My wife and I drove to Bloomington a couple Saturdays ago to see my older son, who had just moved into his first apartment.
It was a milestone day. My goal for my sons all along has been for them to begin independent lives of their choosing. They have owned their choices and through them appear to be seeking meaning, connection, and happiness.
And here’s my firstborn, working a job with a future in an industry of his choosing, settling into his first home.
My son and I share a common trait: home is very important to us. We spend a lot of time there and we want to make it reflect the best of who we are. I look forward to seeing what he makes of his home.
Here’s a photo of me in my first apartment. I was so happy there. I had real life challenges to figure out, and I was frequently not happy with my life overall. So it goes for pretty much everyone. But I knew that I could go home and recenter myself and just enjoy my time. Whenever I haven’t had a home like that, my mental health has suffered.
Read the story of my first apartment, and how I grew into adulthood in it, here.
The Broad Ripple neighborhood has been a nighttime destination the whole time I’ve lived in Indianapolis, going on 23 years now. But in those days “the strip” still featured many small businesses that served the neighborhood by day. Today it’s even more a bar-and-nightclub spot, with only a couple of the old neighborhood businesses hanging on.
For most of the time I’ve lived here, Broad Ripple was characterized by low buildings and open skies. I made this photo several years ago of a pedestrian bridge over the Central Canal. If you look through the truss, you can make out a little apartment house and the trees that have characteristically lined the village’s streets.
But density is the name of the modern city game. As millennials flock to walkable neighborhoods like Broad Ripple, developers are there to meet the need. This tall apartment building was recently completed. It and others create dramatic change in Broad Ripple’s look and feel.
Longtime Broad Ripple residents are generally and unsurprisingly not happy with these changes. And arguments are being made that while millennials are being targeted to live in these apartments, they can afford it only if they’re upper-middle-class or wealthy.
It’s always been a little more expensive to live in popular Broad Ripple, but it wasn’t necessarily out of reach for a middle-class young adult, especially one willing to take a roommate. But do middle-class young adults exist in any significant number anymore? I see working-class and well-heeled so-called “creative-class” twentysomethings and little in between.
Every time Margaret and I walk through the neighborhoods surrounding Broad Ripple Village, we are drawn in: single-family dwellings on small lots with mature trees, sidewalks connecting these neighborhoods not only to little parks where our eventual grandkids can play, but also to the Village and its burgeoning shops. Fresh Thyme is a delightful little grocery. We’d love to have one within walking distance. I wonder if other empty nesters and near-empty-nesters are charmed by Broad Ripple as well.
I can’t make sense of all the trends. But here’s what I do know: societal change brings economic opportunity, and someone is always smart enough to capitalize on it. Let the Broad Ripple Villagers cry and protest, but greater density is coming to places like Broad Ripple because money is to be made.
Does a particular home in your past bring especially warm memories? What made the place so special? I’d love to hear about it in the comments, or better yet, on your blog — especially if you have photos you can share.
Last month I shared this post about my first apartment, with some photos from just after I moved in. That place was special not just because it was really nice for the money, but because I did a lot of growing up there.
I just found some photos from after I’d filled the apartment with furniture and decorated the place, and I want to share them.
Here I am, relaxing in the big brown La-Z-Boy in my living room. I was 25.
Here’s a view of my bedroom. I was never crazy about that wallpaper. The framed Disney images on the wall were gifts from my Uncle Jack when I was a boy. He drew them himself. The dresser was an antique-store find. Despite being probably 50 years old then, it was like new. It was such a pleasure to use! I still have it, but when I got it back after the divorce I was sad to see how battered and scratched it had become. One of these days I’l just replace it with something else that doesn’t come with bad memories.
When I moved in, my bathroom walls were hot pink above the tile. I asked if that could be changed, so my landlady hired a fellow to peel off nine layers of wallpaper, mud the walls smooth, and put up new wallpaper. My dad, who made a living making custom wood furniture, made the cabinet that hangs on the wall. I still use it in my bathroom today.
