Diary

August Kleinzahler Sells His Childhood Home

The streets, lawns, roofs, pavement – everything is matted with leaves, oak and maple for the most part, beech as well. I find it rather intoxicating, not least because San Francisco, where I’ve lived for nearly 30 years, doesn’t have a proper autumn, at least not as an Easterner like myself thinks of it. But also because this time of year here on the Palisades is the one I most associate with childhood: rain, leaves, Halloween pumpkins, galoshes, the smell of the coat closet at the back of class, wet wool and shiny oilskins, the last days of recess outside in the playground, before the onset of cold, the going back of the clocks and, along with that, darkness, the lit rooms and closed curtains of winter.

The world through these windows, where I’ve registered the seasons and much else over the course of 60 years, will soon recede into memory. In a couple of days I’ll sit down in a small, noisy, cluttered room with lawyers, the realtor, my sister and brother-in-law, and hand the keys to this house over to a very pleasant young Chinese couple who will begin their own lives together here. They are very excited.

I am not. I like it here. This is home, even if I haven’t really lived here for 42 years, my psychological redoubt: red brick, slate-roofed, sitting on a 500-foot basalt sill that reaches down to the ‘lordly Hudson’. It is what is most solid about me and what has allowed me to live the sort of life one might not associate with any notion of solidity. This is who I am, what I’m from. And with the sale of the house goes my connection to this place. I am untethered.

I turned up in New Jersey at the beginning of August, a couple of weeks after my sister and I had decided to keep our mother in the nursing home where she was rehabilitating after another bad fall, wheelchair-bound and suffering from senile dementia. The weather was sultry, the kind of weather I’m not used to anymore. San Francisco has a cool climate, especially in summer. But it was beautiful here in the very early morning, around dawn, with the sparrows, wrens and robins all darting around, diving into the shrubs, clustering on branches, squeezing into cracks under the eaves of the garage, singing up a storm. The house has a screened-in back porch overlooking the yard. It’s a lovely yard; less so these days, with a couple of McMansions crowding the eastern and northern prospects, but still the nicest thing about the house, and probably what made it so appealing to buyers. By 8.30 or 9, the power mowers, tree ‘surgeons’ and cicadas make for a most unpastoral din, which lasts until dusk, when the birds return, then the fireflies. Sometimes wild turkeys and the occasional deer pass unexpectedly through the yard.

The house, and much of the rest of the Palisades section of Fort Lee, was built around 1925, at a time when the Garden City Movement was underway in Britain, and, independently, Frederick Law Olmsted and Clarence Stein’s Garden Suburb Movement was taking hold in America. This neighbourhood, across the Hudson from uptown Manhattan, about a mile south of the George Washington Bridge on the Jersey side, has lost more than a little of its character and charm over the years with the proliferation of McMansions – what my father used to call ‘Greco-Roman fortresses’ or ‘mausolea’ – which take up entire quarter-acre lots. But when I was growing up it was an uncommonly lovely place by American standards: not Hampstead, to be sure, but a lot closer to it than to later suburban horrors like Levittown. There was a good deal of variety in the architecture: Georgian, like our house, Federal, Tudor, Norman French, Gothic, Mission, all revival, all bastardised, but not outlandish or gross. When I was a child a large amusement park bordered the southern edge of the town until it was replaced by high-rise condominiums in the 1970s; a narrow, half-mile swathe of woodland overlooked the Hudson to the north before the area was developed in the 1960s. Nowadays, the population of Fort Lee is about 37,000, twice what it was then, mostly condominium dwellers, nearly half of them Asian, principally Korean. There are also quite a few Russians. When I was young the town was almost exclusively Italian, first and second generation southern Italian. It was a good deal sleepier, less full of traffic and, after school and at weekends, children played in the street. Children are nowhere to be seen these days. Nor are their parents, who go to and from their homes in sleek SUVs with clouded windows. The only people you see on the streets are domestics, pushing prams or walking dogs, and gardeners, Mexican and Central American. It’s a much wealthier neighbourhood than it was, and the wealth is on display.

A young married couple with two small children 63 years ago, living in a not very glamorous apartment in Weehawken, a few towns south, my parents were out looking for houses in the area one weekend when they saw 83 Bluff for sale. As my father used to tell the story, my mother immediately lit up and told him: ‘That’s the one.’ The owner, a commercial artist, was apparently reluctant to sell. I know exactly where he was coming from. ‘It was perfect,’ my father liked to say, meaning close to Manhattan and just far enough away from my mother’s family in Jersey City. He paid $17,000. His own parents, also in Jersey City, considered the expense wildly profligate, and let my father know.

