URBAN DIARY / SOMERVILLE
On my first day in my new house, I locked myself in the bathroom when I couldn’t fit the 100-year-old key into the keyhole.
For a second, panic set in, and I almost turned around to head for the small window over the bathtub.
My roommates and I live on the second floor. It was 2 o’clock in the morning, and it was raining. A new roommate climbing through the window on her first night – or pounding desperately on the bathroom door – isn’t the best first impression.
I forced myself to stay calm. After a few more tries, the key, which sometimes slipped too deeply into the hole, finally found the right spot and turned. And my middle-of-the-night confinement became a funny story to tell.
After a year and a half in a first-floor apartment in Cambridge’s Central Square – which was marked by three break-ins, 10 roommates who came and went, bed bugs, roaches, and mice, and which saw a monument to a 19-year-old who was shot and killed just blocks away erected nearby – I gave in to family pressure and decided I could probably afford to live somewhere more decent.
So I moved from a house across the street from the projects, where dance music pounding from parked cars often kept me awake late at night, to a quiet residential street of triple-deckers, just behind Porter Square.
I was expecting an uneventful stay. But now I’m discovering all sorts of things about my new place and learning that there’s interesting stuff even in ordinary-looking houses.
At night, my new house on Banks Street in Somerville appears to be an ugly brown, which turns out to be blue in daylight. But daylight doesn’t penetrate too far inside, because it’s snugly surrounded by similar houses.
Like every house, this one has a history, but the history of a house is harder to piece together than histories of towns, companies, institutions, or even families. It goes as far back as current inhabitants remember, or as far as information gleaned from artifacts former inhabitants left behind.
While I was stuck in the bathroom, for instance, I noticed the metal vent for the heating system. On the back is engraved something that seems to say “Bailey Co., NY 1912.”
This house must have been home to many, as somewhere along the way it was converted from a single-family house to a two-floor apartment. It was probably around that time that the former dining room became someone’s closetless bedroom. With the extra roommate, the rent paid by each person was lower, and today five of us share five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, and a kitchen.
No one seems to put much effort toward preserving the history of houses – except maybe those in which famous people used to live.
One clue to the house’s past is the mailbox, which I finally noticed after about a week. It has about 20 names on it, most of them of people who have moved.
Who, for instance, was this “Andrew,” whose postcard from New Zealand depicting icy peaks of southern mountain ranges decorates the fridge door?
And what about the card from Taiwan pinned to the kitchen bulletin board? “Dear roommates,” it begins, “Today is my last day staying here. …”
The Canadian woman from whom I rented this place was interesting, too. She was a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working out a mechanism to make oxygen from lunar rocks.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if all inhabitants, before moving out, left their photos on the wall with short descriptions of who they were and what they did while living here?
I, for instance, could simply state that I was a journalist who wrote for an Indian paper and freelanced for The Boston Globe.
You wouldn’t even have to take up a wall with the photos of the former roommates. You could simply keep a guest book.
In our house, unfortunately, the closest thing to a guest book is the jam-packed fridge, which was last cleaned out six months ago.
One evening, we held a house meeting for the daunting task of sorting through the food that the former roommates didn’t bother taking when they moved.
Jars and jars of mustard, ketchup, relish, and salad dressing were tossed into the trash. But other relics of the past were more personal – a jar of sesame tahini for making hummus (with Hebrew and Arabic writing on the label) that an Israeli roommate left behind; homemade jams with hand-written dates on the lids; and, most unexpectedly, a fruitcake wrapped in foil that had been sitting in the freezer, looking like it could have been a Thanksgiving turkey, for who knows how long.
I won’t be moving for a while, but my culinary legacy may already be in place.