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I'm out on a long walk in Austin. My contemplation is interrupted by a question, one that I have become quite familiar with - is this a sidewalk or the front yard of a house? Most often, the answer is the latter. But sometimes, if you are lucky, beneath the overgrowth is a pristine sidewalk that has not seen a footprint in quite a while. You can see the grey concrete peering out at you through the weeds. It has been waiting for you with bated breath. Will you take this road less traveled? the one that is already paved?
Since I moved from India, I have had to grow out of my old ways when it comes to assessing the nature of ruins I find myself upon. Places and objects in India become dilapidated from use. They are overrun and left barren with nothing more to offer. Places and objects in America become ruins from lack of use. They are abandoned without caretakers. Some of them shed their utility and become pure content, such as the case of abandoned malls and people who seek them out. There were often no sidewalks in India, but there were cowpaths. Paved by people and cows bludgeoning the earth for a path where there was none. When it rained, the cowpath became a puddle that everyone avoided. If it rained for several days, the puddle became a gentle stream. Soon, there was a new cowpath - One that went around the previous one, which by now had become forgotten ruins. We were to return to it when the newly laid cowpath became a puddle.
When I moved to Houston it was hard to distinguish the well-populated neighborhoods from the abandoned ones. Both had sterile buildings and obsessively clean sidewalks, except for when they were interrupted by the indifference of nature. I don't remember any abandoned neighborhoods in India, except the odd building left incomplete because the builder ran out of money or the contractor ran away with the loot. The first time I saw an abandoned territory was the ruins of Hampi - the perfectly preserved former capital of a 14th-century empire in South India. There I sat on the steps of a communal bath, and that oft-quoted line from Shelley's Ozymandias finally made sense to me. Detroit reminded me of Hampi. Only that Detroit felt abandoned, not preserved. Every alternate street in Detroit has an Art Deco building with the name of some remarkable 20th-century institution inscribed. Bell Labs, it would say, and I'd look around to see if anyone else noticed or knew, but there was barely a soul on the street.
While in Oakland, I picked up a zine made by Wes, who also runs a lovely store. "I just started taking pictures of abandoned shoes and the weird places that I saw them in," He told me as I leafed through the pages filled with pictures of shoes in unexpected places. What struck me was how pristine some of the shoes looked. I remembered my father's screed about how he walked to school barefoot and contemplated revenge by sending him a copy of the zine. Better angels prevailed. I don't remember the last time I ran through the sole of a shoe and had something poke at my bare feet. Nowadays, I find shoes I forgot I owned when I pack to move away. I make a note to wear them, then tuck them away safely in a nook in the corner of a box that will be opened at the end of the next lease.
One time, I stood at the starting line of the Houston marathon on an uncannily frosty Texas morning and watched the runners prepare. As the clock counted down, several runners took off their hoodies and nonchalantly threw them on the ground. A few hesitated and hung theirs on the barricades. I lingered around after the marathon started and saw the cleaners collect the hoodies in a giant pile of hoods and sleeves on the road. The ones hanging on the barricade were not spared either. I muttered something about wastefulness under my breath, but I realized It was hard to fault the runner. They had got out of bed early in the morning and come to face 26 miles all by themselves. No friends to cheer them on or anyone to hand their hoodies to. I watched the hoodies pile up to make an 8-foot-high pyramid made in Bangladesh or India and then walked away with the other curious onlookers. Unlike abandoned malls, abandoned clothes don't make for good content. Whatever suffering awaits them is unseen and unspoken.
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