In these unprecedented days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we may find our housebound selves more curious than ever about what’s going on outdoors in our neighborhoods and across our cities and towns. Where does electricity come from? What happens to our trash and recyclables when they leave our curb? How is our water cleaned? Consider the road signs, and think about what is in and on those roads. Ponder the manholes, their purpose and shape. Observe the ubiquitous squirrels and their mating habits. A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (and Know Nothing About) reads like a very fun trot, with chapters that flow and entertain. Spike Carlsen’s relentless curiosity about everything leads us on to learn more—and more, and more.
Straying far from his block in Stillwater, Minnesota, this editor, author, carpenter and woodworker (he’s also the author of A Splintered History of Wood) tours the graffiti-adorned alleys and sewers (yes, you can) of Paris and a trash museum in New York. Closer to home, there’s a local water treatment plant, recycling operation, traffic control center and post office. There’s also the Mail Recovery Center, which consolidates 90 million undeliverable and nonreturnable mail items annually. Carlsen introduces a snow plower, mail sorter and deliverer, graffiti artist and pigeon professional. The makings of asphalt and concrete are explored, the shapes of road signs are explained, and the history of front porches is revealed. Ever wonder about roadkill? Street names? Roundabouts versus traffic lights? It’s all here. Statistics and cultural histories boost the facts, but the anecdotes carry the day. The people Carlsen meets along the way—the ones who have likely never crossed our minds—become unforgettable.
A Walk Around the Block succeeds in making the mundane fascinating, opening our minds (and front doors) to an everyday world easily taken for granted. As Carlsen writes, “I’ve learned knowledge is power; and when you know more about how the world works, you make better decisions as you walk through it.”