What on Earth am I Settling For?

So we didn't knock around Europe this year. Had some kids. Got a loan. Bought a home.

The other house, a bungalow with crystal doorknobs, was on the powerline side of Thirty-second Street in a part of North Park that I have heard described as “South Sav-On.”
  • The other house, a bungalow with crystal doorknobs, was on the powerline side of Thirty-second Street in a part of North Park that I have heard described as “South Sav-On.”
  • Image by David Diaz

Childhood is the one luxury that almost any father can afford for his children. That is, a father can extend childhood in one form or another to offspring long beyond the time when they need it, say, into their twenties or thirties. The effect isn’t bad necessarily; older children may give themselves entirely to their careers and be all the better for it. No, a prolonged childhood is not the mark of the spoiled or pampered. But it is a disadvantage in one way at least. It is so luxurious that anything that succeeds it seems, at first anyway, a comedown.

I know. I’m not saying how old I am, but the average age in my marriage is twenty-eight and a half. We have two point zero children, who are twins, average age sixteen months and half a minute. As a group, we have literate friends, plenty of milk, and a Trinitron. Contentment is our lot, and yet, for my part, happiness reached a high and thrilling plateau that stretched geographically from Bordeaux to New York, about ten years ago, when for tax purposes I was technically still of my parents’ household. And until recently, I thought that I — we, with Jane and the kids — could have that happiness again for the asking.

With Jane’s money and mine, we had easily enough to finance one or two once-in-a-lifetime adventures before it was too late. Nothing was definite, nothing planned, but to take a year off and spend half of it in Nice and the other half in a stone village in Yorkshire, for example, was an experience as plausible and as richly unfulfilled as tomorrow’s front page. We could almost call it to the door. “I really want to travel a lot when the girls are little,” Jane would say before they were born. ‘‘That’s when they’re most portable.”

Actually we did go to L.A. a lot to visit Jane’s folks and mine, and wonderful visits they were. But they were also the limit of our big plans, for a slow and ineluctable change took place while we were fantasizing, and (if I may apologize for this recollection), until I’ve written this out I won’t know exactly what happened.

“Goddamnit,” said Jane one evening about six months ago when I answered the door of our apartment in Golden Hill and found her on the stoop, Jeanne sliding out of her arms and a sack of groceries spilled at her feet. ‘‘Go down and get Julie, she’s screaming in the car. I can’t believe this. It takes half an hour to unload anything around here. I hate these stairs.”

These last words were spoken to my back as I descended the stoop, inwardly counting the fifteen steps. Later, putting the food away, Jane went on, “Don’t you think that the girls are getting a little too big for this apartment? All they do all day is bang into furniture.”

“I guess.”

“So do you think we could maybe start looking for another place?”

“Sure,” I said. We’d already had this discussion, and rather than hold my ground and incite a disagreement, I was using my Russian defense — in the face of opposition on the home front, retreat forever.

“So what does that mean?” Jane said, having none of it. “Do you think I should go out and look for a place?” “I don’t know. Go ahead.”

“But it’s stupid. I mean, why do you love this place so much?”

I thought of everlasting showers from the solar water heater, of gas bills of three or four dollars a month, of our kindly landlord, a friar among men, who was present in time of trouble and absent in time for the party; I thought of the entertaining variety of neighbors, the children, the singles, Navy, Marines, the dressy young men who smelled good when you passed them on the walk, and of our view surmounting the alley in back, where once we’d witnessed two adults and a child engaged in a custody fight which ended with two taxis chasing past the soft colors of backyard fences and garages before turning onto Thirtieth Street, and I replied, “No good reason. Except that I hate grass.”

She laughed. She was cracking. “Why?”

“Where I grew up, we had a full suburban lot, fifty by a hundred, just for the lawn.”

“So?”

“So never again.”

“But the girls only need a little patch where they can play while I keep an eye on them. I don’t understand why . . .”

“I’m not living in suburbia.”

“You don’t have to live in suburbia. That’s the point. I’ll look for a little house in the neighborhood and we won’t move until we find a place with a yard that’s small enough for me to take care of, all right?”

“Sure. Start looking. You win.”

“I didn’t win,” she said, tucking flat an empty bag and folding it in thirds against her. “We just ... decided on my compromise.”

During her days off through the next few weeks, she wheeled the girls around the neighborhood, reconnoitering. Not many houses were for rent, and those that were were either on the golf course side of Golden Hill Park and were too expensive, or on the low-riders’ side and were too close to the fighting. Eventually she found a rental on Broadway that deserved looking into, and arranged for the landlord to meet us and the children there one Sunday morning. We rolled the stroller up to the gate at the foot of bare concrete steps. The yard, which was banked behind a retaining wall, was an eye-level display of dry grass and scat.

