Down the street there was a house, a house like many others on our street. This one was empty but it was also full. Full of shit. Full of treasure. Full of family and history and memory. Full of the past. But it was also empty. Empty of human life but maybe not so humanity. Empty of inhabitants but not their stuff. It remained and full of stuff.
This empty, overflowing house was being messed with, like many houses on the street. Actually, like all the houses on the street. All the houses on our street get messed with. Some are messed with by homeowners who need more space and build out an attic or basement without really knowing how to build and so it’s more of a mess than an addition or renovation.
Some of the houses are messed with by artists. Artists who may know how to build a bit better but don’t have the resources available. Sometimes the artists get resources and really mess up those houses. Other times the artists just come and go and leave a mess.
Sometimes it’s vandalism that leaves a mess behind. Siding gets pulled off, pipes torn out, wires ripped from within, and once all the guts have been disemboweled and the house skinned alive, it’s left in the mess it’s in. Occasionally these messes are set on fire. I don’t know what to call it then but it usually remains; the remains remain.
Sometimes a small business sets up shop in these messes, sometimes the oldest profession in the world or some version of it. But these women also need a place to live and our neighborhood ends up being the place where these women call home. Where they are comfortable coming and going and tending to their front yards and stopping by garden spaces to smell and pick flowers that aren’t theirs and have been known to clear garbage from street corners that collect there. This mess is home.
Some messes aren’t quite as visible but still very real. They’re more socially complex or economically disastrous or historically tangled. Messes made from afar but felt in devastating ways in these very houses. Invisible forces, market forces, policy decisions, lending decisions, all made tangible in these houses and in their relationships to one another.
But back to that first house i mentioned...
What a mess. Mitch had come and gone a few times already at the request of neighbors from across the street. Known for our ability to wield screw guns and plywood in a pinch, he had boarded up the front and back doorways of the house. On a number of occasions. Repeatedly. Why did people keep messing with this place?
By the time I finally got over there to see the place for myself, it had been torn apart. Not in the way i was used to seeing. Usually, these empty houses had a thin layer of bits and pieces of previous lives strewn about the place. Old bills and random mailings and family photos and leftover food and what’s left of a wardrobe. But this house was left with everything. Everything and anything, as if nothing had ever left left the house as if everything that had ever been brought into the house had been compelled to stay.
There was an overwhelming sense of life and and death inside this mess. An entirely tangible feeling that lives had been lived and fallen apart and this is what remained in the afterlife.
And then we began to dig. To dig and unearth and and digest and this activity revealed more of the living than the dead while the stories of the dead became very much alive.
First through the door it was layers of debris with no definable anything. Just an uneven ground that moved as we stepped through the room. There was no floor there only decades of leftovers that would slowly reveal a family that had grown old and fallen apart. But it’s not their demise that held my interest. That’s what almost drove me away. That overwhelming sense of lives fallen apart. Medical records, bills, death certificates, plastic forks, styrofoam cups, empty microwave dinner boxes, crumbling holiday decorations... But once we got past the surface, the initial shock that only screamed disaster, a fuller picture emerged. We’d reach our hands down into this information muck and retrieve stories that spanned decades. Lives that were rich and full and joyous as well as troubled. The humanity was there but only if you spent time getting past the surface.
The patriarch who had built the house and served in the war, the small businesses he had started and detailed records he’d kept upon his return, the well groomed yard and award winning chrysanthemums, homing pigeons raised in the backyard with blue ribbons and state fairs and ‘quill and feather’ clubs, hobbies and social clubs with family and friends and photos and accolades, business cards and stationary, cigar boxes stowed away in the attic with cherished feathered wings and ballpoint pen drawings scribed on the back of a plain white envelope. Stowed away with tender care as a treasure from a lost world, lost time, memories saved in a vacated attic.
