The Grass is Always Greener

October 17, 2008

Yesterday was a digging day. For ten years I have had dreams about this site. The site was in the downtown area where early population was thick. We dug out a number of privies, some by hand others with the backhoe. We found a line of privies along a cement block wall on the other side of which were several three story apartment buildings dating into the 1840s. It was the other side of the block wall which plagued by dreams. The owner, was the same fellow who had given us permission on the site we dug. The problem was – the back of the lot, on the other side of block wall was covered in cement. The problem with digging was two fold: first, the block wall was about seven feet tall and our equipment would have to be hoisted up and over the wall. Second and more importantly was that if we dug, we would have to remove the cement in such a way that we could put it back. Our excitement was high and we actually took a cement drill and drilled holes through the cement. Probing suggested that there were three holes – one in each corner and one in the middle of the lot. We never actually tackled the project.

Several weeks ago we learned that the building about which we had dreamed of digging had caught fire. The fire was caused by the hurricane which also blew my roof off. Apparently, a transformer was knocked down and resulted in the building and several buildings next to it catching fire. The buildings had long been abandoned – even ten years ago, so there was no casualty or tragedy for anyone other than the insurance company. The good new for us – the buildings were to be torn down and we had been given permission to dig the site – without worry about replacing the cement.

I met Mike down at the site as the construction crew was wrapping up. The Backhoe operator had agreed to stay and dig the holes out for us. The place was strewn with bricks from the destruction of one of the buildings. The cement pad in the back was cracked and crushed from the machinery moving over it and so it was easy work for the backhoe to dig out in a single bit, what would have taken us 1-2 hours to do by hand, and even longer since their was subterranean debris of rocks in the fill. The hole on the north side of the lot was too close to an adjacent building so the backhoe guy said he would not dig that one. We guessed that of course that one would be the oldest hole - but that was not the case. In the south corner, as the hoe dug down, the dirt looked undisturbed until we got down about 8 feet when the base of a bottle was sticking out. We signaled for the operator to stop and jumped into the hole and scratched out the remains of the some beautiful, but broken 1820s bottles. The hole had been visited by what we call the “privy press”. All things were crushed. They were probably broken long before being thrown into the hole. The bottles were very early, the privy fill was sterile other than dozens of these early ale bottles.

As the dirt from privy one was coming out, the bucket of the backhoe cut into another hole in front of the 1820s hole. This one proved to be the next one in age, dating in the 1840-1855 period. We found several bottles and one nice redware pitcher. Near the bottom of this 10 foot deep privy were the remains of the wooden walls, preserved in the airless tomb of dirt which had enclosed them for 160 years.

The hole was only ten feet from the back door of the three story apartment. I walked into the building, the walls were covered with layers of what was probably lead-based paint, coated heavily and telling of decades of dwellers who had called this place home. It was only a shade of what it would have been in its prime. I imagined the people who had lived here. They lived without benefit of running water, electricity or indoor plumbing. Having been without electricity only several weeks before put me in awe of how toughened people were who built this country had been. For us, in modern times, the grass is really greener.