My father used to tell stories of his exploits in Highland Park back in the 30s and 40s. He had lived there when streetcars could get you around fast and cheap, when milkmen brought cold milk to your door, when you could call down to the market and, for a nickel, you could get a kid to happily deliver your groceries.
In those days he had been known as the Handsomest Man in Highland Park. I had doubted that story until, at a hot summer afternoon cookout, an old fellow had looked across his barbecue at Pop and said, “Hey, I think I remember you – aren’t you the Handsomest Man in Highland Park?”
Pop’s three years gone now, and I think that old guy from the cookout passed not long after. I don’t suppose there are many folks left, if any, who could tell you who the handsomest man in Highland Park was. Maybe there’s somebody there now who has inherited the title, but I wouldn’t know. I don’t get to Highland Park much.
Friday was the closest I’ve been in awhile. I was in Barton Heights, 2005 Barton Avenue to be exact, which is a quarter mile south of Highland Park. Close enough to make me think. Close enough to see ghosts.
Across the street from 2005 Barton Avenue, the home of the Wingnut Collective, are two abandoned buildings. My friend and I park on the street, walk up the porch steps, and knock on the door.
Mo answers. She’s a pretty young girl with green hair, glasses, tattoos, and piercings. Her smile is infectious.
“We’re here for the movie,” I say.
Past a dozen locks and three pitbulls into a foyer. There’s a table with some photocopied ‘zines. From one of them stares a policeman; the caption reads, “Be on the lookout: Armed gangs are patrolling our streets.” Instructions and calendars of various kinds are posted on the wall. What to do if there’s a bust. Why there are no drugs or alcohol allowed on the premises. The open hours for the free lending library. Information regarding the totally free market at Monroe Park. The meeting times if you want to help cook for Richmond Food Not Bombs. Stuff like that.
My friend and I mill around and start to meet people. People who, whether it is their first visit or their hundredth, sit on sofas and talk like friends. Nobody seems to notice that I’m twice as old as everyone else. There is no air conditioning, but the high ceilings make it okay. This house was built by people who knew how to live without it. I have a flashback of drinking iced tea in my aunt’s white-doily parlor on Roseneath Road, perfectly comfortable on an July day, thirty-five years ago. I’m so flustered I draw a blank in the middle of a sentence and, to dissipate the awkwardness, Mo excuses herself to get the movie ready. I blush.
We watch the movie on the lawn, projected onto a twelve foot square piece of canvas. It’s about how more species have gone extinct in the last 65 years than went extinct in the previous 65 million years. About how Civilization is based on consumption and violence. How one in forty Americans is in prison. About how the police are the enforcement arm of a culture ruled by corporations, and you can’t change the world by hitting the Like button on Facebook. Stuff like that.
People walk or peddle by not paying much attention to the movie. A police airplane circles.
I wonder how much of this is my fault, what I could have done differently in my life, what I can do now. I wonder if this is what Pop saw in Highland Park’s future, in America’s future, in the World’s future. I wonder what he would want me to do, if he’d want me to take a stand for the poor, for the environment, and for freedom, or if he’d want me to hide in suburbia and pretend that the world isn’t burning.
We talk for awhile and then go our own ways. After a subdued ride I drop my friend at his apartment. At home I cannot think straight. I smoke a few cigarettes, drink some wine, go to bed. I look up at the ceiling and talk to Pop for awhile.
I think I’m going to be seeing Mo again soon.