Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Kind of Certainty

One thing that my Mother did during the trip across country in 1957 that went a long way toward making up for all the abuse -- in my mind at the time -- was to help me through arithmetic workbooks and drills. That probably sounds like more abuse to most people but to me math was a place. It was as interesting a place as Wyoming or Montana. More, actually. I was still at the point where I wasn't clear on how to set my own problems and goals. So my Mother's help was welcome.

We were delayed by car troubles. We spent a week at a motel in an Idaho town waiting for an auto part to be shipped to the shop the car was in. Two results: We arrived in Seattle later than planned, close to the start of school. From then on Dad only bought new cars.

We came directly to my Grandparent's brick house on Beacon Hill. Almost at the crest of the hill, it was two houses down from the old wooden house that my Father grew up in. The brick house was built around '42, after my Father had left home. A lot of the work was done by my Grandfather, especially the wiring and plumbing. The house had a basement that was used only for storage and washing and drying clothes. It had a work table with cabinets above. But the table was covered with rusting cans and jars of rank chemicals like pesticides and turpentine and slug bait. It was like our own toxic waste-dump. It probably shortened my life by a decade. Whenever I die, add ten years. That will be how long I would have lived.

Aside from the basement there was just one floor upstairs. A large bedroom and a small one, a bathroom, living room, kitchen and very tight dining alcove.

My Grandfather was gone. Grandmother Gertrude was too set in her ways to be comfortable with the changes it would take for us to move in with her.

So we moved into the garage instead.

[Below: The house hasn't been torn down yet! It's the smaller brick house on our left. The old garage is gone but there's a new structure sitting exactly where it was. We're looking west toward Beacon Avenue, which had a dirt median then, and was lined with telephone poles. Today the median is landscaped and the avenue is lined with trees. And telephone poles.]

The garage had already been converted into a small one bedroom apartment. It was a two car garage. The two stalls were made into separate rooms, with a door between. The sliding car-doors were permanently shut and sealed.

We used one room as a living room during the day, a kitchen, and my bedroom at night (I slept on a couch.) The other room would be my parents' bedroom. A tiny bathroom had been added to that. It was so small the shower was over the toilet and drenched it. To put it another way, the bathroom was a shower with a toilet and sink in it.

The kitchen stove was a kerosene stove that could also burn wood. It was the only heater also. Since the kerosene was gravity fed from a barrel outside, and it was a pain to replace or refill the barrel, we used wood whenever possible. Fortunately the back yard beyond the garage was thickly wooded with plum, pear, apricot, and apple trees, so we could cut our own wood.

"We" meaning me. I was the one outside all the time chopping the wood into logs and kindling. I didn't mind. To me, it was cool. I loved that on cold nights we had to stoke the fire at 2 in the morning if we wanted to not freeze.

We had a sense of security because of that that I don't have today. I remember a horrible winter storm we had in the early 90s that left my neighborhood in the U District without power for more than 8 hours. All the heat I had during that blackout came from a dozen plumber's candles. There was no way I could safely build a fire. Had the blackout gone on another 3 or 4 hours the candles would have been gone and I would have had to seek public shelter.

At the garage we could have lived through a blackout like that for an entire winter. It was great knowing that.

A lot of people are attracted to living outside of conventional housing because they can no longer bear depending on the grid for daily survival. They can't stand the thought that a fried squirrel and a computer malfunction could leave them without heat for days.

So they look for escape in extreme self-reliance. They live in tents or shanties in places they hope no one will bother them and try to take care of their own needs by primitive but robust means.

The rest of the community doesn't understand. They think these people must all be criminals, why else would they hide in the woods?

They aren't any more criminals than the rest of us. They're just people who need a different kind of certainty than others do.

No comments: