Hamtramck Love Letter

Reflections on my journey to stay in one place

I never imagined I would be washing his dishes: the remains of some crusty casserole, six or eight months old; a mystery Tupperware; a rimmed teacup. I’m sure that if he had could have known that I, a woman he met only once, would be cleaning up after him, he may have taken care of the mess himself. Or maybe not. Maybe a century-old man only needs one plate and one cup, and maybe he relishes in leaving the rest of them dirty. Maybe he feels he’s cleaned enough dishes in his life and gets a kick out of the idea of some family member, some hired worker, some stranger doing it for him. I don’t really know what he thought or what kind of man he was because our time only barely intersected. Ben Jaros lived in one home each of his 98 years and I have now passed one of mine in that same house. His house. My house. Home.

I moved here scared and reluctant after finding out that my apartment was turning into a condo and that my work-for-rent gig was over. I had bought a $500 home in the tax auction but it had no windows, electricity, plumbing, or heat and it was still winter. I had not signed a lease since my divorce and, after moving twelve times in three and a half years, I seemed to know less about where I belonged than where I didn’t.

These frequent moves gave me a strong sense of respect for the idea of “home” so I think that’s why I was so stunned when I met Mr. Ben Jaros in front of his house in Hamtramck that he proudly told me had never moved from. I asked if I could take his picture and he agreed. Immediately, I knew this picture would be the olive branch in our friendship: I would print the image of the old man with his house as a gift and he would paint a picture for me with stories of his time there. I wanted to know what he had lived through and, even more than that, I wanted my restless soul to learn what it was like for a person to be satisfied with what they already had.

My intentions were good but I didn’t exactly prioritize this little project. Nine months passed until I finally printed the photo, found a frame for it, isolated a time in my schedule, recalled the address, and summoned up the nerve to drop by. Nobody home. I returned for a second time and contemplated the house. Was the old man asleep so early or just gone? A neighbor, walking his big yellow dog, passed by me on the sidewalk and told me that the old man had done what it took most people significantly less time to do: he had died.

I went home feeling disappointed and inexplicably sad about my failure to anticipate this inevitable event. It seemed to matter that I’d never get the chance to hear those stories.

Meanwhile, I was living in a beautiful apartment in Detroit as a building superintendent. After all those years of moving, I had narrowed my belongings down to “fun size” to ease the burden of the imminent transition. But at this apartment, I had let myself accumulate the many trappings of a stable life (mattress! dresser! lamp!) because I believed my space would serve as the “model unit” for the building’s upcoming transition from apartments to condos, and that I would be living there throughout that long process. I remember the pride I had felt sliding a little tab with my name on it into the slot for my little mailbox. I had claimed it: home.

Then, I found out that I had to leave my apartment. Again. I stared at that framed picture of the old man who never moved and realized that wherever I moved to next, I couldn’t bring it with me. But I also couldn’t throw it out. I searched online records for a man whose name I knew from that little iPhone note I’d written myself in that 2-minute conversation a year ago, until I found, in the recent editions of The Hamtramck Review, the obituary, which cited Polonia funeral home, who I then called and was put in touch with the family of the deceased. I asked for an address to mail a gift to and, instead, received a request for personal delivery, which found me sitting on an orange velvet armchair in the middle of the living room of that old house whose image I held in my hand while a player piano churned out a hands-free tune to a room full of people I’d never met.

The Jaros family was spread around a long living room filled with ancient furniture, heavy curtains, thick carpet and mothball air. When the music ended, we introduced ourselves, exchanged hugs, and shared stories. Eventually, the conversation turned to the house. It was empty, they said- Ben had never married and had no children, and the rest of the family had moved out of the area. Would I be interested in buying it?

The short answer was, “no.” Even if I wanted it, I couldn’t afford it and I wasn’t sure I could live in this stuffy museum anyway (It was lovely but “Catholic” isn’t really my design aesthetic.). Anyway, I already had a house I wanted to live in one day and I didn’t need another project

Some time passed. I did the usual apartment search, but fear or indecision or fate kept me from making any choices. In February, my job ended so my income plummeted and I was cheated out of $2,000 of savings on a Craigslist scam. I had to move at the end of the month and things were getting desperate. With no assurances that I could or would buy it, the relatives of a stranger let me move into their beloved family home.

The first night in that house was scary. It seemed that there was so much house but no space for me. It was still filled with furniture and boxes and remnants from other lives lived here. I cleared off one of the mattresses and found something that looked like blood rimming the box spring. The shower didn’t work so I took little bird baths in the cold water dripping from the faucet.

Every surface was thick with dust. I cleaned and, when I emptied the heavy vacuum filter, I saw the dust and hair and skin cells of people who were no longer living falling away.

I counted five different types of electrical outlets, but none that could plug in my modern appliances. There were ostentatious ship-themed sconces and a tacky nautical mural plastered directly into the wall. There were bedpans and buckets and bags of clothes and vacuums all around the house. I washed the crusty dishes and wondered how the hell I had ended up there.

