A version of this article first appeared in HER Nashville in 2011. I updated it this past Valentine’s Day to read aloud at The Porch Writer’s Collective‘s Heartbreak Happy Hour at The Stone Fox—a fantastic event. As you’ll see, this edition plays up the broken-heart angle of our 15 years on Halcyon.
The shovel beat-down that erupted out of our friendly neighborhood crack house cast a certain pall over Sunday brunch.
My in-laws stared from the porch, apricot scones frozen halfway to mouths, as the screen door across the street banged open and two guys came running out. One guy had a shovel. The other guy didn’t. The second guy lost the fight.
Also lost: the illusion of a safe, quiet neighborhood we’d tried so hard to create for my husband Hal’s mom and dad. We had pastries. Cheese platters. Even a tea set. But in Ro-Sham-Bo, shovel fight always beats artisan cheese. The in-laws were not impressed. Brunch fail.
When Hal and I bought the old Victorian house on Halcyon Avenue in the year 2000, neither set of parents shared our enthusiasm. My dad told me years later what passed through his mind when he first drove by that broken-down eyesore a block from 12th Avenue South. These exact words: “Holy fucking shit.” And then he locked the car doors and drove back to Bellevue.
The kind of decision-making that later comes to seem like vision often begins as self-delusion. What is it about love at first sight that makes giant flaws invisible? All I know is, when I first walked onto that front porch, all I could see was home, a future life. I’d grown up in the suburbs. I wanted front porches and sidewalks and actual neighbors you could see.
Halcyon House had all those things. What it didn’t have was a foundation, a bathroom, or a kitchen. Somebody had stolen all the mantels. The porch was made out of particle board, and it was not sound.
We definitely had neighbors you could see. Pete lived at a halfway house down the street, carried around an old guitar case, and would often pound on the door and demand sandwiches. Herb lived in somebody’s toolshed and sang and danced his way down the street. Our three Halcyon grandmas lived across the way and kept an eye on everything from their front porches. Mrs. Vinsang always knew whose dog had escaped. And Miss Johnnie May left homemade chess pies on the porch from time to time.
Also across the street: our shovel-fighting, 24-7, drive-thru crack house. More on that later.
Hal and I took possession of Halcyon House on Halloween. Seriously. We ripped up the ancient shag carpet and sledge-hammered out the saggy popcorn ceiling. My parents feigned optimism and dove in to help with demolition. I had no construction skills, so, the unskilled labor fell to me. It was my job to pile broken drywall and plaster in a back room until we could afford to haul it to the dump.
What is it about love at first sight that makes giant flaws invisible?
And it was my job to uninstall all 51,000 staples that someone had fired into the floor to secure the ancient shag carpeting. I once became so enraged at a staple that I ran screaming into the backyard. Hal handed me a broom handle as I shot out the door, and I swung it as hard as I could at a walnut tree.
That physics lesson quieted me down a little bit. And I humbly resumed the vital work of staple extraction.
On days when I couldn’t face even one more staple, my parents’ cheerful work ethic shamed me into staying on the job. In the face of immense and grueling tasks, they are unfazed. I should note here that enthusiasm has its perils. And this is the part where (sorry, Mom!) I have to tell you the story of how my mother became the notorious Cord Lady of Nashville, and got banned from every Lowe’s and Home Depot rental department in the area, for all time.
Sometimes, when my mom’s skill with power tools meets her eagerness to launch into the task at hand, problems ensue. Like, for example, the destruction of a belt floor-sander by driving the machine over its own cord. Three times, three different sanders. Three different rental agreements.
I saw the third sander-cord emergency in person. It happened in slow motion: There’s mom on her hands and knees. She’s concentrating hard; her tongue’s even sticking out a little bit. The sander sweeps across the floor, closer and closer to the cord. In my head, my slowed-down-record voice goes “Nooooooooooooo!” as the sander makes a big slurping sound, eats its cord, and ceases to function.
My mom bites her lip and shakes her fists in a silent scream of rage. And if you’ll forgive me for saying so, Mom, it was the most adorable thing I have ever seen.
At this point, we were no longer able to afford apartment rental and mortgage payments—plus the cost of renting multiple sanders. So we moved in. Still no kitchen, just appliances clustered on a fire-damaged section of dining room floor. The bathroom was a theoretical concept. No sink. No bathtub. But there was a toilet: a plastic bucket, the kind you buy drywall mud in.
On December 9th, we spent our first night in Halcyon House. It was nine degrees outside. And also, inside. There were still huge holes in the floor. Then, in the middle of the night, something large and taloned found one of those holes and clawed its way up the inside of the wall right behind our bed. It only gets better from here! I told myself, as I squatted over the steaming plastic bucket.
Over the years, we transformed Halcyon House into something fit for human habitation. We patched most of the holes, hung garage-sale mantels on the walls, and installed a real toilet.
Meanwhile, the social turbulence of a pre-gentrified 12South swirled and pulsated outside our walls. Many items went missing in those years. Various tools. A ladder. Some recording gear we stupidly left in the car overnight. The car itself. Somebody actually slipped in the unlocked front door at a party and stole the car keys … and the car. Our neighbor Roger asked Hal, “Humphreys, did they steal it, or did you give it to them?” The policeman who showed up said, “Don’t you know what kind of neighborhood this is?
We did know. And we loved it … mostly.
But despite my torn sympathy for the inhabitants of the neighboring crack house, I did not love the miserable human drama that unfolded there: multiple SWAT raids, an exploding car, the disgusting maltreatment of dogs and fellow humans, and at least one shovel fight. I’ll never forget the night the place burned down. Keep in mind that no one was injured, as I confess to you that we neighbors gathered on the opposite corner and toasted the end of an era with plastic cups full of pink wine. Don’t judge us too harshly.
And then, the owner’s insurance rebuilt the damn thing later that year.
My love for Halcyon House hasn’t changed. I’m still blind to its flaws. Now, when I look around, all I see is home, and history. I see the stained-glass transoms and shelves my parents made, the backyard deck Hal built, the toilet … and, most impressive of all, the total absence of a single staple in our old pine floor.
I still love Halcyon House, but the neighborhood is breaking my heart. I remember Mrs. Vinsang saying once, “These new people are fencing in the back yards. We never did that.” I should have seen that as a sign that those early Halcyon years weren’t going to last.
It’s the economy, stupid. The crack house eventually got sold and bulldozed, and the giant house that rose from its ashes was featured on HGTV.
Also gone: Pete and the halfway house, Herb’s toolshed, and two of our three Halcyon grandmas. Nobody watches over things from the front porches anymore. Even I spend more time in the backyard now—inside a fence.
Is this progress? I guess it depends on whom you ask. With each new development project, my neighbors line up both for and against it. Sadly, sometimes the disagreement breaks down along lines of race and class, longtime and new residents.
I wish there were some category of change that felt like progress to everyone, but change doesn’t seem to work that way. For good or ill, I’ve learned to mostly accept what comes—monster new houses, restaurants with valet parking, boutiques I can’t afford. The same way I embraced that broken down eyesore of a house, initially unlovable to all eyes but mine.
I’ve given up fighting the inexorable changes. I gave up after a big blog fight I had with a developer a few years ago. I called him out because he was going to tear down our beloved neighborhood wine bar. We’d already lost so many of those things that made 12South feel like we were an “us” instead of just a zip code. That seemed like the last straw.
The developer won that fight. All I had was a MacBook Air; he had a very big shovel.