Searching for a Good and Livable Box

Source Wikipedia; Photo shared under Creative Commons Attribution License. Photo by O. David Redwine
Alden B. Dow House. Source Wikipedia; Photo shared under Creative Commons Attribution License; Photo by O. David Redwine

When tuning in to various televised real estate and interior design shows, I’ve noticed something curious. Prospective buyers seem more likely than not to seek a house much like–if not the same–the house in which they were raised. They envision a style or interior design (for which they are willing to pay mightily) that mimics their parents’ place, one whose touches and functionality made their childhood habitat what it was. It seems to be a nostalgia-informed housing hunt.

But I become engaged in their earnest search and what details make them gasp in delight: wainscoting, a claw-foot tub, a family room opening to a patio with fire pit, a lilac bush by the bedroom or a grand entry staircase. If the house they grew up in was a ranch style, then that is what draws them; if it was in the country, then they seek acreage set apart from the hustle-bustle.

I see that a woman cannot bear the most innocuous wallpaper as their mother would not have abided such patterned domination of space. Another person groans when he sees a separate, narrow formal dining room. It turns out he grew up eating meals in a tighter kitchen nook but wants that for his kids. I have felt perplexed when someone walked into a perfectly nice kitchen and states it is awful and has to go. And then explains that it must reflect more the feel of her great aunt’s kitchen where she baked cookies as a child. Another man had a big requirement. No separate bathroom (and it had to be more than one) for guests? Impossible. He could not imagine sharing the same bathroom; he grew up with three for three people and a half bath for visitors. I wondered if the guests had to come and go by the back door, too. Another interesting show involved a woman who had inherited her mother’s entryway light fixture. She based her interest in a house by the foyer, the effect that light would create. If it didn’t meet that specification, the rest of the house wasn’t seen.

One after another, house buyers appear to lean toward something much like what they knew growing up. Why, I wonder, don’t more people–most people–want to live in a house that reflects their own adult, unique aesthetic? Why wouldn’t they have long ago come to their separate conclusions about comfort and usefulness regarding current needs? It’s peculiar to me that someone would have a quarter to a half million dollars to spend (or more) and want to use that amount to occupy a house that resembles one they were in ten, twenty or thirty years ago.

“To each their own,” I know. And I am compatible with that saying. That’s part of the reason I watch those shows: I enjoy briefly learning about interesting strangers (of course, all are interesting)  and their tastes, going along on their search and trying to guess their choices. I freely admit I am a “home and garden” show nut.

My husband and I don’t now live in a house, nor do we live in a condo, duplex, houseboat, RV or mobile home. We lease a simple but spacious city apartment in an established neighborhood we have always admired and yet love. We may have to move after over many years, as developers are encroaching more each day. Grand old houses are coming down while places like our small building are being converted into far pricier abodes. Thus far we haven’t found anything better for what we want to pay so may stay put until we are dragged out weeping and kicking our feet. I was almost tempted by a floating home on the fabled Columbia River but decided it was too close to a busy interstate bridge.

The last detached house was a two-story with four bedrooms; the ones before, mostly the same. We had five children to raise up years ago; it was lucky four were girls so they could bunk together as needed. My son was the only one to snag his own room after age 6. So it’s been awhile since I went on a serious house hunt. That’s one reason I find pleasure in viewing other far-flung houses for sale–vicariously enjoying the sights and excitement.

I also have a passion for architecture–residential and commercial–of a wide, even adventuresome variety. (Frank Gehry, anyone? Gaudi?–and so many more.) So when I observe individuals strolling through real estate, disappointment drawn upon their faces because they’re not seeing enough that reminds them of “good old days”–well, I wonder over it. Why do they not want more variety, why haven’t they developed their own style without moldering prompts from a distant past?

