Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Freud pointed out. He would never have said the same thing about a house. Certainly Carl Jung would not. In my case, as I approach my former address at the edge of Mission Hills, right where that neighborhood turns into Hillcrest, I am approaching a time machine as surely as if I were walking toward and lifting my hand to knock at the address of H.G. Wells’s Victorian scientist in the famous story from 1895. Actually, the house, built in 1883, predates that story by a dozen years. But the romance of the thing, the expected flush of sentiment and goodness, quickly becomes a jarring series of images, elbowing aside a fine nostalgia to focus on a sentence I remember repeating as I walked out this very front door in July of 1985: No matter what you do, you will regret it.
This front door, this very plate glass framed in stout chestnut, or possibly dark mahogany, replaces one I had smashed in a fit of rage at my infidelity. Another life.
Earlier, on the walk west on Robinson toward Curlew Street, from the open windows of passing cars I learned that 10,000 people each day are now losing their homes to foreclosure. Also, Americans have gained, on average, 360 million pounds over the past decade. There is something about news delivered from passing cars that lends it immediacy, conviction, and poignancy, just as the colors of the real world only seem “really real when you viddy them on the screen” (Alex, in A Clockwork Orange); that is, in Technicolor, rather than natural light. Yes, harsh times. In fact, at the moment, it is difficult to believe or recall that there ever was any other kind. But there were. There were.
In March of 1981, my small family and I moved into the house before which I now stand. We paid $60,000 for I don’t know how much square footage. Three bedrooms on the second floor, a guest room or study, and a rental unit in the basement. A “granny flat” we called it, and we entertained a string of very entertaining tenants down there. It is vacant at the moment but probably in better shape than it’s been in since it was built 145 years ago.
It is late September in 2008, and I still live in the neighborhood. I have been living maybe ten blocks east on Eighth Avenue, after breaking an ankle in December 2007; the proximity to Mercy Clinic became vital with the onset of infectious complications from that mundane mishap. Still, with digressions to North Park, La Jolla, Pacific Beach, and downtown, I have never managed to wander far. I moved once from an apartment in Mission Hills to Mexico for a good part of 1987, fled to Chicago on the heels of a bad love, lymphatic cancer, and a collapsed multi-novel deal, then back again, as a journalist, to within blocks of here, on Walnut. Since then, it has been a matter of relative lengths of thumb on a Thomas Bros. map that have demarcated “home.”
Stu Maltz, a 40ish, brown-haired man, answers the too-familiar door this Friday afternoon, a handsome, approachable, regular guy of a scientist. A biologist, sans traces of the nerd. In fact, within moments he is reminding me of the fictional Tim Taylor of television’s fictional “Tool Time,” with his enthusiasm for the considerable home improvements he has laid his hand to here. Before we enter the house, Maltz takes me on a brief tour of the surrounding yard, pointing out a hiding (none too successfully) African Sulcata, or African spurred tortoise, in amber/yellow earth tones. That would be “Speedy.”
Once inside, I notice that his raven-and-curly-haired six-year-old daughter Virginia is lounging on the sofa in an identical position, and in the same corner, where, over two decades ago, my son reigned as Lord of the Entertainment Center, his remote control, like Virginia’s, an unquestioned scepter. Maltz’s wife, Holly Burch, has not yet arrived home from her work with the Union-Tribune in computers. Here was a family not unlike my own not too long ago.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
The lived-in quality that they have established with apparent ease since their residency, dating from 1997, bears remarkable similarities in taste with that of my former wife and me. Key words would be comfortable, unpretentious (well…in our case, maybe not so much, with our ostrich feathers and Art Nouveau wooden tarot cards on the walls), inexpensive, warming, familiar, colorful and welcoming decor, and items selected by the inch or foot, rather than the yard. Even my son’s once-upon-a-time riot of colorful plastic fantasy furnishings, toys, posters, and bedclothes are echoed in an upstairs bedroom.
The first noted difference is downstairs, ten paces west from the front door and into what during the 1980s had been the study, office, and/or library. Then, there were 1000 gaudy paperbacks and 900 hardcovers, first editions, book-club uncollectibles, The Compact Oxford English Dictionary in two 15-pound volumes, and anthropology texts; Kroeber, Le Guin, Meade, and Turnbull held court above science-fiction pulp magazines and matching volumes of Hammett, Chandler, and Cain. Anthony Burgess and Jack London had once scowled down upon the framed gaudy covers of genre anthologies, between which my wife and I had published our journeyman whimsies. The bulk of our fantasy fiction had been written that way, inspired by M.R. James and a busted water heater, or a lightning-felled pepper tree, which crashed onto a neighbor’s roof. Now the study (or however it may be considered by Stu, Holly, and Virginia) bears no trace of the fusty (dusty and musty as well) refuge of the prematurely middle-aged. Where once this room was a recreation of a Victorian fantasy, Dickensian — though with an IBM Selectric or an Apple II monstrosity and jabbering Brother daisy-wheel printer — a room dubbed by visiting workshop-writer friends from Los Angeles (some quite famous now: David Brin and Ray Feist, to drop two names) “THE BALLROOM,” after a sign retrieved from wreckage at the Hotel Del Coronado, it now seems subdued. It is certainly friendly, yet muted by contrast with the chamber in memory. It is as if the beasts of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s worlds could never have breathed here, and the fictions my wife and I spun must needs have evaporated, exposed to any light other than the one from that south window: the one that once looked out on a wild-enough bamboo grove and so gave birth to stories where The Lord of the Flies met Peter Pan and Alice once found her way not into Wonderland but the Heart of Darkness.