My grandfather Woody occasionally picked up hitchhikers. We only knew about it when he mentioned it in passing. He certainly never did it when my sister or I, his only grandchildren, were in the car with him. This is not to say he was overly conservative in our company. A swig from an airline bottle of Smirnoff while driving was on the acceptable end of his personal scale of safety around kids.
Woody would drop news of his latest lift into casual conversation as if it was no big thing, because to him, a child of the Great Depression, it was no big thing. The two defining stories of his personal mythology were both Depression-related and he told the first one with tremendous pleasure at every family gathering. It was the story of how he, along with his parents and siblings—Burl, Vernyl, Leonard, Pauline, and Helen—headed west from Arkansas and the Dust Bowl along a wood plank road in a used hearse. Mistaking them for a funeral procession, other cars on the road would stop, the passengers doffing their caps. The other story is that he picked cherries for a penny a pound when he eventually made it to Redlands, California. He told this story less often and, when he did, there was no nostalgia.
In the intervening years of the mid-twentieth century, he achieved the American dream that still exists today, even if it’s largely unattainable, rising to middle-class wealth as a salesman for the gas company. His childhood of grinding poverty stayed with him, surfacing in the stories, his pleasure in growing his own food in his backyard vegetable garden, and the combination of fearlessness and empathy that occasionally led him to stop and pick up a stranger on the side of the road.
My grandfather’s circumstances when I came to know him were a world away from those when he arrived in the Golden State; my own experience at that age overrode any knowledge I had of his past. That experience, as a child of the eighties, was hysteria over mall kidnappings that had ingrained into me to never get into a car with a stranger. The thought that someone would actively solicit getting into a car with a stranger and that my grandfather might be such a stranger was wildly illicit and dangerous and strange. I wanted to know everything.
I would, however, learn nothing. My grandmother Willie’s dagger-eyed distaste for my grandfather’s disclosures always cut the conversation short. Her reaction was not one of concern for his safety, although that may have been the pretense, but rather a cool disdain for his violation of bourgeois norms. She had also come from severe hardship, first in the panhandle of Texas where the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 orphaned her before she was one, then in Oklahoma before finally making it to California. She was a career woman, working her way up to head the San Bernardino County DMV, and, together with my grandfather, had achieved a standard of living that included flocked wallpaper in the guest bathroom and membership at the Arrowhead Country Club. Willie, understandably, had no interest in behavior that lacked alignment with this hard-earned status.
Both my grandparents have been gone for years now, but my husband’s recent foray into driving for Uber reminded me fondly of my grandfather’s predilection for providing transport to strangers. When Doug first broached the idea about a year ago, I reflexively resisted. Surely our insurance wouldn’t cover it—a drunk person would vomit in the car, think of the wear and tear! Hiding just under the surface of my purposefully reasonable objections was a smidgen of my grandmother. My protests turned out to be unnecessary. Our 2004 Volvo was too old to meet Uber’s standards.
This was not the first time my own bourgeois hang-ups had led to discomfort about my husband’s job. Early in our marriage, after a decade working in the entertainment industry and the heady early days of the internet, he had turned down a non-optional work transfer to Dulles, Virginia so that we could stay in Los Angeles. In the aftermath of that decision, he bobbed around some start-ups before landing part-time work at Los Angeles International Airport, employed by an acquaintance who had a contract to maintain the airport police’s computer systems. One of his jobs was cleaning out the keyboards in airport police cars. He had no qualms about his menial tasks, although he did find the depth of seriousness exhibited by one of his colleagues amusing. This colleague, who had been charged with training my husband on his first day, had presented him with a PowerPoint in which he declared with characteristic post-9/11 American earnestness, that, armed with tiny canisters of compressed air, their mission was to “save lives.”
We bonded over this joke, but the subtext for me was that he was working with losers and, well, you are who you surround yourself with. To put it another way, at this point in my life I was unclear on the distinction between who you are and what you do for work. (Fifteen years later, it’s something I’m still teasing out.) My husband seemed less concerned about the potential for disastrous Svengali-ism at the hands of Mr. Saves Lives. In fact, he was downright relaxed. Much to my annoyance, I often found him in a state of repose on our couch when I arrived home from work. He had been in full-time employment since he was seventeen, he occasionally reminded me. He deserved a nap.
Late last year Uber relaxed their rules and our old Volvo, affectionately known as Virginia, was in. Deterred by my earlier reaction, Doug didn’t tell me about his first drive until after it was done. He need not have been concerned. My qualms had subsided, which I attribute in part to the life-changing magic of not giving a fuck—to borrow the title of a bestseller—that comes with every hard-won year of my middle-age. My ease was also a product of our financial security relative to the position we had been in when my husband worked at the airport. This time we didn’t need the money, a fact that served as a psychological buffer. It was an updated version of my grandmother’s flocked bathroom wallpaper, only this time it gave license to take the stance opposite of hers. She and I were two generations apart, bonded by our adherence to two sides of the same snobby coin.
It also helps that Doug dabbles in other more conventionally middle-class pursuits, most recently interning as a marriage and family therapist. He’s a Gen-Xer, but he has a millennial’s predilection for the gig economy which is handy, since apparently, we’re all going to be working multiple part-time jobs till we die. In addition to Uber and the intern hours working towards the therapist license, he does freelance project management and offers his services as a pet-sitter on Rover.com. Sometimes the dog he watches semi-regularly, a pit bull/Australian cattle dog mix, comes along with him when he drives Uber, which has gone down surprisingly well with his customers. I think there’s more potential synergy to tap between my husband’s varied vocations: micro-therapy sessions for the length of your ride, uberPOOL as group therapy.
After all, people love to talk in an Uber. (I know, I’m one of those folks recently lampooned on SNL who always asks my Uber driver how long he or she’s been doing it.) The company may go down in history as the poster child of the on-demand economy, but that is missing the more interesting sociological point. Uber may be a smartphone app, but the experience it facilitates feels like one of the last places left where strangers still speak to each other. I’ve never been on either side of the hitchhiking equation, but I imagine the dynamic, assuming nobody is committing murder, is more akin to Uber than cab.
In just two weeks, my husband’s Uber stories top anything I’ve heard at the corporate watercooler in twenty years. His first passenger’s boyfriend packed parachutes for people about to skydive solo for the first time, a stranger’s life literally in his hands. His second was a neurosurgeon from Ecuador who lives in North Carolina, with whom he discussed the convergence of psychology and neuroscience. Then there was the wheel-chair bound young man who declined assistance as he folded up his chair, explaining that six months earlier the hydraulic lift had broken while he was working on his car, paralyzing him from the waist down. In Santa Barbara, a Manhattan couple got a ride to an anti-Trump party in a mansion in Montecito. On inauguration day, a military man on his way to Port Hueneme explained he would be watching the ceremony because “I voted for him.” That afternoon two gay Latino brothers, both high as kites, got a lift to the TGI Fridays in Oxnard to meet up for drinks with friends.
My husband claims the part of Uber he finds most interesting is the technology, fascinated by the algorithms of supply and demand. But every day that he drives he tells me his best stories with obvious relish, and I listen to these tales of strangers with vicarious delight. These are the stories I never got to hear from my grandfather, the ones he took to his grave.
JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her husband now drives for Lyft, and she’s yet to convince him to pick up a hitchhiker. Find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.
I nose the rented mini-van onto the side of the narrow road, and Gram and I get out. It’s a lovely little grassy patch that slopes down to a sun-dappled creek. Or crick, as we call it.
“She had one arm raised above her head,” Gram says, “like someone dragged her there.”
When I think of western Pennsylvania fondly, it’s summer that I’m remembering: the greens of the trees and grass, the bursts of neon yellow from lightning bugs, the red tomatoes from the garden up on the window sill. But PA in the winter is, frankly, depressing—the grim black-and-white tableau—with the black mountains, the stark white snow, the clumps of gray frozenness along the turnpike. It’s a place where the coal mines have made their mark, and slate piles still stand.
When she died, on January 22, 1932, it was cold and the forecast had called for rain. It’s likely her body was found soaked, her long skirts muddied and bloodied. I imagine the creek’s waters rising toward that arm.
She’s my Gram’s grandmother, my great-great-grandmother. Growing up, I only knew three things about her: The legend was that her husband, a coal-miner like so many Polish immigrants, was in “frail health,” and as a result, she took up bootlegging—and was successful enough at it to own three houses. Her fourth child, her youngest, was rumored to be of mixed race. And she was murdered.
How could I resist mythologizing her? On these barest of bones, I pressed on flesh that reflected the fantasy of who I’d be if my back were to the wall. A bad-ass! A proto-feminist! An outlaw! A woman who landed on her feet when times got tough! Myths, of course, always represent the imagination of the myth-maker. I didn’t even know her first name or what she looked like, but I was eager to find a woman in my lineage who didn’t play by the sometimes arbitrary rules.
Mom told me that Gram didn’t like to talk about her, so when I was a kid, I didn’t dare broach the subject. She was a warm grandmother and doted on us, asking my sisters and me to sing songs on their breezy porch, teaching us Scrabble and Boggle, and rewarding us with small gifts. But there were unspoken rules to be followed, enforced by the time-honored code of passive aggression. We—especially as girls—were to appear “neat” (for some reason, that was and is a massive compliment in Gram’s eyes), not bicker, attend church regularly, and excel in school. Gram didn’t smoke or drink or swear. The most outrageous thing she did on a regular basis was to wiggle out of her bra while driving, twirl it on her index finger, then fling it onto the backseat of her Cadillac.
