»  The Straggler, No. 6

April 21, 2003

  The Home Front


T.S. Eliot got it wrong. For the suburban homeowner it is March, not April, that is the cruelest month. Over a matter of days, the forgetful snow (you can play Spot the "Waste Land" Allusions with this piece) has all melted, revealing the sorry state of one's property. Is it a trick of memory, or is that state really much sorrier than it seemed the last time one saw it, back before the snow cover absolved one of any need to think seriously about maintenance? Was that rotten section of the fence really that rotten back in December? Did the rear upper guttering sag as much as it now seems to? Is this a new crack in the driveway?

Many things, of course, are still depressingly unchanged. That roof tile that slipped and fell into the lower front gutter just before Christmas has not levitated itself back into position. Presumably it's still lying there in the gutter. Presumably I shall find it when I get my ladder out and do gutter inspection — number 15 on my list of spring chores. Oh, Lord.

Things are actually worse than usual this year because of our new waste system. When we were negotiating to buy this house back in 1992, we had an engineer go over it looking for problems. He suspected that the waste system needed replacing. (This is the far-outer suburbs of New York City, far from municipal sewerage lines. Each house makes its own arrangements.) Well, we called in a cesspool engineer, a grizzled old fellow with a lifetime's experience in his deeply unglamorous trade. He stunned us by striding across the back lawn, stopping, taking one single stab at the grass with a metal spike, and immediately striking the 4-inch-diameter cap of the cesspool, buried six inches below the turf. Yes, he confirmed after further investigations, the house needed a new cesspool. Awed by the wellnigh supernatural level of expertise displayed by this diviner of drains, this seer of sewerage, this Tiresias of the septic tanks, we made it a condition of purchase that the vendor install a new cesspool.

That was a strategic blunder. Our vendor was a person very well-connected at the town hall. He had no trouble evading the necessary inspections and certifications, and put in the smallest, cheapest, shoddiest replacement possible. The wretched thing gave us trouble for eleven years. Finally, last December, our frustration overflowed (so to speak), and we called in a local firm to build us a new system. They showed up one day in a convoy of trucks, cranes and back-hoes, and dug a stupendous hole in our front lawn. It was all very well done — they even moved our Japanese flowering cherry tree, root system and all, then put it back it intact when they had finished. Turf, however, was not part of their contract. They left the surface of my front garden in its primeval condition. Not much point doing anything about it in mid-December, we agreed. Then the snow came and blotted out the mess … till last week. Now the window of my study looks out over the Ypres Salient.

And then — the driveway! Now, I regard my driveway with considerable pride. It is forty yards long, sweeping up to the detached garage at the very back of our property. As well as fulfilling its prescribed function, it has been a great aid to our children's social development. Neighboring children congregate on it to gossip, lounge on their bikes, practice roller-blading or play hopscotch — we get through a box of driveway chalks a month. Well, the first summer we had the house, and then again the second, I coated the driveway myself with a viscous black substance advertised as being the very stuff they put on airport runways. You could land a plane on my driveway, I quipped with great satisfaction to anyone that passed within quipping range. It was back-breaking work, though. When a kind neighbor told me that one coating per annum was overdoing it, I decided to let it go for three or four years before the next coating. That was nine years ago. Now there are cracks, crevices, fissures — even, I see with horror, an incipient pot-hole.

The late Vladimir Nabokov lost his family estates to the Russian Revolution when he was 18 years old. Thereafter, he claimed, he never had any further desire to own his own house or furniture, and his domiciliary ideal was to live in a large, comfortable hotel. When, in his late fifties, the worldwide success of Lolita gave him a decent income, he moved into a six-room suite at the Montreux Palace, and spent the rest of his life there by the waters of Lac Léman. Springtime puts me in a Nabokov frame of mind. Owning one's own home is proverbially part of the American dream, but it is an awful lot of trouble and distraction. Hotel dwellers don't have to worry about roof tiles, fences, pot-holes, cesspools, lawns.

I don't, as a matter of fact, much mind doing modest home improvement chores. Being in an extremely sedentary line of work, ninety per cent of which is just reading ("A man will turn over half a library to make one book" — Dr. Johnson), small manual tasks are a welcome relaxation. In the long torpor of winter, though, one gets out of the habit. Snug by the fire, numb from Christmas shopping, with the world all dark at six p.m., "Oh, that can wait till the Spring" seems like plain common sense, not procrastination at all. Now, here is Spring, come to collect on all those I.O.U.s.

I go outside and stare glumly at the expanse of stony rubbish where my front lawn once was. The air is bright and warm, but in vain: I cannot respond to it. I think of Dorothy Parker's lines on Spring: "… nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off, and the ground all mucked up with arbutus." What exactly is arbutus? A neighbor strolls over and we grumble together about the drifts of municipal grit still lying at the sides of the street and on the verges. Ah, Spring!

After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying …
 … …
Shall I at least set my lands in order?

                — "The Waste Land"