‘It smells like a sewer in here.’ This was not helpful. But my older sister wasn’t entirely wrong. Our elderly parents, one dead six years, had wasted away in this house. But my sister’s tone of voice suggested it was somehow my fault, or that I had brought the sewer smell with me from San Francisco. My sister and her husband, the bank examiner, come by every Sunday to harrumph around the house for half an hour, grab a handful of my mother’s dresses for charity, and go to Hiram’s for a hot dog. My brother-in-law, who likes to remind you he has an MBA from Harvard, stands in the background, arms folded, and offers counsel, usually in the form of: ‘Augie, if I were you …’ or ‘You know what you should do.’ This isn’t helpful either.

My sister, eight and a half years my senior, loves me. But she thinks me feckless and disturbed. She’s right: I am disturbed, though hardly in the way she means. She is a psychiatric social worker and thinks most people, especially members of her family, are ‘disturbed’ in varying degrees. What was disturbing me at that moment was how the hell I was going to get all this shit out of the house by the 28 September closing date. It woke me up in a panic at 3 a.m. night after night. By ‘feckless’ (a word my father might have used, rather than my sister), she means I didn’t graduate from an Ivy League school (she went to Smith); I’m not married (any more); I have not raised a family, nor do I have plans to in the immediate future (see not married); I don’t own a house (life-long renter) or even a car; and I don’t have a job (belletrist). If a sensible, attractive, middle-aged lady came across me on a dating website she would immediately think to herself: feckless, disturbed. Also, loser.

The panic about clearing out the house wasn’t the only thing keeping me up. I had a dread of losing the place; a very real, primal dread in the pit of my stomach. It would have been nice to have someone to hold on to at 3 a.m., but it would be too much to ask another person to participate in a three-month ordeal at the Mortality Motel, especially with all the memory-driven emotional weather blowing through.

There is, however, one woman in my life: Argia Rubino (née Argia di Meglio, 78 years ago in Ischia). She and her late husband, Sal, were our next-door neighbours for more than 40 years. Sal was terrific too, a small, tightly wound, chain-smoking dynamo. We got friendly in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I used to house-sit for my parents during the month of February and he’d come by for a cup of coffee and to chat. I’ve never seen – even in cartoons – someone of that age and stature, not to mention the chain-smoking, shovel snow the way Sal did. Nowadays it would be on YouTube. He was a great talker: funny, opinionated, profane; Argia talks up a storm as well. Their son, who comes by now and then to pick up his own small son, whom Argia often has in tow, seems pretty taciturn. How would it be otherwise?

After Sal died and, not long after him, my father, Argia and my mother would go out to dinner now and then, which is how I got to know her. She’s direct and can be pugnacious with those who make her ‘agito’, but she has an abundant sweetness and vulnerability and I trust her utterly. She can be hard as nails too, and just as sharp. She’s an old-fashioned Bronx girl, after all, who arrived in the US at the age of five with the rest of her family to join her father in a small cold-water flat, all five of them. Her father lived with Argia in his old age. He worked in the garden all day and the only time he ever acknowledged me was one day when a friend and I were laying some concrete at the foot of the back steps. He just stood and shook his head.

When my sister complained about the state of the place, it was Argia who hooked me up with Super Dario, the removalist. Dario owed her. Argia had got him a pile of work cleaning houses and apartments after he arrived here from Colombia, where he trained as an engineer. He doesn’t do cleaning work anymore, except for a few clients he’s had for years. But for Argia he’ll drop everything.

Dario came to clean the house the weekend before Argia began showing it. He brought his sister-in-law along to help. It was quite a performance, and the smell of disinfectants, floor wax and the rest would have knocked a hippo sideways. The house hadn’t been properly cleaned in years. Bill, the long-time cleaner, would roar around for 90 minutes with his vacuum, steal what he could get away with, and go off to the next job. When the stealing got out of hand we let him go and my mother’s nurses would clean up a bit when they had a chance. They didn’t do much.

Even my sister was impressed. ‘It doesn’t smell as bad as it did,’ she volunteered. Dario is a smallish man of slight build, somewhere in his early forties, I’d guess: bright, sweet-natured, very much the churchgoing, devoted family man. He’s also as strong as a 220-pound linebacker. After Dario and his sister-in-law were done, Dario looked at me speculatively, not without pity, and announced: ‘Au-GEE, I thinks you need help getting rid of.’ In short order the garage was full of miscellaneous junk and I was hauling out two cans and ten black plastic garbage bags every Tuesday and Friday night for the garbage men, and two big pieces of furniture every Friday: the town would pick up two ‘large pieces’ on Saturdays. Dario referred to small pieces of furniture as ‘Mexican sandwiches’. ‘You put out, they disappear. No you worry. They take.’

