Erie, To be or not to be: Another Story Told
Does Erie inspire art?
I apologize for another week away, Erie. This time, there was no doubt that I was leaving home for unfamiliar ground. I was invited to a writers' festival at the Chautauqua Institution and I couldn't pass it up. It was beautiful there. During thed day, Chautauqua Lake looked like a paradise worthy of presidential vacations. At night, the pastel skies were lit with fireworks over the lake; the melodic waves seemed to ripple and warp time as they reflected and pulled the colors from above. I stood on a dock with a few others the last night I was there—a young intern from the University of Cincinnati and an older gentleman who had spent time in Argentina where he wrote a novel that would later be self-published.
"This is surreal," the intern said, raising his glass into the air.
"It really is just begging to have art made out of it," the older man said.
"Let's toast to this night. I can't believe we're here," the intern replied, not needing another second to think about what had been said.
I raised my bottle within inches of the intern's.
"I'll cheers to that," the older man said, clicking his bottle against ours and releasing us to draw them to our lips and drink in liquid with the meaning of it all.
I brought the beer back to my side, and for a moment I thought I understood what he had meant when he personified the place. It felt like we were standing in a painting, and if the picture didn't already exist in a frame on someone's wall, it should have. But place never really calls to us and asks to be made into art, whether it's a painting, a photograph, or a story. People seek places out, and often they have a difficult time getting the landscape to agree. It's a relationship that exists because the artist begs for it, and it is the artist that must do all the wooing.
At that moment, I missed Erie. I looked across the lake before me. Lights on the other side from cottages and hotels lit the shore like a string of Christmas lights stretched across a black chasm. Flashes of the day I climbed on top of the parking garage at Penn State Behrend went through my head. I had hopes that from the outlook at the crest of the hill I would be able to see across Lake Erie to Canada. I couldn't. There could have been a million lights over there, sparkling like the most breathtaking diamonds in the world, and I wouldn't have known it. But something about that distance had soothed me, as if the face of infinity was a comforting one.
On my way home Sunday, as I rounded the turn from I-86 to I-90, I looked down at Lake Erie with those thoughts still in my head. The dark blue water rose with the earth and curved over the edge of sight, sharply contrasting the pale blue sky above it. As I put pressure on the accelerator and dipped beneath the tree-line heading west, I wasn't saddened that my weekend was over or too tired to think about work in the morning; instead, I felt the energy of Erie reciprocating my advances on her.
When I got back to work on Monday morning, my boss was eager to tell me a story. He had woken up in the morning and went out to his porch to grab the newspaper. Laying on the swing he had just bought his wife for mother's day, there was a stranger sleeping. He woke the man up.
"What are you doing," he said, trying not to be outraged.
"I was just trying to get a couple hours of sleep, sir," the man answered groggily, sitting up and straightening his hoodie and jeans.
"Do you know anyone who lives here," my boss asked, thinking that it could be one of his sons' friends.
"No, no sir."
The man left, meandering down the street an hour after sunrise.
"Only in Erie, man," my boss said to me when he had finished. I laughed.
For a while the story sat on my conscious, refusing to leave me alone. Did that homeless man catch a glimpse of the lake that morning, I wondered, and did he see the same comforting forever that I saw. Perhaps he looked north in fear that morning, maybe he didn't look up at all and only shifted his feet beneath the gaze of his eyes and counted the cracks in each square of the sidewalk. If so, could he tell the story of Erie, or paint her from his experience with the same amount of truth as me?
The fact is this: reality can never be a collective experience. My Erie is different than my boss's, and different than the man who slept on his porch. At Chautauqua that night, I tried to describe her to the intern and the older man. They wanted Erie's story, but I could only give them mine. I wanted them to feel like they were missing something having never been here. This is a city that does not require boastful comments to entice an artist, she doesn't need to call out and ask for attention, I said, but at every moment she is posing for the camera, and she has another story to be told.
All photos were taken by the author.