Lest I am misunderstood, I have nothing against fondly recalling one’s family home. I liked my childhood house just fine. My parents bought their place in the Northern Midwest fast when Dad got a good new position, Music Education Coordinator for the public school system of a flourishing small city. I was one year old and my–coincidentally, four–siblings were quite a bit older. And more impacted by moving. The old house in another state had had a mini-orchard surrounding it as they told it, and the house had a sweet breezeway, plenty of room. And was on a big corner lot. It may have been a bit ramshackle from my parent’s more realistic account but I recalled very little of it but the breezeway, for some reason. I remember being held in one arm while the other one wielded an iron, the fresh scent of warm, smoothed cotton wafting up, mixing with green grass smells.

They found us a newer if smaller bungalow on a wide, busy street and painted it yellow with turquoise trim. It had three bedrooms, one bath but was shored up by pretty front and back yards and a smaller (wide enough) side yard in which to romp, handsome deciduous trees to climb and swing from and limbs one might long daydream. It had a wide front porch, uncovered, with a cement stool built into each corner. A sprawling tree nursery was right right behind us giving it a mildly country feel from the back.

Our Michigan place overlooked a huge lot that was an entire glorious garden belonging to the neighbor  just south of our house. I was warned that the owner, as fine a gardener as his wife, was akin to Mr. McGregor from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. That didn’t deter me from feeling I had part ownership by virtue of being only a single wire fence apart, his copious flowers and rhubarb hanging over it on our side, tantalizing me. I happily observed and trespassed from time to time, as did we all. I think I may have stolen strawberries. Though old Mr. Benfer kept a hawk eye on our rambunctious family (they had a grown daughter; we never saw her)–those basketballs and baseballs, the running about, the screeches!–he was never mean to me. His wife eventually if infrequently, shared some produce and flowers, perhaps feeling a bit sorry for my mother. Erroneously. I can say that ever-changing, bountiful scene was one of the best things about our house even though it wasn’t ours.

But ours was an unremarkable house in form. It had been built around 1930; the rooms were not overly large. There was a good if somewhat dank basement we did remodel into a partial recreation room for teen-aged parties. My father’s musical instrument repair workshop–where he also fixed small household appliances–was in one corner. On the second floor, three girls shared one bedroom, two boys another. We all shared a bathroom. My parents took over what would later become the main floor TV room/den. I had a room of my own by the time I was thirteen, as the other four had gone off to various colleges. It was paradise having so much space and relative quietness.

There was a dining room where a large, leafed table stood, often covered in tablecloths of various colors and according to occasion, topped by a vase of flowers or other attractive decor. It was one of my favorite rooms, not mainly because of meals. It housed a pretty blonde buffet with many drawers full of lovely things, a stereo system in a sturdy wood cabinet against a wall, and a china and crystal cabinet. The connecting living room was small for our family but nonetheless the corner was occupied by a baby grand piano. We packed in a lot of folks for music making or simply visits.

The rounded front door could have been a turnstile, as there never ceased the coming and going of people. Family, yes, but also music students and their parents, customers of Mom’s seamstress/millinery side-business (she was also a teacher), many friends of my parents, our own buddies. It seemed the doorbell was non-stop ringing amidst dramatic swells of a symphony and a chorus of chattering voices. And the one wall phone ringing. So many people called my father, alone, (not to mentions the rest of us) that I was the unofficial secretary by age twelve–messages being handwritten and tacked on the kitchen bulletin board for his later review. We had a lot going on those years, as busy families do. The lifestyle within the house was active, artistic and made orderly if strict with rules and etiquette. It overflowed with interests and ideas. Perhaps we were a tad squashed, though I didn’t miss privacy as a child. We would have benefited from even a half- bathroom more, though, particularly mornings as we clamored about, preparing for our day.

However, though good memories (and some not good) may take me back to those four walls, to street and yard, I have never longed for a house like it. I do find myself writing about it because the stories it generates hold some merit or interest–at least for myself. The last time I saw it, it was unrecognizable. My mother had passed away after my father. She hadn’t lived there for some years. The two-story bright bungalow was covered in boring taupe siding and the huge maple in front was gone; overgrown juniper bushes on either side of the wide front porch (where I’d liked to hide) were replaced by fussy little plants. I couldn’t see the towering irises alongside the house although it was spring when Mom died. It was no longer our house; someone had other ideas of what was acceptable, good.

