Madison Monday: the hole in the street

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There’s a hole in the street in front of my house. Not a pothole. Not a tiny little dimple in the surface of the concrete. No, this is the kind of hole that took effort to make. Jackhammers and backhoes. Hours and days were spent making this hole.

I’m not sure what the purpose of the hole is. It’s connected to the natural gas lines, at least that’s what the signs said. Over the last three weeks or so, the workers dug out a trench stretching all the way down one alley, across the street, and into another. It was not a quiet job.

Most of the rest of the trench has been filled in, but the hole in the street remains, covered as it is by several large, steel plates. The plates look permanent in a way that makes me nervous. They went into place on Saturday. Now it’s Monday morning and no one has come to take them away.

Road workSaturday night, I woke at some point to what I thought was the sound of someone knocking on our front door. Two quick, percussive knocks at five o’clock in the morning. Who could possibly be knocking on our door at that hour? There were no more knocks, but I lay awake for a while, wondering if the knocking was a prelude to something more sinister. Then I went back to sleep.

It was only in the morning I figured out that the knocking was just someone driving over the steel plates outside. As permanent-looking as they are, they still shift in unpredictable ways when cars and trucks drive over them. Sometimes it sounds like a knock on the door. Sometimes like freight cars being loaded onto a train or a barge.

It is a surprisingly evocative sound. It takes me back to living in Jackson, Mississippi. At night, there, you could often hear the sound of trains being loaded and unloaded in the distance. Other times, I have to work very hard to convince myself I am not standing next to a bridge, and I can’t even identify where that association comes from. Walking under the bridge here in Madison and listening to the sound as cars cross the rough seam in the concrete? Or is it older than that? The singing bridge in Cincinnati we would drive over with my grandparents to get to the farmer’s market at Lunken Field? Sometimes we would ride in the back of the truck, packed full of potatoes and peaches, and we could stare down at the river going by through the gaps in the steel mesh of the bridge.

I can tell you that traffic on 2nd Street mostly falls off on a Sunday night by eleven, but it picks up again in a slow trickle at five.

When you live downtown, the barrier between you and the life on the street is always porous. Especially so in good weather with the windows open. You know the shape of arguments. What time your neighbor goes to work. I remember one of the first times I came to this house when it was mine. I lay on the carpet in the empty room downstairs. I listened to the sound of the traffic outside. There was a moment of panic. I had bought a noisy house. I would never have a good night’s sleep again.

Then I thought of my grandmother’s house, which also sat beside a busy street in Kentucky, a road frequented by gravel trucks headed towards the river. That sound was there, but it was still one of the most peaceful places I knew. I pictured her, sitting in her chair and staring out the window. And I decided the noise wouldn’t bother me at all.

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