I wanted something nobody wanted, something that was impossible. The city is filled with these structures, houses whose yellowy eyes seem to follow you. It would be only one house out of thousands, but I wanted to prove it could be done, prove that this American vision of torment could be built back into a home. I also decided I would do it the old-fashioned way, without grants or loans or the foundation money pouring into the city. I would work for everything that went into the house, because not everyone has access to those resources. I also wanted to prove to myself and my family I was a man. While they were building things, I had been writing poems.Share
One day Will and I rode past a white Queen Anne in Poletown on a quiet corner. Next to it sat two empty lots, plenty of space for a dog and a garden, a shed and a pond. The neighbors were friendly and kept their homes well-maintained, but there were four other abandoned houses on the block. The neighbors said the Queen Anne had been abandoned for a decade, simply left behind by the previous owner like a shredded tire on the highway, anything of value stolen long ago. It had a mangy wraparound porch and a big kitchen, but no chimney — I could build one of those — and the first time I cautiously walked inside, I knew it would be my home.
When I told the neighbors I wanted to buy it, they looked at me like I was insane. A young white kid stuck out like a snowball in Texas, and I was self-conscious and very aware of my color, stumbling over my replies for the first time in my life. When I was moving in, most other people, white and black, were moving out.
“Just looking at it, it’s a lot of work,” the neighbor across the street said, figuring I would give up after a month or two. There were no doors or windows, plumbing or electricity, nothing. There was a pornographic hole in the roof. It was just a clapboard shell filled with trash on a crumbling foundation. I’m talking chest-high piles of clothing, yard waste, empty tin cans, toys, diapers, those white Styrofoam trays that raw meat comes in, used auto parts, construction debris, liquor store plastic bags and bottles, rolls of old carpeting, broken furniture and glass, literal piles of human shit, uncapped needles. When I was clearing the house — which took me three months, with a pitchfork and a snow shovel — I also found the better part of a Dodge Caravan inside, cut into chunks with a reciprocating saw. From what folks who grew up around here told me, it was an “insurance job.” Someone had needed the money, so they reported the van stolen and paid a couple of guys to cut it apart and deposit it around the city. The backyard was a jungle of invasive plants and more trash, trash so old it had turned to dirt.
I purchased the house in October 2009 at a live county auction for $500 cash. I was 23 years old. (Read more.)