Life in One Place

November 2, 2006. Life in a House

When I lived in a van, people wondered what it was like. Where did I sleep, where did I cook, where did I store my things?

For some reason no one seems to find the logistics of life in a house nearly as interesting. I do, though, after two and a half years in a van.

A few things are really, really, nice. Mostly they have to do with plumbing. Some Iíll leave to your imagination, enough said. But you might not have thought of the others. Taking a shower any time I like, no need to figure out where Iím going to get the next one. Doing the laundry whenever it piles up, and having a choice Ė put it in the dryer, hang it on the clothesline in the yard, hang it on the clothesline in the basement.

But the best of all is washing the dishes.

Yes, I did say washing the dishes.

In a van with a thirteen-gallon tank of cold water, and a sink with no gray water tank, washing dishes is an exercise in water conservation. A coffee cup requires only a damp cloth and elbow grease. A pot crusted with soup can be done with no more than a cup of water. Every drop that goes down the drain is going to come out the bottom of my van and splash on the ground. Off in the woods that doesnít matter, but when stealth camping in the city itís pretty noticeable if Matilda suddenly relieves herself on the street.

So hot running water that disappears down the drain and into an invisible system that takes it away without my having to worry about it Ė now thatís luxury! So much so, in fact, that I began to feel I was spilling out gallons and gallons of hot water in a

flamboyant orgy of waste every time I walked into the kitchen. So now Iím trying to make myself wash dishes the way I did in the van. Get them wet, turn off the water, scrub them with soap, then quickly rinse them all at once and shut the water off again.

Usually I forget, though, and happily let hot water pour over everything in great abundance.

When I moved into my house I thought I had no furniture at all. For the first month I slept in my van, because I wasnít ready to be inside all the time. Besides, the only thing to sleep on was a lumpy futon that my tenants had left, deluding themselves that I might want it, so they wouldnít have to deal with getting rid of it. I dragged the little dresser from my van into the house, and distributed my clothes among the three closets on the first floor of my house. I stacked my towels in the Chinese lacquer cabinet that was one of the few pieces of furniture I had deliberately kept, and piled my sheets neatly on the shelves in one of the closets. It felt positively airy, as the things that had been compactly stored inside Matildaís tiny closets expanded into a three-bedroom house.

And laughable, as well. What on earth do I need a three-bedroom house for, after two and a half years in a van? The worst thing I could imagine would be to acquire enough things to fill up that house again. Moving them to New Jersey was hell, and getting rid of most of them when I moved into the van was liberating. I donít need to go through any of that again.

I did leave some things stored in my basement, however, and bit by bit I explored the boxes and bags down there. Itís been kind of a cross between Christmas and rummaging in a thrift

store. Some days I venture into the basement and open a box at random. That can lead to useful surprises, like a dozen good hangers that didnít smell like mold. Or it can lead me to shake my head in wonderment at the things I bothered to keep Ė a skirt I've never worn, socks that I had no room for in the small drawers in the van, gift wrap, office supplies, two half-gallon bottles of blue gatorade. Other days Iíll remember something that I thought I owned, and rummage frantically through one box after another trying to find it. It took four different searching parties till I found my electric sander, and Iíd totally given up on a nice green backpack from REI when it unexpectedly surfaced in a bag Iíd ignored many times. Iím still expecting two pairs of nice black shoes to turn up someday, though I have so many pairs of shoes already that I canít imagine why I think I need those. Just call me Imelda.

I left ten cartons of books in the basement, and one day I decided it was time to have a look at them. One by one I lugged them upstairs, and gingerly opened them up to see what I had decided to keep three years ago. There were some great finds, like the full orchestral score for Magic Flute, which was very useful before they cancelled our production of the opera. But a lot of it went directly into a new giveaway pile. Work stuff, novels, travel guides, books on quilting and embroidery and mosaics. I couldnít bear to part with a book filled with entrancing photos of polar bears, but I passed on an equally pretty one describing the artic through the seasons. Three different books on life in an English country house life are in the giveaway boxes, but Iím still hanging on to the Egyptian grammar text that I pored over in 10th grade when I wanted to learn hieroglyphics. Thereís no more logic to this than there was three years ago, but I do have another four cartons of books ready to give away.

At some point I did decide that I needed to begin sleeping inside, and I began the search for a comfortable couch. I actually like sleeping on couches better than on beds, and I didnít want to add any more furniture to the house than was absolutely essential. So I figured one comfortable couch would provide both a place to sleep and a somewhat

civilized living room should I ever invite anyone over. And if I had a house guest, there would also be the futon and the van. Not luxury, but at least a few places for people to lay their heads for the night.

This led me to freecycle. A great invention, freecycle. Donít have any kids to dump your excess furniture on? Freecycle it! Need baby clothes or a lamp or a color printer? See what's on offer from freecycle! Most of what is offered is either kidsí stuff or utter junk Ė broken stereos, appliances missing parts, leaky lava lamps, or things of such utter hideousness that I couldnít imagine bringing them into my house. But itís been a great way to get rid of a lot of what my tenants left. And some of what I left.

And I found my couch on freecycle. Amazing. Just what I wanted. A nice comfy clean sofa, thatís pleasantly neutral, goes with my living room, and even looks great with the appliquťd pillow that I brought home from Egypt years ago and found in Susannaís apartment. (She said she didnít know it was mine, so she took it. A likely story!) Getting the couch out of the apartment where it had been for the past few years took some doing. But owning a van is pretty handy when it comes to moving furniture, and my neighbors are helpful about lugging things into the house.

The sofa and the Chinese cabinet and the abandoned futon arenít really my only pieces of furniture. I had a dining room table that I never brought to New Jersey, and four chairs that didnít sell when I left there. Plus a drafting table that didnít sell, and a cheap white computer desk that one of my tenants left. Two small dressers that didnít sell Ė my clothes soon expanded into them. I canít imagine how they ever fit in the van, now that they've filled three small dressers, three closets, and the Chinese cabinet! A friend left a coffee table stored in my basement that he doesn't want back. And eventually I broke down and bought a big flush door which now serves as a spacious desk, already covered with papers and forgotten coffee cups.

Though the house is still too big. Occasionally I venture upstairs to sightsee, to remind myself that thereís a big empty room up there Ė not to mention more things stashed in the crawl space alongside it. When the basement is empty, perhaps Iíll take my explorations up there, and figure out what I left in those boxes and bags.

And then thereís the outside. Not only do I have a three-bedroom house, but I have a deck, and a screened porch, a backyard, a front yard, an overgrown driveway, and a two car garage now housing two kayaks, one bicycle, one lawn mower, and some residual clutter belonging to my tenants. I am also the happy custodian of one venerable maple tree, a tall and rapidly growing oak, a prolific mimosa, a small but stately ash, and a beech that when I am in my dotage may be the best tree in the neighborhood but is now just a sprout.

The trees are delightful, but at this time of year they are also a lot of work. Yesterday, inspired by unseasonably mild temperatures, I dragged out the rake and tackled the leaves under my maple. An hour and a half later, drenched with sweat and muscles aching, I had five big bags of leaves to dispose of, and the backyard was no longer carpeted with yellow and orange.

Overnight a storm blew in, rain poured down, and the wind howled. And when I got up this morning to brilliant sunshine, my maple tree had undone all my handiwork. Once again the backyard was yellow and orange, only traces of green grass poking through the leaves.

On the other hand, as I surveyed the work Iíd have to do all over again, I noticed a blowzy pink rose on a vine climbing up my back fence and purple azaleas growing in front of the house. Pretty nice, for the second of November!

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