No one knows for sure when it began. Records of such things are rarely kept. It was sometime after the introduction of the automobile, obviously, since the car plays an integral role. It may have started during the Roaring Twenties, or the Great Depression, or maybe it was at the end of World War II. All anyone knows for certain is that one day, a teenager in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, decided it would be fun to get in his car and drive up and down Cherry Street, over and over and over again, for hours on end. Before long other teenagers took notice, and the ritual known as “dragging Cherry Street” was born. Later, someone coined the joke, which goes something like this:
Question: What’s the difference between a case of gonorrhea and a house on Cherry Street?
Answer: It’s possible to get rid of gonorrhea.
My wife and I were not aware of the joke when we were in the market to buy our first house, but if we had been, I doubt it would have deterred us at all. Even then, in the spring of 1978, when we were young and naive about many things, we still knew that real estate was all about location, location, location, and it was obvious to anyone who bothered to look that Cherry Street was not ideal in that regard. But when you’re twenty-five and struggling on what barely even qualifies as a budget, you sometimes have to make compromises.
And so that is what we did. We found a house on Cherry Street that we liked well enough, and when a wily old Realtor confided to us, like a trusted uncle, that another couple was on the verge of an offer, we fell for it hook, line and sinker. Thirty days later we found ourselves at a bank getting keys from the former owners, who for some reason could not stop smiling.
I didn’t occur to us until later that the old man’s story was a ruse, but I never had any animosity toward him. To me it was a valuable lesson, probably worth more than any single thing I had learned in four years of college. Somebody else was not feeling as charitable, however, when they cracked his white-haired skull open a few years later and killed him in his own living room. No one was ever charged with the crime, but I always assumed it was someone he had swindled in a business deal. “You reap what you sow,” my grandmother said when she read about it in the afternoon paper. They were contemporaries, and she didn’t seem surprised.
Our house on Cherry Street was an older house, built around the same time Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea. It was made of stucco, painted white and trimmed in chocolate brown. It had a large front porch and a steeply pitched roof. Inside, the rooms were spacious and the ceilings were high. The floor sagged a little on the north wall, but my friend Mack and I took some flashlights into the crawlspace and pronounced the foundation structurally sound, as if we were engineers qualified to make such a judgement. There was only one bathroom and it was small, but it had a bathtub suitable for washing babies and dogs, though I preferred the separate shower, which was like stepping into a dark and sometimes moldy phone booth covered floor to ceiling with tile. There was a heavy, arched front door that reminded me of the door to a castle, which in a sense it was, and I liked that this particular castle was mine.
Sometimes on Sunday afternoons, after the seasons changed and the weather warmed up, my wife and I would sit on our porch and watch the parade of cars cruise up and down Cherry Street. Traffic peaked in the spring, before the river beaches and the swimming pools at the country clubs competed for youthful attention. For long periods we would sit without talking and listen to the cacophony of sounds; the honking horns, the rumbling engines of muscle cars and the likes of Hotel California blaring from car radios and tape players. Thinking back on it now there was an American Graffiti kind of feeling about it all, but at the time it just seemed weird, because less than a decade earlier we had both been a part of this same strange spectacle. Now we were merely detached observers in cheap folding chairs, sipping on our Sunday afternoon cocktails.
When we did talk on those Sunday afternoons it was often about the grand plans we had for our house, and there was plenty to talk about, because the opportunities were virtually limitless. We toyed with the idea of turning our enormous attic into usable living space. We considered removing the screen from the porch to make it feel more open, then we would hang a swing from the ceiling like my spinster aunts used to have. We evaluated tearing down the dilapidated garage behind the house to build something that was more functional and less embarrassing. Finally, we weighed replacing the floor furnaces and the window units with a modern air-conditioning system, though I admit I would have missed the floor furnaces, because I enjoyed standing over them on cold days to feel the heat rise up around me.
I have a shoebox of photographs that were taken at the house on Cherry Street, back when all of the pictures we took were printed, not just the good ones, because Eastman Kodak or whoever was in charge at the time didn’t give us a say in the matter. Technology makes us more efficient with our digital pictures now, but we also lost something in the process, because our stories are less complete. When all of our pictures were printed we saw that our lives were not always perfectly staged, faces weren’t always smiling, eyes weren’t always open. Clutter that went unnoticed in three dimensions became dominant focal points in two dimensions. Teeming ashtrays and beer cans set randomly about spoiled otherwise good photos with surprising frequency. We saw ourselves awkwardly composed, out of focus and under exposed. So it is with the pictures in my shoebox.
But the best of these photos chronicle the best moments of our time in the house on Cherry Street. There is my father, holding his first grandchild on the day she came home from the hospital. There is my mother, taking pictures with a camera that is surely in a museum somewhere now. Friends and family are gathered on Christening Day, at birthday parties and on Christmas morning. My grandmother eats birthday cake, wearing a party hat. My father again, contemplating a Cabbage Patch doll. My wife folding laundry in a teddy. A delighted little girl being dipped in a green pool shaped like a turtle. That same delighted child, two years later, on a candy-striped swing set.
The shoebox is also notable for the pictures that are not there, because ours was a normal life, and normal lives are not all sunshine and rainbows. You won’t find any photos of me when I was worried and guilt-ridden about being out of work. There are none of my wife and me at our kitchen table, wondering what to do after learning from the bank we were overdrawn, again. Nor are there any showing the crushing disappointment that came from being repeatedly denied the one thing we wanted most in the world, a child of our own. Luckily, Providence and a doctor who cared helped us navigate this last difficulty to a happy conclusion.
For seven years we lived in the house on Cherry Street, and in retrospect they were good years, measured in terms of the ups versus the downs. We learned to live with the traffic and the commotion and eventually it became our normal. And then one day I came home from work with news of an opportunity, and not long afterward we moved to Kansas. Except for a few rolls of questionable wallpaper, some new carpet and a dozen gallons of paint, we left the house essentially the same as it was the day we moved in it. We never made any of the improvements we dreamed about. We sold it to a relocation company for the average of two appraisals, and we were fortunate to have had that option. I learned from friends it was well over a year before someone new moved in it.
When I heard that I thought about the old gonorrhea joke, and for a moment it seemed possible there might actually be some truth behind it. Maybe you really can’t get rid of a house on Cherry Street. And then I thought, maybe the greater truth is that the crux of joke applies to any house on any street, because what happens to you while you live there becomes an indelible part of your story, and like it or not, you’re stuck with it. I’m fortunate I can say that I’m happy with mine.