It’s said that at the moment of death your whole life passes before your eyes. I’ve not yet experienced that, so I don’t know. I have, however, changed residences repeatedly (to the best of my recollection, forty-one times since 1960), and I can say with certainty that every time I’ve done that, something quite like my whole life has passed before my eyes. Not as discrete events in sequence, of course. It was more a clutter of recollections and emotions and half-forgotten urges; sometimes in layers taking turns being on top; sometimes tumbling about like clothes in a dryer running at Mach 2.
I once met a middle-aged farmer in northern Wales who had never lived in a house other than the one he was born in. I can’t fathom such a life. I’m sure that moving as often as I have is unusual, and that to some extent I have been formed by it. But living in the same house your whole life is beyond unusual. Way beyond. What was the effect of never starting over from time to time? I wish I’d stayed in Wales longer and gotten to know him.
Many of the relocations Ann and I have made were money-doesn’t-count-much, turn-key jobs paid for by Ann’s employer. The moves to London and Hong Kong included even Peewee the cat’s air fare and months of quarantine. [Read “It’s a Cat’s Life” HERE.] Also, so that we’d find getting about in England to be a constant near-death experience, our American car with it’s left-side steering wheel was included too.
A crew of strangers would show up, seal the artifacts of our life in numbered cartons, give us papers to sign, load it all onto a truck, and drive away. On the other end—a new bunch of strangers would show up hauling our stuff in a different truck. Piece by piece they would lug it into a new set of rooms that we had only a few hours’ acquaintance with and annoy us repeatedly with a question we were ill-prepared to answer. “Where do you want this?” At some point late in the day, we’d sign more papers and distribute the mandatory tips and the crew would drive away leaving us to sift and sort and reflect on where we’d been and where we were going and what it’s all about.
These moves were different from moves we’ve initiated and paid for ourselves. Brooklyn to the Bronx, for example.
The first company I called gave me a bid over the phone. The voice asked questions, such as, “how many boxes of kitchen goods do you have?” and “how many boxes of books do you have?” I had no idea, of course, but the voice was oh-so understanding. “That’s all right Mr. Willcott. That’s all right.” He phoned back after a quarter of an hour with a price—$450. Since we had almost 300 items on the inventory of our recent move back from Hong Kong, I was skeptical. Was that a guaranteed price? Well, no, not exactly. It was based on so much per hour and an estimate of how many hours it would take. But I was not to worry. These guys were good. They were Israeli army veterans. Was I to infer that Israeli soldiers get special training in how to pack dishes and reassemble furniture so they can handle the relocation of the West Bank settlers they then have to protect?
I gave the voice a response that is probably still being talked about in Brooklyn moving and storage circles. I told him I wouldn’t do business with him because his price was too low. My answer machine ran red-hot over the next several days. The company had reconsidered; how did $1400 sound?
No matter how transfer of possessions is handled, it involves hours and hours of picking over the detritus of a lifetime—the souvenirs, the long-unworn clothes, and the odd bits that had begun to lose whatever power they’d once had. Finally time to throw it away? Yes? No?
T.S. Eliot barges in uninvited. Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.
There is a 63-year-old T-shirt with the words “Beaumont Jr. Softball League” on the front. One look at it, and I’m sweating under the lights of Central Park, trying to keep the infield dirt from making me so muddy that I’d be an even more pathetic catcher than I was when clean, and smelling the DDT sprayed by the mosquito truck as it passed behind the backstop, and hoping that big bastard Robert Hansen didn’t run over me at the plate again.
A fraternity pledge manual that I’ve kept with the yet-unrealized intention of having a careful look at it so I can figure out why I ever thought I needed to have that experience. Early Hi-Fi recordings that go by the quaint name LPs. Almost everything I’ve ever published a—range from “Randall Jarrell’s Eschatology” to “Want Running Company? Get a Kingfisher.” A yellowing manuscript of a novel. The daily budget for a 1955 trip to Europe.
And the photographs. (Nothing makes Eliot’s point more emphatically.) You think you’ll open just one container that has been waiting for years to be sorted and stored in some orderly fashion, and the next thing you know you’ve spent the afternoon being whipped through all sorts of emotions in a way that leaves you limp and thirsty and looking around for someone to bore with their stories.
Brits use the expression “moving house.” Here in the colonies we just say “moving.” I believe our term is more accurate. “Moving house” suggests that the experience is less complex, more mechanical than any I’ve ever experienced. Moving involves far more than transporting goods from point A to point B and going to sleep in a new bedroom. Contrary to reasonable expectation, it is definitively nonlinear.
