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03.26.09

home 2

WHAT FOLLOWS IS A spec column I wrote for a city weekly, after I'd talked with the editor about writing a column in the wake of my laying off. The column might still happen - we'll see - but I felt too fond of it to just leave it in the Documents folder on my desktop.

MOST OF US WILL USE ANY EXCUSE WE CAN to poke around a stranger’s home, within the law, but unless you’re exceedingly sociable, the only good reason to spend a lot of time scrutinizing every room from basement to attic in homes not your own is to be a real estate agent – or their client.

I was laid off last month, which I thought would put a damper on my wife’s house hunting, but my severance cheque and our very amenable bank have kept us in the game. “You’d might as well be paying a mortgage as rent” has provided the rationalization, and the first buyer’s market in over a decade is the context for our newfound entrée into homes all over the west end of the city.

You can’t help but feel the illicit thrill of it all when the sellers are home; you exchange some pleasantries while they sit in the living room or kitchen they’re eager to hand over to you, and make your way through their basements and bedrooms with your flashlight, tape measure and notebook. Sometimes you even take a furtive photo or two – for reference, of course – and exchange a raised eyebrow or silent, broadly mouthed word with your spouse.

It’s no use pretending you’re some sort of sainted exception – the success of home makeover and real estate shows on TV, even after the bull housing market spiraled into extinction, is proof that our curiosity about how other people live is nowhere near satisfied by the glimpses we’ve gotten through picture windows or while trick-or-treating. There are few joys more electric or modern than ripping on someone’s choice of sofa or wall covering from the safety of our own TV, indemnified by the certain knowledge that they signed a release before letting the cameras in.

It’s hard to ignore the sense of intrusion you get on the complicit home invasions we call home visits and open houses, and I think you’d have to be a pretty hardened character not to feel a little bit guilty afterwards. Laughing at some rich couple’s expensively dismal taste on a TV show is one thing, but shaking your head at furniture wrapped in thick, yellowing plastic or bookshelves yawningly empty except for a set of Tony Robbins cassettes can’t help but trigger a spasm of shame in anyone with visiting rights to their empathy.

Visiting a house that’s been cleaned up or “fluffed” for show is an almost welcome relief from this particular guilt, since the space has been sanitized of personal effects in pursuit of that high-end hotel look that seems to be so popular with decorators. But then another anxious pang asserts itself, not dissimilar to the one you get after leaving the modest but spotlessly clean home furnished with a bare minimum of cheap furniture – the shameful certainty that you own way too much crap, and that moving is going to be as traumatic as ever.

It’s at this point that I’m sure some people simply give up and decide to stay where they are, but these people aren’t married to my wife.

Then there are the empty homes – the foreclosures, the evictions, and the empty shells that their owners couldn’t wait to vacate, while the continuing mortgage payment has made them very motivated sellers. Stripped of furniture and most signs of life, they’re like crime scenes, and you walk through them with a cop’s suspicious eye, looking for ineradicable traces of the life lived there while you count the grounded electrical outlets and check for signs of mold.

On a treeless street near a high tension power line just south of the west end neighbourhood where I grew up, we visit a barn-shaped home on evocatively named Mariposa Street. The heat and electricity are off, so it’s actually colder inside than outside, and the chill air is laced with the smell of cat piss and roach bombs. The big kitchen saw its last renovation in the ‘70s, and it’s almost possible to imagine the big family that could have lived here, a Brady Bunch whirl of bell-bottoms and toe socks, but the overwhelming vibe in the place now is Manson Family.


Facing the old Grand Trunk line to Georgetown in a hollowed-out industrial area near Bloor is another empty home, a Victorian townhouse with a front porch sagging away from the house. The kitchen is the only room that’s been touched since the place was built, and it’s obvious that when it was built there wasn’t any hot water, that the tub was in the kitchen and the toilet an outhouse in the overgrown backyard.

The floorboards upstairs are wide and worn, with nailheads poking out, and the previous tenants have left a framed print of ducks on the wall and abandoned the family piano in the parlour. They could have left last week, last year or last century, though I can’t imagine anyone jumping at the place – it needs a lot of work, which probably won’t translate into that much more value unless the neighbourhood improves drastically.

I wish we could leave it empty and open it up to the public, who don’t get a chance to nose around houses that aren’t their own except when they’re house hunting. You could furnish it in the style of any decade of the first half of the 20th century and you’d have Toronto’s equivalent of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. But it would be even more haunting as it is now, thick with the vapour trails of lives lived in its tight space, so easily banished with a coat of paint, a knocked-through wall or yet another stainless steel kitchen.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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