Déjà vu all over again

It’s one thing to walk into something with no freaking idea what lies in store, with only a notion you’ve dreamed up of what it might be like. It’s something altogether different to walk into a scene you know well, painfully aware of what’s ahead.

Sitting at the little table in our third floor garret apartment last weekend over Thanksgiving leftovers and beer, I was was suddenly overcome with wry amusement at how little we knew what we were getting into.  “Six bedrooms, two kitchens, two baths, two dining rooms, two living rooms, a basement, a back yard — and a full attic apartment,” I said to Brian, shaking my head at how ludicrous it sounds for two people with no renovation experience to have undertaken a rehab of a 4,000 square foot, nearly 100 year old home. “We had NO idea what we were getting into!”

The saying goes better the devil you know than the one you don’t, but whoever coined that phrase never renovated a multi-flat building. We went into the work wide eyed and excited this summer, blissfully ignorant. On the other side of that work, first floor finished and rented, third floor ready for Airbnb, basement gutted, we were no longer ignorant — or blissful.  And the time to get to work on the second floor came quickly — too quickly — on the heels of driving away at the end of September, the house “done” for the time.

When the second floor renter — on a month to month lease —  moved out mid-October, I wanted to be excited at the prospect of fixing up that floor for our own use. I’d fallen in love with the original built-in kitchen cabinets, the huge living room and balcony, the high ceilings (or the promise of them, anyway). But still reeling with exhaustion from the summer of work and contractor stress I wanted to sit down and cry at the thought of picking up a paint brush or tool or cleaning rag.

We didn’t make it up to the house until early in Thanksgiving week (Brian having earned and burned all his vacation time this summer), and walked in on gray, frigid day. We used the front stairs — in what we like to call the vestibule when we’re pretending to be fancy — for the first time, and managed to unlock the door with the second of our ridiculous, jangling collection of unmarked keys. And stepped into the ghost of years of indoor, windows-closed smoking. The stale, smothering odor was so bad we almost didn’t notice the temperature. Every radiator was stone cold. We stood amidst the rubbish and discarded televisions looking at each other in the stingy, grey light of late afternoon in a Michigan winter. After 17 years of marriage and the first round of work on the house, we could say a lot with a look.

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In a stark contrast to our excited, nervous skipping through the house in June, this we paced  through each room, eyeing the filthy windows and brown-stained blinds, the peeling ceilings and exposed wood lath that a drop ceiling had hidden until recently, the stained carpet and walls, the bathroom that begged nothing more than to close the door and never look at it again. Garbage littered the floors — broken egg shells, a package of unidentifiable meat, lottery tickets, empty Kool menthol packets. Our shoes stuck to the caked-on grease on the kitchen floor, coming up with a sort of velcro sound as we stepped around the abandoned air conditioning unit in the middle of the room. Those built-in cabinets still had promise, but breathing shallowly to not take in the stale smoke, and fingers numb with cold, it was hard to see it under the nicotine stains and embedded dirt. There was nothing to do but get to work.

We went to the car to retrieve the dogs. Alba lunged ahead up the back stairs, splaying onto the steps repeatedly in her frantic attempts to scale them. As we stood in the third floor kitchen — oh, so blissfully clean — debating what to do about the radiators, Truffle christened the rug in the living room with a vile-smelling pile that told us in no uncertain terms what he thought about being back here. Brian cleaned it up while I headed back to 2 (we refer to the floors as if it’s a big commercial building to save time in conversation — there’s too much work to be done to take the time to say ‘the second floor’ when 2 will do).

