House and psyche

In a 1993 interview on the Charlie Rose show on PBS, author David Cornwell (aka John le Carré) talked about his childhood. “We are creatures of our background and environment,” he said. “We are very quickly made in life. The first few years seem to be determining who we are for years and years afterwards. You look for explanations for yourself and you go further and further back and wonder if you ever changed or ever developed.” 

When we look at a life as a story, with a single trajectory, and rather like a novel that we tell ourselves about ourselves, one way to organize the narrative is in chapters, and those chapters are the houses we have lived in. 

Each house has its particular memories, its particular emotional resonance and its beginning, middle and end, an end leading to the next chapter, the next home. Some chapters are short, some are long. There are even those among us whose lives are told in a single long chapter — a house they were born in, raised in, married in, inherited from parents and eventually died in. Such continuity is rare; most of us have many chapters. 

Until I was about three, I lived with my mother and father in a house in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, about a block from the New York Central rail line. There were six tracks alongside each other back in 1948. The rails  are gone now, chewed up by langoliers but left in memory. 

The novel I have internalized begins there, with the sight of sunlight striping the walls in the room where I sat in my playpen. I then added to Chapter One the soot and roar of the steam engines that ran on the tracks a block away. Little else remains; I was two when we moved.

We moved then to the house my grandmother owned in Teaneck, N.J., only a few miles away. It was a tall, old house where we shared the lower floor and my grand-aunt and her husband shared the top floor. I have been back to see that house. It is much changed. The vacant lot next door is now an apartment building. The driveway is seeded over with grass. It’s been repainted many times. 

It was in that house that I watched my grandmother make applesauce from apples gathered from the tree in the back yard. It was here that my great-grandmother died in my bed, while I had to move temporarily to a bed in my Nana’s room. I remember my great-grandmother only vaguely, as a very shriveled old woman confined to my bed and then, one day, not there anymore. No one spoke about it much. She just wasn’t there anymore. 

I can piece out the floorplan of the house, with the living room stretched across the front of it, the dining room at right angles running back toward the kitchen — the kitchen in most houses almost always at the back — with two swinging doors, one on each side of the room, almost like the kitchen doors of a restaurant. Parallel to the dining room ran a hall that connected three bedrooms, and the bathroom, with a great animal-claw bathtub which fascinated me. The front bedroom was for my parents, the middle for my grandmother, and the back for me, and later also for my baby brother. 

Behind the kitchen was a pantry with the house’s back door and the stairs that ran down to the basement. 

Houses are said — by fantasists and psychologists — to be metaphors of our selves, and the dark basement, with its golem-like furnace and the thick, insulation-coated pipes and duct-work, was the animating presence in the house. I played with my toy rocket ships down there almost as much as I played outside in the vacant lot. 

There was another dark place in the house, an under-stairs closet left unfinished with lathe and plaster walls. The public rooms, that is, the living room, dining room and kitchen, were all light and airy, but I was drawn to the shadowy parts of my universe. 

I walked a mile to school to kindergarten and first grade, passing a friendly old policeman who stopped traffic on the main street so I could cross. 

Not all of the houses I’ve hunkered down in have left a psychological mark. Maybe only three of about twenty, but the Teaneck house was the first and gave me a profound sense of place, of what architecture means emotionally. Thus ends chapter two. 

The summer before entering second grade, we got ready to move to a new house my parents had built. It wasn’t quite finished yet, and so we spent the summer living with my mother’s sister and her husband in New Milford. Where Teaneck had an urban feel, this summer had that suburban, tract housing feel. Mostly what I remember from then is that the tap water smelled very strongly of chlorine. It was a brief residence, but I made close friends with the boys who lived next door and went to Catholic school — something that seemed absolutely exotic to me. “Glory, glory hallelujah, Sister hit me with a ruler.” 

Chapter Four was a split level in the then-rural township of Old Tappan, on the border with New York’s Rockland County. It was a house my parents had built on a half-acre lot they bought with a stream running through it and woods on three sides. For a kid it was idyllic. In the years I lived there, I saw the town grow into a suburban bedroom community. Busses to New York City stopped by every hour on the street corner. Bits of woods everywhere were turned into housing developments, but the woods around our house remained wild. 