I had a different vision altogether from my parents’. I began to draw houses as a youth, sketching different designs, depicting settings that called to me–usually nature’s acreage. I was not all that talented at drawing but no matter, I needed to provide ideas a visual form. My house visions have run more to higher ceilings, light-filled spaces, lots of windows, skylights. Airy. Stone, glass and redwood set among trees on a lake, if my greatest house dream was fulfilled. Modern or even more contemporary styles have been preferred. But also Craftsman homes, and perhaps a meticulously turned out Victorian. I wouldn’t turn down a snug cottage by a rushing creek or a minor Spanish or Italian villa by the sea, however.

I suspect I was influenced by many striking modern homes in my childhood city, the birthplace of Alden B. Dow. He was the son of the founder of Dow Chemical Company and an apprentice of the famed Frank Lloyd Wright. Dow gave his own personal acreage with awe-inspiring gardens to the city, such a joy to wander through. I loved studying such daring, stripped down, sleek buildings and seeing the interiors. A waterfall in a house! A tree trunk rising up in an entryway! Indeed, perhaps this was a strong imprint from my childhood, after all, as much an influence as the imprints left on the TV home buyers’ psyches.

A few times as an adult I’ve lived in homes I felt significant appreciation and affection for; others served their purpose well enough and for that I was grateful. A main requirement was that it have a safe, walkable neighborhood or accessible countryside. Another was that it included yard enough for sitting and grilling, also playing. A small vegetable garden space just in case. I have always liked seeing what is happening around me, so a good view is helpful even if from a balcony or a small porch. I was thankful for every habitat we had–we moved a lot due to my husband’s work–and feel perhaps four or five were winners in the best ways.

I feel appreciation for housing, always, because I have also been very “down on my luck”. I have experienced loss of security, had no money and at times could not ask for or receive family help. Some places I had to live were those which I did not previously imagine bearing, and was briefly on the street. You find out what essential needs are. Wants are irrelevant. You get by somehow. When I was offered a place after that rough time around age twenty and it had good walls and running water, I was thrilled. So relieved. It was a renovated chicken coop and I shared it with another. There was just room enough to breathe and get from  one spot to another; you had to bend down in most spots due to the low and slanting roof. It’s humbling to discover what you can get by with, how little can satisfy.

We all look for a place that fulfills basic criteria to call our own–with a heartfelt expectation of more. My parents had a house that met our needs enough. Still, my mother had her eye on a sprawling brick ranch-style house after I was the only child at home. The neighborhood was more upscale, yards elegant, streets wider. It was also quieter just three blocks away, the distance between what we had and what she longed for. But my father said it was not to be. They had low house payments and even though his career had taken off, he was very prudent with his money, even a penny-pincher. I know Mom was very disappointed, though I never heard them argue. Nor did she carry on about it. She had been raised on a farm and ended up in a finer place already. She had an unusual feel for eye-catching design and enduring function; she valued beauty so made our house much lovelier than it might have originally been. But I can imagine how happy she would have been in the other house. It seemed a manifestation of her unique dream–“no three flights of stairs!” she was overheard saying and “less dirt and dust from a noisy street!” She would have added her deft touch to all. She clearly did not miss living on a farm or in the country.

The house seekers on television have looked at dozens, even hundreds of houses by the time we see them. It naturally would be overwhelming at moments. They can appear close to disillusionment and compromise more as time goes by. They sometimes give up the old hope of what’s most familiar. Reassuring. Safer. The memory of childhood homes fade for many as they come down to the wire and must decide where to stake a new claim.