Over the weekend I was sore and stiff and my knees and back screamed, and parting words from my trainer (a barter arrangement — I build her website, she works disaster clean-up to rehab my body from the punishment I’ve subjected it to in pursuit of extreme fitness) haunted me: “You’re going down if you keep going.” And always in the back of my mind where I try to keep it closeted, worries of our ongoing issue with the contractor plagued me. But despite all this, I actually, really, truly enjoyed the work. I scrubbed and painted and threw out garbage and pried up tack strip, and ate pizza and drank beer, and we got the radiators working and we made the decision to use most of what remains in our bank account to hire out the ceiling work (a marriage saver, Brian called it) to a guy I met in line at the Home Depot on 7 Mile. We hired a young woman from the neighborhood who worked her butt off alongside us, and Brian’s parents visited to see the house for the first time, and we took a break for Thanksgiving. And by Sunday noon when we left, we had made measurable progress.

We talked on the way home about all the projects to be done, and though we’re worried about the money side of it, we’re excited again. But this time it’s a different excitement. On round 2 we know what’s ahead of us (work-wise anyway) and we relish the challenge, because this time, though we know how hard it is, we also know the feeling that comes with seeing your work come together. And when I get frustrated, as I’m sure to do, I’ll let that thought sustain me. We took on this huge project that we truly had no business doing, and have somehow made it through this far. We can keep going.


I’m turning 40 – let’s have a house party in Detroit

Here’s what the internet tells me are suitable gifts for a woman turning 40: a cruise, a necklace or bracelet, tickets to the Ellen show, an iPad, a sweater.  It doesn’t mention my gift to myself for this year: a brick behemoth of a century-old house in Detroit.

Likewise, ideas for outdoor 40th birthday parties on Pinterest (“drink station using bookshelves. jello shots, frozen mimosa pops, glittered champagne bottles, etc.”) don’t seem designed for the bash we’re planning for our back yard this weekend — ostensibly a party celebrating our house purchase, but on the date that just happens to be my 40th birthday, and the day after Brian’s birthday, to boot. Ahem. I give you the ‘after‘ shot of our own little haven following an afternoon my sister-in-law and I spent raking, weedpulling, and power washing.

The contractor assures me the kitchen sink and other charming items piled up in the corner will be gone before the party.  (Yep, the same fellow who promised the electrician and plumber would be ready to go the moment we got started. Two and a half months ago.)

Party planning guides also seem to be missing the chapter I need. Namely:

How to host a house party with outdated (if any) plumbing, no furniture, and a single used appliance (a stove) that you haven’t tested yet.

But you know what? It’s ok. I was fretting about the paltry water pressure in the sole operational shower and the absence of a nice stack of fresh bath towels or enough sleeping rooms for our houseguests, let alone any kind of amenities, when I realized what a nice problem that is to have. We have enough friends and family who are excited for our Detroit house adventures that they want to come celebrate with us. It’s a holiday weekend and they’re traveling — from Louisville, from Cincinnati, from Phoenix, from their own amazing adventures — to spend it with us and discover what we love about Detroit. They won’t care that I’m using a paint-spattered dropcloth as a shower curtain, or mind too much if they have to queue up for the shower, or use the kinda creepy toilet in the basement. They know this house is a labor of love in progress and aren’t looking for a designed-for-Pinterest setting.

That said,  if the hide-and-seek plumber doesn’t get his arse in gear and give me some decent water pressure, he can’t run far enough to get away from me. And so help me, if he pulls a stunt like the electrician did, and shuts some portion of the water off then leaves for the weekend, well, hell hath no fury like a birthday girl burned. I’ve warned my friends to be prepared for urban camping, and have welcomed them to BYOB, but that does *not* mean bring your own water.

Anyway. For quite some time, we’d talked about celebrating my 40th year with an extended stay in Paris, a long-time dream — renting an apartment for a few months and making it our temporary home. After just a week in Detroit I knew I had to push that dream aside for a much more exciting one: our own — permanent — house in the D.

