Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Lifestyles of the Average and Ordinary

The world is full of doors and everyday lives behind them.
When I was around seven years old, my father’s co-worker invited our family to dinner at his home.  As was proper in those days, we dressed up (not formally, but nicer than school clothes), hopped into the station wagon and headed out.  We pulled up to a large building and parked on the street.  An apartment!

My sister and I grew up in a tract home suburb in an isolated quasi-beach community.  Although there were apartments about a mile away, the majority of housing in our area at that time was free-standing homes and all of our friends lived in freestanding homes.  Our house literally bordered on an affluent community, but in the early ‘70s, the area below our house was still fields of garbanzo beans or wheat, depending on the year.  So, actually going to an apartment was exciting.

We stopped at a gate and had to get buzzed into a large green courtyard with hillocks, bridges, and lush plantings.  There was the sound of gurgling water.  My sister and I exchanged piqued looks and rushed towards the sound.  A river!  Sure, we had a little fish pond in our front yard, but we didn’t have a river.  How cool was that?  A river! We hadn’t even met my father’s friend yet and already he rated high on the coolness scale.

“It’s not a river, it’s a stream,” my dad corrected us.

“A stream!  COOL! Can we live here??” my sister and I asked breathlessly.

“We live in a house,” my dad snorted.  “And it’s not a real stream.”

My sister and I looked at the running water in confusion.  The water was clear and there were rocks lining the sides and bottom with a little concrete.  There weren’t any fish, but it wasn’t a gutter.  And hadn’t Dad just said it was a stream?  Moving water was thrilling. My sister and I exchanged shrugs and gleefully followed the stream.

My dad called us to him and we entered the building.  It was like a hotel: carpeted hallways, doors on either side with numbers on them.  Were we going to have room service for dinner?  We’d done that once before in a hotel and a guy showed up with a cart and the food was covered with silver inverted bowls, which made the food soggy and taste all the same.  It was like a mix between take-out and eating in a restaurant.

When we got to the apartment, we met my dad’s co-worker, who was much younger than my dad.  He was tall and thin, wore tiny silver framed glasses and a sweater vest.  His parents were there.  Their voices lilted.  They from Switzerland and so was my dad’s co-worker.  Was this how Swiss people lived?

The apartment itself was disappointing.  It looked like a house, not a hotel room.  There was a kitchen, so no room service.  The t.v. was black and white and only got a few channels.  There were two wires on top.  By moving them around, my dad’s co-worker showed us how to get channel 52, a channel we’d never heard of, and we were introduced to The Little Rascals.  It was a night full of discoveries.

The wonder of seeing different lifestyles is something I’ve kept.  There’s the quirky individual stuff, like my friend’s house where they used toilet paper as napkins, but I’m more intrigued with other people’s lives in different environments. 

When I was in middle school, a friend moved to Minnesota.  She sent pictures of her new home and I thought she’d died and gone to heaven.  They had three acres, horses, woods, and a large old colonial house.  I was allowed to visit her for a month, and while the property itself was fabulous, the hordes of mosquitos weren’t and it was a good thirty minute drive to get groceries or go shopping. I did get to swim in a lake and we hiked through the woods, which I stopped doing when my friend told me about ticks dropping out of trees.  I pictured tiny skin boring ninjas.  We rode daily, but it was so hot and humid that the barn looked like we’d hosed it down.  We spent evenings on the porch listening to the mosquito zapper pop and sizzle.  Rural life definitely had perks (horses) and lakes were definitely beautiful, but I’m not a bug person.  As I’ve grown older and more forgetful, convenience has become increasingly important.

In college, I lived in dorms and on campus apartments.  I later moved into duplexes when I lived in Louisiana, having learned that neighbors above or below created complications and aggravation.  I learned I liked having a little elbow room.  But I still hadn’t lived in a city.  Urban living was still a mystery.

