The Future of Cities Special Issue: What it means to enter a place.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sgt. Pepper57.
By David L. Ulin
Saturday afternoon, I am on my way to the Post Office in a light rain, when I see it: living room of a corner apartment, place I always notice on this walk. It’s hard to miss, picture window, nearly floor to ceiling, which has long framed a couch and an enormous flatscreen, often (in my memory anyway) tuned to sports. I’ve never seen who lives here, never seen a group of people clustered in the living room, drinking beer and yelling at the television… and yet, I’ve come to think of this place as somehow homey, or if not quite that, then a touchstone of a kind. This is only heightened by another set of windows, bay (as if we were in San Francisco) revealing a breakfast room, round table, chairs. I am a window watcher, a walker in the city, a voyeur of other people’s lives. This is the lure of the first floor apartment, the way it almost seems to frame its inhabitants’ existence at the level of the street. There’s a reason I keep my own first floor windows sheltered behind drawn curtains, creating a divide. Privacy, yes, but even more a sense of resistance, of distance, a way to keep the gaze of other walkers at arm’s length.
This is the story of an open door, through which we step inside the landscape of a life that does not belong to us.
This afternoon, however, the window, the apartment, it is empty, as if it had never been occupied. I stop and look, more than mere sidelong glancing, feeling flecks of drizzle dot my scalp. Through the glass I can see all the way through to the front door, which is open, as if the place had been abandoned in a rush. For a moment, I am tempted to turn around, to step inside, but then the weather tugs, like a reminder, and I decide to check it out on the way back. Trespass. The word alone provokes a thrill. I remember other moments, other abandoned spaces: that collapsing cabin in (where was it?) Tennessee or North Carolina that I stumbled across with Andrew; those earthquake shacks, renovated and reconfigured, through which Noah and I wandered in the Presidio. The images come back like kinescopes, half preserved in amber, conflating memory and time. In the first, I am eighteen, wearing jeans and a down vest, hiking through November woods, leaf cover green and golden, no road, no settlement, just an overgrown path leading us ever deeper, and a house half eaten on the outside by the forest and on the inside by rodents and insects: wild life. Downstairs, two rooms, framed in brittle wood beams, tumbledown table, rusted iron sink. The walls are insulated, still, with crumpled newspaper, covered over with floral paper; we pull the wadding out through open gaps, funnies from the 1930s, local society pages, distant weddings, funerals. Upstairs (stairs? ladder more like it, rungs spongy with dry rot, every step a groan, a dare), a single loft space, dirty mattress discarded in a corner, decaying from the middle out like a corrupted heart. In the second, I am fifty, walking across newly varnished hardwood floors, following my son into narrow bedrooms, empty, kitchen hung with pristine cabinets. From the porch, we stare north, towards the Golden Gate, bridge flickering like gold leaf through the eucalyptus there. One is the embodiment of life lived, completed; the other, of a life to come. We are in the middle, as we always are. This is not the story of an alternate path, of the road not taken, or the road taken too early or too late. This is the story of an open door, through which we step inside the landscape of a life that does not belong to us.
This is how I feel at open houses, which is why I do not go to them. The territory is too controlled, too amorphous; yes, you are in another person’s house, their habitat, but you are there by invitation of a kind. The windows have been opened, letting in the scent of rain or jasmine… there are clean bathrooms, wiped down counters, as if your presence is expected or desired. This, it turns out, is true and not true, like nearly everything: you are welcome but on purely mercenary terms. And yet, if that’s the case, why am I so touched with guilt, with obligation, out of place, of sorts, since I am only rarely there to rent (and never, yet, to buy)? What do I say to the broker when she asks what I am seeking? How do I explain that my purpose is not real estate but prurience, the desire not to imagine what it would be like were I to live here so much as to collapse the distance between myself and someone else? Collapse the distance? Not exactly—I do not want to get close, only to peek in, to understand, or to confront, what renders us distinct. Home, after all, is where I hide. Remember the curtains across every window, as if to leave them open would reveal too much. Why should it be different for another person? To enter his or her space, in other words, is to violate the boundary lines.
The only thing you can count on is that there is nothing you can count on; home as an illusion, a deceit.
