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RSVPhillippi | September 2017


This Very Old House

By Dennis Phillippi

Twenty-five years ago my wife announced that it was high time we bought ourselves a house. We were both in our early 30s and she thought living in an apartment at that age was unseemly. Personally, I liked the whole landlord thing. If the washing machine died we called her and she called a guy and he came and fixed it and opening the door was my sole involvement in the process. That struck me as simple and easy. Yes, after living in our small apartment for six years we had accumulated so much stuff that navigating from point A to point B required maneuvering through narrow passages that were difficult for our cat to manage, but again, we had a landlord. She paid someone to cut the grass. I didn’t have to cut the grass. I didn’t have to pay a guy to cut the grass. Why mess with a perfectly good system?

As it turned out, she was serious about this house-buying business. Of course, before you can buy a house you have to find a house. Over the years some of our friends have found a house quickly and easily. The reason for this is the Internet. These days all one has to do is start looking around on your Internet and in no time at all that perfect house will appear. When we were house hunting there was no Internet. There were free magazines in racks at the front of grocery stores beside ones that advertised motorcycles and RVs for sale. These featured tiny, grainy photographs that gave no true indication of what the property in question may have looked like. They also included impossibly vague descriptions and misleading prices. This was a terrible system. This was nowhere near as good as the landlord/grass cutting system.

Most of the houses we looked at were found by literally burning every Saturday afternoon driving around looking for “For Sale” signs. Once a sign was spotted there was sitting in the car staring at the house time, then calling the real estate agent listed on the sign to set up a time to look at the house, then the actual looking at the house, then the inevitable discussion of how it was out of our price range and whether or not we really cared about having a working fireplace, and wondering what was the deal with that green carpet, followed by the decision that this was not the house for us. This went on for a year.

Our apartment was in the University area, near the then mysteriously named Memphis State. I didn’t grow up here and was always baffled by the idea of a college that had a city and “State” in its name. We had narrowed our search to that part of town, and Midtown. That seems like a pretty modest amount of ground to cover, but we were young, not exactly rolling in dough, and for some reason, extremely picky.

The worst situation in this process was looking at a home while the people selling it were still, well, home. That horrible feeling of having a family trying not to look desperate as we poked around the rooms they lived in, judging them. Their pleading “please buy our house, our daddy lost his job” looks were as alarming as their taste in furniture.

Then one afternoon I was driving around a neighborhood in Midtown we hadn’t really paid much attention to and saw our house. There it was, the perfect turn-of-the-last-century bungalow on a street lined with enormous old growth trees. From the moment I saw it I knew it was the house for us. Mainly because it looked almost exactly like the house our apartment was in, and I was very fond of that apartment. It could’ve been the grass cutting deal. I really hate mowing grass.

The house was in a neighborhood that had recently started seeing a lot of young people buying homes and generally gentrifying everything — Cooper Young. When we moved into Cooper Young there was a bank, a Mexican restaurant, and a lot of junk shops. To describe it as eclectic and multi-cultural would have been putting it mildly. Back then all kinds of kooks, hippies and dropouts could afford to live there.

We made an appointment and did a walk through of the house while the owners sat and watched. My wife was heartily displeased that I kept saying “this is it” and “We’re buying this house.” Apparently this wasn’t going to help our negotiating position. Nonetheless we did buy the house. My wife’s parents were mortified that we were buying a house that was considerably older than they were at the time.

A few months after we moved in we attended one of the early Cooper Young Festivals. This involved a lot of oddballs selling one another their old junk and feeding their dogs ice cream. I’m guessing that it was attended by maybe five or six hundred people, most of whom could walk there from home.

Now, a quarter of a century later there are something like 14 bars and restaurants within walking distance of our house, along with two bookstores and a comic book shop. The Cooper Young Festival has grown to the point where every year a photo is released to show the elbow-to-elbow hordes of people who have come for some “interesting culture.” Vendors come from all over to sell everything from paintings to vintage records. Sadly, dogs are no longer allowed.

We love our neighborhood as much as we always have, but I have to admit, sometimes I miss the kooks, oddballs and dropouts. Every weekend we have hundreds of people visit from other parts of the area to enjoy the cool neighborhood, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen the guy who used to drive everywhere on his riding mower. I always thought about paying him to cut my grass.