With my wife I bought a house, once. (I did not buy this house in Virginia in which we are living now. I built this one myself, oak board by board, hauled in by countless pickup truck excursions.) I did that relatively late in life, as I have done everything else, including arriving here -- my mother and father tried for a good 15 years before something finally clicked and I emerged ...alive -- and also, hopefully, the same might be applying to my leaving here. I was nearly 40, finally married, and my wife was herself finally expecting after a somewhat shorter but still extended period of trying.
The house we signed for was very modest, two story, built of brick, with three bedrooms, one bathroom, a basement, no attic but with a working fireplace even, and small front and back yards. It was in a nice area, one of the outlying stretches of Northeast Washington, D.C., in fact right across from the National Arboretum. And the price was right.
But this was in 1969, and six years before that I had also bought my first car, a gleaming brand new VW Bug fresh off the boat from recently Nazi Germany, for the princely sum of 1,800 dollars.
And in other respects, too, I was fortunate enough to make this first and only venture into house-buying in much better circumstances than most people can enjoy today.
For one thing I have always had a strong aversion to borrowing money, or borrowing anything else. So I put down as large a down payment as we could muster. For another I had done an unusual thing. I had studied amortization tables, and I had taken to heart, with a great deal of horror, the fact that if you took the whole 30 years to pay off a mortgage, you would end up paying several times what you would've if you had paid for the house in front in cash. I had heard that that kind of thing is what makes the economy go round, but that still seemed to me to be something to be avoided at all cost, and I figured I could do that by insisting on a loan with the option to pay 15 percent of the remaining principle in a lump sum each year.
And that was easy to do, first because we had good saving habits, and second because my mortgage lender was someone that I knew, and quite well in fact, though in former times we hadn't had much use for each other at all.
His name was Orlando Darden, and we happened to have attended the same senior high school in the same late 1940's. It was at Dunbar in the then officially and now defacto segregated public school system in D.C., and in fact we had even been the two head honchos in the same platoon in the high school cadets, an institution that was most likely a fine idea even with the neutered rifles involved, though just because of its merits it has probably been totally unknown in the American education system for a great many years now.
O. Darden was a year ahead of me, a lieutenant and as such the leader of the platoon, while I had marched at the platoon's extreme rear, impersonating the platoon sergeant.
I had been put into that exalted position after only half a year in the cadets because of my facility at passing written tests. It did not happen at all because I had demonstrated leadership skills. My total lack of those has been noticed everywhere I have gone, and indeed my idea and experience with leadership is to inform people of what I think would work best and then stand back and watch them deliver themselves straight into the jaws of perdition, because they prefer the tunes coming from there and because, just by looking at me, they're certain that I can't possibly know what I'm talking about, and besides, where I want to go would be unexciting and a big drag. My thinking is that one will most likely encounter bumptious, blinkered characters with poor taste in music, and that figures because they are born of women of their same highly deficient, violent, and virulent species, instead of arising from a much nobler and definitely less harmful to all the world family, such as butterflies, goldfinches, meerkats, and even cheetahs.
Darden had gone on to what the teachers at Dunbar had so tirelessly urged us to become, a credit to his community and to something called his "race." He had become one of the numerous Rainbow (misleadingly called "black") Firsts of that era, having set up the very first Rainbow-owned savings and loan bank in D.C., right down there on K Street, an area that, however, has since become so infamous as the center of the dens inhabited by Congressional lobbyists and other unsavory political types.
It was quite a scene when I sat down across from Darden in his luxuriant office in his brand new establishment, after such a long time during which we had followed our very different destinies, his already fully in view and a true achievement, while mine -- naturally -- was on a much slower track and was in comparison so minute and unclear that to this day apparently it has still not even identified itself, much less finished working itself out. That must be why it has needed so much time, while, though I avoid reading obituaries like the plague, one day some years ago, by exactly the same element of pure chance that characterized all my dealings with this man, I happened to notice, with sadness, that he, like a number of my other early contemporaries, had already left this world.
Actually in school, despite being in the same platoon in the illustrious Company B, Darden had struck me as being snotty and needlessly hostile, while he had probably ladled on me, though never directly saying so, the same charges with which I have been dismissed so often but especially in that world, for not being "regular" or "hip" or "with it" or whatever you need to conform -- or either he saw himself as being stuck with someone who was entirely too unforceful to be any sort of second-in-command. And now nothing much had really changed in that respect. I could see in his eyes -- maybe because of how I was dressed but definitely because of that pre-payment clause that I wanted -- his impression that I was still a hopeless weirdo, while I had no doubt that he was still something of a prick. After all, he had become a big banker.
Still we were genuinely glad to see each other, and he didn't give me any trouble then or through the next several years, when annually I would walk happily back into his gleaming emporium down on high-toned K Street with my little 15 percent of the principal, except that once he remarked with a wry smile, "You don't care at all about being a part of the American economy, do you?"
O. Darden wasn't alone in that kind of view. My brother-in-law, a stable shrewd guy if there ever was one, didn't think that paying off my house in just the little more than five years that it took was a good idea at all. He argued that going for the tax deductions on mortgage payments was much to be preferred, while my dear mother, also a quite practical person, seemed to think that the ambition to have a fully paid-for house was unthinkable, absurd, and maybe even scandalous.
But I thought that aside from (if I may be allowed to jump ahead to today) being in the company of Emily Watson, Alex Kingston, Janet McTeer, Helena Bonham-Carter, Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Tilda Swinton, Brenda Blethyn, or any other of that incredible number of accomplished and mature British actresses and listening to them talk, and aside from living in a house that you built yourself, oak board by board, a person can't do better than live in a house that he owns free and clear. And never since has any reason to regret that decision come my way.