Crack House Diaries: Coming Home

It is always a huge relief to come home from a long vacation and realize that the house is still there.  This is what happened last Thursday when we flew into Los Angeles after spending nearly three weeks in Great Falls, Montana, the place where I grew up (Go Bison!).  When we first moved to our home, a former crack house in the heart of South Central Los Angeles, we had no idea what to expect, and so we expected the worst.  The house, which HUD officers were checking once a week, looked dirty from the outside.  This was because the neighborhood gangsters were using the structure as a brothel and a place to ingest drugs, and they advertised their presence in green and black spray paint on the exterior walls.  The HUD officers would come and put a thin coat of white paint over the graffiti, but the messages still telegraphed through, making  the building look dingy.  In our first week in the house, a local gangster sprayed our concrete boundary wall with the initials “H.T.H.C.,” which stands for Hard Time Hustler Crips.  The next morning we called in a police officer to come look at the handiwork.  The officer assured us that it was common gang graffiti, and that there was no indication that we had been singled out for abuse.  This was a huge relief.  I bought a can of thick paint from the Home Depot and covered over the writing.  It took a couple of coats, and it was only after I was able to see what the graffiti looked like under a layer of paint that I realized the thin dingy white on the rest of the house was covering up huge graffiti block letters.  I had to stand back to make out the letters behind the veil of paint– H.T.H.C., four feet tall, running across the front wall, with another H.T.H.C running across the upper part of the house, just above the window.  Our home had been a billboard.

Graffiti alone doesn’t make me nervous.  I can easily cover it up, at no significant cost, and eventually the taggers will look for easier targets (we haven’t had graffiti since that first time).  The problem is when I’m not home to clean it up.  I worry that if the graffiti were to linger, the neighborhood gangs would realize that no one was home to protect the castle.  Susan and I both teach, so our academic schedules mostly line up.  This means that we get long breaks at the end of the year (almost three weeks!) and during the summer (just shy of two months), and we get a week for Spring break.  When these long breaks come, we try to get out of the city.  One summer we left the house empty for a full month.  A lot of crazy shit can happen to an empty house in a month, and I’m not sure our neighbors would make any effort to let us know if the place had burned to the ground.

First, some neighborhood gangster would tag the house.  Two days later, another tagging.  Then the gangster would bring a friend, and they would figure out that no one was home, so they would hop the fence and rummage around my shed.  They would steal the bikes.  When nothing happened the next day, they would grow more brazen.  Someone would kick in the dog door at the back of the house and crawl in through the hole.  Our home locks down from the inside, so they wouldn’t be able to steal anything that couldn’t fit through a window or the pit bulls’ entry, but piece by piece, my life’s possessions would be purloined through the dog door.  My cameras would go, along with my tools and computer equipment.  Basically every small valuable item that I didn’t bring with me would get stolen, and this means everything, because small pawnable crap is exactly the stupid kind of stuff that I buy.  This is how it all plays out in my head, and this is why driving up to the house, after any stretch longer than a week, I am always filled with dread.

The dread gives way quickly to a great sense of relief when we pull up to the house and find it still there.  The bars on the windows are still intact.  Getting into the house requires two keys to bypass five locks.  First I unlock and open the heavy metal security door, which has a deadbolt.  Then I unlock a second deadbolt on the reenforced steel front door.  This always takes more torque than should be necessary, and I convince myself that the difficulty is a kind of security feature (really rust).  Finally I turn the basic lock in the door handle and I let ourselves in.  The house invariably smells like mice.  I think we get used to that smell, and it is only on vacation that we forget that it fills our home.  I walk to the back of the house and remove the makeshift barricade from the dog door.  Ever since we abandoned our pit bulls, the dog door has been a liability.  A piece of plywood covers the hole, barred with a 2”x4”, and backed by a heavy bag of concrete.  When this is moved to the side, I unlock the deadbolt with a key, from inside the house.  The fifth and final lock is a traditional doorknob lock, which I release by twisting its little mechanism with my fingers.

