For as long as I can remember, stairs and I have been mutually antagonistic: I don't like them, and they do their unlevel best to express their disapproval of me. A staircase, to me, presents an obstacle: to get past it, I must exert enough effort to exceed the inexorable force of gravity, which was fairly simple when I was younger, less so now that I am old and tormented with osteoarthritis in both knees. About a decade ago, I had arthroscopic surgery on the right knee; the right knee remains the one more likely to fail me at any given moment, though neither knee responds favorably to climbing the stairs, and inevitably there's the mental breakdown which occurs at the top of the stairs, as I turn the corner: "Oh gawd, another flight!" Contemporary architectural styles, I am starting to believe, rely on cramming the largest number of stairs into the smallest horizontal space, and each year's local Architecture Tour tends to reinforce that belief.

Still, I undertake the Tour each year to see these buildings, and not just the ground floor; so I screw my courage to the sticking-place and scan the sides of the staircase for a rail, or lacking that, some feature that can be pressed into temporary service as a rail should it become necessary. Somehow I make it up those stairs, every time; it usually takes me two steps per step, which slows down the process just as much as you think it does, and turning the corner to the next flight is something that might require the catching of breath, but I will get there. And when I get there, I mutter an imprecation: "Take that, you vertically-oriented monstrosity!" Other Tour participants, if they notice me at all — I prefer to think that they ignore me entirely — perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that they didn't have to witness my untimely undoing.

Of course, this hate/hate relationship goes back to a time long ago. In 2003, when I went house-shopping, one of my major criteria was Single Story. (Others: no farther from work than 15 miles or so, and if at all possible, not in a House district represented by a person I thought to be a horrible bigot. Now we have term limits in this state, and said horrible bigot has been replaced by another.) Thirteen years later, my otherwise-astute choice presents an issue: the house itself is several feet above street level, which makes for a fairly steep driveway, great fun in the snow, lesser fun early in the morning when I have to retrieve the newspaper from the base of that driveway because the chap who delivers it can't possibly loft it more than halfway up.

For the two decades preceding 2003, I had been an apartment dweller, and apartments of that era presented basically two choices: you live upstairs, and take your chances with the stairs; or you live downstairs, and you hope the persons directly above you are relatively quiet. I opted for the latter, though it seldom took more than a weekend for that hope to be dashed.

But this dispiriting existence didn't create my antipathy for stairs, which had existed long before. This particular trope has informed many dreams over many years:

[I]n the general category of unwanted adventure is the Endless Staircase, which I can descend at pretty decent speeds — unlike real life, where staircases slow me down considerably — but which doesn't seem to have a ground floor anywhere in sight.

I was never sure why I didn't stop at any of the intermediate floors, when intermediate floors were perceivable at all, though I blame Dante: for all I knew, the door on each floor led to a circle in the Inferno, and at some point I apparently had lost count.

This scenario implies that the bottom of the stairs was a place to be avoided, and I believe this relates to an incident when I was not quite two years old, which would place it somewhere in 1955. The scene: my grandfather's Big House in north-central Austin, a place with a wide-open floor plan and ceiling fans in every room and a very long staircase, at the base of which I was found crying one day. I don't remember actually falling down the stairs, though that would explain both my headache and my piteous shrieks; one moment I was upstairs, the next moment I wasn't. I'm guessing it all happened too fast for me, a mere toddler, and a clumsy toddler at that, to comprehend.

The most peculiar aspect of this incident, however, is that as time goes on, my belief in it has become less steadfast. Everyone who was in a position to have witnessed the event has long since passed on, and the Big House and its full-block lot have been reconfigured for the New Urban Lifestyle. (Austin, which had about 150,000 people in 1955, now has close to a million, with a million more in the suburbs.) There is no one I can question about it — I was the oldest of five children, and the only one besides me who survives was born in 1967 — and while I can vouch for the existence of the staircase itself, there being photographs still, that gap between upstairs and downstairs has made me wonder if any of this really happened at all. Or maybe it's not the existence of the gap itself, but an effect of the slow, inexorable passage of time, as new, more immediate memories cloud over older ones. In 2002, I actually tracked down the house in northern Illinois which was my first official home, a house we vacated in 1955; I remembered absolutely nothing about it, at least from the outside, and I couldn't think of a plausible excuse to look inside. "Excuse me, but would you mind if I took a look around? I used to live here back in the 1950s." This approach, I suspect, works only in fiction, and while I dearly love fiction, I have no — make that "little" — desire to live there.

The Vent

  23 April 2016

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