It's not uncommon these days, if you live in a city, to see vacant houses. The foreclosure crisis has touched so many urban properties, depending upon what city, and what neighborhood, you live in. I can walk 9 blocks to my local Trader Joes and pass by three such homes. Two of them have plywood in the windows. The other one, I'm guessing, soon will. I pass by them and wonder...who lived there? What happened?
But mostly they don't hold much allure for me. They are, more than anything, sores upon the neighborhood at large. A missing tooth in what might otherwise be a bright smile. A blemish of sorts.
But before the Great Recession, when such houses were rare...and going back much further to my younger years, I must confess that such houses, especially in the country, always exerted a strange tug at my consciousness. They caught both my attention and my imagination. There have been many occasions where I have seen an abandoned house over the course of my life, and it didn't immediately speak to me of sudden misfortune, or some precipitous downturn in the housing market...instead, it seemed to whisper to me.
I would look at such an empty house, paint fading and chipping, perhaps a gutter coming loose...weeds high...and for some reason I felt a sense of sorrow. And then, mystery. Who used to live there? Why did they leave? Why didn't the house end up in someone else's hands? Why is it now empty? Did something tragic happen there? What was it like when it was full of life?
In 1964 I was just turning 8 years old, and my family was living in Hayward,California. We lived in a small apartment complex, and directly across the street was what used to be, I'm sure, a grand old house. It was an old Mission style home, long abandoned, and it was the playground for me and my friends during the time we lived there. None of us knew anything about the former inhabitants...it was 1964 and everyone in California, it seemed, had only just arrived from somewhere else. That was certainly the case with my family.
The house was simply vacant. And mysterious. And magnificent. There were old grape vines that had sprawled out, unattended to, upon an ancient arbor that could barely support them...but which bore quite delicious fruit. Huge walnut trees in the large lot, which I would collect by the bag full and take home to my mother. Inside the house, there were old wooden floors, and the front room had a massive fireplace with a mantle that I can still picture. There was no furniture left in the house, but there was a big pile of books, both soft cover and hardcover, that for some reason had been swept up into a heap in the middle of the floor and left there.
I used to go through the books, even at the age of eight, and look at them. When and if one of them caught my eye, I would take it home with me. But otherwise, nobody ever messed with the place. We would play there, mostly outside...climbing the trees and such, but whenever we stepped inside...it was as if a cast had been spelled upon us. There was a sense of reverence, perhaps, or fear...was it haunted? I can't really explain it. We felt as if...no, we knew...that we were trespassing, even though the house was completely abandoned. We tread lightly. I remember this distinctly. And we were a bit spooked by the place...at least on the inside. Yet there was almost a Siren's call that demanded we enter.
Years later, my experiences with old, abandoned houses were more rural in nature.
Born in Southeastern Ohio, my family would make an almost yearly pilgrimage back to our hometown growing up, after we had moved to California. I always had one foot in California, and another in Ohio during my formative years. By the time I was a teen, my friends and cousins would do what just about every teenager in a small town does. Head to the one or (if you're lucky) two carryouts in town that don't card teens, pick up a case of beer, and after driving around the loop in town for awhile try to pick up some girls. Failing that, we would head out onto the backroads and find a place to hangout. Two of the places we used to hang out were also old, abandoned farmhouses.
One of them, it should come as no surprise, had a reputation for being haunted. Is there a small town anywhere that doesn't claim to have a haunted old, abandoned house? Again, though, while we used to congregate there, and drink a few beers, I don't remember any vandalism. We may have littered back then, but nobody ever entered the house and tore anything up. Unlike Hayward, the kids in my hometown at least knew who the house had once belonged to...even if they had been dead for 20 years.
Over the years I have always felt a strange attraction to abandoned houses...especially old farm houses. I can't tell you the number of times I have driven a back road, come upon an obviously abandoned house that is down on its heels but still hints at some former grandeur...or at least a former vitality..and pulled over to look at it for a moment. Many times I have been drawn to get out of the car and walk up to the front door to see if it is open. If it wasn't, I have walked around back.
I have entered many of these houses, don't ask me why...and looked around. Sometimes it is depressing. Things are falling apart, and there are signs of wildlife encroaching. A papery husk of skin that some Black Snake shed long ago. Rodent droppings. Sometimes there are signs of teen vandalism. Empty beer cans.
But there have been a couple of times when it seems like time stood still. The place was unkempt and dusty, to be sure, and empty...yet it almost felt like someone simply walked out the front door and never came back. The house itself endured, seemingly awaiting, still, its owner's return. I can't explain the thoughts that go through my head when I come across these houses, or why they exert such a pull upon my imagination.
They simply do. I can hardly drive by one, on the rare occasions I come across them, without wanting to pull over immediately and explore them. They fill me with curiosity, and not just morbid curiosity...but that, too. I can't help picturing them in there former glory. Painted. A dog in the yard. Kids playing tag, and a mother hanging her wash out to dry on the clothesline. Life. Laughter, one would hope. The smell of dinner on the stove. A radio playing.
What life took place there, before the long quiet and the inexorable deterioration that has marked this place for so long before I came upon it? If you creep inside and listen closely, can your senses detect anything of what once transpired here?
Those are the thoughts that have compelled me on many occasions to pause...step out of my car, walk across an overgrown yard and enter an abandoned house.
I've never felt any rush of spirits or memories lingering in the air, waiting for someone to enter that empty and forlorn space so they could attach themselves to another living soul. It always feels a little sad, sometimes brooding, even. Yet...for some reason...these places call to me.