About A Boy’s Room
A boy should have a room. A boy should have some privacy. A boy should have a place where he can keep his important things: GI Joe, books, loose change, a piggy bank, posters of Batman and Robin and Superman, Karen Carpenter standing in front of their band’s van with Richard standing aside her like he’d just come off a coke high, Cass Elliot surrounded by lush gardens - my Matchbox cars – a VW bus with working doors, hood, and sliding moon roof, a Ford Mustang with mag wheels, an ambulance with a working rear door, and about 75 others, all gifts, mostly from my Aunt Maxine. And a million found things that are too precious to toss into the trash. I was 17 years old before I had a real bedroom with a proper dresser, a closet, and shelving to display all these terribly important adolescent rarities. I shared the room with one of my brothers after the older one finally moved out of our house. But before that I found a place that was all my own…that I made all my own.
The house I grew up in is the same house my mother grew up in. When built it had one bedroom. One. My mother had three sisters and a brother, and a crazy, divorced mother. They all lived in that house with the one bedroom. My grandmother was in the bedroom, and so my mother and aunts shared a bed stuffed into a tiny room off the living room. And when I say tiny, I mean the door would not even open all the way without hitting the bed. The door had panes of glass, so forget privacy. Before my grandparents divorced, my grandfather built a tiny closet in the corner of that tiny room. We called it the library. Never mind that it never held any books and was always used as a bedroom; it was meant to be a library, so we called it a library. That is where my mother grew up – in the library. My uncle Donnie slept on the couch in the living room.
When my parents married, which was just after my grandmother died, they bought the house from my grandmother’s estate and Mom didn’t even have to move her things…except to the one, real bedroom. At first my two older brothers shared that tiny room off the living room, continuing what was by then a family tradition in which I, too, would participate. When I was born my father built two rooms onto the back of our house: a den, or what for some reason we called the “back room” (seems our family just could not come up with proper names for rooms – although the bathroom really was the bathroom, thank God), and a bedroom for my brothers. Those two rooms were, and are, the cheapest, draftiest, coldest rooms I have ever experienced, and I have lived in a non-heated farmhouse in Italy, so that’s saying something. My father hired Uncle Donnie to put a gas heater in the bedroom, and it helped, but not much. My brothers, and eventually I, slept in that room, and in the winter sometimes wearing a coat and gloves. My mother was forever berating my father for hiring “some guys off the street” to build the addition. And that’s exactly what he did. He drove to the railroad yard in downtown Louisville and asked around for a couple of guys to build the addition.
“Can you build a couple of rooms onto the back of my house?”
“Okay, get in the car.”
For the first three years of my life I was at first in a crib in my parents’ room, of course, then I am told I was put in the tiny room off the living room – the library. That is, until my sister arrived. Then she moved in with me and that’s how it was until I was 12 years old. And let me tell you, girls get more attention than boys – at least in the living arrangements. It was understood that boys didn’t need their own space, or bed, or dresser, or place to hang all their frilly clothes. But girls do. We shared a bed. It was white, with gold trim, with a lovely pink canopy. The matching dresser couldn’t fit in the room, so it was placed in my parents’ room until I was 12 and when it was deemed that my sister needed a larger room and society deemed we should not be sharing a bed any longer. So my parents moved into the library, my sister took the bedroom, and I had a single bed placed in the corner of the den, or back room.
The back room was full of windows, without curtains, and so all the neighbors could see inside. I would take my night clothes to the bathroom at the other end of the house, change into them, then return to the back room for bed. The back door of the house was in that room, so everyone was always coming and going. A TV was in that room, so my father often sat in the back room watching TV while my Mother was watching in the living room. How is it that my father had his own room, but I didn’t even have a quiet place to sleep? “Because I work and pay the bills around here, that’s why.”
I was usually the second one up each morning, after my mother, because as soon as she came into the kitchen, which was adjacent to the back room, I was forced awake. And I was the last to go to sleep. I mean, who can go to sleep with everybody trudging through the room, out the back door, or into my brothers’ bedroom or in and out of the kitchen looking for a snack? By the time I was 15 I had had it.
The one good thing about the house addition, at least to me, was that it was built right on the ground on concrete blocks. So underneath the new bedroom and back room was a crawl space that my parents used for storage. We kept the yard tools and lawn mower in there. It was always damp and dank smelling, and a strong odor of gasoline permeated the space, which sometimes wafted up through the floorboards into the back room. There was a small door to the crawl space, about three feet high, that gave access to the space and allowed for locking. When I was looking for a space in our house to call my own, I turned to that crawl space.
In our basement I found a couple of plywood sheets that I used to divide off the crawl space into two separate little “rooms”. Now why I wanted two rooms I cannot remember, but that’s what I did. One was my “bedroom”, and the other was my “den”. My father sold carpeting for Sears, so I was able to get hold of a lot of old carpet samples he kept in the trunk of the car and place them on top of the dirt floor and voilà, I had my own, private room that no one else could, would, or even want to invade.
I spent hours and hours in that space. It looked like something a homeless person might live in. The walls were concrete block and the plywood. I loved it. I would do my homework there. I drilled a small hole in the floor above so I could shove an extension cord down to light up the space, the whole time my mother warning me, “don’t you burn this house down”. In time I even put a small TV down there and although the signal to the antenna wasn’t the best, I watched the old Saturday night lineup down there: All in the Family, M*A*S*H*, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. When I was in that space, I was for all intents and purposes outside, so I spent a lot of time in that space in my winter clothing, including a winter coat, hat, scarf, and gloves. In summer I would sometimes sleep there.
I used the space for about two years, when, as I said, my oldest brother moved out and I inherited his bed in the room he had shared with my other brother for 17 years. They each have some great stories to tell of that tumultuous relationship.
When I was about 23 I was helping clear out the crawl space. Everything had to go because I was about to build a deck off the back room for my parents, which would effectively shut off access to the crawl space. My mother wanted the lawn mower and gasoline out of there, anyway. “You can smell that gasoline in the back room; it’s gonna’ blow up the house someday.” She got worried about it after 30 years of storing it there.
I crawled into the space and found my old rooms and it all came flooding back to me. The hours spent doing homework (what homework I actually did), watching TV, or lying there and thinking about nothing. I missed those rooms.
The memories of my time spent in that crawl space have stayed with me my entire life. Even today they are more vivid than the time I spent in the real bedroom. It was great, but somehow not as sweet as that little crawl space under the house. Perhaps because I had made it on my own, I don’t really know. I only know a boy should have a room.