Sometime in my twenties, Gram and I became friends. She’d somewhat loosened up by then; she’d occasionally have a glass of pink wine when her son-in-law encouraged her, and she let my boyfriend and me sleep in the same bed when we visited. When I became a mother, we grew closer, swapping tales of motherhood, then and now. (If only for the accessibility of washing machines, now is better.) In recalling the hard times, Gram reverts to the second person.
In my thirties, I felt close enough to Gram the person to ask directly about her grandmother. What happened? We talked, and over the course of several years, I pieced together the memories and legends with possibly the only person alive who actually knew her.
I told Gram I’d do some research. “Be careful,” she warned me. “There are some people in the family you don’t want to talk to.”
This was code. Not every relative had become respectable.
When someone is a myth, it’s easy to forget that she was also a person.
Her name was Anna Dec Fisher. She and my great-great grandfather John emigrated from Poland. Her first name was sometimes “Annie” and their last name wasn’t really Fisher. According to census records, their true last name might have been Ezoeske, Jezorski, or Yozarski. They spoke Polish, and a few fragments of their language still run in my family. “Zamknij się” means “Shut your mouth.” “Jest zimno” means “It’s cold.” We, the descendants, have bastardized the foreign phrases to accommodate our American tongues.
Annie and John immigrated in 1901, a time when the United States was still figuring out how to sort the new waves of immigrants into the racial categories it had constructed. Poles were technically white, placing them above some races, but not the right kind of white. Or maybe the right kind for certain interests. Bluntly put, Poles were considered by mainstream America as strong and hard-working—the perfect fit for manual labor—but stupid. Ralph Waldo Emerson, approvingly, wrote in 1852, “Our idea, certainly, of Poles & Hungarians is little better than of horses recently humanized.” (Oh, Ralphie, go shoot your eye out.) A U.S. Steel Corporation want ad from 1909 read, in part, “Syrians, Poles, and Romanians preferred.”
Annie wasn’t stupid. She was just new. It’s unclear if she and John landed in U.S. together, but they came from different parts of what was Poland. (Poland didn’t technically exist as a country in 1901.) John was from Galacia, the poorest region of Europe at the time, then in Austria-Poland. Annie claimed Russia-Poland. They started off their new lives together in Ohio, where their first child, Mary, was born, followed by Helen (my great-grandmother, Gram’s mom), and Walter. By 1910, they were in Walkertown, a small town in West Pike Run Township, Pennsylvania. John worked as a coal miner. It’s where their last child, Adam, would be born.
The first time I saw of picture of Annie was in an old photo that my distant cousin Nicole shared with me. (She’s Walter’s granddaughter.) It’s a family photo from before Adam was born. Annie is standing, one hand on her hip, the other holding Helen’s hand. Her hair’s styled in one of those froufy buns popular around the turn of the century. She wears a bow-tie in her puffy white shirt with a full-length skirt.
By the April 1920 census, they already owned their own home, free of a mortgage. In January that year, the government had enacted the eighteenth amendment, also known as Prohibition. At some point, Annie and John started breaking the new law.
I started finding more artifacts, and the myth of Annie started breaking down. A different picture of her emerged from the bath of historical documents and the context of her life. And that picture of Annie’s life and how she spent it would haunt my family all the way down to my own upraising.
“My dad said everyone did it,” Mom told me, referring to the Prohibition-era law.
“Yes,” I said. “But not everyone went to jail for it.”
Walkertown was small, and people talked. Adam was born in 1916 and was not yet five at the time of the 1920 census. The census-taker seemed to be confused. In the column for race, a Mu for mulatto is marked, then written over more strongly with a W for white.
It wasn’t just the census taker. There seemed to have been a non-governmental consensus that John wasn’t Adam’s father. Gram told me that when she was a kid, sometimes she’d go to the movie theater where Adam worked. He’d let her in for free. But neither would get too close because, you know, the rumors. Later, Adam would leave Walkertown, marry a white redhead, and join the military. Outside of Walkertown, as far as I know, no one questioned his whiteness.
Nicole is also the one who first showed me pictures of Adam. He was a handsome guy, although slightly darker than the other Fisher siblings. This doesn’t mean a lot to me; I have an uncle with a darker skin tone than his siblings, too. Genes pop up in the most peculiar ways.
This interracial brouhaha is so unremarkable now that I feel ridiculous bringing it up, but then I remember that sometimes my grandparents would explain their youths to me in ways that could only be seen as racist. Dating an Italian was almost as bad as dating a black. Meaning, in the poor white community, you lost status. You lost your advantage, which was the measure of respect that your skin color afforded you. The only thing that kept you from being at the very bottom of the American pecking order. Even the rumor of blackness was enough to awaken the racism of Walkertown.
I wonder sometimes if the people of Walkertown would have even questioned Adam’s race had there not been a man, labeled by the census as mulatto, living next door to Annie and John. Short of finding Adam’s descendants and convincing them to give me a quarter teaspoonful of their spit to send to an online DNA profiler, I’m not going to know. I don’t need to know; we’re judged on how we present, not who we are, anyway. Annie could well have had an affair with the guy next door. But she just as easily—more easily, actually—been friendly to her next-door neighbor. Or, easier still, she could have done nothing at all.
All the rumors mean is that Annie was the kind of woman that her white peers thought capable of crossing the line between proper and improper. Whether Adam was John’s son or not, they were right. Annie was woman who crossed lines.
By the summer of 1929, if Annie hadn’t earned respect through piety and birthright, she was grabbing it in the real American way: money.
Two of Annie’s children had married and had had children of their own. According to the family, Annie owned three houses by then. Her oldest, Mary, lived with her family in one. Helen lived with her family in the multi-unit house next to Annie, John, Walter, and Adam.
Annie was bootlegging. She was good at it. I believe she was the brains of the couple, able to read and write while John couldn’t. Gram remembers the yard filled with cars. She was young, just five when her grandmother died, too young to understand that these were probably the cars of paying customers visiting her grandparents.
On July 29, 1929, police raided Annie and John’s house. According to police reports, Helen yelled, “Beat it! The law is coming!”
I imagine customers scrambled into those parked cars and beat it with a quickness.
Next, Helen dumped out a pitcher of liquor that was on the back porch and told the cops, “Go ahead and search. The evidence is gone.”
The evidence wasn’t gone. They found sixteen quarts of beer, two barrels of wine, and a quarter gallon of moonshine in a gallon jug.
Annie, John, and Helen were arrested.
I questioned the documents that I received from Washington County. Did the woman I knew as Grandma Crawford, the permed lady with the puffy pink toilet seat and yappy dog named Duchess, really call out, “Beat it!”?
But then I remember how notoriously blunt and mouthy she was. When I was a kid, she accused me of cheating at 500 Rum and made me cry. When her daughter-in-law and her son-in-law left her children for each other, her remark was, “Why would he leave one fat one”—her daughter—“for another fat one?” When my parents separated, she cut to the chase—no I’m sorry, honey—and offered Mom money if she could live with us. (We didn’t have anywhere to put her.)
And looking at photos of her when she was a teenager, with her bobbed hair and defiant face, I could believe it.
But I also believe that the arrest changed something in Helen.
The next morning, John was charged with manufacturing and possession. Annie and Helen were charged with sale and possession. The bail was $1000 for Annie, and $500 each for John and Helen. None of them could make bail, so they sat in the Washington County jail.
They sat there for a while.
(This was news to Gram. When I told her, she immediately asked, “Where was I?”
She would have been not quite three years old when the arrest happened. My breath caught, realizing that this isn’t some historical curiosity, that I can’t stand on my middle-class perch and think that my research doesn’t have real-life ramifications, just as current-day journalism doesn’t have ramifications for the subjects, especially ones whose names show up in the crime section, not the society section, of the newspaper. My voice softened. “Your dad’s mom Amanda lived with you then, Gram. I bet she took good care of you.”)
On August 21, 1929, the testimonies of the law enforcement officers were entered into the record. On September 9, 1929, John, Annie, and Helen went before a judge. John and Annie pled guilty at some point—perhaps that day—but Helen did not. On October 1, 1929, the district attorney filed a motion with the court for a nolle prosequi (meaning that the state acknowledges it doesn’t have enough evidence against the defendant to prosecute) for Helen. He noted that Helen’s parents were now serving their sentences. I don’t know what those sentences were, but they’ve become irrelevant in the story of my family. I spoke to a friend with a legal degree, and she suspected that Annie and John’s plea deal included the stipulation that Helen go home. She’d already been in jail for over two months.
Helen had missed Gram’s third birthday during her time there; her son was five years old, her second daughter, just an infant. Her breasts must have ached terribly, lumpy and swollen with milk. I think of her there, now a twenty-three-year-old married mother, in an iron and steel facility once called “a modern day Bastille.” I can’t imagine the shame that must have plagued her, the dignity robbed. I can imagine, though, that the experience strengthened her already-entrenched resolve: Become respectable.
I was well into adulthood before I heard of respectability politics, and I only learned of them in the context of African-American history. In a nutshell, it means when a group outside of the mainstream tries to assimilate in order to become accepted. The opposite is when a group outside of the mainstream fights against what the mainstream insists is The Right Way of Living.
