REPORT A PROBLEM
The first time I woke up too early. I was in the wrong place, the wrong city. I had something to buy at the miscellaneous store down the hill, but I couldn’t remember what it was. I could hear the river out the window. I had a bad feeling about the whole thing and I wanted to go home. I fell asleep.
The second time I woke up it was noon. I was home again. The med alarm woke me up. I heard geese honking overhead. I rolled carefully over the bed rail. My son had already gone to work.
The house buying thing started again when I got a mass mailing from a realtor explaining a federal program whereby I could qualify for a Federal program to buy a house with no money down at six per cent with a 30-year mortgage. It was aimed at renters, explaining the price range of homes your rent would translate to. It didn’t mention things like maintenance and taxes, or association fees if you went with a condo. I was still unsure about owning a house. I didn’t want the thing owning me, and I certainly didn’t want to become house poor.
It’s been a kind of rugged morning and it’s no longer morning. Time to start moving. You take a man with an injured knee, and if he doesn’t move it because it hurts, after a while he cannot walk at all. In the same way you take a man with a different kind of injury who finds that basic living hurts and he stops living, then after a while he cannot live either. In both cases the pain does not go away, just the ability to walk in the first case and the ability to live in the second case.
It’s May 4. This means three things to me. First, it’s my mother’s birthday. Happy birthday Mom. I should order some flowers and make a phone call, if not a visit. Second, my license tags on my car are due. Several years ago I bought a car on my mother’s birthday and my license tags get renewed on her birthday instead of mine. Finally, it means that the danger of snow and frost has finally passed. For as long as I can remember, it has never been safe to assume that the cold weather is finished until after May 4.
I contacted the guys who sent me the house letter and set up an appointment to meet with them. I could always cancel if it got to be too overwhelming. I explained on the phone that I preferred to go slowly, that I needed to go slowly. I was hoping they would understand. I didn’t think they would.
They turned out to be nice men, Garry and the money man. The money man was happy to find that at first review, I appeared to qualify easily for what they had in mind. Under their guidelines, I could afford a house.
This wasn’t my first experience buying a house. I had purchased two with my ex, Terry, and both purchases were intense and overwhelming experiences filled with anxiety. I could only wonder how much worse it would be trying to do it by myself with the mind frame of not even being sure I wanted a house. I like my apartment in many ways. It has huge windows on four sides, and when I look out I see trees, water, geese, cranes, and all kinds of things alive. I can walk to work from here. I can walk to the grocery.
This life thing is a balance of values. How do you want to spend the time allotted to you? What do you value? How do you define life? How do you value it? Is it better to be the immaculate leader of 200 million other humans or the immaculate follower of one? It is better to consume great quantities of beef and beer or to sexually consume great numbers of other human beings? Is it better to be above or outside all of life’s activities, to be untouched by the winds of human strife? Is it better to be better?
It is clear that as similar as we are, we are all different in the ways we have expressed our freedom of will, limited or less limited as it may be. Yet we are each creatures of unique design. For some of us life is as simple as a dog barking at a passing stranger. Barking is simply what this person does. For others it is a constant struggle against the collar of understanding for purpose, for apprehension. It is to be battered by whimsical moments of grace and beauty found in impossible places. Well, yes, this is barking too.
The first house Garry showed Junior and me was on Hope Street, not too far from here. I had walked past Hope Street before, and at the time I lived in a frame of mind that the street name captured. When I told The Crone I was looking at a house on Hope Street, she shuddered. “Hope is the weakest of the evils let out of Pandora’s Box,” she said. “It barely made it out at all.”
“How can you say Hope is evil?” I asked.
The Crone looked mildly annoyed. “You, already know,” She said, “You of all people.”
I remember having a long talk with The Crone about Hope being evil. It wasn’t in the fairy tales I had read. I wish I remembered better the distinctions we finally drew and the other word we came up with, but we agreed that there were times when Hope was a good thing and times when Hope was a bad thing, the fairy of mass executions and wasted lives when action might have turned things around. I suppose that it goes to show that a well-rounded diet is important and that living on Hope alone, like anything else, is bad.
Junior loved the house on Hope. It had a small pole barn out back with room to park two cars for repairs and it had a little office space off to one side. The pole barn was, unfortunately about ready to fall apart. The house itself was deceptive. It had new siding, new flooring, new ceilings, and new paint. But it didn’t take much inspection to tell that the owner had merely slapped cheap coverings over a ruin. The house was quickly decaying inside its new paint job leaving only a shell of latex and vinyl. So much for Hope.