When the van is at the curb, it’s clear that I didn’t live in Beaumont then move to Austin then to Washington and so on. Residences accrete; they don’t replace each other. I can’t look for a new dwelling without having in mind the search for one in Baghdad with an Iraqi agent who bragged that his cousin was “assistant expert” with the U.N and being shown flats in London by a happy fellow who crowed that his girlfriend was a “dirty little thing who would do anything” and being told by New York landlords that they did not permit pets or rent to lawyers.
With so many pictures playing at once, it’s no wonder moving is exhausting.
Ann and I have just experienced another one. We sold the New York City apartment and made the Saranac Lake monastery our only residence.
We put the apartment on the market in January and received an offer about three weeks later. The buyer’s financial statement looked good, and we anticipated a quick closing, not, as it turned out, on June 16.
We began to spend more time in Saranac Lake, sort of trying out gradually the feeling of being full-time residents there. To save money, we cut off the phone, internet connection, and TV cable in the apartment. I also abandoned garage parking ($600 a month) and returned to parking on the street and fighting the inconvenience of street-sweeping regulations. I had engaged in this twice-weekly move-it-and-find-a-new-spot routine during our less prosperous early years in the city. I thought it wouldn’t be difficult to pick up this skill again.
On a Friday morning in early spring, I went out to move the car before the 8:30 start of sweeping. I drove around for about twenty minutes and found a new place. I wheeled skillfully into it, drawing admiring attention from passersby. (New Yorkers are ridiculously unskilled at parallel parking; I’m good at it.) I employed a no-look, over-the-shoulder click of the fob to lock up and strutted away feeling real good about still being able to function as an automobile driver in New York City. It’s no small accomplishment.
I was still feeling good about it two days later as I strolled home from church thinking pleasant thoughts of the nice Sunday lunch and nap that lay just ahead. That was when I discovered nothing but space along the curb where I’d parked. The space I had so cleverly made use of on Friday was in a NO PARKING zone in front of a synagogue. My skills were rustier than I had thought.
I made some phone calls and found my way to the tow pound on Hudson River Pier 76. There I joined about thirty people waiting for a turn at post-office thick windows behind which grumpy clerks measured out their lives with coffee spoons.
The fine was $205 plus $20 for one day of storage plus a punitive charge of $5.15 for using a credit card. (Cash was acceptable, too, but no pennies.)
As the clerk read my insurance papers, registration card, and driver’s license, I noticed a sign that said all three must have the same address. Uh oh. Two of mine were in the city, one in Saranac Lake. I feared that I’d wasted my Sunday afternoon coming down to this grim bastion of traffic regulation and they would keep the Prius and I’d have to go home defeated and it would be like the time when I was working in the City of New York’s Division of Code Enforcement and was directed to tell a man who had been selling watermelons without a permit that his confiscated truck would not be returned and he had no right of appeal. (I quit that job.) In a film or book, the actual outcome of my nonmatching-addresses problem would have been implausible; the grumpy clerk just didn’t notice.
I handed my release papers to a uniformed attendant, and she drove me and several other miscreants to our cars.
A parking ticket, limp and almost illegible from being snowed on, was stuck under the wiper blade—$65 for parking in a prohibited space. After all the paying I’d already done, that seemed like piling on.
The car was filthy, so I ran it through the car wash that was handily situated near the pound. It was a sort of Macbeth action for cars. In a perfect world, the city would have offered that service free of charge to give offenders a clean start in their driving lives.
While waiting on the sidewalk by the exit, I tried to recover the little bit of equanimity I occasionally enjoy. I hadn’t gotten far with that difficult undertaking when I inadvertently stuck the receipt for the $21 wash into the locked tip box, thus making it impossible to present it and (for the second time in one afternoon) ransom the little Prius.
I can manage enough Spanish to get a beer and important things like that, but persuading a car wash crew to find the one person in the city who had the key to the enormous padlock on the tip box was challenging. The crew took a break and gathered around to be entertained by my efforts. Finally, since my car was blocking the drive, they waved me on. I went directly from the car wash to a parking garage.
New York City garages post rates in large letters the way gasoline stations do. They shout their offensive tariffs shamelessly. In my neighborhood, it was $12.67 for the first hour. After that, the rate declined. The maximum for twenty-four hours was $33.79. Fine print at the bottom of the signs revealed tax of 18.375%, making the total charges an even $15 and $40.
I needed just about twenty-five hours, before Ann and I would drive to Saranac Lake. I figured $55 was cheaper than another trip to the tow pound. Before leaving, I checked my arithmetic with the attendant. It was good that I did. He and all the New York City garages I’m aware of use a form of arithmetic in which $40 + $15 = $80. A careful reading of the rate sign revealed all. “Max to 24 hours—$40. Each add’l 24 hours or part thereof—$40.” (Italics mine.)
