Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Turning Crack to Sugar, While Salvaging a Family

I've been mostly riding the fiction Ferris wheel lately (except for Cheryl Strayed's wonderful Wild, and the David Millar's cycling memoir), so I decided it was time to get back into the nonfiction pool. The book I chose was Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home, by Matthew Batt (or Matt Batt, if you will).

Of course, I felt that I'd made a good decision selecting this book when I read the quote from Cheryl Strayed on the back: "Winning, funny, and crackling with life, Sugarhouse is a can't-put-down chronicle of a bad house gone good and a good family gone in directions the author didn't expect. Matt Batt's book about glue, grace, gumption, and the grit it takes to keep on living is an unforgettable and sweet read." Pretty hard not to pick up a book that Cheryl recommends.

After suffering through a season of loss, Batt and his wife Jenae decide not to call quits on their young marriage but instead purchase a dilapidated former crack house in the Sugarhouse section of Salt Lake City and attempt to resurrect it, despite their complete lack of do-it-yourself or home-ownership experience. Dizzy with despair, doubt, and the side effects of using the rough equivalent of napalm to detoxify their house, they enter into full-fledged adulthood with power tools in hand.

They decided it was time to take this step because, after renting a multitude of apartments, they realized that most of their peer group had taken big steps into adulthood: "You're married, you're getting older, and your parents are looking more and more like the grandparents they are pestering you to make them. It's getting embarrassing. Your pathetic renter's mailbox -- the one with three former tenants' names crossed out -- is stuffed with your friends' baby-shower invitations. Just a few months ago, right after my grandmother died, five different people mentioned the world 'ultrasound' to me on the same day."

They had suffered a mean spate of losses ("...adulthood had just coldcocked us."), having lost Matt's adoptive dad, Matt's beloved grandmother, Gram, and Jenae's grandfather. "These losses were devastating in their own ways, but Gram -- her death was utterly unacceptable. All bets were off after that. Our best couple-friends were getting divorced. Doctors detected a strange mass in my mother's abdomen, and, not to be upstaged, my grandfather started having trouble with -- among a raft of other things -- his colon. It all seemed to be happening at the same time, on the same day, every hour on the hour."

"Between the birth announcements and the death certificates, we couldn't tell up from down. even the simplest facts and dates became obscured, irrelevant. All we knew was that everyone but us was dying, getting divorced, or having a kid, and we were stuck with our hands in our pockets waiting for the band to start. Life and death were coming for us, and we could either dig in, settle down, and try to defend the home front, or agree to shake hands and walk quietly away from the line and go our separate ways."

Rather than parting, Matt and Jenae went all in. After losing out on several better houses they'd made offers on, they end up buying a FSBO (for sale by owner) from a guy named Stanley who drove "...the kind of car driven by, I imagine, someone who has a cellar full of Spam, Fanta, guns, and ammunition." He also wore shorts so short "that one pocket hangs below the ragged hem, and I worry for a moment that it's not his pocket."

The house needs work. A LOT of work. And neither Matt nor Jenae have any experience along those lines, nor do they have the finances to hire people to do everything. The carpets all need to be torn out and the hardwood floors revived; cabinets, counters, and sink replaced; oh, and all the appliances too; and the furnace, water heater, windows, and garage door. And something needs to be done about the smell: "It reeks like a state fair Porta Potty during a heat spell and a sanitation strike. I check to see if my nose is bleeding."

Amidst all of the renovation challenges, Batt is also dealing with the disintegration of his family. His mom is still deeply mourning the loss of Gram, her mom. And his grandfather seems to be going off the deep end. A lot of drinking is involved. "It is the day before Christmas Eve, and Gram is not here. Therefore, there will be no Christmas, my mom has decided. 'We'll just get together,' she says, 'have some burgers.' No one believes her. As soon as Jenae and I touch down in Wisconsin, we begin drinking competitively. And while there is no making up for drinking competitively with Gram, there is still drinking. I am not proud. Neither am I sorry. Everywhere we go is an empty chair. You have never seen so many empty chairs."

I don't want to tell you how it all ends up, and if I don't stop now I probably will. And I'll probably end up quoting half the book or more, because every page I turn I find another paragraph that knocks my socks off. You'll just have to see for yourself. But I'm pretty sure you'll love it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the recommendation--this looks great!

    ReplyDelete

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