The house stood to one side of the yard, disowning it, and at the back we could see a barrack of apartments with bars over the ground-floor windows. I asked if this were the best she could find. “You don’t know what’s out there,” she said. “I’ve been looking. You should look for a while.”

I intended to, though she didn’t know it. My strategy was to wait for this house-idea to go bust, assuming we’d find nothing both close to town and with a yard Jane would be willing to mow, and then to look for an apartment or condominium close to a side of Balboa Park where I’d concede to stroll the babies every day. That way I’d get out of having to care for a yard, and the babies would enjoy a broader playground than they would otherwise know.

The landlord arrived, extending a thick hand and asking us to call him Dale. His hair was cut in a flattop, with needles of gray, and he was wearing Sears jeans and an inside-out sweatshirt with the arms cut raggedly off. He introduced his wife and son, who were toiling up the sidewalk with mops and a bucket of cleansers between them. The son was about fifteen, and had his father’s low ears and his mother’s pageboy hair. He looked exquisitely morose, as I did when Dad made me spend a weekend morning at his rental house in Redondo Beach, helping with the twice-monthly mowing and trimming.

On the porch, we stood in a quiet mass while Dale selected from a fist of keys. “Ho, I guess you look like you’re in the service,” he said heartily, not looking at me.

“Service industry.”

“Haw, it’s an industry all right. Leastways it is in San Daygo. Can’t tell you ’bout other places ’cause I don’t know ’em!” He shouldered the door, which gave with a crack. “Let’s try to get a window open for you,” he said, pushing back curtains that looked like bath mats. “Honey, you go on and open the other windows and we’ll let these good people look on through the house by themselves. You have any questions, you just yell out, otherwise we won’t be botherin’ you, all right?”

Jane replied that she would, and taking a baby on her hip, cast away to drift from room to room.

A chalky, sour odor came out of the bath, where fresh, iguana-green paint clung to the wall above the uncurtained tub. “Say now, don’t worry,” said Dale’s close voice at my shoulder. “We’re gonna go ahead and finish painting in there today or tomorrow, and it’ll all be the same color.”

The bedroom’s built-in dresser had also been repainted, for what looked like the twentieth time, so that it now had a finish of cream cheese. “Not much you can’t put in them drawers,” said Dale, looking in from the next room.

The closet door in the hall was missing.

“Got you a door in the garage if you want it. Other people took it off for some reason. I just let ’em do whatever they want!”

I found Jane in the kitchen in front of the sink. “Look at this,” she said. “If you stand right here, you can see the whole yard. Stand here.” She pointed to a spot on the floor.

“See?” she said.

“Yes.”

“What do you think?” I nodded slowly while she went on. “It’s the right idea, don’t you think? Here, let me stand there again.” I made way; as she looked hopefully out the window, I thought of the rather glorious home her parents owned, the one she’d left at the age of eighteen, or seventeen, which was a good time earlier than I’d left mine, and of how she would happily accept living in a house like this one if it were best for Julie and Jeanne, or come to think of it, best for me. She said, “What I wonder is, whether the girls would have that whole yard to play in, or whether the people in the apartments use it, too.”

When Dale came into the kitchen, she asked him. He replied that the girls could sure use the whole yard if they wanted to, but as Jane questioned him more closely, he allowed it wasn’t a private yard in the sense of being attached to this house, and then admitted that the only private yard we’d have was the beaten earth under the living room window where the previous tenants had fenced their pup Dobermans. “They rolled the fence up and left it out there,” he said, “but hell, you can have it if you want, no charge.”

I told Dale we’d probably call him later in the day, one way or the other, and he said, “Hokay, no problem! We’ll be here all day fixing up.” Then his wife walked into the room and said she couldn’t find Roy, who I guessed was their son. On our walk back to the apartment, we saw him sitting in his parents’ car, hands slack in his lap, not even listening to the radio.

After looking into another house later that day and finding it absurdly small, my proposal for renting an apartment or a condo closer to the park was submitted, discussed, and accepted, with one amendment.

“We should keep an eye out for something to buy,” Jane said.

“To buy.”

“It’s just that we’d be stupid not to consider it, since we’re going to come across some deals out there.” She explained that as we had a sizable piece of cash to put into a down payment, which many shoppers didn’t have, we would be in a strong position to bargain for a property, and, being also more flexible than most young couples with children (who knows where we’d be in three years?), we could buy a place with no intentions of living in it longer than it took to make a profit. I remembered that practically all of our famous savings had come from Jane’s brief ownership of a house (in her previous marriage), of which she’d taken only half the net after cashing out.

