Friday, March 03, 2006

Incidental History - My Childhood Home Goes Up For Sale

After 40 years living at the same address, my parents are selling their home. As Thomas Wolfe wrote in his essay "The Return:" "I was a child here."

My family had a large console television in the basement; the only TV in the house until I was about ten. My father was a elementary school principal and sometimes brought home a tiny black and white television on weekends. We set it on the stereo cabinet in the living room for my younger brother and I to watch Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk and Delta House (the shortlived TV spinoff of Animal House) while my parents watched their shows in the basement. It was on that small black and white set that I saw Animal House when it was broadcast on network TV for the first time. The film had the effect on me that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has on most adults: It was a revelation. After seeing John Belushi's legendary scene in the Faber College cafeteria, ludicrously loading up his tray, stuffing whole sandwiches, Jell-O platters, and hamburgers into his mouth, my eating habits forever changed. During lunches, I stuffed whole peanut butter and jam sandwiches into my mouth, to the shrieks and confusion of my mother. How I missed choking to death, I'll never know.

Beyond the right-hand upper floor window was my bedroom in which I wrote my first song with I was twelve. I had been playing guitar with more passion than expertise for about two years by that point. After creeping through the age-old Standard Guitar Method series, which had me plucking dissonant notes for months on end, I revelled in strumming full chords. Around this time I saw Woodstock for the first time and sought to emulate Richie Havens' bombastic strumming style. Having no ear for learning to play songs just by listening to them, I practiced my chord-changes and slowly learned to combine them in ways that sounded good to me. All laborious key-of-G, but it was a like a door on the universe opened a crack through which I made my own contact with the invisible hand that guides creativity.

I was the only oldest sibling among my friends. All my buddies had older brothers, some of whom were as much as a decade older, and from these surly, impatient older brothers we learned about music (among many other sordid subjects). Detroit FM radio was all we listened to: 101.1 WRIF, 98.7 WLLZ, and a slew of other here-today-gone-tomorrow stations. While so many people today are revealing their closet-affinity for 1980s music -- all the techno-pop crap that made absolutely no impression on me -- my friends and I listened to the best of 1980s rock 'n' roll: Billy Squire, the J. Geils Band, The Cars, Jefferson Starship, Aldo Nova, The Romantics, Rush, .38 Special, Bitter Sweet Alley. The first cassette I ever purchased was The Rolling Stones' Tattoo You in the music department of Zeller's in the Ambassador Mall in 1981, when I was ten. When the Stones came to Detroit during that tour, months later, it was like a visitation from Moses or Ezekiel; someone from On High. The eldest brother of my friends next door actually saw the Stones at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Afterward, I looked at him as though he had been to the top of Mount Sinai and had the soot from a burning bush on his cheeks and forehead.

By the time I was twelve I had an ancient black and white television in my bedroom; yellowed plastic faceplate, the entire set bolted to a frail wheeled stand. It stood at the foot of my bed. Those were the days before my family had Cable. Still, that TV pulled in a decent number of Canadian and Michigan stations. However, there were only two UHF stations that mattered to me: WKBD Channel 50 and Channel 56, Detroit Public Television. Channel 50 filled me with reruns of Sanford & Son, Happy Days, Three's Company, CHiPs. But most importantly there was the Channel 50 Eight O'Clock Movie, which played every modern classic film imaginable: The Deer Hunter (uncut), Marathon Man, Coming Home, Taxi Driver, Sleeper, and dozens and dozens of other films that shaped or warped me into the person I am today.

The highlights of all this television-watching came every night at 10:30 on Channel 50 in the form of The Odd Couple, starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. Then at 11 p.m. came a double shot of The Twilight Zone. At midnight were Comedy Classics, which alternated between Three Stooges films and Laurel & Hardy.