Who am I to say that someone may not be so risk taking? That they are stuck on repeat regarding the housing experience? What makes you happy is yours to acquire or invent, then share. Establishing a new base for one’s life takes trial and error, time and money–elbow grease with long days and nights. But eventually one morning you wake up, turn on kettle or coffee pot and rustle up loved ones. You move into the day and gather momentum. And then you realize the place you are is home because of  the people of treasures about you, because of inspiration brought to fruition–and also the experiences that await you. It’s making a life in one sort of box or another when it comes right down to it and the structure that surrounds you is made of sturdy, well-chosen chosen walls–in the best of times. The lives lived within it are always one of a kind. Wherever you end up, I hope you embrace its inherent hominess. Better yet, refashion things so the place you reside becomes your sanctuary, a good spot to grow more whole.

Hope’s Last Stand

Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths
Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths

“Isn’t that what they called it, Pruett? Last Hope Street?”

He was reading the weekly activist paper sold by the homeless and didn’t want to be bothered by another conversation with Zelda. Even if she was his second cousin and his quasi-rescuer. She always had such an arch in her voice, as if she was studying something from her privledged distance, nose pinched between thumb and index finger. She had to comment on everything. Even the picture on the back page as he read. The photo op page. It was aggravating enough that she always inquired why he bothered to read the paper, put out by people who could barely spell and a staff who was just a bunch of do-gooders.

Well, so what?

“They’re playing at being journalists, Pruett. They might seek education, get jobs for which they’re suited not just emotionally inclined. People should act less from selfish wants. More from practicality.”

“Could be,” he mumbled and read the last paragraph of the article.

“Could be that it was called ‘Last Hope Street’?”

He nodded, turned the page. Zelda sat up in the rocking chair and fiddled with the wisps of hair unravelling from her bun. (“Chignon, a far cry from a bun!” she’d corrected him once.)

“It was such a different place, then, wasn’t it? Nothing green growing, children playing half-dressed on the sidewalks with their grubby hands grasping at you as you walked  by.” She yawned tidily. “It was a place you tried to avoid. Now, well, who could imagine? What strange ways time has with real estate.”

He didn’t want to acknowledge her thoughts. He wanted to be left alone with his own. But this was the way of things now. The house she owned, the room he rented, the other two boarders were here long before he had had to “downsize”, as they said. Whoever “they” were. Whatever that even meant. As if he chose to lock the door of his rapidly sold two story Tudor and drive off without a backward glance. As if he willingly shared a structure with someone who served chilled prunes in a cut glass bowl with a sprig of mint atop, presenting them as if they were delicacies. And shared an opinion on everything.

He turned to the back page. “I suspect the picture is to remind us of a perfectly ordinary street where people once raised families and had fun. That’s what I see.” He held the page with the photograph closer. “Copyright 1958, it says. Well, I somewhat recall it was a decent street if a bit scrubby. Now it’s about to become cleaner and chic. Money gallops right along, setting people to the curb. You do understand the poor and homeless don’t want us to forget what happens to such neighborhoods, Zelda?”

Zelda sniffed, a habit due to a chronically drippy nose that was straight as an arrow and as sharp. She usually had a tissue hidden in a pocket, at the ready. “My point, Pruett. How can some of us forget? It was part of our old territory. And why shouldn’t change be encouraged?”

Tiresome. That’s what he thought of her. It was like entering a maze and struggling to get out again some days. But once started, he couldn’t help himself. Maybe it was part competitive, part entertainment. But this was a topic that mattered.

“If you haven’t been homeless or poor, how could you know what it is to lose your block to bulldozers and condominiums? People all need a place to lay their heads and nurture their babies. Surely you see that.”

Sniff, sniff. “Well, of course. I’m not an idiot, dear.” She dabbed her nose with a folded tissue. “But you are an authority? You taught at university for forty years. Even if it was anthropology. Hardly living on the dole…”

Pruett felt his stomach tighten and rumble. He reached into the fruit bowl on the coffee table and chose a lovely orb of apple. Polished it on his sweater and took a maximum bite. Eating was a good way to render one’s self speechless. Let her think about what she just said.

She resumed. “Running out of money is one thing. Having none to start with seems another. How can one miss what one never had…? Yet it happens. Both ways.”

