In the early Wild West days of March and April, I was helping Kimberly plan the online instruction for her second-grade class. What could we do that would simultaneously help her kids cope with the unprecedented conditions of their locked-down lives while at the same time offering challenging academic instruction? Out of those conversations grew a unit on home. Their physical worlds had shrunk to the boundaries of their houses and apartments, so let’s use that present reality to stimulate poetry, visual ideas about what an ideal house might look like, comparisons to animal homes, etc. Kimberly is planning to repeat the unit with her new second graders.
The work on that unit set me thinking about home in my own life. After all, I’m still essentially locked down and therefore unusually preoccupied with my current physical surroundings and the ones I’ve inhabited in my 81 years. Writing this reminds me of a favorite assignment Rosellen and I have used with many groups of teachers and students. “Write about the history of your hair.” Women find it an especially rich topic, but men, even this long-time bald guy, have a lot to say. Similarly, try writing about the history of your homes. You’re sure to uncover some rich veins of memory. Here’s what emerged for me.
For my first twenty-one years in Brooklyn, I lived in what Chicagoans would call a four-flat, although I’m not sure such creatures exist in this city. Ground floor front and back, repeat for second floor. The landlord and landlady lived ground floor front, a vantage point from which they monitored every coming and going in the building and on the street outside. We lived ground floor back and were keenly aware of the fact that every time we entered and left, Mrs. Auerbach cracked her door ever so slightly so she could follow our movements. My mother never referred to her by name. She was “the machashayfa,” a yiddishization of the Hebrew word for witch.
All my friends on the block lived in similar 4-apartment dwellings. There was only one apartment building on the block, an anomalous presence in our urban village. East Flatbush was not “the city,” the term we used for Manhattan, where most people seemed to live in compartments stacked inside huge beehives. I knew a few people who had their own unattached houses. Two uncles, one on each side of the family, lived in what seemed like the ultimate in selfish luxury. Uncle Jack even had enough land to accommodate a vegetable garden.
My housing autobiography, particularly after Rosellen and I were married was kaleidoscopic for a while: First a one-room apartment in San Francisco with a Murphy bed that folded into the wall; a drafty apartment in an old wood house in Brookline Village, Mass. where we perched while I finished my dissertation and Rosellen began her writing career; a compact faculty apartment on the campus of a historically Black college in Mississippi where we got our first jobs. When we left the campus, we moved into our very first house nearby, a shaky structure perched on stilts which left just enough room between the ground and our floorboards to allow the pigs owned by our landlord to root around right under our feet. Still, it was a house, our first, the one our older daughter was born into. On a recent trip to Mississippi, we weren’t surprised to see that the house was no more, erased like the many sharecroppers’ cabins that used to dot the landscape in the Delta cottonfields.
When we returned to New York, we rented an apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone in a neighborhood that was quickly transitioning from buildings carved up into SROs to the unaffordable gentrified Brooklyn of today. It was the place to which we brought our new-born younger daughter before we decided that the city was no place to raise two small children on the meager income we commanded then. For one final time, we replicated our urban apartment dwelling by renting the ground floor of a New Hampshire house, different from our Brooklyn apartment in its vast amounts of open space where we could plant our first vegetable garden and walk the almost traffic-free roads on sub-zero winter days.
For almost the next 25 years we lived in houses we didn’t own but inhabited as if we did. Our first New Hampshire house where we lived for only one idyllic year was palatial by the standard of our previous dwellings and was situated adjacent to a 1400-acre state forest. We had just rejected an apartment in town which felt like a cousin of the Brooklyn brownstone we were leaving. Rosellen wept at the thought that our move from the city had yielded no more than this. At the last minute, we were presented with the option of what was aptly named Far Over Farm and jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, the landlord reclaimed it at the end of the year when his wife decided she wanted to live in it.
Our sense of loss was brief because we found a late 18th century house belonging to a minister who was being assigned to another town but wanted to keep this house to retire into. It was the fulfillment of this Jewish kid’s fantasy of living a Yankee’s New England life – a fireplace in almost every room, an abundance of staircases for the kids to scamper up and down between floors, 11 acres of land for a huge truck farm of a garden and trails through the woods for cross-country skiing. We grieved when we left after 9 years because Rosellen had accepted a teaching job at the University of Houston.
In New Hampshire we had been the beneficiaries of others’ wealth which enabled us to live in a house we could not have afforded to own. That good housing karma, as Rosellen calls it, continued with our move to Houston. One of the wealthiest women in Houston, Dominique De Menil, had amassed a huge art collection and decided to build a museum to house it. She bought up all the houses in the neighborhood of the site of the future museum and rented them out to people connected to the arts. With a writer in the family, we qualified for a corner house facing a Houston landmark, the Rothko Chapel, where we camped for the next 13 years. There was nothing grand about the house, but it was ideally situated in a part of town that felt bound by a sense of community missing from many other parts of the city. From this house our daughters completed high school and went off to college, leaving empty the two best bedrooms which they had immediately laid claim to. Rosellen and I slept in the slanted-roof room upstairs which was almost destroyed when a hurricane uprooted a nearby tree that would have cut our story short if it hadn’t fallen in the direction away from the house.
We thought we would only be away from that Houston house for a year when we both requested leaves of absence from our jobs. We had spent a happy 13 years there, longer than we had lived any place and were looking forward to more. That was 25 years ago, all but one of which we have spent in a most unusual apartment building. It had been decades since we had lived in an apartment. We didn’t relish the idea, but the place came with some enticing perks. Our sixteenth-floor apartment offered an unobstructed view of Lake Michigan, just a few blocks away. There’s something restorative and calming about being able to see water all day every day, even on the days when the winds are whipping the water into an angry frenzy. In addition, the building has only one apartment on each floor, avoiding the institutional feel of most apartment building with their long corridors broken by the doors of the many apartments that feed into it. Because it’s the only apartment on the floor, from somewhere in the apartment we can see in every direction. The amazing sunrises and sunsets this summer have brought the world to us while we have been immobilized.
Most city dwellers have heard nightmare stories about neighbors from hell in their condo buildings. That has not been our experience. There have been many arrivals and departures in our 24 years – moves, deaths, even a murder (not in the building) but every change has brought another cooperative and community-minded resident to the mix. In the potential anonymity of the city, there is a sense of community, tackling together the never-ending challenges of a nearly century-old building – unreliable elevators, leaky exterior walls and burdensome fire code requirements. But we’ve made it through with a combination of strong representative democracy overseen by a long history of capable and hard-working boards with transparent communication about options for solving the problems at hand.
A few floors down from us is Matt and Chris’s apartment. It has become the social center of the building. From this command center, new owners are welcomed, special occasions are celebrated and needed assistance is beamed. They discovered that we have a regular zoom meeting scheduled on Tuesday that runs late enough to leave little time for us to prepare dinner. So, they announced that every Tuesday we could expect to find an elaborate ready-to-eat meal around the time our meeting ends. They have been true to their commitment for months now and there’s no way we could repay them. I think I decided to write this piece just so I could give this shout-out to these amazing people who know something about building community. There are many other fine stories about the way we feed each other’s cats and water each other’s plants. But the story of the guys in #10 are up at the top of the evidence to how to transform a building and an apartment to something more – a home.
We now have the second-longest tenure in the building, and we hope to bask in its pleasures for a while longer. Eventually, of course, someone else will jump on this merry-go-round and experience some of these same pleasures – after they take care of all the deferred maintenance.