I’m feeling good about our ditch.
Between our house and the house next door, running from the street to the back of the lot, this ditch conveys water to a large storm drain. Surface water drains into this ditch. Our sump water is pumped into this ditch. The water from the long ditch across the street, a major tributary, flows under the road through 12-inch pipe and into our ditch.
Six feet across, four feet deep, in a hard rain this ditch moves a lot of water. Unfortunately, along a third of its length, six tall, prolific cottonwood trees loom over it. They drop loads of crap–pods and clots of cotton spring and summer, a continuous blizzard of leaves in the fall, sticks year around–a plague of tree matter that winds up in the ditch and is dragged by the flow of water in a heavy downpour all the way back to the storm drain, which clogs, backs up, and forms a lake that can only be unclogged by hand. Of course, our backed-up ditch affects the one across the street. We’re all in this together.
It’s rained hard the last two days. Yesterday I went out in knee-high garden boots, waded into the lake, and plunged my hands elbow-deep into the cold water, feeling around for the drain, clawing handfuls of debris from its grate until the swirl and suck and steady flow of water began.
Enjoying this success, stopping to regard the rest of the ditch, I slipped a paper towel out of my hip pocket to blow my nose into. On the street out front, coronavirus traffic was picking up. People strolled past. I waved to those who looked. They waved back.
This rush and swirl of water is instant gratification of the first order, a satisfaction. A man in a ditch is taking care of business. He’s a good neighbor.
I’ve begun to think of myself as the drain commissioner.
I suffer from chronic runny nose. Hence the paper towel. Medical literature refers to my condition as geriatric rhinitis. I don’t care for either of those terms. It gets worse. From the journal Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: “Rhinitis is defined as inflammation of the nasal mucosa and is characterized by symptoms of congestion, rhinorrhea, itching of the nose, postnasal drip, and sneezing…nasal symptoms [that] pose a significant burden on the health of older people.”
Rhinorrhea. Any word ending in –orrhea I do not like.
You get older, your nasal membranes thin and atrophy, a development that can also lead to droopy nose (I really hope that’s a clinical term), a condition that can be associated with Lewy body dementia and late stage Alzheimers. Next time I’m in front of a mirror, if I remember, I’ll have to check to see if my nose has begun to droop.
We moved into this house 34 years ago. It was November. The first neighbor I met lived on the other side of our ditch. A retiree, he was outside one sunny afternoon raking leaves–into our shared ditch, amassing a huge pile of leaves, which he lit on fire. At that time it was still okay to burn leaves. Throughout the fall a fragrant blue miasma hung in the lower atmosphere over our neighborhood, over the entire county, probably over the entire state. For a decade or so after that, we shared responsibility for the leaves. We visited occasionally across the ditch. He usually had a fresh Bill Clinton joke. We raked and burned. I don’t remember water in the ditch backing up. Around the time he died, a burning ban went into effect. Since then, I’ve looked after the ditch on my own.
Given the endless cottonwood droppage, it is an onerous task. Last week I spent hours dragging layer upon layer of last November’s leaves (we had early snow in last year) out of the ditch, like giant, soggy pancakes, to ensure the free flow of water.
I can’t remember exactly when this rhinorrhea thing started. It seems like wherever I am, especially if I’m outside, especially if I’m doing something for which I need both hands, I have to stop what I’m doing on regular intervals and wipe my nose. The colder the temperature, the more frequent the interruption. It’s like nasal condensation.
I think of it as Old Head Syndrome (OHS), which presents a congeries of symptoms. Your eyes go bad. Your ears ring. Your hair turns gray or falls out. Your gums begin to recede. Your skin wrinkles, and, perhaps for that reason you lose some of the feeling in your face. My father’s nose ran like a faucet, as did my paternal grandfather’s, as did my paternal uncle’s. The older they got, as they lost facial feeling, the more likely you would be to see food stuck to their cheeks or chin while they ate. One Sunday the uncle came for dinner. Half way through the meal he had a tiny bit of salad on top of his bald head. My kids loved that.
Once in a while my wife will look across the table and tell me I have food on my face. Or she’ll tell me to wipe my nose. I’m grateful to her for that. I don’t like it, but I’m grateful.
I guess I prefer food on my face to droopy nose. But not by much.
I thought of this uncle the other day. I was taking my coronavirus walk. It was early, just barely daylight, on garbage day. Sitting out at the road, each household’s yard waste, recycled stuff, and bonafide garbage was waiting for pickup. I recalled “A Thousand Clowns,” a film with Jason Robards, who always reminded me of the uncle with salad on his head. Well into the movie, sitting in his apartment window, Murray, the Jason Robards character, addresses the neighborhood:
This is your neighbor speaking. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that something must be done about your garbage cans in the alley here. [He raises his voice] It is definitely second-rate garbage. Now, by next week I want to see a better class of garbage, more empty champagne bottles and caviar cans! I’m sure you’re all behind me on this. So let’s snap it up and get on the ball!
Walking down to the end of the driveway that morning, I’d noticed something in the nearby cul-de-sac that looked suspiciously like a boat, long and narrow, bright yellow, probably fiberglass. I thought it was a dinghy or life raft or a small sailboat hull. What the hell.
I didn’t want to be conspicuous and march right over there to check it out. I’ve always thought a cloak of privacy in civilized society extends all the way to the curb, casting a shadow over, if not totally covering, a residents’ garbage. If questioned I might have said I was checking out neighborhood ditches. Drain commissioner, you know. Instead I decided on an indirect approach, taking a full turn around the block, casually checking out the garbage as I did. A dead coffee machine. A busted rake. Two toilets, white, in pieces overturned at the edge of a driveway, along with the remains of bathroom cabinetry, evidence of a remodeling project on Wagon Wheel. Lots of Amazon boxes. In one yard, leaning against a tall evergreen, surrounded by a lawn just beginning to green, a snow shovel, at ready.
You notice things. On a tree, a face with four eyes.
Just as I took the turn back onto our street, the red Green For Life garbage struck roared down the street, a huge American flag emblazoned on the side. I picked up the pace. As I neared the cul-de-sac I saw: it wasn’t a boat or life raft; it was a slide, from a dismantled playset for small children. That’s right, I thought. There are kids at that house, little ones who have come to our door on Halloween. Not so little anymore.
I kept going, stretching out the walk, covering a few miles of sidewalk, inspecting ditches along the way, some of them clear, like mine.
In front of one house were two signs. Riches won’t help on the day of judgment! Private property!
The house looked occupied but not really lived in. The ditch out front needed a little TLC. A vitamin water bottle, two dirty white styrofoam take-out dishes, a few to-go coffee cup lids, and stretching out in the lazy, ineffectual current, a white plastic, non-denominational grocery bag.
I searched in a jacket pocket for my paper towel, took it out and wiped my nose. A ditch is a burden, a collector of detritus, the last thing we want to attend to. But attend to it we must. The flood will come.
I gave my nose a good blow and headed home, stepping off the sidewalk to give the CV-walkers a wide berth. They did the same for me.