Everywhere, there is evidence of the human inclination to adorn our surroundings: an industrial spool painted purple hugged by lawn chairs; the windowsills of a grubby apartment building lined with thriving plants; cheap plaster lions holding court on a crumbling stoop.
Finn and I kill time while my sister waits her turn at the clinic. I think: “oh, another sign of poverty,” but then remember how often I wait an hour to see a doctor WITH an appointment. She in fact will be in and out within 50 minutes, Xray and prescription in hand. So we walk, the dog and I. Finn sniffs wildly. Everything is new. I don’t have the luxury of walking down the middle of the street like I do at home. Now and then I ask him to ‘slow’ or ‘watch’ and he does so with aplomb, but then returns with vigor and tugging to his investigations.
A parking lot will afford relief (less canine activity), so we cut through a big one and head toward the harbor. A man forms a bent silhouette as he traverses an enclosed second story sidewalk.
People are going to work: a woman in a nurse’s uniform, men in hard hats. There’s a cop in fluorescent Lycra who will soon regret that unbreathable uniform, perhaps does so already. Those waiting for buses show bare arms and legs, ready for the predicted temperatures.
It is not yet nine o’clock and already the murderous heat gathers.
The parking lot services the new probate court, the department of motor vehicles, and a child protection agency. Watching people park to get in and start their days, I have a chance to consider that all those bureaucrats inside are actually people (remedial, I know). These are the very same folks who stand behind counters with their wooden disregard of our urgency (especially if our only plight is to end the interminable waiting!) The bedazzled phone held up to a young woman’s head does NOT meet up with a face of callous exhaustion, but rather someone who is animated, possibly making plans for later.
Behind us, a woman in a geometric-print dress clacks along in heels. I measure the possible startle response constantly. She is making a weird noise and coming from behind, so it’s a “five,” maybe. I keep Finn close, a wedge of hot dog in my hand.
But then, she hustles. I am surprised to see her jogging past in her bare feet, heels in hand (nylons seem to be optional anymore). Finn’s a champ, but I am still thinking: You mean someone I might scathingly refer to in my head as a “phenomenal bitch” in another (plausible) universe, might actually want to get to work on time? Might actually possess ambition?!
The long white stucco building flanking the harbor is an unfortunate substitute for the old courthouse. It is squat and featureless, lacking all the grace and grandeur one used to expect in municipal buildings.
Once upon a time, I practiced law and was sent up here to do research. I remember climbing the long granite steps of the old courthouse, passing through the massive pillars on my way to the probate counter. There was that slightly musty smell and high-ceilinged acoustics, both of which somehow supported the notion that important matters were being attended to here. I don’t remember the details of the assignment… but I do recall my distinct pleasure at being away from all those tense lawyers riveted by 15 minute increments of billable time. I could breath at the Essex County Probate Court in a way I could not breathe on the thirty-third floor in Boston. Even doing scut work. (Truth be told, I was ALWAYS doing scut work).
At the time, I thought how much fun it might be to trace back even further and then write fiction based on the record. Fun fact: If you go back far enough, you will discover that many of the women hung for witchcraft were widows in possession of substantial amounts of property. Changes the story a little, if you ask me.
The pavement is hot. Not wiggly hot, but hot. My feet are hot, too, but it’s the heat of bone sorrow, not of exertion or temperature. I notice.
Finn and I pass two funeral homes: Levesque’s and Derube’s. Men dressed to the nines greet all comers with gravitas. How hot they must be! One man helps a bent woman up the curb. Another waves a car to an opening. “Here, here!” On a day you bury a loved one, you shouldn’t have to worry about finding a parking place.
After a few more blocks of wandering and many turns later, it’s time to get back and I’m not sure which way to go when we reach the thoroughfare. My confusion is contained by the decision to trust my body. How radical, right?! It has a sense of the distances and remembers the turns — as long as I don’t think too much. The ease of it! It makes me wonder how much less impaired my sense of direction might be if it were not routinely encased in two tons of steel and raised off the pavement by four rolling tires.
My dress pops open revealing the bright pink checks of my bra. I have no idea for how long. This feels right after forty five minutes of observing the working poor.
I pass the blue T-shirted woman a second time. Now her iced coffee is just ice. She has the greasy, tired look of someone accustomed to claiming other people’s stoops as a temporary haven.
At the corner of Dow Street, the delectable smell of roasting meat. The sign says: Spanish Cuisine. And we are back!
So, this is Salem, right? Thank you for the walking tour. The business about hanging women with disposable property reminds me of the vigorous response of the northern French aristocrats against those in the south who espoused the Albigensian heresy (I think it was in the 1300’s). A lot of land changed hands there too, amid appalling slaughter. How satisfying it is to be righteous and rich.
I don’t know that period of history at all, but it sounds fascinating. And yes, this is Salem.