JoAnne and I have been official empty nesters since our son Ben left for the University of California/Santa Cruz in the fall of 2000. In his freshman year he met Erin, a wonderful young woman. Since then they have spent their junior year abroad together in Edinburgh, Scotland, graduated from college, moved to L.A, and have each found jobs in their respective fields. It is beginning to sink in that our little Benny Two-fingers is not coming back home for anything other than a visit. My vigil is ending, and the light I keep burning in the window is only attracting raccoons.
We call him “The Boy” and JoAnne knew seven years ago that he would not be back. I realized on a practical level that little Benny was now Ben, and despite the hours of wisdom I had yet to impart, he would not be receiving it at my knee, or while bivouacked in the guest bedroom in our rather small California home. Still, when Ben and Erin informed us this winter that they were house-hunting, it seemed like such a big step.
During the search, thanks to modern technology, JoAnne and I received copies of the listings and could make suggestions. We would frequently receive a bemused or bewildered call from Ben. He and Erin had wisely ruled out vast acreage, iffy neighborhoods, and zip codes that were too pricey. Still, viewing what they could almost afford was an education. Erin was surprised by what a clever realtor defined as a breakfast nook. Like the Henny Youngman line, at one open house they saw a closet that was a nail. They walked through houses that would need to be painted before they could be condemned, and depressingly, they were a financial stretch.
We laughed about the Woody Allen bit from his early film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. The vignette featured emcee Jack Barry and panelist Robert Q. Lewis trying to guess “What’s My Perversion?” a parody of “What’s My Line?.” I suggested similarly that any house they could approach affording would have a giant quirk. The game would be to identify the hideous flaw. The scoring rules were vague, but if you could spot the weirdness on-line, no one had to visit the property. If the photos and enticing language fooled them, they would have to explore this too good to be true home. If they were able to drag me all the way up in freeway traffic to see a place that hadn’t been inhabited since the Manson family, points were awarded.
Whether it was seven foot ceilings, being directly on a fault line, or the added expense of purchasing monthly protection from the Crips/Bloods, Erin and Ben would have to compromise. Particularly in California, finding an oddity that can be re-framed as charming, unique, or at least tolerable was their only chance. As one realtor suggested, “Sometimes you gotta kiss a lot of frogs.” They were not deterred. They considered everything from a downtown L.A. industrial loft to a house built on top of a giant rock with a fifty-step switchback front entrance and chickens in the back yard. (No exaggeration.)
Finally they found a 1930s Spanish style house with a large deck and a sweeping vista of the surrounding hills in Silver Lake. The character flaw: it was only 800 square feet. Easy to clean they decided. Ben was smitten. Silver Lake reminded him of home. Like South Minneapolis, it is near downtown but with a neighborhood feel. It is artsy, tree-lined, hilly, and filled with eclectic architecture from the 1920s and 30s. Erin, a Californian from the Bay Area, loved the winding narrow streets and the intimacy of the neighborhood.
The kids wisely chose to paint the entire interior of the house before moving in any furniture. JoAnne and I were both on the painting crew, along with a number of their friends. On occasion I found myself watching and not working. Granted, I am fairly lazy, but I was observing the easy banter, affection, and the hard work everyone was putting forth. It was bittersweet hearing Ben share inside jokes with friends on topics I cannot grasp. While it was wonderful to witness the support system he and Erin have built in the big city, it was also a time to realize I will not be pushing Little Benny in the tire swing I never got around to setting up on Humboldt Avenue.
Tom H. Cook, lacking cable, may be the last person to have discovered “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” on MSNBC. Thanks to YouTube, Olbermann’s sagacious, well reasoned, and fearless commentaries are preserved. When our national nightmare ends he is one individual who will not have to be embarrassed or feel guilty for not having done enough. If you have not already done so, please check out his stirring missives.