After the fourth time my house was broken into, I put my house on the market. Looking at properties I could barely afford made me think about friends and family who never moved. I can think of at least three families who have had the same address and telephone number for at least my entire lifetime. Though they all could have afforded bigger houses at some point in their lives, they chose to stay in those smaller ones. This choice meant that they could save money and could easily afford to travel or enjoy themselves in other meaningful ways.
I thought about this recently after watching the making of the documentary film I am A Man.
I had read a newspaper account of Mr. Nickelberry’s participation in the sanitation workers strike and took pause over the fact that he still works for the city. The behind the scenes footage of the film offers a glimpse into his home and it is the same one that he lived in and was working to afford at the time of the strike in ’68. Michael Honey’s book Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle records Taylor Rogers’ reflections on the strike and he reveals that he also lives in the same home he was buying when the strike began. As he tells Honey, “I was just beginning to buy a home, this house I’m in right now […]” The fact of Mr. Nickelberry and Mr. Rogers residing in the same homes since at least 1968 may not have been striking to me when I was younger and still living among my grandparents’ generation because these folk never seemed to move. My mother observes that “old people don’t move, they die” and in many cases, she’s correct. Even with the neighborhood changing and often declining around them, I know old folk who wouldn’t have dreamed of selling their homes. In fact, my former neighbors, Betty and Thomas, recently passed away but when I returned for visits, they lived out their lives in 2009 as they had in 1989. They continued to garden in their backyard; they shopped at Sav-Mor on Harvard; they turned on the sprinkler in their front yard for their granddaughters to run thru. I worried about them though because their neighbors no longer mirrored these habits. They were younger; meaner. Many of them openly peddled drugs in the street.
I wonder if my generation of elderly folk will think about home in the same way as Thomas and Betty’s generation. It seems like my generation is encouraged to feel restless and unsettled–with satisfaction only coming with the next move. I’ve read simple living blogs that recommend throwing out catalogues that come in the mail not only so that you won’t be tempted to buy but so that you won’t be tempted to long for the lives of the folk in them. I have taken this advice but I do sometimes flip through these catalogues but I do so with a more critical eye than I once did. I used to simply think about what might look nice in my house. Now I think about how little room I have in my house for those things. Instead of feeling bad because I don’t have the space, I wonder about an ethics of marketing that requires people to disparage the spaces people have created for themselves.
As a child growing up without these catalogues as a part of my reading, I never judged the spaces and homes I now realize are small. I enjoyed bountiful meals of fresh food grown in the backyard or shared between neighbors. I looked forward to snowy, cold Christmas mornings before brunch with my family. I savored the photographs in albums and taped to walls in the basement. In fact, I never even realized how frightening my inner-city neighborhood was supposed to be because my neighbors never locked their doors; never preyed on one another; shared resources.
Given the market, I couldn’t sell my house. But to be honest I didn’t try very hard. I had convinced myself that I would find safety in a higher price point but this fragile illusion was completely shattered when I heard a new homeowner discussing a break-in with an agent at the property. Realizing that I couldn’t price myself out of danger, I began thinking about people in my life who lived lives they could easily afford, which in itself offers a measure of security.