Fulfilling the American Dream: On Buying versus Renting


If you write about the American dream, you first have to define it. My sister is probably the epitome. At 23, she found a hardworking, handsome, sweetheart of a businessman, fell in love, got married, bought a “starter house” in the suburbs and popped out kids, 1,2,3. Now she has a pool, a four-bedroom colonial, and a Cadilac SUV. Her girls get good grades, are scheduled with activities, she just renovated her kitchen, she goes to book group religiously, and she still keeps her career going part time.

Or maybe the epitome of the American Dream is me, at 30, when I left my lover, broke my lease, quit my job and packed my Acura of all my worldly possessions, including my Rollerblades and CDs and went off for the next seven years into the wilderness of Mississippi, Mexico, Panama and the southwest to hear strangers’ stories, ride on the back of tattooed boys’ motorcycles and write the great American novel. They say siblings grow to be the mirror opposites of one another.

The point is, I am still renting. This is something that people whisper about behind your back, in the same way they whisper if you smell bad or your husband beats you. Whether you play Into the Wild and act like Steinbeck with his little dog, after a few years you are eventually supposed to come back, settle down and pay your mortgage.

My reverence for my apartment borders on attachment disorder. The building is called the Italian-American building and as soon as you walk in and hear the elevator gate close on the 1920 lift, you feel like you are in Europe. Because we don’t have kids, we lie in bed on the third floor, under the beautiful filigree of the high tin ceilings, and watch the Connecticut river glistening in the sun out the window. Across the river is a state park called Wantastiquit Mountain. No one can ever build there, so our view of the soaring hawks and old growth forest will go on, unblemished, for generations. There’s a train to and from Manhattan that comes by twice a day to soothe my wanderlust. In the summer I open the eleven-foot windows and let the little birdies in just for the hell of it. We’re on the river side, so it’s quiet, but the main door downstairs opens onto Main Street, so when snowstorms hit, we strap on our skis and go wheee! all the way down the hill to the Co-op, which is always open, where we get a movie, some organic, grass-fed steaks and go whizzing back to snuggle in. We set the place up like a combination art installment and a Moroccan casbah with masks from Africa on the walls and gold silk hanging from the ceilings. The long low couches are covered with burgundy velvet pillows. My friend Natalie says it’s like being in a womb. We park our cars in a garage a hundred yards away so in wintertime, when people are scraping their windshields, we just get in and drive away. Everything is very dandy except that an insomniac stomper just moved in upstairs.

Around ten thirty, right when we are settling into our very sumptuous bed, she begins to do laps around the floor above with weights on her heels. My husband sends his eyes heavenward and moans. “What is she doing up there?” He wants to climb up the fire escape and sneak-stare in her windows to get a peek. But I think there’s some peeping Tom law against this. She stomps around with purpose. As though she were really getting somewhere. I pass my husband the pink earplugs, turn up the white noise and go to sleep. Until the bowling ball hits. We’re not sure that’s what it is, but that’s what it sounds like. Ghud. Right above our heads somewhere between one and four in the morning a few times an hour. I catch glimpses of this girl on the street. She looks sort of normal. Very serious. She wears little rectangle glasses and beads and gaucho pants. We pretend we don’t see each other. I’ve sent notes explaining that it sounds like she is dropping bowling balls on our heads. I wish I could be friends with her, if only to slip sleeping pills in her drinks.

We also had the unfortunate luck of having new neighbors move in across the hall. They engage in knock down drag outs where doors are slammed and very bad words are said. Once I found the girl in a fetal position in the hall crying and shouting “I’ve done everything for you.” What she hasn’t done is help him with his fashion sense which involves very long earlobes filled with what look like rubber car parts and pants that aren’t quite shorts that he wears slung low around his ass. They smoke and stay up late banging around in there. This bad luck is combined with an absentee landlord who likes to avoid tax increases by leaving the sheetrock off in the main hallway.

