[ b r o k e n c o o k i e . c o m ]

home . briefing . index . books


Santa Rosa
May 2000

< < previous | next > >

On a busy street, there was an old farmhouse. The farm house had been there since before the street was busy, back when it was a country highway, in fact. But now there was a boxy apartment building in the old backyard where the woman who once lived there had hung her laundry to dry. And on either side, there were low, ranch-style houses, which extended like wings from the tall farmhouse, one on either side, and then on to other low ranch houses in each direction.

The farmhouse had watched three waves of development wash over it, and had survived all three. The first wave happened in the years right after the war, when young men were busy impregnating the woman they had left back home, some of whom had actually waited for them. They needed somewhere to raise their families, and the land around the farm house had been the first tract developed outside of what had long been considered the town limits. It was the first tract of homes built by developers who were expecting that the owners would have cars to drive to their work, a new generation of men rewarded for their wartime service by never having to wait for a trolley or bus again.

The second wave had washed over the farmhouse a generation later, when hard times hit the area. Some of the people sold their houses to realtors who then tore down the ranch houses and erected small apartment buildings in the boxy style of the era. This made sense in that it seemed to be the only way that sellers could get a good value out of their property, since there weren't many families moving there, since there weren't many good jobs to be had. The realtors leased out apartments to young couples, or groups of roommates, or old single men, or widowed women. In some cases, there weren't enough people to rent the apartments. And so the landlords made deals with the government to provide low-income housing to people on welfare or to the half-insane people that had been kicked out of the asylums in an era of reform. These people changed the character of the neighborhood somewhat, and the city planners who had never needed to run a bus out that road, now begin to do so -- and found it was well used.

In the third wave, the old post-war homes were being bought up by well-to-do young families, who couldn't actually afford the grand old homes near the center of town and weren't interested in the more recently built homes in the further-out tracts, built in the 70s and 80s. These people liked the old homes, because they felt more substantial than newer homes, more like the homes they grew up in. The homes had what realtors called "curb appeal." The families loved the old farmhouse, because it gave the neighborhood a sense of history, of substance -- even though none of them knew who actually lived in the farmhouse.

The people these third-wavers hated most were the people who had bought into the neighborhood just before them, people who made their livings with pick-up trucks rather than with laptops. These were people who often had large recreational vehicles, sometimes a boat, sometimes a camper, parked in their driveway or on a side lawn, with a blue plastic tarp tied over it.

The young people loved the old couples who had bought the homes when they were new, had raised their families there, and were now retired there. When they first bought their homes, the young people were very excited about their older neighbors, for several reasons. First was that old people often make easy neighbors, because they don't have loud parties, and they keep their yards tidy. Another was that the old people were always home, so you could count on them to watch your house while you were out working, or away for the weekend, or on a business trip. A third reason was that it allowed the young families to go back to their parents and say, See, we're buying in a stable neighborhood, with good solid folks like you, mom and dad, for neighbors.

But after a while, having old neighbors proved to be more frightening than they first thought. The first reason for this was that they often found themselves confronted by themselves far in the future. Most of these young families assumed that their time in this first-ring neighborhood was a limited stop on their way to a big home on the hill. It proved disconcerting to hear that this is exactly what most of these older people thought when they bought their home sometime during the Truman administration.

A second reason was that the old people had the bad habit, as old people often do, of dying. They had bought their homes in their late 20s and early 30s, 50 years ago, and now was the time when many had lived their lives. So it could happen that within the first year in a new neighborhood, the young family could see 2 or 3 of their neighbors leave in station wagons sent over from the mortuary.

This led to the third reason for fear, which was that when both the man and the woman in a house die, who would the new owners be? While the rising home values suggested it would be someone like them, with small children who attend expensive nursery schools, a dip in the real estate market could mean the new buyer could be someone more likely to park a large pickup truck than a large SUV in the driveway. It could well be the old friend of the neighbor three doors down who has a large pickup truck, and they could decide to spend their Sunday afternoons working on each others' trucks in the driveway, revving the engine very loud while the other turns something with a screwdriver.

The old man who lived in one of these houses was actually more comfortable with the men who made their living with their hands, as he had done. But his wife was thrilled to find herself suddenly surrounded by women from the class she had always aspired to attain, women who sent their daughters to private school. And she had accomplished this with no special effort on her part. All she had to do was walk out her door in her worst house dress, and she would find herself surrounded by these women who competed with each other to curry her favor, to learn her advice on gardening or making spaghetti. They seemed to be women in need of a mother, and when she shook her head at the placement of a new rose bush, the women listened and moved the rose bush.

And of course it happened that the old woman no sooner found herself the center of the attention she had always craved than she died, and was herself taken away in a station wagon to the mortuary. It was not long after that that some of the new young fathers in the neighborhood began to wonder who would buy the house in their midst if something were to happen now to the bereaved old man. At first, they talked about buying the house after he died. But then one of them said, Why don't we just buy it now, and tell the old man he can live there as long as he wants for a few hundred dollars a month? And this seemed like it might be a reasonable idea, because then when the old man died, or when his family moved him to a nursing home, they could decide who to rent the house to, or even who to sell it to.

Now it so happened that none of the men realized the true character of the old man. Because while it was difficult to tell from his current physical condition, the way he shuffled and teetered, and the way his breasts hung down over his belly, the old man was tougher than the young fathers. What none of them knew, because none of them asked, was that in his youth he had spent three years in the South Pacific, fighting the Japanese. One time, a Japanese bomber dropped a 200-pound bomb on the deck of the cruiser he was on and the ship sank quickly. More than half the men were lost, but the old man, who was barely 21 at the time, held onto a life raft for a day and a half, and in the end they were rescued. After that, he spent most of his time cooking large meals for many marines on one tropical island after another. And most of the fighting he had to do was with mosquitos and men who didn't like his cooking. But the experience hardened him.

Most of the fathers, although they felt superior to the old man, and patronized him gently, had done nothing braver at 21 than bang heads in a mosh pit, or take strange drugs, or drink too much. And even then, most of them found a way out as soon as they could do it without losing their self-respect or the respect of their friends. Most of them found women who would ask them to marry them, and then after a few years of drinking wine instead of beer, settled into a routine of caring for children, which made it all too easy to avoid mosh pits and hangovers.