Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Homeward Bound

At a certain point in a man's life, he begins to gaze covetously at the pages of furniture catalogues, to long for window boxes and small patches of grass he can call his own, and to yearn for the twin boons of equity and tax deductions. He grows weary of landlords who make half-assed repairs, drop in on Saturdays on little to no notice, and whose response to complaints of rodent infestation is "Hey, if you grew up on a farm..." He begins to spend his hours, both waking and sleeping, comparing school districts and crown molding, property taxes and accessibility to shopping and mass transit. It is at this time that he decides to buy a house.

Graduate students are doubly if not trebly screwed over by the impermanence of their own position. Not only do you spend five or more years of your life preparing for jobs nearly as scarce as those on professional sports teams -- and most of which are in the middle of nowhere -- you do it while earning a subsistence wage as people your own age with considerably less talent rake in the bucks, and begin buying houses, getting married, and starting their lives. Medical school is rough, but at least people need doctors -- nobody needs a literature professor. We're frankly lucky to have jobs at all.

So you mortgage away what other people take for granted: healthy social and personal lives, material prosperity, and happiness. When your future mother-in-law offers you a down payment in lieu of a wedding, you count yourself inestimably lucky -- even if she holds it over you and her wayward daughter, hems and haws whenever you need her to act, drastically changes the magnitude of her offer without warning, complains that your parents won't pay for half, and plots secretly to lure her daughter back home with the promise of cheap housing for the two of you in the South. You go through three realtors in as many weeks. You begin to think that living in a 600-square-foot house between a vacant lot and a shell across from a power plant is the best idea you've ever had. You listen patiently as your girlfriend creates wild scenarios that lead you out of the city to unknown vistas in Camden, New Jersey or Wilmington, Delaware. You nurse your growing ulcer until it knows you by name.

Your hair turns gray. You begin to cry for no reason. You throw the catalogues away and fish them out of the garbage the next day. You try to get the mortgage in your name, only to discover that your student loans count against your ability to pay and the nosebleed you had in college has ruined your credit rating. You give up and start again. You take pills to make you feel better. You make wild promises and tell wilder lies. You wonder why.

For the past month or so, I've been looking for a house in or around Philadelphia. We're still looking.

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