By Shawn Keller
It is the recollection of a fire. It is the creosote memory of a stair.
I am walking down Water Street in 1985 with my mother, off
to pay a propane bill in the skeletal corpse of downtown Augusta, Maine.
I point to the vacant lot across the street, filled with deinstitutionalized AMHI
patients, heroin addicts and other collections of human castaways.
In the rear, burned into the concrete, are the marks of a vanished staircase.
“That was the Capital Theater, before it burned,” my mother said, “and there
was the Colonial too, down by the mill. It was the place to be on Friday nights,
couldn’t even find a parking spot. All of Water Street was.
Before the Turnpike, before Western Avenue.
You should have seen it at Christmas time. It was like a postcard.”
She steps wide with her new Lamey-Wellehan boots to avoid the
sand and slush along the Water Street sidewalk. She floats out of the
brilliant chrome of her Buick Roadmaster, the candy apple red paint
illuminated by the marquee lights of the last show at the Colonial.
“The Best Years of Our Lives”, 9:30PM.
Her gifts piled high in the back of the sedan, wrapped in ribbon.
W.T. Grant’s boxes fall in between gift bags from Farrell’s and
the lingering memories of a waning winter afternoon.
Lunch at the Kirschener counter, mail run under the gothic turrets
of the Post Office, her new boots, and the long stroll past the
Christmastime storefront displays. A sparkling tunnel
of commerce, with wreaths hung from streetlights, crisp green
incandescence from the windows kissed with spray snow.
Men with bulky coats crowd the sidewalks with their wives
and children, who spin by the knees of the adults while they
covet the Lionel train displays.
She settles into her seat at the Colonial and waits for the picture show to begin.
The houselights dim, and then disappear altogether.
When they arise the theater is empty.
The seats, once red and plush, now are torn, the odor of
water damage mildew hangs in the air. The hammered tin ceiling
spotted with black mold and chipping white paint.
She drifts to the street outside.
The marquee long gone and the Water Street sidewalk dark.
Next door to the abandoned Colonial sits a pornography shop.
Further up Water Street, storefront windows are
smashed and covered by ever present graffiti tags.
Further down, towards Sand Hill, the Edwards Mill sits quiet,
now only manufacturing squatters and street crime.
Other empty storefronts line the hill up to the Hartford Fire Station.
Above, open apartment windows let out the sounds of fighting
husbands and wives, bawling children mixing with the
exiting cigarette smoke. Other windows are dark, with only hints of eyes
watching in shadows. AMHI homeless sit in alleyways near piles of needles.
Everywhere is the smell of urine.
The streetlights, those that work, flicker leaving weak ripples of light
on the sidewalk below.
She arrives back at the Capital, now just a blackened
hulk before its destruction.
Generation X watched the cities of America wither and die in real time.
A million downtowns by a million rivers in million states as the
1970s progressed to the early 1990s. Plywood replaced store front windows,
prostitutes replaced Salvation Army Santas as businesses fled for the suburbs.
Generation X saw it all, and we waited for the final act,
that final descent into urban madness.
Where Manhattan becomes a prison in “Escape From New York”,
cyberpunk futures, the dystopias of a million broken urban dreams.
It was all over.
Nothing left now but to watch the death throes and press the reset button.
Crack babies, AIDS, super predators, gangland warfare,
“The Bronx is burning, ladies and gentlemen. The Bronx is burning.”
But the end never came.
Where the Capital Theater once stood is called Market Square now.
It is a park of becoming. It is a park of returning.
Across that street by the water, the turrets of the Post Office still stand,
and everywhere is the spring of renewal.
Old bricks burst with restaurants, barber shops and hipster goods retail.
Parents and children dance on the once desolate sidewalks,
next to parking spots that are hard to come by on a Friday night.
Even the Colonial, the sick old man of Water Street, returns
as beautiful Millennials work to polish those left behind bones.
Tearing out seats, painting ceilings, remaking what was once left behind.
Old mills become apartments, vacant lots become parks,
as the American downtown is reborn, in a million cities by a million rivers.
And one day the marquee of the Colonial will light again.
A recollection in flame.
The creosote memory of a stair.
Shawn Keller is an amateur poet living in Brunswick, Maine. As a young man he studied history with the heart of a geographer, and then left New England to explore America. He saw the plains of west Texas, the rugged mountains of the desert southwest, and a wonderful used music shop in Cortez, Colorado. But he needed to return to Maine. Ever the gypsy, his poetry is concerned with a sense of place, and the never ending journey we embark upon to find that mythical place we call “home”