Why, the reader experienced in such matters will ask, didn’t I simply have an estate sale? There are the mundane excuses: my sister wanted this and that, or maybe she didn’t, she’d discuss it with her husband; at one point I seriously considered taking an apartment nearby and would have wanted some of the furniture and crockery, pots, pans, whatnot; and of the few pieces of furniture of any value, the buyers wanted the big Victorian cabinet in the living-room along with the dining-room table and chairs. But the truth is that I was reluctant, viscerally, psychologically, to let any of it go; and I didn’t want strangers traipsing through our house, looking appraisingly at this or that, dismissing it as worthless or, worse, walking out with it.

The furnishings haven’t really changed since I was a child. This is what a living-room should look like, our living-room. These are the sorts of dish one eats one’s dinner from. That’s where those paintings belong, right on that wall over there, where they’ve been for 50 years. Even my childhood bedroom hasn’t changed much. The wallpaper is less bright but the dresser, bookcase and desk have been there for ever. I can show you the photographs. I dislike change, at least as it relates to childhood memory. I still haven’t visited the new Museum of Modern Art in New York. I would be broken-hearted if the big Henri Rousseau painting The Sleeping Gypsy were no longer on the wall in the lobby as one walked past the ticket booth. It hasn’t been there for years. But it should be there. Everything should be where it’s supposed to be, which is where it was; if you remove one significant element, everything collapses. Much as a body would, if you removed a thigh bone or major organ. It all goes kittywumpus. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men … The house, in some queer way, has become part of my body, or an extension of it. And as the rooms are laid out and furnished, with the mirror above the dresser there, and the desk with the Chinese lamp by the living-room window over there, so is my imagination and my way of taking in the world ordered, a cockamamie variant of Matteo Ricci’s Memory Palace.

I was not very pleased when Argia began bringing other realtors and prospective buyers into the house. Of course, this was how one went about selling a house, and we were all agreed on the sale of the house, the sooner the better. My mother’s nursing home care was grotesquely expensive. I couldn’t handle the costs of living in the house myself, even had my sister decided to relinquish her share of the place and hand it over to me outright, debts be damned, we’ll figure all that out somehow down the road. Property taxes, utility bills, upkeep on an old house … no way. Suck it up. Let’s get this show on the road. You’ve got a life to lead in San Francisco.

Easy for you to say. The other realtors, mostly older women, were an odd, creepy lot. They were at once casual and cheery – thought we’d just stop by and say hello – and unabashedly wolfish and mercenary. They were also rather sneering: what a curious old dump filled up to the brim with tchotchkes, unspeakable furniture. The wall over there would need to be removed, that one too. No, that wouldn’t work. What sort of people lived in a place like this? Another era, I suppose. And the kitchen … A builder might want it for the land … And there I’d be, in the shadows, where Argia had positioned me, looking and feeling like an underutilised docent or the aged family mooncalf.

I wound up clearing the house out in as torturous a manner as possible, room by room, drawer by drawer, with Argia coming by twice a day to urge me on, and Dario, who had at least three other jobs and a wife in and out of hospital, showing up when he could at weekends to help me with the heavier things. ‘Au-GEE,’ he said cheerfully one Sunday evening after four hours of removalising, my back and knees aching: ‘We’re nut even halfways through, hee hee.’

It wasn’t going nearly fast enough. I was at it from before dawn – couldn’t sleep – till dusk. It felt as though I were cleaning the Augie-an stables. Argia was anxious. Dario was anxious. My sister began complaining less, coming round more often, staying longer and taking more. My brother-in-law appeared one morning with a couple of movers and took away a few desks and bureaux he and my sister fancied for their own house. I called the Salvation Army, who sent round two extra-jumbo dimmies who didn’t want to take anything, even for free. ‘That’s an early 19th-century French antique sofa, classical revival,’ I protested. ‘A dealer could probably sell that for four grand!’ ‘Too old,’ they said. I wound up having to give them a C-note to haul off six big, perfectly useful pieces of furniture.