I smiled while I thought I had only a few staples to pull left behind by the crew we hired to rip out carpet. (Happily, there are no photos of the fit I threw an hour into this Sisyphean task)

It’s been maddening as often as not — a hair-pulling, whiskey-swigging, teeth-clenching, stomach-churning, sleep-depriving, sometimes sobbing kind of madness that only a close few have had to bear witness to. We don’t know if it was the right decision, and won’t know for years, likely. Paris will have to wait. For that matter, all travel will have to wait until (unless) we break even and possibly start earning some income on the two rental flats. But at the end of every day, it’s what we wanted more than anything.

I’m turning 40 and I’ve done something hugely scary and even more tremendously exciting, and potentially more rewarding than anything in my life till now. It’s a terrifying and wonderful mess, and with or without proper party accoutrements or maybe even the necessities of modern life, we’re going to celebrate that.

See you there!



You can ring my bell … just kidding, you can’t, because it rings in the neighbor’s house

Among the charms of a 95 year old house like floors with hills and walls with curves (not originally intended, I’m sure) come little quirks that defy explanation. Our doorbell, for instance. Brian spent a lot of time driving around Detroit with our second floor renter, K, last week, who’s lived in the house for going on five years. And he learned about some of the house’s oddities.

To wit: It seems our doorbell and our neighbor G’s doorbell have an identity crisis. When you ring our bell it buzzes in G’s house next door. And when you ring his, you got it, it rings in our house. I don’t even begin to know what to do about this. We’re accidental landlords — we just wanted to buy a house in Detroit and knew it couldn’t sit empty between our stays, lest everything be stripped in our absence. We didn’t set out to buy a 4,000 sq ft plus triplex (though according to our local post office madame there is no such thing as a triplex in Detroit, but we’ll leave that story and the question of our address on the third floor — I suggest 2305 and 3/4 — for another day). It just so happened that the first house within spitting distance of our price range that didn’t need *everything* was one that houses three sets of people.

Anyway. Now we find ourselves property owners, meaning we are also the fixers. We fixed the wasp nest, to start. K told us about a monstrous nest on the garage, and asked if I’d seen it. “No way!” I shot back. I’m terrified of wasps. “I’m not going near it!”

Oh, wait. It dawned on me that the wasp nest is my problem. So after a trip to the hardware store we found ourselves in the alley come sunset last Saturday night, set to send the wee beasties to their eternal home via a can of some sprayable poison. K’s wife kept a safe distance on their second floor porch, rolling with laughter at the landlord bracing himself for imminent attack by hundreds of angry wasps. (I had halfheartedly volunteered to do it but Brian assured me he could sprint faster than I could and I went with it). K and I helped plan Brian’s escape route, then hung back to watch. After a couple tentative sprays, Brian blasted the things, then tore down the alley like his pants were on fire as I collapsed into giggles and tried to video him with my phone in case something dramatic happened, capturing nothing but the weeds growing in the alley.

Preventing an attack of the killer wasps

I can’t help but wonder if that’s anything approaching normal landlord behavior. I imagine it’s probably not. But nobody said we knew what we were doing. As for the doorbell situation, I have no idea. If you know a handyman or woman in Detroit who can look at our confused doorbell, send them our way, will you? If nothing else, I can assure you no wasps will interfere.

Making our house a second home: first purchase! Tuft & Needle mattress

Here's the 'before.' The  'after' is still in my imagination.

Here’s the ‘before.’ The ‘after,’ with the bed in the little window nook, draped with a mosquito net we brought home from Bali, is still in my imagination.

We haven’t spent a night in the Detroit house yet and there’s a bit of a tussle over it. I don’t care that the work isn’t done. I won’t feel like it’s real until we’ve slept there, whereas Brian wants it livable before we spend the night. We’ve been staying with his family an hour outside the city on trips up.  It’s nice having a furnished house to sleep in, but I’m ready to claim our own space.  We made our first real purchase this week and once it arrives I’m ready to arm wrestle if that’s what it takes (or thumb wrestle, since I don’t have a chance otherwise) to get what I want.

