“Tell me the story of your house again,” he says, standing in the hallway with his head tilted back so his eyes can encompass the stairwell, balustrades of aged wood brown against the railing’s white.
“The woman who found it used to sneak in here, years ago when everything was abandoned and run down,” his companion says, looking up as well. Her eyes though do not see the freshly-painted walls, the painting of a knot as a leaf, an intricate puzzle three feet wide in blues and greys that fills one wall. She sees instead the stairwell as it was on her introduction to the house, with huge ferns in pots along the steps, their fronds draping down so that the space seemed filled with green and living.
“How did she find it?” he asks, his voice full of wonder at this woman who had entered abandoned buildings and eventually made them home.
“I think she used to explore, a bunch of people did. Until a few years ago everything here was empty, all this renovation, every building used to be abandoned.” She sweeps her arm about them as she speaks, encompassing the house, street, and whole Presidio. “It was spooky then.” It is now, he thinks, looking out the living room’s tall windows to where the fog creeps through the trees. On this Saturday in early September the hour is indistinguishable, five am or two pm, the house encased completely in a shroud of moisture.
“How many rooms? People?” He asks the questions to bring them back to the concrete, away from the eerie feeling of being worlds away from the city, from the other people he knows in this state. She looks again out the window and then, before answering, leads him out of the living room, its couches in no danger of touching, and into the dining room, with a long oak table several inches thick. It is a place for banquets, and a raging fire to ward off the approach of night.
“Twenty two, counting bathrooms and the attic and all that. There are ten of us now. There were eight, when I moved in, but now we’re at ten.” Her sentence is inclusive, communal. He is surprised at the numbers, not because of their size, some sense of which he has already grasped, but by the cleanliness, the emptiness. The porch had shown signs of occupancy, a magazine and a cigarette pack, and the mudroom likewise, shoes and a few jackets, a safari hat. The interior, though, mirrors the woods outside, empty and with no horizon, rooms stretching onwards, hallways and a kitchen, more doors. The stairwell, living room, and dining room are not just empty but uncluttered, as though they were always so. The silence, balanced against the huge artwork, the neat spacing of the three couches, the table’s oak expanse, give the house an almost museum quality. Perhaps it is just the tour, he thinks, and followed his host into the hallway, past spare refrigerators and a chart of chores.
“Here’s one bathroom, and the kitchen,” she gestures. The kitchen is massive, three walls lined with white countertop, cabinets everywhere, and another refrigerator, double wide. “And these are the back stairs. They were the servants stairs, before.” That single word, “before”, penetrates his brain with visions of this house as a families, as the home of children, and their attendants. This makes the scale if not more understandable then at least supported, given cause other than as this vast monument to the Presidio’s separation and strangeness.
“The second floor is mostly bedrooms, with a couple baths,” she tells him, as they wind up the carpeted stairs. Like the rest of the house the carpet is immaculate and the walls white. He walks three steps down the second floor hallway, a bathroom on either side. In front the corridor is lined with doors, all closed, and he retreats. At the far end he could just glimpse the end of the rail leading down into the front stairwell and their entrance.
“How long have you lived here?” He wishes the awe was not so apparent in his voice.
“Three years,” she says with a smile, and he knows then how much she loves giving this tour, hearing her friend’s amazement. “I’m the only one left from when I moved in, everyone else is gone.” In a sense, he thinks, it is her house, despite someone else’s name on the original lease, despite the ownership by the Federal Government, despite the claim forever on it by the woman who had first explored it as an abandoned shell.
“This is amazing,” he says, as they climb out of the stairwell and into the attic. It’s every surface is covered with sheets, with cloths, prints and solids, all bright colors tacked up in a patchwork, so that the effect is-
“-This is our tripped-out party secret surprise room,” she offers, leading him up. The floor has been covered with rugs of all textures and colors, a collection of soft things underfoot that re-enforces the welcoming, cavelike nature of the space, with it’s slanting ceiling that reflects the house’s steep roof. “There are a few beds up here,” she says, indicating one in the corner, and another around a bend that must be the living room’s fireplace, far below. “This is where guests stay, or anyone, really. It’s our extra space.” They separate, and he grasps for the first time the attic’s scope. It mirrors the entire floor plan, save for the three porches, and while the coverings make it cozy, the beds, of which he counts three, illustrate the expanse. Following her around a corner the floor’s texture changes, to a lush fur over some sort of padding, and he realizes it is four mattresses, buried beneath the rugs, and two full size couches at their rear, facing outwards from the wall to his right.
“This is our movie theater,” she says, indicating the projector overhead, mounted on the wall behind the couches, and the dvd player to their right. “It plays on that wall, and there’s surround sound.” He finds the speakers, tall ones in the front and sizable rear ones, matte black, mounted on the wall to either side of the sofas.
“Wow. Whose is this?” He makes the mistake again of treating the house like a normal apartment, like the collection of a disparate groups’ belongings.
“It’s ours. We all chipped in for the projector, and an old housemate got the speakers.” Her simple statement surprises him, a reminder that although the living style is communal, although the people are artists and travelers, this is a space built with a purpose, by a group of people dedicated to its creation. In housing, as in everything, scale requires means and shared desire, opportunity and perseverance. Reaching the attic’s front-most bed he looks out, through a small window at the peak of the roof, down into the trees and the fog that swims through them. The house, its immaculate lawn, and the street below sit in some parallel world, with San Francisco both just over the hill and unimaginable at the same time.