Henderson Lawn illustration

Progress at Main: On Henderson Lawn

In Craft, Nonfiction, Prose by

A selection from our “Anything Goes” call for submissions.
By Josette Torres

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One – Fall 2007.
I walk down a concrete path on Henderson Lawn on the way home from campus. It’s late, really late, and I’ve spent the night in my office, plowing through graduate coursework. This could be any day in the fall of 2007. This was all the days in the fall of 2007. The lawn is not as expansive of a green space as I’m used to walking through, but it’s right next to where I live and serves as a reminder to myself that I’m almost home, I’m almost home, I’m almost home, each step down the lawn bringing me closer to my empty apartment, I’m almost home. It’s dark. It’s always dark. I arrive home so late most nights I don’t hear anyone around me. I dart through the path’s exit between old brick and iron fencing and cross College Avenue to my apartment building, go up the stairs, then a right and a left and there’s my apartment door. So quick. The building’s a dump but it’s five minutes away from everywhere I need to be and there’s a coffee shop downstairs and did I mention the lawn outside? I love seeing that lawn appear as I walk down the hill from the Upper Quad. The lawn quickly becomes a friend to me as I come to grips with my new life at Virginia Tech. The lawn is safety. The lawn is almost home.

Two – Fall 2008
Construction on a new building takes out the path I used to walk down, but I don’t walk by it so much anymore. I’ve moved to another apartment a block and a half away and joined a student organization with offices in Squires Student Center. I pass through Squires going to and from my office, but when I have a volunteer shift at the local art-house theatre after one of my classes, I meander along Alumni Mall and take the big staircase straight down the lawn, which ends right across the street from the theatre’s marquee. An Italian ice place opens up next door to the theatre and more often than not, I pass people sitting on the benches eating colorful frozen treats from small cups.

Three – Summer 2009
The art gallery is quiet and unknown, which is exactly what I like about it. I sit in the air-conditioned room and read books while looking out through a set of newly installed plate glass windows. Across the street, the construction project is nearing completion. It’s a new black box theatre facility, all metal and glass, totally out of place on the lawn, but there it is. Sometimes I stand in the middle of the gallery and look at people lounging on the lawn, the reverse of a diorama. I am voluntarily trapped behind the glass while the world outside is the scene unfolding in real time. Hardly anyone comes into the gallery, and I spend so much time alone with art. During my late undergrad years, I would hang out at the campus galleries, jealous of the attendants who used their work-study eligibility on the best job on campus. Sitting at the glass desk in the back of this gallery now isn’t the same, but maybe it’s close.

Four – Spring 2010
The Chinese restaurant next to the art-house theatre runs lunch specials, and every few days I get lunch from there, walking from my office in the lobby to order, then telling the people behind the counter, “I’ll come back for it,” and leaving. I’ve graduated from Tech and landed my first post-grad job as a volunteer coordinator and administrative assistant. I stand in the lobby a lot, watching patrons come in for shows, and see people sitting on benches across from my theatre all the time. Every so often, someone stops and take a photo of the theatre’s façade. It’s a regular thing, since the theatre is a downtown landmark, and it happens with such regularity that eventually I stop noticing. Sometimes when I get a phone call on my cellphone, I leave the theatre and go across the street, turning in small circles on the lawn as I talk. A regular volunteer and I walk up the lawn steps every week on the last night of a film’s run, talking about what we watched as I try to keep up with his long strides.

Five – Summer 2010
Workers from businesses on College Avenue stand with me on the sidewalk as we witness the big sycamore tree on the lawn cut down. The tree is old enough to remember when the university wasn’t there, but isn’t well enough to live, or so they say. The day before its scheduled removal, I took pictures of it with my mobile phone’s camera. Someone wrapped a note around the tree with rope; it explained that a couple had met under that tree, later married, and came back to visit it often with family. The road is closed so the removal trucks have room to work, and I find myself leaving my office to watch again and again as the branches are sliced off the trunk, as the trunk itself is sliced from the lawn, as disembodied pieces of wood lie in the street. A post on my theatre’s Facebook page says our friend Henderson Sycamore left us today. Months later, I discover some of the wood repurposed as bowls and other decorative art, sold at a booth at Steppin’ Out. But before then, all I discover is an ugly scar of a stump, surrounded by caution tape, and towering empty space where shade should be.

Six – Summer 2011
After I get the phone call offering me a full-time job at Virginia Tech, on the first day of August, I sit on the lawn for hours, calling people to tell them the good news. I watch traffic on Main Street laze its way through the end of summer session as I roll through my address book. It is one of the last clear memories I have of that August.

Seven – Spring 2012
I am cast in a play being staged at that theatre I watched immerse itself into the lawn while sitting in an art gallery years before, and end up performing the majority of my acting work standing on the steps outside. I see the other theatre—my theatre—across the street every time I walk down the sidewalk to the steps to hit the first mark of my second scene. I find myself drawn to look at the theatre marquee each time I walk, so as to appear to be a passerby to the audience on the other side of the plate glass walls/windows from me. The film playing this week is a documentary, Climate Refugees, which almost nobody has heard of and almost nobody comes to see. The film opening right after my play closes, Pina, is another documentary nobody has heard of about a choreographer almost nobody has heard of—who unfortunately passed away during the film’s production—but I saw it in Chicago on vacation and loved it so much I persuaded the theatre’s film programmer to book it. Seeing Pina again is my reward for getting through the play’s performance run. I focus on the film title as I look across the street. The lawn stretches near me, never far from my sight.