I used to rearrange my furniture three or four times a year. In the process, I’d clean thoroughly. I took these photos of my living room after one such rearrangement to record the fresh and clean. I had begun to accumulate a little original art. The painting on the left is by Dean Porter, a family friend and former Director of the Snite Museum of Art at Notre Dame. The painting on the right is by a longtime friend who still paints.
This view from just inside the front door shows the coat closet and the hallway. I always hated that yellow checked wallpaper in the hallway, but my landlady said that it was too new to replace.
Every arrangement of my living room involved my La-Z-Boy being directly across from my TV. Except for the TV and the futon, every other piece of furniture in the room came from used-furniture stores or was given to me. Notice the corner shelf filled with old cameras! I recognize my Kodak Duaflex II and a bunch of Brownies: a Starflash, a Starmatic, a Reflex Synchro Model, and a Six-20. I was fascinated with prewar folding cameras then and several of mine are on the shelf. I also see a couple box cameras. I had probably a hundred more cameras, stored in boxes in a closet.
The apartment lacked central air; a lone window air conditioner was my only defense against hot days. That was more AC than I’d ever had before, though, and I was perfectly happy with it. The doll on my speaker is John Lennon dressed in his Sgt. Pepper getup. The speakers were Infinity Studio Monitor 100s. Audiophiles panned them, but I liked them fine. My receiver, an NAD 7125, could easily outpower these speakers. Still have that receiver; replaced the speakers a few years ago with something smaller and sweeter.
As you can see, maroon, green, and blue was my living room color scheme. Those are such early-90s colors! The coffee table and end tables served for a long time but during my marriage were pretty badly abused. The coffee table came back to me post-divorce in such bad shape that I just threw it away. The end tables were battered but serviceable; I used them until just a couple years ago.
It felt good at the time to furnish and decorate my home. I still feel like I made it look like more than the little money I had available to put into it. I was happy and comfortable in my little home.
This is the second in a short series about the most difficult time of my life, ten years ago right now. I told this story once before, in November of 2009, but rewrote it for today.
She wanted me out, just for a month, just to clear our heads. Ten days later, the double-cross: don’t come back.
I ached over losing my family, but more urgently I needed out of an awful extended-stay hotel as it racked up debt on my credit card. Most of my paycheck kept my children in the home they knew; I had to live on what little remained. Affordable apartments were few, small, broken down, in bad neighborhoods. I chose the place closest to my children, especially tiny at just three hundred square feet.
Lease signed, key in hand, door open, six steps completed the tour across stained carpet, along the worn counters, past the gouged bathroom door. I startled at an electric roar; the heater had kicked on. I sat down on the Murphy bed and felt the springs in the thin mattress. I felt dizzy, nauseated. How could I be living in a place like this? Were my sons okay? What were they doing? Did they know what was happening? I wished I could see them. I didn’t want them to see this place.
I took a breath, and then another, and purposed to accept. I took it day by day, as I couldn’t imagine still living in this hole on the last day of my six-month lease. I didn’t know then that I’d renew twice: my wife filed for divorce but then refused to negotiate. Our case went to trial in a horribly backlogged court.
Three photographs capture almost everything:
I would come to terms with my marriage’s end here, in anguish and anger night after night. I wished I could hole up, cut out the world, let the pain rage until it was done with me. But I still had to work to pay for everything, be a father to my children, and do considerable preparation for the trial. I had never known such crippling stress. I hardly slept. I lost 20 pounds. Xanax kept me from stepping over the edge.
Thank God for friends and family who prayed for me and took my phone calls at all hours of the day. They propped me up, then built me up. I had compromised my integrity so often in the marriage, sometimes from my shortcomings and sometimes in desperation to keep my family together, that I had utterly lost myself. Slowly, inner strength returned.
I began the hard work of rebuilding. My little apartment became the safe place I needed to do the work.
