The barns rolled through town late at night, towed by trucks with diesel engines, our fathers out on the lawn to watch them pass by. Early the next morning we’d go and see the new barn that had arrived the night before. We took the time to read the little plaque that was already stuck in the ground on a thin metal spike:
Poughkeepsie, New York – Est. 1809
We were ten, twelve, teenagers, and every day we’d grow and get bigger, our appetites uncontrollable, our moods unstable, a basketball suddenly held in the grip of one hand. We said things like, “I’ve been going to the barns all my life,” “I heard that a homeless guy is living in the Larry Bird barn,” “Did you go to the Butter King barn?” “The one with all the butter sculptures?” “And who is this guy, anyways, the barn collector?” “Has anybody met him?” No, none of us had met him, or even seen what he looked like. We didn’t care. It was the barns that held our attention. Forty-seven barns of different sizes, styles, vintage, and historical significance were spread out in a seemingly endless cornfield without any corn. All the hay was ornamental. All the animals were stuffed. The only place we wanted to be was at the barns and most of us said they were magical. Ricky said he saw a couple sneak up in the Gettysburg barn after dark and that they didn’t come down for over three hours. He didn’t recognize who the couple was. They must’ve come from the city, he’d said. Sadie said the same thing, that she saw strangers in the night at the barns. At school during art class we painted pictures of barns, made barns from clay, and we signed up for woodworking 101 to learn about dovetails, tongues, and grooves. We asked our teachers why with the barns but they only smiled and shook their heads, our guidance counselors thrilled we had taken an interest in something other than sex or drugs. Of course everyone said that people were having sex and doing drugs in the barns, but the police never showed up and the guy who collected the barns didn’t seem to care, either. The barns became a bastion, a safe place for anyone who needed it. Our older brothers and sisters got in trouble for staying out all night at the barns. They’d laugh, say it was worth it. “No one has ever been hurt at the barns,” they’d say. Then they’d tell us the night before had been the best of their lives and that we – the younger brothers and sisters – didn’t know what we were missing. We didn’t want to miss anything. The night Bella set her boyfriend’s broken arm and there was a collective gasp from the onlookers when the bone snapped back into place, we should’ve been there. We wanted to be part of something, anything, that got better after dark. We spoke up and said, “Take us.” After weeks of begging and bribes, our older brothers and sisters pulled back the heavy wooden door and a bucket of yellow light spilled out before us. The little plaque said we were at the Slocum barn but we already knew. We’d never seen sweating and dancing like we did that night. The music kept banging, banging, banging, and it seemed like everyone, the whole town, was there moving their bodies, singing, shouting, making out or making love. We got lifted, literally, held aloft. The next day we joked about what it was like to live before and after a night at the barns. “My god!” Ricky said. “I mean, like, goddamn! Last night I kissed Sadie and I know I’ll never be the same. My eggs this morning, they tasted different, like the best eggs I’ve ever had!” More and more people came to the barns, thrill-seekers we didn’t know, to be part of something bigger, the us and the we, growing. We grew as the years passed, becoming the next generation of older brothers and sisters, with countless nights, barns, but also a dull and ever-present queasiness in the bottom of our guts like we’d eaten too much candy, like we’d had too much of a good thing. One day we asked, “Where did everyone go?” and then we asked again. “When did they leave? Really? We didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.” The barns are still there. Now they have field trips and tours. Whenever someone asks me about what it was like at the barns, back then, I tell them about the time when the power went out, when we didn’t care and kept going, singing together, a crowd, dancing, not ready to stop. I tell them about the time I made 27 three-pointers in a row at the Naismith barn, my shots dropping over and over, the ball cutting through without ever once touching the rim. What I don’t tell them is that the sour queasiness in my gut hasn’t left. I don’t tell them about after the power was restored, after Ricky found a generator and brought back the lights, when I saw the fresh-lit faces of everyone around me, people who didn’t realize that their lives, their joy, would never touch these heights – this loft – again.