In terms of race, only white people can win the respectability game because we don’t carry any visible markers that we’re different. We can dress like the respected people; we can adopt their mannerisms, their biases, their way of speaking.
We can, but not all of us do. The people who don’t are the people who Gram spoke of, the ones I shouldn’t want to know, like the relatives who came to my grandfather’s viewing and were caught rifling through the pockets of the mourners’ coats. As now-respectable white people, we don’t know what to do with them, even as we know their personal histories and how much they’d have to overcome to have a shot at mainstream lives. They’re not the rebels we mythologize. They’re problems to be avoided because they’ve proven they will fuck us over in real time.
I see our family’s striving for respectability in an artifact. There’s a photo of John and two friends, the Novak brothers*, in my grandmother’s box of old photos. Written on the photo is, “The Drunks.” I recognize the handwriting. I’ve seen it once a year for half of my life on birthday cards that arrived with a five-dollar bill tucked inside and signed “Love, Great Grandma Crawford.”
Actually, I don’t know for sure if the Novaks were Annie and John’s friends. They seemed to have been, although God knows I’ve taken drunken photos with people who were little more than acquaintances.
On the year Annie would turn fifty-two years old, though, she went over to help Pete and Agnes Novak render lard from a recently slaughtered pig. One version of the story has her doing it out of the goodness of her heart and maybe some portion of the lard. Another version has her working as hired help. In any case, by that time, John wasn’t working; his lungs were severely compromised due to his time in the mines.
Annie didn’t come home the night of January 22, 1932. Her body was found by the creek the next morning.
I came to the story of Annie originally believing that I could Nancy Drew this sucker open and find out what really happened. Was she murdered? Was it some sort of cover-up? Were the Novaks ever implicated?
What I found out was that I’m so far removed from the underclass—by my own foremothers’ design—that I took for granted that her suspicious death would warrant the kind of investigation that mine would.
On January 25, 1932, Annie made the news in a non-criminal way for the first time. The Charleroi Mail (a newspaper from a town not far away) reported the headline, “Find Lifeless Body of Woman on Road; Heart Attack Victim”:
The lifeless body of Mrs. Anna Fisher, 52, of Walkertown, was discovered yesterday morning by John Hans, lying beside the road between Walkertown and Daisytown, near California [Pennsylvania].
Deputy Coroner J.F. Timko, of California, stated that the woman had been dead about twelve hours when discovered. Mrs. Fisher had left the home of Pete [Novak] for her own home shortly after dark Friday evening. Members of her family were not alarmed over her absence because her husband was away from home. Death was due to a heart attack.
She leaves her husband John Fisher, and four children: Walker and Andrew Fisher, at home, and Mrs. Helen Crawford and Mrs. Mary Smolley, both of Walkertown.
This wasn’t journalism’s finest moment. They got the date wrong, the spot wrong, and Walter’s and Adam’s names wrong. They probably even got her cause of death wrong.
Her death certificate lists her cause of death as “acute gastritis and enteritis” and states her death occurred around eleven at night.
Believing that the Novaks were her friends, I formed a story in my head in which Annie, who was likely a pretty hearty drinker, went to help the Novaks with the pig. While she was there, she died of natural causes. The Novaks—who didn’t have such a clean record with law enforcement themselves, both with arrest records on alcohol-related charges—panicked and put her body by the creek.
I messaged Nicole about it, and she wasn’t buying it.
“Did they do an autopsy?” she asked me.
I looked at the paper in front of me. “It’s blank. So I guess not.”
“Then how do they know?”
Later, with the help of a friend with medical knowledge, I looked into whether one can die of gastritis and enteritis. Turns out, people have actually died of it—but the real cause of death is dehydration as a result of prolonged vomiting and diarrhea. It certainly doesn’t seem like something that would cause you to keel over while walking home after rendering lard.
Nicole was right. We’re never going to know.
When Gram and I visited, all of Annie’s houses were still standing, although the movie theater wasn’t there anymore and the general store was boarded up. Gram’s knees were bothering her, but I held her hand—so much like mine, long-fingered and slim—and we made our way to Mary’s former house where a picture of Gram was taken so many years ago. That solemn, round face, those straight bangs and pageboy haircut. We knocked, but no one answered.
Annie’s house was now painted a mustard yellow. Gram’s childhood home was still white. As we stood there, a woman came out of one of its units. She didn’t know any of the history, and besides, she was on her way to second shift.
After Annie died, the story goes that Mary didn’t pay the taxes on the houses (why she was the one in charge, I have no idea), and that they were taken by the government. Helen’s family wound up in Daisytown, around the bend, in company housing.
We stopped there, too, but we didn’t get out. I have no poker face, and I didn’t cover how appalled I was fast enough. I think my expression showed the gulf between my life and hers. The houses were exactly as Gram had described them: one room that was the kitchen and everything else, two smaller rooms that served as bedrooms, no matter how many children your family had. The reality—the poverty—of it didn’t hit me until then. People still lived there. “That one was ours,” Gram said. “At least we had an end one.”
“I used to visit my grandfather when I was a kid,” she said later. “We’d walk from Daisytown to Walkertown.” I told her that the census reported that he didn’t speak English, only Polish. She laughed. “He spoke English. I remember him as kind. He was gentle with us. He and Adam lived in a house that was half-burned down, but he loved when we visited him.”
With Annie transformed from a myth into a woman, I’ve had to face the myths that I built about myself.
When I was a kid, my family went though a serious rough patch, and it made a mark on me. Even before the steel industry imploded, we weren’t financially stable, but once my dad got laid off, we were forced, for a time, to go on food stamps. I ate government cheese. We relocated to a different state and eventually gave our Pennsylvania home back to the bank. Those aren’t the things that made the mark. It was the knowledge, even then, of the difference between someone’s compassion for us and someone’s pity—which is somehow worse than scorn. You can meet scorn with scorn; you can only meet pity with shame.
It’s been more than three decades since I’ve been in that place, but I still think of myself as the underdog. I’m not. My own descendants—including my son, who (despite my fears) did not become an entitled little shit—will find that I’m a relatively rich woman, and any problems I’ve had with respectability are only visible if you know what to look for. But I’ve clung to the underdog myth because part of me believes that I’d be incapable of showing compassion—not condescending pity, not scorn—to marginalized people if I hadn’t, on some level, experienced it myself. I still grapple with the idea that compassion springs from who you are, not who you come from.
Try as I might, I can’t let go of my own myth. Go ahead and search. The evidence isn’t gone. It’s just trace amounts at this point.
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. She’s changed the “Novak” family’s name out of respect for their descendants.
Two years ago, my husband and I moved away from Portland, Oregon, on purpose. We left behind friends, career prospects, and a two-bedroom rental house that cost a mere $875 a month. And we loaded our dog and kid into our Outback and drove as fast as a ’99 Subaru can go all the way to Marietta, Ohio, the town where I grew up.
“We just need to be closer to family,” I told people in the perplexed silences that inevitably followed when they heard our plans to relocate. What illustrious family could possibly woo us away from an artsy Eden on the Willamette?
The family thing was true and untrue. We needed to be closer to them because we were perpetually broke, and the broke-ness had become such that it was time to deploy the emergency move-in-with-my-folks plan.
But there was also an ache that hadn’t gone away despite five years of gamely trying to adore that adorable city where we fit in so well, in so many ways. Portland loved me, and I could not love it back, and I felt like a shithead because of it.
We arrived in Portland in 2007, three mayors and at least two ultra-bougie New Seasons food markets ago. Before that, we lived in New York City, and in comparison Portland seemed preposterously quaint and manageable. Our first months in Oregon, my husband and I would admire the downtown skyline and the conifer-studded hills rising behind it and coo, “Oh, look—it thinks it’s a city!”
The intensity of city life was what we moved to escape, and our new no-name strip of neighborhood between I-205 and the used car lots of Southeast 82nd Avenue struck us as a quiet haven of playgrounds and modest houses, with a few hookers thrown in for color. Two greasy old-school Chinese joints bordered us, Hung Far Low to the south and Chinese Garden to the north. We had a spacious backyard, where I doggedly pruned an overgrown apple tree and hacked away at diseased lilac bushes. We got a dog from the Humane Society. My husband joined a few bands. On heady Portland summer days when the sun cascaded down like a shot of heroin, he haunted a skate spot under the Hawthorne Bridge. Though magazines and newspapers in New York barely gave me the time of day, in Portland I wrote freelance stories for the food section of Portland’s major news daily, eventually worked in their test kitchen, and also taught cooking classes on nights and weekends. My husband had a string of long-term temp assignments in administrative offices. It was almost enough to keep us afloat.
All the while, we looked for better jobs. And looked and looked and looked. There were two main problems we grappled with in Portland: rain and money. Too much of one, and never enough of the other.
Let me tell you about Marietta, Ohio. Founded in 1788, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. Situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, which means it’s in spitting distance of West Virginia. It’s an Appalachian Interzone, at once very Midwestern and not Midwestern at all; a generous pinch of twang runs through the local speech. The population is staggeringly white, though there might be about twenty black residents now, and if memory serves, back when I was in high school there were maybe five. So that’s improvement. As for other ethnicities, if you live here and you’re Asian, you’re probably a doctor. There’s one shop that serves decent coffee, but it’s a nutritional supplement store/smoothie bar that doesn’t open until nine in the morning. Vietnamese food? A taqueria? Fat chance.
