115 Lewis, Apartment 3 – or C, I could never make up my mind which – is not an apartment. It is a freestanding structure set back from Lewis Street, at the end of a caliche driveway behind a very solid tree that is two stories tall. I know that it is solid because I have been bashing my car’s exterior mirrors and tail lights on it for four years.
If the cabin had once been a garage, you could feel good about it – but I wouldn’t bank on that because there is no slab. A lawnmower would have fallen clean through the thin plywood floor. More likely it was a servant’s quarters, or the place where its previous inhabitants kept the family lunatic secret. For the first couple of years I lived there, the wall behind the bed smelled faintly, but eerily, of human pee.
The living space is exactly 14 feet wide and 24 feet long. In the bathroom you can sit on the toilet, wash your hands in the sink, and turn on the shower without getting up. There is no insulation that I have ever noted, and when winter is serious outside, you can hear the wind as it slips through the crevices and into bed with you. My bedroom is my living room, where my refrigerator also lives.
At $395 per month, the rent was impossibly cheap, and that was in no small measure the concern of my landing in this living situation. I appointed the inside, to the best of my humble capacity, with dark and curvaceous antiques such as I could find in the very cheapest antique stores in all of San Antonio. I went to great pains to install an old brass chandelier with a crown of six bulbs and a dimmer switch. This is the cabin’s main light source. Waking up to the shadows that chandelier cast gracefully across my bedroom walls has been a great joy in my life, at a time when I didn’t have much to cheer.
The kitchen is a cockpit comprised of a heavy, ancient, pock-marked, ceramic-coated iron sink and draining board beside a 65% downsized replica of a four-burner stove. With the oven door open, you cannot leave the kitchen; in fact, you cannot cram so much as an ankle between the oven and the counter that is your walkway out. As small as it is, the ceilings throughout are inexplicably high – and so the only cabinetry or storage (the wall opposing the sink) is 10 feet off the ground.
In the first year I lived here, I built a ladder out of found 2x4s and fencing nails that I used to reach the absurdly high cabinets all over the cabin. Like the densely packed accommodations in the berth of a ship, I had to re-learn all my daily motions now in a compact space. Over the years cutting on that counter, I learned to deftly flick an onion peel over my shoulder and make a precise pile in one corner of the sink. I would then pitch the pile, along with my coffee grounds, out the high kitchen window.
I fashioned a piece of sheet metal into a sort of slide, which I tacked across the bottom of that high window, for the food waste to slip-boing down (I know “slip-boing” is not a word, but it’s the only way to describe it. You would have to see to understand).
Just below the window in the backyard, my sister Daphne’s hand-me-down glass table holds up seven or eight black, two-gallon planters full of a substance somewhere between compost and a vermiculture project, which is regularly attacked by chickens and has two avocado trees growing out of it.
Five Points is a bad neighborhood. The gigantic, crumbling house to my right is usually empty, except when the cops come to clear out vagrants. EMS vehicles wail up and down the street here, and the resident grocery cart lady is up until (a very impressive) 4 a.m. There’s a man sleeping on the mattress dumped on the sidewalk; IVs and crack pipes litter the grass in the front yard.
Flanked by contorted chain link fencing on three sides and a dilapidated spite fence missing several teeth on the last, the cabin is situated in the center of a long rectangle. The big house in front takes the brunt of the salespeople, homeless campers, and doorknob hangers. And somehow, down that gravelly driveway, the neighborhood ceases to exist – and something magical happens.
See, people don’t come down that driveway. I don’t know why.
And when you get to the end of the driveway, you find yourself surrounded by trees. So closed in are you that you could almost – when the ambulance has passed out of earshot – forget you are in the cut, and the world seems to open up around you.
There, flocks of shiny two-toned brown birds chatter in the branches. Bluebirds and cardinals flit from fencepost to bucket to chair back, chasing their girlfriends all around the neighborhood. Mockingbirds dive at and threaten anything that comes near their nest with that characteristic “Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!” they do.
By some magic that resides in city dwellers having no general use for the outdoors, the very large backyard belongs (okay, de facto) entirely to me. Over the years I have dug and tilled, fortified, mulched, terraced, and contour-planted experimental gardens of all kinds.
To be honest, I am not much of a gardener but, lord, how I’ve tried and filled my back yard with a pretty respectable number of survivors. I have successfully grown merlot, tons of lemongrass and a dozen or so herbs, too much okra, summer squash, and five or six varieties of non-producing tomatoes. But that’s only the legal stuff.
Because the actual function of the backyard has been to raise ducks – ducks for eggs and ducks for meat. I have raised up to 40 at a time, enclosed in a plastic-lined coop within a coop, surrounded by a nasty electric fence and a pit bull – we have plenty of predators. So, every morning since I’ve been here, my neighbors have been greeted with the enthusiastic “quaaaaaack!” of a bunch of hungry ducks happy to see me get out of bed. Even if it’s three o’clock in the morning. It’s a wonder nobody’s ever turned me in.
I am writing this now because – probably to the relief of my neighbors – I intend to leave Lewis Street, live on a piece of land I bought outside the city, and build a real farm. I will be moving in a couple of days.
Despite its snaggle-toothed grin, my neighborhood has been kind to me.
Goodbye, cabin, my dear, sweet friend.