April 05, 2012
April 05, 2012
Basements, by nature, are dark and scary.
Searching for the light upon entering one can instantly become the most important thing in the world, your fingers nervous not to touch anything at all but the tiny plastic rectangular protuberance sticking out of the wall or the thin chain that hangs blindly a few steps in.
We hold our breaths no matter how many times we’ve descended the stairs that week to retrieve holiday decorations or to do our laundry; we are in the safety of our own locked homes, yet somehow there is always the possibility there’s a knife-wielding intruder or a hungry coyote taking a short breather under the stairs.
Or there’s the possibility that a face-sized spider has descended to face level, swaying gently in front of the chain you seek.
We wish someone would go into the basement for us every time.
There was a daylight basement on my family’s farm, meaning that the building the basement rested under was constructed into the side of a hill.
There were no windows in the basement.
Just a huge metal door facing a small sliver of woods.
This particular building was built in 1924 – one of the very first structures on the 1,200-acre farm – and the basement served as the farm’s first walk-in cooler, used for storing Boose apples until 1975.
After that, after the farm had expanded greatly and several drive-in electric coolers were built up over the hill, the basement was used for packing peaches and tomatoes into crates by my teenage aunts and uncles, readying shipments that were to head off to Cleveland.
And then after that, it was abandoned of manual labor and retired to being a dark, damp, fucking scary storage space for thousands of cardboard boxes my dad used intermittently at his next-door farm market.
My father often asked my brothers and me to retrieve boxes from “The Basement.”
His customers used the sturdy tops and bottoms to carry their groceries to their car, to their kitchen counters.
And every time we were asked to get boxes, I’d ask to stay back and sweep the backroom instead.
Or wrap lettuce heads.
Or take some scrap cardboard to the burn pile.
Or go see what needed refilling on the vegetable rack out front.
Because like any 10-year-old emotional boy who had two older brothers, I was freaked the fuck out by spiders.
And whenever I went to the basement to get my dad those boxes, I saw several real and imaginary spiders.
On the cement walls.
Skittering across the cement floor.
Chilling in the cement-meets-cement corners.
Some big enough to make you do a cursing, neck-slapping pogo dance that would go instantly viral on YouTube, possibly landing my father and me on a couple of overstuffed chairs on the Today Show.
In order to open up the basement door – which alone was the height of a school bus – I’d often hook the toe of my one sneaker under the handle and then bounce backward on the heel of the other.
A black and worn rubber flap was stapled above the door’s handle, hiding it or protecting it for a reason I never knew, making it hard for me to get my foot in there.
Now, if my father joined us on one of these box-retrieving missions, he’d haphazardly grab the handle and storm inside without concern, just trying to get back to the market because there were lettuce heads to trim, orders for restaurants to put together.
I’d follow behind him with my forearms over my head, grabbing the boxes nearest to the door.
“Just get in here and stop being such a wuss, for crying out loud,” he’d say.
“There’s spiders,” I’d respond, chucking a stack of banana boxes into the back of the running pickup.
(A tip when grabbing a stack of boxes that you honestly believe are the homes of dozens of arachnids, mice droppings and the devil herself: Cup your arms around the bottom box instead of sticking your fingers into its cutout handles. Disembodied fingers were instant bait for spiders in my mind, like hotdog bits for catfish.)
“For crying out loud,” my father would say. “Who cares? They’re not gonna get ya.”
Inside the farm’s basement, the floor measured 40′ x 60′.
I didn’t have to search for the light when I entered because I knew the switch was exactly four feet high on the interior left door frame.
Every time I entered I held my breath, ducked, and believed I would catch some terrible basement disease that would start with convulsions and end with a bout of uncontrollable self-mutilation through the wrong end of a rake.
Every time I exited I held my boxes high in front of me as a shield, and after chucking them into the bed of the pickup, I’d compulsively wipe my hands on my shorts.
Over 15 years, I was never once bitten by a spider.