The big purchase is our bed. I’m kind of (ok, really) particular about beds. We spent what felt like a small fortune on the bed we have at home and it’s super, super comfy. That wasn’t an option for the Detroit house, so I was considering alternatives like floor cushions that fold out to a bed. Looking for shikibutons led me to Tuft & Needle, where I immediately fell in love with the story: in a nutshell, a newly married guy found that mattress shopping was as dreadful as car shopping and decided to start a business to make it fun and easy. He launched Tuft & Needle, which makes mattresses here in the USA, and sells them online with no sleazy salesperson or mattress showroom or glossy Sunday paper advertisements. If their website design reflects the bed quality, I think I’m going to love it.

While I was looking for reviews (it’s a new company so there’s not a ton out there, but what I found was glowing) I found a blog post from a guy who not only loved his mattress, but he had a referral code for $50 off. My $350 mattress became $300. To top that, I got my own code, and when people use it, I get $50 back on my purchase price! I love this idea so much. [if you’re mattress shopping and want $50 off, use this link: https://www.tuftandneedle.com/r/W1QZ1dkd]

lampTo celebrate this exciting buy, I splurged a little on a beautiful hanging lantern from a store that’s going out of business here in Louisville. All their inventory comes from their shopping trips to the near East and Central Asia. I wish I could furnish the house with their beautiful pieces (think 50 year old Uzbek fabrics, breathtaking Oriental rugs), but even at 70% off it’s still too spendy. This lamp, though it was definitely more expensive than the garage sale scores we’ve picked up so far, is so striking I couldn’t pass it up for $50.

I’ve been a little obsessed with hanging lanterns since our first trip to Istanbul.  I remember standing in the maelstrom of the Grand Bazaar under a canopy of multi-colored lanterns, utterly captivated. Later, in Marrakech it was the same thing. There’s just something magical about them. If there’s one image in my mind that represents travel to somewhere far from home, it’s these lanterns.

This house will take the place of any international travel for the next two or three years, so I want it to embody the magic of travel. That means we’ll furnish our little attic apartment with some of our treasures from around the globe, and try to create a feeling of transporting ourselves somewhere amazing. Which of course it is! Detroit holds enough mystery and marvel to hopefully fulfill our wanderlust for a while.



Then there was the time we said ‘let’s buy a house in Detroit’ and we did it.

I haven’t written anything since we finally — a year from the day I first set foot in Detroit — signed the papers on our house, partly because we left for Mexico three days later, but partly because I don’t know where to start. Never has any life change ignited such a maelstrom of feeling and fear and exhilaration. But I have to start somewhere, even if it makes no sense to anyone but us, so here goes.

The dogs are ever so curious about this place where they're spending time now!

The dogs are ever so curious about this place where they’re spending time now!

We all say “we should _____” a few times in our life.  Almost all the time it’s talk, idle daydreams. But sometimes we say we should do something, and even though it’s a giant gamble, terrifying, logistically challenging, and the subject of a good bit of derision and disapproval (and support that warms our cockles), we do it.

We did it. A year ago I spent a week in Detroit, curious about what was really happening there – as opposed to what I was seeing in national media at the time.  After a few days with the Visit Detroit folks, and a weekend of independent exploring with my husband Brian (we wanted to see *all* sides of the city), we sat down over plates of barbecue at Slow’s and found ourselves saying “we should buy a house in Detroit.”

We are not ‘buy a second house’ kind of people. We still have 21 years on our mortgage of our very modest little house in Louisville. I’m a freelance writer without a regular paycheck. But from that moment, and through all the frustrations and ups and downs since, we were driven to become part of what’s happening in Detroit.  No place we’ve been  in travels around the globe has felt like Detroit and the spirit there. Anything seems possible.

Hamtramck Disneyland.

