Saturday, May 07, 2005

Night Walk

Lately, I have gotten in the habit of taking a walk downtown at dusk to get an ice cream cone. I can justify my dessert treat a little more easily when I "walk it off." I'm sure that the 40-minute roundtrip hike doesn't even make a dent in the calories, but it's got to be better than driving.

Usually, I take the walking path that runs along the lake behind East Lawn, which links up with the Lake Evalyn path. By the time I get downtown and buy my frozen goodie, it's usually dark. Sometimes I take the same path back, but even though Celebration has a reputation as a "safe" town, it makes me a little nervous to walk through the woods alone. Thus, I often take a more populated route (usually Celebration Avenue to East Lawn) on the return trip.

Recently, I decided to take Celebration Avenue, but to go past East Lawn and take the short boardwalk a little farther up that cuts into East Village. It was a very pleasant evening, with a comfortable breeze that had chased away the afternoon mugginess, so I thought it would be nice to take a longer path.

As I approached the turnoff, I noticed a forest of flashing yellow lights up ahead. It appeared to be a number of emergency vehicles blocking off the road near the Spring Park townhomes and condos. Curiosity drew me down Celebration Avenue, as there is another boardwalk down the street from the townhomes that cuts into East Village. I could see what was happening and still take a shortcut home.

As I got closer, I noticed that the vehicles were fire engines. Whatever had happened was mostly over, and it hadn't been a false alarm. As I passed the row of townhomes, I noticed that the front doors of two were open, and the unmistakable smell of a fire's aftermath was drifting on the night breeze. I surpressed a shudder, as fire is my worst nightmare. I had a cousin who died in a blaze, and my brother's house burned very badly a few years back (fortunately, only one of his eight children was home at the time so no one was injured).

It still creeps me out that I came pretty close to having a house fire myself. Back in the days when my husband and I were still making the weekly commute between Chicago and Celebration, I noticed that our lights were constantly strobing. It wasn't just when the air conditioner kicked on. The lights pulsed continually as though keeping time to unheard music.

When I pointed this out to my husband, he said, "It's probably something that we'll just have to live with." Somehow, that didn't seem right; our house was brand new, and our utilities were underground. Surely the current should be steady and unwavering.

Since our house was still under warranty, I called the builder and an electrician was dispatched. He discovered that the neutral on the meters hadn't been connected properly. I'm not sure if that is an exact description, but I don't know anything about electrical systems so that's the closest I can remember. He warned us that it was very dangerous, and he immediately cut power to the entire triplex. We had to call the power company and wait, huddled in my next door neighbor's house, until they came out to take care of the problem.

The electrician said that we were very lucky to have avoided a fire. All three meters for the triplex are on our family room wall, so that's where the blaze would have started. Fortunately, at that time we were only in Celebration on weekends, and one of our other neighbors has a job that keeps her away from home for long stretches, so the electrical consumption wasn't high enough to heat up whatever part was screwed up.

As I passed the townhomes, I said a silent prayer that no one had been injured in the fire. (Later, I learned that it was a new resident who had just moved in; fortunately, he got out okay although there was a lot of damage.)

As I continued on my way, the smell of burning was still in my nostrils and I felt a sense of vague unease. I had been so dazzled by all the fire truck lights that I had missed my turnoff. Now, to get home, I had to walk almost to the entrance of Artisan Park. This gave me a lot more time to think and to observe houses that I didn't usually pass on foot.

I have walked down that block countless times during my morning sabbatical; in those early hours, the world seems bright and cheerful, optimistically preparing to embark on another day. At night, the same neighborhoods seem to take on a slightly ominious edge, even without the presence of emergency vehicles. With a fire added to the mix, an odd sense of melancholy was dogging my footsteps.

I cut through Roseville corner, on the edge of East Village. It's a nice little enclave of bungalows and duplexes/triplexes, and it always reminds me of the "early days" because that's where the triplex model was located. But now, many of the duplexes and triplexes have a dark and deserted look. I suspect that several were purchased as vacation homes, with owners who show up at vacation and holiday time. The rest of the year, they sit empty and silent. The porches are barren of any of the little touches that make a house a home, and the windows seem like dull, empty eye sockets staring out at the street.

Here and there, I spotted a place with pots of flowers or porch rockers or perhaps a litter of "child debris" (toys and bicycles). In some of the houses, the lights were on, and I could make out shadowy movement behind the blinds. Instead of that creepy deserted feeling, they gave off the comforting aura of occupied homes.

I have nothing against snowbirds and vacationers, as I know what it's like to be stuck in another state when your heart is in Florida. But I know that some residents don't like the idea of part-timers, and I can sympathize with their point of view. Perhaps my uneasiness was enhanced by passing the fire scene, but for some reason the empty homes were giving me a eerie, Twilight Zone feeling, like I was walking through a ghost town. It wasn't just the multi-family units; there were a lot of dark and empty-looking single family bungalows, too.

Even when we were commuters, I made sure that my home never looked deserted. The flag on my porch changed with the seasons, and there were always several lights shining in the windows. I had timers upstairs and downstairs, and I also alternated between leaving the foyer and kitchen lights on. Since real flowers would have withered in the heat without a daily dose of water, I relied on silk substitutes. My porch swing swung jauntily in the breeze, although I only left the cushions out when I was in town.

Since it was a weekend night, many of the residents might have been out, making the street seem more deserted than it really was. But it was odd to see so many homes without even the tiniest sliver of illumination. I am the power company's dream; even when I am gone for the evening, I leave at least one lamp on in the house, plus the porch lights and all of the lights in the back.

When I reached the next street, there was a greater number of homes with warm lamplight glowing in their windows. I felt a homey feeling as a noticed a crooked window blind here or an open picture window there, with signs of humanity inside. In one home, I could make out the bluish flicker of a television. In another, I could see the occupants sitting around a table in the front room, playing a game or perhaps diving in a late snack of pizza. Upstairs, in yet another house, I could see a head bobbing in front of a computer screen...someone working late, or perhaps just surfing the internet for fun. In the distance, a car pulled up to the curb, and its occupant dashed up a stairway and knocked jauntily on the door. Cheerful voices drifted on the breeze as someone greeted her and she disappeared inside.

All very mundane things, but together they are all threads that are woven together into the comfortable tapestry of everyday life. There is a story for each person at every window and doorway. Most of the stories are probably dull and commonplace...a group of friends getting together or a family gathered around a DVD, enjoying the weekend before Monday's reality intrudes with work and school. Some are more exciting, and even potentially dangerous or tragic, like the townhome occupants and neighbors who were huddled in worried little knots near the fire scene. The darkened homes undoubtedly have their tales, too, although Celebration is just one short chapter in their overall stories.

As I strolled along, with these thoughts drifting through my mind, I realized that I had finally reached my own street. In my comfy little corner of East Village, there are a few dark houses, but plenty of others with light-filled windows and other signs of life, like human movement, a distance lilt of voices, or the faint barking of a dog.

The porch lights of Duloc Manor blazed forth, and in the front room window, two furry feline faces peered out. One was hoping that I had arrived to take him for a night prowl on his leash, while the other had his sights set on his evening dinner; since he hasn't learned to open a can yet, he's dependent on human largess.

As I opened the front door and stepped back into my own dramatic comedy (or would that be comedic drama?), my melancholy mood lightened. It felt so good to be home, with the cats weaving around my legs and my husband shouting a greeting from his office upstairs, where he was pretending to work while secretly watching CSI DVDs out of the corner of his eye. No, we don't have a very exciting plot line in our household, but that's just fine with me.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

No comments: