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Home, Sweet Home?
By Rosemary Mahoney, A&S '85 (MA)

I once heard someone say that envy begins at home. In my case envy usually begins with the home. Other people's real estate can stir in me the worst sort of envy. As a graduate student in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins — and then as a teacher there — I lived in Roland Park, where every afternoon I took a five-mile walk up Roland Avenue, through the back streets north of University Parkway, and into Guilford. Walking had always calmed my habitually fretful mind. But within a week of living in Roland Park I realized that every day I finished my walk not only unpacified but in a low-grade distemper. It was the Roland Park houses. They irritated me. A lot. They were big beyond reason, sound, and irksomely well-maintained, with freshly shaved lawns the size of soccer pitches, slicked-back shrubbery, four or five chimneys, glittering copper flashing, and windows so clean that birds flew into them and broke their necks.

Rosemary Mahoney, A&S '85 (MA), is the author of Whoredom in Kimmage, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the New York Times Notable Book The Early Arrival of Dreams. She lives in Rhode Island. Beauty is supposed to have a calming, uplifting effect on the human psyche, yet instead of finding serenity in these beautiful houses, I was grimly vexed by the sight of them. I, too, lived in Roland Park, but while everybody else seemed to live in a multi-roomed mansion, I lived in two rooms. I do not mean a two-bedroom apartment. I mean two tiny rooms. (They were five strides by five strides apiece.) I had a bathroom collapsing with age and for a kitchen, a hotplate and a mini-refrigerator shoved into the hallway between the two rooms. In the bathroom sink I washed my face, lettuce, and dishes. The walls of my rooms were the thickness of a nickel; whenever the woman next door drove a nail into the wall with the intention of hanging a picture, the nail pierced clean through to my side, revealing a full inch of itself. Making the best of it, I hung pictures of my own from the same nails. And speaking of the woman next door, I could hear every word she and her 1,500 friends said over there. In fact, I once had an entire conversation with her through the wall, during which neither of us saw the need to elevate our voices one decibel. There were only two good things about this apartment: The rent was $215 per month and the room I slept in was so small I could easily make notes at my desk without having to get out of bed.

Eventually I somehow became acquainted with a pleasant couple who lived in one of the grander houses in Guilford, where the size and beauty of the houses mutated from the alarming to the positively surreal. When the well-intentioned Guilford pair first showed me the hand-carved floor-to-ceiling mahogany paneling in their dining room, I was barely able to conceal behind my phony smile a strong urge to strangle them both. It wasn't that I hadn't seen luxurious houses before — I had. It was simply that I had reached an age (26) at which it was beginning to dawn on me that renting was stupid and owning was smart and that there was something wrong with the vast difference between my home and theirs. At the time I had no money, which my downstairs neighbor, an 80-year-old certified agoraphobic from Arkansas, neatly summed up when she said, far more often than was necessary, "Hey, Rosemary, if you're so smart and is a professor at the John Hopkin, how come you ain't rich?"

The truth is, I never cared about getting rich. (What fool would enroll in the Writing Seminars in the hope of getting rich?) It wasn't the Roland Park/Guilford people's obvious money I envied. It wasn't their cars, their trips to Aspen, or their expensive clothes. It was solely their houses. They owned these houses. They could spread out in their houses. They could take long walks without ever having to actually leave their houses.

Envy isn't simply wanting what somebody else has. It's wanting that turns bitter, because they got what you wanted and you didn't, and how exactly did that happen when, after all, they are no better or more deserving than you? The only antidote to this self-inflicted poison, short of destroying one's self, is to destroy its object. The only way I could live with the imbalance between my existence and that of my Roland Park neighbors was to get an emotional wrecking ball and knock the neighbors down. My thinking went something like this: The neighbors were no better than I (this of course was debatable, but envy has a way of blinding one to such debates), yet somehow they had got what I wanted. It followed, then, that they must be worse than I. Envy made me scorn the innocent people of Roland Park. I spent my daily walks enumerating the reasons that these people — whom I knew nothing about and whose only crime was that they had something I wanted — were unworthy. Unworthy, shallow, hollow, immoral, and obviously corrupt. How else explain it? And who on earth would want to be them?

