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Entries in home (5)


Blue Highways: Oxford, Maryland

Unfolding the Map

Traveling up the Chesapeake Bay with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), we hit Oxford, Maryland.  A quiet waterfront town, his description of houses and fences gives me pause to reflect on my own current foray into looking for a house.  At right is the Maryland state bird, the Baltimore oriole as seen on Wikimedia Commons.  If you want to find Oxford, there's no better place than the map.

Book Quote

"On a peninsula between the Choptank and Tred Avon rivers, I came to Oxford, a seventeenth-century village of brick sidewalks and nineteenth-century houses.  Only a few small streets branched off the main trunk, Robert Morris Street, a way of aesthetically cohesive homes and yards fenced by the Oxford picket - a slat with a design at the top that looks like an ace of clubs with a hole shot in it.  The pickets were popular, even though painting the holes could take all spring."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 15

Downtown Oxford, Maryland. Photo by Wikipedian1234 and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

Oxford, Maryland

My wife and I have stopped thinking about talking about buying a house, and we have moved to talking about and then thinking about buying a house.  If that seems confusing, well, that's just the way we operate.

The quote above, with its references to a picturesque village, nineteenth-century houses and picket fences, fits with my current thoughts toward finding and making a home for ourselves.  We have been starting to move our thoughts toward what kinds of houses we would like, what neighborhoods we would like to live in, and how much house we can afford.  Do we want two bedrooms or three, 1 or two bathrooms, perhaps a garage?  How big of a yard?  Most people do this sometime in their 20s or 30s, but not me and my wife.  We're waiting until I'm almost 50 to seriously consider buying our first house.

I suppose the type of house is also on the table.  It seems that in this particular area where LHM traveled in Blue Highways, "telescope" houses were plentiful.  I had never heard of these type of houses  until reading about them in the book.  They are houses that started as small units, and then larger units were built onto the smaller ones until the houses look like the components of a telescope.  In New Orleans, had we bought there, chances are that we would have found a "shotgun" house, so named because once you entered the door, each room followed the next in a straight line back to the kitchen.  The idea was you could have fired a shotgun from the front door and the pellets would travel out the back door without hitting anything (although that doesn't make much sense because shotgun pellets spread out as they travel - a rifle house would be a better name for these houses).  We rented a shotgun house for a year when we lived in New Orleans.  Actually, it was a double shotgun because it had two shotgun apartments on each side of the house, and it could be a bit of a pain when we guests because they had to walk through our bedroom to get to the bathroom.  People buying homes in New Orleans often would fix these houses up to live in and, if they were a double shotgun, to rent out one side to pay the mortgage.

Midwestern style brick houses never seem to be out of style anywhere - we'd see them wherever Midwesterners came to settle outside the Midwest.  In Milwaukee, smack dab in the Midwest, these houses were always wonders to me.  Even the ones that looked like they had the most age on the outside often had elaborate and beautiful woodwork inside.  They were always at least two stories, and sometimes three.  Many of our friends who bought houses had these style of houses, usually fixer-uppers that were bought cheap and became lifelong projects.

Out in Northern California, the ranch house reigned supreme, at least in the rural areas where I grew up.  These tended to sprawl out.  My mom's house, for example, has a large living room with two small bedrooms off one side and a kitchen off the other.  A long hallway travels laterally from the living room, past a multipurpose room and a bathroom to another medium-sized bedroom and another small bathroom adjacent to the first.  When I grew up, we added a room and therefore augmented the space in the house, though it is strange as the room is aesthetically separate from the rest of the house, even though it is connected by two doors, simply because it sits lower than the rest of the building.

In Albuquerque, the Southwestern style of house predominates.  Many houses, modeled after the dwellings in Native American pueblos, have a pueblo-style to them.  The most sought-after are adobe houses.  Built of bricks made of mud and straw, they are plastered with additional mud and are therefore reddish-brown, almost as if they have sprung from the earth itself.  They are perfect for desert living, as they tend to stay cool in the hot summers but trap heat from the sun in the winter.  From above they look rectangular, but from street level their corners are softened and rounded and they are often surrounded by adobe walls.  I find them very pleasant and relaxing, especially with a nice xeriscaped garden in front and in back.  Of course, other styles of housing are available, including faux-adobes which are made with modern materials but are fashioned to look like adobe houses.  That's the kind of house we rent currently.

