One last look. I’m standing in the now empty house that I’ve loved and labored over for almost eleven years. It looks for all the world like the last scene from Checkhov’s Cherry Orchard. There is the shadow of a banjo clock on the wall at the landing where its rhythmic ticking acted as the beating heart of the place. The chandelier with its Edison bulbs in the dining room now floats over empty space, no table to illuminate. The built-in china cabinet is void of its contents, its mirrored back reflecting nothing but daylight filtered through lace curtains.
Checkhov himself startled his critics by describing the play about the decline of a land-owning family as a “comedy and a farce.” I’d like to think he was musing about the mixture of comedy and tragedy that marks all lives, which, after all, are made up of successions of experiences, the good and the bad.
I’m neither laughing nor crying. I’ll miss the house but not all the effort it took to keep it up. One of the droll persons who first saw it after I’d settled in quoted one of my favorite lines from the film “Dr. Zhivago” on first seeing it. The good doctor has struggled through a harrowing return from World War I and the ongoing revolution to find his family’s Moscow townhouse filled with peasants and workers housed under their roof by revolutionary edict. One of the new occupants stands at the foot of the stairs with the barely-first-foot-in-the-door Zhivago and declares. “Zhivago, there was room for twenty families in this house, TWENTY! Is that just?”
Very funny, my friend. But it is more than I need.
I’m already completely unpacked and settled in the new place, a spacious downtown loft with high ceilings, a balcony large enough for all my outdoor furniture, and huge windows framing theatrical views of the Art Deco towers that are the ornaments of the city. At night they look like a movie set, their black silhouettes punctuated by rectangles of yellow light. I won’t be too surprised if the ghosts of Fred and Ginger will be tapping along the pavement in front of them.
The neighbors had been enjoying the same spectacle I presented in all my previous big-city moves in Philadelphia, Rome and London, and even, originally, in San Antonio, where I tied up the Casino Club’s elevator for a day of relocating. Through half-opened doors they have been inventorying every stick of furniture and, finally, the show-stopper, the partially disassembled piano. Its strings were clanging in protest, as if to say, “What are you looking at?”
I said at the time that if the rental apartments in the riverside building were for sale, I’d still be there. Now I’ve found a place to make a new home that I can own. It is the same age as its companions on the downtown streets, formerly a 1920s department store with an over-designed structure that won’t groan under the weight of my books and piano. Everything I enjoy about this city is a short walk in any direction: theaters, the River Walk, restaurants and shops…and my new office (we’re moving our firm, too), soon to be a seven-minute walk from the front door. My commute will be a diagonal stroll across a 19th century downtown park. I’m happy to trade my house for freedom from traffic jams.
When I first started writing this column, and called it City Lights, it was because I had a distant view of the Tower Life Building from my second floor front porch. I had no idea at the time that I’d eventually become some of the lights that I was referencing.
- Michael Guarino