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A Tale of Two Rooming Houses
When you’re starting out on the long and winding road to the future, as when you have just graduated from college and moved away from your hometown, you generally are not too well off. What to do about living arrangements when you don’t even have a job yet?
My aunt, with whom I was temporarily staying, had a boarder who was an elementary school teacher. She was a delightful, warm and caring person, a bit eccentric, who became very close to my aunt and lifelong friends of both her and myself. It was decided I should try something similar in Columbia where I was moving to begin journalism studies at the university to prepare for a career in newspaper work, which I had only decided to pursue a month or two before. What was an English major who had a latent talent for writing going to do with that treasured but not so utilitarian degree?
After two false starts with a room to rent and a damp basement apartment on a busy street, I found a rooming house on a beautiful tree-filled and, most important, quiet residential street just blocks from campus. The landlord was a sweet elderly lady who loved to dote on the three tenants who soon lived there, myself included, each of us occupying spacious, antique-filled rooms. In the room adjacent to mine was a visiting professor from Chile with whom I shared a bathroom, and across the hall a social work grad student. I didn’t have too much interaction with them, but they were both quiet and considerate.
I loved the place. It was $80 a month with fresh linens provided each week, and the cook left me some leftover things she had prepared for the landlady. It was like living in a family home, and for someone anxiously taking the next big step in his life, it was perfect.
Years ago I wrote extensively about that rooming house experience in Columbia, because I lived there during a defining time in the 1970s, — the formative years of my life during my 20s — when everything was novel and fresh and exciting. There is nothing like that decade in your young adult life, before or after.
Before going any further I should make a distinction between “rooming” houses and “boarding” houses. A rooming house typically consists of individual rooms that tenants rent on a long-term basis, without meals included. In contrast, a boarding house provides both lodging and meals for its residents, usually on a short-term or temporary basis. You don’t hear much about boarding house these days, but in the 19th to mid 20th century they were common, at least as revealed in the literature of the period. Some famous literary works that depict life in 19th-century American boarding houses include “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, “The Boarding House” by James Joyce, “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser, and “Look Homeward Angel” by Thomas Wolfe, among others..
Boarding houses were similar in some ways to today’s bed and breakfasts which usually provide a full breakfast in a dining room common area where all the guests can gather and socialize over breakfast. But boarding houses offered much longer term stays. B&Bs are glorified boutique hotels, often in historic old Victorian houses.
If I had come up in another era, perhaps in the early 1900s, and in circumstances which would not have allowed me to be the virtual hermit I have become in old age during retirement and post-caregiving, a boarding house would have been a good thing for me. I would have made friends around the common dinner table, and while sitting on the porch of an old three-story Victorian house where I lived and had a day job in town.
Although that is a time and place I still feel a deep affection and kinship for, the realities of life in late 20th century South Carolina, 1984 to be exact, presented me with a different set of options, only one of which was even remotely viable, short of moving in with family or relatives to avoid being homeless. That option was to rent a room temporarily, as I had done so successfully when I was just starting out ten years previously.
I had quit a job that was totally wrong for me, and in which I was floundering, to put it mildly. I had no prospects for another one. In fact, as I later discovered, I was never to find another job in that field of work again, something I had excelled in the previous three years.
There was only enough money in my bank account for a couple of months rent in an apartment, and I was totally uncertain about what was coming next. A lot had happened in the past decade, but now I was beginning all over again, and there was both great anxiety and great hope for the future. After all, I was only 33.
I scoured the classified ads in the paper until I found a promising room on a quiet street in the Forest Acres area of Columbia. An elderly lady was renting two rooms in her modest ranch house set amidst pine trees.
I took the room because one of my journalist friends in that city got me a part time writing job at the newspaper. I had a minimal amount of income from that, which barely paid the $180 monthly rent. I also had a little bit of savings.
My room faced the street, and was sunny and comfortable, but quite small, so small that a king-sized bed took up most of the room. There may have been a small desk, and a chest of drawers and a wooden chair. I think that was it. It was a squeeze, for sure. The best thing about it was the mattress, which was far and away the most comfortable one I had ever slept on. A small, but important benefit in an otherwise depressing situation.
The other tenant was a kid around 20 or so whom I saw probably one time in the three months I was there. We were essentially invisible to each other. Thus, I never spoke a word to him because I never saw him. I even wondered at times if he was actually there. We shared a bathroom. Also, I only spoke a few words to the landlady the whole time I was there. Her main concern was that I pay the rent on the day it was due.
I have no recollection of what I did for meals. Probably a lot of fast food. I’m guessing I had cereal or oatmeal for breakfast, as I think I had limited kitchen privileges. What I do recall with much pleasure were the mornings I treated myself to the huge hot breakfast buffet at a nearby Shoney’s, which, when I lived in Columbia previously, was one of my favorite restaurants, in addition to a seafood place which I and my best friends at the time used to frequent.
It’s almost surreal now thinking back to that odd, but necessary interval, where I was able to recharge and avoid falling into depression and despair. I don’t even remember visiting my friends, as I was either too embarrassed about my previous ill fortune, or too pre-occupied with preparations for The Great Road Trip up ahead. I had a few travel guides, one astonishing book where most of my ideas came from (“America From The Road,” 1982 Guide to USA Places, published by Reader’s Digest), and a large Rand-McNally Road Atlas, and from those emerged all the details of my previously unthinkable road adventure.
Musing 50 years later about those three months in what could have been a very bleak rooming house experience, the entire scenario was the complete opposite of the sunny, golden days spent in my first rooming house ten years earlier. In that lovely old antiques-filled house, the other renters were so friendly, and the landlady was so sweet and utterly solicitous of her renters’ needs. In fact, she loved having young people in the house and doted on us. I loved being there for the entire year and a half I rented the room.
But as I have indicated, the second rooming house was cold, impersonal and its other inhabitants completely indifferent to my presence. Basically, I lived there alone.
That was not what I needed, since only a couple of months before my entire life had been upended, and the graduate degree I had needed for the job I quit, and all the hard work that went into getting it, were rendered practically useless by my actions. I could have stayed and tried to tough it out, but I didn’t, for many complex reasons.
But rather than bemoan my fate and waste away in a rooming house in the middle of a city that held years of good memories when I had lived there only a year previously, I became determined to let the sun shine that beautiful Spring into both my room and my life.
The newspaper writing job, however, would never work into something full time because I soon butted heads with two of the editors, whom I came to have little respect for.
So one night in that little room I hatched the plan that I would end up repeating year after year in the 1980s, and that was to cross the country on an ambitious solo road trip, traveling mostly on scenic back roads, and stopping in small towns to explore and learn the history of the areas. I’d also stop at national and state historic sites, national parks and monuments, and nature and wildlife preserves. Night after night I became more and more excited that my life would soon take off in this new and exhilarating direction, driving out to Seattle to stay with my sister and her husband and seeing if I could find a job out there, all the while exploring and experiencing the magnificent natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
I was so thrilled with the prospect of travel and adventure and seeing places I never thought I’d see, that I mostly put aside the unfortunate experiences of the recent past and lived with a growing sense of anticipation about accomplishing my goal.
As it turned out, my plans came to fruition perfectly, and I set out from New Orleans on that first unforgettable road trip. I kept a detailed travel journal every night in the motel I was staying in. It was a journey across the country that was a perfect healing balm for all the hardship and misery I caused myself the previous Fall. And it was a room in a plain and unassuming, brick ranch house that gave me the time I needed to regroup and move forward, away from the past.
This book helped me prepare for my trip more than anything else. My travel Bible.