As I wrote yesterday, my significant other and I have just bought a house. When our demolition crew removed the wood paneling from the back of the parlor last week, they uncovered four crumbling plaster walls covered with graffiti. From the content, it was clear that it had been put there in the late 1970s, by the teenaged children (now grown) who used to live there (and from whose mother we bought the house). "FONZY!" screamed one wall. "Rocky—Best Picture," said another. "Neil Diamond is a jerk, if you know what I mean," said a third. "Michael is gay and that is the truth," the sister had written about her brother. "The Flyers are #1," the brother had written—presumably about his favorite hockey team. The girl had written her name over and over again, in a loopy script, the way girls do.
In the middle of all this juvenilia—in a more compact handwriting—was a declaration of love, dated and signed by the family patriarch, now deceased, for his "beautiful and lovely wife" of (then) 19 years. Romance and real life are such distinct entities that when the first intrudes upon the second, it is always startling (and affecting). This was no exception. It also felt vaguely unseemly to be laying eyes upon it. Had the man intended for his "love poem" to be read by future generations? Had his beautiful and lovely wife even seen it before the wood went up? Had it ever occurred to him that, some day, his 1970s paneling might begin to look, well, dated—whereupon it would be torn down, thereby exposing his heart?
Finally, I wondered—again, real life intruding—should we alert the family to its existence before we re-plastered? The plasterers aren't due to arrive for another week. First, we have to have the broken joist in the parlor ceiling repaired.
This afternoon, my girlfriend J. came over to give her opinion about the layout of the house. Should we move the kitchen upstairs or leave it as is? J. is an architect and an interior designer. We met at Cornell. She was enrolled in the Hotel School and had a cat named Ashtray. (The two of us smoked a phenomenal number of cigarettes during those years.)
J. pointed out that the anteroom in the back of the parlor—in which we were hoping to build a kitchen—was, in fact, too small to be a proper kitchen. The refrigerator would have to be put in the dining room, and there wouldn't be room for cabinets on both sides. Instead, J. suggested knocking through the adjacent bathroom, getting rid of the Jacuzzi tub, and putting up a new wall. In 25 minutes, she drew up elaborate architectural drawings to make her case. She is right, of course, but unless my book hits the best-seller list, the kitchen may stay in the basement for a few more years.
Lately, I've noticed, real estate has become the obsession of my peer group. For months now, at parties and on the street, friends and acquaintances have nodded politely when I tell them I have a new novel coming out. Then, when the talk turns to the house, as it always does, they have pumped me with excited questions. (And I have offered excited answers in return.) Possibly, this is because what passes for middle class in the rest of America is, in New York City, affordable only to the rich. (The hardest things to come by become, by definition, the most desirable things of all.) Still, as I mentioned yesterday, I can't help but think that I/we have become the kind of people we once loathed—people who care about all the wrong things. Is this growing up?
My aunt G., a longtime community activist on the Upper West Side, once told me that in New York, the older and wealthier that people get, the more blind they become to their surroundings. The homeless in particular become invisible—part of the pavement. I don't want to turn into one of these people. Yet my desire to sequester myself in a beautiful home becomes ever more consuming. Can I become "one of those people"—without becoming one of those people?
After J. left—with an inscribed copy of my new book—I went back to Page 461 of George Eliot's Middlemarch. I am a slow reader and it is taking me months to get through the book. Still, they have been rewarding months. Reading Victorian literature, I am continuously awe-struck by the breadth of the canvas painted—a whole town invoked!
I would love to do the same for Brooklyn—or (more realistically) maybe just for a block of it. Needless to say, at least two of the characters would be incorrigible yuppies.
Meanwhile, I am trying not to check my amazon.com rating.