SEWER CITY. KEEP OUT. THIS MEANS YOU.
The hand-lettered sign went up in the summer of 1961, my first attempt at defining a territory of my own. Of course, it wasn't a city. In fact, it wasn't even a sewer; maybe it had been, many years before, but if it had, someone, maybe the county, had long since removed the pipes and gratings and whatnot, and grass grew everywhere but the very bottom. As sewers go, it was downright sanitary, a definite plus, since its relative cleanliness made it possible for the parental units to stall for time before deciding to tell me never to set foot in that awful place again.
Of course, to a boy on the cusp of eight, it wasn't at all awful. It was haphazard, to be sure, what with the random vegetation and the obvious neglect and the alleged occasional copperhead (I never saw one, but who was going to believe me?), and it tended to flood during extended periods of rain. This being the South Carolina Low Country, it tended to flood a lot. Sometimes, in fact, it flooded the next couple of lots, and I'd have to stay home, or at least within the Project, until things dried out a bit.
I'd like to tell you about the grandiose plans I made in that dank little patch, the schemes I hatched that someday would come to fruition. But really, I didn't do any such thing. Sewer City was a place to walk through and explore, a place to sit down and take in the sights and smells, but it was never a place to plot and devise. Like Superman's Fortress of Solitude, it was a refuge from the world, and the less I, budding Clark Kent that I was, had to think about the world, the better I liked it.
Then came 1962 and an opening on the base housing list and we moved out of the Project and I never went back to Sewer City. For the next six or seven years, most of my free time would be spent riding a bus or mowing lawns. There were five of us, soon to be six eventually, seven and there wasn't much room, and I sensed that there never would be much room ever again, and it was perhaps at this point that I began, slowly at first, to withdraw. If there was no going back, there would also be no coming out. The extroverted toddler had grown into a fairly average kid; now he would retreat into introspection and shyness and fear.
So far, this premise seems eminently scoffworthy. It's not like I spent every waking hour in this turbid urban swamplet, and getting out of it might conceivably have improved my health. (I had been bedridden for much of the winter of 1960-61, having been double-teamed by pneumonia and scarlet fever; there is some question, in my mind at least, whether I might still be affected by one or the other.) But territorial imperatives run deep, and somewhere in the midst of all this came the conviction that I would never have anything (and, by extension, anyone) of my own. It might well explain how it is that I came to accumulate such enormous quantities of pop-culture detritus (my record rack when fully loaded weighs something like 1000 kg); these possessions are ephemeral, they have little meaning to anyone but a smattering of collectors, but dammit, they are mine.
I went back to the Low Country last summer, to retrace some of my steps and refresh some of my memories. The Project is long gone, and near what used to be the side entrance, facing the highway, is an ornate gate, a territorial imperative in its own right, a sign that says, subtly yet emphatically, KEEP OUT. THIS MEANS YOU. I thought I might knock, but decided I would not. There is no reason in the world why the people living behind this wall should need to know that their lovely homes were built upon a place that was once called Sewer City.
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Copyright © 2002 by Charles G. Hill