by Jamie Davey
I consider myself a spectator.
I’m the flesh, always on the out; kicking up pebbles on the playground, and finger dancing bones across iron gates. As a child I used to watch while the other children spun around on the merry-go-round. How their legs would clench to their chest, their hands on the metal grasped tight; a smile cutting jagged through their cheeks like pudding.
The Johns and the Janes played tag on the jungle gym while I’d walk the property line in tune to their laughter, and constant tussle of the wooden bridge beneath their feet. Over time I found most tended to favor hide-n-seek. They liked to cower low underneath occupied benches, peeking out from behind pale, dangling branches. Only the smart ones stood behind actual trees. Only the brave swapped hiding spots with grade school kisses under the slide.
I saw it all.
But all I ever did was build a rock collection in my pocket.
Age refuses to change that side of me. I still stand guard to invisible fences. I circle twice. Never daring to enter; never caring enough to mingle with what’s on the inside. I’m only in it for the paycheck. I’m here for seeing what others can’t, for the scientist in me collecting data on a scroll in my head I’ll never apply.
So who am I to argue with the tearing of these walls now, the breaking of this glass?
It’s not my problem.
I’m only on patrol. It’s the night’s watch. I tell myself it’s late. As if it really matters. It’s a Tuesday and I’m tipsy. I’m tired. There’s a sugar rush running rampant inside my veins. I tell my feet to walk on. They do. No hesitation. No regret in their step. It’s just an ugly building I say, passing bystanders on a street downtown with a friend.
They’re all stupid. Look at them, standing in their football huddles near the construction gates and them, set up in lawn chairs on the pavement across the street. I laugh at their willingness to bear witness to grown men playing in a cement sandbox. Watching a building being gutted is hardly a blockbuster.
Didn’t they have anything better to do? It’s a humid, stormy night. A water cannon breaks the air for the dust, shooting out a fine layer of mist to flow out with the wind; touch skin. Surely that combined with the loud machinery and splintering wood would turn their stomachs, maybe even help them rethink the things in life they deem worthy of interest.
Hell, they’re missing trivia night for this.
We edge forward in the street, stopping alongside the center parkway to clear the path for an oncoming car. There we stand alongside countless observers, their backs all towards us as they point at the falling debris in awe. Bored with their amusement, I turn my back on them to face across the street. It’s there my eyes catch sight of an older man standing alone upon the Seventh District Court platform. His body rests against one of the stone pillars as he watches the destruction before him.
I pause, but only briefly as the machine grumbles in hunger behind me. The claws are tearing off yet another chunk, the engine purring and cranking with each crunch, each curl and rotation of the machinery upon its axis. I observe him curiously as the rubble falls. His expression is one of granite under pressure.
I tried to conjure up ways in which to ridicule his dignity. Surely there was something that could be said for his presence. He was there like all the others, taking part in the very same action that brought about my jeering moments before.
I had nothing.
I closed my mouth and strolled on, turning the corner.
I woke the very next morning with the older man’s face still carved inside my brain. There had been something about his expression that just kept coming back to the forefront. It was almost as if he had been wearing a mask, but for whom? What reason did this man need to possess a disguise, and why was it tattered?
Somewhere between the hard, sunken valleys of his cheeks, the rough ridges of his nose, the Grand Canyon plateau of his eyebrows I swear I found hints of despair hiding within the loose ceases of skin. Then again it was probably just the lighting. But then what of his eyes? They were less tough, less weathered. They were full craters; two master bathtubs I wish I had the pleasure to dip my toes in.
It was probably just my head.
Confused by my own odd fascination I did what I rarely ever do. I took an interest. I left my gate for a stranger’s emotions, setting out to uncover the shattered remains sitting on the corner of Hazel Street and Federal. Not a resident of the Youngstown area or even a frequent downtown visitor, I didn’t have a clue what the rubble used to be. The building took a wrecking ball to the face. It was in every sense a John Doe when I found it.
It didn’t take much digging before the web surrendered the victim—ninety-six year old, Paramount Theatre. There’s something about putting a name to a bag of bones that sparks affectionate hunger within me. Once I knew I wanted more. I wanted history to fill up its ribcage. I wanted blood to pump through its metal frames.