Portland feels like another universe in comparison. I still struggle to define the charms and drawbacks of each place. Both are defined by the big, dirty rivers that run through them. Portland had innumerable food carts and strip clubs; Marietta has innumerable churches and fracking rigs. You’ll have to wait for hours to score a table at Portland’s Tasty n’ Sons for breakfast on a Sunday, but in Marietta, the Busy Bee Diner offers immediate seating and a waitress who wears her hair in, yes, a beehive. Sure, Portland has scads of idealistic youths engaged in civic activism—but you’d never guess how many grumpy retirees in Marietta volunteer their time for charitable causes. Instead of laptops, they might carry concealed weapons. John Deere pajama bottoms worn as all-purpose outerwear are a common fashion statement, true, but the population overwhelmingly accepts proven science and public health—that is, you don’t see citizens coming together against fluoridated water that way they do in Portland.
Living here is a bit like going back in time. After my high school experience as the resident misfit weirdo, I skipped town with a happy shrug, never suspecting that decades later I’d come to crave Marietta, with its scenic bridges and dozens of historical markers and goofy festivals and rickety, underfunded little museums. It’s an all-American community with a picturesque downtown of antique stores and brick streets. The thrift shops and flea markets are great, because the records and mid-century furniture aren’t all picked over. Baby boomers abound, as do minimum-wage positions in nursing homes. Among the ladies there’s an unfortunately popular haircut, this wedged-in-the-back/spiked-in-the-front chemical-drenched thing with streaky highlights that my husband and I call “crispy hair.”
And I have to be slightly more mindful of what I say in mixed company. In Portland, most people likely lean Democratic, or support reproductive rights. In Marietta, I have friends who vote for Tea Party candidates.
Free from the confines of that infamous Portland bubble, I like walking around and not running into endless clones of myself and my political views. I feel like I have a better understanding of what the rest of America is like, and a window into the goodness of people who don’t think like me. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I’d get asked when we first moved back to Marietta. The old guard here clings to a deeply ingrained Midwestern/Appalachian skepticism of outsiders, and they are reluctant to embrace change, even small ones, like installing pedestrian crosswalks on the busiest street downtown.
“I grew up here, actually,” I delight in replying. Not fitting in is my comfort zone. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable in Marietta.
My California-bred husband still wakes up dazed upon realizing that he resides in the ass-end of Appalachia. He loves record stores, ethnic food, post-rock bands, and independent movie theaters. He’s trying to be a good sport.
But once we had our daughter, those things phased out of our Portland lives, anyway. By then I’d veered away from my culinary career, landed job with the county library, and was thoroughly enjoying the best employee benefits of my life.
Which was great, because we needed those funds to cover childcare. It became apparent that raising Frances in Portland would present increasingly complex logistical problems. For our one-car family, Frances’s daycare had to be reasonably close to my library. Both Joe and I worked until six many nights, and nearly all daycare centers closed before then. Through desperate combings of Craigslist we found a few options, but there was precious middle ground between total sketch-fests that reeked of sour milk and tiny palaces of early childhood education where the tuition was higher than my paycheck.
When my husband’s temp gig with a Portland city agency ended, even though he wanted to work, we realized we couldn’t afford it. We reluctantly pulled Frances out of the loving daycare we’d been lucky to find and had him stay home with her, collecting unemployment until he got a job offer high enough for us to clear her monthly fees.
That put us more in touch with the day-to-day struggles of the working class than we were comfortable admitting. We could have chosen housing that was even lower-cost than our moldy house of sadness, where I had to make wiping the backs of our bookcases down with bleach water a weekly task. I developed a ceaseless runny nose that eventually blossomed into massive sneezing attacks, ones that disappeared once I walked out our door, and I realized I was allergic to our own home. We knew we had food, a roof over our heads, and a bank account that was barely ever overdrawn.
The biggest ache was a battle we raged with our privileged identity. We’re educated, liberal, and artsy. People like us are supposed to gentrify neighborhoods, not get pushed out of them. For extra money, I picked up sub shifts at public library branches; eventually, I worked at least once at all eighteen branches in the county system, the grand slam. It was a great way to see the parts of city that the alluring travel features in magazines don’t show you. That was the Portland I ultimately fell in love with, the one that didn’t trump itself up. I saw a lot of meth teeth and smelled the stench of urine wafting from clothes that had not been washed in years, sure, but I also saw people who were more or less…normal. People who needed jobs and barely had any tech literacy, so I’d have to walk them through filling out a resume online as they raced to submit it before their allotted time for the day ran out on the library’s public computer. People who needed referrals for free legal services, or were trying to locate their parent’s birth records, or who just wanted recommendations for a good book.
To a casual observer, I looked like the Portland dream: The librarian-writer! With nerdy glasses! Who used to be a chef! But really, I was one of them, the other Portlanders. The ones who constantly did the utility bill/paycheck triage. The ones whose shady landlord, when asked to take down the 1970s wood paneling because it’s housing a robust colony of mildew, replies “But if I take down the paneling, it’ll expose the hole in the wall!” The ones who shopped at the discount grocer not because thrift is trendy, but because thrift is necessary. A few strokes of massive bad luck and I could have been the urine-reeking patron, or the patron who lived in her car, or the patron who lost visiting privileges with her kid.
We were tearing our hair out, working with a tiny margin of error from month to month, with no bright future in sight. We cobbled together our work schedules for Frances-watching duties, doing that frantic parent-to-parent handoff as one of us headed out the door; I worked every weekend, and we rarely had relaxed family time together. What’s the point of living in an amazing city when you can’t access its best attributes?
“You know that feeling you get when your plane descends to land in Portland, and you look at the city below and think, ‘I’m home’?” A friend posed this question, and I had to confess I’d never once felt that way. It was more like, “Huh. Here we are again.”
The love that Portlanders have for their city borders on romantic. I felt like a third wheel, immune to the giddiness. While tall bikes and food carts made out on the couch, I skulked in the corner of the rec room, alone. I became cantankerous about the stupidest things, hundreds of soggy twigs to fuel the brush fire of animosity shouldering inside me. I think of myself as a person with pluck, a problem-solver who deals with the situation at hand, but I’d somehow let my circumstances neuter that part of me. On I went, pruning the apple tree. Bleaching the furniture. Polishing a turd.
But really, I was angry for us at not getting it together enough to thrive in one of the most livable cities in the country. Portland was often good to us. We had lovely friends, and I adored my library job. Every morning I’d wake up and resolve to bloom where we’d planted ourselves, and then the sad numbness would settle in, and it became impossible to suss out which part of that sadness was Portland’s fault and which was mine.
There’s that TV show. You know the one I’m talking about—it pokes affectionate but absurdist, sketch-comedy fun at Portland and its charming yet maddening idiosyncrasies. It’s big there; it’s very Portland not to get enough of Portland. If you live, or once lived, in Portland, people will inevitably bring up That Show.
Please don’t bring it up with me. I can’t watch it. Not because I don’t like it, but because it’s too close. Why watch a parody of something that felt like a parody the first time around, in real life? “Come sit with me,” my husband implored as he sat on the sofa a lifetime later, in Marietta, enjoying That Show. He says it reminds him of bygone times, times when it was unlikely that he would have a co-worker named Delmus who wore a t-shirt that read “Dicky-Doo Champion: My Tummy Stick Out More Than My Dicky Do!”
I recognized all of the spots on That Show that Portland people recognize, the cutesy storefronts and brunch places and busy intersections, and I felt both so glad to be rid of them and so idiotic for my inability to flourish there. That Show is a little like my past punching me in my gut.
We had a big garden in our Portland backyard, which I spent many pleasant hours tending, and we curated a collection of the jagged, dirt-crusted bits of metal and plastic and glass that perpetually worked themselves to the surface of the soil in an ornery dis to gravity. It was not a pretty garden, but it produced enough vegetables that it created a decent dent in our grocery bill during the summer months, and yanking at its prolific weeds was an excellent outlet for the bad juju I carried around. Besides, I love to be outside in the sun. With three dependable months of it, I had to soak up as many Pacific Northwest rays as I could.
One day, Frances, who was out playing with the broken Fischer-Price farm I found for free on someone’s curb, called out, “Mama, look at what Scooter did.” I looked up from my weedy reverie and saw a bloody rat between the parsley and Swiss chard. Our dog looked up at me, beaming over his fresh kill. The rat, I assume, had been nosing around in our compost heap. I dug a shallow hole at the base of our fruitless apple tree to bury the thing, and in the process unearthed two corroded AA batteries. Who knows how long they’d been lurking down there? It was nothing, really, but after that, I was done with Portland. The rat-battery incident was my final straw.
I was poised to score a coveted Library Assistant position at the library, one that would nearly double my pay. But I didn’t have it in me to hold out any longer. I couldn’t be content in a saggy dump of a poorly-insulated house, donning two sweaters indoors to stay warm and buying organic spinach and avocados on our credit card. We aged out of that, but couldn’t get it together to bring in the income for necessary creative-class trappings we saw our friends enjoy: Waldorf preschool, annual beach house rentals, February trips to Hawaii in order to remain sane until mid-June, a compact, tidy home in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of a bar full of synth music and unevenly executed vegan menu options. Portland is a shitty place to be broke, though I guess you could say that of any city.