So, there are a lot of things for us to consider, including price.  I was surprised to find that even with my salary alone, we could afford a lot more house than I had expected.  Now it's just up to us to decide, take a look at a few things, and eventually make a decision on one we like and for which we are willing to make an offer.

That's scarier than it sounds.  Doing so means that we will be responsible for repairs and upgrades.  We will have to make decisions about remodeling should any come up.  It will be the biggest investment of money we will ever make.  It will anchor us in a way that we've never been anchored before.

But, as I think about it, I really want to create and nurture a garden.  I want a place to display arts picked up around the world in the way I want to display them.  I want a room where I can put our beautiful Turkish carpet.  And I want to grow up, to be an adult, and feel a sense of belonging and home that I haven't felt for a long time.  And even though I probably won't have a picket fence, a low adobe wall would be a nice touch if we can find it.

Musical Interlude

I couldn't find a song that I knew that fit this post, so figured I put on my discovery of The Fall's My New Home.

If you want to know more about Oxford Oxford
The Oxford Museum
Town of Oxford
Wikipedia: Oxford

Next up:  Bellevue, Maryland


Blue Highways: Salem, New Jersey

Unfolding the Map

What is in a place name, especially those that evoke other places?  I am of the opinion that place names often help us keep alive those other places that we came from or identify with.  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) swings through Salem, New Jersey we'll see how this little town inspired the names of possibly three other Salems in the United States.  To see the source of this inspiration, please be inspired to visit the map.  The red oak leaf, at right, comes from New Jersey's official state tree.

Book Quote

"Salem, a colonial town to the west, was abundant with old buildings and homes that would be museums most anywhere else in the country, but here they were just more declining houses, even though many stood when the men of Salem sent beef to Valley Forge to help save Washington's troops from starvation.  The town is the birthplace of Zadock Street, a restless fellow who left New Jersey in 1803 to make his way into the new western territory.  As he went, he and his sons founded towns in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, and named them all Salem; in Ohio, his Salem sprouted North Salem, West Salem, South Salem, Lower Salem, and Salem Center.  Americans can be thankful that Zadock Street was not born in Freidberger or Quonochontaug."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 12

Downtown Salem, New Jersey. Photo by Tim Kiser, and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Salem, New Jersey

I've had a couple of posts about town and city names, and LHM has succeeded in piquing my interest in a little mystery.  Why would a man named Zadock Street, of Salem, New Jersey spread out west with his sons and name all the towns they founded Salem?  What is it about the name Salem that was so important to these men?

First things first.  How many towns and cities and places are named Salem.  One source, Wikipedia, lists 25.  Another source, on Yahoo, lists 32.  Clearly people had reasons for naming towns Salem.  From what I've gathered online, Salem is a derivation of shalom and salaam, the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace.  Salem was mentioned as a place in the Old Testament, and became part of the name of Jerusalem, founded by King David of the kingdom of Israel.  Jerusalem means "foundation of peace."

Therefore, we can see that the most likely spread of the name Salem came with the spread of religion throughout the country.  Indeed, one source who uses the same quote by LHM above, looks into the story of the towns named Salem and of Zadock Street and wonders if LHM's story is true.  The writer points out that Zadock was one of King David's priests, thus cementing the connection between Zadock Street and religion.  The writer looks at the founding of Salems in Ohio, Indiana and Iowa that LHM says were established by Zadock Street and his sons and finds the evidence less than compelling.  Those Salems were founded by Quakers, the writer claims.  The writer says that there is no evidence that Zadock Street had anything to do with their founding, and there is no compelling evidence that Zadock Street or his sons were Quakers.

Thankfully, the internet can sometimes help clear up mysteries.  Wikipedia's entry states that one of the founders of Salem, Ohio was Zadock Street and an historic home in the city was owned by John Street, Zadock's son, and was the northernmost Ohio stop on the Underground Railroad.  The city of Salem in Indiana appears to have nothing to do with Zadock Street, but there are two other areas called Salem in the state, both census-designated places, that may have had something to do with Zadock Street.  And while I could not associate Salem, Iowa with Zadock Street or his sons, the town was founded by Quakers and was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

What accounts for so many towns named Salem, then?  In the case of the Zadock Street and his sons, it may have been that religion plays a part in their propagation of the Salem name, but I think that there is a greater likelihood that the connection to their original home of Salem, New Jersey played a bigger part.  In a sense, we all have that attachment to home.  I cannot see the name Fort Bragg, even if the name is attached to Fort Bragg, North Carolina rather than my hometown of Fort Bragg, California, without getting pictures and images in my mind of all of the scenes I used to inhabit as a child.  The United States, as a country that was settled primarily by immigrants, would have been an alien place.  Names that evoked the familiar would have been important to people, comforting them with memories of places known in the midst of all the unknowns.

