October 31, 2018

The Aerie in the snow

Long post night. Of course I already wrote this once and Facebook, as it occasionally does, ate the whole thing forcing me to try and remember my deathless prose. I suppose I should write these long ones in Word and cut and paste but I’m too darned lazy to do that so I’ll just have the occasional disaster when the Facebook has a burp and then I can feel good about having a private little hissy fit before retyping the whole thing.

It’s long post night as it’s an anniversary. Twenty years ago tonight, on Halloween, 1998, Steve and I drove into Birmingham as newly minted Alabamians, ready to dive into our new lives. We were filled with a certain amount of trepidation. Two gay boys from California weren’t quite sure what to make of the deep south but we were willing to give it a try. We were pretty sure it wasn’t going to be a long term commitment, maybe four or five years before we would be heading back west to California or Washington.

When we made the decision to leave California, we decided to sell up everything and to go ahead and make a fresh start of it. (In hindsight, this was a terrible mistake. We owned both a condo and a house in Sacramento and by my researches, both have roughly quadrupled in value since we sold them but at the time we decided we didn’t want to deal with property management or landlord issues from more than two thousand miles away).

We had decided to take the job and make the move in mid September and had made a fairly lengthy trip to Birmingham at that time to sign all of the University paperwork and to do the house hunting. (Peggy Rogers Baleswas our relocation specialist who hooked us up with a real estate agent and a bank and various other services that we would need). In Sacramento, we had lived in a condo in the top floor of an old Victorian house in the historic area and then we had moved into a 1912 arts and crafts bungalow a few blocks away – one which had all the original redwood built ins (which had escaped being painted) and had been lovingly redone by Allan Owen.

I knew I wanted us to live no further away from UAB than fifteen minutes and that any commute would not involve a freeway, vetoing all of the properties down 280 and in Hoover that were shown to us. We limitied ourselves to Highland Park, Redmont, Forest Park, Crestwood, and Homewood. As we were moving for my career, I let Steve pick the house. He wanted to find something historic, but there was nothing in our price range that was in good repair for sale at the time and we really didn’t want to get into the sweat equity business. Eventually, he found two houses he liked. One at the top of the hill in Crestwood, and one in Homewood, behind Homewood Library.

He liked the Crestwood house better and we were assured that the owners were motivated to sell to us so we assumed that everything would be a go, so we flew back to California to pack up our lives and the house and get ready for the move. However, after we returned, things got complicated. Our initial offer was returned with more conditions, counter, recounter and on and on. Despite good faith negotiations on our part, the deal fell through and, with two weeks to go before we had to be out of our house in California and with my start date in Birmingham looming, we were out of luck. Frantic calls to the real estate agent. No, the Homewood house we were interested had sold to someone else and was no longer available. Steve then recalled another house in Crestwood on the same block as the one we wanted which we had also looked at it. We both tried to remember the details. It had a great view from the living room. It had a nice master suite. It had some stairs. That was about it. What the hell? We’d only be in it for a couple of years. Let’s put in a low ball offer.

Of course, it was immediately accepted and we found ourselves moving into a house that neither one of us could recall terribly clearly. No time to think about that now. There are boxes to pack, things to clean, a life to shut down… Eventually, at the end of October, the California house was sold, the moving van arrived and picked up the majority of our stuff and we loaded up our 1994 Acura Integra with ourselves, those items we did not want to entrust to the movers and Patrick Flanagan, the cat (who made it clear within five minutes that he did not approve of road trips – I don’t think he ever quite forgave us for those four days.) And so, Eastward Ho! with stops in Kingman, Tucumcari, Fort Smith and eventually, on all hallows eve, we arrived in Birmingham just after dusk. I was driving. I didn’t know the geography but knew how to find Clairmont Avenue so we slowly drove up it among the trick or treaters until we reached our new home which we dubbed the Aerie. We didn’t have possession yet. We looked at it long enough to make sure it was still standing and headed off to the Eastwood Holiday Inn until closing and receiving the keys.

That process happened relatively rapidly and so Steve and I headed up our first day as official homeowners to figure out just what we’d bought. There were stairs. A lot of them – 42 from top to bottom and another 16 from the front door to the street. It was OK. We were in good shape. The house was in good shape and we figured we’d never need to invest in a stairmaster. We dealt with the electric company, the water company, the phone company, the gas company and the cable company to get everything transferred over and eventually the moving van arrived.

The moving crew took one look at the stairs and flatly refused to unload. Many phone calls to management. We agreed to pay a stair surcharge. The crew still didn’t want to do it. More phone calls. Tempers flared. The head of the crew had a few choice words for Steve. Steve had some very colorful ones for him. I wasn’t able to defuse that particular contretemps (Steve was not one to back down from a fight – ever) and it ended with the crew hopping in the van and taking off down the street with all our worldly goods still in the back. We could not raise them on the phone. Management could not raise them. No one knew where our stuff was. More phone calls. Threats of a major law suit. Eventually the van is found in a storage lot in Trussville. Management shows up with it the next day and does the unloading for us as they are rather embarrassed by the whole fracas.

Steve lived in the Aerie (so called because it sat like a nest in the trees) for the rest of his life. It always reminded him of the houses in the Hollywood Hills in which he had gone to a number of rather infamous parties in the 60s with its wood and glass and magnificent spreading view over the city below. The pulmonary fibrosis which would upend our lives started to manifest itself about a year after we moved in. He loved the house and eventually died in it when his heart gave out from complications of his underlying lung disease. I continued to live there alone for the next few years, eventually met Tommy, and he moved in with me about two years after Steve’s death. A few years after that, we used the money Steve had left me to transform the house from Steve’s house into Tommy’s house with a major overhaul/remodel. Ten years after that, the stairs had grown too much for Tommy’s lungs and my knees and it was time to move. Down Clairmont Avenue, the same street we drove up that first Halloween to a house right on that street in the heart of Forest Park.

The Aerie in its natural state

I spent more than 17 years in the Aerie and lived several different lives there. It’s the longest I’ve lived in a single place ever, and may be the longest I will ever live in a single house or apartment. When I left, it was the right time and for the right reasons so I don’t miss it. It was also never really my house. It was Steve’s house. Then it was Tommy’s. This new house, where I’ve been for about two and a half years, is definitely Tommy’s house. He chose it as it suited his taste and his style of living. Will I keep it? For how long? I don’t know. I just know those are questions I’m not capable of answering yet. But after years of living domestically in the shadow of a partner of strong personality, maybe it’s time to have a place that is uniquely mine. But what is that?

Tommy readying the Aerie for Christmas

The Aerie was the site of many a fabulous party (Tommy knew how to do that), and where we invented and perfected our holiday open house. It was full of half finished projects tucked into odd corners and a place where we could sit on the porch with a glass of wine watching the lights of the Jones Valley or be tucked in bed with a storm raging round through the trees and watch the lightning play in the skies and know that we were safe, other than the constant threat of power outages. But it’s part of the past now, receding into that nostalgic and romanticized memory that conveniently forgets things like the endless hauling of things up and down multiple staircases.

Tonight, I arranged to be a bit late to my rehearsal so I could man the door for the trick or treaters of Clairmont Avenue. (I swear, they bring them in by the busload). As I watched the kids and listened to their shouts as they ran up and down the sidewalk and through Triangle Park, I was immediately transported back to that other all hallows eve of two decades ago. Would that Andy have believed what all was going to befall him over the next 20 years? Would he make the same choices if he could know that future? Then I decided such existential questions do one no good and ate another Reese’s peanut butter cup out of the bowl while waiting for the door bell to ring.

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