Albion Through My Eyes / Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful
Singing the names of the streets
“Before I met you [Nicolás] I did not know Albion existed –– a magical place of art and kindness.” Email from Radostina Koleva
Walking in Albion is rarely a silent matter. There is always someone to greet or a neighbor to chat with, and if there are no people around one can still have a good conversation with the streets. That is what I plan to do when I leave E. Cass and head for a stroll through the Nature Center. Breathing exercises. Forest bathing. Mindful walk: lift leg slowly, place foot down gently from heel to toes, feel the contact with the Earth. But instead of heading down Hannah, somehow I end up at the corner of Mingo and Porter, and there it is! I find the house painted salmon where Pat Tomasik, two students from the College and I planted a tree where an old one once stood. I proceed on Porter and before I hit Clark I engage a carpet of golden leaves on the sidewalk with my feet, eyes and ears, rewinding my path a couple of times to hear the song the leaves and I make when we come in contact with each other. A huge squirrel nest on a tree on Clark catches my eye and brings me to a halt. Pauses are indeed a valuable component of a conversation.
It is revealing how roads in villages, towns, cities and even megalopolises come to be. They are the arteries residents carve through woods, rocks, swamps, and many other elements to move about –– to come together in groups or to retire to the privacy of their homes at the end of the day. Cuban songwriter Pablo Milanés describes this in his song Los Caminos, where he argues poetically how “Roads did not made themselves when man [sic] stopped slithering, but instead roads went to meet one another when man [sic] was no longer alone.” It is as if roads were an extension of our very inner selves that can be projected out into the world, and eventually walked upon. And it is as if these selves beaming out of our core would start to interconnect and to form grids that include intersections, forks and roundabouts. Defying these patterns, I decide to move wave-like throughout several streets until I arrive at what might be Farley Drive, I think. In this street a maple tree has been set ablaze by the fall weather. Minutes later, on E. Erie, I encounter a motionless black squirrel by the trunk of a tree. Eyes open. I stop for a minute of reflection while thinking about a statement a painter shared with me long ago, as to how roadkills are perhaps the closest encounters most of us today have with death as it is; simply unadorned. A pair of sneakers up high on S. Hannah brings back a smile and memories of home in the South Bronx, where it is customary to hang one’s discarded tennis shoes on the wires between utility poles. I even laugh inside as I recall graffiti artist Lady K. Fever trying to do the same, also in the Bronx, with a pair of spiky high heels.
Red pulls me into Brockway. Barn-colored houses, lipstick-colored Maples, and blood-painted bushes that I fail to identify. Darrow is a street of greens, even now in mid autumn. I stumble once more upon the curve by the river on Elizabeth, where I journeyed a couple of nights ago, cell in hand, flashlighting my way to the house by the water to retrieve a bicycle from Dianne Guenin-Lelle and Mark Lelle. I asked about dogs. “Only a big friendly one,” commented a neighbor who was getting out of her car in the dark. The stories of these four-legged creatures abound in town, and while I have been told to watch out for unleashed ones west of Superior, it is actually not far from home on E. Cass where I almost got in trouble last Tuesday. As I asked for directions from a woman near Lloyd Park, her friendly pitbull got loose. She demanded, first politely, then screaming at the top of her lungs, that I retrieve her dog. Sense whispered to me to keep walking without uttering a single word.
- Erie all along is a street of houses that resemble books. They each tell a story, and in that sense, the street is a fully stocked library. An open volume draws my attention: front door ajar, empty but not devoid of a narrative. “For Sale.” I stop to talk to a group of four people fixing a car in the yard. The man doing the work remains headless most of the time until he emerges to grab a tool from under the vehicle, then his head disappears again. I join the other three individuals and listen. They speak for the gorgeous Victorian house, which one of them calls a piece of it. I ask if they know how much. We talk about Albion. I tell them why am I here. They complain about the College’s extensive holdings in town and about Family Fare. Beer. Cigarettes. Laughter. They inquire about the “wild” Bronx. Not anymore, I say. Prices there are soaring, and people are being pushed out of their homes and left behind by the booming economy. The factories in Albion closed, and the river used to flood all the way to the Coca-Cola sign. Back, back then. Not anymore, the people fixing the car tell me.
As I prepare to turn back home, I hear my name. It comes from the Food Hub. It is Erin Donahue from Umbel Nursery, who is boiling, together with Loretta Crespo, pots of ginger, elderberry and lavender syrup. So much has happened since we met at the Farmers Market my first week in town. The three of us plan a Caribbean meal at the Russian Orthodox Church. It must be vegan because of religious fasting. I propose rice, beans, tostones (fried green plantains), maduros (fried ripe plantains) and salad. Pumpkin-coconut flan for dessert, with a pinch of ginger, turmeric, salt, cinnamon and several drops of Mexican vanilla. I leave the Food Hub with a tinfoil pan full of boiled lavender. Good for tea. To help sleep, according to an elder, Marga, in Spain. Good to induce dreams of all kinds, and to calm shattered nerves.
If walking the streets of Albion is art, why not create a tune with their names. I ask Ikpemesi Ogundare, a student at the College to sing each one of them –– from Adams to Young –– in gospel, opera and rap style. My impetus for this song comes from a piece that Linda Mary Montano did, for which she chanted the names of those listed in a town’s local telephone book. I also ask Scott Wistinghausen, another student at the College, to paint for me a line drawing of Superior in the gallery at the Bobbitt Visual Arts Center. The outline becomes a cross, Japanese calligraphy, and a cryptic symbol that I help people decipher by pointing to 94 and 99 at each end of it. But my attention goes not to the ends, but to the sides of Superior: east and west. This happens not so much in my head as in my body. I feel an imbalance in my system until I walk west and intuit great struggle and even a greater amount of love. I sense community. Talking about the Bronx, Caridad De La Luz ‘La Bruja’ tells us in her poem The Bronx, “If these streets could talk, they would yell and whisper at the same time about beauty and crime. Signs of the times are everywhere.” I put my ear close to the streets on the west, but they tell me that I must walk them confidently, up and down, before they would whisper and speak to me. Not until then would I be whole, they assure me.
To listen to the song of Albion streets join Nicolás on Tuesday, November 19th, 4:30 PM, at the base of the William K. Stoffer Clock Tower at Albion College. This event is free and open to everyone!