The first real house that my husband and I bought was in Albany, New York. Deep in downtown, like I could see the capital from our window. City buses, taxis, singing whinos, cracked concrete sidewalks, graffiti, all of those things you associate with city living we had in spades. This story is about one of those middle things- the singing whinos.
We’d moved to New York for my husband to start medical school. I’d landed a job at the Jewish Community Center and the pittance they’d be paying me would be what we’d live on for the next four years. But the stars of my poor pay and the depressed housing market of the area aligned and on our first day there, we opened the realtors' Housing For Sale page to a ray of heavenly sun and a section entitled: “Under $5,000”.
There were homes- entire homes with bathrooms, roofs, walls, stairways, and carpet complete with quaint cigarette burns- for less than the cost of a car. (Not any car that we could afford at the time, but still, that’s the perspective we framed these treasures in.) That first night in town, before we’d even gone out with a realtor, Chuck and I sat up late picking out our favorites and giggling about how we could go totally Daddy Warbucks on this town and buy two.
Then dawn came and with it, actual physical visits to meth houses and the reality of a realtor that wouldn’t even get out of his car in the neighborhoods we requested, asbestos waivers to sign and crime tape to duck under. It was a fun-filled week but in the end, self preservation wrung a few more dimes out of our tightwad paws and we sprang for a $30,000 house in a neighborhood that the local cops gave a shoulder-shrug rating of what we interpreted to mean, “so-so.”
It was a two story brick row house the color of burnt chocolate and I swear to you in a most ardent fashion, that it was love at first sight. There’s really no other way to explain why I would have fought to buy it. It had been abandoned for 30 years. No water, no electricity, a few radiators remained but all of them had long ago exploded leaving the walls pitted with shrapnel and sprayed with what I first assumed to be blood (again, I’d been on the home tour of Dante’s Inferno for a solid week and this wasn’t even remotely a deal breaker) but what I later learned was heating oil. We couldn’t even walk down the main hallway on our initial visit because the lead paint was peeling in such thick massive curls that it truly resembled a gauntlet. There was no kitchen and where the bathroom should have been there was just a massive sagging hole where the roof had leaked, the bathtub had overflowed (for decades!) and finally the floor had just given up and fallen through. I took my first peek into the abyss where the bath should have been and there, 14 feet down, was a Volkswagen Beetle crushed by a toilet. And my thought was not to run, but to rush and put in a bid on this house before the seller realized they’d forgotten their car.
I should have just titled this thing, “Being greedy and my weighty lessons in Karma”. We bought the house and a month later, moved in. Maybe someday I'll write a book about all the adventures surrounding that address, but for now I’ll just share the story of my first day as mistress of 77 Spring Street.
On our initial day of home ownership, Chuck had medical school orientation so I was to go and get our place move-in ready on my own. Our realtor gave me keys to our new home, but those slacker pieces of metal were about to get fired when I realized what a crap job they’d been doing for the past few decades. As I opened my door for the first time I was greeted by half a dozen bleary-eyed men who I’d evidently awoken. (The sleeping bags and their yelling is what tipped me off.) I think I went out and cried for a bit and then, realizing I didn’t have a whole lot of options, re-entered my home and tried again. This second time they were actually very nice and after the initial awkwardness of kicking them out, they seemed to understand that I had just bought the house and would not want them creeping in through the broken windows anymore.
While I moved in my broom and box of black trash bags, the bums gathered their meager supplies, waved good-bye, and each seemed to take a different exit from the house-- kitchen window, rear window, porch fire escape, through useless back door and the last one, by shoving out the doorknob (and then kindly replacing it) of the door I was holding the keys for. It was like watching one of those night vision videos an exterminator would make to show you all the ways the mice are breaching your home. Well, my fortress was definitely not a secure one, but as the last bum wished me well, I was now mistress of my first home.
The broom and trash bags- I mention them because they illustrate that even as I took up residence in this house-- even after I’d signed on the dotted line and mentally committed to potentially raise children in this husk of a home-- that I didn’t comprehend what I’d gotten into. I’d just evicted vagrants that spoke as if they’d been there for generations. I will tell you right now, that structure didn’t reach a broom and trash bag level of cleanliness until months later. On that first morning, I made a circuit of my new hellhole while dragging those naïve supplies. I don’t think I’d even made it to the sans kitchen before I pitched those futile tools into a corner, bought myself a snow shovel and work gloves and hired a dumpster to be delivered every week.
Needless to say, that first day was a doozy. Luckily, Chuck and I hadn’t been sure that we’d be able to get a key to get into the place on the first day (yeah, I find it funny to realize that any sketchy guy on the street probably could have shown me how to get into the house), so we'd gotten a hotel room for the night. We met up that evening- me filthy and rushing to the first running water I’d seen all day, and him, shell shocked as a flag boy after hearing how med school intended to crush his soul- and we planned our attack on the next day. The hole in the bathroom floor was bigger--well, it was the whole bathroom floor and fixing that would be first on the agenda.
The next morning when we pulled up to our house, my bums were sitting on the front stoop. I think they assumed that I wouldn’t come back. If I had to guess/translate their silent gawks, my money would be on: “What she doing back? Who’d choose to live here? Slappy didn’t even stay a night before he went back to sleeping under the bridge. I mean, man, I claim no address before I’d admit to this place.” They shuffled off but not before I tried to introduce myself. In a way, they were my first neighbors and I was sort of new at all this, but I was eager for some friends.
Those thoughts stuck with me for the rest of the beastly, heinous workday. Have you ever pulled a rotting toilet off of a rotting Volkswagen? Have you ever been near ceramic so fouled that it actually rotted? I blame my wandering mind on those surroundings. I got to thinking that the homeless men weren’t just sort of like my neighbors; they were actually my neighbors. The one who seemed the most sober had mentioned that they’d see me again tomorrow. One of the least sober ones had explained that our address is where they met every morning. I got a little thrill at hearing my house being described in the framework of being a community hub of sorts. A gathering place.
I pictured me being one with the people of Albany; fist bumps and jokes and them helping me carry in my groceries and me getting them to give up drinking as we had evening talks on lawn chairs near the cobblestone street. I decided that I better get all these future relationships started on the right foot. The third morning, though we had ZERO money and I’d eaten nothing but potatoes for weeks, I blew a portion of our renovation budget on McDonald’s breakfasts for the seven neighbors that I expected on my front stoop.
Morning came and so did seven of my friends. They gratefully took the breakfasts and more grunted than chatted with me as they wolfed down the egg McMuffins. I didn’t want to push the relationship too fast, so I excused myself to work on boarding up one of the upper windows. It didn’t take me long—a mere 48 hours in that house had trained me to be pretty good at boarding up openings-- so I was gone maybe 10 minutes before I returned to check on my guests.
When I walked out onto my front steps, I was greeted with more vomit than I’ve ever seen in my life. You could work at a vomit store and never witness the volume that I saw. The bums were long gone, but they had left enough puke enough that it literally rolled down the sidewalk.
This was the moment I became a city girl.
The crime scene tape, the pitbulls, the broken car glass on the sidewalks, the hair weaves sold at the grocery store, none of it made me cynical because I truly believed that I could find a silver lining in all of it. But in that moment of putrid reality, of realizing that I owned no garden hose and even if I did, that had no water to turn on anyway and that I had zero ways to spray that filth off my doorstep --in that moment, I would have used my worthless house keys to stab the next drunken bum that tried to “attend their daily meeting”.
That morning I became a student at the school of cold hard facts:
You feed a drunk homeless man a greasy breakfast and they’re going to puke it up all over your front steps. And there ain’t no silver lining to that.
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