EXCERPT: Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams

Monday, March 9th, 2009

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

“If I were selling, I would, as they say in the ads, clean up good. Shopping for a house is like dating, minus, unfortunately, the cocktails and sex.”

The following is an excerpt from Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams. Read Larry Smith’s interview with Williams here.

A Tomb With a View

Photos by Bill Wadman

Photo by Bill Wadman

The ad says the house is in “Greenwood Heights,” and the map shows a street adjacent to a large patch of emerald. Two subway transfers, several stairwells, interminable waiting, and a lengthy walk down the industrial eyesore that is Fourth Avenue later, we’re at the address. It’s two blocks from the Gowanus Expressway, Interstate 278, and half a block from Brooklyn’s tremendous Green-Wood cemetery.

“At least the neighbors are quiet,” Jeff notes. And classy – the house is on the edge of Leonard Bernstein’s final resting place.

We might be able to process the comedown of the location were the house itself not such a $400,000 nightmare. The color scheme is brown, light brown, and paneling. A large deck has metastasized over the small yard. There are three inconsequential bedrooms, two of which are, surprisingly, triangular.

The broker stands in the center of all this wreckage, his face a rictus of chipper denial. “You ready to make an offer?” he inquires of Jeff.

“I think we need to talk it over,” he understatedly replies.

As we leave, Lucy trips down the front step. Her forehead opens up in a scarlet gash. Jeff scoops her wailing little form up, and carries her through the blocks and blocks of Fourth Avenue, to the three trains that will, eventually, get us back home.

It’s another weekend, another round of house-hunting.

Contest: What’s your six-word housing story? Leave it in the comments area at the end of this story. We’ll send a copy of Gimme Shelter to three readers, as well as both of SMITH’s six-word memoir books to Williams’ grand-prize winner.

The next day, undaunted, I take my bandaged child out for a sweep of Windsor Terrace. Windsor Terrace is the next neighborhood past the more upscale Park Slope, so it’s not as pricey. Jeff stays home to work on a freelance job, trying to bring in extra money for summer day camp payments.

The first place, on a dismally litter-strewn street, is $425,000. It has a broken-down staircase, vast piles of clutter, and several missing drawers in the kitchen. That last bit seems especially spiteful. It’s like they want to see how much they can insult the buyer and still get their price. A large dog howls ferociously in the yard, prompting Lucy to cling to my leg in terror.

If I were selling, I would, as they say in the ads, clean up good. Shopping for a house is like dating, minus, unfortunately, the cocktails and sex. If you’re not making an effort at the outset, it’s not going to get better when you reveal what’s lurking in your closet. Yet in this market, you can still make money even if you can’t bother to take the dirty dishes out of the sink, empty the litter box, or have drawers in your kitchen. The other day I passed by a house in our neighborhood for sale that didn’t have a roof, for God’s sake. I peered up through its windows and saw an unmistakable expanse of sky. When I called the seller he said he was asking $800,000.

One can only endure so much ugliness before the hysterical blindness kicks in, so we break for pizza. “Can we go home now?” Lucy whines as she pops a blob of cheese into her mouth. “Soon,” I reply sheepishly, as I realize this is the closest thing to fun either of us will have all weekend.

In the last few days my belly has begun to bulge, and my energy level is declining in direct proportion. Second trimester is the easiest, my ass. Not in New York City in the summer, not with a fetus who is clearly made of laudanum, it isn’t.

The next house is dark, musty, directly on an expressway, and, at $475,000, overpriced. The last place is a little house off Fourth Avenue, asking a cool half a million, which I am looking at simply for comparison. It’s adorable, and meticulously staged.

I’ll give the owners of this little house we’re looking at now credit. They’re the only ones who’ve made any attempt at wooing me, a ploy I always appreciate. The place is clean and fresh smelling. It’s at once inviting and impersonal, like a boutique hotel. It’s also been cleverly arranged to downplay the fact that it’s essentially a dollhouse.

There’s a loveseat in the living room. A café table for two in the “eat in kitchen.” A twin bed with a folksy quilt in the “master” bedroom and a sweet daybed in the second bedroom.

“I want to live here!” Lucy enthuses. Sure she does. It’s the perfect size for her and her Polly Pockets. If they tried to bring any real furniture in here, it wouldn’t fit. I’m glad I’m not further along in the pregnancy, or I’d take up the whole kitchen.