He stopped chewing and swallowed hard. Was it possible this woman was an absolute boor? No, just so narrow in viewpoint her mind became myopic. She was unschooled. Unable to imagine lack of good fortune since her inheritance was substantial. Zelda had lived frugally, had boarders for years to augment what?–a few million?–and wanted for nothing. Likely never would know destitution, not even close to it.

Nor would he, though sometimes it felt like it as he made his way to the corner room where he had a desk, a single bed, a nightstand and lamp. The taupe brocade wingback chair. A trunk, once belonging to his grandfather, now at the foot of his bed, keeping safe his paper memories. A bookshelf that held less than one tenth of what used to keep him company late at night. It was only a rented room, not a nursing home–good Lord, please, not that for at least another twenty years. If ever. He hadn’t wanted his Marie to live and die there, either, so she had stayed home, battling until the end, ten years of dismantling a vibrant, then weakened, then an unspooled and ashen life. Letting go of their safety nets precipitated a steep descent. Spiritually, emotionally. Financially. Well, she had gone on to a good place if Pruett really saw that soft smile she left him. And he did.

And he remained. With time on his hands and Zelda.  The other two, young boarders, came and went. Their feet clomped up the stairs when he was dozing in his room, then shuffled to their own refuges. As if they were older than the hills when they had years yet to work and save and complain and get old. They shared pleasantries, a dinner here and there, waved in the hallways. They’d move on, be replaced by others. But he was stuck here.

“What do you do there each Monday?”

Pruett startled, saw Zelda’s face in high relief as late afternoon shadows draped her features. Those cheek bones looked faintly dangerous. She was still a beauty but a sadly neglected one.

“At This Planet, Our Home offices? Answer questions that come via phone about the homeless. Edit articles. Work with an aspiring street poet or two. Listen a lot.”

“Educate me, then.”

The apple was crisp, sweet on his tongue. He took another bite and studied the street through the bay window. The rain was splashing everything, cooling things down enough that he wondered where his slippers were. He thought of the historical novel begun earlier, and the wingback with its neatly folded, worn and wooley blanket.

“Well, the numbers. Last year there were over six hundred thousand homeless in the United States. Most were sheltered but about thirty-five percent were not. Unsheltered means they stayed under bridges, in cars, in parks, in abandoned buildings. Even to sleep. In winter. People twenty-five and older were the majority of homeless folks, but one quarter are children under eighteen. New York and California had the highest increase in homeless persons.”

He noted she was listening, though her hands were restless, picking at a stray thread on her nubby skirt.

“In Portland it’s estimated four thousand sleep in shelters or on the streets. Fastest growing subgroup everywhere? Women with children.”

Zelda yanked the thread, frowned as it held fast. He wondered if she intended on yanking until it unravelled, pulling until it required emergency repair. She needed to exercise authority, he thought, in all things. She looked up, eyebrows raised.

“That many? Miserable. Why do you suppose so many end up that way? Do you give them money? One expects they’ll just buy drugs or alcohol, isn’t that right?”

“Of course some are addicts. Too many. Some have just lost jobs and couldn’t make ends meet after a couple months. Families are homeless at an alarmingly increased rate. And mental illness fells large numbers, or physical disability. Veterans can be prone to homelessness.”

“There.” She said this with satisfaction as she captured and broke the offending thread, shook it off. “Certainly, it is clear they need much more than housing. It seems an untenable situation, Pruett, but nothing is impossible to alter. What lasting good can you accomplish by just listening and editing? Maybe it would be better for you to invest time in something more…” She scanned the dusky room for inspiration. “…I can’t know for certain, but perhaps real estate that pays off in a big way. That’s what I’m doing.”

He sat forward, his hands gripping the arms of the chair. “Zelda, you have callouses lining your heart. You’ve been good to me, but really.”

She flashed her eyes at him, as if to say he was being absurd.

“I”m talking about my investment in Hope Street.”

