A few weeks ago, I visited an old friend and we watched the Eagles-Giants game together. The Giants played well and came away with a surprising victory on the road in Lincoln Financial Field. I see this guy once a year; he’s the last person I know in the town I lived in from age ten until I went away to college.
After the game, I took the long way back through town to Route 80 East, so that I might drive past the house I grew up in. The house is on a remote street in an area of densely wooded hills above the lake that gives the town its name. The short street, called a “trail,” like all the roads around it, isn’t a thoroughfare to anywhere else. If you’re driving on it, you’re visiting someone or something on the street. I drove slowly up a steep incline, saw the old house at the top, and saw, too, that the people next door were having a garage sale. This gave me an excuse to pull into my family’s former driveway, look up at the house for a moment, then back out and ease the car up to the house next door. I killed the engine and got out.
The garage sale people were a couple in their late twenties or early thirties with two kids, one on a small bicycle and the other an infant propped up in one of those ExerSaucer play centers. The wife was sitting on the steps by the front door. It was early evening, not quite 6pm, but it was September so there was still plenty of light.
“You saw one of our signs,” the woman said. “You’re one of the very few.”
“Signs?” I said. I was walking up the driveway. The husband was trying to maneuver a wooden cabinet onto a dolly.
“This town has very strict rules about signs. You can only have four, and they can’t be larger than one foot by one foot. They actually drive around and check.”
“Oh. I didn’t see any signs.” The older kid pedaled past me and out into the street. There were a couple of tables on the driveway, covered with the usual garage sale odds and ends, plus some appliances, kids’ toys, and flimsy looking pieces of furniture. “I was just,” I gestured vaguely, “driving around.”
“We’ve had maybe a dozen people all day.”
I looked around and saw a recliner, a dining table, and an entertainment center of the sort designed to hold a big picture-tube TV. I looked out onto the lawn and saw that a realtor’s sign was spiked into it. “You’re moving?” I said.
“Trying to. For nine months. All we get are rude bargain hunters.”
I went over to her husband and helped him lift the cabinet onto the dolly. “Bad housing market,” I offered. Their house was a small one, laid out on one floor, with, I remembered, one bath. Too small for a family of four, these days.
“Bad town,” the wife countered. “Worried about all the wrong things. Like garage sale signs.”
The husband started wheeling the cabinet away and I looked at the house next door. It was up a short, weedy incline, the long wall of its built-in garage facing us. There was a door off the side of the garage, but the little porch that it had opened onto was long gone. In its place was a row of four overflowing trash cans. A twenty-foot section of rain gutter was lying in the weeds below the cans. I had seen already that there was a ragged stretch of shingles and bare wood across the front of the house where the gutter had been.
My parents built that house in 1972, when there was only one other year-round house (and two summer cottages) on the street. The lot was situated in the midst of a slope that descended precipitously from the roadfront to the property line at the rear. There are plenty of ways to build a house into a slope so that it makes architectural sense, but the builders my parents contracted weren’t sophisticated in that way. They solved the problem by trucking in tons of sand and construction waste and plopping a two-story rectangle of a house on top of the pile of sand like a cherry on whipped cream. The fact that the town had no sewage system for wastewater disposal posed another conundrum which the builders addressed by suspending a septic tank a few feet behind the house in the hill of sand.
“That’s not even the worst of them,” the woman said, following my gaze. “The one across the street was abandoned almost a year ago. Owners just packed up and left.”
Our former house was sided with firehouse-red asbestos shingles, the use of which had been banned in new construction sometime in the mid-70s. This house still had them, though a great many were cracked and broken. There were no curtains or shades in any of the windows I could see. The driveway was unpaved and a car sat in front of the house under the picture window where a front lawn had once been.
A little further up and across the street was a house in better condition, though it was unmistakably vacant. A section of gutter was down here, too, collapsed across the driveway. The lawn had gone over to tall weeds. The Mannings, who had had lived there many years ago, had always seemed like nobility to my unworldly eyes. Mr. Manning was a burly, barrel-shaped man, covered with body hair. He was, I think, a salesman of some sort. The Mannings had a patio boat on the lake, a large, slow-moving craft on pontoons, essentially a sea-faring backyard deck adorned with folding chairs and life preservers. Over the years, the Mannings’ son’s things—a bedroom desk, a bicycle, a colossal Zenith black-and-white TV—would be handed down to me and my brother. I knew that the Mannings were sophisticated and worldly because Mr. Manning kept a stack of Playboy magazines in a magazine rack in the living room, glossy publications filled with pictures of naked ladies right out there in the open and no one was self-conscious or weird about it. They were just another thing, like the liquor bottles and glassware arranged on a sideboard and the framed pictures on the wall.
“That one there, at least people still live in it. They drink a lot of Rolling Rock, I can tell you that. I’m constantly clearing away the empties that roll down the hill.”