The closing was delayed. Heaven. Then delayed again. There were problems securing a mortgage. The black plastic bags continued to fill up. I came across one big box in the attic filled with my publications, press clippings, awards, which my parents, unknown to me, had saved. One day I went through my mother’s desk drawers. Photographs, hundreds and hundreds. Too much to bear. I’d resolved early on, while cleaning the attic and finding other old photographs, that if this was going to get done I’d be obliged, like Lot on his retreat from Sodom and Gomorrah, to avert my eyes. But I couldn’t help it: I had to separate the ones I wanted to keep and the ones I thought my sister would want. Scores of photographs I’d forgotten or never seen, tranches of memory that made me catch my breath. The one that really got to me was a large, professionally taken photo of my brother with his date at the high school senior prom, 1961, both of them looking so young, good-looking and hopeful.

Another day, many days really, were devoted to going through my father’s tchotchkes – small statues, figurines, odd bits of driftwood or stone he’d picked up – and, finally, throwing them into a trash bag. I might well have been with him when he chanced on these things, in junk shops, flea markets, or just lying there on the ground: his treasures. This was what pleased him most in life, I think, hunting for these bits and pieces that he found intriguing for one reason or another. No, not for one reason or another: they were all lovely, all interesting; he had a wonderful eye. But they were of no value to anyone else, except perhaps to me, and I don’t have room. My apartment in San Francisco is already crowded with my father’s things. It’s what’s made returning here so much more bearable than I’d expected. My walls and shelves are covered with his masks, from Africa and Oceania, his bronze bodhisattvas, the old mortars and pestles he enjoyed collecting. But there I was, sitting on the back porch in his favourite armchair, the one he read and napped in, or enjoyed an Old Grand-Dad on the rocks in, his absolute favourite spot – sitting there and throwing out, one by one, the things he loved having near him, to look at or pick up and roll around in his hand.

I went to see my mother in the nursing home. It was a Sunday. A perfect October morning, the foliage at its very best. Only a few days earlier I’d been caught in a shower of acorns as I walked along Abbott Boulevard. Further along on my walk I came across a barberry shrub whose leaves were such a brilliant, fiery shade of red that it seemed unearthly. It turned out to be the winged euonymus, better known as the ‘burning bush’. The seasons change so swiftly here, in comparison to out west. It is a pleasant drive to the nursing home, about 45 minutes west-southwest. There’s a good radio station from Columbia University, WKCR. It does country and bluegrass in that Sunday slot – first-rate.

My mother was slumped over in a wheelchair in the hallway, by herself, away from a cluster of other elderly people in wheelchairs by the central desk. A pleasant Filipina greeted me. I told her who I was and she took me over to my mother. I kneeled down. ‘Look who’s here, Mrs K.’ My mother, who’d been dozing, looked at me for a few seconds and then, on recognising me, began shaking with sobs and nodding her head. I wheeled her to the room she shares with another woman, who wasn’t there. A news show was on the TV, the talking heads sort, with a few retired generals and pundits having a back and forth about the Afghanistan war. My mother drifted in and out of sleep. I stroked her arm when she was awake, which made her smile. She’d deteriorated badly since I last saw her. I felt queasy. There was no meat on her at all, just bruised, veiny skin hanging off the bone. I tried to be gentle. At one point she told me her back hurt and asked me to get the attendant. The attendant came back to the room with me to give my mother some Percocet. My mother snarled at her like a cornered, half-dead bobcat. The attendant was used to this, sort of. I sat by her for a half an hour or so, listening to the ‘experts’. ‘I’ve got to go now, Ma,’ I told her. She nodded. ‘I know, sweetheart.’

The final pick-up came at 5.30 on Saturday morning. I’d already been awake for an hour or so, just lying there, thinking. The day before, Dario had helped me put the mattress and box-spring out. The next day he gave the house its final clean and I moved to the Comfort Inn in Edgewater for the last two nights, leaving my mother’s ’92 Oldsmobile Cutlass in the parking lot there for him to pick up, in exchange for all his work. It hardly seems fair, but he’s coveted that car since I suggested maybe we could work something out. It has less than 30,000 miles on it. ‘I likes old GMC cars. I used have ’87 Electra. I fix.’ A few days after my return to San Francisco he phoned me one morning to tell me all the plans he has for the car. He’s already bought two new tyres. He wanted to know how I was doing.

That Saturday morning, as I lay there waiting, the house was empty and had been for a while, apart from my inflato-mattress and the furniture the buyers had bought. I rather liked it. It made me feel monkish. I live in such a clutter of books and things in San Francisco. I would be pleased to live like this, here, through the winter. I would be pleased simply to live here, simply. Or not simply. No one need know I’m here. I’d keep the lights off but for a small reading lamp. I could slip out to the 24-hour A&P up by the high school in the middle of the night. I like 24-hour supermarkets at 3 a.m. I like them more than museums. America is very good at that sort of thing.