Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Street Where I Live

It's a jungle in here . . . but outside, more ominous things await!

Those of you who live in the San Francisco Bay Area may have cause now and then to journey into Emeryville. At the intersection of one of the main thoroughfares into this famous, but enigmatic, city of around 7,000 souls, you’ll drive past what looks like a park: There’s a tall row of green, with concrete and a chain link fence running east toward the heart of Emeryville. A screen-block fence runs north to south along one main thoroughfare. An Alameda Transit County bathroom squats, chin up like a proud toad, as a gateway to the city.

Within that scraggly-looking patch of green is a lush oasis that shelters your correspondent. From his second-floor office window, naught stains his sensitive eyes, but a restful tangle of green trees, flowers, and bushes. Occasionally, an iridescent Anna’s hummingbird floats past, reminding him of his childhood in verdant downstate New York. That is, if he plugs his fingers in his ears. He vainly tells himself that the dull persistent roar of traffic that hums fifty feet away is only the wind . . . the wind . . . the wind! Those cries of “HEY! FUCK YOU, FUCKIN’ ASSHOLE! YOU WANT SOME O’ THIS!?” are actually the raw exuberant calls of blue jays building their spring nest outside his bedroom window! And those howling sirens? The hoots of owls beating their way through the starry night sky!

Elizabeth and I moved into this park-like island five years ago this last Friday. The house was among the first places we looked at, after we decided to nest together. We wanted it at first sight: 1500 square feet, two floors with two bright, large upstairs rooms, big enough to swing an ocelot; down below, a large, lovingly built kitchen, with beautiful Mediterranean-style tile counters, tile floors throughout and an excellent professional range stove. The rest was large enough for Elizabeth’s walnut Kawai grand piano. The final touch is a quiet nook perfect for reading and meditating. All of it framed by a quirky, brown-shingle skin, faintly reminiscent of my childhood home.

We liked Dave and Carla, the landlords, and they liked us. Dave had built our place himself out of the remains of an old chicken house. A fig tree and an apple tree face our front door. Three towering tanoaks, wrapped in ivy, do their best as a sound baffle to the left. Gardens stretch along on three sides: geraniums, roses, pansies, dahlias. In the driveway, stand an ornamental pepper tree, a cypress, and one that might be an avocado tree, except it bears no fruit. In addition to the hummingbirds, robin, finches and towhees build their nests around here.

Bougainvillea and yucca line the driveway. When I need some lemon zest for cooking, I have six lemon trees to choose from out front. There’s a bush of rosemary, too. In places, the one-acre compound becomes almost a jungle. From some spots, you can barely see the street.

Three other houses make up the compound. One of them, an old Victorian built around 1884, is considered the oldest house in Emeryville, and was the main residence of a two-hundred acre cherry orchard. My favorite house is a towering 2.5-story structure built maybe in the early 1890s. In Emeryville’s wilder (and more interesting) days, Dave tells us, it was a house of ill-repute. Until the recent (and excellent) remodelling by Matthew, our caretaker, you could see, in the basement, the remains of the tile flooring of the hair salon whose business was keeping the gals well-coifed.

Upstairs, the first floor is a high-ceilinged homey stunner. There’s an old tiled and light wood-framed fireplace in the living room. Glass double doors, their tops stained, open onto a porch (Envision me reading the Sunday paper in my robe, drinking fine single malts and bellowing at you to get the hell off my big front lawn.) Twice, we’ve had the opportunity to take this place: the first time we turned it down because of lassitude; the second, because we’re moving next spring.)

Space forbids me from telling about the cozy, curious series of warrens on the second floor, because I have to tell you about the art work: Back in the 1920s, Harlan Wilson, a former Emeryville mayor, bought the compound with the idea of turning it into an artist’s colony. How close he came to reaching that goal is not known, but he left some tantalizing clues. The circular driveway in front of the 1884 house contains mosaics pressed into the concrete. A painting of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is framed in the coiling brickwork of the Big House’s south wall, while a tile landscape painting winks at you from the southeast front corner. Three more mosaics can be found on the north wall, one of them incorporated into a chimney.

Turnover in this paradise is low. Even the birds, and the stray cats that hunt them, stay for years. (We even had a possum wander through occasionally, name of Lyle.) The most recent departure left after nine years. The longest residents have been here for twelve. (There are, surprisingly to me, no legends of hauntings, though I wonder about that chicken house.)

“Sooooo, Burchfield,” I hear you sneer, “if this place is soooo wonderful, why are you leaving!?”

That question, I’ll tackle in a later blog: The one where I take you outside the gates of paradise.

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