I live in North Carolina. I certainly don’t make near what anyone in a First or Second World Country would consider ‘a living’ playing music so I have to vary it up a bit. Substitute teacher. Ebayer. Home remodeler. A few years ago I bought a house in foreclosure downtown. Nice neighbors but not quite a nice neighborhood. It and twenty others were built in the early 1900’s as a company house for the Pearl Cotton Mill Village. You ever hear the phrase ‘good bones’ when referring to a house? Well, this one ain’t the house they’re referring to. It wasn’t a fixer-upper but a tearer-downer. Terrible bones. Rickety. Years of neglect. Here’s another phrase you may have heard: ‘They just don’t make ‘em like they used to’. I say ‘Thank heavens they don’t’. My house was Exhibit A Your Honor as to why codes and regulations should exist. I don’t think they ever made this thing to last. It was built for workers to be within walking distance from their place of work. Period. Those workers would be different month to month. Year to year.
Sometime in the late Forties The Company sold off the homes in The Village. Decades passed and the house itself passed from owner to owner and over again until here I was with this home and a plan for the future and shit I honestly didn’t know if I should tear it down, haul it away and start from scratch. Did I make a mistake buying this thing? Wow. Bad design. The foundation all wonky, floors crooked, inch-and-a-half gaps between exterior doors and floors, an immense fireplace smack dab in the middle of the house filled with bricks and dust, rendered useless. The widths of the floorboards all of different sizes with no discernable pattern, as if they just assembled it with whatever scraps they had from non-migrant non-immigrant non-rentable non-company homes. It would take a lot of time and resources to fortify. I remember even now combating the deep terror with a mantra, the deeper calming breathes, the repetition of prayer: Not for what it was but what it could be.
Some interesting things happened along the way. Me and the construction crew were outside, dead of summer, murderous heat. A fella in a pest exterminator van drives by and does a double take. He drives around, does a U-Turn and stops his van.
‘Who owns this?’
‘Ah hum. Yep’
He’s looking into the past, to the second floor then to the roofline then into the sun then he’s looking back on the path of every single ray of every single star that hit this house which is now hitting the hand that is shading his eyes.
‘Used to live here. Yep. Years ago. I slept right up there. Me an’ Donnie’
He shakes his head.
‘The old baseball stadium right down the street? I could hear the crack of a bat and the crowd cheer from my window. Gawd what a sound. What a memory. I can hear it. I’ve passed this house for years and wanted to stop. I’d never dare to. Never even looked at it for more than a moment. I always wondered what them insides would look like to me now. I guess it’s real easy to do when there’s no exterior walls’
I took him to a small pile of items we found in the walls, underneath the house, buried in the ground. He picked up a baby’s shoe.
‘Oh sheeez. Mighta been Donnie’s. My cousin. He was in the crib. In my room. Our room. Donnie. Wow’
‘You can have it’
‘Are you sure?’
And so it went for months, people stopping by as we worked. Even one of the guys that worked on the house once lived right next door. Most people who stopped by and revealed to me some of their brief history with this house only lived in it for a year or two yet they felt compelled to pause and look and then find me and tell me ‘I was here’. A middle-aged woman stopped by once. She just smiled, pressing her index finger above her chin and underneath her bottom lip, shaking her head. A few weeks later we found a Polaroid picture in the crawlspace. Three young ladies smiling above a birthday cake. Could that be her? Was she one of them? Maybe. We didn’t know. Maybe. Maybe she’d stop by again, wanting to see the progress but in case we missed her we nailed the picture by the front door, right where the mailbox would go. One day the picture was gone. Whether she or the wind or the curious took it, who would ever know except for either her, the wind or the curious.
Neither this house nor any of these Company houses were ever places anyone ever stayed for very long. It was never recognized as The Thompson’s House or The Grocer’s Home or My Girlfriend’s Parent’s Place. It was occupied by the transient workers migrating up and down the East Coast that were guided by the turning Earth and the men who were paying them to turn it.
Towards the end of the rebuild, a cop stopped by.
‘Sure glad someone’s doing something with this house. Once a month we’d get a call. Once a week we’d get a call. Happened for years’
A few months after we moved in, we had a get-together and a friend of a friend stopped by. He had lived in that neighborhood for a while.
‘This house, remarkable the change but I got to say it was awful for years. This was the drug house. Had a green light on the front porch. Some days it was on, some days off. Had a different color for a while too. They’d mix it up I’d notice and had some kind of code with what they had in stock and what they were out of. Next to you, that other house, that had a red light on the porch. You can’t imagine the terrible sounds coming out of there on a weekend night. Awful. Can’t forget them. Always be a rodeo of police outside either or both of these houses’
It sat vacant for two years before we came around. Some time after we moved in, a group of teenagers passed by the front porch as I was trying to get credit on a Horticulture Engineering Degree from Espousal University.
In other words, I was weeding for my wife.
I kept on weeding.
‘You live here?’
‘I used to live down the street’
‘Yeah. That house was all kind of mesed up’
His buddy nods ‘let’s go’
‘They sure did it up real nice though’
Yeah they did.