A Living Thing
The difference between a hell and a home
By Walter Jowers
JANUARY 17, 2000: A while back, co-inspector Rick and I visited the king-hell, prime example of an uncomfortable and unwelcoming house. It was a weird, bland, office-cubicle sort of place and a perfect insult to anybody who might work up the nerve to visit.
The house is at the fringe of a bedroom suburb, at the end of a long, winding driveway. It has a triple garage and no front door. If you live there and you're packing your remote, I guess you go in through the garage. If you don't live there, you could either stand outside and knock on one of the garage doors, or you might stumble across the side door (although there's no path or walkway) and knock there. There are no stoops, no porch roofs, no awnings, nothing to invite or shelter a visitor.
When Rick and I went to the house, we were expected. We had an appointment and everything. As we drove up the driveway, one of the garage doors opened, like the top lip of a big bass getting ready to suck in a fly. We walked into the garage and found the door to the upstairs living quarters.
That's when we saw the signs. Four of 'em: "Take your shoes off, please." "Take your shoes off, thank you." "Thank you for taking off your shoes." "Please leave your shoes here." And just to drive the point home, there was a box of crime-scene booties by the door.
"Sweet Baby Jesus," I said to Rick. "I'm declaring a level-four neurotic alert."
Rick looked out a window. "Make it a level five. There's a bunker out back."
Just then, the man of the house met us in the garage and introduced himself. As soon as he finished telling us his name, he told us that the house had all white carpet and he wanted us to take off our shoes.
I flashed back to Ron Ray's house. Ron Ray was a guitar player, one of a long line of overloud metal guitarists and shag-cut, tenor-singing, mama's-boy piano noodlers that we hoped would be the fourth guy in our then-weak three-piece band. I never met Ron Ray's mama, but I knew her from the notes she left on the door. The first one read: "Please remove shoes." A few weeks later, it changed to: "Ron's friends must remove all shoes." Soon after that, there was a half-a-legal-pad manifesto tacked to the door. It started, "I'm sick and tired of Ron's friends coming into my house and tracking in dirt, and never cleaning up, and playing loud music, and burning holes in my furniture...." It went on and on. I didn't read past the first sentence. I just quit going to Ron Ray's house.
About that same time, wife Brenda moved into my house in South Carolina. Within days, she was undoing the nauseating decorating left behind by my evil and snake-faced stepmother, Montine. Brenda painted over the government-swimming-pool-green walls, ripped down the fiberglass drapes, ripped up the polyester shag carpet, and started deploying charming little set-abouts on top of the kitchen cabinets.
Little by little, day by day, Brenda changed the house from something ugly and forbidding into something beautiful, warm, and inviting. A day in the house was a little comfort, akin to putting on a sweatshirt fresh out of the dryer. Over time, that kind of thing can have a therapeutic effect. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that a house that's too white to walk in could suck the comfort right out of people.
When I'm looking for something to worry about, I think about all the hundreds of look-alike, interchangeable, plain-vanilla houses I've seen, houses that couldn't possibly give any more comfort than a room at a chain motel. I think about how there are whole neighborhoods full of these things, with garage doors that swallow and discharge the occupants, and front doors that never see a visitor. I think about how the people who live in these houses don't get many chances to connect with their neighbors through simple little rituals like waving, or borrowing a cup of milk in the morning.
After a while in that kind of environment, people might even disconnect--from their neighbors, from their own homes, from their own comfort and ease. People might start building more of those god-awful front-doorless houses. That can't be a good thing.
So, you people, listen to me: The house isn't just a place to eat, sleep, and wash up. It's where you connect to the people you live with, and where you connect with the rest of the world. When you build a house, the very least you can do is put a big, obvious front door on it. A welcome mat would be nice too. And to keep the welcome mat dry, you're going to need a little porch roof. If you're going to go that far, you might as well make it a real enough porch, with a swing and a couple of rocking chairs on it.
Inside, go with the wood floors, not the white carpet. That way, you'll be more inclined to invite people in. You might just enjoy 'em.
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