A friend of a friend lived in San Francisco.  We discussed rent rates, which were ridiculous in comparison to Baton Rouge.  He paid more to rent a parking space for his car than I paid for half of a shotgun duplex with a deck and yard.  My friend and I stayed with him when we visited San Francisco.  I fell in love with the city, but it struck me as odd that there weren’t any major grocery stores nearby.  The apartment building had its own store that had groceries, prepared meals, and “necessities.”  It was only maybe 800 square feet, so the offerings were limited.  Still, I was intrigued by the idea of the store owner knowing the customers by name and ordering items to suit his specific clientele.  There was a charm to that as well as being able to be carless, if one chose.  San Francisco has good public transportation, and there are plenty of restaurants and shops just out the door and in walking distance.

The ultimate looky-loo coup for me was when my husband and I visited New York City.  Everyone has seen NYC apartments on t.v. and in movies, but that never meshed with the “word on the street.”  In magazines and conversation, the dilemma of a NY apartment was size.  Neither Seinfeld’s nor any of the Friends’ apartments seemed small.  They seemed ordinary.  Lofts of course, were spectacular (and I have yet to receive an invitation to explore loft living), but what about an “ordinary” New York apartment?

We met a family friend of my husband’s.  He was a restaurant investor, so we went to his diner and then he offered to show us around the area.  I was thrilled to see “real life” New York as opposed to tourist vision.  At the end of the tour, the friend asked if we would like to see his place.

“Yes!” I blurted out before my husband could refuse.

The apartment, in fact, wasn’t completely “ordinary.”  The neighborhood, Tudor City, was actually one of the first “planned community”/gentrification projects in NYC.  It was built as a suburb in the city.  Still, it was someplace “real.”  The building itself was a 1920s take on gothic.  There were restaurants, dry cleaners, and other shops contained within the building.  There was a private garden across the street and another in a building.  The architecture was gorgeous and then we went up to the apartment.

The apartment was 500 square feet, two rooms:  a living area and a bedroom with a small bathroom.  It was the size of a large motor home and as efficient in its use of space.  The “kitchen” was contained in a closet.  There was a burner, an oven and an under counter refrigerator, like the kind used in dorms.  The sink was bar size.  Dinnerware as well as pots and pans were stored in the console behind the couch.  I was stunned.  How cool.  How perfect.  There was no room for clutter, and yet the apartment was beautifully decorated, could even accommodate several guests for a cocktail party, although there was no seating to eat.  But, it was NYC.  Who needed to eat at home?

I’ve lived in a townhome within a maze of townhome complexes, a house within walking distance of restaurants and shops, and now in an old house in a pseudo-rural community.  We like having space both indoors and out.  For coastal California, we’ve managed to have homes on large-ish pieces of land which allow a certain lifestyle, such as having three medium to large dogs.  But, we’re contemplating the next move. 

The best of both worlds, except for the missing llama.
My husband and I always waver between the excitement and convenience of urban living and suburban comfort.  Both of us are drawn to the idea of a farmette, someplace where we can have horses and chickens, perhaps a llama (my husband’s dream), a pond and space to run the dogs. On the other hand, we’ve never really lived a truly urban existence, and that still holds a romance to us.  Maybe someday.

When I was first started grad school in California, my sister and I decided to live together with two other roommates.  Since my sister and her friends were undergrads already going to school in the area, they went looking for apartments.  My sister called me and told me she had found the perfect place.

“It’s within walking distance of school,” she told me.  “But I know you’re really going to love it.  It’s got something awesome.”

“Oh yeah,” I said wearily, knowing my sister had a penchant for being a party girl.

“Yeah,” my sister assured me.  “The place is called ‘Stoney Brook.’ It’s got tons of streams running through it.”

Both of us laughed.  Streams?  How could it not be cool?

Forget the champagne and caviar.  Here’s to imported beer wishes and mixed nuts dreams, and the chance to vicariously live it all.

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