I did a post awhile back where I examined why there were so many towns, throughout the Southwest, called a variant of El Dorado.  In that case, Spanish conquistadors looking for gold, the proverbial El Dorado, left that name all over the region.  That was a case of wishful thinking.  However, in many cases it seems that people named towns and cities after that which gave them comfort and something that evoked memories of the places from whence they came.  I surmise that if you closely into town names, they've either been named for someone, or after something left behind.

Place names are a very simple part of a complex process.  No matter how adventurous or how exploratory we are, or how much we push the boundaries of our experience, we seem to need that touchstone to what we were and where we've been.  Two of the most poignant examples of this comes from our explorations into space.  The first example occurred when astronauts first left the safety of our atmosphere and went into space.  The poetic descriptions of the seeming fragility of our world when viewed from space indicated just how much "home" means to us when we look back at it.  As Alfred Worden wrote:

Quietly, like a night bird, floating, soaring, wingless
We glide from shore to shore, curving and falling
but not quite touching;
Earth: a distant memory seen in an instant of repose,
crescent shaped, ethereal, beautiful,
I wonder which part is home, but I know it doesn't matter . . .
the bond is there in my mind and memory;
Earth: a small, bubbly balloon hanging delicately
in the nothingness of space.

The other example came from even farther out in space, when the Voyager probe, close to leaving our solar system, trained its cameras back on Earth which hung like a small speck of dust in the vastness of space.  Carl Sagan said: 

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future

A sense of home, of belonging and of origin, is important.  It is an indelible part of our identity and it provides us with comfort.  As such, it is natural that we take a piece of that which is important with us, and make it a part of any place we go.

Musical Interlude

I couldn't have picked a better song to illustrate my point than Joe Diffie's Home.  This was a nice discovery, since country music is not a genre that I dip into regularly, but I'm often surprised when I do.

If you want to know more about Salem

Discover Salem County: Salem Salem County News
Salem County Chamber of Commerce
Salem, New Jersey
Visit Salem County
Wikipedia: Salem

Next up: Leipsic, Delaware


Blue Highways: Newport, Rhode Island

Unfolding the Map

As we pull into Newport, Rhode Island with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), do you feel a bit of nostalgia?  Do you have some melancholy associated with a place that was, but now feels different?  As I come home again, I feel it keenly, and will share some thoughts with you on the subject.  If you wish to visit the years gone by, you'll only be able to do that in your memories.  But if you want to see where Newport is located, navigate to the map.

Book Quote

"....I went on toward Quonset Point, the homeport of the ship I had been assigned to."

"....At the end of the road, a mile in, the big pier was empty.  Nothing but rusting stanchions and bollards, and weeds along the railroad tracks.  The whole bay stood open and vacant.  The Champ, the Essex, the Wasp used to fill the sky with gray masses of hull, gun, and antennas.  The great carriers were gone, and also tugs, tenders, big naval cranes, helicopters, jets; the shouts and hubbub and confusion of sailors and machines and aircraft, all gone.

"....I had lived and died walking off and on this pier and many times had dreamed of the day I'd come back as a civilian, free of the tyranny of the boatswain's pipe and his curses, free of working in a one-hundred-twenty-five-degree steel box.  I felt cheated.

"Where the hell was the diesel oil of yesteryear?  Where the drawn faces when we left, the cockahoop faces when we returned, the sailors kissing girls and lugging seabags, mahogany statues, brass platters, straw hats, and black velvet paintings of bulls and naked native women; trucks honking, the sailors on duty cursing down from the deck and offering services to the women, the sea wind snapping the flag from the jackstaff, the last smoke blowing grit on us from the tall stacks?...Christ.  I knew you couldn't go home again, but nobody had said anything about not getting back to your old Navy base."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 5

Downtown Newport, Rhode Island. Photo by Daniel Case and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Newport, Rhode Island

It's often jarring when you go back to someplace that you frequented after an absence of a number of years.