Still, on most days, Marietta squeaks ahead as a less shitty place to be broke. We lived with my parents until we found a house that does not give me allergy attacks. Its rent matches what they raised the rent to in our old Portland dump after we moved out. To the new tenants of the putty-colored house on SE 89th Avenue with the collapsing back patio: I hope the apple tree’s fruiting now. The flower pot of rusty nails and glass shards you found in the shed are the spoils of my unintentional garden archeology digs. Let me know if you ever accidentally encounter that rat.
Sometimes in Marietta, I look at the lazy bends of the Ohio River’s familiar brown muck, and waves of profound contentment wash over me, a strange mixture of bliss and relief. We came back to Portland in July for a visit, our first since moving to Ohio. I rode busses all over town, savored frequent cups of expertly-brewed coffee, and enjoyed the absence of crispy hairdos. At the tail end, I started getting a twinge of the coolness fatigue I had when we lived there. Boutiques selling tiny terrariums, bars built to resemble libraries, movie theaters selling rosé by the glass. In Marietta, maybe a dozen things are cool, and half of those are cool because they are utterly not cool at all. It’s special to be cool.
When we got back to Ohio, our cherry tomatoes were ready to pick. The first sweet corn of the season hit the farm stands. Vinyl banners advertising dozens of vacation bible schools crinkled in the breeze. My daughter returned to her preschool, where she played with classmates named Kolton and Kaylee instead of Mabel and Forester.
The flight back was uneventful. The plane took off and I looked out the window at the familiar vista below, crisply outlined in the magical Portland summer sun, and I thought, “There it is. That was my city.” Keep on loving it for me, okay?
SARA BIR is the food editor of Paste Magazine and a regular contributor to Full Grown People. “Smelted”, her essay from this site, appeared in Best Food Writing 2014. She lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter.
Susannah was murdered just before Christmas. I didn’t hear the terrible news until after New Year’s, when a friend called me on my way home from a family holiday out of town. The house where she’d been killed was just a hundred yards or so from ours, poking up from behind trees across the road. Nothing between us except our long driveway and adjacent pond. Not that I could have stopped what had happened, even if we’d been home. We probably would have been sitting in our living room watching TV or upstairs reading bedtime stories to our two kids. We probably wouldn’t even have heard the gunshots.
When it happened, the co-op preschool that her son and my son and daughter attended was already on the holiday break. My husband Brad and I had loaded up our SUV, bundled the kids into their car seats, and driven down to Portland—Maine, not Oregon. From there we’d flown to Michigan, to my in-laws’ house with its big Christmas tree and glittering ornaments. In the days before Facebook and Twitter, we’d remained blissfully cocooned and cut off from the rest of the world.
I didn’t understand at first why I reacted to the news of Susannah’s death the way that I did. Yes, there was the shocking violence of it. And the throat-catching sadness for her little boy, and the wrongness of anyone snatched from life, much less someone so young. But there was more to it than that. Especially when I admitted to myself that I hadn’t actually liked Susannah. Or, more accurately, I hadn’t allowed myself to like her.
The truth is, I’d always been a little afraid of her. After she was killed, I understood why.
Bradand I had been in Maine for a few years by then. In our early thirties, we were just starting out in our marriage and our life as parents. We’d always been city people before. Our move from Los Angeles to the idyllic town of Camden was the first of what we expected would be many adventures in our life together. Camden is the childhood home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the town where the movie Peyton Place was filmed, and, rumor has it, a haven for retired CIA spies. Locals looking to move know to put their houses on the market during the summer, when tourists fall in love with the quaintness of it all: the harbor, the lupine-covered hills, the age-old stone walls, the black and white Oreo cows. But Maine winters are for a hardy few, and the smart lookey-loos come to their senses before any money changes hands.
We moved to Camden knowing what we were getting into. Brad had been offered a two-year gig at the Institute for Global Ethics, to work on a project about running positive political campaigns. I saw the move as a way to leave my workaday life as the PR director of a small college—to trade in my pantyhose and suits for jeans and sweaters and get back to writing. Fully expecting to return to L.A. in a couple of years, we found tenants for our small house. But the two-year project turned into two more, and five years after moving we finally unloaded the L.A. house, unsure if we would ever head west again.
Moving to Camden felt a little like we’d entered the witness protection program—so far from everyone we’d known, plunked down into a new life. I took to that life more easily than one might expect, embracing it with “pinch me” elation: pancakes on Sundays, a fully-stocked pantry with an extra freezer for meat, trips to the pumpkin patch, red wagons in the driveway, rain boots and slickers, mittens and parkas. This was the stuff of ordinary families, which I’d carefully observed during childhood sleepovers. Having grown up in small apartments with my single mother, who was much more interested in books and travel than picket fences and seasonal door wreathes, I kept waiting for the residents of Camden to discover that I didn’t belong.
Oh, I knew how to look the part at Mommy and Me music classes, or when it was my turn to handle a baking project at the preschool, or while hanging out under a wide- brimmed straw hat at the local beach, my kids appropriately slathered with sunscreen and playing with sand pails and shovels. But I still felt inferior, the way I had as a kid when I would tell friends and their parents that my mother was a lawyer rather than a legal secretary. I told that lie right up through college, even though the thought of being found out made me queasy.
Certain people hatched such lies in me—in Camden, people like Kim Tate and her husband Jack. Kim was a tall, athletic blond who’d gone to Yale. She’d met Jack—also tall, but dark and handsome enough—on the train between New Haven and New York City one afternoon when they were both in college. With their good looks and money, the Tates were small-town famous. Other mothers at our preschool had a crush on Jack, one of them going so far as to tell Kim that she looked forward to receiving their photo Christmas card so she could moon over him. I had more of a crush on Kim, whose three perfect little children were spaced a year and a half apart, lined up like cherub-faced Russian dolls in hand-knitted sweaters she’d designed and made.
Our oldest kids—Kim’s and mine—were in the fours and fives class at the co-op preschool along with Susannah’s son. If Kim was on the elite end of the social spectrum, Susannah was on the other. Or at least that’s where—I admit now—I put her. Almost from the moment I met her, something about Susannah made me steer clear. When I saw her faded, rust-colored Toyota in the school’s parking lot, I stayed in my own car, behind darkened windows. I waited to go inside until after she and her son emerged from the school—their fingers laced, the day’s artwork flapping in Susannah’s other hand.
She was one of those pretty girl-women—twenty-one, twenty-three, twenty-five? If she hadn’t been a mother, she might have seemed even younger, like a teenager with her whole life before her. I’d seen fathers at the preschool watching her, trying to be nonchalant as they homed in on her. You could tell that she’d grown up attracting such attention and was no longer surprised or moved by it. At first, I wondered if my impulse to avoid her was simple jealousy because she was younger and sexier than I was. Her short skirts and angled beret over long corn-silk hair displayed a confidence that I’d never had. Then I noticed that she avoided me and the other parents as well—never lingering to chat on the playground.
She smiled but hurried purposefully, gathering her son’s lunchbox, backpack, and coat. My mother had projected a similar defensive smile when she attended school events or collected me from a sleepover. Just we two, she used to say. It dawned on me then that Susannah’s confidence, like my mother’s, was designed to let other parents know she was doing fine, even though we outnumbered her two to one. I could feel how tightly Susannah’s hand grasped her son’s as they exited the preschool, holding on to each other and their place in the world.
The only time that I can remember even talking to her was at my daughter’s birthday party. It was July; all the preschool parents stood around on our wide green lawn as kids took turns barreling down the giant yellow Slip ’n Slide my husband had set up.
I happened to be standing next to Susannah when the gifts were opened. Her son’s present was a wooden fairy wand that his mother had painted dark blue and topped with a glitter-encrusted star. She’d written my daughter’s name in silver along the handle. We watched as my daughter opened the gift and ran her small hand along the scrolling letters of her name. Susannah leaned sideways to me, our shoulders touching, and said, “I knew she would like it. She’s such an artist.” I imagined them together in the co-op preschool on one of Susannah’s days to help. I could see her asking my daughter about the painting she was working on. Susannah would’ve bent down to be eye-level, pushing her long blond hair behind one shoulder as she did.
Then one day, as I pulled into the preschool lot, I noticed a man sitting in the passenger seat of Susannah’s car. He was my own neighbor—a fit, tanned man named Craig. He operated a moving, refuse, and antiques business out of his home and adjacent barn. When we first arrived from California, my husband had hired him to help move us in. Admiring his Yankee entrepreneurism, my husband marveled, “He’s got it covered. He’ll move it, dump it, or sell it.”
I remember being inordinately happy to see my neighbor in Susannah’s car, happier still when I passed her familiar Toyota parked in front of his house. It intrigued me to think of how they might have met. Perhaps he had hired her to answer the phones for his business. Or they’d struck up a conversation in Cappy’s bar on Main Street. There was no question of why Susannah would appeal to him. But I could also see why he would appeal to her. In his late forties, he was attractive in a town where single men were few and far between. She might have said to herself, try older, try wiser. He would be a good provider, a role model for her little boy. I pictured them together—sheets rumpled, his tanned workman’s hands on her milky skin. I imagined him thanking his lucky stars each day to have such a lovely girl on his arm.
