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Monday, March 7, 2016

The American Dream, Detroit, and The Turner House

He had set it up this way, encouraged her to stop working, practically forbade her from working. He facilitated this metamorphosis into pushy caretaker, clingy nursemaid. It had made him feel like a man, an old-fashioned, all-capable man like his father. Now he felt like a child. Trapped in the cage of condescension and coddling that he’d built for himself. -Angela Flournoy, The Turner House
Depending on where you live, if you rent your place, someone is going to ask you when you want to buy. I imagine this is similar to other questions that seem innocent enough but are loaded with discomfort, like "when are you graduating," or if you're single at a friends' wedding and someone asks when it's going to be your turn. "You guys going to have a kid or what?" You're sharing needles at the crackhouse and your buddy asks when you think you'll get H.I.V. Like, give me some time, you know? Let me live my life.

It's especially weird when you've reached one of those milestones, and then for some reason you haven't. That's weird, right? Like nobody asks. "When are you getting married again?" I don't know, man. Didn't work out for me the last time, this hypothetical person tells the other hypothetical person with boundary issues. Going to take it easy for a minute. "You going to give that college thing another go?" or "What if the cancer comes back? What then?"

That's me when it comes to home ownership. Already a loaded topic. When people ask when I plan on buying another house, I look at it differently now. I bought a house one time, and by "buy," I mean I got into a "situation" with a piece of land with a house on it. I didn't "own" the house. Not even close. I had a mortgage on a house that managed to keep being worth more or less exactly what I owed on it, regardless of improvements. Calling this ownership is like calling indentured servitude "freedom." There's some kind of liberty down the line somewhere, but at the time my freedom was as illusory as that of a dog with a shock-collar and an invisible fence.

I finished the basement, which was to me an impressive accomplishment given that the house had stood for nearly one hundred years and nobody else had managed to do it, though I assume everyone hoped to. I was like the first person to set foot on the moon after astronauts dreamed about it forever, but instead of spending years proving that I was the smartest and most capable person on earth and risking my life for human endeavor, I figured out how drywall worked.

Sort of
We put in grass and a garden in the backyard, and a fire pit. And we paid our mortgage faithfully for five years, and then my work dried up. I wasn't fired, or laid off, work just kind of stopped. I had enough to pay for food, but that mortgage thing got tricky. So I did what people do when there isn't work: I got a new job. Unfortunately, the job was over a hundred and fifty miles away. So we put the house on the market, and then the real fun began (note that this sentence is using the word "fun" ironically, as this was not fun.)

Eleven months. Eleven months I drove an hour to my parents' house, then got on a train and rode for another two hours. Then I worked. And then I rode the train (for two hours) back to my parents' house to sleep. Longtime readers of this blog know about the train, and how I wrote blogs on it. On weekends I drove home and helped keep the house spotless for showings. I mowed not just my lawn, but the neighbors' lawns on both sides, because one had moved, and the other couldn't be bothered. It was, without question, the worst year of my life.

The house was too old. It didn't have a dishwasher. The basement ceiling was too low. It was cute, but the buyers decided on a townhouse instead. The house that we loved, with the desert garden filled with native plants, and the raised garden boxes I built, and big patio where my kids drew in chalk, and the lush green yard that one summer I spread a truckload worth of soil over before planting seeds and watering them daily then playing catch on with my son almost every night, and croquet with cousins, was not what people wanted. They didn't like the neighborhood, the feedback said.

It did sell, eventually. And we're lucky for that. I know people who weren't able to sell. We weren't upside down. We didn't short sell, or walk away. We didn't have to bring money to the table. We walked away with $1,500. Thank heavens we could "borrow" money from parents to afford a first month's deposit. If we didn't have that, I don't even know, you guys.

I am very grateful. But I am not exaggerating when I say that two years later we are still rebuilding our family from that year. I gained 20 pounds. My blood pressure skyrocketed. In a regular checkup, my doctor stopped in the middle of a visit and asked how often I thought about dying, like, as an escape. I left with a prescription for antidepressants.

I liked our house, you guys, but our house was not worth it. I like my family more. Wherever my family is, that's where I want to be. If that home where my family resides, where my video game collection is, where my garden is, if that home is owned by a nice man who very quickly and cheerfully fixes plumbing problems within hours of their arising? I can deal with that. I can tell you with confidence that I can deal with that a hell of a lot more than I could when I only lived in a house I "own" 2 or 3 days a week.

So no, I don't know when we'll buy another house. I don't know when we'll be able to, honestly. Even if we wanted to. Which we do not.

A lot of us feel defined by our houses. The square footage, the neighborhood, the height and look and price. The landscaping. Our updates and remodels are sources of conversation. When it's finished, we have a party to show it off. I have to tell you that it's refreshing to not be defined by my house. I know that as a "renter," I'm defined. I'm something that is often pointed to as detrimental to a neighborhood. Everyone knows that rentals are part of the decay of a neighborhood.

But I'll be darned if I don't find it relaxing that when I pull in to the driveway I don't have to look at the exterior paint and tell myself that this weekend I have to paint. Or that the roof needs replacing. Or we should really redo the bathrooms (again). It's not my house! On the schedule this weekend? Grilling. That's what.

Speaking of grilling, while grilling lately, I've been reading The Turner House. As the title implies, it is also about a house. A house in Detroit on which $40,000 is owed, but due to a decline in Detroit's economy that you may have heard of, is now worth maybe $4,000. In this house, Francis and Viola raised 13 kids.

We learn about these kids, and their parents, as we jump back and forth between the 40's, when Francis and Viola are first married, and today, when Cha-Cha, the eldest son, struggles to save the house in which they all grew. We meet all the kids, and they are as diverse and interesting a group of human beings as I've come across in a long time.

Cha-cha, in his sixties, is haunted by a haint. But guys, you'll be super surprised to find out that not all the ghosts are literal in this family. The family is haunted by memories and actions in the past. Between husbands and wives, siblings, and neighbors. Not all haints, we find, are bad ones. We are haunted also by pleasant memories.

Norman Maclean, when finishing his novel A River Runs Through It, concludes with the line "I am haunted by waters." It's a sad story, ultimately, but also full of beauty, and humor, and love between siblings. We, too, are haunted by the funny and sad and terribly lovely. Why I just looked at my Facebook timeline during that crappy time, and I was making lots of jokes. My kids were cute. My wife was (and is) hot. And there was going to be a Veronica Mars movie. There was also this ad featuring a rube goldberg machine built by adorable little girls to the tune of a Beastie Boys song.

The Turner House is a beautiful book. And like you when you reach the end of a Howie's Book Club Dot Com blog post, I was sad when it ended.

There, there. Another one will be here next Monday.