This is a home un-improvement story.
Sometimes I stand in my yard and wonder what brought me to this spot. How do any of us end up on our particular spot on the planet? Twenty-five years ago a friend saw a sign “waterfront land for sale by owner” and we drove in to look. A big red chair sat high on the riverbank. A decrepit but regal chair, a high-backed throne made of thick red leather with metal footrest, perhaps once one of a row of barber’s chairs.
I sat down and thought: This chair has been waiting for me.
An egret took delicate, halting steps into the creek. A swallow skimmed the water’s surface. A guy and a dog in matching lifejackets drifted downriver in a canoe and waved. A rope swing hung off a willow tree. The river brought life drifting by.
The land came with summer cabin that had fallen into disrepair. I had a good feeling standing inside the wreckage. Kerosene lamps, pitchforks, fishing nets and double-ended saws lay about as testaments to someone’s survival. Shafts of dusty light streamed in through the holes in the siding, illuminating forgotten objects: old bones and doll parts I would later end up using in a stop-action animation film, a leather table with brass fasteners I would go on to serve hundreds of meals and deal hundreds of poker games on, a cane fishing pole I would use to catch many fish.
Did this cabin know I was coming?
There was another structure on the property, one I didn’t feel was waiting for me. It was a 1957 Champion trailer with cantilever windows and interior walls peppered with kitsch slogans and bathroom humor (the toilet seat depicted a man flushing himself away as he cried “goodbye, cruel world!”), and religious objects such as a wood relief carving of The Last Supper. But unlike the cabin, all its systems worked – heat, shower, gas stove. So we lived in the trailer while we fixed up the cabin.
Trailers require little maintenance, other than a coat of silver roof paint every couple years to ward off leaks, and peppermint spray to repel mice. I decided that if I was going to live in a tin can, I needed to own it. It looked like a train car, and this was the early 1990s, when graffiti tags on subways and sidewalk stencil art promoting bands were rampant in the city. I made some stencils, and painted black and blue fish up the sides of the trailer. I stenciled our pickup truck with fish. We built a makeshift bar in the yard, made from plywood and tree stumps, and I fish-stenciled that, too. Black and blue fish spread like a virus.
Though we finally fixed up the summer cabin enough to move in, the Champion remained as extra housing. When a family in need of a temporary place to stay moved in, to lessen the stress of the transition I let the kids tag their names on the trailer. One painted a yellow submarine. Another stenciled leaves in neon orange spray paint all over the toilet seat. An artist friend painted a black-and-blue hound’s-tooth pattern on the floor.
Over the years the trailer got more tags, all amateur tags by kids. Last year a local 15-year-old filmmaker made a film in the trailer, one that will be in the Woodstock Film Festival this year (Stray Bullets, by Jack Fessenden). As part of the shoot, the actors added their own tags to the trailer.
Over time the trailer has become a colorful blight, an aluminum hunk of New York City subway car embedded in the country. Friends even started gently suggesting I haul it off.
Once a local fireman asked me if I would consider helping train young firefighters by letting them set fires in the trailer to learn how to put them out. I considered it, even as I wondered if he was just teasing me.
A state trooper pulled in one day, glancing at the graffiti-covered trailer and asking me whether I had noticed any gang activity in the area. I smiled at his young, earnest, crime-fighting face.
When I think of hauling it off, I hesitate. How decrepit and ugly does this trailer need to get before I banish it to the trailer graveyard?
An elderly filmmaker came for a visit and made a video in the Champion, as if he could tenderly relate to its swayback roof, its flat-tire feet, its tarnish, sag and rust. My friends in their fifties like to gaze at the 59-year-old Champion, as though looking at their own reflection in a mirror, and to compare how they’ve aged to how it’s aged. They always come away feeling like they’re doing better. That alone is a reason to keep it.
The summer cabin still has missing window trim. A few wires hang out of the walls, waiting for their sockets and plates. There are scribbles on unpainted drywall, indications of where tile and light sockets should eventually go.
As I warned, this is the opposite of a “home improvement story.” It’s a home un-improvement story. It’s okay to leave things unfinished. It’s okay to love the flaws and imperfections of homes and people. A life well-lived needs eventually to embrace entropy. Self-improvement has its limits.