Brickwork, Keene, NH

I think I might have missed my calling: instead of being an English prof, I should have become a private eye. These days as I stroll the streets of Keene snapping random pictures of house facades and other residential minutia, I feel sneaky and even subversive. Surely there must be something wrong with someone who goes around taking secret shots of ordinary objects and then posting them for all of cyberspace to see. Standing outside a local bank the other day taking pictures of the brickwork surrounding its flagpole, I felt as if black-suited men might approach at any moment: “Excuse me, ma’am, but what do you think you’re doing?” At times, my blog-snooping feels like I’m casing out the joint–many joints, in fact–as if I’m searching the city for its soft hidden underbelly where I might crawl in for some nefarious attack.

What I’m actually doing, of course, is far less exciting. I’m not subversive…I’m merely curious. While I was viewing the current exhibit of restored photos of Keene’s architectural heritage that I’ve previously mentioned , for instance, I was intrigued to note that one local shopping mall used to be a brickmill. I had known that many mills and factories existed along the railroad track that used to run through town, and I’d figured this particular shopping mall used to be some sort of mill, but I didn’t know they made bricks. “Interesting,” I thought as I studied the photo. “Maybe that explains why there are so many brick buildings in town!” Walking home with thoughts of brickmills in my head, I was started to find what apparently are Keene-made bricks surrounding the flagpole at a local bank. Now, why hadn’t I noticed those before?

House facade, Keene, NH

For good or ill, I’m the sort of person who’s curious about just about everything. I like mundane mysteries of just about any stripe: what sort of flower is that growing in the neighbor’s yard? Where did that newly planted tree come from? What did that abandoned factory manufacture, and how did it come to be abandoned? So when I see a ring of Keene bricks circling a local flagpole, a torrent of questions appears: when were those bricks manufactured? When were they set around this particular flagpole? Are there other places around town where this type of brick are similarly visible? How widely were these bricks distributed, and are there other towns along the old railroad route where Keene bricks might also be found? Suddenly the simple act of stopping at a flagpole and looking down turns into a major potential research project: surely there must be more information about this brickmill in local archives. When did it go out of business? Why did it go out of business? Who worked there, and what did they do after the mill closed? Further afield, would it be possible to track the geographical distribution of Keene bricks by enlisting other curious folks across the country to scavenge their own towns for similar artifacts?

I suspect (or perhaps hope) that other people aren’t like this: I suspect (or at least hope) that other folks simply walk into the local bank, conduct their business, and go home. Other folks, I surmise, walk around town without seeing questions in every tree, house facade, or sidewalk railing: what is that, when was it build, why was it constructed in that precise fashion? Other people, in a word, have lives: they aren’t haunted by mysteries and questions, and they don’t delight in looking for even more mysteries and questions. Other folks–folks who are normal, that is–simply live their lives with no questions asked: their lives are about what’s, not why’s.

House facade, Keene, NH

I assume that other people aren’t with laden my brand of curiosity because none (or very few) of them act the way I do. I don’t see other folks walking around Keene taking pictures; on that architectural heritage tour, I was the only one taking thorough notes and pictures, somehow miraculously juggling notebook, pen, camera, and a intermittently necessary umbrella. Other people don’t take a pencam to the grocery store or take pictures in the parking lot…or at least if they do, they do it far more discreetly than I.

Although it hasn’t yet happened, I keep expecting for someone to accost me during one of my photo-snapping jaunts. “Hey, you! You with the camera! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” And what the hell, indeed, do I think I’m doing? On that walking tour, one curious man tried a more polite level of interrogation, and my answers left him stumped.

“Are you an architecture student,” he asked.

“No, not hardly,” I chuckled, still scribbling notes.

“Are you a historian?”

“Um, no,” I admitted, holding the handle of my open umbrella in an armpit as I held my notebook and pen in one hand and snapped a photo with the other. “I’m just curious!”

Later in the tour I came clean with this still-mystified gentleman. “I’m a professor…I teach at the college…I specialize in 19th century American literature, so I like to learn about the historical and social contexts of the works I study.” The man nodded, intrigued. “As an Americanist, you see, I need to know a little bit about all sorts of things: American history, art, music, architecture…” And all this is true: in order to understand any literary text, it helps if you understand the cultural context in which that text was created.

House facade, Keene, NH

What I find most curious, though, is that I feel this need to explain and even justify my own curiosity: why must one be a professor to be fascinated with mundane mysteries of just about any stripe? Why is curiosity the exception rather than the rule? Why aren’t there more people walking about with cameras and notebooks and open eyes: why aren’t there people across the country investigating bricks and their particular manufacture?

Like it or not, we snoops are an odd and rare bunch; our cameras and peering eyes cause others to raise an eyebrow or scratch their head. The fact that I’ve never been angrily accused of “suspicious behavior” depends largely, I’m sure, on the fact that I’m a white woman and thus (presumably) nonthreatening as walk about town with a frisky dog. If my personal particulars were different, though–if I were male, for instance, or black, or if I looked even remotely Middle Eastern–then surely my snoopings would be received differently. Recently Ron Cillizza posted a link to a Village Voice article about a proposed law that would ban photoblogging on New York City subways. In this post-9/11 world, curiosity isn’t merely unusual, it’s presumably dangerous: instead of investigating bricks and building facades, apparently we all should be investigating one another. Am I the only one who finds something a bit curious about that?