I woke up very hungry today, dreaming about food, and didn’t have much in my fridge to really make breakfast. So I walked to Tom’s Restaurant, which is a nice diner not too far from me. It’s very crowded on weekends, but on weekdays it’s fine. And I wanted to walk anyway, to take in the daylight and get myself moving.
I walked east along Atlantic to Washington, then north along Washington to Tom’s. After I ate, I wanted to walk back a different way, so I walked east along Sterling. I knew I would hit Underhill, a residential street, then Vanderbilt, the main strip of Prospect Heights.
I had planned on walking down Underhill, because I’d been down Vanderbilt many times. But as I got to the intersection with Sterling and Washington, I saw that there was another intersection before Vanderbilt, and decided to go on ahead.
It turned out to be Butler, a side street that didn’t go through, only went off at a diagonal, to the left, toward the park. I kept walking past toward Vanderbilt, and soon saw some familiar buildings emerging.
I had a feeling I’d had before of something familiar coming out of something unknown. It’s a passage between different kinds of places; places you feel as unknown space, and places you feel as known space.
The unknown space gets an element of its being that you did not know it had, connecting to things you already knew.
The known space gets an element of its being that you did not know that you didn’t know it had; it is seen in a way that you didn’t have a conception of as a part of its existence.
Twice, I’ve driven from Austin, Texas, to Washington, D.C..
One time was with my dad, driving my grandpa’s pickup truck, which we were taking because he was too old to drive. We drove through East Texas to Big Thicket park, then to New Orleans (where we stayed for a week) then through Tuscaloosa, to Chattanooga, then to Rock City, then on home to D.C.
One time was with my brother, driving my grandma’s dog in her car, since they had sold their house and moved to be closer to my parents. We went through Northeast Texas, through Waxahachie, Dallas, Texarkana, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, Cookeville, Knxoville, then Natural Bridge Park in Virginia, and then back home.
Both times I remember how, after seeing so much of the country and long rolling hills, I felt D.C. in a different way, as a city nested in this vast country, a little town in the lowlands past the Appalachians (not just along the coast, or rivers, or highway). I saw the suburbs as a transition from the country, not a part of the city. Direction matters.
I sometimes fear that there is a limited quantity of unfamiliar places, or places that feel unfamiliar, and that continue to pursue these boundaries can make the world stale, make too much seem familiar.
There is another element of transition, one that rarely seems as stark to me, because it’s a slow fade and doesn’t hit the same kind of mindspace. To get to unknown spaces, you depart known spaces. At some point, you’re no longer at home or any place you know familiarly, and are beginning to explore. Many of these departures are into places of such a familiar type that they don’t feel particularly new, so there’s nothing very stark about entering them. By contrast, seeing familiar things again sparks so many associations that it’s stark even from things of familiar type but not complete familiarity. It stands out against more backgrounds.
But sometimes you discover an unfamiliar place within a familiar place, in a way that gives a special kind of wonder. The place would give no feeling if it were somewhere else. I have memories and sensations of these moments, but no stories about them.
At some point on both road trips we left the familiar space of Austin, and went elsewhere in Texas, toward another state, a feeling I’ve experienced a few times, one time when I drove with my grandparents out through West Texas, to go to a ranch in New Mexico for vacation. We’d been to the ranch before, but we’d flown in to Albuquerque.
I used to have dreams about finding secret rooms in my houses; my house in D.C., and the house in Nashville where I lived for the year. My brother would have similar dreams. We thought sometimes that the fact that we both dreamed there were secret rooms meant those rooms really did exist.
My grandparents moved earlier this month (when we drove the dog) to a retirement complex near my home, next to the Jewish temple where we used to go to services and Sunday school (it was on Sundays, not on the sabbath). Before they moved in, I went with my dad and my brother to carry in a piece of furniture called a buffet. The thing had been in my house, but I didn’t recognize, I hadn’t paid it any attention.
I had been in the first floor of the building many times, since we used to have overflow services for the High Holy Days in the auditorium. But this time we went up the elevator, into the empty apartment, which I have not yet seen as a home.
Before we drove out, we stayed at their old home in Austin, which had been sold and was stripped nearly bare by that time, which will never exist again as it once looked, and Austin will now be a place where I do not have a home. It is very likely I will go back there, probably many times. It will be strange to return there as a person visiting the city itself, not a home in the city.
I’ve had this dream many times: I walk in a place that is at first familiar, but find a new block, a place I haven’t explored. There are stores, restaurants, ordinary places, but the thing that excites me about them is that I can get food. Not food that is fancy, or that I couldn’t have elsewhere, but that has a different association to it because of it’s place and because it seems good and because I’m hungry; I’m always excited to find it, there’s a sense of wonder, not as much at the food itself as at the character of the place that provides it. I used to experience all restaurants like this, especially the ones that quick and cheap and informal, usually serving their food over a counter.
I don’t usually feel that way when I go to eat, but I still have those dreams.