symbology

March 30, 2010

(The word this week was supposed to be symbol. But the story got in the way. So many words, so little space. Perhaps next month.)

I’m late, or will be soon, and my mind is racing, ticking off mental lists, while hands dig in pockets for physical lists. 1 by 10’s. 1 by 8’s. Pressure treated. Yes. And nails, Dave’s bringing the nails, I think. I reach the bottom stair and the front door, my right hand grabs the handle, thumb poised to press the latch and swing it in, and I stop. I’ve never stopped before. I usually grab, press, and pull. And the door budges about a sixteenth of an inch, enough for the dead bolt to engage and my pulling motion propels me headfirst into the frame, my hand twisted by its own jerk and the sudden resistance.

And I remember, and I swear under my breath, at my beloved son, who has once again slipped down in the night to lock the door. “I don’t want to live in a locked house,” I fume. “It’s a nonnegotiable. A matter of principle. Identity. I will not live in a locked house. Damn it. Why does he do that?” I keep hoping, unconsciously, that he will become like me, and choose not to lock it, see the superiority of my ways. But he doesn’t. And every night, before he goes to bed, after Jo and I are in for the evening, he slips downstairs, turns off the lights and bolts the door.

This time is different. I stand with a foot on the stair, one on the floor, my mind full of dimensions, empty and calling for caffeine, and instead of yanking, I take the splittest of seconds and glance at the latch. The door is locked. Pulling on it will not change that fact. I will have to unlock it either way. I don’t want to hit my head again. I don’t want to swear again. I can just reach up and turn the handle. And I do. No fussing about identity or nonnegotiables. I unlock it and go on my way.

The locked door is evidence, a sign of my son’s presence, his instincts and inclinations, instincts that are understandable, reasonable. He is a strapping 21 year old now, but he was once a fragile baby who barely survived an underweight infancy in the streets of Calcutta. And as a tee-ball player on the rec. fields of Montpelier he was shocked and terrified by the horrific news from Barre of the girl who was struck and killed by lightning as she was out on the ball fields there. For years after his eyes would automatically scan the skies as he stepped out the front door, checking for signs of rain. He was the first off the field, the first in the car. Clouds, thunder, lightning, rain, death — all one threatening mix. “I’ll stay inside… Dad, you’re crazy, don’t go out there.”

And he’s had to endure, his entire life, his parents’ fixation on hospitality. Housemates, friends, strangers, candle-burning women’s groups, teens from troubled families — we don’t know the actual number of teens, but it must be well over a hundred, who have shared our home for short or long periods of time, kids who have used his stuff, his video games, and now want to borrow his laptop, kids who want to hang out with him in his room… and we continue do this, take in young people, one might show up this week, or tomorrow. And Vermont State legislators, and Mountaineers baseball players, and Pakistani refugees. Not to mention the “banjo geeks,” as he calls them, my musical friends who show up every week to jam in the living room. He’s put up with a lot, and has been gracious and generous. So I guess if wants to lock the door at night he can. It’s not a sign of moral failure, or spite. It’s just a locked door. And besides, his mother approves. She wonders more about me and why I rail at keys and locks. Clearly, we practice hospitality. Why the fuss?

For one reason. One year. One very long year at the very beginning of the explosion of homelessness in our nation’s big cities (the early ‘80’s) I worked on the streets of New York. The deeper I descended into the world of the homeless, of random evictions, and rampant gentrification, the heavier my door key hung in my pocket. It would burn against my thigh. It became the difference between “them” and me, between “them” and “us,” those of us with doors and rooms behind them, beds and bathrooms, sinks and kitchens; apartments, houses, places of work. We had keys. To the homeless the world is literally locked, a vast array of closed, locked doors.

Jaimen may have his terror of the outside world, of sudden death from the sky and perhaps some deep memory of his danger-ridden beginning. I had my rage against inhumanity, our inhospitality to the elderly and vulnerable, to the slow death by exposure and neglect.

I came to hate keys. And locks. To despise them. I may not be able to save the world but at least I can live in an unlocked house, that I can do. But I can’t. Because my lovely son (and wife!) wants to feel safe at night, and the latch makes him feel safe, even if it is only a feeling, even if the world is still full of danger and risk, of lightning strikes and earthquakes and social policies and attitudes that continue to marginalize and oppress certain people. Sometimes a lock is just a lock. He locks it. I unlock it. It ‘s a dance, a lock dance. I’m not saving the world. I’m not saving anybody. I’m just buying lumber and fixing porches and making bookshelves; and taking in teens from time to time. And Jaimen isn’t locking out the world. He’s engaged, on the verge of his own manhood, preparing to walk out that same door, clouds or not, lightning or not, to forge his own path and make his own way.

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3 Responses to “symbology”

  1. joanna Says:

    A gentle and beautiful reminder to see beyond the surface of the little things and to look beyond the surface (face) of those around us. Just before reading this, a homeless man approached my parked car (in front of the coffee shop) and began to talk with me about the squirrels he feeds. Feeling intruded upon and apprehensive about his intentions I kept the conversation brief and wished him a nice day. He smiled and went on his way with his bag of bread for his squirrels, but not before letting me know about the free clothing across the street. As he walked away I wondered about his life, where he slept, and how his squirrels must listen to his stories. Thanks for the reminder, Dan.

  2. Dan Wetmore Says:

    Thanks, Joanna, for your thoughtful response here, and for reading the piece. At some point I hope to actually write about those experiences,
    on the streets. Up to now I have only been able to refer to them. Difficult issues.

  3. David Carris Says:

    When I moved into town almost two years ago I religiously locked my doors every time I left the house. This wasn’t bucolic Marshfield anymore after all. But in the past few months a variety of events had me leaving the house open a few times. That evolved into leaving the back door open more frequently, then the front, and now whole damn place is wide open for all the world all the time. And I know how you feel. Locking up now feels like some kind of surrender to those forces of mistrust and isolation we hope to be defying in this little place. I love living in a town where doors are left open and people park with the car running on frosty mornings (ok, I know there’s an environmental argument there). Fifty years ago urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote about the “eyes on the street” in her Greenwich Village neighborhood. Leaving your door open is an act of faith that those eyes are there and that we live in a place where we still try to take care of each other. It’s something I would have expected of you, Dan.


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