Nothing is so different, really. The years mature into decades, which changes little, except technologies, and they produce more want than happiness. Despite the promises.
It isn’t the living room windows, with a cool blue glow that emanates from the television, that open to the street. Not even the kitchen windows, with sills that hold blissful plants bathing in the sunlight, that open to the street. It isn’t even a bedroom window, remote enough to offer adolescent escape when the parents are asleep, that open to the street. No, it is the garage door that is presented to the world as the best foot forward of a suburban home. An American suburban home, where the convenience for the car outweighs the human need to be able to part a curtain and see the world. Instead we part the curtain to views of a deck garden boiling up from ceramic pots; a side yard fence of weathered cedar being clawed to pieces by vines. Over that fence is the neighbor’s window left immodestly unadorned by the unseasonal heat. But we do not see the front yard.
On this day that is now, the seat I’m sitting in was once in a minivan, another suburban invention. Liberated from the vehicle, the seat now sits low on the floor of my garage.
With a little sun after the season of grey, the neighborhood becomes a beehive of automotive maintenance. From my minivan seat, set just back from the garage door, I can watch the people clean and polish their iron cages—lavishing these wheeled beasts with washrags and soapy water. And this is me, too. For my car gleams coyly, freshly serviced with an electric buffer which brought her to an almost erotic brilliance, once the dried wax was spiraled away. My chair is a comfortable place to sit while I feel the rubber where the muscles in my arms used to be. Tired and dehydrated, I guzzle out of a plastic bottle and watch with little mercy this thing that has become the way we live.
How many neighborhoods like this are there in the country? The homogeny of our lives brought to us by modern living seems to have become geographically irrelevant. There certainly is a man just like me embedded in most every garage in every state watching the same drama. The presence of my ilk seems almost a contractual necessity before a neighborhood can be deemed American.
Though I am in plain sight, I know that I am invisible. To the teenagers, I have generated enough years behind me that there’s little in my culture that will ping their popular radar. I care less about their version of cool than my kids cared about mine. To my neighbors I am just another guy in dirty shorts and a stupid hat. Observer’s Effect doesn’t apply--I am enough of this environment that me being seen observing it is moot.
Three days before this day that is now, I watched this from my chair: She’s a kid. Just a kid. Pointy joints defined her edges, strung together by limbs that were much shorter last year when the spring parted the clouds and found us all washing our cars. When she rolled the first garbage can to the street, she did it with the exaggerated effort children use—not quite sure of the easiest way to get the job done, so all ways at once. Once the can was squared with the curb, she ambled back to the driveway like a loosely strung marionette. When she dragged out the second can, she seemed more confident. Her movements seemed to be more hers rather than the whims of gravity and gangly geometry. When she walked back to the house she looked over her shoulder, allowing that someone might have been watching. Her childhood had been discarded, for a moment. Soon she would be living full time in a body that wouldn’t need constant reminding of where it was in relation to the world. She was transitioning in jumps and starts from being the child that makes spontaneous movements out of spontaneous thoughts into an adult where all movements are constrained by what others might think.
On this day that is now, I watched this from my chair: The same girl flounced from the house and draped herself across the retaining wall that keeps the front yard from calving into the street. She struck a pose, not unlike one from a 1920s movie glamor shot, for no one in particular but for everyone in general. She was still a child, not understanding that no matter how practiced your form, you are relegated to pedestrian as soon as you start looking at your cellphone.
In how many neighborhoods across this country are the children declaring their maturity with exhibitions of technology? I watched her for a second, waiting to see if the child would show itself, or if she would continue to strain into her teen years, hoping for an audience. It is all as it should be and that makes it all the more adorable. I looked away, feeling like she needed a moment to consider her next move.
