When I get the bills, I might wish it had been a crackhead

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, April 09, 2008

It is often not until someone else comes into my house that I notice how much is wrong with it. A neighbor stops by to say "hi" and I invite him in, only to notice a new cracked molding and the dozens of dust bunnies under the coffee table before he's even sat down. Absent a set of fresh eyes, sometimes you just get used to how you live.

I guess this works with the nose as well as the eyes. My wife vividly remembers Mr. Wizard holding various strong-smelling things under the noses of three blindfolded children, asking them when he'd withdrawn the orange slice or ammonia-soaked cotton ball or bag full of dog shit from under their nose. Each time, the kid believed Mr. Wizard took it away before he actually had, illustrating some scientific principle about how the nose adjusts to any foul smell with enough exposure. This principle also explains how anyone is able to spend more than five minutes around Colin Farrell.

I remember as a kid such a sense of wonder at the way different houses smelled. The house across the street always smelled like Amway cleaning products. Another friend's trailer smelled like Koala Yummies. I spent most high school afternoons hanging out at a friend's house where the vapors of South Indian curries had coalesced with the paint, the lingering pungency of a thousand meals imbued even in the drywall under the paint. She couldn't smell it, and after a few minutes, I couldn't either. But I will never forget the smell of walking into her house. My parents' house had a smell, I knew, and whether it was good or bad didn't matter: I was used to it. It was home.

I always enjoy stepping into my front door after I've been away, and breathing in deeply to take in the smell of my home before I get used to it. To take notes, perhaps; to inhabit the perspective of someone else for just a moment. At midnight when we arrived home from five days away last week, I walked in the front door carrying a squirming, half-sleeping Juniper and while charging towards her room I took in that big breath.

"What's that smell?" I hissed at my wife, bursting through the door herself now with a screaming six-week old in her arms. "Is that what our house smells like?" Then we heard a strange noise. In Detroit, you really don't want to hear a strange noise in your house when you've been away for five days. We listened closer, ready to defend our children from a crackhead who'd passed out after drinking all our booze. But the sound was water. It was dripping through the ceiling all over the first floor. The smell was damp plaster. The parquet floors had expanded and become so warped that they'd folded together in the middle of the room like hands in prayer. The basement was full of water, and the crib I'd been building was soaked. The plumbing upstairs had been leaking the entire time we were gone.

Our insurance won't cover any of the damage, but I'm trying to stay positive about the whole experience. We had to get new kitchen appliances, but the old ones were installed during the Nixon administration. I spent all day yesterday installing a new dishwasher, but at least now we we'll be able to have a conversation while our dishes get clean. I always hated the old floor, and now I get to spend the weekend installing one we actually like. In the end, the damaged parts of our home are going to be much nicer than they were before.

And the lingering damp smell? Unless Mr. Wizard was full of shit, I'm sure we'll get used to it in time.