I’ve always loved old houses, but man, they come at a price.
In my last house–my own private 1910 house in New Jersey–squirrels wanted to live in the house just as much as I did. They preferred living in the walls, rather than taking up in the master suite, but still, their love for the place was just as true and relentless as mine. No matter how far they roamed, they always came home.
This led to my employing a “squirrel guy,” because when you own an old house, you collect guys like this: a squirrel guy, a plumbing guy, a porch guy, a window guy, a lawn guy, etc. Old houses take a village.
Our squirrel guy–I’ll call him Steve–was a man of many talents. He knew how to show rodents and other pests who was boss, he was a world traveler, he was a musician, and he was also a kind of zen master. Squirrels brought Steve into my life, but he was brought there for a greater purpose than eradicating some of “the most dedicated squirrels he’d ever seen” (his words.)
On one of his visits, we were standing on my patch of a front lawn looking up at the house, wondering how and why in the hell the squirrels clawed around a wire and steel cage to get back into the walls of my home. Why could these squirrels not be peaceably evicted? It was a sunny summer day and peaceful on the street.
My husband and I been having some concerns about water in our basement, and we didn’t get have a waterproofing guy OR a basement guy–clearly terrible holes in our roster. I asked Steve if he knew anyone to recommend. He thought for a minute. “No,” he said. “Sorry. Not my area.”
“But man, I love old houses too. Thing is, you gotta deal with a little water in the basement to get all that great stuff upstairs.”
Then we stood in silence for a minute staring up at the sky and the curved eaves of that 1910 house.
I think of this exchange a lot living on the city. Sure, this is London. It’s a giant city–cramped and full of invitations to misbehave. There’s dog poop at times on the sidewalk on my street. I have to pick up trash that blows into my bushes and sullies my street view from time to time. I’ve seen vomit in the road. I saw a fight recently. Yesterday, I heard a woman yell “Shut up!” to her son, and my heart cracked. These things are part of the city, and I’m not going to sugarcoat them.
However, the V and A is here, full of staggering beauty to see and it costs nothing at all. After the fight I saw on the street (I was on the bus,) I cried and the woman next to me reached out and asked me if I was ok and offered words of comfort to soothe my embarrassment. At my tube station last week, an accordionist was playing the chicken dance and two women were laughing and singing La Danse des Canards (as it is in France,) making the gestures that go with it, their veils flapping in the breeze. There is mid-February spring. There is the best baklava I’ve ever had, fresh and honey drenched everyday, just two blocks from my house. There is a sudden glimpse of St. Paul’s from the bus, or the Millennium Bridge providing foot passage over the Thames to some of the greatest art institutions of the English speaking world just south of the river.
The city is messy. In many ways, it is the oldest of houses, and that comes with centuries of costs, both hidden and obvious. Writing this as I am riding on the misery line, I guess I just see all the great stuff upstairs.