“You mean we could make a killing?” I said, as though it were illegal.

“Of course! Then we can really spend it.”

Six months in Nice? Mieux peutetre, a year in Paris. The Jeu de Paume. Julie and Jeanne learning to count in dainty voices, “neuf . . . dix . . . onze.”

“We may have to borrow some money if we’re going to put all of ours into a down — closing a deal is expensive,” said Jane. “Do you think we could ask your parents for some?”

“I’ll get some, no problem.” (Dad will say, “Now you’re talking in my bad ear.” And he’ll think about it for a week. He and Mom can afford it. No they can’t. “Honey, you know we can,” Mom will say. “But do whatever you think is right.”) “No sweat,” I said. “What do we do first?”

Jane started looking on her own, and within a week had engaged an agent — Larry was his name, a tall, collegiate, baby-faced attorney who specialized in dealing condos, and who was perfect for us. He surfed. He understood that in a tricky, protean environment (as surrounds the young; and the younger, the more protean), the essence of balance was movement. Keep moving, keep something happening; whatever you do, don’t stall. For ourselves, we still had it in mind to leave San Diego on a few months’ notice, to travel or to follow any alluring drift in our careers. We were going to move through property ownership without stalling or wiping out.

Every Friday Jane and Larry would ride about in his black Audi, investigating the listings of his realty sheets, and in the evening Jane would report from her memory and steno notebook. Hillcrest turned out to be too expensive, and the newest condominiums in Golden Hill were too small (builders cut costs by cutting the size of rooms), which left several projects in North Park, a few of which we looked at together and found disappointing — covered with that swishy stucco that looks like sugar-and-Crisco icing.

And so it was convenient to broaden our search to include small houses, which were older and less likely to be owned by such unbending lenders as developers and banks. This, of course, was the turning point, although I didn’t feel it then. How obvious it is to me now! We weren’t looking for a property anymore, we were looking for a house. “We just bought a house” has a solid ring to it — like lead — but I was still so involved with making money that I didn’t realize what we were doing, what we were saying. I was like so many people in the Navy who tell one another, “I’ve been in ten years but I’m not really military. I’ll put in ten more and get my pension” — and they turn around: they’re lifers.

“Good news,” said Jane one Friday evening. “I think Larry and I have found some places you should see. One is really neat — I think I may have told you already — it’s sort of small but it’s right next to the park, on Cedar, and looks Moorish — you know that style with the flat smooth walls and small windows? I think you’d like it. And there’s another place further away — a lot further from the park, actually, but still within walking distance, or hiking distance or whatever — and it’s the classic, old, white, wooden home, with the porch in front and the driveway on the side, and the little garage in back that looks like a tiny barn. I really want you to see inside them — do you think maybe Monday would fit your schedule? Or is there a baseball game on that night?”

I don’t know where the Padres were when I needed them, probably playing at home, for no game was scheduled on Channel 8 that evening and we left as planned, at the onset of a clear summer dusk, we and Larry in the front seat of our wide Dodge and the girls strapped into their seats in back, holding their bottles at an upward tilt, like trumpets.

The house on Cedar Street was a smooth stucco cube with red trim, on a plate of green painted concrete. A slim teen-ager and her German shepherd were sitting in front; she made a great fuss over the babies and called her mother out to see them through the window of our parked car. The mother, in muumuu and slippers, came to the door and stood there like a cold front meeting a whisper of warm air. She slowly opened the screen door to admit Larry and Jane, while I remained on the steps in a face-off with the dog. The girl was jerking him with a choke chain and saying merrily over his growl, “Are you going to buy this place? Don’t mind him, he’s being a pest. We’ve been trying to sell it for months but my mom’s in no big hurry or anything, since she’s a realtor. Shut up already! And she wants to, uh, not get gypped or anything. Go on in, I’ll hold him. Anyway I hope you buy it. Too small. ” She said this with a wrinkled nose, then offered what I supposed to be her most winning smile. The dog suddenly yawned.

The living room was small, the ceiling was low, the floor crowded with furniture and the sideboards encrusted with porcelain knickknacks and photos in gilt frames. The dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, and bath were likewise as full as closets, which made it an act of will to see the house, and yet the more I saw of it, the more I liked it. It had thick, smooth walls and arched passageways; the scale of the rooms seemed exactly right for our few pieces of furniture. Jane looked under the lid of the toilet tank and saw from the date stamped on the once-soft porcelain that the toilet, hence the rest of the house, was forty-three years old. Not a bad age. And the listing on the property said it came with a year’s insurance on the plumbing and electrical. Jane seemed enthusiastic about it, but that’s her nature; Larry I overheard in conversation with the owner about the assumability of a variable loan.

