My wife and I go out for a walk most days.
She goes out more than I do. I have bad feet. Three times a day is common for her. There is a substantial grid of quiet streets near us with sidewalks, and you can simply walk in the road most of the time. Rumford is the county seat, but it’s hardly a metropolis. Whenever I walk, I mostly look at dwellings, and my wife looks for gold finches.
I’ve built a lot of stuff. Houses, too. I’ve repaired more houses than I could count. I know all about them. I repaired houses while the occupants were living in them, especially, so I was privy to exactly how people actually use their houses. I painted the privy, too.
The single-family home is the most interesting thing about the United States, outside of the people who have inhabited it. Well, it was, anyway. Since houses are the sticks-and-bricks manifestation of people’s wants and dreams and desires and idea of comfort and mores and habits and taste and style, they are more telling than any thousand autobiographies would be. People lie to their therapist. What chance does an interviewer have? I went to Mount Vernon and I knew the guy.
Rumford is mostly dreary to look at. It was always a utilitarian place; a big, hulking paper mill squatting over the river was the entire reason for the place, after all. But it was handsome, once, at least part of it. There were whole streets of big Victorians with turrets and bays and rambling porches.
The picture at the top of the essay is the only truly beautiful structure we go by on one of our short walks. It was an animal barn, and is now a garage, but as far as I can tell no one uses it. All the other buildings we pass, dwelling or outbuilding alike, have been so defaced by the occupants “fixing” them that they are only barely recognizable as what they once were. The houses are entirely maimed, and you can trace the evidence of the endless procession of snake-oil no-maintenance energy-saving eco-friendly con-men through time written on their facades, now exposed by the inevitable neglect presaged by the original desire for a free lunch. The layers flap in the breeze like an archaeology dig.
Oh, the durability of paint improved with wonderful lead! If you have spiders, put a slug of mercury in it, too! Cover up that nasty, chalking, lead paint with asphalt tab sidewall shingles! Save energy with our new asbestos siding! Cover up that nasty asbestos siding with space-age aluminum siding! Get rid of that nasty old, dirty, dented, faded aluminum siding and put eco-friendly vinyl siding! Who needs windows when you can have little plastic hatches shoved into the holes where the windows used to be?
It’s such a pleasure to walk by the unusual place where the occupants were too lazy and cheap to even wreck their home properly. I can fix a house that isn’t fixed.