I've sided with my friends in the past when we deplored the visual aesthetic of Aurora. Was the an uglier strip of road in the city? This is what we asked ourselves, tearing down the six-lane expanse at okay, something rather above the speed limit, peering out from our cars in derision.
That was then. We were youngsters, and we thought we knew what we were talking about. We didn't. There are things- worlds, lives, and loves- that you'll never know if you only ever drive through a place. Get out of the car. Feel that wind blowing your hair. Know the feeling of the walking in the cold, on this day, these sidewalks. Birds, noise, exhaust, voices.
Let some dirt get under your fingernails.
I have come to love the iconography of Aurora Avenue. Here is a realm that stands outside of time. There is the egregious concrete expanse, nigh uncrossable, a rotating pulse of endless, ongoing life, rubber tires uniting to make a sound we can't reduce to a name. It's the sound of a thousand stories, elated, pathetic, tragic, energized. Normal. There are the decaying sidewalks and the stretches without, cement plates buckling under the onset of nature.
There's the veritable battery of motels and hotels, room after sordid room, and who's counting. Years of secrets lining the fading walls; how many times have these drapes opened and closed? Standing in an empty bedroom, staring nowhere. Sometimes you can hear an echo in the hum of a fluorescent lamp.
The landscape of Aurora Avenue holds firm against the leveling advances of technology. This could be the eighties. Or 1978, Mid-October. Tire rotation, junk removal, appliance demolition, the dollar store; block after block of chain-link fences and used car lots. The Elephant at 8800. Aurora Donuts; Dang's Hair Salon. St. Vincent de Paul- once a word for a man, now immortalized into another life. These are the edifices of our time. Lowes. Korea Times. Dilapidated tattoo parlors and auto wrecking offices that seem deserted. Men slink around in the darkened corners. (Refer here for background on Aurora's culture; elsewhere, a celebratory writeup on the corridor; and, if I dare to toot my own horn, search my name to find an article on me on the same site).
The receding concrete vastness rolls away endlessly, populated at all hours of the day. The detox and rehab facilities pepper the landscape. I remember a prostitute at 115th, turning down a free bus ride even though there was snow on the ground, choosing to look for work at 5am; another sorts through her plastic bag of condoms. Her mother is sitting next to her.
Craggy eyes and broken faces peering at me in the dark. A man gets on with a full-size camping tent, big enough for four people, like it wasn't any big deal. Just goin' up the street. Another fellow, middle-aged white homeless man, his face utterly destroyed, beaten to a pulp. The skin has turned black, and the cuts on the eyebrows are drying. He's lost his backpack with his his HIV paperwork and his last $100. Tough-looking character, but his voice is human. I can't tell if he's crying.
I do my best, staying with him, staying present. Another man and his friend thank me because I let him ride yesterday, though he was 60 cents short. Here's the methadone crowd, wide awake already, as I advertise 165th and 170th- "these next two stops both pretty good for THS," I tell them on the mic. "Good day today. Maybe see you on the way back!"
The reaches quiver with life out here. You have to talk to people. Connections mean something, however faint; the street denizens engage each other even if they're initially strangers. Sometimes they tear each other apart; other times they bond in ways they never knew- "small world," you hear someone say, with that familiar tone of welcome incredulity. What commuters there are often keep to themselves, perhaps out of fear, or perhaps knowing that this just isn't their element.
I help a couple with their six suitcases and duffel bags. "I should work at an airport," I quip, as they toss bags to me, which I heave onto the sidewalk. Laurie's sitting across from me, explaining about vomiting and Pepsi. Her day's better now than it was earlier. Sometimes her blood pressure's too low. "It says I'm dead, is what it says," she intones with listless eyes. "I don't believe that for a second," I smile back.
Here's a man with his own swivel chair, unidentifiable wooden cartons, and dog. Gent with a jacket that may have been yellow in another life, the putrid stench of urine clinging to him and his five bags. He's tall, and quiet; think Clint Eastwood if Rawhide had never panned out.
Often the thought comes up again- I wouldn't want to be spending time with any other group of people right now.
How can I want to be here, not as some mere passing anthropological diversion, but day after day, after day? What is this feeling that grows richer with the passing of time? What could I possibly be so enamored with? I mean, Aurora Avenue?! What?
To be here is to know the human organism, unadorned.
I want to feel the truth of life, the tactile earth of the ordinary. These are not extreme lives, but people like myself. A veneer that's present elsewhere has been stripped away, and my head feels clear down on the ground. Diversity paradoxically reminds us of how similar we all are. Commonalities show themselves. There is a confirmation of sorts taking place- yes, we are human. I find this deeply comforting. This is all on top of the fact that I can help someone, or perhaps alter the state of people's minds, even for a moment- something about that allows all this to work together; I haven't quite parsed that out just yet.
We often forget the savagely indifferent balance of nature. You are confronted with it out here. Classrooms teach children that there is an answer to every question. Only on the outside do we discover how little quantifiable facts count for in life. A line is brought to mind, from Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris: "In man's endless search for truth, he finds only knowledge."
To be slapped in the face with reality, to live in realms of truth regardless of positive and negative- this is an affirmation of life that I benefit from. Despite all the things you might know or have seen, you can still look out at the world with a sense of wonder. There is something about physical reality that is inherently satisfying to me. Amazingly, it always has a new shade to reveal, if you're open to it.
A spry, tough older guy, John, told me one night- "You are The Beast, man. You're changing what Aurora Avenue is, just by being out here. Dude. I've watched you. Everything you say and act to these people... You are THE BEAST!"
To which I replied, "No, you're the beast, man-"
"No no no, I'm not the friggin' beast, dude. That doesn't make any sense. YOU'RE the Beast. Don't be modest, man..."