiny pug. A guy with his bike crosses the street with me and says, cheerily, “How ya doin’?” A pair of businessmen and a very pretty middle aged woman pass by, and the man on the end nods and says, “Hi.” Maybe I’m staring.
The bookstore, however, is packed. Lots of people shopping, lots of different kinds of people, the slightly furtive and grimy sorts with fingerless gloves, and women in business clothes, hair perfectly coifed and sprayed, a family group carrying around a plate of food they share with each other—the man is bald and wearing a suit with a tie, the women are maybe his wife and her mother or sisters. In the café, I sit with my back to the room so I can eavesdrop more adroitly, and listen to a woman behind me talk about healing her energetic body and someone apologizing for not getting the healing right the first time. She keeps saying it isn’t his fault, that they’re both just learning, but then I wonder why she wanted him to know. She speaks loudly. His voice is quiet and younger.
I face the windows, and watch the ordinary parade of afternoon go by on the sidewalk, a trio of teens on skateboards and striped sleeves, a bearded man with a guitar, a woman crisply clicking in her high heeled boots. Across the street is a bakery and I wonder if I should have done there to have a slice of cake, but honestly, the latte I’m drinking, served in a big porcelain cup so heavy I want both hands to life it, is one of the best I’ve had in ages and ages. I will come back here.
While I drink it, I read the book I found (because of course I found another book, even with all the ones in my car), Dog Years by Mark Doty, which engages me instantly because I am still grieving Leo the cat and I don’t care if it’s been three months. These things take time, and for once, I’m giving myself plenty, living with that thorn in my chest, and not rushing beyond it. Living now with the sorrow of the cat who kept me company for eleven years. The book gives me even more permission to do that.
This afternoon, my escape time is running out, and I reluctantly head back toward my car. Again, I’m trying to practice seeing with fresh eyes. But as I walk, my mind is continuously tossing out background notes—it isn’t aloof or observational at all. In the hotel there, which might not even be a hotel any more, lived my ex-husband’s friend Chuck, who was charming and irritating and abrasive. He died, years and years ago, when 36 seemed old to me. I haven’t thought of him in ages. Did he live there? I try to remember. Maybe they just liked to drink at the bar in the hotel.
Anyway. Now I’m passing the corner basement where I took ballet lessons when I was six, and walk past the two connected shopfronts that once contained Chinook Bookstore, where my parents brought us on winter weeknights sometimes, both of them bibliophiles, and there was a playhouse where we children could hide. Down the block is the restaurant were I met my first love after decades of silence between us, and we had a proper wake, full of celebration. It goes on, and on, and on, block after block, street after street. My body is imprinted with hundreds of memories and they unfold like fans as I walk, one era of my life after another, in no particular order.
It is impossible to be aloof here, to be a stranger. Objectively, I see that it is a clear, dry, stunning blue sky. Objectively I see that there isn’t much to this downtown, that people from big cities would find it “quaint” at best, or provincial if they were less kind. Objectively, I see that the mountains are the saving grace. But that’s as much as I can distance myself. The taproots of the city and my life are entwined, inseparable.
Walking back to my car, the knowledge buoys me. How magnificent to know a single place so thoroughly, so intimately, as if we are lovers, bound always! My own, my city, waiting here in under the benign blue eye of my mountain whenever I wander home from my travels. It seems so reassuringly permanent.
Is there a place that makes you feel this way?
Oh, and this just because I think it’s gorgeous. Same guy took the shot. Check out more of his Colorado photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cptspock/2694059955/
Photos courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/cptspock/
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