All of the houses I’ve seen today will sell, I’m sure, and soon. They will, with work, be right for someone else. It’s not insurmountable to replace drawers or countertops, or even to come up with storage solutions. We could live with aesthetic challenges and shortcomings in the right house in the right place, but could we accept a nonexistent roof atop a house we feel nothing for on an ugly block, just to say we own something? At what point is a move a Pyrrhic victory?

I watch Lucy sleeping in her toddler bed now, and wonder how she’ll fare if and when we ever find a place. Would she miss this little room? Would she even remember it? I moved as a kid; Jeff moved as a kid. People do this all the time, and somehow most of us survive. People like Mike and Debbie.

Debbie was my college roommate and Mike was her college sweetheart. They have two boisterous little boys close in age to Lucy. In August, we spend a weekend visiting them in their new house in Media, Pennsylvania.

I loved their old place in Philadelphia, a compact brick row house not far from the 30th Street station. For a major city, Philadelphia is still a real estate bargain. It also has a troubled school system, a crime index that’s nearly double New York’s and all of the requisite day-to-day hassle that comes with an urban environment. I don’t think our friends moved because they were burned out on Philly, though.

Mike and Debbie wanted the life they could give their kids in the suburbs. They wanted the good schools and closeness to Debbie’s parents and the swing set in the back and the pretty house. And that’s exactly what they got.

When we pull up to their drive, I am blown away. These two people that I once spent Friday nights drinking wine coolers and eating Bugles with are now the proud owners of a beautiful center hall colonial. It’s set back from the street, and empty lots adjacent and behind them provide an expansiveness that only lends to its grandeur. There’s an atrium on the side and a fireplace and an attic that’s bigger than most apartments I’ve lived in. Even the doors are strikingly solid and well made. They paid $275,000 for all this, a figure that could make a New Yorker weep. Yet even as Jeff and I linger over coffee in their roomy kitchen and light sparklers at twilight on their lawn, we don’t picture ourselves in a story that looks like theirs.

I’m not an urban absolutist. For every attraction of city living, there are as just many arguments for the alternative. It’s hard to dispute selling points like nature, elbowroom, and less paying through the nose for everything. It’s not that our life is quantifiably better in Brooklyn.

What it is, instead, is something my friend Carol casually observed one day at the playground. That afternoon, she had looked around at the abundant chaos around us – the swarms of people, the cars, the noise — and smiled appreciatively. “I love this,” she’d said. “I love just… stepping outside.”

That’s it. You can make the best of what’s inside four walls, but what characterizes your place in the world is what greets you when you step outside. It’s like the old guy I overheard in the deli once. “Leave?” he’d said. “I need my track. I need my bookies.” For Mike and Deb and their sons, it’s this lawn and this swing set and this hammock. For us, it’s the throb of humanity, viewed from a stoop.

Adapted with permission from Gimme Shelter, published by Simon & Schuster (March, 2009).


READ an interview with Mary Elizabeth Williams on SMITH.

VISIT Mary Elizabeth Williams’ web site.

WATCH the Gimme Shelter video preview.

WIN a copy of Gimme Shelter by telling us your six-word housing story in the comments section below the interview.

BUY Gimme Shelter.

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50 responses

  1. Call for Submissions: Your six-word housing story | Editors’ Blog says:

    [...] got an interview with Williams over at Memoirville, as well as an excerpt from her new book, Gimme Shelter: Ugly Houses, Cruddy Neighborhoods, Fast-Talking Brokers, and [...]

  2. And the Winners of the Six-Word Housing Story Contest Are… | Editors’ Blog says:

    [...] celebrate our excerpt of Gimme Shelter and interview with author Mary Elizabeth Williams, we held a little contest: [...]

  3. Gimme Shelter: Mary Elizabeth’s neighborhood » Blog Archive » Gimme Shelter in SMITH says:

    [...] Here’s the interview. And here’s the excerpt! [...]

  4. EXCERPT Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams Memoirville | Hammock Stand says:

    [...] EXCERPT Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams Memoirville Posted by root 25 minutes ago ( For mike and deb and their sons it this lawn and this swing set and this hammock for us it the throb of humanity the name you want displayed with your comment proudly powered by wordpress mu community by xoxco Discuss  |  Bury |  News | EXCERPT Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams Memoirville [...]

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    [...] EXCERPT Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams Memoirville Posted by root 8 minutes ago ( There an atrium on the side and a fireplace and an attic that bigger than displayed with your comment proudly powered by wordpress mu community by Discuss  |  Bury |  News | EXCERPT Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams Memoirville [...]

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