For all its destructiveness, envy has its positive effects. For one thing, it's a powerful progenitor of anger and, in my case anyway, anger is motivating. Though I was handily able to persuade myself that I didn't want to be the people of Roland Park, I simply couldn't shake the desire to have what they had. Long after I left Baltimore I continued to think about those grand houses. They were an ideal. For years I was driven by the envious determination that one day I would get my own house, and I was certain that the house I would get would be just like the houses in Roland Park.

Part II

The American Heritage Dictionary tells me that the very second out of a staggering 11 definitions attached to the word house is this: "Something, such as a burrow or shell, that serves as a shelter or habitation for a wild animal," which pretty much describes the only houses I could afford when, five years ago, I began looking at houses with the intention of buying one. The houses within my range were truly terrible — ugly, tiny, and musty, with crooked frames and bowing floors. They sat on weedy, treeless streets. They had junk-strewn yards fenced in with a lot of chain-link. The first time I stepped into the house that is now mine, I looked about and after a mere 90 seconds I turned to the anxious realtor — who was mopping his freckled brow and listlessly using the word "potential" — and said, "OK, Tom, thanks. We can go. I've seen enough. I'm not buying it." A genial man, Tom neither protested nor looked surprised.

Beauty is supposed to have a calming, uplifting effect on the human psyche, yet instead of finding serenity in these beautiful houses, I was grimly vexed by the sight of them. I, too, lived in Roland park, but while everybody else seemed to live in a multi-roomed mansion, I lived in two rooms. From the outside, the house looked abandoned and toothless. The crabgrass lawn was thigh-high. The entire structure was toxically armored in asbestos shingles of aluminum gray, some of which had been snatched off by the wind revealing the original mud-brown cedar shingles beneath. Inside the house smelled of cabbage and dust. Every inch of floor surface had been covered in wall-to-wall carpeting the color of a dirty basketball. And every wall had been plastered in a baffling texture I can only describe as neo-stalactite — a menacing surface prickly as a chestnut husk; if you accidentally brushed your knuckles against a wall, they'd come up abraded and bleeding. The house had originally been a modest, three-story single-family dwelling, but some maniac had turned it into two apartments, hastily slapping up walls in strategic places and ripping them down in others.

Nevertheless, 10 months and 28 similarly awful shacks later, I returned and bought this ruin because the purchase price was low, because the house came with a downstairs tenant who would pay half the monthly mortgage bill, and because I had the wild delusion that one day the place would look like a Roland Park house.

I returned from signing the sales agreement, stood in the middle of my new second-floor living room, stared dumbly through a window utterly devoid of an upper sash, came to the realization that having made the down payment on the house I had no money left to hire anyone to fix it, and cried.

Part III

A reciprocating saw looks like a machine gun with a blade like a swordfish's snout for a barrel. This blade moves back and forth when you pull the trigger. Its claim to fame is that it can cut anything at all — wood, metal, plaster, concrete, plastic, brick. The day after I bought my house I went out and bought a reciprocating saw, came home, plugged it in and immediately cut down the first ridiculously non-supporting wall in my house. My brother happened to stop by mid-demolition. Wide-eyed he stood in the doorway of the room I was working in and said, "Rose? Don't you need a permit to do that?" I ignored him and sawed ahead. "You can't just put that rubble out on the street with the trash, because the building inspector will see it and bust you."

"Quit worrying," I said, and I cut the felled wall into tiny bits, like a murdered body, and put it out with the trash in small packages week by week until it was all gone. Next I bought three do-it-yourself manuals, a table saw, a circular saw, a compound mitre saw, a belt sander, a random orbital sander, and various hand tools. I pulled up the carpets and sanded the floors. I made cabinets for the bathrooms. I ripped and planed, sanded and hammered.

For months I was only ever seen in overalls with a crowbar in my hand, swinging maniacally at anything. I lived with plaster dust between the sheets of my bed and all over the keys of my computer. When I jumped into my car, dust billowed from my pants. And there was a period of a few weeks when the house was so devastated and malleable that I was smashing things on a whim with impunity. One morning I went into my kitchen to make coffee and was so filled with disgust as I stared at the hideous cabinets that even before the coffee finished brewing I had fetched the crowbar, ripped the cabinets off the wall, cut them up, and thrown the pieces out the window.