As to why that is, perhaps it has to do with my sense of home as conditional construct more than source of faith. I am a lifelong renter, which comes with its own insecurities. When we first arrived in Los Angeles, it took two weeks to find a place that suited us. That suited us… this tells you all you need to know about my expectations, this and the fact that two weeks felt like an eternity. How could it not, though, when we were living in a friend’s unfurnished dining room: mattress on the floor, a snarl of blankets, suitcases laid bare, no door, no privacy? No place to write, to read, to fuck, to fight, no place to function on our own. Call of the mild, these burdens so small, so insignificant, they are barely burdens, and yet they felt that way to me. I bristle when I am required to share space; I spent the last two years of college in a small apartment, blissfully free of roommates, contact, compromise. I still recall the relief of moving, of being able, finally, to live without scrutiny. The friend with whom we’d stayed was in the habit of dropping by unannounced, until I insisted he call. More than once, I sat by the phone in the back bedroom and let it ring, listening as his voice came over the answering machine, wondering if I were home. Trespass. And am I not a trespasser in my own house, pretending not to be at home? How many times have I left the lights off, as daylight drains the sky in increments, watching shadows lengthen in the silence, staring at the street from behind shuttered windows, drifting at the edge of rooms, of corridors: a wraith?
Conditionality, of course, is not an isolated instance. A decade or so ago, we lived in a small house slated for demolition, from which we would be evicted in the end. Evicted? No, not quite, although there was an order in place. Our landlord told us two years before the end that we would have to leave. Still, if this suggests a breadth, a flexibility, the chance to take our time, in many ways the opposite was true. Those two years, as we looked first to buy and then to rent, came at the height of the subprime bubble; when we bid on houses, ten, fifteen, twenty others were bidding too. We made offers on seven places, lost all of them, were told to come in twenty, thirty, fifty thousand over asking, to waive inspections, termite reports. It was like our first apartment search in slow motion, stop action dance of frustration and relief. Yes, relief, for I never wanted to own, not really, never wanted the responsibility, the grief. At the same time, I felt unsafe, as if, any day, I might come home to find a bulldozer in the yard. Conditional, conditional, conditional, the sense that anything could happen at any time. The only thing you can count on is that there is nothing you can count on; home as an illusion, a deceit. Even after we found a new place, the place in which we continue to live, such a feeling has never faded, the exile’s sense that, at any moment, we might have to leave. The first night I slept in this apartment, before we moved in even, I chaperoned an urban camping party for Noah’s tenth birthday: pizza dinner at Shakey’s, hike through the neighborhood, sleeping bags and smores in the empty living room. Middle of the night, Noah came to find me; he had clogged the toilet and didn’t know what to do. My response? To burn in quiet rage, to upbraid him for being clumsy; this place does not belong to us, I hissed, we have to be careful—as if anything, any wrong step, might leave us bereft. Ten years later, I cringe at the memory, my cruelty, volatility… but then, conditionality can take on many forms.
Sometimes I wonder who else has spent time in my place, who has dreamed and loved and died there, their triumphs and their tragedies.
Yes, many forms, like a drought-stricken city pocked by rain, which picks up as I retrace my steps from the Post Office on sidewalks of buckling concrete. Rain in Los Angeles: another form of trespass, which lets us see the place anew. You can get lost here in the rain, stucco stained gray with falling water, boundaries not so much blurred or violated as, in some unlikely way, redrawn. This afternoon, that means looking for the apartment without, at first, being able to find it, doubling back and doubling back, retracing my retracing, as it were. When I finally do see it, the disconnect asserts itself, open house banner fluttering on the corner where no marker sat before. Shit, I think, and feel myself deflating, as the wonder of its abandonment dissipates. I wanted to see this place on my terms, to sneak in somewhere I do not belong. I wanted to excavate it like a ruin, to appropriate not the life within it, but the space in which that life was lived. I wanted to feel myself on the edge of something, forbidden and a bit beyond me, like those other, earlier whispers of the future and the past. Sometimes I wonder who else has spent time in my place, who has dreamed and loved and died there, their triumphs and their tragedies. None of it matters any longer, all done and gone and (more) forgotten, but the house remains as testament or frame. The same could be said—or could have been said—about this apartment, although that is no longer the case. Now, it’s sanctioned, functional. Now it manifests not in terms of distance or curiosity or invasion, but rather commodity. As I watch, a line of prospective clients crawl like ants into the doorway, greeted by a broker and his one-sheets, property for sale. For a moment, I stand outside, as if deciding what to do. Then I join the slow parade, wander through the rooms (they are too narrow, much too dreary), make small talk, tell the agent I live in the neighborhood. Left unspoken is the nature of my presence; how do I explain that it’s not connection, nor even belonging, that I seek? Looking for a house or an apartment is (has to be) an act of the imagination; I try to see myself, my family, within. Here, that’s not part of the dynamic, but neither am I on the outside looking in. I want to know something about the owner of that flatscreen, glimmer of who he or she might be. Yet there is no semblance, no breath of any of it, home, history, or even trespass: nothing except emptiness.
David L. Ulin is the author, most recently, of the novel Ear to the Ground, written with Paul Kolsby. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, his other books include Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award.