“Will the owner of the blue Mitsubishi pickup truck report to the parking lot immediately!”
My buddy Kent, owner of the blue Mitsubishi, heard this message over the intercom at Home Depot, and, being the perceptive guy that he is, he flashed on the only reason Home Depot would summon a truck-drivin’ man to the parking lot in a hurry: fire.
“I got out there,” Kent said, “and there were three concentric circles around the flaming truck. The brown circle of firefighters, the orange circle of Home Depot employees, and the multicolored circle made up of regular citizens.” Ten minutes earlier, when he parked the truck, it was a trusty rolling toolbox that gave off just a hint of the smell of gasoline whenever he turned the engine off. Now it was gone.
But, see, there was good news too. A burden had been liftedno more putting up with this truck’s crap. It didn’t run just right, and it was getting kind of raggedy. That day, Kent got a little taste of freedom along with the taste of burning fuel, plastic and paint.
Hearing Kent tell the truck story reminded me of the two times I felt most free. The first time was when my wife, Brenda, and I stood on the sidewalk on Bowling Avenue and watched a moving van take off for New York City with everything we owned in the back. For just a little while, until we landed at La Guardia, our world was reduced to a very understandable scale, with nothing but us in it. Those few hours felt as good as anything I can remember.
A little more than a year later, after Brenda sort of freaked out and went rolling on the grass in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden (to kill the smell of New York, she said), we came back to Nashville and bought the house we live in now. The place was so ruined, so wretched, it fell just between Train Wreck and Alternate Universe on my bad-house scale. But within a week, I had hurled everything bad about the house into the Dumpster and stripped the place to the studs. There was nothing to do but dream.
Although it’s not something I’d want to do every day, sometimes it feels mighty good to skin everything back to the basics and get that monk’s perspective. Zero everything out, start from scratch...which puts me to thinking about Mary Cason’s house. Or, actually, what will be Mary Cason’s house if everything goes just right.
A couple of weeks ago, Mary called and asked if I’d look at an old house in Germantown. I went, and there on a hilltop, overlooking the new Farmers’ Market, I found myself looking at a house that had one of those “Unfit for Human Habitation” signs tacked up on the front. The roof was shot, and the house needed new wiring, new plumbing, and new heat and air. But the old place did have its original front porch, and, as far as I could tell, its original doors and windows. For all intents and purposes, though, this place was zeroed out. You could think of it as nearly nothing, or you could think of it as 99 percent pure possibilities.
Mary and her husband, Mark Sly, see it as possibilities. They sincerely want this house. They want to camp out in it. They want to tear it apart and build it back with their own hands. They know they’ll have to do it board by board and room by room, living, working, eating, drinking and smelling old-house funk the whole time. It could be a year or more before they can go to the bathroom at night without putting on work boots. But they’re up for it. “I know this is what the pioneers felt like when they got to St. Louis,” Mary says.
Yep, I told her, and there are hostiles ahead. Try as I might, I can’t predict what they might run into when they start taking apart a 100-year-old Habitat-Not-Fit-for-Humanity house. But Mary ain’t no long-fingernailed, Bozo-bow-on-her-dress kinda woman. She’s ready to dig splinters out of her fingers, comb spider webs out of her hair, and pitch roofing shingles into a Dumpster. Mary says she won’t quit until she’s whipped the house into shape, and she can stand out on the sidewalk and be proud of what she’s done.
Walter Jowers can be reached at Walter.Jowers@nashville.com.