Wednesday 1 May 2024

Story Of A House

A house can take it out of you. When we got it, almost thirteen years ago, it was in a horrible state - a foreclosure, abandoned by the previous owners who apparently fled to South Carolina leaving behind debts and mountains of junk. We never knew how many of them there were - it’s a slow process of casual detective work. We've been able to tell a lot from the mail that still sometimes arrives for them. 

A neighbour told us he sent his kids to daycare at the house - another neighbour used to drop them off and bring them home. One day he picked them up himself, saw inside the house, and never sent them here again. He said the place was filthy. We knew that already - it took us years to clean it up.

There had been an above ground swimming pool but another neighbour took that when the house was empty. He also took the patio bricks. He came round shortly after we moved in to explain himself. He stood at the front door with a cigarette in a cupped hand, the burning end facing inwards - a jailbird smoke - and explained that he had worked for the previous owners, maintaining the property while it stood empty. As payment they had given him the patio bricks and the swimming pool. I said I wasn’t aware the banks paid neighbours to maintain their foreclosed properties, but he hardly noticed. He waxed lyrical for a moment: 

‘When we got that pool home and set up lil Danny’s eyes were shinin’…’ 

He broke off, took a clandestine drag of his cigarette, his eyes darted around, he lowered his voice: 

‘I don’t know what the neighbours around here have been telling you, but none of it’s true.’ 

‘Oh’ I said with a magnanimous gesture, ‘they’ve had nothing but good to say about you.’

We never were friends. He died a year or so ago. We sent a consolation card but we never heard back. We’d see Neighbour Dan, as we called him, busy cleaning his gleaming white pick up truck in the autumn sunlight when we were raking leaves. ‘Just imagine every one of them’s a hundred dollar bill’ he’d yell, and we'd reply with a sort of ahh whaddya gonna do? gesture that one of Amy’s brothers, who has lived for years in a suburb of Pittsburgh and knows how to handle these things, taught us. 

I sometimes thought the only reason for having such a large back yard was to keep the neighbours at bay. We could see them - keep an eye on things - but they were way off in the distance.

Neighbour Dan’s neighbour, an Italian American called Denise, ran a daycare next door to them. Seems like everyone ran a daycare. From our bedroom window we could see processions of cars in the early morning, pulling up, discharging children, driving off. Denise would sit on her front step and conduct telephone conversations that rang through the neighbourhood. She sold up and moved away last year. No more daycare. There are new people now, we haven’t met them but they’re having their basement done - you know these things when you’re a neighbour. We’ve seen a truck in their driveway with All Things Basementy on the side.

We absolutely loved our next door neighbours, Al and Tammy and their son Alex, who used to cut our grass. Tammy grew up in the house. Her mother, who was in her late eighties, lived with them. We’d see her on the back deck smoking a joint. Tammy told me her father had been a pharmacist. He distilled gin in the basement. In one of our earliest encounters she told me how on her eighteenth birthday he had presented her with a phial of grade A pharmacutical cocaine and told her to go and enjoy herself. She grabbed my sleeve: ‘Eric, I nearly shit my fucking pants!’ And to underline the point she reiterated: ‘I…nearly…shit…myself’. All this in a loud voice in the street. She was my first experience on an American neighbour. I was thrilled to bits.

One day during our first summer there I asked Tammy if we made too much noise. She said not at all - she really liked hearing us play music - they loved having us as neighbours. She said it was the first summer in years that they’d been able to open the windows on that side of the house. The previous owners kept dogs in a kind of dog pound in the back yard. Apparently they hardly ever let them out and they never cleaned the cage. Then there was the swimming pool - Al told me it was full of stagnant, green water with frog spawn in it, but the kids still jumped and splashed around in it. I thought perhaps they were trying to get clean having spent too long in the house. He agreed that that was very likely.

A wily old lady called Roberta lived on the other side. The kids were all scared of her. She knew everything that went on, and on the occasions that we talked to her she told us every detail, right down to her friend in the next street, the one with the prolapsed rectum.

Roberta had a clear view of our driveway from her back deck. When the hillbillies, as she called them, moved out the junk they left behind was hauled away by the truckload. A twenty foot dumpster was parked in the driveway, and when that was filled up another took its place and that was filled up too. They were hoarders. The basement, which they’d tried at some point to turn into a party venue, was filled with their crap. They’d built stud walls down their, insulated with fibreglass roof insulation, and lined with with plasterboard. The house had no gutters so the rain water drained into the basement and turned the walls of the party basement into a rotting, rancid mess.

