living down the block from decay
I live down the block from an enchanted castle. It has a turret. It has ivy. It even has a picturesque magnolia tree, which swoons over a small stone bench. As I write, in the first part of March, the tree has just exploded into a million pink flowers. But the spell is slowly breaking, and not in a good way, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle after the prince. In 2003, one of the windows in the turret blew out in a storm. Birds live in that room now. The roof has slowly started to shed tiles, and now, walking the dog past, I can see sunlight through the attic window. Last week, the city put up fencing to keep people off the sidewalk, as the chimney began to collapse in another storm. Abandoned houses aren’t terribly uncommon in this neighborhood; in fact, I live behind one. But this house isn’t empty. Someone lives there.
In some ways, this is a common story—one that Democrats point to as evidence of our broken social net and that Republicans uncomfortably ignore or declaim. A man, who has no close family or friends and no job, lives alone in an old house. He is unable to keep it up. Maintaining an original slate roof is a dying skill; people charge a lot. He is perhaps not “all there,” according to my neighbors. And yet, this cliche fails us, because people did try to help him. There’s the neighbor who offered to fix his window, free of charge. There’s the young man who comes to mow his lawn. There’s another neighbor, who fancies himself a local real estate mogul and offered to buy the house. It was a good offer.
Again and again, he refused help. And now we have reached this state, where the city will probably condemn the house. Everyone asks, “What should we do?” (or, more quietly, “What could we have done?”). As my mother says, he clearly can’t go on living there. The house may collapse. But still, as my father points out, he has nowhere to go. No one wants to see an old man wind up homeless. Is it even ethical to force help on someone who so emphatically doesn’t want it? Even my father, the philosopher, doesn’t seem to know.
And me, what do I want? I want to time travel, to stop this whole problem before it began, to end the suffering before it started. But I was all of eight in 2003. I left those worries to the grown-ups. Now I am grown up, and I still feel eight years old, peering voyeuristically through a blown-out window as I drive by, and I don’t know what to do. The present is untenable and unpardonable, but the options presented by society are worse.
We live in an era of activism, a lot of it murky. Stop war, Kony, Obama, Romney, Santorum, whatever. But a lot of times the most intractable problems are the smallest. I feel like I should be able to do something for this man, who has lived so close to me all my life, but whose name I don’t even know. His problems go far beyond anything I can offer: a “Hi” when I pass him on his way to Bread Co., maybe a cupcake passed on through a neighbor. So when I pass his house, I look at the hole in the roof and think about Eden’s gates closing. I wonder how long until the inevitable. Such an enchanted building.
Coda: I wrote this essay—my crazy old coot essay, as my then–English teacher called it—in my senior year of high school. Since then, what was anticipated has come to pass. The city did in fact condemn the building, and move the man living in it to an institutionalized setting. He lived there for a summer before dying. Since then, his relatives—a sister and son who emerged in the last months of his life—have been desperately trying to disown responsibility for the house, which is probably now rotted beyond repair and a bigger hassle than it’s worth. I looked up my mystery man’s name on property records. His name was Warren Scott, and he lived down the street from me for 17 years.