I pulled up the Paramount’s life story; its infancy in 1917, its adolescent years marked with changed identity and ownership, the wild heydays of the 1930s on up through the 60s when film was becoming a staple of American culture. It wasn’t much longer until the theatre stumbled upon a rough patch when the city of Youngstown took an economic hit in the late 70s.With the city in rough shape, it was forced to close its doors in 1976 after screening its final motion picture, a Bill Cosby film ironically entitled “Let’s Do it Again.”
But this theatre wasn’t itching for a comeback. It was coding. I wondered if it saw its life flashing before its eyes, saw all the memories that were left behind to be gnawed on by the pigeons and the rats. If it had any thoughts within those final moments before the first strike of the crane, would they be ones of relief?
The pictures painted it a wreck.
The walls that once held crystal eyes privy to a slew of Vaudeville acts, talkies, and film screenings have since developed glaucoma from old age and neglect. They were rotted through and through, replaced with metal rods and wires that protruded through the ceiling, exposing the bones and ligaments of what the building once was, an 18th century neoclassic beauty.
And what of the seats that once held patrons, the many sticky butter stains clasping onto fabric, the nervous bundles of first dates? How many arms had practiced the ‘Yawn, Drape’ Principal across seat backs? How many hands were held on top armrests? Ceiling plaster was all that stuck around, coating the floors and the seats in three decades worth of mold growth and dust.
The city was right. It wasn’t worth saving. No matter how many memories it contained. But I’m sure that man would beg to differ, and those others? I never actually saw their faces. I mocked their backs. Maybe they had been there for reasons similar to his. Maybe they wore masks of a different kind. But at least they had been there for the Paramount’s real final picture, its bow of defeat.
I played the part of the fool who walked out.
I may have never stepped foot inside its structure. I may have never had the pleasure to experience the beauty of its walls during its heydays. But I have a love and vast understanding for the movies. They are the only place I feel a semblance of togetherness. I’m not on the outside looking in on everybody else. For once I’m in sync with the hive. I’m one with a collective body whose emotions are intertwined if only for two hours’ time.
I’m playing within the fence.
I’m happy. I’m sad.
I’m whatever the storyline needs me to be.
Maybe it’s not just me who feels this way. Maybe we all see the movies as a safe zone, a place that makes us feel like we’re connected and less alone. But it shouldn’t take understanding for one to take notice, for one to take a moment to appreciate history, to find what lies hidden deep within the fence.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a movie theatre set for demolition, a series of shutdown business offices scattered across town, or an abandoned mental health care facility. The city is full of buildings with empty rooms and broken promises. Instead of doing our best to fix them we’re removing them like spoiled organs, forgetting they ever existed within us.
Each time one dies of neglect we have to empty ourselves. How long is it before we clear out all our meat, our history entirely? Like the Paramount, my childhood playground is now pavement. We all have this funny way of packing things into dumpsters and shipping them off, telling ourselves to walk on because it’s “not our problem.”
But it is.
We’re all just spectators at the gates, you and me. We step aside and watch because it’s easier. We choose not to get involved when it’s the first thing we should be doing, says the one who walked away. Yet that’s the thing. Too often we only care when it’s too late or when time deems it convenient.
We barter our history with the rats that do nothing but cherish every grain of it. It might sound harsh, but sometimes that’s more than I can say for us. We’re creating ghosts. They may not be tied to the property, spinning film wheels, selling popcorn, or dancing across a stage. They may not play roles in stories that circle around campfires.
But they’re there.
Only this time they exist within the people that hold personal connections to the buildings. Each time we clear away space the memories of what was left are packed and confined inside skin. They haunt dreams and create wrinkles, lounging out their days upon faces locked in nostalgic moments. It’ll be like this up until the very end when the person is no more.
Memories don’t have tombstones. Not everybody is vocal about pastimes. Not everybody cares enough to ask. In twenty to thirty years’ time the memory of the Paramount Theatre will be of a dying breed. Its grounds will be known for the place you parked your car for a night of drinking, not for the memories that once broke out upon a man’s face on a humid Tuesday.