We have never owned a home. We have one kid in college, one on the way to college next year, and a nine-year-old. We have always paid rent. My sister, who is almost seven years younger, has just bought her first home with her husband. I have soul-searched for jealousy, but all I feel is pride and admiration for her. They did it. They bought a house in Northern California after five months of struggling and looking and bidding and losing and finally winning. We have lived in Southern California since 1988, and yet we have never managed homeowner status. She is also nine months pregnant with a three-year-old, and I’m so relieved she’s out of Haight-Ashbury and will have a driveway! Her new neighbors even threw them a welcoming party. She’s so happy, and I’m happy for her…and it makes me think, well, maybe one day, we can do it too. But it’s got me thinking about rent…and all the places and people to whom I’ve paid rent…
The first time I paid rent was in Manchester, England, and I paid it in pounds to an Indian landlord, whom I never met. I lived in a flat with two British Drama students in the Indian area of Manchester called Rusholme. I was an exchange from the University of Tennessee, and I was thrilled to be out of Knoxville and living in Manchester for a year. The first semester I had lived in a dorm with Americans. They lumped all the Yanks together on the seventh floor of Owens Park Dormitory, and my next-door neighbor was from Maryville, Tennessee and the one next to her was from Union, Missouri.
Not that there is anything wrong with being from Maryville or Union, but I didn’t apply to be an exchange student in order to meet Americans. The way I figured it, I could meet Americans any time. I plotted my escape and jumped at the chance to move into a flat with two British Drama students around December, who happened to be male. My parents FREAKED and there was a rush of Transatlantic calls to one of my flatmate’s girlfriends (the only student who had a landline) and threats to haul me back to Big Orange Country, but I had already given up my dorm room. The British girl who moved in had desperately needed to leave her own flat due to “an insidious assassination of character.” In Knoxville, we didn’t say “insidious assassination of character.” Everyday in England was a new adventure in language. Manchester shopkeepers and taxi drivers regularly called me “Luv,” as in that’ll be “Ten P, luv” or “Five quid, luv” or “Ta, luv.” It may never have stopped raining, but I felt loved.
And I wasn’t living with “boyfriends” in my new flat. We each had our own room, and they stayed at their girlfriends’ flats. So I was often alone in our home, which was freezing and forever damp. I had a gas heater that I lit everyday if the matches stayed dry. I learned to brew tea in a pot with a tea cozy and tea strainer – the proper way to make a proper pot of tea. Hot water bottles were also essential. It took three kettles of boiling water to keep the bath hot, and mostly I showered at the student union.
But I liked writing that check from my Barclay’s bank account in pounds. I loved everything about that year, stuffing masses of giant ten p coins into red phone booths to ring up Tennessee and tell them of the latest adventure for a minute or two. I remember listening to the radio and the DJ yelling, “It’s going to be wet and horrible for the next three years.” And it was true - it hadn’t stopped raining for months, but it was my rain – my Manchester rain.
KNOXVILLE RENT, SONNY GIBSON, THE LANDLORD
The next person I paid rent to was Sonny Gibson. He owned a house on Lake Avenue in Knoxville, Tennessee. I lived with four nursing students, and we each paid ninety dollars a month. Sonny drove a truck and had a basement full of vintage dresses that belonged to his mother, Gracie Gibson. They fit perfectly, and I wore them to every theatre party in Knoxville and affected a British accent and longed for pubs and hard cider and flared up at anybody who dared criticize BOY GEORGE, who I had seen once at a make-up counter in Harrods, so I felt a connection.
Sonny Gibson didn’t mind when summer came and the nurses moved out, and new roommates moved in…One brought home two dachshund puppies, Rudy and Peter – one for me and one for her. Rudy and Peter were wild brothers and egged each other on and chewed up shoes and thoroughly shredded houseplants, album covers, underwear, everything. Once when I was so broke, I bought a burrito supreme for a $1.35, and Rudy inhaled it in just seconds when I wasn’t looking. It was too late to walk up to try to sell plasma for fifteen dollars. Times were hard on Lake Avenue.