For me, the backyard clinched it. There was a plot of grass no larger than the living room and a sideyard even smaller and shadowed by the overgrown trees in the yard next door. A wire arbor was strung like a clothes line along the back fence, but nothing was growing on it. Morning glories, I thought, would cover those naked wires in rapture. It grows like a weed — better than a weed, because you don’t have to rip it out.

Jane stood on the back porch with me and looked the yard over. After a minute she whispered to my shoulder, “They don’t believe in cleaning up after the dog?” I said I hadn’t noticed.

The other house, a bungalow with crystal doorknobs, was on the powerline side of Thirty-second Street in a part of North Park that I have heard described as “South Sav-On,” after the store nearby. It was empty. The woman who had lived alone there, a Mrs. Roberts, had died in her nineties some months before. Handrails had been installed down the central hallway to help her along an essential route -from door, to bedroom, to bath, where a pink night light, shaped like a -firefly with its glowing bulb protruding beyond its covering wing, was plugged into the socket above the toilet, and worked.

I switched it off and looked for a date under the lid of the tank. Nineteen seventy-eight, it read. The toilet was new and so was the water heater in the utility room, so obviously someone had been maintaining the water services. Also, the electrical sockets were the polarized type, which meant that part of the circuitry had been updated over the years, if not improved. The kitchen had a Wedgewood stove and a built-in potato bin; the doorbell was a stately chime instead of a buzzer.

“I have such good feelings about this place,” said Jane from the living room.

I said, “Why is it so cold in here?”

“It must be well insulated.”

When Larry heard that, he winked at me. Not saying much, he was going from room to room with upturned eyes, inspecting for water stains and following the cracks that the settling clay beneath the house had fissured across the plaster of ceilings and walls. From the rearmost bedroom I saw two fig trees, a Mission, I guessed, and a Turkey Brown, side by side along the picket fence between the back of the lot and the alley, and another tree that I thought I recognized as a plum like the one we’d had in our yard at home before my brothers and I tore it out to make way for an end zone.

This was the bedroom that Jane foresaw as the nursery, being the largest and having the most windows. Louvered windows they were, difficult to lock. The neighborhood didn’t look all that safe, though probably safer than Golden Hill — God, I thought, I’m already thinking about living here. Then suddenly I knew that we would buy this place, and the thought was so irksome I looked down for something to kick. It was like the day I’d gotten married, a happy day undoubtedly, but in the moment I was alone before going to meet Jane and the judge in my parents’ backyard, I had this certain feeling that I was about to be made nice. I was to take my place with millions of other nice people, and with them, provide an invisible protective shield to guard society against odor and decay, as in the dentifrice commercials. Who — was it I who had come to San Diego seven years ago to visit a girlfriend, and never left? Was that me? I seemed to recall that my bio was going to skip around a bit more than that. “Returning from Africa . . . he directed his first short film. ...”

“The lights work!” I heard Jane say somewhere. I found her in the hallway and hugged her lightly, for no reason that she knew of. Then we went out and looked at the yard, which needed a fence first thing.

In the car, backing out the driveway, I asked Larry what he thought. ‘‘I think,” he said, and then paused. ‘‘I’m not saying anything just yet.”

I liked the sound of that and said, “Neither am I.”

‘‘Go, uh, go back to Cedar Street for a minute. I want to check something out,” he added, leaning forward and looking avidly at the neighboring properties. He assumed the same position when we reached the Cedar Street neighborhood, and said, ‘‘Okay, now drive around the block real slowly.” He nodded at some of the houses as we passed them, the spruce ones that you might notice if you were strolling around the neighborhood at night, thinking of nothing in particular.

Jane asked him what he thought this time, and he leaned back and said that he wasn’t going to talk us in or out of which house to buy, but if it were his money, he’d go for the small one nearer the park.

‘‘That’s what I think, too,” I said later, at home, the three of us talking it over. It was Larry and I against Jane, who was holding out for Thirty-second Street.

‘‘Here’s the thing,” said Larry, getting up to leave. ‘‘You know what they say are the three most important things in real estate? Location, location, and location. The Cedar house is very close to the park, it’s on a well-kept street, plenty of high values, and although the price is pretty high, I guarantee you that with a little labor, you can improve that property and sell it in two years for. . . oh, ten thousand more than you paid for it. Easily. Easily.”