On Saturday nights, it was Channel 56 at 10 p.m. to watch Monty Python's Flying Circus, which was followed by a local music video show called The Beat. I cannot overstate the importance of The Beat on my life. Hosted by longtime Detroit DJ, Doug Podell, the show was simulcast on 98.7 FM, allowing me to tape the music from the show on cassette. It was on The Beat -- a makeshift production with all the showy frills of early public access television -- I first saw U2's video for "A Sort of a Homecoming", and on which I saw the newly unearthed footage of Jim Morrison and The Doors performing "Love Me Two Times" in Europe from 1968. Jim Morrison was among my first cultural titans -- whether deservedly so, or not, I'm still deciding -- and by that night in 1983 I had only ever seen black and white photographs of him; heard the radio tracks from Doors' albums on WRIF. Seeing actual footage of Morrison and the Doors was like being handed the Shroud of Turin for personal inspection. It might sound strange in this age where we can't escape music videos or tiresome celebrities, but at that time there was such a dearth of Doors' material outside the official canon of ordinary album releases and the very rare magazine article. I videotaped that performance of "Love Me Two Times" and watched it until I had memorized every frame of it. Soon after came release of the video constructed around the Doors' performance of Van Morrison's song "Gloria," which was also a minor seismic event in my life.

The basement of the house was finished around the time I was born. As a kid, I was avid about cartoons and cartooning. My parents were kind enough to buy me a desk where I worked on drawings and comic strips. By the time I entered high school, my interests had shifted to music and would soon shift further to fiction writing. It was down in that basement, with my levithan tape cassette collection at my side, my portable radio/tape deck next to it, that I began writing. Within months of composing my short story I tried my hand at novel writing and made the disovery that writing a novel was more than simply writing a lot of words. Armed with an IBM clone PC and a Panasonic dot matrix printer, I churned out the pages day after day, submitting stories to Weird Tales, Story, Amazing Stories, Haunts, and countless other journals and magazines. Every single one of those stories rejected as quickly as the mail would allow.

It was there in the basement, in 1990, that I first began writing a story called "The Block Buster", which soon expanded into a novel-length idea. My first genuine crack at the story spanned 184 pages. My second draft came out to 464 pages. Years passed, I tinkered with draft after draft of the novel, changing the title to "Bad Moon Rising," and then finally to Randham Acts. All the while I had other projects on-the-go, and eventually got to a point where I tried simply forgetting about Randham Acts. But the story persisted and I eventually completed what felt like the definitive draft, which I submitted to Better Non Sequitur, a small press publisher in San Diego, California. The night I received the email saying BNS accepted Randham Acts, the decade and-a-half I'd spent writing the novel seemed to accordion into a surreal blur of notes and drafts that lost all detail.

And so that house on Cameron Avenue is up for sale. I was a child there. I first heard music there, read my first book there. The feeling I have about it resembles what I experienced when losing girlfriends in my youth -- terminally ordinary. The consolation is that "ordinary" is not at all a bad state of being in which to exist. That ordinary house on that ordinary street on the west side of Windsor, Ontario provided me all I needed with regard to inspiration, environment, atmosphere, mood, color, texture, not to mention shelter. I'll miss the old house. As it watches my folks pack up and leave in the next few months, the house will doubtlessly be left knowing it had been lived in.


Richard said...

Matt, thanks for posting this. It is amazing how a piece of real estate can contain such memories, but I can totally relate to your feelings about your childhood home. Maybe it will be sold to people as nice as the ones who bought the house in Brooklyn where I lived from ages 6 to 27 -- whenever I'm in town and stop by, they let me come in and look around. Everything's changed but the memories. It sounds as if you have a trove of happy memories of that house.

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Richard! I'm not much of a "things" person as I'm sure you're not, but I do hold Flann O'Brien's weird idea that people and objects can intermingle -- like the bicycle in The Third Policeman: if ridden long enough, human cells bounce into the bicycle and bicycle atoms bound into the person. I'm sure if someone slashed a wall in the house on Cameron Avenue, it would bleed.

RossK said...

Thanks Matt.

That concept of the importance of the ordinary is a striking one that I hadn't thought of before.


Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Very kind of you to say so.

In this age in which everyone seems to be waiting to be "discovered" -- and I'm the worst among anyone I know for this -- I think reconnecting with the ordinary is quite valuable.

Ascendantlive said...

Interesting story...having lived in fifteen or so different houses/apartments I can't quite relate though.
As for 'ordinary' I don't believe in it. I mean that nothing is truly ordinary when it involves life. Especially when it's your life.

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

When I was five or six I once nearly broke an arm and some ribs as I crashed to my bedroom floor after jumping into a pair of my jeans in a failed attempt to prove wrong the old saying, "We all put our pants on one leg at a time." I haven't tried again since.

Kathleen Callon said...

I know how you're feeling. I'm the oldest of six and the youngest is finishing college. My parents have already had an agent come in and look around so they can list "our home". While I'm happy for them, it just doesn't feel right to have someone else live there...