Then there were the boxes of gold cards. Gold cards declaring Roman Gold the pinnacle of dental gold teeth experts as declared by patriarch Roman upon this gilded card. Mortar and pestle and smelting equipment amongst the radio and television and turntable workshop. The soldering and smelting, perhaps signaling his demise. And to be children raised amongst such cottage industries. Maybe the mental health and physiological issues detailed amongst the medical records and bills everywhere and nowhere upstairs were not so mysterious or difficult to understand after all. The meticulous bagging of salt and pepper packets, the hoarding and compiling of detritus and debris. Was it the same simple Depression Era thriftiness of my mother and her dairy farm family who lived and then later prospered through it by meticulously saving every string and brown bag and jar of anything or nothing and owning just the one pair of underwear and washing it out each night and having their 10 children work that dairy farm unpaid and unappreciated? Or was it a slow demise of lead and chemicals and small unsupervised industry that poisoned the family and the city?
It was a house full of buried personal treasures. And the stories that were hidden were kind and cruel and amazing. As we sifted through the decades of mess, the individual lives and loves and accomplishments and trials became more clear and untangled. The child’s toys belonged to someone, multiple generations of little voices and tiny hands. Beneath all those newspapers, phone books and plastic bags, the style and taste of furniture, bedroom sets, old suits and ties gave shape to the personalities making up this family.
The job became to sort out the story from chaos that had consumed this place in its later years. The 20th century started out so well for all of them. What happened after the war? A series of bad adulthood decisions? Broken relationships? Moving away, out of the neighborhood and into the suburbs as if that distance could rewrite what had happened and what was to come. A loss of faith. Maybe they just couldn’t adjust to this new way of doing things, this 21st-century-post-industrial-age-of-information-way-of-life. They had all the information. They kept it close. Maybe too much information. Maybe a little too close, too guarded.
And so we became the editors. These lives that had been lived in proximity to ours but that we knew very little of. The break-ins had stopped as all the precious metals had been gleaned from electronics and walls and the stashes of gold teeth had been raided. But the house remained and the messy remains remained and these storied lives sat silent inside.
The family across the street wanted to buy the house. Then the mess of home ownership and deed filings began. For better or worse, the trail was short as the same family had owned this house since it had been built in the 20s and it had only changed hands amongst family members. Tax bills unearthed from the strata of the dining room floor, the floor we couldn’t see or feel through the strata, confirmed all of this.
And for better or worse the County Treasurer had given notice on this house that it was to be auctioned off in the fall. The family across the street was glad for this and, while we were all glad that the house would soon have a new owner, it meant that our work of sorting and editing and compiling and contemplating and telling the story or some select narrative of this family’s rise and fall encompassed in the walls and roof of this property and in fact the entire historical trajectory of the 20th century in America... we had a deadline.
The neighbor had a sense of urgency, but we work slowly and the volume of this house was loud and big in its quiet abandonment. And so the neighbor from across the street began to help. Mitch had asked that, if he was in a hurry, could he please help us move the mess out. At this point it was down to the leftover layers of strata. No longer did people stop by and pitch and ponder that something might be worth something online. Now it was layers and bits of papers, the residual of the detritus. But then, every once in a while, an intimately written heartfelt greeting card between granddaughter and grandmother would rise to the surface or a hand drawing on paper would fall from a pile as we shoved these stacks of stuff into black plastic bags and we’d think, dammit. We have to take it all. All this was left and after all this time we still aren’t clear as to the entirety of these lives, and after all that we’ve seen and sorted and boxed and stored, we just need to take it all. To see what this turns out to be. It’s just too much to think about here in this place, this very house where it all played out and came to be.
And so this is where we’re at. And the neighbor from across the street has cleared out the house in its entirety, every last bit. He’s planted marigolds in the front and begun gardening in the backyard. And he’s begun methodically and somewhat obsessively plastering every single crack in every wall and ceiling of this 90 year old house in painstaking fashion. His trowel carefully and tenderly skimming and floating across these surfaces, following every line up and around and over and across creating new layers on the wall, new lines in the house, of the house, new compositions for future lives to be lived.