The house zigged and zagged from floor to floor, as if cut down the middle and half raised up between floors. On the bottom was a cellar, next up to the other side, the garage and laundry rooms, zag back to the other side and up the stairs and you get the living room, dining room and — at the back of the house — the kitchen. Back the other way and up a flight were the bedrooms and bathroom. By now I had two brothers and we all shared the same room. But up still another set of steps and you had my grandmother’s apartment, with its own living room, bedroom and bath. 

It’s a house plan not much favored today, but a split-level was the height of suburbanocity back then. From second grade through high school, I watched the town fill up, tract housing explode and farms and woodlands disappear. All that happened just as I was becoming rebellious and angry at my middle-class life. It was the Holden Caulfield syndrome, and I despised everything middle class, suburban and bourgeois. I couldn’t wait to get away to college. 

Next chapter was Cox Hall, a dorm at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. My rude introduction to the American South came on my first day, when I faced my dorm and saw a giant banner hanging from the third floor that said, in crude handwritten letters: “Forget? Hell!!” I didn’t know what those words meant, but I quickly came to understand. 

Cox Hall was built before World War I, and was quite seedy, with wobbly wooden floors and thick plaster walls. I was dumped into a room with a proudly redneck bully and an ineffectual milksop, neither of whom had any academic interest. Mostly they were after poontang and Everclear. (Everclear, for the uninitiated, is a brand of pure grain alcohol of especial toxicity. Wikipedia tells us that it “is also used as a household ‘food-grade’ cleaning, disinfecting, or stove fuel alcohol.”)  

I got moved to a two-person room, but my roommate quickly dropped out of school, and I had the room to myself. It was heaven, just me and my books and my Sears Silvertone phonograph on which to play my pile of classical music LPs. 

For my sophomore year, I was moved to the more modern and quite faceless Milner Hall, which might as well have been designed as a prison — all brick and tile and fluorescent lighting. There was a communal bathroom and showers arrangement that echoed like a cavern. 

I hated dorm life; it was riotous, noisy, crowded and cramped. I petitioned the dean to let me live off campus and eventually, because I was such a thorn in his side (over many a social issue, like women’s rights and integration), he let me go.

And I moved with my friend, Hank, into the home of a sociology professor and his wife. They had an addition at the back of the house with its own entrance and two bedrooms and a bath, and it was only a block from campus. It became a meeting place for all the other disaffected “hippie” students of 1969, and one night we threw a grand party when about 80 students showed up, most of them not invited, and the party lasted till dawn and left the back yard covered in beer cans. It did not ingratiate us with our landlords. 

But by then, I had become engaged to be married, and my new wife and I moved to our own rental house. It was the second floor of a duplex and our entrance came with an outside staircase, which in winter was a treachery of ice. Rent was $50 a month. 

There are three times in life when a home becomes mythic. Obviously, first when you are a child and the entire world has that glow and the house is the axis of the universe. Every corner and cornice has meaning.

The second is when you first consider yourself an adult, have gotten married and must make a life for yourself. The world has a lesser glow, but it is renewed, a decent echo of the magic of your childhood home. And this old house, with its tiny kitchen with enameled metal cabinets, became the projection of my inner state. 

It was 1969, and I painted the living room burnt orange, with avocado green trim. It was a testament to the zeitgeist, but so was I. 

Like so many houses built in the nineteen-teens and -twenties, it had a central hallway with rooms off each side — what architect Frank Lloyd Wright excoriated as “boxes inside boxes.” When you entered the house from the outside steps, you reached the living room. At the back of the house was the kitchen. On the other side of the hall were two bedrooms and the bathroom. 

There was a vacant lot behind the house with a felled apple tree that continued to produce fruit, even while horizontal.  

The house had no heat except for a kerosene stove in the living room. In the winter, I would have to walk down the icy stairs to get a gallon of kerosene from a 50-gallon drum of fuel in the back yard, carry it up, pour it into the reservoir at the back of the stove, crumple up some paper, let it soak up some kerosene, throw a match in and slowly let the kerosene heat up and vaporize so it could catch fire. Sometimes the heat would be so intense as to turn the stovepipe cherry red and begin shaking violently, and I would have to swivel the damper to discourage the fire. This too, is a metaphor. 

We moved to a new house shortly before we broke up. It was about mile away and was another duplex. It would remain my home for the next seven years and the next “permanent” relationship. It was also an old house, and even more of a mythic Eden than the last. This was Chapter Eight. 

