The Places We Inhabit

Something happened last week that has weirded me out and I can’t seem to shake it. Greg and I ran into an acquaintance on the streetcar who happens to live in the basement apartment of the house we lived in for 12 years, up until 2006 when, due to the negligence of the landlord, I fell in the front walkway and broke my arm.

Despite eventually moving to a smaller place in a highrise building and no longer having a big old Edwardian mansion (with a huge back yard) to call home, we ended up much happier, if only because we no longer had to deal with said landlord and his utter refusal to fix anything unless absolutely necessary. While the house was cosmetically beautiful, there were rotten joists, no insulation, century-old single-pane windows, squirrels in the attic, and because the landlord converted a cellar to a basement apartment illegally (as in, he never got a building permit, and paid a bunch of illegal immigrants less than minimum wage to do the work that wasn’t up to code… not to mention that he’s never paid property tax on the basement unit), some serious issues with black mold that had spread through the crumbling walls.

Our acquaintance told us that the landlord had put the house up for sale, but was refusing to do any upgrades beforehand. We wondered how he’d be able to sell the place, given that it would take the new owner a couple hundred grand just to bring the place up to code (that’s before even considering fancy countertops and appliances). In late 2005, just before we moved, the landlord, in an effort to scam his insurance company, had someone come in and replace the beautiful old 1920s-era push button light switches with modern ones to fool the inspectors into thinking he had updated all the wiring from knob and tube. The sucker who buys that old house will have to gut the place down to the joists and studs… and then replace the joists and studs.

Curious to see what he was trying to get away with selling the place for, I looked up the listing online. And was surprised to see my old apartment, looking exactly as it had when I had lived there. Because the photos were actually of when I had lived there.

When we gave our notice the landlord had someone from one of those online rental sites come in and take photos. Fair enough. But it’s been five years since we lived there. Did the new tenants trash the place? Any why were there no exterior shots, or shots of the main floor and basement apartments?

More than that, it was really disturbing to see our old place; with our stuff arranged just so, the dog bed in the corner, and oh, my gorgeous sunny kitchen. I have photos taken in that house, of course, but they’re of people and parties, not the rooms themselves, just for the sake of interior design.

It’s not something you think of when you’re living in a place; that it’s beautiful. Sure we buy a new piece of furniture or something and are pleased with how it looks. Or we may be dissatisfied and change things around. But maybe because I’m such a perfectionist, I only every saw the flaws; the squishy spot where the floorboards had rotted, the decaying wood of the window frames, that chip of paint knocked off a baseboard. Five years gone from it and I could look at my old place with fresh eyes and think, yeah, despite the fact that it was falling to the ground, it was a beautiful old place, and we did a really good job of decorating it.

I’m glad to have the photos, despite the circumstances behind them. More importantly, it provokes me to turn an artistic eye to our current dwelling. Because while it doesn’t have the elegant “bones” of that old Edwardian, I think we’ve done a great job of making it pretty and comfortable, and yes, even elegant in its own way.

I’ve never been one to be too attached to “stuff”, and posting pictures of one’s stuff seems almost like bragging. But I almost feel as if I need a record of the place that I inhabit, of the things that make it beautiful and special to me. I don’t think I could ever truly forget that old house; I still know every square inch of it. But having a record of it, a record of who we were and how we lived, makes me very happy. So it might be time to ensure that I have records of here and now.