You Must Ask

[by Fred Lynch in Chelsea, Massachusetts]

Continuing on my sketchbook investigation of family history and immigration.

Often when I’m drawing, I think I’m invisible. People usually treat me that way, too. People don’t tend to interact.
Where the O’Connors lived in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1908, no one lives now. At the address is a car repair shop as well as a taxi business, surrounded by a tall chain link fence. The property sits on a street of light industry by the railroad tracks. Visiting, I was immediately interested in drawing the old cab with four flat tires by the entrance. However, the fence was closed and locked. Returning another day, the gate was open, but a nicer taxi blocked the view of the one I wanted to draw. A third time, the lighting was terrible, with the sun behind dark clouds. Being persistent, I returned a fourth time and stepped just inside the now open front gate and sat to draw with pleasure. I had caught my prey.
However, not long after I was settled in, a truck pulled up from across the long parking lot and a gruff voice called out to me.
“Excuse me!” called a man in the truck with what I guessed to be an Eastern European accent.
I popped up and swiftly walked over with my sketchbook to show him what I was up to. I was sure he’d be flattered and interested.
“I’m an artist and I’m making a drawing of this place where my immigrant ancestors lived back in…” I blurted out, into the open passenger-side window.
The man cut me off mid-sentence with an “I don’t care what you are doing.” He made no eye contact, he looked straight ahead out the windshield.
I tried again, “…my family came here long ago and I’m drawing to…”
“This is my property.” He sternly told his steering wheel.
I quickly turned the page of my sketchbook to my drawing of the local church and told him that I was drawing all around the neighborhood. He turned just enough to see the church drawing.
“You must ask.” He said. “You must ask to do things on my property.” It was his place now.
Beginning to feel uncomfortable, I then apologized profusely, and asked politely if could stay, and told him that I meant no harm.
He barely nodded and said “You must ask people.”
I thanked him and he drove back out of the lot. Not once had he looked at my face.
I should have asked.
I drew on with less pleasure, but with just as much interest.
Leaving, I stopped and thought about how my ancestors, according to old maps, would have overlooked a busy industrial railroad across the street back in 1908. I wondered what it was that was across the street now—this nondescript building that attracted such busy traffic by car and by foot. People coming, people going. Three young women passed by, one griping of “false positives.” Searching online, I found that this building is a methedone clinic.

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