While my absence from my home town hasn't spanned as many year as LHM's absence from Newport, Rhode Island, it still astounds me every time I go back and something has changed, landmarks have disappeared, and I am left sometimes with a profound sense of loss.

Of course, time moves forward whether we want it or not.  But when one wants to capture something of the past, some marker that reconnects us to previous eras of our lives, and it is no longer there or has changed in some unalterable way, it can be a shock to the psyche.

LHM goes to Newport expecting to see something of the old Navy base out of which he served.  When he gets there, what was once a huge industrial facility for maintaining ships of the fleet, including the big aircraft carriers, is now gone.  All he is left with are the memories of the base and Newport as it once was.  His reaction is one of shock and annoyance: why are there lobster fisherman where there once were the finest of the Navy.  He even references Thomas Wolfe.

It may be that one can't go home again.  I often say now that I'm "going home" to visit my mom, or to see old friends.  In reality, home as it was in Fort Bragg, California has really ceased to exist for me.  The house where I grew up has changed too much.  Gone is the horrible brown carpeting, replaced with a durable wood floor.  My room has become a guest room, with nothing left to mark my years of passage there.  An acre of our big yard, where I used to play football with friends and where I constructed two holes of a six hole golf course, has been sold to the neighbor and now there is a shop and a bunch of his equipment on it.

The lumber mill where my father worked, and where I spent four summers as a worker and a security guard, is gone.  When I drive down Oak Street toward what used to be the main gate, it still shocks me to see the ocean rather than the huge sawmill building that rose higher than any building in the town.  Along the whole of the downtown, in fact, the only thing that separates the town from the sea is a vast tract of silent oceanfront property that once housed mills, drying sheds and what seemed like endless stacks of cut lumber stretching far away north and endless decks of newly cut logs that stretched far away south.  Now, the steam-powered rattle and noise of the mill machinery, the revving motors of the forklifts and carriers, and the signature noon whistle that could be heard all over town are all ghosts on the ocean breeze.

All this is coming back to me now because it is the advent of my 30th high school reunion.  Recently, on the trip home to attend that event, I learned that an old college friend had come out to California for a conference and decided to stay with some friends in the wine country.  We talked a little about old times, but mostly we looked at each other and, at least for me, a certain wistfulness about the time that had passed and the changes in us.  While much change has been good - for him, a debilitating disease in remission, a stable relationship, and a good job in Maine - one still cannot be unaware that time is marching and we've gotten older.

At my high school reunion, as I walked into the room I saw some people who I've kept in semi-regular contact with over the years, either by seeing them when I come home or through media like Facebook.  Despite that, I saw a couple of people that I hadn't seen for those 30 years.  A number of people I didn't recognize through the changes that time and experience had wrought.  A number had trouble remembering my name.  High school seemed to be such a huge part of our lives that it has grown out of proportion to many of our other experiences.  A classmate that I spoke with put it in perspective.  I went to school in a small town and was with most of my classmates all through my school years.  He reminded me that all of my classmates, at the age I now am, were a part of only about a third of my life.  Yet that period, and especially the three years of high school I attended, seem like such a huge thing.  All of the successes, and all of the failures, have been magnified.  All of the slights and praises from classmates, while hidden under the veneer of my adulthood, still rattle around in there if I choose to go back and remember them.  I suspect that a small few of our alumni don't come back to the reunions because of the trauma they faced in high school from an equally small number of cruel classmates.

That's where I would modify Thomas Hardy and LHM.  One can come home again, but sometimes one might not wish to.  Home is in the past, and home can connote much that might be painful to relive.  When I think of what was home to me thirty years ago, it consisted of a dysfunctional family, a tortured and negative sense of self, and a longing for something different.  When I think of what is home now, it consists of a more positive sense of self, many accomplishments, and different family dynamics albeit with echoes of the past.  The nostalgia of the past is often best left as a place to visit, at a time of our choosing, and not as a place to dwell in.

Musical Interlude

The song that best encapsulates the melancholy of the past, at least for me, is Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days.