There was a front door, but we hardly ever used it. We entered the house from the back, through the kitchen and into living room beyond. There was also a back bedroom — a guest room — and the master bedroom at the front of the house. What made the house such an Eden was the grounds; a great black walnut tree in the front yard, a pecan tree in the back. A vacant lot to our side and a patch of woods behind us. All year long, new weeds would blossom — I called them wildflowers. I counted once and found 190 different species of plant in our yard and the lot next door, including a pear tree. We grew a vegetable garden in the front yard and there were a couple of fig trees that gave us fresh figs to eat. This counts as one of the high water marks of my life. I was happy.

At least until my partner told me one day that she was getting married — to someone else. Eden was gone and so was my Eve. I was in shock. I sold most of what I owned and took the train from North Carolina to Seattle, where I moved in with a friend on Phinney Ridge, sharing a house with two lesbian doctors and the world’s most obscene man. 

Chapter Nine was a small house and I made a room for myself in the coal bin in the basement. Upstairs, there was a living room, dining room, two bedrooms, bath, and a kitchen at the back, where we took turns cooking, almost always with hot peppers. I got work at the zoo and spent my days in an iron box selling popcorn, hot dogs and cokes. In the chill gray air of Seattle, the hot dog steamer filled the box with a Dante-esque steam-fog which condensed on every surface. The smell of those dogs and the chemical popcorn butter have put me off both for life. 

A short but ecstatic relationship came crashing down and I found myself moving back to North Carolina, where my best friends from college offered me a room in their house in Summerfield, just north of Greensboro. I was a mess; I was not over the heartbreak that had shattered my selfhood. I had no job, no money — if they hadn’t given me a place to stay, I would have been homeless. I spent the next year and a half there, doing the cooking and maintenance work and feeling the comfort of a surrogate family. 

The house was an old farmhouse, with a barn, or shed in the back. My room was on the ground floor with the kitchen-dining area, which were combined in one space, with the wood stove, which was the only heat in the house. In the winter, the stove was kept going constantly, and we spent almost all our time in that room. When I woke up in the morning, a glass of water would be frozen solid next to my bed. I chopped a lot of wood during that year and a half. If you have never done so — a more modern life being what it is — you will not know the calming power of splitting logs. This is the third time when life became mythic: I was hyper-aware of being the protagonist in an epic that was my own life. The world had an inner glow and throb and I recognize now that I am old, that I was not quite in my right mind. 

It was while trying to regain my balance that I began writing. There was an old tree stump in the back under an ancient oak tree. I put my aqua green portable typewrite on the stump and typed away, writing letters to everyone I knew. One was 50 pages long. 

I was saved when the woman I would spend the next 35 years with wrote me and asked me to come and visit her in the mountains. I visited but never left. 

And so, Chapter 11 ended my psychic bankruptcy and I moved to a house on a bluff overlooking the New River in Ashe County, North Carolina. It was a new house, with a living-dining area, a bedroom and a kitchen at the back, with a basement and another bedroom for the teenage daughter that I acquired. Off the kitchen was a porch that hung out over the bluff looking down at the river, a hundred feet below us. From the kitchen window, I could watch the shifting weather on Mount Jefferson as I washed dishes. Mt. Jefferson was the central mountain in Ashe County and it changed constantly as the sun and weather shifted. 

It was a long drive on a snowy winter day to the schools where my new lady was teaching, and so we moved closer to Boone, in Watauga County and found a small house in the community of Meat Camp. The house sat on a creek just below the hill on which one the schools she taught in sat. 

The house had two floors, the first with a living room in front and a dining room and kitchen in the back. Upstairs there were two bedrooms, with angled ceilings under the roof. Both were small and the one we didn’t use became just storage. In the summer heat, I could lie in the creek in the icy water and cool down. 

Unfortunately, the Watauga school system shut down several programs, including the art program and we needed to find other jobs. I had taught a class part time at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va., and Carole found a job teaching art in the Norfolk School system. And so, we moved everything down to an apartment building on a cul-de-sac about a half mile from the ocean. Our apartment was next door to my brother’s. He was a fulltime teacher at the school.

It was a building with 10 apartments, side-by-side, two stories each. In ours, the kitchen was at the front, with a window that looked out on the street. Behind it was the living-dining area. Upstairs were two bedrooms. The art faculty at the school all became great friends and we held great dinner parties together. We lived there for six years. 

