With all the trouble going on these days with housing mortgages, protesters on Wall Street, and fat cat bankers, it’s no wonder that people are worrying about the future. Maybe we’ve lost sight of the basics? Did people really need houses with 4000 square feet, five bathrooms, and three and four car garages? I hear people arguing right now that excess is what fuels the economy, but I suspect that the American dream wasn’t about filling your garage with stuff, but about having a pot to piss in, which brings me to the topic of my note: my grandparents’ house. Well, it wasn’t really their house; it was just an apartment in a larger building. They were first generation immigrants and by today’s standards their apartment was small. Worse yet, there were four people living in a one-room apartment.
The building sat on the corner of 18th Street and 2nd Avenue, and we always entered the house through the side door, the one next to the garage. I discovered later that it was actually the back door. My grandmother asked her brother Ed, the carpenter, to fix one of the steps on the front porch, and his solution was to move the mailbox from the front to the back, and let the bushes grow over the front door. Because of this, every time someone suggested that her brother fix something she rolled her eyes and told us about the mailbox. I don’t think she ever asked him to fix anything else ever again.
As we entered the house, there was a clothes line on the right that stretched through the garage. At the end of the hallway, next to where Grandpa parked his car, there were three doors. One was to Uncle Ed’s apartment and the other went to the basement, a place so scary that no one entered alone. More about door number three later.
To the right of the entrance was a small vestibule and flight of stairs that headed to the second floor. To my six-year-old eyes, the stairwell was a scene right out of the Bates Hotel. Terrifying! No one lived there in all the time I visited. The door was unpainted, the wallpaper was always coming down, and the light from a window made it look all the more frightening. Somehow I knew it was a crime scene and that something horrible had happened there. The fact that Grandma and Grandpa didn’t talk about upstairs just made me think they were hiding something from me.
Immediately to the right of the staircase was the back door on my grandparents’ apartment. The kitchen was small; off to the right was a washer, the radio, which was set to an AM station that played the news all day long; and, there was a depiction of the Last Supper on one wall and a picture of the Pope on the other. In the middle of the room was a table just large enough to seat four. There weren’t many lamps to speak of, just a single lamp on a pull chain in the center of the ceiling, one click and it would light up the room like a night ballgame.
The next room was the living room: it had a color television (my Grandpa’s pride and joy!), a sofa with a hideaway bed, an end table and grandpa’s chair. Just to the left of his chair was the furnace that heated the entire building. It was massive and took up a good portion of the room. Why it was there in their living room, no one knows. I suspect Uncle Ed installed it.
My grandparents’ bedroom was just large enough for their double bed. Maybe there was just enough for the bedspread to hang over. I don’t recall spending much time there; there was no room to play, and besides the room was musty. I figured that old people smelled that way over time. If you add a collection of fans to keep air circulating, that was it. They didn’t have air conditioning. For this reason, my father always associated success with central air conditioning. To this day, he keeps the temperature so low in the house in the summer that you can see your breath.
Getting back to Grandma and Grandpa’s, what was missing from the description of the apartment?
Yep, you guessed it: no bathroom.
It was behind door number three in the garage. When I got older I joked about the toilet being two blocks away at the Shell Station. If you hit a don’t walk sign, you were in trouble. My uncle used to talk about how strong his legs would get in the winter when someone left the door open in the winter.
When I was six-years-old, going to the bathroom in the evening was like walking the long green mile: I had to walk by the staircase. The first time I went alone I ran past the staircase, thinking that the ghosts were about to grab me and carry me off. I made it to the bathroom, but before I could open the door, it opened, hinges creaking, revealing something so horrifying…. Okay, it was must my Grandpa in his tee-shirt and boxers.
I asked him to wait for me outside the door while I went. He held my hand on the way back to the apartment and said, “youse youngens has got it easy. We used to have to go to the outhouse: bees in the summer and freezing cold in the winter!”
For him, the American Dream was about having a pot to piss in, one with running water to boot.
Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=673
Jimmy, I have satellite internet (which connects us all, amen). It’s about one-fifth the speed of any decent connection, and tonight I guess everyone is doing their Christmas shopping online, because it took, like, five minutes for your piece to load. But it was worth it! I’ve never approved of the hyperactive materialism of the holidays, but it’s starting to seem obscene. I just want to grab people and say, “Don’t buy anything! It’s all junk! It won’t make you feel better! You’re just encouraging these awful corporations to screw us even more! Stop it! Stop buying their crap!” My grandparents, your grandparents, they were hard. They would be appalled at the profligacy of our era.
Thanks, John. I agree with you. My grandparents were even put off by my parent’s first home, which by today’s standards was still pretty modest. They, like the rest of us, kept things (books of matches from the 1950s, old coffee cans of solidified lard, and kitchen stuff), but their consumption was limited. In effect, they saved for a rainy day.
My Grandpa was on his own at 13 after he left a St. Louis orphanage. He later built his house in northern Illinois with the help of his teenage son. That’s it, just them. They lived under tarps while they built the little house. They didn’t have proper plumbing for many years; my father had to walk to the pump near the lake to ferry water back.
He could be kind of a nutty guy (he once weirdly decided that my father’s Mickey Mouse doll’s nose was too large and cut it off!), but given the difficulties in his life I don’t know how he could’ve been anything but.
He worked for years at Johns Manville in Waukegan (post bankruptcy it’s just Manville) and as a result contracted asbestosis, which later killed him. Hard is right.
When my Grandpa’s health got too bad to drive a care anymore, he gave me his 1971 Plymouth Satellite, which he had so meticulously taken care of for 15 years or so. I promptly backed it into someone and left an awful dent in the trunk lid. I can still feel the awfulness I felt when I led him to the driveway to assess the damage. He had his oxygen tank and tubes going to his nose. I think in that moment I acutely sensed how little I had done to warrant such a gift.