A Trip Around The Block Remembering the days when this old neighborhood was nearly new

August 15, 1993|By Katharine Byrne

Walking around the block must have some purpose. Unless you are a power walker wearing your power shoes and your personal stereo, you just don't walk around a block alone. In Anne Tyler's "Saint Maybe," a recently retired man takes his old dog for more walks than it wants to take, because "he would have felt foolish strolling the streets with no purpose. This gave him something to hang on to."

I have walked these clean streets every day for almost 50 yearsgive or take a few days off for vacations, blizzards, childbirth or the time I had pneumonia, and I have always had something to hang on to. I have pushed baby carriages and strollers, held the hands of small children, guided tricycles, balanced a two-wheeler on its first wobbly trip without training wheels, hung on to a husband's arm in February's ice storms and to the leashes of a succession of dogs in all seasons. A couple of these, at least in their youth, were wild assertive beasts, street fighters looking for trouble and hard to handle. Now I walk with Daisy, an age-appropriate found-object of my affection, found shivering under a parked car. Timorous at the sight of anything larger than a squirrel, she wants to head for home.

Occasionally we are joined by one of my agreeablgrandchildren. Among these, one who is mathematically gifted has estimated with the aid of an atlas that I have made this trip about 12,000 times, the distance between Copenhagen and Istanbul and back. Or from here to Bogota.

Although these children are too polite to complain, one of thedid observe recently, "Kate, all the people you talk about are dead." It is true that as I walk past these familiar houses, I may see other times and other people. Some of the homes have layered looks. Here is a deck that smells of new cedar and oregano in a terra cotta jardiniere, but I see an old open porch, a swing hanging from the ceiling, morning glories twining around the banister. Who lives here now? I don't know. To me it is "the Andersons' house."

A man is hurrying from the next doorway. Young, prosperous in vested suit, carrying a handsome briefcase, he strides toward the "L."

But I see Herbert long ago in baggy corduroys and frayed cuffsA reclusive man, he used to live here with his mother, the widow of a policeman. She carried Herbert's white shirts to the back yard in a huge wicker basket. After her death, Herbert's white shirts gave out at the collars and cuffs. Thereafter, he was often seen carrying knobby bags imprinted with the Friendly Liquors logo. When he shot himself with his father's service revolver, they said that the wicker basket was filled with empties; not a story to tell a young grandchild.

But houses outlive owners, of course. A more cheerful episode ithe long life of Herbert's house spanned the years when it was Mr. Lippman who lived there and gave violin lessons to a procession of yarmulke-capped youths plodding their way after school to practice in his basement and eat the honeycakes made by his wife, Reba. Reba's ambition was to sing in the chorus of the Lyric. On summer days we could hear her plaintive "Pace, pace, mio Dio" wafted out of open windows.

*

Why does unrelieved sun beat down on this hot pavement although the rest of the block lies in cool shadows? It's all Geraldine's fault. Her family was city-connected with someone in every department, including forestry. When we heard the whine of the chain saw that day and looked out of our windows, we recognized the sound and sight of city clout. Geraldine was causing to be re- moved from her parkway a great healthy silver maple. The roots, she reported, were responsible for water in her basement after a heavy rain. We all know about that, hiring

plumbers and complaining, but this is the price we pay for precious shade and the illusion of urban peace and quiet. Trees are the pride of our neighborhood.

Geraldine, however, stood out there boldly overseeing the execution. The rest of us wrung our hands and cursed her politics. Only Mrs. Gustafson stood at her doorway screaming: "You are murderers! This tree belongs to the birds, the people, the children yet unborn." Her outrage reflected our own. By 3 o'clock, only the stump remained, its annual rings recording the age of a tree destroyed. Many years later one of Geraldine's attendants wheels her out to sit unshaded in the sun. And Mrs. Gustafson, too old now to hold an ancient grudge, may cross the street to talk about old times with Geraldine.

In times old or new, border wars and boundary skirmishes are one of the constants among us; they may break out between these narrow neighboring kingdoms at any time. Somewhere else, back yards may blend amiably into one another with no lines of demarcation beyond those on the surveyor's plat.

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