Chapter 11: The People Who Used to Live Here

All-American Ruins
6 min readNov 15, 2021

Highway 209 Mansion
Marbletown, NY

The people who used to live here
Knew I drove for a mountain car service
Because a friend of a friend
Of a neighbor of a brother told them it was so

When the old man in the wheelchair called me up
And asked me if I could take him and his eldest granddaughter
To the border
To Canada

I asked

Are you on the run?

And they snapped

What’s it to you?

In unison, like that
And I replied


I was only curious

Because I’ve always been curious
About the people who used to live here
Because the people who used to live here
Believed that they lived outside the law
That they floated above the rules
That they were indestructible
Or so the old man in the wheelchair used to say
He’d say



We transcend the rule of law

He’d say

I know all the loopholes

He’d say

I have a better way

Better than they’ll ever dream of

And he handed each of his granddaughters a paintbrush
And he urged them

Go paint

Whatever you want

Wherever you want

And the eldest one rolled her eyes
And instead dashed to her room, full of

And trophies
And achievements
And photographs made with disposable film,
Choosing a virtual conversation over her grandfather’s paintbrush
The patron saint of aol instant messenger
Which facebook eventually devoured
Without utensils
After the subsequent fall of yahoo!
And msn
And ymail
And askjeeves
And the slow slow rise
Of bezos
And the ghost of jobs
And a new verb called google

The people who used to live here
Knew their place in the pecking order
And would do anything to stay there
At all costs

And as the eldest sister stomped upstairs
The old man in the wheelchair turned to his youngest granddaughter
And repeated

Go paint

Whatever you want

Wherever you want

Whenever you want

And she took hold of the brush
And a can of black paint sitting at the edge of the kitchen counter
Next to her grandfather’s pill bottle
As she listened to the menacing sound of her eldest sister’s door
Slamming shut
And the jarring music of her eldest sister’s swivel chair from Office Depot
Sliding across the floor
Made of linoleum that looked like wood
And realized then and there that she was different
That she saw the world differently
That she was not above the rule of law

And she decided, yes, she would paint,
But on her own terms
Which meant that she and I had something in common
Which she whispered in my ear when she asked me to take her to the border,
As she slipped a crisp, $100 bill into my hand,
A gift from her grandfather, the old man in the wheelchair,

Which he gave her for her 16th birthday
She was to meet a customs guard
With whom she’d been engaging in her own virtual conversations,
in secret,
With whom she would sneak into Canada


to be seen


And as she began to cross the bridge
She turned around one last time
And said

I painted the purple wall


Find it

And I didn’t know what she meant
Until I returned to the broken crumbling decaying house
Called on once again by the people who used to live here

Faced with county threats, of lawsuits and evictions
Faced with EPA threats, of superfunds and violations
Faced with the neighbors’ threats, of scapegoating and violence
To which the old man in the wheelchair barked

To hell with all of you

As he stood up
like magic
Out of the wheelchair
The master of pretend exposed
As he asked his eldest granddaughter to come with him
To find her younger sister,
his youngest granddaughter,

Whom, he believed, had run away to Canada
Where, he believed, he ought to go as well

To transcend the rule of law,
Having called on me to drive him and his eldest granddaughter
to the border
to the river
Where he told me

Don’t look back

We’ll be fine from here

Don’t worry about us

Which I hadn’t planned on doing anyway
But nodded just the same
As he and his eldest granddaughter
Waded into the river


to be seen


I turned my car around
And drove back,
one last time,
To the broken crumbling decaying house

Where the people who used to live here lived no more

I walked
up the winding staircase
In the silence and the heat of the golden summer
And turned left down the hallway
And entered the purple room
Just as the youngest sister and granddaughter had instructed
Where I discovered what she meant when she said

I painted the purple wall

Go and find it

And while I never understood what she meant by that

“Madness need not be all breakdown — It may also be break-through”

I trusted
That out of all of
The people who used to live here
She saw something the rest of them could not