So, we thought maybe we should get serious about looking for houses. We have the requisite money saved and everyone keeps talking about that 8,000 dollar tax credit and saying Now is the time. Now is the time. Very ominously as though the music will stop, and we will frantically be trying to fit our fannies in someone else’s mortgage spot.

We already put an offer on a house when we first got engaged, a renovated Civil War era cape in town. But I was fast-walking one day before closing time, and I realized I wasn’t going to do it. I didn’t have a choice. Something in me was kicking against it so hard it, the resistance alone was exhausting. “We’re not doing it,” I told my husband when I walked into the casbah. He was sitting in the gold chair with his feet up, facing the eleven foot window, reading the paper. He gave me a kiss. “Here’s to renting,” he said. I smiled and ordered a ton of sushi take-out, if only because we could afford it, given we didn’t have to slap down that hefty down payment.

We looked at a house on Saturday. A sweet old house with little claustrophobic rooms, the back yard had a fountain and walkways to the garden, a cobblestone driveway and a grandfather cedar overlooking it all. We could hear the highway from the porch. On the way home, I looked at the stats. “If the taxes don’t go up,” I told my husband, who was in love with the house given the balancing factor of the stomping insomniac, “We will have paid the town of Brattleboro over $150,000 by the time the mortgage is paid. “The taxes will go up,” he said. “How many trips around the world is that?” I asked. We worked it out, there’d be no trips around the world because, besides the fat down payment, there’d be owing the bank twice what we pay in rent each month and on top of that we’d be up to our ears in utility bills given the brutal winters and the snow removal costs. The inevitable upkeep on the house, which neither one of us is mildly interested in, would keep us from galavanting around the globe. Trapped. That was the word that kept going through my mind. I felt just exactly as I used to when I was roaming through some town, and a boy I’d been dating for a couple of weeks wanted to marry me. “But we’d have a washer and dryer,” my husband said. “I want to write,” I told him. “And I don’t want to have to sell it just to pay for a mortgage.” “Yeah,” he sighed. “And I want to read. I don’t want to spend my weekends mowing the lawn, painting the porch railings.” I threw the papers in the back of the Jeep, where they scattered in the September wind. “Let’s buy one of those big cushy motorcycles,” I said. “And go cross country.”

What is ownership? This strange American allegiance that seems suspiciously like myth. Is anything ever actually owned unless you buy it outright? When you live in a house, you right off the bat owe the town and owe the bank and you have to be responsible for every single thing inside it. Thinking about houses really kicks up my commitment phobia and the absolute certainty that I never want to be a grown-up.

That night our stove broke. I called the building manager right up. The next day he brought in a bigger stove while I sat writing on my velvet couch. Likewise, our hot water heater had failed over the summer, and they’d fixed us up quick with a new one. While he was checking the stove to make sure it worked, I told him our eleven foot windows were dirty, so he popped them out (they’re thirty pounds each) and Windexed them while I read the newest Wally Lamb novel.

I think the Native Americans and the hippies might have been right, maybe you don’t have to own things to be happy, especially when someone else is dealing with the upkeep. As Janis Joplin said, Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Right after we told the realtor no, I booked a trip to Baja. We’re going to live like nomads for a while on the sand dunes, soaking in hot springs, visiting Mexico’s biggest blowhole, without a house to worry about.

Tonight the insomniac is fast asleep. It’s just me up in the middle of the night in my rented casbah with the river flowing by and these clicking keys. My sister might be awake now, too, checking on her daughter, who has a headcold. Because she is a mom, she isn’t bothered by this task, in fact it’s where she feels her best. Those girls will always be well-adjusted because my sister knows how to do the one thing kids need most: she knows how to provide security. Her daughters will grow up knowing exactly where home is: the big gray colonial at the end of the Pine Banks Road cul de sac. And I am completely head-over-heels happy for her because she is exactly where she wants to be. Just like me. Perhaps that is the American dream.