I have a piece of glass that I can touch and it brings moving pictures and sounds to me as I sit in my chair. This piece of glass is less than a square foot, but on it I watched a video stream from outer space. An astronaut in the International Space Station that is orbiting the Earth wanted to do something significant for his last day of his five months off our planet. So, he got out his guitar and sung David Bowie’s A Space Oddity. In 1969, 15,896 days before this day that is now, I had heard this song for the first time through a small transistor radio receiving a signal over an AM frequency. I was nine. The song crept into the fiber of who I am and added a music track to that piece of history we all experienced 107 days before the song was released, when Neil Armstrong stepped from his spaceship onto the surface of the moon. That indelible memory stained my consciousness through a low fidelity speaker powered by a nine-volt battery, and set forever by murky black and white images phosphoresced to life onto a cathode ray tube in front of a bunch of eight-year-olds in summer school. On this day that is now, I write this on a machine that has access to almost all of humanity’s knowledge, diversions, and perversions. And mostly it bores me. But on this day that is now, it serves me a bit of awe because I watched a man sing a song in outer space that I first heard when I was a kid--a song that allowed the kid I was to imagine a particle of the future that is now.
1969 happened for me a long time ago in a neighborhood not so unlike the one I watch from my chair, on this day that is now. The grown ups massaged their cars on weekends and those too young to have cars to polish pretended they’d already arrived at growing up, serving notice with noise and gesticulations.
Not so many years before this day that is now, I lived in a different neighborhood in a different town having a different life with different people. I still worked on cars and motorcycles in my driveway--in a neighborhood where people usually didn’t do such things. I had a neighbor with whom I would exchange pleasantries, stories, and later health complaints, almost every day as she walked her dog past my driveway. She was unperturbed by my dirty jeans and the oil that had permanently rooted in my fingerprints. She was an engineer and her understanding of how things worked fueled her love of cars. Perhaps it was her cancer going from a fact of life to a fact of impending death that led her to trust me to bring her precious antique MG back to life so she could drive it. Its previous mechanic had wandered off into the ether, and she had somehow condescended that my tinkering might be up to the task of making her car sing again. When she heard it run for the first time in years, the look on her face was something only real car people understand. It feels like a life has been created from fluorocarbons and wires and noise and smoke and that spirit that lives in all those things that bring joy to the mechanically fetished. She knew I understood. I knew she would take that moment into whatever comes next.
On the day after this day that is now, I will be sitting in my chair with my piece of glass and will open an email from from my ex-wife. I will know from the subject line that it will tell of the death of my friend with the MG. Though sudden, it was not unexpected. The cancer she had been living with had finally sent her on her way.
But on this day that is now, I sit in my chair and I watch my neighbors. Somehow I have come to be in a community where every second house seems to have some mechanical marvel glistening in its garage or driveway. We wave at each other, oblivious to each others names, jobs, criminal history, political affiliation, or salad dressing preference. We can hear the seriousness of mechanical affection in the exhaust note of our Harleys; or by how carefully one of us drapes the blanket in the bed of a beautifully restored 1930s Chevrolet pickup truck, so that a young daughter can be comfortable, or perhaps more importantly, not damage a finish that 80 years ago was nothing more that a thin layer between rust and bails of hay. But on this day that is now, that finish is as perfect as the day the truck was minted--and is as perfect as the look of annoyance the girl makes sure the world can see, as she positions herself for greatest effect against the blanket in the bed of the truck.
This day that is now is winding down with the gathering of rain clouds as hoses are collected, gurgling out last gasps of water with each coil over the shoulder. I close the garage door, hiding my chair from the street, heading into the day’s warmth stored in the house. I pull inside and leave the streets outside just as the first raindrops hit the dry concrete. I’ll be waiting for the next sunny day when I can watch from my chair the cars and kids that will come out to play. Because our love of machines and the ties that bind them to the rest of our lives begins when we are children and keeps a part of us very child-like. And I will remember those who also loved machines and the principles that make them breathe--those whose days have passed before me. I will bring them back to life for that brief second when I see kids as we were and those beautiful machines, loved like one of the family.