Walking through my Hillcrest neighborhood, one gets to enjoy a variety of architectural styles in the form of businesses, apartments, condos and single-family homes. I have been told that our 1924 California Bungalow was at one time a tract home; hard to believe, when just the mere word “tract” conjures up visions of cookie-cutter homes consisting of miniscule diversity in style, shape and even color from one another.
But yes, back in 1924 my entire neighborhood consisted of tract homes of mostly Spanish and Craftsman styles; some homes, like ours, had Spanish-style exteriors with Craftsman-style interiors – the best of both worlds, in my opinion, as I love both styles.
Although many of the original homes have been torn down, with condos and businesses going up in their places, there are still plenty of original structures to help preserve some of the neighborhood’s personality and integrity.
There are a few homes over on the next block from us that have carriage houses behind them. Sometimes the carriage houses don’t even look like they belong to the restuccoed house in front; they appear so independent of each other. In fact, the homes out front appear to be about 1000 square feet, not much bigger than the carriage houses themselves.
One carriage house in particular has blue peeling paint and somewhat rickety-looking stairs. A small Chihuahua-type dog barks excitedly from the upstairs window when I walk by with Griffin. I wonder who lives there besides the dog; I never see anyone coming or going. I wonder why the house looks so neglected, and if the interior is nicer than the exterior.
I am intrigued; the house has a familiarity, from another time in my life. Back before I even knew what a carriage house was, my friend Loretta lived in one with her mom Ellen, across Wilbur Avenue — which was more like a highway — from my home on Minaker Dr. in Antioch, California. Other than being of natural wood color, their home looked very much like this one.
The main house was about 25 yards away and was owned and occupied by a sour-faced, but somewhat nice lady simply known as Mrs. Hill. Both structures were set down much lower than Wilbur Avenue, and considering the way cars whizzed by, I sometimes feared that one might fly off the roadway and land right in Loretta & Ellen’s living room.
When Loretta and I hung out during the ages of ten through twelve, I never gave much thought to their financial situation — Ellen worked with my mom at Crown Zellerbach paper mill just down the road. They seemed content with their living arrangements, both sharing a double bed in the one bedroom home. The kitchen and dining room were one, adjacent to the living room; a small hallway led to the bathroom and bedroom; small, but with plenty of natural light, there was a certain coziness and sense of ambiance to the place.
It was fun to go over to Loretta’s back in those days. She had every Barbie doll imaginable — probably about 30 in total, along with a plethora of accessories — and we used to play down in the garage for hours, where we could spread out the Barbies’ dream houses, sometimes create makeshift houses and rooms, and push their convertible cars all over, just letting our imaginations run wild.
When we tired of Barbie fun we would go upstairs to the house and play records – Osmonds, Jackson Five, 3-Dog Night – and dance, lip-sync, talk about boys and eat Chee-tos, Fritos or any other type of crunchy snack du jour.
Ellen seemed to be at work a lot, so many times Loretta and I had the place to ourselves. If I was there for a meal we would make either Campbell’s Tomato Soup or Swanson TV dinners. One time we took our fried chicken TV dinners outside and down the rickety stairs, then climbed the embankment up to Wilbur Avenue. There we sat, on the curb with cars flying by us, and ate. When we were done we tossed the chicken bones at passing cars. I don’t know what we were thinking, but I do know that had my mother driven by and seen us, that would have certainly been the end of that gig.
Now and then we would come across a dead animal up on the highway. Once we even saw one of my cats that had been struck and killed, but back then it didn’t seem all that tragic; it was usually what happened when your pet wandered off, so I simply took it with a grain of salt.
There were times when I would spend the night at Loretta’s — her mom would sleep on the couch — and although I felt safe in the actual house, I was scared to death to go down to the garage at night. There were some very old dolls that Mrs. Hill stored down there, and they just creeped me out.
Loretta and her mom moved from that house back when we were in our early teens, and then we slowly began to lose touch after that; she was no longer a neighbor, we went to different junior highs, and by the time we got into the same high school we hung out with totally different crowds.
Loretta’s carriage house has long since been demolished, the land leveled, and a bus station now sits in its place. Out with the old and in with the new, progress and development happen all the time; but they can’t necessarily wipe out memories.
Although having a vivid memory can sometimes be a hindrance, most times I feel fortunate that I have the ability to reminisce about certain key points in my life — memories that can be conjured up simply by passing an old house that looks like one I used to play in – that I used to escape to.
Escape to. The carriage house near my home represents a different time, a different perspective, a different attitude – all punctuated with the innocence and curiosity that permeate the soul of a pre-teen girl; a girl who often didn’t want to be at her own home, where there seemed to be such strife, frustration and unhappiness.
With its blue peeling paint, rickety stairs and barking dog in the window, the carriage house beckons to me, while 3 Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” plays in the background.
“Come closer. Look inside. Is it like you remember? Wanna play Barbies? Are you hungry? Do you need an escape?”
“No, I’m fine, but thank you,” I smile. “Maybe another time,” I say over my shoulder as I head for home.
Home – with the fountain out front, its Spanish exterior and Craftsman interior; the second story that my husband designed – carefully and lovingly preserving its 1924 integrity – with all its natural light, allowed in by beautiful windows from which you can often hear our own dogs barking out, when open; rooms that I have decorated, creating my own sense of coziness and ambiance – my own dream house, in a sense; my own escape. No peeling paint or rickety stairs (yet), but still plenty of flaws of its own; it is, and always will be a work in progress.
Just like me.