I moved into the theatre house the next year with Rudy into James Agee’s old neighborhood on Clinch Avenue in Fort Sanders. Peter moved out to a farm. I paid rent to a rental company and it was $180.00 split with a roommate. Rudy was the theatre dog. He attended all theatre rehearsals and parties with me and went to foreign films at the student center in my backpack.
I had a roommate for a while, a lovely girl, Keytha, who acted in tons of plays, but then she moved out with her boyfriend, and my husband-to-be moved in…He was the first boy I dated who cooked me dinner, walked Rudy and introduced me to lentils, bulgur wheat, and the Knoxville Co-op. He acted in my plays and worked the night shift at St. Mary’s on the psych ward and came with stories of “Thorazine shuffles." I wrote plays about England and paid rent through money earned working at Apple Tree Bookstore, West Knoxville Dinner Theatre, and a graduate teaching assistantship in Voice and Diction at UT. No more plasma!
My husband, Kiffen, and I then eloped (Gay Street wedding rings, Knoxville Justice of the Peace, rooms at the Budget Inn with a Flannery O’Connor theme – the whole thing cost less than a hundred dollars, but that is another essay.) We moved to China to teach English, and my parents adopted Rudy.
The University of Tennessee found us jobs in Ningbo, China. We didn’t have to pay rent in China but we were paid in Chinese currency, which could not, at the time, be converted into dollars and all earnings had to be spent in China. We stayed eight months teaching English in Ningbo, “City of New Vigor.” I thought I would acclimate to China like I did to Manchester. Logically, or so I thought, I had loved Manchester, therefore, I would love China, but we were living in the middle of rice fields, and I was deep in culture shock. We read to each other at night, and I watched the only movies available – KRAMER VS. KRAMER and AMADEUS. I played a lot of Laurie Anderson and Mozart on my walk-man for miles in the rice fields…I’d watch the ship sail up the river to Shanghai and long to go too. Once we took it and smoked clove cigarettes and drank thick, sweet black coffee on the deck while everybody sang "Auld Lang Syne." It was April, 1987.
The majority of people still wore blue Mao suits and rode bikes. We stood out and attracted attention no matter where we went, but I loved my students, and that made it bearable. I had them write plays in English, which they performed on the Chemistry Lab “stage” – twelve plays in all! It was a broiling hot night and giant bugs from the rice fields flew into the lighted windows during the packed performances, but it didn’t matter. Occasionally, a teacher would remark, “Perhaps you are too tired. Perhaps you work too hard. Perhaps your students are too tired.” I heard the word “perhaps” a lot that year. “Perhaps it is not necessary to do the plays or make the English newspaper.”
I remember once hiking to a temple with Kiffen and a British teacher, Patrick, when we came upon a family of tea-pickers. The women had thick black braids and baskets of tea leaves under a pale sun…we hitchhiked the rest of the way to the temple, and caught a ride with a horrible driver, who careened around precipices. Patrick saw my fear and said, “Well, I always believe that the driver doesn’t really want to die either…” I remember reading FRANKENSTEIN at the Temple and wanting to go home, but I didn’t know where home was anymore…New York? Los Angeles? Atlanta? It was not going to be Knoxville…I knew I could never make a living as a writer in Knoxville.
At the end of our teaching term with our Chinese money, we bought silk and train tickets on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which took us through China, Russia, Poland, and then East Germany and West Germany. We arrived in West Germany with a few traveler’s checks and net bags bulging with our China life. I had an American Express card, and we bought plane tickets back to the States after several weeks in Stuttgart with Kiffen’s sister, Celina and husband, Bill, who still make their home in Germany. I remember they took us to see James Bond dubbed in German…I believe it was Timothy Dalton playing Bond. There were no subtitles. It was before I knew that I could say no to relatives and James Bond in German.