I'm not sure why, but I get a melancholy homesick feeling when I listen to America's Ventura Highway off of their aptly named Homecoming album.  And I didn't even live in southern California...

If you want to know more about Newport

City of Newport
Discover Newport
Newport's Cliff Walk
Newport Daily News (newspaper)
Newport Mansions
Wikipedia: Newport

Next up: Westerly, Rhode Island


Blue Highways: Palmyra, New York

Unfolding the Map

We pass through Palmyra, New York and then past mobile homes.  William Leat Heat-Moon (LHM) remarks on the permanence and impermanence encapsulated in these uniquely American creations, and that gets me writing on a subject which seems to be very close to me right now.  Fortunately, Palmyra sits permanently for now on the map - though the ancient city in Syria from which it took its name evidently could be moved at a moment's notice to escape a Roman invasion sent by Mark Antony.  Talk about impermanence!

Book Quote

"Palmyra was a clean town of three-story brick buildings where I turned east on New York 31 and went down along the route of the Erie Canal, through villages, over fields of deep green, under blooming locust trees, and past barns collapsing next to mobile homes that looked depressingly immobile yet also impermanent."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 5

Photos of Canaltown Bed and Breakfast, Palmyra
This photo of Main Street in Palmyra, New York is courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Palmyra, New York

Permanence and impermanence is on my mind this a lot as I write this post.  The image that LHM conjures up - the "mobile" homes that look "depressingly immobile" and also "impermanent" is a really wonderful metaphor.

I'm going to digress first on mobile homes.  I've always wondered why we call them mobile when usually they are just parked somewhere on a lot or in a trailer park.  Yes, they seem to serve as housing and some of them are quite nice inside.  Recently, my wife and I stayed in a mobile home at an affordable spa called Riverbend Hot Springs in Truth or Consequences.  The inside was quite nice and comfortable though, to be fair, it was housing just her, me and our dog for an overnight.  Fitting a family of four or more in there might be a different story.

However, most of these mobile homes sit, in their permanent impermanence, like fiberglass magnets for tornadoes during the spring and summer weather seasons.  (I joke, but it seems like every summer the media reports on a mobile home park that has been decimated by a tornado.  I realize that tornadoes aren't really attracted to mobile home parks.  Media tends to report on these instances because the damage is usually extensive and the casualties can be high.  Yet mobile homes, however stationary, are cheap alternative housing for those who cannot afford to buy a more substantial home.)

Once my father and I were leaving our property near Irmulco, California and heading back up the dirt logging road to the highway near the ridge of the mountain.  About a third of the way, we were delayed for two or three hours as a group of men tried to figure out how to maneuver a large mobile home around a sharp corner.  The bank of the roadway eventually had to be dug out in order to create enough clearance for the mobile home.  I was young at the time, but even then it occurred to me that this mobile home wasn't that mobile, and that by going down into the Irmulco Valley, it was heading to its final resting place.  And, because it is made of flimsier materials than a regular home, I wonder if it is still there, some 30 years or more later, or whether it has crumbled into a ruin.

We tend to get involved in things with the illusion that they are permanent and fixed.  Yet most of what we do takes action and attention to remain functional.  An amazing show on the history channel explores Life After People.  There isn't really much hope that what we build will last very long.  I seem to recall that within 50,000 years or so, a period of time that barely even registers in the entire history of the universe and only a blink of an eye in the evolution of the earth, all visible traces of humanity would be gone except to the most discerning eye.  Our bones would last 150 million years or so, but our buildings will crumble in less than 50 years years, though some of our bridges might last for 1000 years if extremely well built.  If you think that the thousand year civilization of the Romans has only left crumbling ruins, or that the Mayan civilization is buried under jungle, and that is only after 2000 years or less, there really isn't much permanence to what we create and erect.

But, that's not the only reason that permanence and impermanence is on my mind.  Even things that we don't physically construct, but build in other ways, are subject to forces of decay and change.  Take marriage, for instance.  Most couples say "I do" with thoughts of building a marriage that will last each partner's lifetime.  Yet in the United States, a large number of marriages end in divorce.  Even with care, cracks and strains can show in relationships.  These can be patched up, but the underlying weaknesses, unless addressed, will undermine the whole structure.  Or, perhaps one partner or the other is neglectful, and weeds will begin to grow.  My wife and I have been working on an essential element of relationships, communication, because we had neglected that aspect in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives and work and eventually, that neglect mushroomed into difficulties.  We are trying to address those issues now, and it's hard work to maintain not only the edifice of a marriage, but also its foundations.

