TMI Project: The Housing Stories | Beetle Bailey

(bright piano music) – Hi, I’m Beetle. They say you never forget your first, and, though I don’t know who they are, and probably never will,
they are absolutely right. (audience chuckles) Well, half right. What they leave out is that in addition to never forgetting our first, some of us are doomed to remember them, with an intensity and precision of detail that we’d never had when
our past was our present. I’m 24 years and eight months
when number 52 Midwood Street, the brownstone off
Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and the only home I’ve ever known, is foreclosed on for back taxes. This is the house my maternal
grandparents and great aunts struggled and worked to pay for, and, by the time I was
born, owned outright. But now, after nearly a
year of dragging our feet, dithering and bullshitting the new owners about how soon we can be
out of their property, our time at number 52 is finally up. All that remains is to
scavenge our furniture and possessions from the dilapidated bones of our soon-to-be-former home, which will, in the not-too-far future, be converted to a high-end B and B. My mother, uncle, and I, the only remaining members
of the household, hopped to. My uncle does all the lifting
and shifting of heavy stuff, even bringing things up from the flooded and spider-riddled cellar, while my mother and I go
to work sorting, packing, and cleaning, each in our
own trance of disbelief. I wrap and pack nonstop at light-speed, until I’m literally gray all
over from dust and despair. My hands are soon beyond ashy and look as if they’d been
dipped in talcum powder. My mother has checked out, and will stay checked out
until the moving is done. Working at a glacial pace, lost inside her traumatized nostalgia, she carefully wraps small individual items containing large sentimental value. Number 52 has been in
our family for 42 years, and, at one point in its
history, was home to six adults. My grandmother and grandfather, my aunt Hilda, whom we all called TT, my uncle Tony, my uncle
Roy, and my mother, and then one child, me. I’m three years old, in the kitchen, dancing to Parliament with my grandmother. Bow wow wow, yippee-yo yippee-yay. (audience laughs) I’m four years old, and
my great aunt and grandma, two amazing Trinbago women, are cooking and baking up
wonders in the kitchen. They do this every Sunday, but one Sunday, the give
me a chunk of dough, which I proceed to knead
all over the kitchen floor, onto the living room carpet, and up the stairs to the second floor. (audience laughs) When I’m done kneading, they bake my dough into a warm golden pastry,
which is delicious, and, considering where
I’d done my kneading, surprisingly free of Irish Setter hairs, carpet fibers, and Lego bricks. (audience laughs) I’m five years old, lying on my stomach on
the living room couch, leaning over the edge and pretending that the carpet I’m goggling down at is really the wild
Amazon River flowing by, and I’m in a boat or a seaplane about to go over a wild
Amazonian waterfall. I’m six, seven, eight years old, lying on the same couch, which is the longest couch in the world, watching Kojak, Rockford
Files, Trapper John, M.D., and assorted detective
stories with my Aunt TT. Reading “Grimms’ Fairy Tales” and, later, science fiction and fantasy. My grandparents were those
hard-working West-Indians you always hear about. They came to this country believing that if they worked hard enough, they would acquire wealth to
pass on to their children, just like white people acquired
their generational wealth, buying and owning a home outright. They did everything right, but, by the time I was in my late teens, my mother just couldn’t keep up. Needed repairs, upkeep on the house, and taxes began to overwhelm her. Falling seriously behind
on her tax payments, my mother ended up at the
Eastern District Court, where they handled real estate cases, in a room filled with West
Indians and other black people. The only white people in
the room were the judge, the lawyers, and the court clerks. It was a cattle-call process, everyone just moving through it. $235 got you an extra
month to find a lawyer, but, that lawyer wasn’t
really working for you, he was just moving you
along through a system that had no interest in
helping you keep your home. It was the beginning of
the housing market collapse that, four years later,
would reach critical. People all around us
were losing their homes. The smart ones cut their
losses, sold their houses, and even left New York. My mother hired a lawyer,
who made a new mortgage deal, requiring her to pay off her back taxes at $1,000 a month for over a year. When she couldn’t keep
up with those payments, the foreclosure began. But my uncle and I aren’t tending
memories or broken hearts, we’re just packing up our first home. And when the job is done and the house is as empty as it will get, all three of us, the remaining members of number 52’s once proud, prosperous family, leave. Without fanfare or farewell, we pass out of number 52’s story. At my uncle’s house in
Long Island, I check out with the stomach flu or
low-grade food poisoning, or perhaps simply a gut full
of hopelessness and despair. A gut full of dust and tears, and days and days of rushed bundling and moving the material accumulations collected across 42 years
and three generations of a now nearly extinct family. Whatever actually ails me, I’m dead to the world for almost a week, marooned on a tiny fold-out loveseat in a tiny storage room
in my uncle’s house, waging delirious, semi-wakeful
battles with my stomach. Battles that end with
me being even dizzier and weaker than I had been before. On the sixth day, I wake up, still weak, but clearheaded, calm,
and with an empty stomach. I’m numb and burnt-out, but I almost have a
tiny bit of an appetite. I make my way down to the kitchen in hopes of some toast and tea. My previous life at number 52, all 24 years and eight months of it, already feels like a delirium dream. One that must’ve happened to
some other, luckier person. Someone who doesn’t have to remember the feeling of having a home, and family, and all the safety and happiness
that can come with them. My life, this life of stomach flus and fold-out furniture
in a tiny storage space, could never happen to someone who was able to claim all
those fairytale family things. I decided the best most
sanity-preserving plan of action is to forget about this other life that I must have fever-dreamed. My mother and I don’t talk
much about what happened. I know she feels guilty at losing the house her
parents worked so hard to get. It’s been 15 years, and we’re both still in
shock, mixed with hurt. But, we live in a culture that does this. Chews people up and spits them out. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, working, or middle-class. It’s a myth that you’ll ever be high
enough on the food chain to not be fucked with. You can do everything right,
and still lose your home. The system sets people up to lose, to feel stupid, and helpless. It’s been done to millions of people, and it’s still being done. It’s still happening. Thank you. (audience applauds and cheers)

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