I’d once imagined such meetings for my mother: a new client or lawyer in her firm, who would appear one day and change our lives. I wondered what Susannah’s secret was. How had she managed to find a partner and step into a new, safer life when my mother had not?
Kim Tate was the one who caught me on my cell as my family and I drove home from the airport. “I didn’t know you two were close,” she said. “I’m so sorry,” she kept saying as I sobbed after hearing the news. Sobbing that I didn’t understand at first because, of course, we were not close at all.
In my mind’s eye, I could see Susannah sitting in my kitchen, drinking coffee with me. I imagined her son playing with my kids on the floor of our living room, but that had never happened. I hadn’t wanted them at our house. As cute as her son was, I’d written him off as damaged goods. Damaged the way I’d been at his age. Jealous of what my friends had, prone to elaborate lies and petty thefts, hitting and hair pulling when no one was looking.
It hadn’t been Susannah’s youth or prettiness that made me steer clear of her and her son. It had always been their aloneness and my fear that if I got too close, that old familiar just we two aloneness might rub off on me.
Like a bedtime story, my mother used to tell me of our escape into the world from my father. She’d light a cigarette, press it to her elegant lips, exhale, and begin. Benign stories at first. Later, the stories about his venereal disease and his cheating and her black eyes. But even in her early, seemingly innocent stories, there was always a little violence. Singeing her eyelashes and eyebrows trying to light the stove in their first apartment. My father breaking his arm in an arm-wrestle on his birthday—the bone splitting right through the camel hair jacket she’d given him. “His muscles were stronger than bone,” she’d said with a trace of true awe.
Our neighbor Craig was a mild man, nothing like my father. And yet he’d acted on the same jealousy and possessiveness that my mother had run away from. My mother had also been a girl-woman. At nineteen, the day she first felt me move inside her was the day she began plotting how to leave my father. Scared of what this man who slept beside her with a gun under his pillow might do to us one day when my crying got too much for him or when yet another man admired her beauty. Somehow I’d given her the courage.
Was it her little boy Susannah was thinking of when she told Craig it was over? It wasn’t hard to imagine Craig’s desperate pleading as he tried to make her stay. My mother told me that my father did the same, how he threatened to commit suicide if she ever left him. I could picture Craig grabbing Susannah’s arm. She would have tried to shake him off, her blond hair flying as she tossed the few things she’d brought to his house into an overnight bag. She would not have known that he’d gone to the barn to look for a gun.
My mother’s getaway car had been a teal blue Corvair. She’d literally and figuratively strapped me in beside her from then on—her precious cargo. How I wished Susannah had just gotten in that rust-colored Toyota and driven as far away from Craig as possible. How I wanted to run to her now and wrap my arms around her.
He shot her twice, using an antique pistol from his shop. According to the papers, after he killed her, he called his grown son and left a message on the son’s answering machine. “I’ve done something stupid,” he said. Then he hung up and killed himself.
As my family and I drove down our road, past Craig’s quiet house, I remembered the last time I’d seen Susannah’s car in his driveway. The sense of relief I’d had, thinking she’d found her happy ending. Thinking she could loosen the grip on her small son’s hand just a little because they were safe at last.
Passing our pond—frozen and covered in snow—I heard the car’s engine labor as it climbed our long driveway and saw the ice crystalized on branches of barren trees. How I wanted to rewind the film and change Susannah’s ending the way my mother had changed ours.
As we pulled into the garage, firewood neatly stacked and dry by the mudroom door, I told Brad I’d help him unload the suitcases in a minute. My fingers were already tapping out my mother’s telephone number. I waited, still in my coat in the car, pressing my phone to my ear, listening for her voice, waiting for us to talk, just us two.
ANDREA JARRELL’s personal essays have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column; Narrative Magazine; Brain, Child Magazine; Memoir; Literary Mama; The Washington Post; The Huffington Post, and the anthology My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friendships, among other publications. She is at work on an essay collection.
Last night my husband filled out an application for a home loan while I scoured the forks, the sink, then attacked the coffee stain on the counter, so porous with age everything stains it. The idea of a house sparked, simultaneously, a singed hope and a wild, beating dread. I wanted to look over his shoulder, but I finally had to leave the room. I tried to lose myself in a book, but after two pages, the words remained scratch marks, practically hieroglyphics. I had been too busy listing the reasons why we shouldn’t buy a house, reasons that we’d already discussed, argued, fought over a dozen times. He wasn’t interested in hearing them again, but I could not stop myself from rehashing them, point and counterpoint, like a country duet.
There was my voice, high and clear: A house is a money pit.
And his answering call: A house is an investment.
Renters are free spirits, I call back. You can pick up and leave whenever you want.
Free spirit? You haven’t left the state in five years.
The word “mortgage” is French for “death pledge.”
Good thing this is America, then. His voice would be especially twangy on that line.
We’re too old for a mortgage. We won’t be able to retire until we’re seventy-five.
I love my job; I’m not going to retire anyway.
Here, my voice would crack. Renting is better for people like us.
People like us? You mean people like you.
And he’d be right. People like me. People with a foreclosure to their name.
I’m bad with money. I’m cursed. But I’d be singing to myself now because he would have left the room. You can’t argue with a curse, real or imagined.
And there, in my mind’s eye, is not one house, but two. The house I lost as an adult and the house I lost as a child.
The house I lost as an adult had two bedrooms, a small backyard, and no garage. Still, I loved that little house with its yellow siding and green trim. There was hardly any storage, not even a hall closet. And I hated the blinds that hung in almost all the rooms. Even the cats, who’d torn up every other set of curtains that I had ever owned, despised them and left them alone. But I loved the tree in the front yard with limbs low enough that I could lift my daughters into it. When they were old enough, I imagined calling them in for dinner and seeing only the bottoms of their bare feet, swinging back and forth.
I loved the bedroom the girls shared and its two large windows that filled the room with light as soon as the sun came up. But mostly I loved the sunroom. This was where we kept most of the girls’ toys—the Legos and little figurines that they played with while I read stretched out on the futon, basking in the room’s buttery light. When it wasn’t too hot, we ate at the small rectangular table and, through the windows, admired the patch of purple and white irises that had sprung up as if Van Gogh had visited in the night.
On our first night in the house in 2006, the girls tucked in their beds, my first husband and I sat in the backyard, our bare feet in the grass, and made plans. We would buy a small table with an umbrella and four chairs. We would plant tomatoes. We would harvest the plums and make jam to give away at Christmas. And we would find a way to coax the avocado tree, which had once born two avocados ten years ago, into bearing fruit again.
That little plot of dirt and grass and house was mine, my speck of Earth. I imagined that I could see it from space with a powerful telescope and wondered what its exact coordinates were. When I heard about Google Earth, the first place I searched for was my house on 61st Street. There on the computer screen, to my astonishment, was my little house, our red Jetta parked in the front, the hydrangeas in full bloom.
Almost immediately, I fantasized about the improvements we would make one day, after we refinanced and were both making more money. In a fantasy no one can stop you from being greedy and impractical, and so I decided that we’d build a second floor with two more bathrooms and three bedrooms so the girls wouldn’t have to share a room during their teenage years. Downstairs, I’d convert one of the bedrooms into a dining room and expand the tiny living room into the other bedroom. I actually thought about buying the house behind ours, with its huge backyard just so I could move the fence back. My parents could live in the other house, I reasoned.
An annoyingly rational voice pointed out the obvious. If you had all that money, why wouldn’t you just move to a bigger, better house? Isn’t that the American way? First you buy a starter home and then you discard it for a better home in a swankier neighborhood. But I didn’t want to toss it aside. And so I kept these thoughts to myself because I could never fully explain the loyalty I felt to that little house except that it had unshackled me from the homelessness I’d felt ever since I was thirteen and the bank took our house away.
We were never homeless. You shouldn’t exaggerate, I can hear my mother whispering fiercely over my shoulder. You make it sound like we were living out of a car, for God’s sake! And she’d be right. We never had to live out of a car, or on a park bench, or in a shelter. All my life I’ve been able to attach my name to an address, to exact coordinates, whatever they were. But the houses we lived in after we had to leave the house on Mulberry Lane never felt like ours. The first house we moved into belonged to my grandfather. A tiny place, it sat on a small plot of land he owned, miles from town. A simple trip to the grocery store meant fifty minutes of driving. The wind billowed down from the north for days at a time, rattling the tin storage sheds, whipping the Eucalyptus trees, and throwing dust in our eyes. Days like that we stayed inside. My sister and I shared a room because the third bedroom was a dangerous rat’s maze of boxes and bags that we never bothered to unpack. Once I went inside to look for a book and came out with a cut that required a trip to the emergency room and thirteen stitches.
At night, while my sister slept in the bottom bunk, I would run my fingertips across the ceiling and think about the family that now lived in our house on Mulberry Lane, about the girl who I was sure had moved into my room. I hated her. She was ugly, I decided, with a cartoonish wart at the end of her nose and bad teeth. But when I wanted to feel even sorrier for myself, I’d imagine her a much prettier version of myself, a popular girl, with a family that wouldn’t ever go bankrupt. I thought about her in the pool my parents had put in. I saw her eating dinner in our little kitchen nook, laughing and asking for seconds. Who were these people? How could I get rid of them? And more importantly, how could I earn enough money to buy the house back?