That’s ironic, because the apartment complex wasn’t really a safe place. Two neighboring apartments saw a dozen visitors a day, eyes darting about nervously as they sought a fix. And it was whispered that a prostitution ring was being run out of some apartments in the back. Yet the drug dealers were respectful when we encountered each other at our cars (mine a cheap Toyota; theirs immaculate white Caddies loaded with gold trim). And one of the alleged prostitutes kept knocking on my door asking for money until I said, “Are you hungry? I’ll take you to the store and buy you whatever you need,” which chased her away for good. Word got around that I had cables, so I jump-started a bunch of hoopties. And I was awakened late one night to call an ambulance for an ailing neighbor who couldn’t afford a phone. This place knew the problems of poverty. But unless someone knocked, I never knew they were there. My room’s silence was broken only when a washing machine went off balance in the laundry room next door.
And so in that isolation I took inventory of myself. Not sleeping gave me time to do the work, and having no amenities and little money made it hard for me to distract myself or run away. I buckled down, took a hard look at how far out of true I had gone, and made slow but steady progress back to myself.
I learned to accept the pain and let go of my marriage. I found ways to snatch a little serenity here and there. I started to manage the stress more effectively. I began to look forward to my future. And best of all, my sons and I forged tight new relationships. We used to fold up the Murphy bed and play a rough game on the floor where I’d get on my knees, the boys would try to run past me, and I’d reach out and tackle them on their way by. I can’t explain it, but that game was a tonic for us, singlehandedly building trust and good feelings.
I drive by a lot today; it’s on the way to the grocery store. My sons used to remark on our time there, about how they hated sleeping on bedrolls but loved to play our game on the floor, but the years have dimmed their memories. I thought I had left the apartment with more good memories than bad, and I felt grateful for my recovery there. Yet not long ago when I stumbled upon the photos I’ve shared here, deep echoes of pain flooded my mind and body, echoes that took days to subside. How crushing the stress. How close I came to breaking. I don’t know how I managed to function. I have no explanation other than I was in God’s hand.
I’ve shared very little here about my ten-year journey since the separation. My blog has mostly been about who I’ve become since those awful days — an expression of joy in having found myself again and regained my integrity. I hope this story provides context for the rest of what I write here.
I got my first apartment just before I turned 22. I was excited about having a place to myself, but I didn’t make much money and the classifieds showed affordable apartments mostly in Terre Haute’s rougher neighborhoods. On the way to see one of those apartments one afternoon that summer, I passed through the Collett Park neighborhood with its foursquare houses and craftsman bunaglows. Built for a growing middle class around the turn of the century, these homes could be charming with full front porches and sometimes touches of Queen Anne and other architectural styles. That day, some of the houses needed a lot of attention, but many owners kept their homes in good shape. I admired this old neighborhood and its tightly packed homes as I drove slowly down one of its cement streets. I saw a tall foursquare covered in Z-Brick with a For Rent sign in the window. 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 answered the door 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 more concerned that I couldn’t afford the place. It was clean. Hardwood floors glowed subtly around the room’s edge as they framed the carpet, which was in good shape. The wallpaper and paint looked fresh. The large, gruff man, who finally introduced himself as Steve, had clearly cared for the place.
