The First Flop


When I was part way through college I transferred from my school in Denver to one in West Virginia (yes, there was a boy involved in that decision).

About a year into this adventure (it’s a whole other story but suffice to say Colorado and West Virginia were very different from each other back in the 1970s) I bought a house because they were so cheap there. This particular prize was $6000. It was (as so many are in the “hillbilly state” built on a steep hillside. The alley behind the house was 15 stairs above the backdoor. The street in front of the house was 32 steps below the front porch. The hillside had been cut into and the back of the house inserted into it. So the back and front doors were both at ground level.

At that time I owned (still do) an old, iron bed frame. During my first night in that house one side of my bed collapsed. I knew the box springs had fallen off the frame. But when I turned on the lights I found I was wrong. Two legs of the bed had actually poked through the floor and were resting on the dirt below. It wasn’t a good omen.

When it got cold I called a repairman because the furnace wouldn’t light. He discovered the gas line from the street below was corroded and red tagged it. I used a space heater in the bedroom (the one with the holes in the floor) and essentially lived in that one room until I could afford an excavator and new line. Did I mention that the hot water heater was also a gas appliance? And the range? I used a little electric cooktop to heat water for dishes and bathing – but the kitchen was so cold I didn’t spend much time there. I left the sinks trickling all the time so that the water lines didn’t freeze. I don’t know what I would have done without a toilet.

I was poor as shit at that time but somehow the gas line issue was resolved. The house had virtually no insulation (other than the dirt hillside it was built into) and the windows leaked like crazy. My heating bill was ridiculous and I was still cold all the time. Somehow I scraped together $75 for a little pot belly Franklin stove from the hardware store. There had been a time that either a wood or coal fired stove was in the living room. I had the chimney with the plate covered hole to prove it. I brought that little stove home and shoved the pipe into the hole. I didn’t have the chimney cleaned or inspected – I just assumed everything was fine. I guess it was, because I’m here to tell about it. I had thick woods on both sides of the house so fuel was plentiful. That little Franklin stove made the lower half of the house (living room, kitchen and bath) tolerable. I lived there for two winters – bitter, extra cold winters where the Ohio River froze and barge traffic was halted.

I did what I could with the place. My desire for a cute home was way out of balance with my starving student finances. But I painted every room and stapled cheap fabric to a wall for an accent. The kitchen had some of those pre-printed wall panels that are meant to look like wallpaper – wallpaper that I didn’t like. One panel had a bottle opener mounted on it (remember when bottles of beer and cola required an opener?). The opener was near a corner and there was a gap between the panels where they met in the corner. I pried that panel off and… a million Squirt lids came tumbling out – some of which were clutched by dead mice. Apparently a prior owner was both a Squirt addict and too lazy to walk to a trash can.

Being from Colorado I didn’t understand humidity – until I experienced one of my rare spring cleaning frenzies and pulled my sofa out away from the wall. There were mushrooms growing in the carpet. I scrounged for dollars again and bought a dehumidifier to suck the extra moisture from the air. It was amazing to me how often it had to be emptied.

The steep hillside made landscaping a challenge. I fancied myself a gardener and decided to adopt one of the few flat areas as a garden spot. It had previously been a dog pen. I went out on one of the earliest spring days and scratched at the semi frozen soil. There was an old dog dish out there and I casually kicked it aside; unearthing a groggy copperhead snake. It was then that I learned that the adjacent woods were full of them. I decided to buy my veggies at the Farmer’s Market.

I hired a local teen to help me reclaim some of the steep yard. There was tall grass that I assumed would look more like a lawn if we could get it (and keep it) mowed down. He was operating the mower while I did another chore. Suddenly there was a loud bang and I was knocked off my feet and in immediate pain. The tall grass had hidden a broken, cast iron spigot. The lawn mower had picked it up and flung it right into my knee. I was bleeding, swollen and limped around for days. The poor kid was mortified.

And so it went. Everything I did to the place either exposed new issues or was so crude it could hardly be called an improvement. I had no money, no tools, no skills. I lived uncomfortably for two years. A week after graduation I packed my things and headed to a job back in Colorado. I left my little house in the hands of a friend with a new real estate license. He sold it for $5000 and charged me a commission to boot. My first flip was a total flop.

Years later I would take my husband and kids to see that house. But it wasn’t there. It had burned down and weeds had almost completely claimed the two staircases. The physical evidence of my folly was disappearing; but my memory of it has not.

Copyright September 2018

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