I don’t know if I have the vocabulary to describe it, but one moment I look forward to each year is the day, typically sometime in October, when I walk outside and it is suddenly autumn. That day is defined by a combination of things, such as its look, with the leaves clearly changing color, to its feel, as the temperature is suddenly brisk, to its smell—somehow, for the first time that year, the day smells like autumn somehow. Every year I experience that day and it hits me like a ton of bricks each time and I feel that sudden sense of exhilaration. Some people call this the first football weather day and fair enough, but to me it presages not merely football but the totality of fall. What a day.
American royalty is an odd lot. We have “Camelot” and the court of JFK, and we’ve seen the Flivver King (Henry Ford), the Mattress King (from the TV series “Friends”) and the King of the Road (courtesy of Roger Miller). We’ve also had Queen Latifah and Prince. Americans seem to have an odd need for royalty—just witness the lavish attention so many Americans pay to British royalty—but in our own country our de facto royalty seem to be celebrities and the incredibly wealthy. “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt was American royalty and so is Kanye West. Sometimes our American royalty leave odd legacies. One descendent of Vanderbilt is news anchor Anderson Cooper. And we’ll get to meet another American royal and his still-enduring legacy.
A new employee showed up at a place I once worked and a veteran employee quickly came to the conclusion that she did not like the new employee. She began a whispering campaign about the new hire, attributing certain negative job-related qualities to him, and before you knew it, other people were repeating those aspersions when the new hire’s name came up—even though they had never actually seen any of those things themselves. The new employee was suddenly the victim of widespread preconceived notions, without even knowing what was going on, much less having an opportunity to do anything about it. He struggled his entire time at his job under the burden of those undeserved, preconceived notions. What struck me about this incident was how quickly others accepted the aspersions against him, with no proof or evidence at all. They were simply sheep following the lead of someone more dominant. It was a depressing but useful life lesson.
I was born in Pennsylvania but moved to west Texas when I was four years old. I remember nothing of it except a hazy memory of the plane ride with my mother and my sister (my father drove). I did not move again until I went to college at Trinity University in San Antonio, to live in a dorm. During the summer the university sent me a letter with information about my dorm and my assigned roommate. My roommate had one of those ambiguous names that could be male or female, which is relevant, because the dorm assigned to me was the Camille Lightner Women’s Honor Dormitory. Together, these two pieces of information had me a little nervous. However, it turns out the dorm had recently been converted to co-ed and they merely hadn’t gotten around to changing its formal name.
In 1988, I made the biggest move of my life, to Columbus, Ohio, to go to grad school. With the exception of my books and my wargames, every possession I owned was crammed into my 1985 Chevy Chevette. It was so loaded down I almost had to pull it the 1,550 miles to Ohio. The only way I could afford to move my (thousands of) books and wargames was to ship it via freight as scrap paper—meaning if something went wrong, I could kiss them goodbye. That was a nervous waiting period until they arrived at the small apartment I had rented, which would turn out to be miserable and rat-infested. I stayed there two years, then moved into a townhouse apartment in a nicer part of town. I would live in that place for 14 years until I finally bought a house and made my last move, to date. By then I could afford to pay people to move all the stuff—and not as scrap paper, either, so it was in many ways the least painless. After I moved in, I discovered the air conditioning was broken and I had to pay nearly a thousand dollars on my first day in the house to fix it. Even after the house cooled down, I had a hard time sleeping that night, in a strange place that I had just bought, consumed by second-guessing my own decision in the largest purchase of my life to date. But it generally turned out okay. I’m still living in it, 12 years later—though still not fully unpacked.
(with apologies to Tom Waits)
Abandoned houses seem to the the theme of this set of photographs and accompanying rambling commentary. The block on which I grew up in El Paso did not have any abandoned houses; indeed, I’m hard-pressed to think of any in my childhood neighborhood. Of course, El Paso was a rapidly growing city and our house was located in the direction of greatest growth. It wasn’t until I moved to Columbus, Ohio, that old abandoned residences first made an impression on me—not that Columbus had any great number of them, but any older center city residential area will have at least some.
In more recent years, thanks to the great recession, abandoned homes have become such a big thing that squatting in them has also become a big thing, including by some of the extremists I study professionally in my “day” job. But the old homes pictured here are not recently abandoned, at least in the majority of cases. They are older homes and many were clearly abandoned decades ago. Why? In some cases, the buildings became decrepit and new houses were built on the same property. In some other cases, new owners may have bought the land—for farming or grazing—but did not need the house on the land. In some cases, houses fell into decay during the owners’ lives and became more or less unsellable in that state, especially in small towns that might have suffered significant population loss. There are a lot of ways homes can become derelict and I may have seen all of them.
A couple of years ago, I was inspired to see if I could find a house listing for my childhood home in El Paso. To my surprise, I found it on newspapers.com, a 1970 listing for a tiny (probably around 1,100 sq. ft.) 3-bedroom, 1-bath house listed at $13,750. That year, 1970, was the year my parents moved from Pennsylvania to El Paso, Texas, and bought the house. I was four years old. About 34 years later, after many years of rental living, I bought my own home. Just a few days ago, I mused at the fact, because it hardly seems I have been living in my home for a dozen or so years now.
I mention these facts because this excursion—actually the second half of a long excursion that took place on March 21, 2015, features a lot of houses, of many different kinds, and they were all homes to one or in some cases perhaps many families. Many of these houses now lie abandoned and ruined—at some point they ceased being homes and reverted to being mere structures again. For some reason, that makes me sad.
I am not a very adventurous type; adrenaline-soaked thrills are not the sort that typically appeal to me. But I do understand the lure of exploring, of seeing something you’ve never seen before—or perhaps even something that few or no other people have seen before. Exploring combines the intellectual interest of discovery with the experience of being there. So when I go on one of my little excursions into the nooks and crannies of the Buckeye state, I always hope to see things I’ve never seen before. On this vernal equinoxian expedition, taken on March 21, 2015, I certainly did see some new things.