I walk into the back yard, where the grass has grown long.  I open the shed to check on my motorcycle, our bikes, and our camping equipment (if we weren’t camping).  Then I turn on the hot water.  Then I turn on the heat.  Then I turn on the computers.  Then I turn on the TV and make space on the DVR for new episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

We probably spend every other Christmas in Montana.  Two years is enough time to forget why I left the Rocky Mountain West, so as the small plane approaches the landing strip at Great Falls International, my heart flutters in anticipation.  In the winter, there isn’t much to do in Montana (confession: I seldom ski).  The days are even shorter than they are in Los Angeles, and the weather is freezing.  The first days are full of friendly family reacquaintance, but then a conversation veers too close to religion or politics,  and things get horribly uncomfortable.  In high school, mom and dad chose to pretend they had no idea what I was doing, staying out until it was time deliver newspapers, and I realize that there are still parts of my life that they would just as well pretend don’t exist.  When every comfortable conversation has been had, some repeated, we switch to cards (Rook).  In three weeks, I get outside to take photographs only three times.  I start reading a book, but don’t get very far.  I worry about my classes in the coming semester, and I frantically try to teach myself how to manage a database.  In the time it takes me to realize that I don’t want to use the database, I could have solved my problems with index cards.  It isn’t a productive time.  When I finally summon the courage to call on an old friend, he doesn’t pick up the phone.  We leave town the next day.

The relief I feel when we come back to Los Angeles is not just the relief to discover that our home is still intact.  There are days when I believe the greater relief would come if we were to find the place gutted, compelling us to reinvent ourselves around one guitar, some books, a laptop, a camera, and a coffee pot.  I chuckle to myself as I realize that the nightmare of returning to a burned-out house might actually be my secret wish.  I brew a pot of good coffee and the aroma erases the smell of mice.  We make plans for dinner — Korean food in Gardena.  I smoke a bowl before we head out the door.  It is 76 degrees outside.  Susan orders the soon tofu and I order the bibimbap.  The restaurant is full of Koreans, speaking Korean.  The waitress compliments Susan on her new hair cut, and wishes us a happy new year.  We eat with chopsticks.  We pick up cakes and cookies at the Korean bakery next door, then come home.  Asa is playing video games, and we offer him sweets before we send him to bed.  Then we go to bed and fuck without a condom.  In the morning, when we go to work, we will leave the bed unmade.

10 responses to “Crack House Diaries: Coming Home”

  1. Tim says:

    It may be the TMI moment in the penultimate sentence that is stifling commentary on this post. Or maybe the absence of photos is slowing people from getting to the end.

    Anyway, I found it interesting, myself. The normal vacation paranoia that anyone has about her/his home’s well-being sure gets ramped up because of where you live, Rogan. It’s probably another reason I wouldn’t do well living in a former crack house. The details you envision are fascinating. They’d keep me up at night when I was out of town, if I were you.

  2. Thanks for the word, Tim. TMI is always a risk when I’m writing something too late at night. Seemed to make a lot more sense at the time. Ahh well. Cheers! R.

  3. Dave says:

    I really liked the piece, Rogan, and was more bothered by the extraneous comma in the alleged TMI sentence than by the content of the sentence.

  4. Tim says:

    Damn! I missed that comma. I can’t believe that.

  5. Dave says:

    I guess we know where your mind was, Tim.

  6. Nat says:

    You guys! And.. for the ESL…where exactly, do you reason that comma was supposed to be? (Disclaimer: I’m asking for the purely scientific purpose and the eager desire to learn the language.)

    Welcome home, R.! It’s so nice to hear from you!

  7. Dave says:

    The sentence could read:

    Then we go to bed and fuck without a condom.


    Then we go to bed, and we fuck without a condom.

    If the clause after the “and” can’t stand alone as a sentence (and thus it’s dependent on another clause, like “fuck without a condom,” which is missing a subject), you don’t want a comma. If it can stand alone (and is thus an independent clause, like “we fuck without a condom”), you need a comma.

  8. I killed the comma. Thanks for the welcome, Nat, and thanks for the editing, Dave.

  9. Tim says:

    #5: Well duh.

  10. Adair says:

    So, what tips would you give someone who is considering moving next door to a crack house? How do you set up those friendly boundaries? Have you ever called the police? were they helpful? :)