I’m headed up North 27th Street on some big-box shopping trip and even before I hit that certain block, the one before the long overpass, it happens. Every time.
The memory flood.
I barely have to look as I pass it; if I did I wouldn’t see it anyway. It’s not there. Instead of the landmark I have held in my head for decades, there stands a Lincoln Water System building, long and white and blue.
No matter. What I conjure is the white house someone built on that land decades ago, and inside it a staircase that I had to step up on when I got a first kiss from a certain tall, young man. A long-gone landmark that would tie me to that staircase and that house and that block on North 27th even after it wasn't there.
Those touchpoints in our lives, in this town or another, burn themselves into our personal stories and remain. We tend to remember our lives in moments at a time, and they are tied closely to those sidewalks and streets, wood floors and grassy hills. The ground our feet touched in those memory moments.
I can clearly see myself walking a downtown Lincoln sidewalk at age 20, going home at 9:30 one night from a part-time college job. It was the middle of winter and I was barefoot, carrying my high-heeled boots because my feet hurt from standing five hours on the store's hard linoleum floor, after I had walked from one side of campus to another.
I lived in this town through college, left for a while, and eventually returned to plant myself in a journalism career, marching through three decades of work.
A person can accumulate a lot of landmarks in that many years.
I, like many of my colleagues at the Journal Star, see this town differently than most. We built landmarks based on the stories we covered and discussed at length in the newsroom — where we saw a body for the first time, or watched flames consume somebody's business or home, or sat in the living room of an immigrant as they served us tea on an etched tray and talked about their life in broken English.
Many of our landmarks are not exotic. Nevertheless, they are graphic, sometimes dramatic and always meaningful.
These are a few of mine:
* In 1992, an 18-year-old university student, Candi Harms, was returning home from an evening visiting her boyfriend when she was stalked, kidnapped, tortured and killed in a farmfield outside Lincoln.
Among the shadowy landmarks that stayed with me are the bungalow on South 52nd Street where one of her killers lived at the time, and the apartment parking lot at 61st and Vine streets where her life took its horrible turn. When I pass them I think of that young woman with so much life ahead of her.
* An area on the Antelope Creek bike path just blocks from my house, a storm-drainage tunnel under 48th Street that I cannot walk through without thinking of the teen who was beaten, stabbed and buried there by another teen who lived in a group home two blocks the other way from my house.
* A 16-acre enclave of aging mobile homes, buttressed by commercial buildings on busy North 27th Street and the city's wastewater treatment plant. Home — at least it was 15 years ago — to low-income people, immigrants, elderly men and women seeking refuge from high rent, written leases and security deposits. I replay that story each trip by.
* The old, sometimes musty-smelling, Lincoln Public Schools District Office, where I walked halls and sat hours upon hours at school board meetings, and in particular at the round table in the office of Associate Superintendent Marilyn Moore for engaging talks about student issues. A new, not-musty-smelling building sits there now. But I will always see the pre-May 30, 2011, rambling LPSDO stalwart, and then the smoldering burnt-to-the-ground remains of it. Superintendent Steve Joel called it a “total loss.”
Not from my mind.
I'll leave you with one more, a bittersweet landmark that combines the news side with the personal. One also given up in heat and flames, and remembered in detail.
The memories of Ideal Grocery, another 27th Street marker, where I would grab one of those vintage wire carts and walk familiar aisles — I can recreate them almost perfectly — picking out breads, pastas, cookies, fruits and vegetables placed in paper sacks that assistants would then weigh and mark. The visit would end at those old-style checkout counters and friendly clerks.
It's been four years since those beloved visits ended with that fire, and I still catch myself once in a while thinking, "I'll just head over to Ideal. Oh ... wait."
For good, bad or ugly, these places have marked my journey. Sometimes they haunt me.
But always they'll matter in my life and work chronicle.