Pre-China and Post-China, we lived in my parents’ (furnished, carpeted) basement to save money. My mother has taken umbrage when I’ve written about the basement digs in the past, because she said my description “harkens images of a cot with a swinging light bulb above it.” So to set the record straight, it was a beautifully finished and furnished downstairs room (not a basement at all) in Roswell, Georgia. The swap/rent was that my mother insisted I go to my father’s Atlanta Falcons games, and I made her go with me to see Flannery O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville. It was a good trade. She also got to keep Rudy for good. She fell in love with him while we were in China and couldn’t give him up, and I understood.
After Georgia, we moved to Valentino Place in the shadow of Paramount Studio. Aphrodite lived on the top floor, and the courtyard was gargoyles and palm fronds. By then, I was pregnant with our first child, Flannery. My brother-in-law, a sitcom cameraman, gave us his place so he could go back to Hawaii. He was sick of Hollywood and wanted to fish on the beach. The apartment cost $250.00 a month, and the managers were Marshall and Kim from Nebraska. Kim did make-up, and I’m not sure what Marshall did, though maybe he wrote screenplays? It was a strange time. We shared a kitchen with a kid (he was our age but seemed so much younger.). The kitchen divided us, and so did all the Chinese silk I hung to pretend he wasn’t there. He was rarely there anyway as he was always taking road trips to Mexico.
We had awful temp jobs at banks, except for the day or two when Kiffen drove the prop truck for THE GOLDEN GIRLS, which made for a funny letter home and a good pay day. Still, I never understood why our roommate never had to work. I eventually learned that his father would send him pot from Hawaii to sell.
We moved down another floor, a studio, for $350.00, and Flannery’s first room was a walk-in closet. He was a wild, happy baby, and Marshall, the apartment manager, would call up and tell me to keep my windows closed during the day so people could sleep and not listen to some kid.
We moved to Silver Lake...
SILVER LAKE, OLIVER, THE LANDLORD
Our first landlord in Silver Lake was Oliver. We only lived there a year. It cost $500.00 a month. It was a one bedroom. We were moving up in the world because we could shut a door! Hooray! We got a dog, Birdy, from friends moving away, but the living room was a hot box by afternoon, and the Chinese silk slowly faded to shreds in the California sun. One neighbor wanted me to sit with her and make her write stories, so she could find discipline. Another neighbor ignored her two-year-old daughter so often that we called Child Services. I’d see the child swinging from the balcony, filthy. Once in a while I scrubbed her in the tub and fed her. The mother never knew or if she did, she didn’t care. The little one had a big sister, and we talked about programs, and she explained her mother didn’t used to be this way…I don’t know what happened to them…
My husband was teaching in Watts, South Central, and in downtown Los Angeles as a substitute teacher…then he got a real job as a real teacher in South Central. I got a job in East Los Angeles teaching ESL…I was pregnant again and a house for rent became available…
SILVER LAKE, CONNIE, THE LANDLADY
I met Connie, our new landlady in a park – or rather that was where she wanted to meet me. She said the rent was a due a few days early each month and no dogs. She said we could paint, and she would reimburse us. The rent was $735.00 a month. We moved in but had to give up Birdy, our dog, who ran away from her new home immediately to find us. We painted everything, and we asked not to be reimbursed if we could keep Birdy. I was seven months pregnant. Connie agreed. Did I mention she lived directly behind us?
At first, it was great…the house was a dump, 763 square feet of stucco, but we had a huge backyard, and Kiffen made it look like Tennessee. We had a giant garden and the kids grew up picking vegetables. Pumpkins grew the size of basketballs. We had winter gardens with Swiss chard, beets, broccoli, and cauliflower, and summer gardens of tomatoes, beans, carrots, and lettuce…and lots of spices, roses, sunflowers and champagne poppies. He built a King Kong topiary and jasmine grew all over it, until we had a fragrant King Kong of jasmine under the apricot tree. Birdy, however, fell in love with Connie and her husband, Jack, and stayed over on their back porch most of the time. They led a back-deck life of wine and jazz and never went anywhere except to visit troubled adult children “in the desert.” We never once entered their home in eight years.