Then my wife got a job offer from her old boss, who had moved to Phoenix, Ariz. and we decided it might be fun to live in the desert. We imagined a little adobe house with a white picket fence. Never did get that. 

Instead, we had four different houses over a period of 25 years. We had packed everything up into a Ryder truck and drove across the continent, towing our car behind us. We didn’t have a place to move to, but came completely unprepared. We pulled into the street where her new boss lived, and stayed there a few nights. It turned out the house next door was for rent and we moved in. 

It was a small place, with its kitchen rightfully in the back again, with two bedrooms and a combined living-dining area. It was on the corner of Seventh Street, which is probably the busiest street in all of Phoenix — probably all of Arizona. It was like living by the ocean, with the constant roar of the surf — i.e., traffic — and, while you sort of get used to it, it also wears on you long term. We had to get out. 

We found a flat-roofed faux adobe house on 13th Street, a quiet back street closer to downtown. It was owned by an artist who was covered in tattoos — we called her the “dragon lady,” and who had painted the stucco on the front of the house in a trompe l’oeil imitation of crumbling adobe, revealing its bricks. Across the front of the house was a living room, which led to a hallway kitchen, to another hallway with more than 20 built-in cabinets — more storage than I have ever had or seen in a house — and a glassed-in drop-down family room with a view of a lily pond. At the back of the house was the bedroom and bathroom. 

Both of our first homes had no air conditioning. In Phoenix, that is a problem. They had swamp coolers, which work beautifully in the spring and early summer, when the humidity is non-existant, but fail to cool anything in July when the monsoon humidity hits, leaving everything hot and sweaty. 

That’s when my wife’s best friend offered us her place. She was moving to Hawaii and needed a tenant for her house, on Cheery Lynn Road (which everyone mistook for “Cherry Lane”). For the first time since living in Greensboro, the yard was an Eden of trees, flowers, plants and roses. Ivy devoured the entire western half of the house and the front was covered by a great tree. 

Inside, the living room gave way to a kitchen behind, with a dining room jutting off it, which was actually a converted garage, tutted up with lots of added windows. Three bedrooms under the ivy half of the house, one of which became my office. We lived there for seven years. Then our landlady moved back to Arizona.

And so, we moved into the shadow of Camelback Mountain, the most familiar landmark in the city — a 2700-foot mountain on the border of Phoenix and Scottsdale in the double-hump shape of … 

It was the most suburban house I had lived in since my childhood and I felt almost as if I had sold out. It was a sprawling ranch house with a drop-down living room, a huge kitchen with a fireplace and three bedrooms. And there was a swimming pool in the back yard. In Phoenix, the swimming pool usually runs a constant temperature of about 95 degrees in the summer, but feels downright chilly compared with the 110-degree air. 

The house was exactly the time of one Haydn symphony to work, and so, I listened to all 104 of them, two a day going and coming, for 52 days. The commute was the highlight of my day. 

Ah, but there’s always a worm in the apple and my worm was named Gannett, the newspaper chain that bought The Arizona Republic, where I worked, and everything changed from “our responsibility to our readers” to “our responsibility to our shareholders,” and there were layoffs, management stupidities, a lowering of standards, and a general dumbing down of the paper. Many of the staff were horrified, and when, at age 65, I was offered a buyout, I knew I had to take it. I loved my job, but it was dissolving in front of me. Leaving was the only rational option. 

After 25 years in the desert, we moved back to North Carolina, where our daughter was living, in Asheville, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Asheville is a blue city in a red state, full of art, music, hippies, restaurants and craft breweries. 

We found a house in a quiet neighborhood with the best landlords we’ve ever had. The house sits on a hill, with a kitchen at the back, and three bedrooms, one of which is my office. I have now been here 10 years, which is longer than anywhere else I have lived. My wife of 35 years died five years ago and my daughter moved away. 

I am now approaching 75 years old and am writing Chapter 18, and through one of the oddest series of circumstances, I am now reconnected to my first wife, who I had not seen or spoken to in 50 years. She has moved in and we share this house. We are not planning to move anywhere else. Oddly, I am not at all the same person I was, but because through all the chapters, I was me, there is an equally odd continuity. 

Cornwell, on that TV show I mentioned at the top of this mountain of words I have written, called life a “dangerous journey of introspection.” I first became aware of that fact as a student in North Carolina. Over the course of that life I have lived in all four corners of this continent and have, in the end, returned to North Carolina. And I wonder at how much I’ve changed and developed. 

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