It was also beautiful in many ways. I loved the curve of the plaster on the walk up the stairs and the decal in the ceiling. I loved the big bedroom and the front porch and the way I somehow belonged to this one house on the big block packed tight with little houses.

At one point, I rummaged through the bags of unclaimed clothes that were heading to Salvation Army. I found three soft sweaters that had once belonged to Ben and put them on. It didn’t feel creepy, it felt cozy. They became part of my winter uniform.

I stayed. The family allowed me to buy appliances and make repairs instead of paying rent. I learned to “water” the boiler every day and fell asleep at night to the whistle of the steam radiators. I got a job- a great job- and got to the point where I actually qualified for a mortgage. I shoveled the sidewalk and met the neighbors.

Ben’s family told me all about the house. Ben’s parents were the original owners. They had been Polish immigrants who landed in New York City. Mr. Jaros Sr. worked for the Aeolian piano company (which explained the player piano that now sat in my living room) until he was recruited by Fisher Body and moved to Detroit. His family crammed into overcrowded temporary housing and, while he was at work all day, his wife put the children in a wagon and walked up and down and around town looking for a home to buy. She discovered this house while it was still under construction and, for $2.00 down, they bought it. That was 1915. The kitchen was in the basement and the house was heated with a coal furnace. The oldest daughter went back to Poland to work as handmaiden to a duchess until World War II broke out and she had to leave Europe. She returned home with an advanced sense of style and later oversaw many of the wonderful and strange renovations that remain today. Ben was drafted to the Army and trained in Texas (technically, this was his only time not living in the home). He never served in active duty because he was so good at baseball that the Army captain maneuvered for him to stay in order to beat the Navy team in scrimmages at the base. Ben’s sophisticated sister later married and the house gained a second story so the newly-weds wouldn’t have to leave. Her husband spoke another language and was unable to communicate with his parents-in-law. Another sister was blind and never moved or married. At one time, eleven people lived in the home. All these stories, and more, I might’ve heard from Ben if I had ever taken him out for that breakfast, but instead, I lived them like inherited memories in the place I now call home.

I had never really lived alone before: I grew up with five sisters, lived with friends in college and got married at 21. At different times in my life, I have been at home in New York City and alone in the woods. I am comfortable everywhere and I belong nowhere. When my marriage ended, I found that the hardest thing was figuring out where to live. I made decisions, but I really didn’t know what I wanted. Eventually, I learned that I wanted at least to be able to stay or leave on my own terms, and that meant making a commitment. I imagined Ben’s spirit infusing me with an anchoring sense of stability, I allowed myself to believe that what had been good enough for him for nearly a century might be good enough for me.

In September of 2016, I bought the home and became the first person outside of the Jaros family to own it. I planted a tree in the back yard, painted the front door yellow, and adopted a stray cat.

Around town, I have my favorite grocery store, my favorite hardware. I go on walks and pick up trash with my cat wandering behind me. I get voicemails from my neighbor about garbage cans and gardening and water bills. On Sundays, I sometimes sing at the old coffee shop. I mow my lawn and ride my bike and feel at home. I do not know how long I will stay, I just know that I have no plans to leave, and that feels very very good.

Hamtramck is a small city landlocked within the much larger city of Detroit. It is something of an island surrounded by railroad tracks and factories and highways. Such isolation can lead to suffocation as often as to sanctuary, but Hamtramck has thrived in its own unique way and is the densest place in Michigan. Its slogan− “the world in two square miles”− denotes the incredible diversity it contains, with 44% immigrants, the first majority Muslim city council in America, and sizable minorities of Yemeni, Polish, Bengali, Ukranian, and racially diverse Americans.

When driving down I-75, Hamtramck is a single exit. At highway speeds, the sign announcing its presence is consecutive to the one announcing its passing- hlink and you’ll miss it. Before I lived in here, I used to joke that the name Hamtramck was really a verb that meant “to quickly enter or exit.” Now I know that, for every car on the highway, there’s a destination at the end, and if you go slowly enough, it’s possible to get stuck in Hamtramck’s orbit.

I never sang publicly before I moved to Hamtramck and found a space for a friend, and a guitar, and I at the local coffee shop. It was just the other day, there with my new neighbors around me, as I sang my favorite line from my favorite song, when I realized that Ben’s wisdom had passed into me if only by virtue of the fact that I love these words so much: “you might make it further if you chose to stay.”

Michele Oberholtzer, in front of her home. Age 30, year 2016

Ben Jaros, in front of his home. Age 97, year 2014

5 thoughts on “Hamtramck Love Letter

  1. Pingback: abundant brevity: an acknowledgement of Time | OberDoIt

  2. Hello Michèle, it is such a touching story about the house and you. I am glad to know that my daughter is staying in this house, a house with history.
    Florence, Aude´s mum

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