Four Stationary Walls
This is a story about falling through the cracks.
Every season in The Hamptons its a game of musical chairs, and those who get left without a roof are now literally living in tents, rooms, sheds, and campers. Finding places to hang our hats at prices we can afford is only the first hurdle. There simply are no houses available to rent year round because the homeowners out here rent their houses out for 3–4 months every year to help pay their mortgages and then they move into the small rooms and apartments.
Part of the housing crisis situation is the result of an extremely prohibitive town code that does at its best keep the community out here very beautiful, but at its worst leaves these huge houses empty for 9 months of the year while year round residents struggle and live sometimes in motel rooms.
Here’s the thing — this is where everyone wants to live. So of course it’s difficult! But it wasn’t always this difficult.
I move all the time, from room to room, from apartment to apartment, at least every 9 months, in order to be able to have a place to live in a seasonal economy.
So, I set out to interview women who were experiencing this Hampton’s housing crush. The three women I have chosen to interview did not want their names used. One wanted her voice changed, and one refused to speak on tape. So there’s alot of shame involved in this.
Just click the orange play button below to listen to the full episode with interviews!
I set out to do a story about women falling through the cracks because I had been falling through the cracks and I couldn’t figure out whether it was me or the system I was attmepting to live in. I know this is a story about home, making a home, the changing views women have about what a home means. So, this is a story about all of these things and also about our worst fears. I live in a 10 by 10 foot room. I am 54 years old, and this story got really personal.
So, I’ve nailed down what my worst fear is. My worst fear is being that lady pushing the shopping cart with all of her stuff…
This image of the shopping bag lady really started to haunt me in my late 40’s because life hadn’t worked out for me the way I perceived that it had for others. Before returning to East Hampton in 2012 I had spent the previous few years wandering and trying to find a more affordable and fitting place for myself. I had moved to Berlin in order to try and make a new life because I couldn’t manage to make one here. I can see now that what I had just gone through was not only a financial crisis, but a crisis of the soul.
And in Berlin I started seeing my spectre on the streets there and she wasn’t much older than me — I think that’s what scared me so much. I would cross the street to avoid her . She was slim and quiet and she was really scaled down from the New York bag ladies. But the thing about her is that her eyes were dead. I imagined that this was a woman who had once been a risk-taker like me. I found her in soup lines, at churches in Savannah Georgia, which was my next stop.
I was in a state of financial emergency and my childhood friend had offered me some work in New York City. I was staying in a very old RR flat on the Upper West Side. It had just been vacated by a mutual friend. He had just died of cancer a few months previously.
Jim’s change jars still had hundreds of quarters in them and I used these to take the city bus uptown to my best friend’s new apartment. She was moving her family from one apartment on the Upper West Side to another and she was paying me to pack and paint and organize. And then one day she wanted me to push an old shopping cart with loose ends from her old apartment to her new one. It was a distance of maybe five or six blocks and it would take maybe 4 or 5 trips, but I melted down on my first try. This shopping cart had a broken wheel and so I was in my mind quadruply conspicuous pushing this thing, which could barely be pushed, down the street and up and down the curbs. I stopped in a little park and I had a really good cry.
It wasn’t just that I couldn’t do it — I didn’t know how to tell my rich friend that I couldn’t push her stuff across the city in a shopping cart because I felt so close to this, I felt so close to my spectre and I didn’t want to be tempting fate by impersonating her.
One woman living in the Hamptons has almost totally sidestepped my worst fear by embracing the transitory. She has made the decision to combat the housing shortage by staying mobile.
My second interviewee is experiencing the shuffling from one place to another every six to nine months like I am, but she is doubly angst ridden because she desires to be planted and share a life with a partner. She considers herself to make a very good income and still be unable to find a home in this community that she loves.
The third woman I talked with was not up to talking into a microphone. She is probably in her early 60’s. The first time we sat down to talk she confessed to me that she had lived in her car out here in The Hamptons in order to be near her grandson. She took a job cleaning some of the wealthy houses out here and would shower there, and then in the Spring, Summer and Fall lived in her car.
I had finally met somebody who was actually living my worst fear. I was fascinated. She had always been a visial artist and clothing designer. She was sitting next to me talking vivaciously and thoughtfully about her life’s various twists and turns with a lovely, clear detachment.
She doesn’t live in her car anymore, and she did have a ceratain amount of shame around the fact that she had done it, and really didn’t want people to know, but that was mostly because of her grandson.
What she said to me was astonishing, and she is an astonishing person, but she told me that living in her car is really the greatest freedom that she’s ever experienced. She didn’t owe anyone anything or have to put up with anything. suddenly she wasn’t involved in human transactions.
The shame that she felt was because of what others might think of her if they knew. And then she got lucky and her name came up for the elderly apartments at the Lutheran Church she was terrified she told me — how would she manage to live again within four stationary walls?
Well, she solved this problem by never really moving in. she has no real furniture and she couldn’t buy a bed. She told me she sleeps on a mat under the window so that she can be close to the sky, the air, the rain. So she doesn’t have to hear the low rumble of all the TV’s in the cubicles that surround her. It’s a noise that she finds absolutely terrifying.
Nothing ever seems to turn out the way you imagined. Poverty was not what I had imagined, nor was being a writer, or aging, or being a hairs-breadth close to homelessness. We are so defined by our worst fears, often without even knowing it. I was acting a age-old pattern of not having a place to call my own, and until I was up against it and confronted it I might never have moved forward.
I might have been that woman pushing the shopping cart.