Jobs, also, are fleeting.  One might take a new job that one likes very much, only to find in two years that everything about it has changed.  A supervisor leaves and another takes her place, and suddenly everything is affected.  Sometimes the change is for the better, a lot of times it can be for the worse.  Soon, that job that you thought you'd be at for 10 years or more, or even until you retire, becomes intolerable and your whole life is thrown into flux.  My wife is in the middle of this.  Her career landscape, once so full of opportunity and very clear paths, has become muddled and frightening.  Yet even in the midst of uncertainty, there is hope that she can open new pathways and build new bridges and roadways to a modified or even new career.

Civilization, as Life After People tells us, needs attention if its structures and institutions are to be maintained.  So do our own structures - those constructs of relationships and identities that we build. We put a lot of emphasis on the physical things - our mighty architecture and our creations in arts and sciences.  Ultimately, though, we are nothing if we cannot maintain our own internal constructs that define our identities - our sense of purpose, our knowledge of ourselves and our needs, and our self-esteem.  Collectively, each persons attention or lack of attention to our internal identities work on a micro and macro level to either fight or hasten .  We can give the illusion of permanence to those things we want and care about.   I write "illusion" because eventually, all things will fade and go but the illusion allows us to feel, to know, that in this time and place we matter.  Just like we build bridges, roads, skyscrapers, institutions, and countries with the expectation that they will last, we must constantly maintaining the structure and meaning of our lives.  Our lives are all we have and, if we, like all other things, are impermanent in an unforgiving universe, we can still construct our temporary mobile homes where we are and turn them into shelter and our own stationary place where we can feel safe and secure in time and space.

Musical Interlude

A double shot for this post.  I love the idea of Airstreams, and I'd love to own an Airstream - they seem to tap into the impermanence that is part and parcel of our lives, for those who are willing to accept it.  Miranda Lambert, in Airstream Song, wishes to be a gypsy moving from place to place and never putting down roots.  Fastball, in Airstream, wants to "leave the world behind."  Impermanence isn't a bad thing - one just needs to embrace it because ultimately, we're always fighting against it and it's a losing battle.  Sometimes it's good to just give into it.

If you want to know more about Palmyra

Historic Palmyra
History of Palmyra
Official Palmyra Home Page
Wikipedia: Town of Palmyra
Wikipedia: Village of Palmyra

Next up: Savannah, New York


Blue Highways: Bay City, Michigan

Unfolding the Map

Bay City zips by and is in the rear view mirror, but houses have been on my mind recently.  I'm going to reflect on why I don't own a house, why I possibly should, and what has been stopping me.  You're free to ramble through the rooms and hallways of my thoughts if you would like.  You can get an idea of where the real estate that Bay City sits upon is located by looking at the map.

Book Quote

"...past the Victorian houses in Bay City."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 15

A Victorian house in Bay City, Michigan. Photo by Yfat Yossifor and hosted at Click on photo to go to host site.Bay City, Michigan

I don't own a house.  I've never owned a house.  And at 48, sometimes I think I should grow out of being a man-child and actually buy one.

After all, it is a good time to buy a house.  The real-estate market is really bad right now.  Houses are going up for sale all around my neighborhood as people try to unload overvalued houses that are rapidly losing value.  It seems like homes put on sale are on the market for a long time, even as their signs advertise another price drop of a few thousand dollars.

All my life I have rented.  My first rental as an adult was in Milwaukee after I left volunteer service.  I rented a Taiwanese woman's apartment along Holton Street near the East Side.  She still considered it her apartment, and would often come in with no warning.  Everything in the apartment belonged to her - I was a simply place holder.  One day I came home to find another person had moved in.  May, the landlord, didn't tell me he was coming.  She just moved him in.  At other times she would leave her dog, a little Shih Tzu named Winston, for me to take care of with little warning.

