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Friday, February 11, 2011

My First Piece (Feb. 11, 2011)

Yesterday a stranger pawed through the weeds, ripped something out of the dirt and thrust it at me. I learned of a man’s baseball career long ago, and I became the proud new owner of a relic from the 60s.

In the seven years we’ve lived here, I’d walked by a house a few blocks away hundreds of times, but last week something looked different. A big hole had been dug between the sidewalk and the hedges in front of their house. I noticed something next to the hole, and looked twice. Nearly covered in weeds was a piece of decorative cement block from the late 1950s or 60s. I’m obsessed with the stuff, and I got all excited. I decided to write the owners a note, asking if I could have it if they weren’t using it.

About six months ago I began to notice decorative cement block, and once I started looking for it, I saw more and more, which lead me to wonder how I could have ever not noticed it before! It was used as an accent in midcentury homes, both a functional element (because it could be stacked into walls or screens) and an ornamental detail. In my neighborhood, I occasionally see some of this block, but in other neighborhoods it’s on almost every house.

Back to the present. A woman called me yesterday, saying her grandfather owns the house where I’d left the note, and I could talk to him about the cement block. He’s in a wheel chair, in his 70s, and has lived in the house 46 years. I told him about my interest in architecture and how unusual it is to find cement block like this. He proposed going outside to look at it and as he was wheeled out the door I finally took my eyes off him and noticed a whole screen of cement block, dividing his living room from the kitchen. I’ve been in dozens of houses in this neighborhood and not one has an interior screen of block, so this was really unusual. I was beside myself!

Outside, we squinted in the bright sun. I pointed out the block but he was more interested in telling me about himself, which was fine. He reminded me of my former neighbor Cecil, who was also elderly and craved conversation. For the house-bound, any new face coming around must be an unexpected gift. He told about how he once played baseball and had met Joe DiMaggio and Tony Guinn. He’d batted .400 in a Mexican league and even I know that’s a great average! He talked about buying his house in the 60s for something like $30,700. His granddaughter stepped in after a while, saying they needed to get going. I thanked them again, loaded my new old piece of cement block into the truck, and drove home.

Later, I washed off the dirt and weeds and got giddy as I stared at my first piece of cement block. For more than 6 months I’ve studied at least a hundred houses with this intriguing feature. I’ve taken many photos, researched the patterns, and wondered how to get some pieces, which are not exactly sold at Home Depot. To stumble upon a piece, lying in the weeds for who knows how many years, felt so serendipitous. After all, I’d passed this house hundreds of times. The hole in the dirt was the result of a plumbing challenge, and was what led me to see this piece. I loved the back story.

Those who aren’t interested in architecture won’t understand how exciting this is to me. Those who want only new things won’t get it. But for those of us who love the surprises you discover in older houses, or at garage sales, or anywhere, when you’re least expecting it, this was a great day for me. I had a chat with a charming older man, and I got my first piece of cement block. In our yard I posed it among the blooming flowers, and took photos. I set a potted plant on it, incorporating it my potted plant garden, which is another one of my passions. I felt glad that I’d taken a chance, writing a note to a stranger. It’s taken me a long time to feel more comfortable asking for what I want, and it feels great when it ends the way you hope. Will this chunk of cement change my life? Probably not. But you live a good life if you can take joy in little things or moments that make you smile.

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