This post is the 2nd in what I expect will be many episodes I have dubbed “The Fire House Chronicles.” Episode 1 is here.
Hands cupped against glass, we peer into dusty windows. Given the photos in the listing, we know the place is empty, so we sneak our way around the perimeter of the house, squeezing past tendrils of blackberries and a huge rusted orange lift of some kind parked against the back of the house. The lift partially hid holes in the shingle siding and blue tarps covering some of the upper windows.
Inside, the “apparatus bay” as Jim calls it, is enormous. There are boxes and piles of junk. The walls are lined with workbenches and tools.
“This is your dream workshop!” I say. Jim appears speechless.
“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing,” He finally says.
Before we have even gotten around the whole house, I am pulling my phone out of my pocket.
“Should I call EJ?”
“Yeah, let’s take a closer look.”
“You’re sitting in your car in front of a house you want to see right now, aren’t you?” EJ says. I laugh.
“Uh, yeah, maybe,” I say sheepishly.
We arrange to meet after lunch for a full tour. Over lunch at a local wood-fired pizza place that has become one of our favorite date spots, given it’s close proximity to Renton airport, where Jim sometimes keeps his small amphibian plane, we talk about the house excitedly. It seems like a perfect fit: A sublime mix of workshop, property, old house and off-the-beaten-track neighborhood that seems to epitomize the nature of my and Jim’s relationship.
“But do we want to live in Rainier Beach?” I ask. I love my beautiful neighborhood, it’s 10-minute proximity to downtown, Captial Hill (an area where many of my writing events take place), Lake Washington, and highway. I know the location is going to be the hardest hurdle for me to get my head around. For Jim, the new location will put him closer to his work and is a 3-minute drive to the highway. Still, Rainier Beach does not have a great reputation. It is perceived as being a hub of gang activity, shootings, and crime. That said, my neighborhood is no better for similar activity.
We meet EJ on the front lawn. He is wearing a suit, which gives him a professional flair, surprising me for a moment, since I am used to seeing him in t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. I realize I haven’t seen him in quite a while, and I have forgotten how he is both formal in his posture yet extremely friendly, quick with a laugh and smile. He shakes my hand and then Jim’s.
“This is so cool!” He says looking up at the front face of the house.
We enter into a large room, the original “captain’s office.” The ceilings are 15-20 feet high. There is a worn gray carpet on the floor, two old drafting tables in each corner, one covered in business cards of realtor’s who have already visited, the other with pictures of the house. There are old shelves, empty of their contents, huge windows, with transom windows above them. The room though dilapidated is full of light. I mentally adopt it as my eventual office.
From the office, we pass into a hallway. The floor is old, grooved cement. To the right are a set of steps to the upper level, to the left, a huge french door leading into the apparatus bay that we had seen from the windows. We step inside, and gasp at the enormity of the room. It is approximately 50′ x 25′. Three huge windows line the south wall, but the overgrown trees outside let in only dappled sunlight. The front face is a giant garage door, that following the tracks up, folds into the 20′ ceilings crisscrossed with a byzantine array of pipes and beams and electrical conduits. Gigantic school house lights bathe the room in soft yellow light.
The house has the personality of an old man, very strong and solidly built, dressed in his best suit, which is well cut, but frayed a little on the sleeves. He’s full of wonderful stories, and the sound of his voice is soothing as he tells them, deep and resonant. You feel safe with him, but want to help him at the same time, sensing in him a desire to keep up with his colorful life.
“That must be the old fire pole,” Jim says. In one corner, there is what remains of a brass pole, hanging about 3 feet from the ceiling. Copper pipes are threaded up through it. “Too bad they cut it off.”
“Oh, that is too bad,” I say. From the pictures, the pole was clearly visible in the living room. What wasn’t clear was that it was cut off below.
“We can put it back,” Jim says with certainty. “We are definitely having fire pole!”
As we marvel at the room, EJ tells us what he has learned from the listing realtor.
“The owners have owned the house since 1974. They did quite a bit of renovating, but a few years ago, he got sick and was unable to continue. She told me they will be accepting bids on Tuesdays, but that if a cash offer came in before that, they would seriously consider it.”
I look at Jim. He gives me a look that tells me he knows what I’m thinking. My mind is spinning. My finances are precarious as far as my financial advisors are concerned since I am overleveraged in real-estate. This seems to be a genealogical financial state in my family. I think of each of my parents, and realize I was educated to love and invest in houses from a young age, having traipsed around old houses and buildings with my father as a kid. Standing in a room with him, he’d point to the walls that could be torn out, floors that could be easily repaired, kitchen cabinets that could be renewed with a few coats of white paint. I learned to see through cosmetic imperfections and focus instead on “the bones” of a place. The structure, the layout of rooms, the soundness of the foundation, the “location, location, location.”
Potentially, it’s possible for me to put together enough cash, with the caveat that in the long-term, I pay myself back with the sale of my present house. My heart clenches suddenly at the thought of selling it. Perhaps I rent it for a time and pay myself back slowly? I’m not sure how the finances might work between me and Jim, but I’m sure we can figure it out.
At the back of the bay, there is another room.
“What is this room?” I ask no one in particular. It appears to be another workroom. There is a strange half-loft, with an opening in the wall that we discover later is a hidden cavity (with a painstakingly tiled floor) created by a dropped ceiling built over the next room over. A built-in cupboard with a false back that opens into yet another secret cavity, a plank supported by two tall old radiators that may or may not be hooked up with bulletin board on the wall above, to which is pinned ziplock bags filled with tiny screws and nuts and who knows what else are the only furnishings. In my mind, despite not knowing what lies beyond, I am tearing down the wall between this room and the room at the back of the house, to create a larger space. We dub this room “the weird room.”
We continue to the back of the house, into a dark room filled with a collection of old wood, stacked in one corner. In one corner is an incongruously pretty bathroom, painted yellow with lace curtains, and white, hexagon-tiled floor.
From the grimy cement floor, it is necessary to step up into the bathroom and we guess that the owners were planning a new floor above the cement one. The back windows are shrouded in sheets, covered in dirt, dust and hundreds of fly carcasses and cobwebs. There are is a giant double door, of barn door proportions, windows now missing and covered over with plywood. Jim reaches up and pulls a chain that connects to a spring locking mechanism, but the door doesn’t open until he lifts another bolt-like lock that slides into the cement floor. Suddenly the room is flooded with light and the doors are open to the back yard, but it is impossible to step outside, due to the giant lift blocking the way.
“What is that thing?” I ask.
“Some sort of scissor lift, I think.” Jim replies.
“Doesn’t look like it’s worked in years,” EJ adds.
“What on earth do we do with it?”
“You could probably have it carted away by one of the junk haulers,” EJ suggests.
“Or we could fix it. Could be useful,” Jim adds. If anyone could fix it, it would be Jim.
“The place is very tall. It must have been used to get up onto the roof.” Jim doesn’t hear me, as he is already clambering on the machine to check it out.
“Could he really fix it?” EJ asks me.
“Oh, I have no doubt he could,” I say, smiling.