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Diary: Sven Birkerts, 35 Magnolia
When I think of it now, I see our apartment on Magnolia Avenue in Cambridge as a container for a part of my life distinct from other parts. I moved in in 1980 when my girlfriend, Lynn—our relationship was only a few months old—told me that her roommate was moving out. We circled warily around what seemed like a very likely next step. I was living up the street with a roommate and our domestic arrangement was bare-bones. But did Lynn and I know enough to take such a risk? Yes or no, we went ahead, and that we are now over forty years married argues that it was the right, very possibly decisive, move.
We were in our late twenties, both under-employed, my belongings so few that the two of us moved me on foot, taking two trips from Fayette Park to Magnolia, only a few blocks’ distance. Her bedside table was a large trunk with a blanket thrown over it. I was in awe when she made a pizza from frozen dough. We kept our guitars and record player in the living room. The kitchen window looked out on the parking lot of the Youville Hospital.
We worked our separate jobs (bookstore, restaurant); we played our guitars at night, hoping to make some extra money busking in the subway stops. We walked long blocks to the supermarket in Somerville with our backpacks and considered prices carefully. We cooked chicken with apples and sausage in a big pot.
Though I have written in all of the places I lived, my strongest memory of Magnolia narrows down to the little writing room I had at the front of the house. The desk was plywood and cinderblocks; I had pictures of my favorite writers taped up on the wall in front of me. I was disciplined and worked intently. Essays and reviews—I was just breaking into a literary life. But, as it is for me with writing, I can remember nothing about the writing itself, can’t put myself back into a writing moment.
What I do remember, with perfect clarity, is waiting for the mail. For from that street-facing window I could look a good distance down Magnolia. I could see when the mailman rounded the far corner and started in my direction. The vantage was only partial, though, so that all I could see as he approached was half of his body. He kept his course to the left-hand side of the walk, and as I watched—it was impossible for me not to watch—I saw that half trunk disappear and appear again. The closer he came to our building, the more focused I became.
For I was waiting, always waiting, for responses to my submissions, or copies of books to review. I can hear now the slight creak of the wooden steps, and the rasping croak after he inserted the master key and pulled down the mail grille. The rustle and pause as the mail was directed into the various slots, and then the hard clang as the grille was locked up again. I went through this every week, every month, at least on the many days when I was working the much-preferred night shift at the bookstore. I would pause, make sure I heard him stepping down to the sidewalk, and then—it’s almost embarrassing to report—I would hurry down the stairs with my own mailbox key. As soon as I opened the front door I could see through the tiny slit in the front of the box whether there was any mail.
That zeal didn’t diminish in the decades that followed. I was still watching for Judy, our steady carrier, when we lived in Arlington. There were different sounds—she would leave the mail between the doors—but as all those years before, I would wait until I was sure she had moved up the street, and then go directly down the stairs to see what she might have left there.
Sven Birkerts is the author of The Gutenberg Elegies and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, among other books. He is the editor of AGNI magazine. This post is a sampling from meditations he has recently been working on.
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