In the first month we lived there I cleared out the basement as best I could, tore down the sheet rock and removed the soggy insulation. I dismantled a hideous structure that was intended to be a bar - it was built out of left over two by fours and offcuts, held together with four inch nails. It was probably meant to look charming and rustic, but it was just a filthy mass of nailed wood. We dealt with the basement most of the time by keeping the door shut and only going down there when the heating furnace broke down and had to be coaxed back to life.

Eventually we got hooked up to gas and waved a less than fond goodbye to the old fuel tank. We ran out of fuel on a regular basis, dug our way through to the tank through three foot high snowdrifts, and poured in red diesel from the gas station, five gallons at a time, in blizzard conditions. The mains gas hook up was absolute paradise after a few years of that.

We had the roof replaced, and when we’d got over the shock of that we had work done in the basement to make it dry and watertight. We finally made the effort and got rid of the remaining junk that was left down there, most of which was a large, rotting sound system left over from when the previous idiots tried to make it into Catskill’s most happening nitespot. While I panelled, painted and finished things that we’d left half done Amy painted the basement walls with special basement paint in fresh shiny white, and having done that she painted the entire basement floor with utilitarian grey floor paint.

I used to find the house quite daunting, but only if I thought about it too much. For ten years I would lay in bed, morning and night, and plan how I would replace the bedroom door with something that wasn’t the horrible, brown-varnished hardboard slab that wouldn’t close properly because there was no door frame for it to close into. I’d do the job twice a day in my head. It became an immense undertaking, a constant irritation, a niggling daily depression, a testament to my failure as a homeowner and as a human being.

One morning I could stand it no longer. I took the door off it’s hinges, carried it downstairs to the garage and came back up with the panelled door I’d been saving for all those years. It only took three hours to build a door frame and hang the door.

Now I lie in bed staring at a slight imperfection, a gap between the top of the door frame where it doesn’t quite run parallel with the low attic ceiling, and dream of pieces of trim that might somehow even it up. I shouldn't be hard on myself. I built everything in the place - walls, shelves, the front porch, the entire kitchen, and even the dining table. The house has worn us out and could quite possibly drive us insane if we stayed there.

But now it’s official - we’re leaving - we’re gone. We have a realtor, or estate agent if you’re in the UK. We’ve spent the better part of three months making the place into a saleable proposition - mending, finishing, cleaning, painting, decluttering… 

The other week I took the definitive step of I dismantling and packing up the studio ready to roll it into a shipping container. It took four days and I found it emotionally draining. It was a great sounding room. I made a lot of records in then - A Working Museum with Amy; my last four albums: 'amERICa', Construction Time & Demolition, Transience and Leisureland; The Old Guys for Amy; her latest album Hang In There With Me due out of Tapete Records in August; an unfinished reworking of my 1985 album A Roomful Of Monkeys; plus a whole load of tracks for compilation albums and tracks and albums for other artists. 

The room looks wonderful now, with only a Wurlitzer electric piano, a celluloid bikini mannequin, and a couple of armchairs and a coffee table added by the realtor, but it sounds like the acoustic disaster it was when I first tried to record in there. I remember driving hooks into the ceiling and tying an old quilt above the drumkit with string meant for wrapping Christmas presents. It sounded a lot better but it looked dreadful. It stayed that way for three years until I took the matter in hand and built some nice looking acoustic panels. It took years to get that room sounding right.

The sale listing went live just yesterday. We love the place but it’s time to start a new chapter. We couldn’t stay any longer - everything we needed was in storage and quite honestly the place was beginning to intimidate us - every smudge, every speck of dust… I’d love to live in such a beautiful place, but it’s up to someone else now. Here's a link for the listing in case you're interested in buying the place, or if you're like us and enjoy looking at houses for sale:


And here's a list of tour dates:

May

17 KINGSTON UPON HULL - Wrecking Ball TICKETS

18 HOLT, NORFOLK - Community Centre TICKETS

30 SUTTON, SURREY - the Sound Lounge TICKETS


June

01 NORTH SHIELDS -Engine Room TICKETS

o6 BIRMINGHAM - Rock n Roll Brewhouse TICKETS

09 COVENTRY - Just Dropped In TICKETS

20 LONDON, WALTHAMSTOW - Rock n Roll Book Club TICKETS



 

3 comments:

  1. Looks fabulous­čśü wishing you both all the best for your next adventure.

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  2. I was in your house once for a house concert. I loved that place. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen in between sets and after the show with the potluck food and people. It was comfortably crowded as everyone always ends up in the kitchen. I contemplated returning the next day to help the clean up, but I was traveling with companions, and I was not the driver. I always thought I would end up back there to visit for any reason at all.
    Cheers, Happy Belated Birthday, and I hope to be in yours and Amy's presence again.

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