It’s almost noon. My son is still sleeping. I’m glad he has come here. I wish his life were easier and that he did not need help at this point in his life, but l can see that things are difficult for many people his age. The economics of living young have changed since I was his age. In the past forty years prices have increased tenfold while the minimum wage has perhaps doubled. And to be honest, I was lonely and was getting a little weird. I’m not sure who really needed the other the most at this point.
After the visit to Hope Street, I didn’t see the realtor for a while, but sent me daily email listings. They were confusing things with blurry pictures. Sometimes, hidden in the number were surprises like annual taxes of five thousand dollars or more. I’m in a strange situation at this point in my life, since I don’t pay much in the way of income taxes, and I wouldn’t get the “tax benefit” of home ownership. I talked to Garry, and he offered to pick out some places he thought I might like and arrange a tour for Junior and me.
The phone woke me up this morning. My father has finally decided to sell his truck. At 85, he can’t see well enough to drive any more, but has had difficulty letting go of the idea. But this is the day he has decided to take action. He has called to offer me the truck for $4,000. The price is attractive, and I know it is a good truck, but I don’t have any place to put it and don’t want to have to pick up a second insurance policy, so I told him I couldn’t afford a second vehicle.
Michael Junior’s mother calls to wake him up this morning. I can hear his sleepy cigarette-clogged voice talking to her from his bedroom. She wants him to do some work for her. He is negotiating for some gas money for the trip and then for some breakfast. “Some bagels would be great,” I hear him say. I am glad I taught him to negotiate. He is a natural, and it is preferable to shouting to no point. He has better negotiating skills than most board room suits I have worked with. He has just opted for a different life style.
Garry lined up six homes to show us. We arrived at the office a few minutes early, and looked at the real estate magazines. I wondered what I was doing. “You are gathering information,” I could hear The Crone saying. “You are NOT buying anything right now.” Well, she sure was right about that, but it was confusing sometimes, the difference between this information gathering and the actual buying. I could see how the one could slip into the other if I happened to walk into the right house, and looked out the window, and heard a voiceless whisper, “Home.”
There are days I approach the keyboard with apprehension. I don’t have the faith that I used to have that something will flow out. I’m not sure why. It always does. It never fails. It is as if it is another persona that takes over when my wrists are bent in a certain position and that part of the brain is allowed to open. I remember a woman once remarking to someone when I walked into a room, “Oh, here comes two of my favorite people.” I wonder which of the two does the writing. Maybe there’re more than two.
The first house on the six-house tour was a nice subdivision home. It was clearly occupied. Toys in the yard. They were in trouble with the bank, as so many of the homes are. There was an inexplicable hole in the top of the kitchen island. Three bunks in one of the bedrooms. I remember thinking, “Oh, I can’t throw these kids out of their home.” The price was low. The place was beat up in strange ways, but it was set in the middle of subdivision land, and had a sun-baked and crowded subdivision feel. Not the right place.
I’m not sure how I came to work at the video store. Many people come in wanting to work there, and it is hard to get a job there. You have to pass a personality test, which many of the male supervisors readily admit their wives took for them. Minorities seem to be unable to pass the test. I was familiar with the thing. I applied on a whim. I was running a little hyper that day. The supervisor who interviewed me was a gentle woman. There was really no way I could have passed screening for a normal job.
The second house in the six-house tour was a beautiful home in a subdivision surrounding a large lake. Paths led down to beaches and docks. The back yard was a shared wooded area. The house looked new. 1700 sq. feet and priced at 120,000, and Garry assured me they would take 110. “It’s a kit, dad,” yelled Junior, peering through a window.
They had had some kind of water damage. All the carpets had been removed and most of the drywall. There were even large holes in the vaulted ceilings. Fans and dehumidifiers were humming everywhere. What had happened here?
I didn’t know what to make of the water house. It was tempting. Yet there was so much work to be done. In some places the interior was just studded in. In others, it was finished with appliances. One bath was bare needing to be completely plumbed. I knew how to do all the required work, but I was feeling a little overwhelmed. I was struggling just to keep up with an apartment. How was I to do all this? Was this where one became owned by a house, as Thoreau had suggested? I wanted to talk with The Crone.