“So that’s why it got your attention.” Pruett ran his hand over his forehead. He felt defeated by her dearth of social empathy. “Zelda, I would love you to come down to the paper’s office with me next week. Will you do that or are you fearful of catching a few bugs?”

He presed a finger to his lips. That could have been left unsaid. Zelda wasn’t that sort of woman, not really. Not fearful, at least! He was impatient when he might be more charitable. His own blood.

“You are self-righteous at times, Pruett. I realize we haven’t been close for some time. I suggest you open your mind a little. As I am trying to do. We are here for the duration in all likelihood, in this house, life closing in on the last years. We should be quite kinder allies, is that not wise? Much more effective.”

Such an emotional appeal seemed extravangant as well as a small embarrassment to Pruett. Quite kinder allies. Where did she get that? Her father no doubt, old military establishment, then esteemed judge, whose fortune she had at her disposal. Yet, she was right. They were here together because of his fate, her good graces, a shared history. He ought to be more friendly, not rubbed raw by petty fractiousness. His, mostly, he admitted.

“Yes, you’re right. I do apologize. Would you like to come with me next week?”

“Well, yes, if is there is some way I might be helpful.”

“I’d think you’d proofread after teaching English for so long. Or just observe the newspaper process. Yes, please join me.”

“Ah, good then.”

They listened to the rain. It had started in the morning, a slow release, a descent of moisture from grey skies after so long a summer. They both liked rain, that was one thing. They tended to read more in rainy season, even paragraphs aloud to each other. Other things that worked: she cooked, he cleaned up often. He went shopping for her as he didn’t mind crowds, even rather liked them. He paid her little but enough that he didn’t have to feel like he was taking advantage. There was no need of that; he could carry his weight even if it was a little. She accepted this with quiet, due appreciation. Every communal group has its hierarchy, its common needs and shared labors. The house ran well because this was understood.

Zelda had a talent for running things but the respect she afforded her boarders was a bonus, despite her patrician bent. She had a moral compass and it worked well even when he failed to see it. The chignon and a few jewels worn daily and the way she spoke blinded him at times.

He turned to her and appraised her straight back, her silvery hair, the creases around still-full lips. She had been a single person most of her life. He was just learning how to do it, a man fumbling in a darkened room for another hand.

“I’m thinking there is another reason you want to come with me to This Planet, Our Home.”

“That’s so.”

“Real estate involved?”

“Yes, Pruett. How quick today!” One eyebrow raised this time.

“Hope Street?”

She then smiled at him and he glimpsed his mother’s smile, or was it his great-aunt’s, but it was familiar in a way he had forgotten.

“Yes, I’m taking one big last stand, Pruett. Against this hellbent world. How much longer can I be of good use? I thought I’d buy the building on Hope and Fifty-third. That red brick, ratty hotel, remember? Terrible inside. I got it for a song and it will cost to renovate but it has good bones. I thought it would make lovely transitional housing.”

“Housing? For homeless people, you mean?”

“Don’t look so  surprised. I do a few things. Not all of us are called to climb into the trenches but we can still use our talents.”

“Well, I’m the fool here.” Pruett pounded the arm of the chair three times with his opened palm. “Excellent idea! The hotel on Hope Street!”

Zelda laughed and rose to get their tea. He watched the rain slap the bushes, slip down the window glass. His brain percolated. A hotel of hope. Maybe thirty studios or twenty one bedrooms. Maybe a community club space on the first floor? He’d love to start something up.

Zelda handed him a Royal Dover fine bone china teacup on its tiny saucer. “Here, Paulie. Time to really talk.”

Hearing his childhood name spoken ignited warmth in his cranky bones. He set the teacup on a side table and leaned closer.

“Maybe call it Hope at Riverside, as that is where it sits. Wait-how about Hope Street Lofts? And we could utilize some of the first floor for a common gathering place. I see ping pong tables, a coffee bar. Let’s make it a place everyone can enjoy.”

Zelda nodded. “Now you’re thinking, cousin. Let’s.”



Note: Please see The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress for more information.