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Winslow Homer: Home, Sweet Home (1863)
" … I didn't think I could survive the flush of emotions involved."

My son sent me an Air B&B link to a place for rent in our old Portland neighborhood. It took me a minute or more to realize that this was our old home place, the home in which my son spent his first formative years, the one secured with my own blood, sweat, and tears, hopes and dreams, struggles and deep disappointments. Homes become the backdrop for life's dramas, where the intricate effort rarely seen and even more rarely disclosed occurs. It is the place of private fears and even more private tears, of humbling embarrassment and occasional pride. It's what you settled for and what you earned and what you couldn't quite afford all in one. It's a wonder to me that anyone, especially me, even has a home, for the rules for owning a home have always been murky, and I suspect murky for good reasons. Should anyone ever get to the bottom of the pyramid scheme, they'd very likely find that there's no foundation underneath. Imagining supports it. Home is a fiction capable of fooling almost anyone into believing it exists, especially with people like Stephen Foster writing sentimental songs about it. "Be it ever so humble … There's no place like home." Truer words might have never been spoken or more widely misinterpreted.

Needless to say, that link transported me to those years when I struggled to provide a home.
My first wife and I had chosen to buy within a slightly blighted neighborhood rather than flee to a suburbia we couldn't quite believe in or afford. The house always was too small for us, and too narrow, but it was almost affordable. An indeterminate-term loan from my in-laws secured the down payment. The fifteen plus percent loan anchored the monthly payments at the top of what we felt we could afford, leaving little for necessary improvements. Over the following decade I reroofed that place, repainted it, rebuilt the cedar shake front, constructed a fence that still stands intact almost forty years later, tamed the yard and maintained it, wallpapered most of the interior and painted the rest, rebuilt a bedroom ceiling, and rebuild the back porch, all with cash not precisely on hand. The current practice of borrowing against a home's value to pay for improvements wasn't available to us, since the market value of that place slipped every year we lived there. We ultimately sold the place for 20% less than we'd agreed to pay for it, leaving a hole where equity might have been next to the dreams of two urban pioneers.

I swear that that decade's struggle secured the end to that marriage and that intact family. We managed to move to a better neighborhood but our urban pioneering spirit had left us. When we divorced, I ceded her the new house and entered a decade of homelessness where I inhabited rented rooms and other's equity. It wasn't until The Muse convinced me that we might pull off a purchase that I conceded that I might actually one day become an actual homeowner. Not the resident of a home that owned me and sucked my spirit dry, but someone who felt at home when home. Even that's been a challenge with our twelve year exile interrupting our tenancy, a period where we owned a home we couldn't afford to inhabit or sell. It's been a recent reversal of that pattern that allowed us to re-inhabit and refurbish as if we might one day belong at home.

Needless to say, that Air B&B link sparked a flood of reminiscences. We bought that place for $50K and lost every penny we put into it. We sold it to a guy who held it for a decade and sold it to the current owner for a $140K profit. The current owner, aside from asking $136 a night for the basement, holds a home valued at $640K, a sixteen times paper profit over what'd sold it for at a loss. That neighborhood, like most others in Portland, feature vast homeless camps, tent settlements that stretch to every horizon in every neighborhood, however swanky. The parks have become rough towns, patrolled by inhabitants and occasionally, the police. The campers seem the usual mix. Some keep tidy homes, others derelicts. A few hold teetering piles of found items like farmers display their rusty equipment along the roadside. Many of these encampments lack toilets or, indeed, running water. People poop in bushes and try to avoid stepping in their own or others' messes. I do not know how they survive but they are not homeless, just inhabiting a home of a different sort, not one they own, for who could afford a home in such a real estate market?, but one they've settled for. They have not given up, but found a way to cope with the hand they were dealt.

Had it not been for our bank losing our paperwork for six months during the 2008 crash, we would have become homeless then. As it was, we were able to exile ourselves, survive on the unwarranted kindnesses of strangers, rent the place to others, and claw our way homeward, but we could have ended up in a tent somewhere. As near as I can tell, my meager talents warrant work willing to pay me $1.25 an hour, though I don't get paid nearly that much and haven't for many years now. Some of us are less broken than others. Some more optimistic. Many, more fortunate than they suspect. The Muse and I actually own a fine and comfortable home. When we were raising our children, neither of us did. She rented and I lived in a home that owned me, lock, stock, and even the barrel it held me over. By the time I was my son's age now, I'd already lost my shirt and shorts in real estate. He rents and wonders about his future in a neighborhood slowly filling up with tents.

The Muse wondered if I might want to rent the old place on one of our visits and I replied that I didn't think I could survive the flush of emotions involved.

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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