Monday, January 03, 2005

Bear with me on this one, because it's more than a little strange, and probably borderline tasteless right now. There are certainly many millions of people around the planet, and certainly several million on the Indian Ocean rim right now, who would be ecstatic to have a real place to live. I'm sure that if I'd been living under extreme hardship for months or years, I'd have no complaints about any place that had walls and a roof. So, this post is going to be utterly frivolous and self-indulgent, but it's a confession so odd that it has to come out somehow.

I can't stand quaint old houses.

Doesn't matter whether they're urban or rural, in poor or rich neighborhoods, large or small, expensive or cheap, battered or fixed up. I walk into a place with a history, with hardwood floors and ornate woodwork and big windows and the kind of charm that drags yuppies out of the ether with renovation lust in their eyes, and it sucks the air out of my lungs. I can get depressed from looking at a picture of the inside of an old house. The sensation is swift, sure, and utterly visceral.

I think it probably comes from having grown up in an ugly old house that was utterly devoid of charm and constantly used as a battleground by squabbling adults. It's interesting that I don't generally think of most old or working-class neighborhoods as dangerous. My childhood neighborhood had almost no crime to speak of, or at least not any crime that was perpetrated among strangers. But I never remember liking it, and, predictably, I loved living in a college dorm. I'd live in a dorm again if I could. I've told friends, and been told by friends, that I'd be a perfect resident of a space station.

When I moved out of the MIT dorms, I lived for a while in a nice old duplex in a well-kept working-class neighborhood in Malden, Massachusetts. It wasn't palatial, but it was in better shape than my childhood home. And, in the six months I lived there, I carefully avoided doing much but sleeping in that house. I was finishing up some coursework, so I'd take an hour-long morning train and subway ride to campus, stay there all day, and manage not to come home until 11 PM. I'd walk a mile in the dark in the winter to avoid being at my house. And, perversely, when I finally moved out, I picked an apartment in another old building, this time an old brick Cambridge home that had been chopped up into small units. The less said about that experience, the better, except that I was fortunate to have a good roommate who kept me from going insane.

Years later, after my marriage, we moved out of a nondescript apartment building (which, of course, I loved) into what I'm sure was an attractive duplex in a residential neighborhood. You guessed it -- a quaint old house. I've honestly blocked big chunks of the following two years out of my conscious memory. If we hadn't moved out of the Boston area and into a modern home not long afterwards, I suspect that the depression of those years would have ended my marriage.

So, it's really strange to be hunting for a rental again, and struggling with the desire to scream when I walk into what would be a desirable place for 95% of the population. I definitely have a crunchy side. I try to patronize local businesses when I can, rather than chain stores and fast-food places. I'm all for people taking charge of their own neighborhoods, and preserving old buildings rather than committing random acts of sprawl. But there will always be something about planned, canned apartment life that makes me feel utterly comfortable. Like I've arrived. Like I'm home. Like I never have to go back to the old neighborhood again.


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