The particular section of Route 213 in Chestertown known as Washington Avenue is an interesting, often exciting, place to live, especially if you live directly across the street from Washington College, as we do.
There are several advantages to owning a house in this location – you can host late, loudish parties (in our case an average of one per decade), and no one seems to mind, and once in awhile (though not often enough) the college’s landscaping crew creeps onto your property and mows your lawn. The disadvantages include noisy, fully-loaded 18 wheelers barreling down The Avenue in the wee hours of the morning, and people marching directly into your front hall and then looking confused and slightly ticked when they realize that no, they cannot pay their child’s tuition here, and that they are, in fact, in someone’s private residence. Nonetheless, without asking, they leave their car in your driveway and march next door, checkbook in hand.
Apparently, when you buy a house in a small town, it is often referred to by the former owner’s name – “Oh you live on The Avenue in the [insert former owner's name here] house,” and your ownership can come with expectations. For example, I know for a fact that we have let down multitudes by not living up to the exemplary gardening of the former owner. We do try, though, even if it means being criticized for our efforts. Any plants still here from when we bought the place, or any changes we make, are likely to generate comments. Yes, Master Gardeners of the world, we do have non-native Nandina Domestica (Heavenly Bamboo) in our garden; it has been here since before we were born, as has the gorgeous native pink Dogwood. We want both to live long and prosper.
When we cut down two overgrown white birch trees that were heaving up the sidewalk with their unruly roots, we were met with cries of “Oh! Why did you cut down those lovely trees?” (The reason, everybody, other than the aforementioned sidewalk situation, was that when I bought those “trees” from Rose’s in Kent Plaza fifteen years ago for $3.50 each at the end of the season, they were stubby, shrub-like masses with no labels to indicate their species. In my ignorance, I bought them, thinking they were shrubs.) My sentiment regarding those birches reminds me of the famous Bill Cosby quote: “You know, I brought you in this world, and I can take you out.”
The instant you walk out of your front door on The Avenue, you give up your right to privacy, and, perhaps, safety. There used to be a house on The Avenue near Brown street that was surrounded by a tall hedgerow that served as a privacy fence; it has since been cut down, but I wonder how long a hedgerow like that might take to grow . . . without this type of buffer, friends and acquaintances driving by will honk, or sometimes shout, expecting you to look up from whatever you are doing so as to acknowledge their fleeting presence.
Strangers also like to have their voices heard, and gardening in the front yard can rarely be done without comments from the peanut gallery. Last summer I was working in the front garden and a woman in a passing car yelled from the passenger side window, to “pull those weeds.” In September, my husband got a hearty “go on, boy,” also communicated from a car window, as he dragged some large tree branches across the lawn. This could explain why we avoid gardening in the front yard – that and the fact that it is potentially life endangering, due to the telephone pole.
The telephone pole, you ask? Yes, the one on the southwest corner of our property that seems to be a magnet for cars. In our almost two decades here, I believe that three cars have crashed into it. Last Spring, mere hours after I had finished weeding the garden bed underneath our Rose of Sharon, the driver of a van going north on The Avenue made a slight miscalculation, banked off the aforementioned alluring telephone pole, shimmied up alongside the Rose of Sharon, and then landed squarely on top of what used to be a quite lovely rose bush. Within minutes our lawn was swarming with Rescue Squad personnel, police, and an enormous tow truck. The driver of the van was not seriously hurt, and went off with the Rescue Squad. Police officers stood on The Avenue adamantly waving and ordering cars to “keep moving!!, and the tow truck removed the van from our property forthwith. A half an hour later, the only indication that any activity had taken place at all was a flattened rose bush that fairly glistened with various bits of broken plastic, glass and metal.
When we moved here in 1993 from what we would learn was “The Western Shore” (I used to think the Western Shore was California), traffic on The Avenue was bad, but NOW it is outrageous, at times bordering on gridlock. It is not unusual for me to have to wait five minutes to either get into or out of our driveway. I wish I could have an electronic sign on the top of my car that would flash “please, please, let me turn here – this is my driveway,” because the narrow strip provided by the State Highway Administration for me to wait patiently on (as cars whizz by me in both directions) does not seem quite wide enough.
In the olden days, back in the 90′s, I regularly backed out of the driveway, but one day I decided to proceed head first. The light at Greenwood Avenue was red, and I had my left turn signal on. It was all clear on the right, and a considerate driver to my left noticed my intentions and that all was clear, and stopped short of my driveway to allow me to make my turn. What neither he nor I counted on was the frantic father trying to get to his son’s lacrosse game. Said father crossed the double yellow line, zoomed past the car in front of him, and attempted to continue his journey on the wrong side of the road. This was just as I was making my left turn onto The Avenue. Physics being physics, a collision ensued. The driver who smashed into me was unapologetic and anxious to exchange information as quickly as possible, because – he had to go! The game was about to start! So, to everybody who has tried to wave me out of my driveway over the past ten years or so, and I have refused to comply, please don’t think me ungrateful, I’m just being cautious.
Just because you live on The Avenue does not mean that “everybody knows everybody.” People everywhere make assumptions about other people’s lives, and the microculture of The Avenue in Chestertown is no different. My husband used to walk our children to elementary school every day, and several years later someone he met came to our house for the first time and was quite surprised to learn that my husband was *not* a single father, and that, in fact, (in this man’s words) “had a lovely wife and home.” Another time, I was making idle chit chat with a random acquaintance, and she asked if we still “lived in that white house on The Avenue.” “Yeah,” I said, “You know how it is, you buy a house, get a mortgage, and then you never leave.” “But that’s a rental,” she stated. Stunned into silence, and recalling the monthly checks we had been sending to a mortgage company for years, a snappy comeback evaded me.
The college students are a huge source of entertainment on The Avenue. May Day, a Washington College tradition, has calmed down in the last few years, but a decade ago it was not unusual to see students au naturel playing Frisbee or walking up The Avenue to, perhaps, make a purchase of some sort. Even now, I would venture to say that more pedestrian traffic occurs on May 1st on The Avenue than any other single day of the year.
When school started last semester, two young men on a motor scooter drove past our house at about 8 p.m. one evening shouting “Yo, Chestertown, We’re here! Wake Up!” The following week during a heavy downpour, two coeds, also on a scooter, drove up The Avenue, each clutching golf umbrellas to ward off the driving rain. It was both fruitless and adorable.
Last winter my husband and I were woken at midnight by a loud knock on our front door. We opened it to greet two police officers who just wanted to let us know that they had successfully retrieved a drunk college student who had been “taking a nap” in our back yard. The officers assured us that the lad, and our property, were fine.
College Security is directly across from our house, which is a comfort. They hear from us on occasion at two or three in the morning when singing or screaming emanating from college property is too loud and/or goes on too long, but that’s a small price to pay for twice-yearly fireworks put on by the College that we can enjoy from the front steps of our house on The Avenue.