On the long bus ride home from school—my sister and I were always the last to be dropped off because we lived so far from town—I imagined our return in great detail. I would find a job at a neighboring ranch. I would muck stables, sheer sheep, weed the garden. I would do whatever was asked of me in lightning quick time. They would pay me in ten- and twenty-dollar bills, which I would keep hidden in a shoe box. Every week, I would add to the stash, not spending a single penny, until one day there would be enough and then I would present my parents the box of cash. I could picture their astonished faces. My mother would burst into tears. But my father? He would be quiet and thoughtful. “Nikki,” he would say, “Where did this money come from? Did you find it? If you did, then you must give it back.” Honor was important to him. Only after I proved to him that I’d earned every penny, would he envelop me in his arms, tousle my hair, and call me a “go-getter,” the highest compliment anyone could get from him. Then together all of us would return to Mulberry Lane in a Cadillac, flags trailing behind. We’d wave some important papers around, rout the imposters, and move back in. I mean, it would be biblical.
Years later, we moved back to town into a rented condominium, not the return I’d imagined. Though I’d long given up my dream of getting Mulberry Lane back, I would revisit my old fantasy from time to time. All I had to do was close my eyes and the image of my thirteen-year-old self materialized: a slightly pudgy girl with a brown ponytail and braces. Look, there I am shoveling manure into a wheel barrow. There’s me, in the dim bedroom light, adding another twenty dollar bill to my secret stash. These images were like old home movies, flickering and without sound, but as real as any true memory.
In 2005, I was living in an apartment along with my first husband and our two daughters in what was turning out to be a dangerous neighborhood. About a month after we moved in, two young men were shot and killed in the alley behind our building. No one was ever arrested. That summer, there were so many violent crimes and break-ins that the police department held a meeting to address community concerns. And then there was the apartment itself: tiny, dark, no place for the girls to go outside and play. We were surrounded by old Victorians and craftsman style bungalows. Looking at them on walks to the nearest park, eight blocks away, I felt an old desire begin to wake from its long hibernation. A house! I hadn’t allowed myself to think of one since the years I’d obsessed about Mulberry Lane.
But more potent than the Victorians and bungalows of our neighborhood was our yearly trip to Massachusetts to visit my husband’s mother, who still lived in his childhood home. The first few days of every trip, he would disappear for hours at a time into the basement or attic to drag out old records, toys, books—the memorabilia from his childhood. Sometimes we’d go through the photo albums and laugh at the evolution of his mother’s decorating style. “Remember that yellow sofa?” he’d say to her. “Oh God, I don’t know what I was thinking.” They’d laugh. Later, when he’d slid into one of his inevitable funks, I’d think, you don’t know how lucky you are. No matter where he was in the world, Dartmoor Drive would always be his. I wanted all that for my daughters, too, a place they might laugh at, but one they could always come home to even after they grew up. The house my parents were living in at that time was one they’d rented after I’d gone to college. I had no fond memories or attachments to the place.
A house, I began to think. A home. We didn’t have any money saved, but since when did that ever stop anyone from dreaming?
One Saturday afternoon as I was driving to the store, I saw a sign with a blue arrow and the words “Open House” in huge block letters. As if hypnotized, I followed it until I came to a little white house with a large front window and an orange tree by the driveway. I am a sucker for windows and fruit-bearing trees. Imagine the thrill of opening your door to oranges, lemons, and plums. I knocked on the door—I didn’t yet know you could just walk in. Ushering me inside, the real estate agent handed me a flier. I betrayed no sticker shock, what she called a mere $375,000 for a home that the original owner still lived in. “He’s sad to be leaving. He raised a family here,” she said, as if to explain the hefty price tag. I wandered through the rooms. There were yellowed pictures of the man’s children and grandchildren on every wall, his slippers at the foot of his bed, shirts folded neatly on a dresser. Nothing, it seemed, had been remodeled or updated. One bedroom had electric blue shag carpeting, the likes of which I had never seen. In the corner was his dead wife’s sewing machine and an aquarium full of dingy water and geriatric fish. The kitchen was strangest of all. There, right next to the old stove, were a washer and drier, three battered appliances lined up like old people in a soup kitchen line.
“Huh,” I said.
“All you have to do is put up a thin wall and folding doors and then you wouldn’t have to look at those appliances,” she said.
“Isn’t there a garage,” I asked, “where these could go?”
She told me that there was a detached garage, but it had no hookups.
“How old is the pool?” I asked. “When was the roof replaced?” I enjoyed asking questions. I was playing a role: prospective home buyer. And prospective home buyer is one step up from renter.
“Are you going to have another open house?” I asked. “I’d like my husband to see it.”
“Next Sunday,” she said, handing me her card.
On the way home, my head rang, my fingertips vibrated. I was a bell that had been struck… hard. We would rip out the blue carpet, paint the kitchen cabinets, put in hardwood floors. I had forgotten all about the price tag because this was a fantasy and in a fantasy you may ignore whatever you like. But the closer I got to our apartment, the more I realized there were a few things I couldn’t ignore. A fixer upper would be a hard sell. My husband was not interested in hammers and nails. Ripping out old carpet was not his idea of an adventure. Worse, he despised suburbia and although the house was only a six-minute drive from downtown Sacramento, I knew that he would count every minute against it.
Ultimately, those were aspects we could negotiate. What we couldn’t negotiate was the nature of home ownership itself. Like marriage, a house is a commitment and a choice. Choosing to live here means that you decided not to live there, and in my husband’s case, there was Boston, his ideal city. Renting made him a Californian by default, but buying would make him one by choice. It was like having to give up citizenship. It was a lot to ask.
Just keep an open mind, I told him on the following Sunday as we drove to the old man’s house. We stepped out of the car. It was an overcast, windy day and in that dull light, the magic was gone and the place looked depressing. Or maybe it was the way he stalked around the rooms, his hands shoved in his pockets. He did not bother to test the toilets or open the closets. I had not warned him about the blue carpeting and when we came to that room, he stopped cold.
“We’ll rip out the carpet,” I said. “I’ll bet there are hardwood floors underneath.”
He stared at me in disbelief, his eyebrows arched dramatically, the universal male expression for, “Woman, are you crazy?”
And then I thought about how I had married a man who had no skills as a handyman and even worse, had no desire to acquire those skills. It would not be like those home shows where the young couple buys a crumbling dump and through trial and error transforms it into a showcase. It would not be This Old House or The Ol’ Yankee Workshop, either. That was a fantasy I would have to shelve. No matter. I had retired many a fantasy over the years and there was always another one to take its place.
Over the next nine months, I walked through about fifty open houses with the line from the single’s website, “It can’t hurt to look,” ringing in my head. Open houses are like coffee dates. Quick. No pressure. Just a mutual scoping out, sizing up. Could we be compatible? Are you worth a pushup bra and heels? But the slogan, as it turns out, is wrong. It can hurt to look. You might see something you want so badly, you can’t sleep at night. What would it be like, you wonder, to wake up in that house and drink a cup of coffee in that nook and look out at the walnut tree arching over a luminous blue pool? Instead, you wake to claustrophobia in your rectangular apartment, the upstairs neighbor stomping overhead in what must be steel-toed moon boots. My God, you think in your darkest moments, I’m going to die here.
Every month the prices went up. There seemed to be no ceiling. Who would pay $300,000 for this dump, I would wonder, only to find out later that a bidding war had erupted. If we didn’t act now, we’d be priced out, I told him. We’d be shut out from the American Dream, renters forever. And when you come from a family of immigrants, the American Dream is no joke. It is, in fact, the very reason why you are here, so far from your ancestors, your culture, your language. Like so many Mexicans, my grandparents left their extended family behind to start anew in California, a place where they could work hard and scrape together enough money to buy a little house. Even my father, who came from Denmark in his twenties, was lured by the promise that anything was possible here. Not surprisingly, the first major purchase my parents made together was a house. To get the down payment, my dad sold his little twin-engine Cessna. While a plane can get you the exhilaration of freedom and an endless horizon, a house will get you its opposite: walls, fences, a roof, and a competing feeling—security.
The American Dream is especially potent for those of us in the habit of fantasizing, those of us addicted to picturing, with the precision of a drone strike, something bigger and better. And it is most potent for people who have lost something or never had it in the first place. My husband didn’t come from a family of immigrants. The American Dream was something one read about in a high school classroom, he along with his white, solidly middle-class peers. The American Dream, how quaint! How 1920s! How Gatsbyish! But say what you want about Gatsby and his ill-gotten gains, he knew how to lure Daisy: with the biggest house on the block.
Nine months after I’d followed that first open house sign, I wandered into the little house on 61st Street. It had a 1990s Santa Fe color scheme: bright purple, yellow, and green walls. It had hard wood floors and a little arched indentation in the wall, perfect for a tiny shrine. It was priced to sell at $335,000, the realtor told me, because the owners planned to retire in Mexico.
I called my husband, then Angel, our real estate agent. We met with a mortgage broker. Because we did not have the money for a down payment, we’d have to take out two loans, but that was not a problem. Everyone was doing it, he assured us. A month later, we signed on the dotted line in almost hundred different places and then the house was ours. Or, as my friend’s husband likes to tell her about their home, we didn’t own the house, we owned the idea of a house.
