by Jay Lake
A fragment catches your eye: a shard of sea-green glass embedded in the sidewalk. The old concrete is spotted with age, moss, oil stains; all the myriad ills to which the bones of any city are subject. Neither birthmarks nor cancers, such things are simply part of a place built by men, used by men.
Glass, though. This is different. Some jest on the part of the skimmer whose wide, narrow board smoothed this portion of sidewalk before your grandfather was born? They must have worked rain or shine, those laborers of old, back when horse rings were still set in the curbs and the city fathers argued over whether a streetlight was an expensive nuisance or a necessary luxury. They poured the walkways of half this city, set those old street names in concrete though so many of those changed back when a man named Truman was president.
Here in Stumptown history truly is written in stone.
You bend to examine the glass more closely. If it were loose on the street, or this were a much newer sidewalk, you might imagine the shard to be a windshield fragment from one of those 1970s land barges, the family station wagon before the first energy crisis and the rise of the SUV. There was a vogue then for dark green windshield glass with the radio antenna cast cat-whisker thin through the middle.
Perhaps it is a fragment of a Coke bottle, some workingman's lunch brought on a horse-drawn wagon in a bucket with a bit of the previous night's bar ice sloshing at the bottom. Did they take their break at the base of a Douglas fir and laugh about someone's dog, until one dropped his drink?
The glass winks at you, a sly hint from the mysteries of time. It is glass, after all, cast from sand and so inextricably linked to the sea by both its own personal genealogy and the greenish color which infuses it. Symbolism writ twice in a fragment beneath your feet. You like that idea, imagining this to be a chip off some ocean wave. It would have been imported from some distant, pale-sanded shore, though. The ocean here in the Northwest is almost always slate gray or sullen blue, colors that give lie to the name Pacific and make fishermen think about staying home with a hot cup of tea. The northern Pacific is the sort of ocean you can imagine the first land-walker fleeing, primer for the endless, spewing pump of evolution.
Or perhaps this is just a shard of glass beneath your feet. Twisted and broken, obsidian from the volcanic flows of culture, a meaningless signal from a century before when this city was birthing its own bones.
In any case you bend down, brush your fingers on the damp sidewalk, and feel the sharp, sad spark of time pass beneath your touch. Then you walk on, past glass windows and windshields and headlights and stoplights into a silicon future far from the sullen sea which first gave you birth.
© 2008, Joseph E. Lake Jr.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.