Something hot and comfortable seemed to expand at the front of my ribs. Two years wasn’t long.

“But you make a list,” he said at the door, mending fences with Jane. “Write down the pros and cons of each house, sleep on it, and decide for yourselves what you really want.”

We shook hands all around, closed the door behind him, heard his footsteps sounding down the stoop, and faced each other from opposite sides of the living room.

“It’s too small,” she said tiredly. ‘‘We’d be living just like we are now — don’t you think? I mean I’m sick of having the TV in the living room. I want it out.”

‘‘Look, Jane, Goddamnit, we’re talking about buying a house. That’s a long way from where we started two months ago when we said we were moving because the kids needed a little yard.”

I paused to let her agree, but she paused right back.

‘‘Well, we did,” I said. ‘‘And that’s what we’ll get from the Cedar Street house, plus we’ll make money fairly quick.”

‘‘But we can’t afford either house unless we get some money from our families, remember?”

‘‘Of course.”

‘‘And you know you’ll have to borrow twice as much from your parents to buy the Cedar Street house?”

‘‘Sure.”

‘‘And you’re going to ask them?”

‘‘God,” I said, “it’s an investment. What are parents for?”

‘‘Are you going to call them?” ‘‘Sure.”

‘‘When?”

‘‘I don’t care. Tomorrow.”

She looked at me closely for a tremor, a sign that I wouldn’t do it. And then she said we should list the pros and cons, which we did, and then we went to bed — I feeling that the compromise this time was coming in my direction. A pleasant thought to sleep with.

The next morning I prepared a speech in the shower and phoned around eight o’clock, supposing Dad to be at home behind his messy desk.

No answer. I remembered a similar situation in school in New York, when I’d needed a fast loan to finish the year, and had called on him for a statement of personal finances, which he shyly agreed to prepare for me and the bursar, and I recalled my disbelief at the figures I saw — figures which belied his modest dress and habits, and I reasoned that here was proof of the way I’d come to see him over the years, not as a businessman or civil servant, which was how I suppose he’d come to think of himself, but as a farmer like his parents. A farmer is not rich. He may have a good deal of money at times, but money is grain that accumulates at harvest only to be stored or shipped. No, the farmer’s wealth comes from continuity, security, from the approval of years; and money is most useful to keep ruin from accumulating at a slightly slower pace than time. I didn’t call back that day.

‘‘Well?” said Jane that night when she came home.

‘‘I think Thirty-second Street will be okay.”

‘‘Really?”

‘‘I had a feeling when we were inside it, looking it over.”

‘‘So did I.”

‘‘I figured, ‘Why fight it?’ I’m going to plant sugar beets in the backyard.”

“What?”

‘‘Or alfalfa. It has blue flowers.” ‘‘What are you talking about?” ‘‘Nothing.”

‘‘You don’t seem very happy.” ‘‘I’m not.”

‘‘Did you call your parents?”

“Uh — yes, but they weren’t home.”

‘‘Did you think your dad wouldn’t have given you the money for Cedar Street?”

‘‘Oh no, no, that wasn’t the problem at all. The problem was he would have.”

In the end, Dad and I arranged for a helpful loan to be repaid with deferred interest, and signed technically as a gift so as not to foul up anybody’s tax situation. Larry arranged a mutually advantageous deal between us and the inheritors of Mrs. Roberts’s house, which we bought out of probate court. For some weeks after escrow closed we continued to live in our apartment while working on the house. I let the front yard go and worked on building a fence in back. I got so angry digging postholes in the rain one afternoon that I had to lie down for a minute under the eave of the garage (rain falling in a puddle at my ear) because I’d started to feel lightheaded. The rain made the grass in the backyard sprout. Jane was astonished because she thought it was dead, but it didn’t surprise me a bit.

A few days before the movers showed up, Jane met Mrs. Roberts’s daughter and her husband on the steps of the house. A woman in her sixties, she had come for one last look at the house she’d grown up in, had been married in. She told Jane that her father had built it, and that all of the children had been raised there. She reminisced about the holidays they all had spent together. She cried.

‘‘Oh, and they gave us a lawn mower,” Jane reported. ‘‘Isn’t that great?”

‘‘What kind?”

‘‘I didn’t ask.”

‘‘I mean is it power?“

“What’s the matter? Are you upset?”

Pause.

“It’s power,” she went on. “It’s red, and the man said it runs great.”

“That was nice of him,” I said.

It has been nearly two months since we moved in, and I have still not mowed the front lawn. In the world of lawn order, I will be an outlaw. I admit it isn’t much, but every little bit helps. It is part of my tradeoff between childhood happiness and present contentment.

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