Steve, suspicious of this kid come to see his apartment, 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 during 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 as we passed through. I was glad he was talking, because I was becoming excited and didn’t want to betray it. The apartment was good sized and nicely laid out. The bedroom had a built-in cabinet and chest of drawers. The bathroom was easily 12 feet square, with white porcelain tile on the walls up to 4 feet high and original antique fixtures in good condition. The kitchen had an early-1950s Tappan electric stove gleaming in white. French doors led the way from the living room to the den. A tiny breakfast nook off the kitchen came with with a built-in table and benches. The woodwork was 12 inches tall with corner posts, and the doorknobs that were either glass or ornate oval-shaped brass. By this time Steve was telling me that he bought the house when he married in 1935, that it was almost 100 years old, and that this apartment was made from three rooms of the original house with the kitchen and den added when the original owner’s mother-in-law came to stay. The history charmed me. The place had a few faults, though. The hallway wallpaper had a hideous check pattern with large bright yellow flowers, the bathroom was painted what a friend called whorehouse pink north of the porcelain tile, there was no 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 physical challenges 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. 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 almost barked, “$250.” I reeled, dizzy with disbelief over my excellent luck. He must have been terribly out of touch with the value of his own property, because that was less than what the rough neighborhoods were asking for lesser apartments. Still trying to mask my excitement, I quietly said I’d take it. He said, leaning well into my personal space, “Are you sure? I said the rent is $250.” I pulled my checkbook out of my back pocket and said, “Would you like me to pay the first month 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 this turned out to be a great situation. Steve and his wife Henrietta were honorable people who stayed out of my business and kept the apartment in good repair. After Steve died, 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 had very little when I moved in, so I slowly bought furnishings and accepted charity from Mom. Once I had the place suitably appointed, I started building my budding adult life in my little place. I invited my friends in. My girlfriend spent many of her evenings there watching TV with me. My mom came every summer for a few days and we’d go running around. I think I even took her to Bridgeton once. My brother would come down from South Bend or an old college friend would come up from Louisville and we’d bring dinner in and rent videos. An old girlfriend came to see me from Bloomington, and a dear old friend flew in once from Toronto. I had a dear 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 radio-station boss, his girlfriend, and my girlfriend (by then a different one) and 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.
A few sad and lonely years passed while I lived there. I broke up with the first girlfriend at about the same time another friendship ended very painfully, and meanwhile most of my friends were moving away as they finished school. I had a hard time getting over these lost relationships, and I found it hard to make new friends. I was beginning to see some of the ways I wasn’t healthy in my relationships. I could see how my behavior contributed to the breakup with my girlfriend and the messy end to my friendship. I felt lost and didn’t know what to do. I used to beat myself up over not working harder to overcome my depression and grow past these challenges, especially when I married that second girlfriend and the same issues contributed heavily to the divorce that followed years later. Fortunately, I have since forgiven myself for being human.
While I liked to take long drives to escape my feelings, I had to go home sometime and face myself. In hindsight, I see that my apartment was a blessing for reasons beyond the rent, the landlord, the hardwood floors, and even my friends filling it. It was a blessing because it was comfortable and safe place to start to 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 watched a lot of late-night cable in the dark with a beer in my hand. I taught myself how to cook and made myself any number of enjoyable meals. I sat on the floor in the den between my speakers and listened to album after album, sometimes singing along at the top of my lungs, thankful that Henrietta was hard of hearing. I posted to local computer bulletin boards over a 2400-baud connection. Still, I spent many depressed days there and I couldn’t seem to break out of it. 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. In the end, I realized there that I needed God.
And so the seeds of change were planted in me. Eventually I found God, who has healed me mightily. I started to learn there how to be content with my circumstances even when they’re not ideal. Those days enabled me to learn later that uncomfortable and unwanted feelings will pass on their own if I just let myself feel them. Those days tried to show me, though I still struggle with this lesson, that part of humanity’s core beauty is its limitations and its imperfections.
Today when my days are troubled, I am likely to have dreams where the setting is that apartment. It represents comfort and a place where difficult things can happen safely. I miss the place. I’ve never felt as secure at home as I did there. When I’m in Terre Haute, I try to drive through the old neighborhood and see what shape it’s in. Last time I was there, the block I lived on was still in pretty good shape, though the blocks to the south had become rough. The house is now sided in grey vinyl with white trim. I learned a few years ago that Henrietta sold the house and moved to a nursing home, after having lived on that street all her life. Her life has 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 chair there, the remote on the arm, waiting for me to sit and watch the evening news.
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