Old buildings maintain our connections across time

<p>There is something about abandoned and neglected buildings that invites philosophical thoughts about the impermanence and endurance of human experience.</p>

I can feel the air rising to the mooing of cows at dawn, snaking the mist like a table set beneath the morning sun. I can see the siding on the buildings as they split and fade. The floors in this old house gather little mounds of dust in the corners. I run my fingertips over thumbtack holes in the hall made thick with rainbow layers of paint.

I can hear the bellowing of men and the laughter of children. Seagulls hop along in the dirt, tracing the paths of horses (stupid seagulls follow the cars). Pretty young ladies in tight fitting corsets smile and wave from upstairs windows. Little boys run alongside brand new Model Ts; girls huddle together and talk about ... well what do little girls talk about?

These are remnants of the sepia age, the black and white years: the days of schools with high ceilings and the older boys making fires in the potbelly stove, thick armed men carving oaths in the bars; stores where the floors creak and the salesmen are named Miles and Agnes and Thelma. I hear voices in the rooms of an office building, the bookkeepers wear green eyeshades and bowties and white shirts.

A large hotel, the biggest building in town, marks the footprints of men who will someday be lost to the sea and the timberline, and to wandering men living on the road. The air on the top floors is old and stale, it tells many tales. The windows, even the clean ones, smell of cigar smoke and whiskey. The flowers on the wallpaper are washed with the tears of maidens left behind.

You must know by now that a building never really dies, not completely, anyway. They’re used wherever men (and women) are measured, from those who will be pioneers in the next age, to the shadows of those whose work here is left undone. For children who have grown up and moved to cities, there is laughing left to see to, games to finish playing, lessons still to be learned. Couples still need to court, families are waiting to be raised, old people need to lie on their beds and tell their tall tales.

There’s something holy about that, this connection, this stepping stool that crosses the long valleys of time to touch someone else.

Men have been making buildings for thousands of years. The walls have been straight, the doors secure, the windows keep away the angry sky. But there can be no excuses for many of the choices they’ve made. Their paths are wide and infinitely bumpy. Their language is florid and perfumed with a savage hatred as a prelude to their wars. Their speakers and their writers, the grandest of their age, can justify racism and slavery, and champion a blind mind against all who are different or weak: women and gays and people whose God isn’t white and speaks no English.

There is nothing left to say for them. No paint can cover a shame that goes straight to the bone ...

The world is simple in its emotions but terrifyingly real in its scope. Nature is so vast, this earth I just can’t see all of it in the glance of a lifetime … this universe ... I don’t really understand it; I am but one man, bound by the limits of my imagination and the force of my simple mind. If I gave my lifetime a thousand times over to a path of study and enlightenment, I could never break through the barriers to know what it all means.

Don’t be in such a hurry to replace everything? Lead-paned windows and hand carved oaken railings; chandeliers like crystal spider webs and overstuffed chairs; big rolltop desks with drawers and cubbyholes beyond count ... buildings with fancy fashioned facades and glass cases; the smell of dairy cows and soggy hay and aged old dairy men and the awkward ways they move when they’re not being with their cows.

I return to my work now, to sitting quietly in a darkened room, and to wonder. Water and earth, ice and rain, air and sky … what they mean is decided upon by the poets and philosophers. But the connections, that’s the key … and what the connections mean is more than I can say.

Wayne Downing is a refugee from Seattle. He lives in Ocean Park with his wife Cecelia. His daughter, son-in-law and grandson live in Long Beach, Calif. Write to him at ethelsear@willapabay.org.

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