The woman was speaking again about our old house. The people who’d bought the house from my parents in the late ’80s had purchased a home in desperate need of major repairs, none of which were apparently ever made. On the opposite side of the house there had been another little wooden porch and a long flight of wooden steps. It had rotted away when my parents still lived there and never been replaced. Twenty-five years is a long time to leave a second-story door hanging in space on the side of your house.
The woman’s husband had returned from moving the cabinet into the garage. “You see anything you want, you can have it for half off,” he said. Some of the items around me bore strips of masking tape inked with prices. I made a show of flipping through some vintage CDs in a box. Smashing Pumpkins, Aerosmith, Spin Doctors. A dollar a piece.
“You want to buy a house?” his wife said. She seemed in the mood to talk. Twelve garage sale customers over the course of an entire day will do that, I guess. “We bought this house six years ago at the top of the market. Now we can’t get rid of it. No one can sell anything. There’s another foreclosed house at the other end of the street and plenty more in town.”
I looked up the street. The Cullens’ old house, perhaps. They’d had a family history of health issues, I remembered. How long it had been since the last of the neighbors we’d known up here had moved away from this area? Twenty years? It’s odd how I can recall the last names of our neighbors of decades ago, but I couldn’t tell you the last names of any of my current neighbors, most of whom I’ve lived among for twelve years now.
From where I was standing I could see only the side of the house next door and the corner of the property around the garage. I wondered what the back yard looked like. I wondered if my father’s work bench and shelves were still at the back of the garage. I couldn’t imagine, given the fact that nothing else had been changed or repaired in decades, that they wouldn’t still be there. I used to assemble the sunday papers, the Newark Star-Ledger, in that garage in the hours before dawn. In my teens, I would often stay up all night on a Saturday, watching as the network TV stations went off the air one by one until only CBS-TV’s Late Late Shows remained, creaky B&W stock comedies from the ’40s and ’50s like Where’s Charley? or the Thin Man mysteries.
Why was I staying up all night? I can’t remember. Though I do recall listening for the Star-Ledger distributor’s truck, which would deposit bundles of Sunday edition sections at the foot of our driveway at about 5am. I would assemble these sections (there was a pattern, the classifieds into the living section into the comics/magazine section into the news section), and then head off with the bulky papers (as many as I could carry, jammed into a cloth shoulder bag) out onto the rural streets as the sky shifted from black to purple to pink on the horizon.
“Looks like there might be a few code violations up there,” I said.
“You’d think so,” the woman said. She stood up and gathered her sleeping baby out of the ExerSaucer. “But nothing gets done. This town is run by thieves. Everyone’s trying to get out.”
Building code inspections must have been pretty lax forty years ago, too. Shortly after we moved in to our new house, it became apparent to my father that the sand dune our house was perched on was going wash away down the hill. The contractors who’d built the house had filed for bankruptcy as they were finishing the job, so my father was painting and nailing up sheetrock when he wasn’t driving fifty miles back and forth to his day job. So he sent me and my brother off into the woods around the house to gather big rocks, as many as we could find, and set them into the hill of sand in rows. My brother and I had lived all of our short lives in a tiny apartment in densely populated Bergen County, so our new surroundings were a revelation to us. We felt like explorers, like pioneers, building a homestead in the wilderness. All day we carted rocks up the hill, sweating in the July sun and listening to music from a small radio tuned to WABC Musicradio 77 on the AM dial. “Alone Again (Naturally),” by Gilbert O’Sullivan. “Candy Man,” by Sammy Davis, Jr. “Song Sung Blue,” by Neil Diamond. In the late afternoons in those first weeks, we would hear the sound of a bugle or horn being played somewhere off in the distance. I imagined myself on the frontier, where life was brutal and short.
It took a while, but eventually a lot of that sand would erode away. My mother tried to plant things on that hill, but sand is sand, and not much would grow there. In the ’80s, after I’d moved away, a few bad storms carved that hill up to the point where the septic system was exposed, and it stayed that way for a while. Talk about your code violations.
The husband had rejoined us and was starting to close up some of the boxes on the tables. I’m sure I didn’t have the look of someone who was going to buy anything. “I think we’re gonna call it a day,” he said.
“Sure, okay,” I said, retreating down the short driveway. I looked up at their little house; the wife was heading inside. I’d watched all of these houses go up in the ’70s. It was a hopeful time, a whole neighborhood springing up around us, middle-class families in their first houses, everywhere the rumble of bulldozers, then the roar of cement mixers as foundations went in, the shriek of table saws and the rap-rap-rap of hammers. My brother and I had played in every one of these houses as they were being constructed. We watched as guys in hardhats and toolbelts installed pipes and wires and sheetrock, then we returned in off hours to tightrope-walk the roof beams and carry away cast-off building materials for our own childhood projects. Somewhere in this particular house, I knew, was a small white Matchbox ambulance with a flip-open rear door, wedged between beams in the crawlspace.
“Good luck with everything,” I said, but the woman was gone and the man had walked back into the garage with a box. I got in my car and I drove away.
Related: I Speak For The Trees