Tales from “The Other Side of the Tracks”

So, many of my friends and family have heard this story, but as I am sure many are tired of hearing it over and over again, I figure that it may be best to write it down in public and exorcize it just a little bit.

Over the past year, my mother has gone through foreclosure. What exactly does that mean to a twenty-four year old woman who is living in a different city? That’s been hard to figure out. On the one hand, I live here, far away from the process, with all my things here in Chicago and with a private life and lots to do. On the other hand, I live on a campus, in a dorm, when the question is always “When are you going home for break?” and “Are you going home for the summer?”. No, I am not going home. I live here. Home is now possessed by the bank.

The process started happening when I lived there in Minneapolis with my mom, maybe a year ago, when I started to realize that the usual complaining was more than that. When I realized that something was really, actually very wrong. I lived in Korea for a year, India for a few more months, I had been gone for the vast majority of 2010 and a quarter of 2009. When I came home there were things happening that I didn’t recognize.

I never knew just how demoralizing and dehumanizing deep debt can be. I had seen the attitude it created but I had never really been present for a transformation like this one. It turns people into shadows of themselves, and that house was a reminder to us, when we lived there, of shadows. I always complained that there was a ghost in the house. It really felt that way, as if it was possessed by a spirit of unhappiness, menace, malaise, anxiety.

The official foreclosure date was March 7. About a month ago, I decided to fly home on a whim. I was really unsettled to hear about this difficult process in Chicago and not be able to really be present in the situation. Though I did not grow up in this town home, and spent probably only two years actually living there, this home was connected in many ways to my adult life. In 2005, my mother decided to buy a town home. We were avid HGTV watchers and we bonded over potential new homes, apartments, wall colors, ideas. This was still only a year or so after my parents were officially separated, and it was kind of a way to strike out on our own, each separately as a new kind of person: I as an adult, and my mom as a single home-owning woman.

We wandered through the neighborhood which was to become ours in January and February. We saw a number of units in a set of town homes that had recently been remodeled and converted for ownership. They had the sharp, boxlike angles of the 70s, side-ways sliding windows in dark, cheaply finished wood, and grey siding. There were also a lot of bare trees and the muddy, sandy piles of snow on the street corners. Each home had a patio and they were built in terraces that rose up on the hill that separated these homes from a more expensive development.

We chose the one we did because it was large and mostly remodeled. Someone had put in floating wood floors in the living room and redone the carpet to a dark grey-maroon. The kind of color that hides stains very, very well. We didn’t really like it at first, but later agreed that it was certainly the best color for our clumsiness. There were three bedrooms, which was also a big perk because my poor brother had been sleeping in the living room of my mother’s apartment for near a year now. (This was on mother’s weeks. At Dad’s place, Aidan had his own room and I slept in the den.)

I only spent about seven or so months living in the house before I moved to college. We moved in in February and by September I had my own little room at Hamline University. Those months were deeply difficult months for me, as I think they are for anyone who is seventeen and suddenly aware that a long, confusing and lonely adulthood is the only thing ahead. I was proud to have moved out of Eden Prairie and into Hopkins. I had always felt very out of place in Eden Prairie, unwelcome, even, among my friends who lived in gated communities and ritsy developments. I took pride in this town home on a Metro Transit bus line and in my father’s apartment, where I had a real, live security key. Often made to feel ashamed by my peers for a complicated life, I took ferocious pride in edging my way closer to a city person’s life–and also a city person’s loneliness.

I lived in the house during the summer of 2006. I lived there again in the summer of 2009, after graduating college. Summer there was much more pleasant than winter. In the winter they looked like public housing with a bad facelift, bare branches scraping dusty, condensed windows that didn’t close properly. In the spring the trees beside the lamp post bloomed and made me think of Mr. Tumus’ lamppost: as if it intentionally bloomed to spite a white witch somewhere far away. I thought if I stood under it I could get the residual magic from another world or another lifetime or just from childhood, or at least I hoped I could. By summer everything was bright green, shifting in courteous breezes. My mother planted a garden in the patio and there were tomatoes and flowers. My brother had a garden nome collection that he liked to flaunt in order to seem weird and somewhat dodgy. (It succeeded.) I had many conversations in the summer there sitting on the bumper of my toyota, talking to some friend after driving all over the city on a summer night, arm out the window and radio blaring. We’d talk about the things that teenagers talk about. Emotions that are so intense that they take over consciousness completely, intent to listen to one another and demand attention and exist merely because we were young and knew how to be conduits of each other.

When I returned from Korea in 2010 things were very different. It was winter again. The 2010-11 winter was a horrible, dark, snowy winter. I wrecked my mother’s car. We never got it fixed. Instead it rattled and burped through Hopkins and I would rarely drive it anywhere other than the grocery store. I went through 2011 in a kind of haze. Invisibility on a bus. Walking along the street in snow boots. In a black pea coat with a scarf, headphones on but no hat, going to work and falling asleep on the bus. Anonymous, drifting from the 12 to the 665 to the 63 to the 21, watching the Twin Cities as if in a movie. I worked in Saint Paul and lived at the west end of the system–the very end of the 12 route–and sometimes I just felt as if I was floating, aimlessly just wandering on a bus and going nowhere for no reason. Sometimes I’d crash at friends houses. Sometimes I’d just leave.

The house was falling apart. I think now there were always ‘ghosts’ in it. But at this point the ghosts had gotten the better of it. I cleaned a lot in 2010 and 2011. I was always rooting through piles of something. Trying to sort it all out.the house and get on the bus and know I wasn’t coming back, but not know where I was going to stay. I sat at Lake Calhoon once for a few hours on the grass, watching joggers and teenagers and rollerbladers laugh and go by, anonymous with the next few days of my life in my backpack.

Going home last month reminded me of the invisibility, the anonymity, the emptiness of Hopkins. It is a suburb but not a suburb, mostly full of industrial zones and apartment buildings. Some houses from the 1950s and a few lake-shore developments that face Eden Prairie quite intentionally. The buses look too big for the roads. The roads are wide and they are lined with trees that cover up the shingle-sided apartments, the garbage corral across the street that burns down every couple of months. The land is flat and expansive. The sky is the predominant feature. There is an extensive, endless feeling of nothingness. The fluorescent light on buses makes everyone on the inside a ghost on display, color drained from skin, emotion drained from face, in silent absence.

There is something badly inspiring about the whole place. The emotional character of my life while I lived in this home has influenced my current novel project quite deeply. Chicago gives me ideas–the el, the segregation, the trains–but it matches things that were there when I tried to imagine a world that could explain this strange existence in Hopkins. That emptiness, nothingness, desire only to feel something, that was born in Hopkins and Eden Prairie, in the life that I led there as a nameless suburban white woman, a nameless bus riding office worker, a nameless girl walking along the road because there is no bus, a nameless girl in a coffee shop, in a park, a heavy backpack on, not willing to go home to the ghosts in the house.

I am very glad that the house is gone and that the ghosts are gone with it. I feel like I can put an end to that chapter. I am happy that we can all move on, that my mother now has a much better situation, and that we are all strong and able to go forward. Invisibility has made me very good at seeing. It is my hope that as I go forward I won’t loose that ability. I am proud of this story. I am proud of Hopkins and the ghost house and the miserable sounding car and the time I spent living with my ma. I am proud of all the experiences that I have, no matter where they come from. Here in Chicago I have my own life, but this life is always a part of it.

Here’s to shaking off ghosts.

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