You Can’t Go Home Again

The word “nostalgia” literally means “home-sickness”, pain caused by a longing for one’s home. And make no mistake, nostalgia is a sickness: desire for the past means dissatisfaction with the present, and if I’m dissatisfied with the present I have nobody to blame but myself. Fortunately, I don’t think my true home is in the past. It’s true, the Me of a quarter century ago would have been horrified by the paths my life has taken, but then again the Me of a quarter century ago was kind-of a jerk. I am where I belong.

But there are times when the past is brought back to me so vividly that for a moment I am reconnected with it. Suddenly the weird, twisted path between Me-Then and Me-Now seems surprisingly clear and straightforward. In the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, it’s happened again just in time for New Year’s… and this time it’s “home-sickness” in the truest sense of the word. It was my home, and what’s happened to it makes me sick.

For several years when I was at University, I lived with my dear friends Chris, Michael and William in a four-story building over a bakery. The address and even the city are not important. It was a kind of ramshackle place, a little oddly laid-out, but a fun place for a group of college-age guys to live and hang out.

The entrance to the bakery was in the front, on the busy main street, but the entrance to our lodgings was located on the side street. A flight of steep stairs led up to the main floor of our residence; my room was here, facing the main street, while at the head of the stairs was the living room. The stairs continued in an L-shape up the side of the building to the second floor, where there was a second bedroom just over mine; Michael lived there for a while, while Chris made his home on the spacious (but not exactly climate-controlled) landing. A further flight of stairs led to the attic, which was William’s room.

There was a terrible galley kitchen over the stairwell on the main floor — it had apparently been added as an afterthought somewhere in the building’s long history; there was a step up from the living room into the kitchen, and a step back down again as you went into the one-time dining room that led to the apartment’s only bathroom. That kitchen was a horror. When we’d first moved in, the tiny refrigerator had a freezer-full of accumulated ice. You could barely fit a shoe into the remaining space, which we called The Maw because it resembled the frosty fang-ridden mouth of some hideous monster. Since we lived over a bakery, the kitchen had frequent visits from roaches and mice… we got used to a little extra nutrition in our corn flakes every morning.

While we lived there, we had a wonderful one-eyed cat — my very first cat! Yay! — but he was a little cranky about his mousing duties. One night, we had a particularly bold little critter foraging through our leftovers… while we sat there in the living room, not three feet away. We went and got the cat, and put him down on the counter only a few inches from the mouse. The cat gave us a sour look, as though to say, “What do you expect me to do?” Needless to say, the mouse kept on eating without missing a beat. Of course, the next morning it was a Lucio Fulci movie in the dining room, with mouse bits everywhere… as I discovered as I walked barefoot to the bathroom.

Thinking of furry visitors: we had a poltergeist of a squirrel, too, who lived in the walls and roof. We called him the Ceiling Badger, because he regularly kept us awake at night scuttling around overhead. Once he got out into William’s closet and made a nest out of his down parka… William went to open the closet door one day and — FOOMF! Feathers everywhere.

In other words, it was exactly the sort of place you’d hope to live in during your adventurous early adulthood.

I suppose everybody has stories of their chaotic college digs, but in our case, with four such insanely creative people under a single roof, the chaos was much more structured and purposeful than it might have been otherwise. We were partly a weird little family, and partly members of a performance art troupe in which the house itself was an enthusiastic participant. There was always some improvised music or improvised comedy going on, a remarkable amount of which escaped from the house and into our outside creative lives: for example, our brief fascination with Hanna-Barbera cartoons led Michael to write a piece for brass ensemble, and one of William’s extempore surrealist poems became the inspiration for a composition of mine for oboe and piano. Even now, 25 years later, I still find that bits of music and conversation from those days often resurface into my day-to-day life.The house and its environment were the primordial soup from which my adult personality emerged.

What’s probably both the high point and the low point of my participation in the Art Installation which was our house came on one chill fall evening. Everybody else was out doing stuff, but I was in a bleak mood, so I’d decided to stay home and sulk. To cheer myself up, I thought I’d play a little joke on the others: I had a very realistic prop skull from one of our various skits, so I constructed a scarecrow body for it out of some of my clothes. I placed Chris’s stiff leather motorcycle gloves into its sleeves for hands, put a pair of my shoes at the base of its trouser legs, and propped it up on a broomstick at the dimly-lit top of the second-floor stairs. It was a very convincing ghost. I thought everybody would come home, pause at the first-floor landing to take off their coats, glance up the stairwell… and get a brief, harmless shock. We’d all have a laugh, and that would be that.

But when everybody came back late that night, they paused in the stairwell… and didn’t look up. Instead, they all came into the living room, where we sat up talking for over an hour. I kept a perfectly straight face the whole time. Finally, unexpectedly, Chris decided to go up to bed by himself. Again, I thought he’d get to the foot of the stairs, look up, see the ghostly figure — BOO! — and that would be that. So I still said nothing. Imagine my surprise when I heard his footsteps mount the stairs and keep going — he still hadn’t noticed the ghastly skeleton. It wasn’t until he got to the very top of the stairs that he looked up and saw it… at which point it was standing right in front of him, with arms outstretched, eyeless sockets staring.

Yes, this was the night in which I very nearly killed my best friend by causing him to fall halfway down the stairs in terror. But in my defense, it was pretty funny.

(I did tell you I was a jerk, didn’t I?)

So. Fast-forward a very long time. A little while before New Year’s this year, Michael sent us all a link to a certain real estate listing on YouTube. Our old house was for rent. Only it wasn’t recognizable as our house any more. Where once the building had been one big home, now it was broken up into self-contained units. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere, but I haven’t the heart to look for it. The unit that’s being advertised is the first floor, where my room was. It’s been… “renovated”. And by “renovated”, I mean cheaply done over, neutered and rendered inert.

The ground-floor entrance, where the bakery used to be, is now the entrance to this unit, while the remaining rooms upstairs are serviced by the old side-street entrance. I have no idea what’s in the ground floor these days, or how anyone would get to it. The brief glimpses the video provides of my old bedroom show a room that’s been updated on the cheap. The living room — this made us all deeply suspicious — is not shown at all.

The appalling kitchen has been torn out, and (believe it or not) it looks like a worse one has been put in. Instead of taking up the passage between the living room and the dining room, the kitchen looks like it’s been moved to the far wall of the dining room… right next to the bathroom. Would you want your stove about six feet from your toilet? Separated only by a door which opens inward into the bathroom from the stove itself, creating a nice ramp for aerosolized droplets of toilet water after every flush? Hmmm?

That’s even assuming you want your kitchen in the outer corner of your dining room.

Also, as you can see by these pictures, not only has the kitchen been redone with the cheapest off-the-shelf components available… it also has no sink fixtures:

Sure, they may have added fixtures since the photo was taken… but remember: this is the impression of the place they put in their advertising!

There’s something heartbreaking about seeing the old place rendered charmless like this. It’s like seeing your old college girlfriend show up as a drug-raddled harridan on TV’s “Intervention” or “Hoarders”.

It isn’t so much that I wish it were still 1986 or ’87, and that I were still there with my friends: everything important from that era is still with me, after all, and I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life. But I suppose I’d always hoped the place would still be there, giving a similar kind of home to succeeding generations of students like us. I’d half-imagined some shade of myself — of the best part of myself — still haunting that old house, like a ghost at the top of the stairs.

And the part that really rankles is this: I might never have realized I thought & felt that way, if this crappy video hadn’t shown me the sad reality.

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