I found working at the video store frustrating at first. Compared to jobs I used to do it was nothing, but my brain didn’t function the way it used to. I had trouble with the simple tasks, and sometimes I would just go blank. In the beginning I struggled to make change at the register and would stutter while talking to customers. The corporate policies and package pricing structures were complicated and I had trouble understanding them, and therefore couldn’t explain them to customers. To make matters worse, some of the supervisors were afraid I wanted to take their jobs.
The skies darken outside, and I walk to the post office. I stop on the way to talk to Melissa, the apartment manager to see if she knows if the rents will be raised this fall. She says not for me. This will be the fourth year I have gone without a rent increase. She asks if my son flipped his truck, explaining that one like his had flipped in the parking lot. “I don’t think so,” I said. “He would have said something.”
“I looked at it,” she said. “I didn’t see any more damage than usual on it.”
Sunday is my mother’s birthday. I call my sister to see if she is doing anything special this year.
“No,” she says. “It sorta snuck up on me.”
I consider this. “I could come down, maybe. I’ve been doing better.”
“That would be nice. She would like that.”
“I’m not sure my doctor would like it.”
“So ask. And if you show up great. If you don’t, you don’t.”
So I ask. “Monday is my mother’s birthday,” I begin.
I discover a well of disappointment in this, and the disappointment is that I still have so far to go.
As I walked to the Post Office, I crossed a dead Mallard lying in the grassy strip next to the sidewalk, feathers still brilliant in the sun. I remembered the females nesting in the shallow lake across the road, and considered the newly mate less one sitting on a small pile of eggs. Her evening is going to be a little quieter and a little colder perhaps. I know she will find a mate next year, but I can’t help feeling some pain for her. I’ve no doubt she will too. I don’t think we have a monopoly on that.
Things eventually fell into place for me at the video store. I found there were things I was good at, and things I wasn’t good at. The supervisors realized I didn’t want their jobs, and I learned that if I kept my schedule down to fifteen hours a week avoiding shifts over 6 hours; I could make it through a week ok. I found after a while they were actually scheduling me for the high-volume days, and more and more my assignment when I came in was to just wander the store and talk to the customers about the movies.
The third house in the six-house tour came with three acres and two large out-buildings, one a barn complete with hay loft. Michael Junior, already hanging in the loft, was in love. I was already getting tired and could feel the neurons in my brain starting to sizzle and spark. It was an older home constructed of wire-cut brick. It had a huge basement and a twenty-foot master bedroom upstairs. Inside, I felt oppressed. “I feel like I died in here,” I said, and walked out.
“You say you think someone died in there?” called Garry.
“Me,” I called back.
I don’t know if we made it to six houses on the six-house tour. I was exhausted. Garry admitted that six were maybe too many. I had tried to explain THE PROBLEM to him, but very few people get or believe it. Sometimes I don’t believe it, but it has ways of making me believe. It is not like you have half a leg missing and people can see something is wrong and they expect you are going to walk funny. It is insidious. It comes and goes in little cycles. You are fine right up until you are not.
The next housing adventure was provided by Amber, a girl who works at the video store. Amber is getting married. “Buy my condo,” she pleaded.
“Can I see it first?”
So we made arrangements for me to visit Amber’s condo. She was off the next day. We exchanged phone numbers and I was to bring Michael Junior if he was available. She would call me if I didn’t call her, but she wouldn’t call before 9. The asking price was 102 thousand, which I liked very much. The association fees were a low 150 a month. It seemed perfect.
Finding Amber’s condo was easy, like she said it would be. She was on a tiny second floor balcony waving to me, her fiancé inside. They were a cute couple, in a cute condo, practically new. It had vaulted ceilings, and a fire place, with a generous laundry room off to one side. It was half again as big as my apartment and a second set of stairs led down to a tiny private garage where I imagined myself as the Omega man jetting out of the building to fight zombies across the city. Hey, it was a nice place.
As nice as Amber’s condo was, there were problems. First it was ten miles away in another town, and I like my town. I like walking to work. Second all the windows were on one side of the building. I have learned long ago to never live in a place with all the windows on one side. You can never get the smells out. Finally the view was the fireplace. If you peeked through the tiny windows flanking the fireplace there was a huge open courtyard with a gazebo in the middle. It reminded me of an old folk’s home.
The Tip Jar