The Geography of Somewhere

The landscape of my childhood was a subdivision in Roseville, Michigan. My parents moved there from their apartment in Detroit in the 1950’s. Roseville was the kind of suburban space that sociologists would later contemptuously describe as “the geography of nowhere.” For them, suburbia’s monotonous uniformity and non-descript architecture epitomize the cultural decline of the United States. Although our neighborhood was not nearly as uniform as Levittown, the prototype for all American suburbs, it was similar enough. Most of the homes were small and built in ranch style. They had screen doors, a milk chute, and a basement. Sidewalks ran up and down each side of the street and the blocks were laid out in a criss-cross pattern, running north and south or east and west.

Still, there was enough difference between the houses on our block to at least differentiate them from each other. One might have awnings and another a garage. Some had trees planted on the parkway near the road. It is true they sat in a uniform row but there was relatively little danger that you might walk into someone else’s house by accident. What is more, each block had its own kind of flavor. Belleair, the block behind us, always seemed to be a little more upscale to me. Perhaps it was because it had been developed after ours. Or maybe it was because of its pretentious sounding name. Some blocks were older, others poorer.

One of the most significant landmarks in our neighborhood was the field to the west of our street, a swath of undeveloped land that we always referred to using the definite article. It was not “a” field but “the” field. We spoke of it as if it were the primeval field of the world, the garden where God planted His first tree. In actual fact, there weren’t many trees in that field. Yet to my childhood imagination it was a wilderness, as mysterious as it was wild. We spent hours there, exploring its boundaries, hunting crayfish or frogs and hiding from bullies among its weeds. It was dotted with wildflowers, a few strawberry patches, and smelled of milkweed and uncut grass.

The field was bordered on its east end by a farmhouse, which stood across the street and kitty-corner from our brick ranch. An old two-story home, I always believed that it was the first house in our neighborhood. I wondered if we were living on the remains of someone else’s farm. In my memory, that old house was green and inviting when it was inhabited and dark and mysterious when it was not. I visited it only once or twice, entering by the back door into the kitchen. I remember a red plaid tablecloth. After while it stood empty, and we were certain it was haunted. It was eventually torn down and replaced by three new, brick ranches which fit the look of the rest of the neighborhood better. I was sorry to see it go.

Mr. Wooten lived in one of the new houses. Our neighbors whispered that he was shell-shocked. Something had happened during the war, but nobody knew what it was. On some nights we could hear him shouting at his wife in their home across the street. They argued loudly until he finally stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him. In the early morning hours, he reappeared on our doorstep, hammering at the screen door and ringing the doorbell. At first, I thought he had mistaken our house for his own. But with a mumbled apology, he explained that he had forgotten his keys and needed to call his wife to let him in. When she seemed unwilling to do so, he slammed the phone down and with another mumbled apology wandered off into the darkness. I was never sure whether she let him in or not.

On the field’s northern border was a small party store that my father used to call “the great facility.” He got the title from the owner, who told him when it first opened that he planned to provide the neighborhood with “a great facility” that would sell them cigarettes, beer, and bread. But my brother, sister, and I always called it “the little store,” once again employing the definite article in a way that seemed to suggest that there was no other. My father bought his vodka there, while we purchased penny candy by the fistful.

The western border of the field was marked by another old house. We viewed its inhabitants with some suspicion because the children who lived there had a reputation of being unruly. How could they not be wild, living on the border of civilization as they did? Our homes rested on neatly measured property lines and along a paved street, while they lived on a gravel road that went past the little store. Who knew where their property began or ended? To the rest of us, they seemed like mountain people living deep in some Appalachian holler, strange and exotic with customs that were foreign to our own way of life. Our suspicions seemed confirmed when some years later the father of one of our friends abandoned his wife and ran off with the woman who lived there. We did not usually venture that far into the field. If we had drawn a map, we might have etched the warning “Here be Dragons” in that spot.

On its southern border, the field was hemmed in by Church Street, the block where the Baptist and Catholic churches were located. Those two landmarks made a deep impression on the landscape of my soul. It was where I first sensed the fear of the Lord and became God-haunted. It was in that space that I first heard the gospel.

The emotional memory of much of my childhood is contained within these boundaries. On the one hand, there was the teeming life of the block with its orderly row of homes, each one a cultural universe of its own. The overall topography of the block may have seemed the same but the smells, customs and values of my Polish and Italian neighbors seemed quite strange to me. What is more, every house was a center of drama. Each one the site of its own daily morality play, where husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, loved and fought, defended or betrayed one another.

Then there was the other world that lay in the direction of the horizon and the setting sun. This expanse, although it was really only a few blocks square, seemed to my child’s mind to be almost infinite in scope. I thought I could spend my whole life exploring there. The wild beauty I saw in its weedy shambles lit the spark that granted me my first vision of the undiscovered country. It shaped some of my earliest images of what heaven might be like.

Sometimes, I go back to the neighborhood where I grew up. The streets seem the same but my friends are all gone. I drive past their houses and remember what it was like to stand on the porch on a summer’s day and call them out to play in singsong chant. I imagine them appearing at the door and tumbling out into the yard. The field is gone too, having given way to more developed land and nondescript office buildings. The few trees that once grew there have been cut down. The old houses that marked its borders have disappeared. The little store is still there but it is no longer as little as it used to be. You can still get your beer and bread there but you can no longer buy a fistful of candy for a penny. As I turn the car toward the expressway, I drive past the place where the gravel road used to be and recollect the scent of milkweed and uncut grass. In my mind’s eye the old boundaries of my childhood reappear. Once again I see the familiar geography of somewhere.

2 thoughts on “The Geography of Somewhere

  1. Thank you, John, for this wonderful little essay! Much of it resonates with me, a guy not far from your age, and a fellow Detroiter. I especially loved this: “What is more, every house was a center of drama. Each one the site of its own daily morality play, where husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, loved and fought, defended or betrayed one another.”
    You’re a great writer! Thanks for the memories!

    1. Thank you Dr. Koessler. I felt like I went on journey with you back in time to your childhood. Your words were vivid and brought your neighborhood to life for me.

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