Which City: Limited Impressions in Salem.
Part 2: Interior Salem
By Brian James
A room across the street from our house is always dark, and the tv is almost always on. I notice the singular glow from my second-floor landing at night. I notice it in the morning when I'm walking to my car. The interior darkness abides no matter the hour. I never see the viewer, only that manic movie-surge. When the screen doesn't feature mute soldiers or blonde bombshells, it assumes a continuous solid blue.
When we bought a two-century-old house in Salem, it came with a log of previous owners in plastic binding, recording even the earliest inhabitants in 1811. The log includes an account of the first owner's death which involved said owner taking in an "itinerant quack," hallucinating ("hearing sounds and seeing sights") along with this mysterious guest, the two of them going insane together, and dying together (at this point the author, Reverend William Bentley, stresses that after dying, they never saw or heard anything again). The log also mentions Civil War soldiers, World War soldiers, workers and mothers and transactions, and there's even a postcard tucked between the pages written to our house address from a boarding school or military base. This building housed centuries of American history. Thus, my sense of ownership is thin as a rug. The dead own it much more than the living.
Every house on my street is filled with squatters, claiming proud old colonials by tossing down Ikea couches, touch lamps, dogs, and door mats on the ancient floors. The beams and rafters of the dead buckle under our upright pianos and coffee tables. We swarm and colonize in the emptied hives.
Too often writers and artists present the city as an external landscape, both public and natural. Salem becomes a contentious black-hatted meeting in the old town hall. It becomes ships and harbors and robust commerce. It becomes parades and concerts and art openings. Living in the city means sharing and gathering around large-scale common experiences.
But the city is equally, if not more so, the peculiar isolation of the private resident. It is the feverish prayers at the bedside after the oil lamp retires and the survey of the shadowed pantry shelves. It is the nightly purveyal of Netflix streaming and the nagging insistence of domestic tiffs. Centuries of history off the public record, whispered and scrubbed and chuckled beyond the reach of the public eye and ear. While cities can make us feel connected, united, they also accentuate our lone-wolfishness and the tiny territories we keep.