I moved from there to a community house on the near the west side on 21st Street.  I lived with five other people with as varied backgrounds as you could imagine.  The house was an old coop house that had housed conscientious objectors who made napalm in the basement to burn their draft cards in the late 60s.  It had kept that counter-culture flavor, though by the time I lived there it housed a nun who had fallen on hard times, an older gentleman who was a link to the house's earlier counterculture glory, an artist, a student, a volunteer with the Brethren Volunteer Service, and a woman librarian in her 50s who was trying to find her next calling.  (Aside: I recently heard from the librarian, who lives in Albuquerque where I now reside and who runs an elder care business and loves it.  She was just as surprised to find me in Albuquerque as I was to hear from her.)

After that experience, I moved in with a friend and lived a few years in an upstairs apartment Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood.  It was a neighborhood on the cusp of the inner-city and was somewhat rough.  Gunshots were common, as were the glares of some of the people walking the street when I walked my dog.  Once a guy said as I walked past with Hannibal, whose fur was completely white, ", even your dog is white."  While walking in Washington Park one day, a few blocks over from my house, a little kid told me to hand over my dog.  I refused and as I walked away, he yelled out that he was going to shoot me.  I kept walking, and he disappeared.

After my wife and I married, we lived in an upstairs apartment in the Mahncke Park neighborhood of San Antonio.  When we moved to New Orleans, we paid rent to a couple who went to live in Guatemala and lived in Mid-City in a double shotgun, then after a year we moved to Fauborg St. John and lived in a downstairs apartment in what we considered the best neighborhood we've ever lived in.  Currently, we live in a faux adobe in a neighborhood we like, in the Southeast Heights of Albuquerque and close to a nice business district.

Why didn't we ever buy?  Our itinerant lifestyle kept us from buying.  We never knew if we were going to be in one place long enough to make it worth our while.  Perhaps if we'd been more savvy, we would have bought and then rented after we left.  But we didn't and therefore missed out on some great prices.  Now we are left hoping that perhaps the market will come back to us so that we can get a house in a good neighborhood that we like.

Now, I'm 48 and realize that I don't know the first thing about buying a house.  I don't know what to look for.  I grew up in a ranch-style house in California, which was laid out on one floor with a long hallway separating the master bedroom from the living room and kitchen.  In Albuquerque, houses range from Victorian-style houses to ranch houses, from faux adobes to actual adobes.  We know that we don't want to live in a suburban tract pre-fab style house, but would rather live within the city in a house that has some character.

And to tell you the truth, I have become somewhat lazy.  Owning a house means either being willing to pay for repairs oneself, or becoming handy enough to be a do-it-yourselfer.  One of the casualties of my dysfunctional childhood was that my father did not take time to teach me what he knew about carpentry and handyman-ness.  I would like to have those skills, and could probably learn, but having lived in rented places for pretty much all of my adult life, I like that I can call the landlord and get the plumbing fixed, or get a faulty electric outlet replaced.

Yet, there's some things that having a house would allow me to do.  It would allow my wife and I to define our own space in the way we want.  It would allow me to do projects.  I've always wanted a nice garden with all kinds of plants of both the edible and aesthetic variety.  The prospect of designing my own back yard to make it a place of refuge appeals to me very much.  I also feel that because I would be invested in my own house, I would spend more time there which might help me reach a goal of slowing my life down.

The exciting and scary thing about owning my own house, however, is the sense of rootedness I would gain.  My wife and I have been used to just packing up and leaving when the job gets tough or another opportunity presents itself.  However, for the first time in my life, I feel like I need a sense of being rooted to place, and a community to go with it.  It was Easter a couple of days ago, and as I watched homeowners in a local park have a neighborhood Easter egg hunt with their kids and then have a neighborhood soccer game, I realized I want something like that in my life.  However, I would sacrifice that sense of being able to move when and where I want.

Maybe it's time to buy a house.  I don't care if it's Victorian, adobe or whatever.  As long as I feel at home, happy and rooted, I think that at this point in my life, I will be satisfied.

Musical Interlude

Our House by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  This is how I'd like to feel about having a house:

The Talking Heads with Once in a Lifetime.  This how I think I might feel after buying a house and being suddenly rooted to one place..."My God, how did I get here?!!!":

If you want to know more about Bay City

Bay Area Chamber of Commerce
Bay City Fireworks Festival
Bay City Times (newspaper)
Bay County Historical Society
City of Bay City
Wikipedia: Bay City

Next up: Quanicassee, Michigan