Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Seeing the Original (or, If Only I'd Had $$ in 1961*)

This afternoon, we double-parked briefly behind an elderly neighbor unloading stuff from his car. He is a retired professor and prolific author; he spends most of his time at his country house, and we re-introduce ourselves every couple of years. He is known on our block for his indoor-outdoor cat, an elderly tortoiseshell hussy who would fling herself from any passing stranger on the sidewalk, meowing and demanding attention. I hadn't seen her in a long time and suspected the worst.

Since I was carrying my own precious calico in her carrier, after a trip to the vet, the professor, my husband, and I struck up a conversation. The professor told me that his cat had died a year ago, shortly before his beloved indoor cat, named Laptop. He then began explaining that, as much as he missed them, he feels liberated now, not having animals, since he travels a lot. Since the alleged freedoms of pet-free existence is a subject on which my husband and I occasionally but powerfully disagree, I handed him the cat carrier and shooed him away to park the car.

I stayed behind to help the professor unload his backseat. I was angling for a peek into his townhouse, which is a rather run-down single-family built in the exact style as our rather run-down condo building. He lives alone on the upper floors and rents out a basement apartment. He handed me a giant bag with some bedding in it, and invited me inside.

Wow! He said he'd bought his 1880's townhouse when it was a rooming-house, in 1961.* He did very little to "improve" it. He and his wife raised four children there. The layout is mostly original and most of the woodwork, including the staircase, is still unpainted walnut and oak. All the elegant fireplaces, moldings, parquet floors, and windows are original. Even much of the bathroom is Edwardian, with wainscoting, a clawfoot tub, and a wonderful walnut cabinet sink with a marble top.

While the house is deteriorating, dim, and cluttered in the style of an elderly academic, I thought it was amazing. I was in heaven. I love old houses, not only for their architecture but for the traces that linger of all the lives that once filled them. This house had a lot of old stories to tell. And I could finally see what our building had been meant to be, and it was all I could have imagined. (No one who saw the parlor floor of our building now would have a clue of the grandeur of its two original, high-ceilinged, connected rooms with ornate walnut mantels, inlaid floors, and ceiling medallions.

The upstairs room that is the twin of my living room has an identical painted fireplace and doorways, and the proportions are all just the same. (That explains why we love our place so much, it has been left surprisingly intact from its Victorian beginnings.)

The professor raised artistic children, now living interesting lives; he proudly described each one's accomplishments to me. I wished I could meet all of them. He showed me some examples of their art. I recognized the bust of a young Mark Twain, sculpted skillfully in clay by his son when he was a prep student. As I looked around, we talked about Klimt, pipe organs, the neighborhood, our houses, our cats, his family, how hard it is to write books, and his favorite secondhand store, and then we unpacked his new bedding, which came from that store — whose location he refused to reveal because he gets such great deals there. "Just tell me anything you're looking for," he said, "and I'll try to get it for you." "All I can use is more nice neighbors like you." I said, born flirt that I am. "Can't help you there..." he replied.

When we went outside to get the rest of his stuff, I spotten a parking ticket on his double-parked car. He was incredulous. In all his decades of double-parking, he said, he'd never gotten a ticket. I told him it was my fault for distracting him and touring his house, and then I put the ticket in my pocket, promising to pay for it.

Since he's a philosopher, this led to a discussion of whether one of us, both of us, or neither of us should feel guilty about this. I put the ticket back on the car, and we settled that subject back inside. Then he inscribed one of his books (he's written more than 20) for me. That seemed like a more-than-fair exchange for a house tour and a fascinating new friend. I happily took the book and the ticket and went home.

A few minutes later, as I was regaling my husband about my hour with the professor, the phone rang. It was him. "Hi there. Can you come downstairs for a moment, please?" I ran down, and he was standing there holding a bright green balloon. I'd noticed it lying in the back of his hatchback. "I thought you should have this, to see what your cats think about it." I said thanks, and he gently tossed it at me as I stood above him on the steps. I laughed and tossed it back to him. We tossed it around a couple more times as a delighted grin spread across his face. And that did it — I'm in totally love with him now.

I'll be glad to pay that parking ticket. It's my first, since I don't drive.

* When I was 2. By the time I was 22, all of the Back Bay housing bargains were gone.

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