The Inventory of the Streets

“The Friendly City” is a weekly column about walking in Harrisonburg that will run during 2024. Each week, your friendly correspondent, writer and teacher Sofia Samatar, will reflect on a walk in our city. 

A blustery day, blue and silver and black and white. A sky of smoke and metal, constantly in motion, the clouds dark as charcoal in the center but ringed with a blazing platinum glow. The chilly gusts give an impression of industry, as if the sky has been turned into a workshop. It’s the sort of day that would be represented in old pictures by the image of Zephyr, the wind god, blowing vigorously, his cheeks swollen with the effort. A day for walking up Third Street to Washington, into a zone of enterprise, the busy, semi-industrial edge of the city.

I cross Liberty Street and head downhill between Farmer Focus and George’s, Inc., representatives of the venerable poultry-raising tradition in this valley. On one side, there’s the Farmer Focus mural, a silhouette of a man and a boy in cowboy hats, walking hand in hand with a few chickens at their feet. On the other side, the tower of George’s rises, one of the city’s tallest structures and a convenient landmark for me, as my house lies almost in its shadow. At home, we call it the Tower of Mordor—a nickname I thought was only used by our family until I met another resident of the Friendly City who referred to it as Minas Morgul, provoking the suspicion that the whole city dreams a red eye watches them from the heights of this poultry plant. Picking my way across the railroad tracks, which expand to a double line in this part of town, I nod apologetically to passing drivers who look surprised to encounter a human being among the parking lots and commercial buildings. It’s midday, the wrong hour for people. In general, walkers appear here only before dawn and after dusk, when the poultry workers go to and from work in their gumboots and hairnets. For most of the day, in the environs of the city’s largest business concerns, where so much activity is concentrated, so many human and animal bodies in motion, a walker can get the feeling that the place is entirely deserted, and that she, as a living being, doesn’t belong here, and had better pick up her pace.

How different it feels at the bottom of the hill, among the small auto shops! There’s a bustling quality to this neighborhood, where business and residential activities are so mixed that many of the businesses have taken up residence in the houses. Among the homes converted into shops where mechanics ply their trade, my eye jumps dizzily from slender porch posts to the gleam of a pile of hubcaps, from the delicate scrollwork of gingerbread trim to a crowd of wrecked cars parked close together, their open hoods yawning. The jumble of colors, textures, and styles creates a lively feeling. Here’s a white picket fence, then the garden of the local environmental nonprofit, then a sign for Windshield City, then a tiny house standing alone on a plain of gravel where a diminutive dog barks plaintively. From a porch built low and close to the street, almost on the sidewalk, a wooden rocking horse observes some mechanics discussing a broken-down camper. A Thanksgiving wreath in faded fall colors hangs over a stack of steering wheels. And the bright blue wall of a house advertising snow removal and lawn service, saturated with color, rises from its surroundings with the effect of an abstract painting. 

“The inventory of the streets is inexhaustible,” the German writer Walter Benjamin observed in his Moscow Diary, written when he visited that great metropolis in 1926. How startling to realize that the same is true of the streets of this little city, which offer endless material for contemplation. You only have to begin to pay attention in order to open a treasure trove of sights inviting reverie. Circling back toward my house, I feel drawn into the vibrancy of these small establishments that have sprung up between the big ones like weeds through the cracks in a sidewalk, heartened by the sight of people at work in full view, where they can make eye contact and wave at a stranger, and also aware of their precarity, the steep odds against their success, as I pass the place where my car received excellent service last year and find it closed down, the sign erased, the lot surrounded with yellow tape. Behind the dirty plate glass, two black swivel chairs hold court in the empty office. It’s hard here, hard and unfriendly, I think, returning uphill, or maybe it would be more accurate to call the city a patchwork, a jumble of colors and textures, feats and failures, energies and ghosts.

An urn in a yard. Two tree trunks with all the branches lopped off. At the top of the hill, a sweeping view toward the big blue shoulder of the mountain. No one appears to be enjoying this prospect today but the garden statues on a nearby lawn, a menagerie of fabricated beasts. A sad terracotta dog. A pink plastic deer with a calm gaze. A bear holding a plant pot. A pair of plaster ducks eaten away by the rain. Such a strange crossroads: manufactured animals standing sentinel over the halls where real animals are processed. A silent commentary on the transformation of matter, living things into dead ones that feed the living, inert materials into the semblance of live creatures. At the edge of the yard, a green gnome spattered with white paint raises one arm with a flourish, as if to say, See!

A cardboard box lies in the street; I drag it to the curb. Under some straggly trees, a vine grows rampantly, twining itself around objects no one has bothered to get rid of: plastic bottles, a sunken tire, a box covered with rotting newspaper. In the coils of this vigorous vine, crushed soda cans glint like the wreckage of an ancient civilization. And a lost Christmas ornament, a perfect crimson sphere, throws off such a blinding reflection of a shaft of sunlight that for a moment the street appears to be in flames.

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