Fruit Stand

I remember once—I must have been no more than four or five years old, when my father still managed Russel-Phinney Pie Company in Detroit—he and I were driving home from a visit to the city. He had been describing to me the downtown fruit stand my great grandfather owned many years prior.

LEGO blocksBuilding blocks as symbolic gesture.

I was particularly interested—who knows why—in the kind of stand it had been, its shape and dimensions. I wanted to visualize it in my mind, I guess. I asked a few questions about how it operated and what it was made from, but it didn't quite materialize for me. By the time we were back home to the suburbs, I wasn't much closer to seeing the fruit stand, but had the idea to build a "best-guess" model with LEGO blocks to cross-reference my father's explanation.

Once we pulled into the driveway and parked the car in the garage, I flew past my mother and into my LEGO box. I had the pieces in mind already: two long "pillar" type blocks for the sides, a thin rectangle for the canopy, and a few thick, six-by-two blocks for the base. I topped it off with a little figure standing behind the counter and went looking for my father.

I remember feeling accomplished, and that my father was impressed. It seemed natural at the time to bridge the gap between mind and world with building blocks. The LEGO fruit stand was quicker and simpler for me than the line of questioning I started with in the car. I didn't have to worry if my father's memory matched my mental picture—I could match both to the LEGO as a symbolic gesture for "this kind of fruit stand."

Welcome to the USSR

My family moved when I was seven, into a house previously owned by an old couple who had raised their three daughters in it. This meant that my room, along with all of the other bedrooms save the master bedroom, were decorated with wallpaper for little girls.

Until there was time to strip the flower and butterfly strewn wallpaper from my room (which, to my increasing dismay, took over a decade), I resigned to cover the walls with posters. Being truly too busy to fix the walls, but still inclined to help, my father brought home one day a humongously wide and detailed map of the world. I do not know where it came from, but it filled one wall of my room almost entirely.

I looked at it for hours. I memorized countries I was sure I'd visit one day, ones with exotic names: Madagascar, Amsterdam, Chile (which I pronounced like "child" minus the "d"). I was often drawn to wonder at the large, mostly blank swathe of land running across what I know today as Eastern Europe. It read only: The Soviet Union. I was seven years old in 1995, four years after the fall of the USSR.

We played a game on my schoolbus once and a while. It went something like one of us had a teleporter and could go anywhere, and the others had to guess the location—a bit like twenty questions. The winner was usually whoever could impress everyone with the most obscure locale, or make up a good one on the spot—this, of course, being grade-school.

map of USSRThe large, blank swathe of land in Eastern Europe (or the USSR).

My wall map came in handy often for this game, and it was only a matter of time before I planned to impress everyone with "The Soviet Union," which I had never heard uttered in geography class—the place where most of us got our locations from. I was sure I'd stump everyone, which I did. When nobody could guess any longer I offered up my best, most obscure location yet—my masterpiece: "The Soviet Union," I said.

What followed was a bunch of blank stares and confusion from my cohort, and a rush of laughter and smirks from the seventh and eight graders. "The Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore you idiot" was most of what I remember. It was an honest mistake for a second grader, but this was the schoolbus, and anything is fair game for fun-making.

Aside from the embarressment, what struck me then was the temporality of the map. It never occured to me before that countries and borders were not static fixtures, that worlds rose and fell and new maps were printed to demarcate this work. The Soviet Union of my wall was a ghost, a harkening to a time gone by. The map was history the moment it was printed, not a marking down of what "is" but what "was."

The map itself would eventually come down too, along with the flowers and butterflies. They were replaced with new paint, new posters, new borders and contours by which I attempted to demarcate my own adolscent and then teenage identity over the years.