Yale is all there is worth seeing in New Haven. Step off the elegant campus and you’re surrounded by worn buildings and derelict homes—in short, a ghetto. Signs are posted on every corner euphemistically identifying the area as The Historic District, but I don’t know why New Haven bothered; these few fusty blocks are nothing to be proud of. The houses loom over the streets with stairs leading from the cracked sidewalk to broad porches with high-reaching columns. I’m certain that at one time these homes were impressive, but these days the wood rot around the roofs, windows, and eaves is clearly visible and the smell of old carpets is so prevalent that the moldy odor drifts heavily out into the narrow street.
David and I have elected to stay in one of these historic mansions, a yellow edifice built in the 1850’s. We look up and down the street, observing all the other decaying buildings. Dubiously, we approach the porch of the house where we’ll be sleeping for the next two nights.
“I estimate it would take a half million to restore one of these homes to its past glory,” I tell David.
“That’s probably about right.”
He rings the bell and the door is answered by a petite man, approximate age, eighty. As a host in a house of historic significance, he invites us in and starts giving us a tour as soon as we’re through the door.
He speaks with an accent, Greek we think. We follow him down a tight hallway and turn left into the common area. Ancient crown molding in the lofty ceiling; dull brass chandelier hanging crookedly; furniture rickety, old but not valuable; watery light, dirty windows.
“The importance of this house,” he tells us, taking a central position, “is that the man who built it was a co-founder of the Baldwin piano company, very famous. You know of it? And because the factory burned down he invented and installed the first in-home sprinkling system, which you see there.”
And he points behind us. Dutifully, we turn and look. Yes, heavy pipes cross the ceiling. There isn’t a surface in this room that hasn’t been claimed by dolls. And there isn’t an inch of wall free of paintings or framed dried flower arrangements. Also, paintings are stacked ten-deep and lean against walls and in doorways. The paintings are all about duets of color, splotches of green next to blue, or red streaks lined in purple. I’m no artist and I certainly know nothing about painting, but is it art if you do the same thing again and again?
“What’s with the dolls and paintings?” I ask, not too concerned about whether he catches my disdain. All these old art projects smell bad, as though they haven’t been shifted in twenty years.
“My wife is an artist. She carves the dolls from wax.”
“She makes the clothes?” The clothes are lovely.
“Oh yes. Everything. And the paintings are hers, too. And see her three dimensional art?”
Oh. I didn’t see it before, but some of the paintings have faces or body parts emerging from them, as though the colorful canvases are giving birth.
He leads us to our room. As we make our way back through the cramped hallway to the stairs, I notice a couple of opened Arm and Hammer boxes tucked between dolls and behind stacks of pictures. Pointless. He would have to bury this house in baking soda to make any difference at all.
We chose this place off the internet because we thought it sounded interesting—a house with a past. We stayed in Duke’s Mansion in Charlotte a couple of years ago, and it was a lovely experience. But, as with most of the places on this tour, the description online simply isn’t true. We’re promised a room on the ground floor, a refrigerator, a television with cable, and two queen beds. But what good is a television if you can only get one channel? And we’re on the second floor; there’s no refrigerator; and there’s only one bed and it’s a double. At least there’s a small desk where I can write.
The landlord acts proud of this tight cell as he points to the undersized bed, tells us of the fresh towels (I should hope!) in the bathroom, and explains how the paintings in here are also the work of his wife. He leaves us and that’s the last we see of him.
“I think his wife’s dead and he’s got her remains preserved somewhere on the premises,” I say.
“Ordinarily I’d call poppycock, but in this case I fear you you’re right.” (I use a writer’s license; David never says poppycock.)
We settle into the room, then walk around the corner to New Haven’s Little Italy—more dank frontages, Italian flags drooping. Our planned destination is Pepe’s, which has been ranked as the number one pizza place in the country. I’m very strict about what goes in my mouth and in the last dozen years I’ve allowed myself exactly two slices of pizza. Discouragement brought on by finding myself in this pit called New Haven weakens my will, causing me to eat three slices of Pepe’s pizza, which is as delicious as is claimed.
I come awake at two a.m. with a picture of our creepy host in my mind. Withered and hunched, he’d barely been able to make it up the stairs to show us to our room. I hate to think how long it’s been since this comforter has been laundered. As far as I can tell, the man’s on his own in this fetid mansion; and he’s certainly in no condition to go the extra mile when it comes to changing bedding. I begin to itch. There is no more sleep to be had. I kick back the covers and spend the rest of the night composing this posting.