Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Staircases

My family in New York lives on top of a huge hill. According to the geological map of the area, we're about 300 feet above sea level.

While this point is much lower than Chicago, Chicago is six hundred miles from the nearest ocean. We're...four.

However, here's the key: the main road of the town, about 400 feet away, is a full 55 feet lower than we are. There's a fifty-foot steep drop (not quite a cliff) in some neighbors' yards. Fences protect the kids from what essentially is the neighborhood cliff.

In order to provide foot access to the main road without having to take a roundabout route, the town installed a staircase between my street and the main road. It's almost completely unutilized: most people here drive. I used it the entire time I lived out here to get to school, turning north at the bottom for elementary school, south for middle school and high school. The steps have a scholastic feel, I think, but that's probably because I have taken upwards of seven hundred trips on those stairs with my school bag.

It's not particularly well cared for, as a result. The town wanted to get rid of it a few years ago - difficult to maintain, dangerous, and intrusive to the neighbors, it was called. Eventually they decided to keep it - it provides foot access to two houses on the drop's edge, which is useful for the postwoman, delivery men etc.
It was repaved, and then forgotten. Even the neighbors never use it. My sister is one of maybe four people who use it regularly now. Dogwalkers use it sometimes to get to a park, and the small children next door have a Saturday night babysitter who I've seen using it.

It has an abandoned quality, even with the new stones and railings. You duck your head to avoid branches. At the steep bit, you step carefully to avoid a catastrophic fall. There's a lot of dirt, and bugs.

It used to be a lot more like a secret pathway, before they cleaned it up. The stones before (which were, in my opinion, nicer) had a beautiful gray color, and were almost falling out of the mortar. Actually, one did while my foot was on it.

Yet some surprising things still remain. At the top, there's a random patch of daylilies, seed-escapees from a nearby garden. From May until August, they form an orange welcome flare at the top of the staircase.

At the top. The house on the left is accessed by foot through here, although everyone seems to use their driveway.

Further down, there's a little place that I've nicknamed "Squirrel Crossing." A lot of the neighborhood squirrels commute between the yards on the drop-edge on a certain landing of the staircase.

"Squirrel Crossing," devoid of squirrels, in the foreground. I once found my cat at the time sunning herself on this ledge.


And at the bottom, before hitting the main road, some plants have already taken root between the bricks, Nature's little homage to the moss that covered the old mortar. The staircase flattens out here, and the last bit abuts the driveway of a neighbor who has objected to the public staircase for years:

They kept the old paving on the left-hand side (the border).
The staircase has existed longer than he has. The town records indicate that the staircase was built well before World War II.

Sometimes, I climb the staircase without thinking. But sometimes, I feel like I'm in an unknown passage. In the midst of sundry American suburbia, a piece of something else. A place where I, the faithful foot-traveller, am the king of journeyers. A place, surrounded by rubber rounds, yet only for rubber soles. A place, mundane to me for a decade, yet special still.

A place that my feet crave now, under a desk in the midst of a city.

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