Tuesday, April 14, 2009

X marks spot

The photo shows the white Xs that have been spray painted on the side of Danville Lane near my home to mark where people who live there should place their garbage bins.

This wasn’t an issue years ago, when the garbage truck rumbled through the neighborhood with two strapping fellows hanging on the back, who could drop this side or that to grab a trash can and tip it into the back.

The city now has trucks with prehensile arms. The driver manipulates the arm from inside the cab. The men who once worked at the back now work elsewhere or not at all.

Claws at the end of the arm reach out from the side, wrap around the big plastic bins, lift them overhead, and dump their contents into an opening on top of the truck.

The arm is on the right side only, where the driver sits. And since Danville is a one-way street, the truck can only pick up bins on the right side of the road. Hence the Xs.

I like to think that we invent places by our attention to and use of them. We are agents, producers, of places. But here is an instance where places are given, produce our behavior, and in a sense create us.

Perhaps all places are like this, like all cultural formations, human products that are also, by virtue of their also shaping our behavior, producers of humans.

Not long ago I heard a doctor talking about the effects of entering a nursing home on people with dementia. Rather than getting better, they often got worse. The reason, he said, is that human beings rely on constant cues from the environment that tell us not only where we are but what we’re supposed to do.

A person who has grown old in a house or apartment, worked in an office or factory, played at the bowling alley or soccer field, suddenly finds herself in an institution with a different, perhaps wholly unfamiliar set of cues.

Nothing makes much sense, even to someone without memory issues. Imagine what it’s like if your memory is slippery.

So places tell us, or remind us, how to behave, what to say and when and to whom, what to do and not to do. A place might be defined as a field of cues. It is not simply a familiar bit of landscape, but a collection of symbols with information, signaling action, prompting ordinary practices.

I like to think of Asheville as a place. Every time I return from a trip I see the familiar hills, the skyline of the city, the jutting spires of the Jackson building and the pink bottle top of city hall.

These tell me I’m home.

But the X on the side of the road is also a place. Small, seemingly insignificant. Nothing anyone would want to photograph. X marks the spot. Put trash here.

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