Kiffen invited Connie and Jack to help themselves to the garden, and they always did, and they were fine, but actually, they weren’t fine – they were cheap. If something needing fixing, Connie would appear in her wig and muumuu and sad story about the price of things. She’d sneaked into the house to snake our toilet. She replaced a door and her son hung a plywood door that Birdy dug through to get back to them. When the earthquake hit and rocked the house off the foundation, they refused to tell FEMA or anybody. She replaced broken windows with panes of Plexi-glass. When I had the 1928 toilet replaced myself for sixty dollars by the DWP, she hit the roof and demanded the money back. She said she knew where to find deals on used toilets that were perfectly good. It was becoming intolerable.
When I became pregnant with our third child, everything about the house made me throw up. I was terrified of turning into Connie and Jack – the warped sense of money, decay, cheapness…She would give the kids birthday presents – a dusty set of tweezers and nail file for a three-year-old…a beat-up copy of SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON for a seven-year-old. She’d drop off bags of old candy congealed together in brown paper sacks or once a bottle of Apple Reunite when we moved in…When we moved, she demanded an extra month’s rent and my mother and my mother-in-law, children of the Depression, both called up and said, “Don’t you pay them another penny!”
We moved a half mile away, and I blocked their number…We had lived there eight years. The last time I saw Connie was at the 99 Cent Store on an Ash Wednesday. We didn't speak.
SILVER LAKE, SAM, THE LANDLORD
We’ve lived in this house ten years now. How can that be? But it’s true…we pay $1400.00 a month in rent for a five-bedroom in Silver Lake. Our landlord is a good guy. He doesn’t raise the rent, and he has American Home Shield Insurance, and if something breaks, they come out and fix it without a sob story. Good schools are in the neighborhood, and it's a safe place and full of friends for the kids. But it does feel like a holding pattern. Should we look to buy? We have good credit and some savings although college tuition is here and now.
But in the backyard, Kiffen is building a tree house for our youngest. We know the neighbors. Yet, it still feels like a holding pattern. Once our middle child, Lucy, wrote a letter to the landlord. “Dear Sam, Please let us buy our house.” I didn’t mail it.
I spent a childhood moving and hearing “The realtor is coming! Clean up!” It was the life of a football coach’s family. Moving. And Los Angeles is also such a place of extremes – one time, a friend was whining about how hard it was to maintain two homes - one in the Pacific Palisades and one in Park Slope. Another friend was applying for a Section 8 apartment.
The truth is, I do want to own a home. I want hardwood floors, a front porch, and a fireplace. I was leading a writing workshop in North Carolina for teachers, and one asked what I had “sacrificed” by writing books. I said, “I think owning a home…My husband is a teacher, and I wanted to write books, and we’ve never quite been able to manage to do both.” I didn’t think before I spoke. I blurted it out without even knowing it was there, and the silence in the room was palpable and little embarrassing. I’m not sure if it was pity, but it was close, and I certainly hadn’t meant to incite that response. And suddenly, I knew all the young teachers in the room probably already owned homes…
But on the other hand, we have made a home wherever we’ve lived. We may not own it, but we have made it a home with our children, who’ve grown up to be such wonderful people. I feel incredibly lucky to be their mother. I would just like one day to own our own house, and maybe our grandchildren will have a place to come home to that truly belongs to us and not a landlord. In the meantime, I am heading up to Northern California to help my sister have her beautiful new baby, because she was there with me the whole time when two of our three children were born. I want to be there to welcome my new niece or nephew into the world, and then we’ll go back to her new home and tell stories – our favorite thing to do as sisters. Her new little one will hear us, and her three-year-old will crawl on to our laps for cuddles. I hear she has a screened-in side porch – the perfect place for stories. My parents will be there. It will be home.