When we drive down from Brian’s parents’ north of the city and cross 8 Mile, I get a feeling like nowhere else, of anticipation, of wonder. It’s kind of like the adrenaline charge I get landing in Manhattan meets the I-just-can’t-stay-away sensation of Paris. When we’re not there I scour the news out of Detroit, prowling my Detroit lists on Facebook and Twitter, reading the Free Press more than I do the paper in my own city where I am a writer. I feel a little thrill of pride when big publications run stories about the change underway in the city. It’s not my city of birth, and I won’t even be living there full-time, but I’m adopting it in my globetrekker’s heart as one of my homes in this world (along with Louisville and Paris – where I haven’t lost hope of one day having a place to call my own). I want to say I told you so to all the editors who last year turned down my story pitches on Shinola and the Downtown Boxing Gym (c’mon, if it’s good enough for Madonna, why won’t you let me tell the story for your readers?). When Bourdain’s episode there comes up I have to interject that I went there first, as if that matters to anyone but me. I drive my friends and family quite crazy, I’m sure, with my breathless tales of Detroit.

I get frustrated trying to describe what draws us there because there are so many factors that sound simplistic when I recite them, and for each one there’s a counter. The history and ongoing situation are fascinating and at the same time full of heartbreak and horror for too many people. I constantly edit myself;  I don’t like raving about how inexpensive our house was when I know that the absurd price is a result of economic devastation. I never want to come across like I think it’s a playground or an experiment even while I’m excited about the myriad creative things other people are doing and I want to add my own to the mix.

The evolving story of Detroit is made up of the stories of thousands of human beings, and I don’t want to swoop in like a rubbernecking spectator; we bought a house because we want to be there. But I feel like we have to tread carefully, always conscious of perceptions people may be forming of us. When we’re cleaning the front porch and windows at our house, what is the message? That we want the house we bought to shine, to be lovely (our intent)? Or that it wasn’t good enough the way we found it, and by association neither is the neighborhood? If we mow the urban prairie in the lot behind our house are we contributing to neighborhood improvement or (here comes the dread word) starting down the path of gentrification? We’re outsiders in many ways. Our next door neighbor, G., welcomed us with much friendliness and enthusiasm. I only hope we meet with the same reaction up and down the street.

Brian says the pink tub is growing on him. If it’s one less thing to do, I say keep it!

I wonder when we’ll feel at home in our house. The house, by the way, ought maybe to be called a building. It’s three stories, with a three-bedroom flat on each of the first two floors and a sweet attic studio apartment. Plus a full basement with a bar and a pool table(!) and a teeny back yard with a garage. All in all I guess it’s around 4000 square feet (our Louisville home is less than a thousand feet).  There’s a couple living in one of the flats; they’re looking to buy their own house and won’t be there for a lot longer. Right now I feel like I’m invading their space, and like the ghosts of the past owners’ family are still in the belongings they left behind. As I wash the china we found encrusted with grime in the basement, I imagine the family using them, the little teacups after church some Sunday afternoon. Despite spending part of the day Friday, and all day Saturday cleaning and beginning our renovation work, when we went in Sunday I still felt the need to tiptoe. “How can this be OUR house?” I marveled to Brian as we cleaned one of the 21 windows on the first floor. It still doesn’t feel real. I hope that when we spend our first night there — which won’t happen until after the electrician and plumber and demo crew and insulation team have done their work and will they hurry up and get started already! — and wake up in the morning to the sounds we don’t hear in our quiet Louisville neighborhood, that it will feel like our house. And if not then, maybe when we have friends and family  — from Detroit and Louisville and elsewhere — come celebrate with us next month for a joint birthday and we-bought-a-house party, and we serve food and drink (including Kentucky bourbon and Michigan beer!) maybe then it will feel real.

But really, the house isn’t the point. It’s a means to an end. I might get sidetracked with renovations and furnishings, but the house is just the vessel that lets us be part of Detroit. I want to enjoy (to the extent that I can, such an expensive and already frustrating process) the work on the house, but I look really forward to the day it’s done, and we can decide any old time to jump in the car with the dogs and head to our home in Detroit. Home in Detroit. I like that.

Home in Detroit

Home in Detroit