There was a period of a few weeks when the house was so devastated and malleable that I was smashing things with impunity. One morning while I was brushing the plaster dust from my teeth and staring exhaustedly out my bathroom window at the lawn of the Mafia family who live next door (the woman's fourth husband reputedly ended up dead in the trunk of somebody's car), I saw a man in white work clothes coming out the back door with tarps and tools, buckets and a ladder. Behind him came the Mafia lady, shrieking. The man began loading up a van that had the words, "Plastering and Painting. Rene Cherenfant," written on its side. In desperation I ran down, caught the workman at the corner as he was driving away, and said, "Rene?"

"It's pronounced Rainey," he said sourly. "Rainey Cherenfant." His arms and forehead were flecked with tiny spots of paint.

"Oh, OK, sorry. Do you think, Rainey, that you could come and look at my bathroom and give me an estimate?"

He narrowed his eyes at me and pointed at the Mafia house. "You friends with her?"

"I certainly am not."

He looked relieved. "OK, then."

My bathroom is so small that standing in it Rene and I were practically in each other's arms. He studied the walls a long time, scratching his unshaved chin. I had spent three days ripping down five Precambrian layers of wallpaper and plaster and paint, blinding and choking myself with the dust; what Rene was looking at was the original horsehair plaster surface. "Hard part's done," he mused. "I could do the rest for four hundred bucks is what I think." I staggered against the sink. That was $100 per wall, which worked out to about $20 per square foot. I saw the ranting Mafia lady in a new light. "Well, Rainey," I said, "I'll think about it. Thanks a lot," and as I shut the tattered screen door behind him I thought, In your dreams I'll think about it! Goaded by indignation, envy, and despair I plastered the bathroom myself. Next I scraped the stalactites from every wall in the house and refinished the walls with a skim-coat. I put sheetrock up on some of the walls, rearranged electrical wiring, abandoned some of the existing switches, closed up the holes, plastered them smooth, and painted. One day my brother came by, pointed at a wall, and said, "Rose? Wasn't there a switch here once?" I said there was. "I thought so. What did you do with it?" I told him I took it out. "What did you do with the wires?" I told him I clipped the wires and left them in the wall. My brother nodded. "And you capped and taped them, right?" I said that depended on what he meant by capped and taped. "You taped the ends of the wires." I said I did not tape any wires. He stared at me a long time with a disoriented look on his face, the look people get just before they sneeze. "Well, I sure hope you have friends in the fire department, because if the two ends of those wires ever meet, you are in for a big surprise." A few days later he stopped by again, looked at the built-in bookshelves I had made and at the books I had filled them with and said generously, "Nice job. But can I ask you one thing? When you built these, did you think about the weight of all those books?" I had to confess that I did not. "Well," he said, "I hope your tenant downstairs likes to read 'cause those books are going to end up in her lap one of these days."

I could tell you how many times I completed a job only to find myself ripping it apart again because of some stupid mistake I had made, but I would like to retain at least a little bit of pride and so I am not going to tell you. All you really need to know is that as long as there was still more that needed transforming in my house, I was able to keep working, still confident in the fantasy that my little hovel would somehow end up grand. I could wake in the middle of the night and smell smoke, hear the nor'easter plucking more shingles from my fašade, watch the rainwater steadily dripping from the ceiling into the bucket on my bedroom floor, and still somehow I believed in my Roland Park myth.

Part IV

My house renovation is mostly finished now, and the house looks better than it once did. Some people say it looks very nice. And one person I know even called it beautiful. Instead of two rooms I have seven. There are legions of homeless people in the world who have no rooms at all, who sleep beneath the sky, so you would think I'd be pleased by my good fortune. But, no. I can't really be pleased, for when I look at my little house all I see is that it's not a bit like those houses in Roland Park. There's nothing more to fix, nothing left to change, no more room for illusion. After all this time and effort, I'm still blinded and derided by an enduring envy. That's just how it is. With human beings, everything is always relative. One man's grass will always be greener, one man's ceiling will always be another man's floor, and the houses in Roland Park will always be bigger and better than mine.

Return to The Seven Deadly Sins ... Lust | Gluttony | Envy | Pride | Sloth | Avarice | Anger
Return to September 2005 Table of Contents

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