Eight – Spring 2012
That May, College Avenue is painted as part of a street happening. I have too many other things going on that afternoon and arrive downtown late at night to see the street completely blocked off and absolutely covered in artwork. After the film lets out, I walk alone in the empty street, looking at the paintings laid down at every turn of my feet. A big construction project to turn College Avenue into a promenade is scheduled to begin after the annual Steppin’ Out festival in August, which will take out more of the lawn, as well as several blocks of parking and a full lane of traffic. I find out the fencing on College Avenue is also scheduled to come down as part of the construction and am incensed. “I’ll chain myself to that fence!” I cry, but I don’t do it.

Nine – Fall 2012
Construction starts that fall, but it’s over by Squires and we don’t pay it any attention at my theatre until it reaches our part of the block around the start of the Christmas season. Suddenly parking becomes a free-for-all when the meters, painted as part of a separate fundraiser, are taken away. The situation is so dangerous for cars and pedestrians that I take half a dozen photos and send them at Town of Blacksburg’s Twitter account, demanding action be taken. A few days later, No Parking signs appear on the block and I am appeased. Construction equipment takes up temporary homes across from my theatre, more trees are cut down, and for weeks an absolute mud pit of unsightliness greets patrons, complete with a half-demolished brick entryway under the marquee. I ask about the possibility of temporary fencing on our side of the street and am rebuffed. The endless construction noise consistently perturbs my colleagues, as it becomes an annoying part of daily routine. The brick and iron fences disappear, and a large cut is made in the lawn diagonally from the corner of Main and College. I have no idea what they’re doing to the lawn, and it looks horrible. I start to avoid walking on the block entirely.

Ten – Spring 2013
The construction workers finish the sidewalk on the other side of College Avenue in April and shift the traffic lane from my theatre’s side of the street to the finished side, and suddenly I cannot tell which part of the street is sidewalk and which is for vehicular traffic. The entrance to the big staircase on the lawn is completely transformed. What was once a small area with benches is now much larger with stone edgings. A stage area reappears as a reconstructed space facing away from its original direction, and the cut in the lawn is revealed to be another staircase. Why the lawn needs two staircases on escapes me. I fear the lawn will eventually disappear under development hands. I read somewhere online that cuttings from the big sycamore will be replanted on the lawn. In my experience I’ve found that Blacksburg is really good about cutting down trees. I wonder if they are equally as good as replacing them. This construction is said to be completed before this year’s Steppin’ Out, and I hope against hope they’ll finish time. I miss the way the lawn used to be, but I only have five years of history with it, so why I am I complaining?

Eleven – Spring 2013
Late that April, on a Monday afternoon, a big celebration fills Henderson Lawn as one cutting from the old sycamore is planted in its place. I stand with dozens of townspeople, who also cannot tell which part of College Avenue is sidewalk and which is for vehicular traffic, and listen to a professor from the forestry department explain that, of several hundred cuttings taken from the tree before the removal, only two survived to the point where they were viable. In an aside of his speech, Virginia Tech’s president mentions he has an FBI file thanks to eco-activism during his days at a Tech student. After local officials finish with their ceremonial planting, attendees take the shovels and spread more dirt around the cutting, a sort of citizen dirt shoveling. Soon afterward, the reanimated sycamore is surrounded by a makeshift cage of wooden logs, to support its growth and protect it from drunken passerby during its youth.

Twelve – Spring 2013 and beyond
I stand at the top of the steps on the lawn and look down at my theatre. It’s a little past midnight and the lights are still on in the lobby. The film let out around an hour earlier, and I know from experience that it takes about an hour to close, so I expect the projectionist is nearly finished for the night. A drunken guy stands under the branches of the big evergreen tree next to the Virginia Tech decorative sign/fence on the corner exiting Alumni Mall, and some drunken girls join him. Around me Downtown Blacksburg is alive with the usual weekend late night revelry that comes with an academic semester at Virginia Tech. I turn my back on Henderson Lawn and start the walk toward campus. It will be there, silent, to greet me when I return a few hours later. It will always be there to greet me, as long as I call Blacksburg almost home.

Josette Torres lists her age with an asterisk; she’s 43, but only 25 if you count from when she graduated high school — which she does. She’s from Northwest Indiana, and while she originally moved to Blacksburg in 2007 to “be alone and write,” she’s certainly found ways to occupy her free time–she’s worked at WUVT-FM, The Lyric Theatre, and currently, as an instructor at Virginia Tech. She says creation keeps her from “completely going sideways,” and her featured creative nonfiction piece was originally written for a graduate class taken at Virginia Tech with Jeff Mann. She admires Brian Turner’s work in his poetry collections Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise, as they both focus on the writer’s experience with war in a way that she describes as “pull-no-punches.”

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