I asked the guy what would happen if I redeemed the car a minute short of twenty-four hours, paid $40, drove around the block, then put it back in the garage for one $15 hour. “You staying over there at the Belnord Hotel?” I inferred the force of his question to be in regard to a special rate for guests. It wasn’t. The look on his face said it all. He just wanted to confirm his suspicion that I was from out of town. He explained a little wearily.
“Look. Just come in before twenty-four hours is up, I’ll close out your ticket and start you a new one.”
“No charge of two times $40?”
He didn’t seem to understand why I found this to be an odd practice.
Walking to the apartment, I recalled that the tow pound rate was only $20 a day. I should have left the Prius there until we were ready to leave town. I can’t imagine why the city is charging only half the market rate. Mayor Bloomberg didn’t get to be a billionaire acting like that.
Some years earlier, I got into a conversation with a woman while walking around the thirty-four-mile perimeter of Manhattan with a group called The Shorewalkers. [Read “The Great Saunter” HERE.) Like many New Yorkers she didn’t own a car and didn’t know how to drive. She started a driver’s ed course once, but after a couple of days of sitting in stalled traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway practicing various ways of giving the finger to fellow motorists, she gave it up. I wish she had stayed with it. I would have liked hearing how people were trained to drive in the city. Surely the course included a long, intensive, and nuanced unit on parking.
* * * *
Our last day as residents of the city began with quotidian chores—dealing with parking of course, but also packing the iron, vacuum cleaner, coffee pot, and the futons on which we’d spent our final night, arranging for one final coat of paint on a recently repaired wall, and making the apartment “broom-clean” (a condition subject to interpretation)—all before the buyer’s pre-closing walk-through at 12:30. Normal people would not have found these small tasks especially demanding. To us, the list threatened negative outcomes that ranged from failure to close the sale to all-encompassing defeat and dishonor by which we would be forever defined. (Woody Allen had replaced T.S. Eliot.) We endured an anxious night in the lead-up, and drank our morning coffee in silent admiration of people who manage to deal gracefully with real pressure.
What if the buyer wanted to argue at the last minute that we had not met some unclear contingency in his offer? It seemed a strong possibility; he had suspiciously engaged a litigator, not a real estate attorney, to represent him in the transaction. If we couldn’t get everything into the car, which was surely going to be the case, what would we leave on the sidewalk? What if the car had been towed again? An aside: in Ann’s case, anxiety leads to high accomplishment; in mine, to acid reflux.
The car had to be moved by 8:30, so off I went on another driving adventure. I got there early and pulled away from the curb just in time to join the line behind a slow-moving garbage truck. I did that several more times as I sought another parking place on the street. In the process, I came to regret deeply that I was a coffee drinker. When not thinking about my bladder, I occupied myself with trying to figure out what there was in the delivery of NPR’s Steve Inskeep that made him sound so condescending.
Defeated, I pulled into the garage that I’d quit as too expensive some months earlier. The same grumpy Romanian ex-pat was working there as before. Having thoroughly adapted to life in the city, he yelled at me in a most New York way when I stopped in the wrong place. Two hours and five minutes later, he was in a better humor—smiling actually—as he charged me for three hours (cash only).
While the car was contributing to our financial downfall, Ann and I packed and cleaned and discarded things until the apartment was empty and tidy. We managed to get everything into the car. We said our goodbyes. And then it was time to go.
To live in a well-run doorman building is to be taken care of in a most agreeable way. It’s assisted living with autonomy intact. Staff members provide protection from intruders, they repair things that break, and (in our case at least) they offer constant good cheer and affection. They and we were sorry to part. But it was time to go.
We fought our way through heavy traffic to a different garage, one where we could lock the fully loaded car. Then in an unexpected and most welcome turn of events, as the locking bleep sounded, the day’s tempo changed from presto to andante.
We picked up take-out food and slowly, deliberately strolled to the elm grove in Central Park, took a seat on a bench, and enjoyed a leisurely meal. It was a beautiful, sunny day with the temperature in the 70s. Nearby, three men fresh from the Andes played Andean music. When they took a break, a saxophonist down the way played American standards. After lunch a high school symphonic band struck up in the nearby band shell. The quality of the performances was mediocre at best, and normally we would have sought a music-free zone. On that occasion, we welcomed it.
It was our last day to live in the city, and it was the first time in all the years there that we’d taken time for a picnic in the park on a nice day. Where was the less-innocent New York, the real New York? As we were kvetching about how ordinary in-your-face New York would be much easier to leave, a middle-aged man in a long black coat walked past led by a woman holding a chain attached to his three-inch-high rhinestone choker.
We made our way to the closing, signed lots of documents, and in due course emerged onto Lexington Avenue divested of the apartment and our identity as New York City residents. After a $20 taxi ride and a final parking fee ($36), we pushed our way into stop-and-go traffic on West Side Highway and drove 300 miles north to a new life in a mountain village.