Wherefore Art Thou American Dream?

I lived in a townhouse just like this, if not this very one, from age 2-4.

The American Dream.

It means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Attainable for some, regretted by many, unimaginable for others. For immigrants entering the United States it’s the promise of steady work and a better life. For many of us born here, it’s having a family and home ownership.

As my body decays in my car during my 45-mile daily commute and as I ruminate on some recent events in my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., I wondered how the seed of this American dream gets planted. I can’t speak for anyone else, although I’d like to hear from you in the comments.

Why was I compelled to buy a house?

For me it’s a deeply personal reason and experience. My parents had lived in numerous places – Korea, Columbus, Ga., Erie, Penn. I am the son of a disc jockey who decided that the volatile world of radio was too much once I came along in 1969. My father moved us back to his hometown of Rochester (he grew up in Scottsville) and ended up working tool and die for Bernz-o-Matic. The company made propane powered camping gear a la Coleman and tools a la Craftsman. When I was a small boy, the company decided to relocate. My father was told to relocate at his own expense or lose his job. He chose the latter.

I’m not sure when it happened. It couldn’t have been while he was unemployed but I remember going to look at manufactured homes. We rented a townhouse at Arborwood Crescent and moved to a duplex when I was four. I distinctly recall the agent or whatever he was telling my father he did not make enough money to qualify to purchase one of these homes and that he was welcome to come back when he did.

Have you ever heard silence? I have. I felt it. I never want to hear it again. We drove home in quiet. I asked my father what it all meant. He said nothing. That was the day I realized silence could be an actual, physical thing. I know because it manifested itself that day. And it scared the living piss out of me.

I lived in this duplex house, upstairs and downstairs from age 4-14.

The duplex on Michigan Street was serviceable. All the houses in the neighborhood were built in the 1920s and had never been renovated. We had oil heat. That was an adventure. My father used to siphon oil from the neighbor’s tank when we couldn’t afford a delivery.

I never knew we were poor. I am thankful for this. I always had a birthday and I always had a Christmas. There were no extras, there were no trips to Disneyland.

When I was nine, my father landed the job with the City of Rochester from which he would eventually retire. The push to buy a house resumed in earnest. By 1984, I was 14, we bought a house a block away for $44,000. It was the first and only house my father ever bought. He refinanced a few times and drove the monthly payments down. He died in 2007, seven years shy of paying off a 30-year mortgage. I used some of my inheritance to pay off the balance.

After my folks passed away, I put their household goods in storage. I had nowhere to put anything. The 950-square foot condo we were renting was way too small as it was with a two-year-old and his ever-expanding need for space. I was bleeding money paying gas and electric bills in the interim until I could sell my parents’ house.

So, I bought a house 45 miles from my job. I took advantage of the real estate market crash. I paid a third of what a similar house near my job cost at the time. The commute is killing me. My chronic back problems tell me so. I was driven to buy this house. There was no not buying a house. But why?

The one and only house my father ever bought.

After recent issues with my parents’ house in New York that I am not at liberty to disclose here, I have had occasion to examine this seminal urge to purchase a house. As much as home ownership and raising a family and all that are drilled into our heads from an early age, I tried to find the moment the seed was planted in my head or my heart – or both.


It was the day my father was told he couldn’t afford one. The day I felt silence.

He was driven to provide for his family, to put a permanent roof over our heads.

I know people who walked away from mortgages during the crash because of predatory lending and adjustable rate loans. I almost get that. I have heard stories of people who sold their homes just because they had negative equity situations. I don’t get that. I know someone who has bought several homes in succession in the last six years or so because of career and life choices.

HOUSE, n.A hollow edifice erected for the habitation of man, rat, mouse, beetle, cockroach, fly, mosquito, flea, bacillus and microbe. House of Correction, a place of reward for political and personal service, and for the detention of offenders and appropriations. House of God, a building with a steeple and a mortgage on it. House-dog, a pestilent beast kept on domestic premises to insult persons passing by and appal the hardy visitor. House-maid, a youngerly person of the opposing sex employed to be variously disagreeable and ingeniously unclean in the station in which it has pleased God to place her. – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

I have always wanted to own a house, especially after barracks and ship living in the Navy, renting apartments and townhouses. You can never do what you want. You can’t listen to loud music, experience a movie with surround sound, or paint the walls purple. There’s always someone pounding on the wall telling you to “turn it down!” You own a house and you can pretty much do what you want with it unless you suffer an evil overlord homeowner’s association.

George Carlin described owning a house as having a place to put your stuff. You bought a bigger house when you accumulated more stuff. In my case, I needed a place to put my parents’ stuff and ours. Much of their stuff has been liquidated or sprinkled throughout the house. I’m only keeping what has sentimental or historical value to me.

The issues with my parents’ house have brought me to a sad conclusion. I knew Rochester was not going to be where I’d spend my adult life. As a kid, I just knew it. I have hundreds of second and third cousins who call Western New York home, some I care for dearly. My lifelong pal lives there. But it’s not home. It’s just the place where I grew up. And I really have no reason to go back.

That actually leads me to a future blog topic. I’ll delve into it a bit more another day, but why is it when we leave our hometown for parts unknown nobody comes to visit? With rare exceptions, immediate family and the aforementioned lifelong pal, you have to go home to see people – people don’t come to you. Oh, they talk a big game. But they can’t be bothered when it comes down to it. But, I digress.

I don’t plan on dying in this house, I don’t even plan on playing out the 30-year mortgage, but I was driven to buy it and now I know why.

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