I don’t like losing stuff. A trip back to Chicago resulted in seeing my decrepit freshman dorm—an old house labeled the “economy dorm”—replaced by a Burger King, though I was reunited with my freshman good buddy Michael. Not long after, I got word he died.
We took a road trip that passed through South Dakota, and I wanted to see the house and school where I braved a very cold winter and a grim stepfather in my third-grade year. Weaving through Rapid City, I discovered the house and neighborhood gone, even the school and the hills in between, erased by a freeway exchange.
During the course of eighty years of life, lots of the places and people who were vivid to you are just plain gone. Last year, our long-time collaborator Camilla died; a year or so before, a beloved mentor. A few years further back, my high school girlfriend. At this point, the dozens become hundreds.
This comes to mind having just returned from a drive north to Blue Lake, CA, 250 miles either way, to attend the grand opening of a bar. We’ve been longtime friends of fellow ensemble-theatre makers, the Dell’Arte Players, who spent many years touring, based in tiny Blue Lake, then founding a school of physical theatre that draws students internationally. We’ve performed there several times and spent many hours of philosophizing & drinking together.
A few weeks ago, Joan died, one of the founding trio—a huge shock, as we hadn’t even known she was ill. The others of the trio have phased out their work with the school, and one of them, Michael, has just bought the town’s only bar—just across the street from the theatre. Thursday was their grand opening, with Irish dancers, a bagpipe ensemble, storytelling, a band, and a huge crush of locals.
For Michael, it’s another beginning. For us, it’s a severing of ties with that theatre, as no one remains there that we know. We’ll surely visit again, hopefully see some new work, and schmooze around nearby Arcata, but it’ll be a bit like our search for The Hut—a greasy-spoon joint with an incredible jukebox where we hung out 1960–63 while at Northwestern—still there, but made sleek and trim.
Most unsettling was my visit back to the Water Street Arts Center many years ago. A three-story building—former hotel, former toy-train factory—that was the first home of our fledgling Theatre X in Milwaukee. This was the locale of a major career shift, our first pregnancy, some extraordinary theatre work, some horrendous business meetings—many memories. Now, ground floor, it was a yuppie bar; up the stairway (halfway up which Elizabeth first told me she was pregnant) was an insurance company. I sat in the bar looking for the slightest evidence of what it had been—nada.
I’m reminded of Hopkins’ poem that begins “Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving…” and ends “This is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.” Yes, in these places, for these people, it’s perhaps our own mortality we mourn. It flashes by, a sweet smell of daphne, then gone.