For the record, Lew is a great, great friend. We no longer live near each other and I miss our time together. He is existential, ruminative, and intellectual. Conversations with Lew run the gamut, but remain anchored to solving the mysteries of “the why.” Why does this happen, and why does this other thing happen too...
For the record, Lew is a great, great friend. We no longer live near each other and I miss our time together. He is existential, ruminative, and intellectual. Conversations with Lew run the gamut, but remain anchored to solving the mysteries of “the why.” Why does this happen, and why does this other thing happen too.
He has a particular way of ordering coffee that mixes in more ingredients than you’d expect. He also chain smokes. He has a smooth and practiced manner to how he smokes. He keeps a soft-pack in his shirt pocket. While he has one cigarette smoldering in his left hand, he dips his right thumb and forefinger into his shirt pocket and slides a new one up and into the corner of his mouth in one smooth motion. He then stabs out the one in his left hand, picks up his zippo lighter from the table, and lights the new one. It would be unremarkable except he produces this effort on a cadence where I wonder if he is somehow attune to magnetic fields in the earth. His smoking is both a reflex and an accent. It is timed perfectly and it is eloquent.
When Lew told me he owned a house down in Fountain Square, but that he couldn’t live in it, I tried to be conscientious of my reply questions. I called him on a Saturday morning.
“So, you still own this house?”
“Yes, yes I do”
“But you can’t live in it?”
“No, not really, we could live in it, but it really needs a new foundation.”
“And that costs how much?”
“More than I have or can borrow.”
“Are you paying a mortgage on the house?”
“See, that’s where it gets funny. I’m paying the mortgage to Chris.”
“Yes. He sold us the house in one of those complicated bank-surrogate ways.”
“Does he own the house, or do you?”
“I guess we both own the house.”
“But you are paying for the house.”
“Yes. We are paying for the house. Maybe one day we’ll fix it up and live there.”
“Did you ever consider not paying on the house? Since the person you are paying is the same person who sold you a house you can’t live in?”
“Well, its more complicated than that. Chris is an old friend, I think he was trying to do the right thing.”
“Can you take me to see the house?”
“Sure I can. I’ll stop by within the hour to pick you up.”
When Lew would stop by your home he never arrived empty handed. He would bring enough pastries and coffee, with fixings, for a dozen people.
“I thought maybe you were hungry,” he said as I sat in the passenger seat of his small Volkswagen, handing me a bag of pastries. “There’s two types of coffees in there, just in case you didn’t like the other.”
“Thanks Lew, you’re the best.” And rather than respond, Lew chuckled, slid-up a fresh cigarette from his shirt pocket, lit it, and we drove off.
It must have been July or August 2007 because it was flat hot. The sun burned down and the town around us appeared pale and washed out. There’s a bridge over I-65 that connects Fountain Square to downtown Indianapolis. Much like what happened with Robert Moses in New York, the city planners cut the less attractive neighborhoods off from the city when they designed the paths for the new interstates. Fountain Square was moated-off from the city. The deep ravine was the interstate.
The road into Fountain Square led to a fountain in a small town square. Surrounding this fountain were the warehouses and then radiating out from the square were the grid-mapped streets of the mostly one-story homes built for the working folks in an era long gone.
The roads were uncared for, bumpy, rough patched and worn down through the concrete to the underlayment. Sunken valleys and potholes ran irregularly down each street as if the town had once been bombed and/or flooded and never repaired correctly. Local folks had done some handiwork by filling in some gaps with sand or dirt, but these now grew up weeds, sometimes right in the middle of the street.
The streets were mostly lined with rows of vacant one-story shacks. Every now and then you’d pass one that was rehabilitated. When affection was put into the home, they truly stood out as a smart starter-home for young people without strong needs to access facilities or convenience. Most of the houses stood crooked or bent, titling toward their neighbors’ houses, like card houses.
We turned a corner and the third house down on the right was Lew’s. Across the street was a beautifully renovated home with a yard, a porch swing, and flowers hanging in baskets.
“Who’s house it that?” I asked.
“That’s Chris’s house.”
“He lives right across the street?”
“Yup, he owns, manages or sold nearly every house on this block, and the three more blocks around us.”
As we pulled up in front of Lew’s house, Chris bolted from his front door, puling on a black t-shirt with a band logo on the front. He waved aggressively at us and yelled out, “Old friend! What are you doing here?” I couldn’t tell if he was happy to see Lew.
We exited the car and Lew lit another cigarette. Chris met him at the car door with a strong handshake and pointed a worried eye at me from the other side of the car.
“Chris, this is my friend Jason, he wanted to see the house.”
“Nice to meet you,” Chris says as he walks with Lew around the front of the car and up a two short concrete steps to the narrow concrete walk that leads up to a small set of wooden steps that meet the house at a crooked wooden porch. The porch railing was badly peeling, there were many spindles missing making the front of the house appear as a face that was missing teeth.
Chris opens the front door with his own set of keys. “Right this way,” he says holding the door open, and from falling, as I notice the top pin is missing from the door hinge.
All of the interior walls have been removed. The scars of where the bottom plates of the wall framing used to stand outline how the house used to be. Small room in the front, a long hall on the right hand side with many smaller rooms to the left. The bathroom and kitchen in the back. The interior seemed as large as an airplane hanger. Light streaked in from narrow cracks in the walls and from the horizontal windows that each used to daylight their own individual rooms.
The floor bent and gave under our feet. For some reason we gravitated towards the back of the house, where the kitchen once stood. We kept walking towards the back wall, but before we could reach it there was a wide gap of missing flooring and we could see into the basement. There were two brick curved walls that bent inward, seeming to cut off the corners of the building.
I gazed at this structure, wondering what it was. Lew stood smoking. Chris hadn’t stopped talking since we entered the house. I wasn’t listening very attentively, running a series of thoughts through my head about how Lew could have bought this house from this guy and what happens to it now. Does it just sit here, slanted and empty?
At that time a figure appeared in the front doorway. He blocked out the light and bellowed a, “Hello there!” He was a large fellow, wearing jeans with suspenders and a soiled t-shirt. The front door seemed a million miles away, he was a large pillowy sack that blocked the light. He walked towards us, clomping in his heavy work boots. As he got closer to us I noticed he was mostly bald with loose grey wool growing from the sides of his head above his ears.
Chris and I were kneeling, looking down through the hole in the floor. Lew stood to my right, near the long wall that ran the length of the house. This new visitor walked right up to my left, I looked up at him, he was gazing into the hole too.
Chris smiled and said, “Hi there stranger! What brings you here?”
“I grew up in this house,” the visitor replied calmly, letting out a long exhale. He put his hands deep into his pockets and continued to stare at the hole.
“Awesome,” Chris says and he jumps to his feet and extends his hand. The visitor ignores him, still gazing into the hole.
“Right there. That’s where my uncle raped me,” the visitor says, matter of factly.
“Pardon?” Chris asks.
“There, in the root cellar. My uncle would take me down there and molest me.”
We all remain in our positions and poses, as if time stood still, waiting to see what he’d say next, but Chris spoke first. Chris looks at Lew, shrugs his shoulders and tries to sound confident and convincing, but it comes off as uncomfortably jubilant, “Well, I don’t feel any bad vibes in the house, do you?”
The visitor shrugs and as he turns to walk back towards the front door, moving to his left to align with the former hallway, he says, “Suit yourself.”
Lew slowly turns back towards the front of the house, landing his gaze on me. As he slowly pulls a cigarette from his shirt pocket, he nods his head to me and asks, “Want a coffee?”