When you use the term “homeless,” it conjures images of leathery street people asking for money, “washing” your car windows in the hope that you’ll tip them, and the various temporary homesteads you see in doorways or on subway grates. I always wonder how anyone who sets up one of those homesteads can ever not be “home.” Isn’t leaving actually risking the loss what few possessions you have? It seems like they’re starting to pop up more often in New York than they have in decades. This moment is just one of those times in history when things have turned downward.
But I’m not talking about that kind of homelessness. You can have a roof over your head and a door that locks and still be without a home. That’s the way it’s been for my family for more than a decade. We’ve never been on the street, but we haven’t found a home. We don’t have extended family to ground us. From that perspective, it might seem that we could live anywhere that we want. It isn’t that easy though. I have a daughter in school and there seems to be something very important to her about maintaining continuity there. I don’t necessarily understand it. I had no particular attachment to my high school or the kids in it, but my family never moved anywhere.
For the moment, we’re stuck in a terrible living situation in which we can’t even open a window because of the noise created by passing trains. I despise the place, and since we’ve lived here, the whole family has never been more unhealthy. Could it be the immense EMF radiating from the railroad power station outside our window? My instruments with single coil pickups are absolutely victim to the magnetic noise. That is actually less a hindrance than a mere symptom since we’ve lived in this horrible place. I hardly play music at all anymore anyway. My health has absolutely assumed a curious pattern of failure. This has to be because of the electric current all around me. We all feel differently here. Headaches, skin conditions, and even worse afflictions abound. My daughter required special doctors last year that didn’t take insurance. It cost a fortune. Just when we found our way through that, the dog needed a major surgery. Again, no insurance. All the while, the economy was transforming around us, with corporations buying up the real estate and creating a completely fixed market. Now there isn’t a single place to go for buying or renting that we can manage while keeping my daughter in the same school. We’re the worst kind of stuck. Most people would say that leaving your child out of decisions like where to live is completely acceptable, but those people haven’t walked a mile in our shoes.
We’ve lost count of the houses we’ve been screwed out of in Denville, NJ. Many came to the brink of a closed deal, only to be pulled out from under us for this reason or that. It’s been mostly greed or control on the part of the seller or landlord. All we were ever trying to do was escape the drugs and crime that had cropped up around us, even though that’s not really considered a quality of life issue in this state. You’re just on your own. No one ever believes that these things are a problem in Denville, but they are, depending upon the neighborhood you live in. They’ll fight to the death sending out the message that Denville is Mayberry or something.
People just don’t know things. Drugs, murder, homelessness, mental illness. It’s all here. I lived up the street from the house where my high school English teacher was stabbed to death by her husband, who had placed a pig mask over her head. They said they found something like 50 stab wounds. The house sold handily. Three blocks over, some sick guy stabbed his mother to death and tried to cover it by setting the house on fire. He was not successful and the police found him sitting outside the house in his bloody clothes. They busted the principal of my daughter’s school for soliciting sex with a minor. I still remember seeing the cops raid his office the night before, coming out with file boxes two at a time. This was while we were outside the school on the ticket line for the show the kids were putting on that night. I still remember the TV news soundbite made by some local who felt so terribly for the principal’s family and that they should give him his privacy. Totally beyond understanding. This was the evening after we got the email from the district asking us not to talk about the arrest on social media.
We moved out of our last place because of the drug dealers that moved in across the street. Now I live where you can’t walk your dog at night without the smell of pot hanging over your head like a wet blanket, and I’ve never paid more for rent in my life. The trains shake the walls and crack the plaster. The whistles are deafening. But it’s all that was available. At least I’ve made no trips to the body shop this year to fix damage that vandals have done to the car.
“It’s such a nice town and the schools are great!” Don’t you believe it.
The truth is that we didn’t even want most of the places we missed out on. We were only ever looking for the next lily pad to jump to, just to get us through to the next phase, to stay one step ahead of the people we needed to get our family away from. It doesn’t seem to matter what happens, there is always a line around the corner for most any of these comically flawed structures that pass for housing in Denville. They could be surrounded by squalor, drug dealers and abandonment, but that doesn’t seem to sway anyone. I can’t make sense of it. I just want out.
Setting the maddening crowd aside, time and time again, the answer just comes back no for our family. We don’t want to live here, and the place doesn’t want us either. It’s been that way since we were run out of our condo in Metuchen a decade or so ago by a madman with whom we shared walls. We acquired that place during the last real estate bubble and we were under water in no time. Getting out of there wasn’t easy and we haven’t recovered financially yet. Staying in Denville is only for a little little while longer, or that’s what we keep telling ourselves.
This year alone, we attempted to move to multiple locations hundreds of miles away in different directions. The reasoning being that if we could find a proper place to live for once, our daughter would inherit some of our enthusiasm to be free of this awful North Jersey Nowhere Belt. It didn’t matter though. The corporations had already claimed all the houses in those locations and very quickly the houses became places you go when you’ve already realized your dream, as opposed to where you might go to realize it. So we’re back at square one again. Homeless, and not a single place to go in this district. We live, but we’re not really living. We exist. We pay the bills, but we don’t belong. We’re strangers in the town we live in. The people that live around us seem like aliens to me. They must be. How else could they bear to live in this terrible place? What kind of a mind is at peace in this place? How could this be home? It’s been this way for as long as we can recall. We’re still looking for a home, somewhere. With any luck, the home we finally happen upon won’t be a graveyard, but there’s no telling in this world and what it’s become.
A friend of my mine said this week that the corporations don’t want you to own a house. They want you renting, owing, on the run always. I understood what he meant, though I couldn’t give in to the complete conspiracy. He has that luxury, since he already owns his place. Still, there’s no question that houses are investments rather than homes most of the time now. I’ve felt the difference. We’ve looked at enough houses to feel the difference. There is no effort to make houses appealing. It’s not required anymore. People around here can take it or leave it. If you don’t want it, tough shit. Someone else will pay much more than asking and supposedly be happy to get it. (Happiness in this pursuit has absolutely been relegated to the realm of fiction. Happiness itself is rarely in evidence anywhere, now that I consider it.) In the quest to find a home, no one has any sense of urgency but you, if you let that feeling overtake you. The only urgency is the pressure they apply. “Make your absolutely best offer before 7pm today, after which we will make our decision.” After a while, you have to lose the urgency yourself just to keep your head. We have accepted that there’s no such thing as finding a home we like. It’s finding a place we can live with. It’s not the fairy tale it once was. No one tries harder than we do, is what I always say.
I’ve heard an adage that goes, “If you’re unhappy where you are, move. You are not a tree.” This adage speaks from a position of ignorance and arrogance. It doesn’t mention how often one should need to do this in a single lifetime. My family is bordering on nomadic. The only question for us that remains is “Where the hell do we go?” We’ve struck out so many times that we really don’t know the answer anymore. Our needs are small. Maybe a closet or two. No Trump flags on the neighbors’ lawns. No drug dealers across the street. No one vandalizing our property. Maybe the possibility of opening a window now and then. Maybe laundry that is not in the kitchen. Maybe to own for once, not having to live by someone else’s rules for a little while, but not having to spend every single dollar we have in the world, should someone need serious medical attention in the next 10 years.
Which of these requirements are worthy of compromise? We’ve learned that we can part with pretty much anything. We aren’t destitute, but nothing is ever enough. I’m guessing a lot of people are experiencing the same thing. I have a place to sleep at night, which is good. It’s the waking up here every morning that is wearing thin.