Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Rust Belt Love Letter

This town is empty.  An exoskeleton of despair slowly decaying around an already forgotten corpse.  The sign in the bar, You will do better in Toledo, more mocking than not, or perhaps . . . Perhaps more deluded, the fading grand dame in her mansion, wearing the dress she wore to her last cocktail party, 40 years ago, the glass in her necklace chipped and missing, the fabric of her green satin stained and moth-eaten, tattered around her dry body.

I walk from 14th and Monroe past empty buildings, faded signs and flyers torn but still stubbornly clinging to glass-front shops.  You can look inside and see the remnants, a chair, a shop counter, a piece of bad art.  You can also see the dirt that covers everything, the leaves and animal droppings.  This is an image of a world after a war.  The reclamation of Chernobyl, the monuments to Dresden, the Rust Belt in the 21st Century.  We have lost and the population here, what's left of it, knows that.  Even the graffiti is faded.  Either no one left to claim space of their own, or nothing left to claim.

This is a town of tragedy.  No great, visible tragedy, no sharp divide between what was once and what is now, but rather a town composed of those small quiet tragedies that build the foundation of our impoverished society.  This is a town of can't-pay-my-bills and repossessions.  This is a town of cut-backs and a fading tax base.  A town filled with people so forgotten that they've become invisible. 

I cross the streets of downtown at 9:30 on a workday morning and I cross them in the middle of a block.  I could walk down the center of the street.  Laying heel to toe down the cracked and faded lines with no fear of traffic.  The buildings, surely large and grand in the booming days when they were built, lurk awkwardly around me, windows like the eyes of the dead, half-shuttered, sometimes broken.  They whisper apologies to me as I navigate the cracks and craters of the sidewalk, the parts of the street where the asphalt has been missing so long the bricks beneath are worn and crumbled.  They politely pull out of my way down narrow paths.  Or sit silently, staring over my head, searching for the horizon.  I ignore them.  Am silenced by their obvious decay.

This is a town of tragedy.  Of scratched-off lottery tickets littering the gas station parking lot.  The billboards are all for the lottery, or cheap lawyers, Planned Parenthood and those "crisis pregnancy centers."  There is one near the crumbling grand apartment in which I live that implores me to "erase the hate."  It stands in an empty field, its edges torn, the red bleeding pink into the white.  Paper and trash, bottles and cups and broken liquor bottles have gathered beneath it.

A woman wearing a knit cap with Obama's hope logo on the front asks me, politely, for a dollar as I cut through the gas station parking lot, picking my way carefully around broken glass and those lottery tickets.  I tell her I don't have one.  I wish I did.

This is a town that makes me feel my privilege.  I am only passing through here.  I am walking back from dropping off a second copy of an application to a Ph.D. program in philosophy at the post office.  I am the transient.  Putting in my two years, joking about the emptiness, the meaning of You will do better in Toledo.  This stretch of street lined with trash and brown grass, the half-hearted flutterings of litter in the still-icy March wind, this is not my home.  I walk up to my apartment and stare out at the tops of buildings, at the sky still gray despite the sun.

Oh, Toledo, I cannot love you.  I would only bruise my heart on your bricks, cut my lips on your broken glass.  My fingernails seem to always have dirt underneath them in this town.  Cigarette smoke and exhaust in my clothes.  Glass from my broken car window in my shoes.  You are a sliver in my heart, Toledo, a symbol more than a city.  You are the Tower card of a Tarot deck.  Loss and despair.  I pile what has been lost here, all of the losses here, in the parts of my heart where you would sit.

I come home and consider starting to pack.  Leaving months from now.  To go somewhere else.  I cannot see the future in Toledo.  I cannot imagine days outside of these.  I've tried.  I don't pack.  Instead I memorize the way the street looks right now.

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