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Be careful what you wish for

July 17, 2010

Last year a house nearly fell on me. On the way to move my friend’s SUV out of my driveway–so the house wouldn’t fall on it–I stepped up on the front porch to set down a water bottle. That’s when the house fell, landing on the SUV and the driveway where I’d been walking, and the front steps and the back gate. It stopped a few feet short of collapsing onto my house, thanks to that tall and very sturdy SUV.

It spooked me because I’d been wishing for years that old house would just collapse and disappear. Vacant for nearly ten years, bought and sold more times than I could count, it had been painted twice (or three times?), given a new roof (laid on top of the old one), and gussied up from time to time in various slapdash ways, none of which disguised the fact that it was rotten from the ground up. The place was a fire hazard, a haven for rats (eventually displaced by a tribe of feral cats), and an eyesore. Finally–miraculously, incredibly–somebody bought it to renovate.

After stripping the house to its thoroughly rotted frame (leaving the double-thickness roof intact), they raised the whole thing about three feet and left it propped on unsecured, single-course stacks of cinder blocks. Then they removed the original foundation, creating big holes around the bases of the cinder block columns, and disappeared. A few nights later, heavy rain started around midnight and continued into the next morning. By 8:30 AM there was at least a foot of water in the crawl space (more in the old foundation holes). When the cinder block columns started collapsing an hour later, I ran out and moved my car across the street to safety, then went back to move my friend’s son’s SUV. It was parked in my driveway because as a brand-new college freshman he couldn’t keep it on campus. (“Park at my house, there’s plenty of room. It’ll be much safer than parking on the street.”) That’s when the house fell down. It didn’t make much noise, really, but the way it collapsed was somehow gentle and violent at the same time. So in addition to scaring the bejesus out of me, it gave me a major case of the creeps.

I ran inside my house and peered out. Then I came back out on the porch but the swirling dust made it impossible to breathe, and it was too thick to see anything, anyway. It sounded like things were still falling, so I went back inside and spent a few minutes hopping from one foot to the other, flapping my hands back and forth and saying bad words. When the major collapse seemed to be over, I called 911.

It kept raining all morning and it was August, so it was hot. Before the day was over, the scene attracted three fire departments (I live yards from the city limit, so it attracted attention from two cities and the county), one police department, at least half a dozen folks from various departments in City Hall, all four local TV news crews, and an ever-shifting cast of friends, neighbors, and flabbergasted bystanders. News choppers circled off and on all day, and the story made all of the local evening and late-night newscasts.

It took a lot longer for the dust to settle inside my head. My house wasn’t crushed and neither was I, so I felt grateful and lucky. But part of me thought I should feel a lot more thankful than I did, and maybe less disgusted. I was simply and thoroughly pissed off because–as many a neighbor commented after it happened–anybody could see that house was going to fall down. I’d complained over and over about the unsafe and deteriorating situation, so now I felt completely vindicated and absolutely unsatisfied.

At a certain point, the only thing left to do was look for the lessons. Not surprisingly (if you’re me), here was yet another opportunity to work on letting go of anger and resentment. Obviously, lots of people learn this lesson in kindergarten but whatever, I’m still learning it now. Give me credit for admitting it. Another good lesson is to make a lot more noise–a LOT more noise–if it seems like something is badly wrong. But my favorite lesson of all, the one I’ve embraced with all my heart, is this: When you wish for something, BE SPECIFIC. As in, “I wish that house would fall down, but it should fall in the other direction and not when I’m standing next to it.”

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