The first time I visited the little house on Grape Street, it was May of 1999, and the man who is now my husband was marrying the woman who was once his wife. I walked to their wedding, because I lived in the same neighborhood, Mount Oliver, just a few blocks away. Back then, our ‘hood was a decent place — nothing to write home about, no, but quiet and peaceful, for the most part.
Over the years, that changed. What had been a sleepy working class neighborhood started slipping toward straight up war zone, with crime and violence and shady-feeling businesses driving out the shops and restaurants in our little downtown area. Driving around on warm nights began to feel like running a dangerous obstacle course, and shootings were happening so frequently that we couldn’t even keep them all straight. None of this ever touched me or any of my friends, thank the gods, but still … it was disconcerting to be around.
In 2005, I left Pittsburgh and our crumbling neighborhood, headed for a fancy new job in midtown Manhattan and a fancy apartment in Brooklyn. At that time, if you had told me that I’d ever end up in Mount Oliver ever again, I think I might have punched you in the face for even suggesting it.
But, life … well, as we all know by now, she is one hilarious bitch. Because what ended up happening over the next few years was my man’s first marriage fell apart, we fell in love, and my grandma — who lived in the same neighborhood, just a few blocks away from my fella — started needing more help. So I started spending more time there.
Then I lost my fancy job and left New York to move in with my man. Blammo — I was back in Mt. Olly full time, in this cute but spent little house with three layers of roof shingles sliding in all directions, a bathroom so tiny that you could pee and wash your feet and brush your teeth all at the same time if you wanted, and a kitchen with a fun-house floor that left our baked goods an inch thicker on one side than the other until we learned to turn them 180 degrees halfway through cooking.
See the daylight showing between the halves of the roof in front? Somehow, miraculously, it didn’t leak.
Don’t get me wrong — our house was a cute little house, comfortable and snug and just the right size for us. And it was super cheap, which enabled Rich and me to get through some unsteady financial times over the past few years. Rich had a lovely little garden in the back and an office upstairs, and I took over the living room as my studio for sewing and writing. We were able to have a wonderful time there.
But also? We were really jonesing to get out — mostly because of the neighborhood. We literally had a drug dealer next door to us, and he literally kept a pit bull on a 40 foot chain in the 25-foot-wide vacant lot between our houses. (This meant that, had we left our back door open, we could have hosted said pit bull for dinner.) In the last weeks before we left, a couple of tents popped up in that vacant lot, too — lucky us, our own mini-shantytown!
On the other side, the neighbors were sweet people, but their house had even more serious maintenance issues than ours. These began to impact our lives when a sink hole opened up under their crumbling garage, creating a huge ditch in our driveway, and terrifying us. What if a little kid tried to play in there and got hurt? Even after repeated requests from us and citations from the city, the neighbors still didn’t do anything about it.
Plus, I dunno, maybe I’m a whiner / yuppie / terrible person, but, to me, it is depressing to see prostitutes and drug dealers hawking their wares at like ten in the morning. And to hear dogs barking and fireworks going off and people yelling at each other in the street at all hours. Yes, I’m crotchety and old, so kindly get off my lawn.
Then there was the house itself, which is a hundred and twenty years old and in need of a lot of TLC. We did the best we could — we painted and put down new carpet and kept the inside really nice — but honestly the place needed much more maintenance than Rich or I had the money, interest, or knowledge to perform.
And then there were all the memories of the past lurking in the ducts and brickwork. It’s not that we sat around thinking about the fact that the house was the scene of Rich’s first marriage and the crumbling of that marriage … but somehow, they still felt linked. We wanted to begin somewhere new, and make it our home together.
So … last year we started trying to sell. We priced it aggressively — aka CHEAP — which made the numbers work out great for someone to buy and hold it as a rental. But, even pricing it below $10,000, it seemed almost impossible to find anyone interested. We even showed the place to a bunch of We Buy Ugly Houses investors, but between the neighborhood and the work needed on the house, none of them wanted to touch it.
Which seemed like a really bad sign. I mean, if the Ugly Houses dudes don’t even want your place, what are you supposed to do with it? Pay off the entire mortgage and then sign it over to a homeless person or something? Or, if we stopped paying, would the bank take it back, or would they just never foreclose and leave us trapped there in limbo forever? The uncertainty and the feeling of stuckness were hard to take, especially coupled with all the other stuff going on in our lives at the time.
Then, like something out of a dream, an amazing couple named Rick and Sherrie came into our lives. They had a friend who was looking for properties just like ours to hold and to rent to help fund his retirement! And, wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles — even after looking at the roof, he was still interested! We tried hard not to scare him away, gave him a great deal on the house, and started making our plans to GTFO.
Many hours of research on Craig’s List helped us find the perfect place to move — a spacious apartment with huge windows in a high rise overlooking a pretty little park in a part of town where it’s walkable and there are things around that you actually want to walk to. The place we saw was available June 1st, but it rented to someone else before we could sign the paperwork on the old place … and, whomp whomp, the next availability wasn’t until August 1st. So, after we signed the closing papers in May, we started packing and waiting for three months that felt like forever.
Finally, last week, we got the keys, and when I opened the door, it felt like a hundred Christmas mornings. Fresh new wood floors, amazing view and light and spaciousness!
And huge closets! And tons of counter space in the kitchen! And these amazing vintage tile floors in the bathrooms!
Yes, I said bathrooms. We now have two. UNBELIEVABLE LUXURY.
We’ve been here a few mornings now, and I keep waking up just before dawn, loafing in bed for a while, watching the sun rise in the hills in the distance, burning off the fog and turning the dark trees bright.
And Grape Street and the crack deals and the pit bull and the sinkhole and the crooked floors and the tiny shower and the gross basement — it all feels like a distant dream, or a long-told fable with a happy ending.