This happened 25 years ago. I’ve told this story here twice before: in 2007 and 2011, but I rewrote it this time.
Only the rough neighborhoods fit my budget. I’d just graduated from engineering school in Terre Haute and had landed a job in town, but times were tough and the pay was poor.
On the way to see an apartment on the wrong side of the tracks, I passed through the tree-lined Collett Park neighborhood with its American Foursquare and Craftsman Bungalow houses. Built for a growing middle class around the turn of the century, it was a cheerful, well-kept neighborhood of sidewalks and wide front porches. I admired its tightly packed homes as I drove slowly down one of its concrete streets. I noticed a For Rent sign in the front window of a tall house wrapped in red Insulbrick. Even though I doubted I could afford this neighborhood, I stopped and rang the bell.
A large, gruff man in a thin, wrinkled, v-neck T-shirt and pale chinos came and looked me over. I asked about the apartment and he disappeared to find the key. He showed me around the side to the entrance and as soon as I entered I was sure that I couldn’t afford the place. It was clean. Hardwood floors glowed subtly around the room’s edge as they framed the fresh rugs. The walls were recently painted or wallpapered. The large, gruff man, who finally introduced himself as Steve, had clearly cared for the place.
Suspicious of this wide-eyed kid, Steve began to size me up by asking where I went to school. When I said Rose-Hulman his voice rose a note toward tentatively cheerful. He said he went there, too, back before the war when it was still called Rose Poly, but he couldn’t hack it and went on to work 30 years at the post office. He talked as he led me through, alternating between Rose stories and calling out one or two features of each room.
I was glad he was talking, because I was excited and didn’t want to betray it. A built-in cabinet and chest of drawers consumed half of one of the bedroom’s walls. In the enormous bathroom, white porcelain tile covered the walls to four feet high. Original antique fixtures were still in place, including a claw-foot tub and a sink with separate hot and cold taps. In the kitchen, an early-1950s Tappan electric stove, gleaming in white and chrome, stood across from a long, shallow farmhouse sink. A built-in table and benches filled a tiny breakfast nook. French doors led the way from the living room to the den. The woodwork was 12 inches tall with corner posts, and the doorknobs were either glass or ornate brass ovals. By this time Steve was telling me that he bought the house in 1935 after he married his wife Henrietta, that it was almost 100 years old, and that the original owner had built the apartment for his mother-in-law by blocking off three rooms of the house and adding the kitchen and den.
The history charmed me as I noticed some of the place’s shortcomings. The hallway wallpaper had a hideous check pattern with large bright yellow flowers, the bathroom walls north of the porcelain tile were painted bright pink, I would have to supply my own refrigerator, the house had one furnace and Steve controlled the temperature, and Steve made clear that tenants could have all the friends over they wanted as long as they were white.
I wanted the place. I decided I could live with the faults and I would cross the color line should it become necessary. I drew a breath, sure he was going to set a price beyond my budget, and said, “I like it. How much?”
Steve drew back and narrowed his eyes at me for a minute. Then he said he’d had a lot of trouble with recent tenants; he had just evicted a “coupla girls from Indiana State” for having a string of different men staying overnight. He wondered aloud if I could afford it and if I would cause him any trouble. He examined me — and in that instant I was sure that he was setting the rent just outside what he thought I could afford. After a long pause that made me fidget, he barked: “250.”
I reeled, dizzy with disbelief. That was less than what I’d pay for a dump in the rough neighborhoods. “I’ll take it,” I said quietly. He leaned well into my personal space, frowning. “Are you sure? I said the rent is $250.” I pulled my checkbook out of my back pocket and said, “I can pay the first month’s rent right now.” He backed off, took the check, shook my hand, and that was that. I had a home.
I can’t imagine renting on a handshake today, but I lucked into a great situation. Steve and Henrietta were honorable people who stayed out of my business and kept the apartment in good repair. They even got rid of the pink bathroom walls, peeling away nine layers of wallpaper under that paint! Steve passed away within the year; after that, Henrietta took care of things herself. “If you’re happy, I’m happy,” she said to me several times, and never raised my rent.
I could furnish the place only sparsely at first. I owned a bed, a dresser, a desk, and a broken black-and-white console TV. I bought a recliner and some tables at a used furniture store. I accepted charity from Mom. Soon I had the place suitably appointed.
I started building my budding adult life in my little place, and invited my friends in. My girlfriend spent many of her evenings there with me, relaxing, watching TV, talking, sharing companionship and company. My parents visited from time to time. My brother would drive to town and we’d go out for drinks, or an old college friend would come up from Louisville and we’d order dinner and watch movies all night. An old girlfriend came to see me from Bloomington, and a dear old friend flew in once from Toronto. I had a close friend and some of her friends over for a toast of sorts when she graduated from St. Mary-of-the-Woods. I even made a nice dinner for my boss, his girlfriend, and my girlfriend (by this time, a different one). We all squeezed into the little breakfast nook to eat. My little apartment was at the center of many of my activities and so of my world.
But I’d soon suffer some sad and lonely years. My relationship with the first girlfriend fell apart at about the same time another friendship ended very painfully. These passages let me see some ways I wasn’t healthy in my relationships. Most of my other friends were graduating and moving away, and I found it hard to make new friends. I felt lost and stuck; I grew depressed. I used to beat myself up over not working harder to push past these challenges. Fortunately, I have since forgiven myself for being human.
I took lots of long drives to escape my feelings, but at the end I always had to go home and face myself. In that, my apartment was a blessing for reasons beyond the hardwood floors, the low rent, and the good landlord: it was a a comfortable and safe place learn to be me. I did a lot of things there that I enjoyed and that helped me figure out who I was and what I liked. I taught myself how to cook. I watched a lot of late-night cable in the dark with a beer in my hand. I lay on the floor in the den listening to album after album, singing along at the top of my lungs, thankful that Henrietta was hard of hearing.
I finally made some friends, through the local computer bulletin board community, and we routinely gathered in person. Still, I frequently wished for companionship, thinking that it would make the rest of my problems go away. When I found companionship, to my confusion the rest of my problems were still there. I found myself unable to make things better on my own. I entered therapy for the first time. And I started looking for God. I’d never sought him before, but my problems were bigger than I was and I figured if anyone could handle them, the creator of the universe could.
And so the seeds of change were planted in me in that apartment. Between God and therapy, I began to heal where I was wrong and see where I was all right to begin with. I started to learn how to be content with my circumstances even when they’re not ideal. Those days tried to show me, though I still struggle with this lesson, that part of humanity’s core beauty lies in its limitations and its imperfections.
For more than 20 years, when my days were troubled my dreams were filled with this apartment. It represented comfort and a place where difficult things can happen safely. I still miss the place.
When I’m in Terre Haute, I try to drive through the old neighborhood. The last time was a few years ago. I found the house now sided in gray vinyl, the concrete steps beginning to crumble, the painted trim peeling, the hedges overgrown. Much was the case up and down the block; the first signs of decline. Houses in neighboring blocks showed serious neglect. The neighborhood was becoming rough.
By that time, Henrietta’s health declined to the point where she had to sell the house, after having lived on that street all her life. Henrietta passed away a couple years ago, well into her 90s.
Henrietta’s life moved on, and so must mine. But still, when I drive by, I want to park and go in. I would probably be surprised not to see my brown recliner there, the TV remote on the arm, waiting for me to sit and watch the evening news.
Do you enjoy my stories and essays?
My book, A Place to Start, is available now!
Click here to see all the places you can get it!