We bought two loveseats, three unfinished pine bookcases, which we primed and painted ourselves, a kitchen table and six matching chairs from a garage sale, a hutch, and a new computer desk. My mother-in-law, who helped us with the closing costs, bought us an electric lawn mower.
We had friends over. We met the neighbors. Our cats, for the first time ever, were allowed to go outside. They ruled the backyard like little sultans, basking in the sun and waiting for the girls to carry them back in.
And now, when I had a particularly difficult day at the high school where I worked, it was worth it because I was working for that home I’d always wanted. I was righting an old wrong. If anything marred the set up, it was that my parents didn’t share in this “return.” I often felt guilty that I’d bought the house while they still rented, as if I had disrupted the natural order of things, or overreached. Later, when it all fell apart, I would joke that I had been like Icarus and flew too close to the sun. But now, some years later, I realize that I was more like the father in that story, poor old Daedalus, pacing the confines of his prison, scanning the horizon, willing to risk everything just to get home.
What finally happened with the house was this: my husband quit his job and left. Oh, it was much more complicated than that, of course. The death of our marriage was slow and labored and painful and another story entirely. We needed two salaries to pay for the house and now, less than a year and a half after we’d signed the paperwork, I had only one. It was a matter of math, a simple equation, input and output. I could not, on my teacher’s salary, pay the mortgage, childcare, food, electricity, gas. What luxuries could we forego? What could I cut? What could I cut? Every time I ran the numbers, I was at least $1,800 in the red.
For two months, my mother-in-law made up the difference, but this was unsustainable. I called the bank. They told me to write a hardship letter. I sat at the computer late one night and wrote a rough draft. In all the years that I’d fantasized about a house, I’d never pictured a moment like this one and so it was like an out-of-body experience—look at that woman, chewing on her bottom lip, trying to find the words to explain why she can’t pay her mortgage… oh wait, that’s me! Only those who have ever written a hardship letter will know what it feels like to write one. You have to employ all of your writerly talents; you have to choose the right details. You have to be humble and trustworthy. Your story should provoke pity but not be pathetic. To this day I wonder if anyone ever read it or if it went into what I came to think of as the filing cabinet of hopeless cases.
Every day I heard more bad news about the housing bubble… the crash… the crisis. It didn’t matter what you called it: home values all over the country were plummeting, and Sacramento, with its wildly inflated home prices, was hit hard. Turn on the news and there were shots of decimated neighborhoods, the tell-tale signs of foreclosure blight—dark windows, brown lawns, and white for sale signs like lopsided crosses. On my way to work, if I could stomach it, I would listen to NPR’s stories about the crash, feeling implicated in every story, like a fugitive who sees her own wanted poster in the post office. One couple they interviewed said that it made no sense to pay more for their house than it was worth. It was a bad investment, and they were going to cut their losses and walk away. Walk away! The thought was inconceivable to me (cut), though wasn’t that what my husband had done? And what became of people who walked away? They became nomads, people trapped in limbo, practically ghosts.
I began to discuss the possibility of foreclosure with friends and with my parents, who had never wanted to talk about Mulberry Lane. So many people were in the same position, they pointed out, that I shouldn’t feel too ashamed. If half of the country is in foreclosure, then it feels more like a virus, something anyone could catch, rather than a moral disease like lung cancer or emphysema or cirrhosis, the end result of a disgusting habit, or moral depravity, or reckless ways.
But I had been reckless, I had to admit this to myself. I bought a house at the height of the market because I didn’t understand how these things work. I listened only to those people who said I should buy now before the prices went higher. I bought a house with a man who had been unhappy for years, who wanted to move back to Boston, his ideal city. And I bought a house because I was still, in part, that thirteen-year-old girl, rooted in the shadow of Mulberry Lane, who wanted her triumphant return.
I had two choices: a foreclosure or a short sale. A short sale was the responsible route, less of a stain. I called Angel, and a few days later there was a for sale sign in my yard. It was that simple.
Sometimes Angel would tell me she was bringing a prospective buyer over, so I’d have to invent urgent errands to drag the girls from their games. I made no attempt to put our personal things away, to streamline pictures, toys, the clutter of our lives. I hadn’t “staged” anything to make it sell faster because I didn’t want to sell it at all. This was my home; strangely I had become like the old man whose original house I had liked. If someone was going to profit off my misfortune, I wanted them to know it.
I found one buyer, but Countrywide sat on the offer for months and the buyer drifted away. I found another buyer. Once again, we faxed all the paperwork into the vast void of the Countrywide network. Nothing happened. When Angel and I called, we were told, after long waits, that the agent was working on it. The second buyer came and went. Then a third. What I really wanted was for Countrywide to reduce the principle balance to what the house was now actually worth. On my way to work, I argued with imaginary Countrywide agents. Either way, I’d say—a foreclosure or a short sale—the bank was going to take a hit. Why not resell it to me for what it was actually worth? Why not keep the owner in the house? A single mom with two kids, a teacher, a public servant, I would whine. Have pity! Banks, though, are not interested in pity. I had taken a risk on my American Dream, but I’d done it with other people’s money and there was nothing to be done now except take my beating and slink away.
And then Countrywide collapsed and Bank of America swooped in for the crumbs. I figured that bought me some time. It would take a while for the new people to sift through the mess Countrywide had left behind. In the meantime, the president announced a housing initiative, billions in aid for struggling homeowners. I applied, once again writing a hardship letter and pulling my bank statements and tax forms together. Six weeks later, their offer arrived via FedEx. I took the envelope into the sun room, into the buttery light I loved so much. This is it, I thought. I tore the tab and slid the papers onto the table. Fingers crossed like a gambler at a roulette table, I read the terms three times to make sure I understood. Their idea of helping me was to take the amount I hadn’t paid—more than $25,000—and add it to the principle balance, so that now I’d owe about $360,000. In return they’d lower the monthly payments by a measly $300. The house was worth somewhere around $200,000 was my guess, maybe even less.
I would have to walk away. The only questions now were when and to where?
Unlike the day we left Mulberry Lane, there was no one single day when I left 61st Street. Slowly, a little less than two years since the trouble started, I began to move my things into a house I rented with my new husband. After work, I’d swing by and take another carload. My dad helped me take several truckloads to the Goodwill. We never said anything about what it feels like to lose something as big as a house. But it was there between us, unspoken. “Okay, Nikki,” he’d say, clapping his hands, “Let’s get this show on the road.” Together we’d load up his truck and my car until they were full with the detritus from my failed American experiment. Maybe because my AP class was reading The Grapes of Wrath, I thought of the Joads. It wasn’t the same, of course. I didn’t have to pick peaches, I wasn’t sleeping in a barn, my children weren’t starving. But there were thousands of people like me, people who, at that very moment, were loading their belongings into a car and leaving home for good.
My visits to the house became infrequent, tinged with regret and loss like visiting a relative with advanced Alzheimer’s, someone so ravaged by disease they are not really there anymore. Not today, I’d think, tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. But I could never make myself go. Though there were still some things left behind, junk and old toys mostly, I finally had to admit that I was not going back. Not then and not ever.
I had done the unthinkable. I had walked away.
Tonight there’s a house that my new husband wants me to look at on the computer. It’s listed at $565,000, slightly higher than the average listing price for a home in our college town. Here, a half a million dollars gets you four bedrooms, maybe, inefficient windows, old carpets, and forty-year-old countertops. And you are supposed to feel lucky to get in at that price because most four bedrooms top $600,000, easy. Who are these shiny, magical people, I keep asking, who can afford such extravagance?
“We are,” he tells me. “We are those magical people.”
He pulls up a slide show. It has a big window in the front, raised flower beds. Looking at the pictures, I wish I wore glasses. I wish there was a lens, some kind of protective barrier between my bare eyes and the simple, sweet house we are touring. When the slide show ends, he has to look up at me because I have not committed even to sitting down. I remain ready as ever to walk away.
But the look in his eyes! So full of hunger and longing, it roots me to his side. I want him to have it. I want her to have it too, my thirteen-year-old self.
He points to the money we have managed to save despite the fact that our rent is as high as a mortgage.
“Slow down, let’s think really this through,” I tell him. But really, I’m talking to her. She is chattering away about the mature wisteria vine, the patio, the spacious backyard where the kids could play.
“The prices are going up,” he says. “Interest rates, too. Now is the time.”
I know these arguments intimately. I practically invented them.
“Listen,” I tell them, “there are many advantages to renting.”
My husband just shakes his head. But that girl, my old self? She actually scowls. Forever adolescent, she crosses her arms, rolls her eyes. Two against one, unfair advantage, I think. I take her aside. You tried this once before, I hiss.
She fakes an exaggerated yawn. She’s isn’t buying any of my arguments and she is not interested in cautionary tales or literary allusions.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Gatsby died and Icarus too. So what?
The word mortgage is French for—
Oh stuff it, you old windbag. She turns her back to me and lustfully tours houses on the Zillow website.
She wants what she wants. A backyard, a lemon tree, a little room to write in, an open kitchen, high ceilings, natural light. Those greedy fantasies, again. She’s planning her return, with or without me.
NICOLE SIMONSEN teaches English at a public high school and for the Upward Bound program. She lives nearby in Davis, California, in house she bought last year with her husband. Her stories and poetry have appeared in various journals including Brain, Child, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Talking Writing.