Sunday, January 19, 2020

New Year, New City, New Apartment, New Writing Space

“Oh, wow,” I said as we took our seats at the large table in the back room of the title company.

“What?” Jean said.

“This is the same table and the same chairs we sat in eleven years ago.”

My wife took stock of the room. “You’re right. That is weird.”

“Full circle,” I said as I reached for a pen to start signing the papers.

It was the end of a decade-long chapter in our lives, a long chapter full of ups and too many downs for the both of us. It was the longest either of us had lived in one place in our entire lives, but now it was time to leave Butte, Montana and put it in our rear-view mirror as we drove an hour north along the interstate to Helena. I held the pen lightly in my fingers and swirled my signature across a couple dozen papers, closing the sale of the house we’d bought in February 2009. In California, a gentleman we’d never met would be doing the same thing at roughly the same time. And then, our separate inks drying, the deed was done. The house was out of our hands.

Oh, Argyle Street House, I have loved you so over the years and my throat is soggy with tears at the thought of leaving you, but I think you and I both knew it was time to go. We made a lot of memories together, you and I.

This 4,000-square-foot Craftsman home, built in 1920 has housed many families over the years: the Martins, the Duttons, the Archibalds, the Casebeers. The hardwood floors and the narrow winding staircases creak with the voices of ghosts; the huge, immovable safe in the basement holds its own secrets; the hardwood bar has been polished by generations of drinkers’ elbows. Over the years of our ownership, the whole house shone with beauty, particularly after Jean finished adding her own beautiful design touches to each room—a vintage-white look that was prominently featured in the nationally-circulated magazine Cottages and Bungalows (you can see the sexy-gorgeous photo shoot here).

This was the house where I finished the final draft of my first novel, Fobbit, and wrote the entirety of my second novel, Brave Deeds. There, in the upstairs bedroom I converted into my writing space, is where this very blog was born. Many writer friends have stayed overnight in the spare bedrooms, and polished the basement bar with their elbows (along with a few tipsy slops of gin and tonics). This is the house where I have read more than a thousand books and which, until recently, I kept ten times that number on the tall white bookcases lining the basement. This was the house of Thanksgivings and Christmases and birthdays and anniversaries and epic video-game tournaments. It has been home to five cats and the occasional visiting dog (whose departure was always greeted with wary feline stretches and sniffings). It has ridden unharmed through several earthquakes, been battered by wind and snow, and has seen its walls drenched more than once by burst pipes. But it was always kind to us and never said a word during our multiple interior renovations (“Mrs. Abrams,” I said, trying to sound Reagan-esque as we re-did the kitchen several years ago, “tear down these walls!”). And during two Christmases, and two Christmases only, Argyle Street House endured in silent suffering the ignominy of my talentless attempts to string lights around the front porch.

Goodbye, good house. We will always hold you in our hearts with love and appreciation.

Not so much with Butte itself. I have feelings about the city and they’re....complicated. Soon after we moved there, Jean and I were full of hope and optimism for Butte, a once-great mining town whose glory days are crumbling in the past but whose renewal seems to always be on the menu of conversation at the local coffee shops. “It’s on the cusp of revitalization,” we told ourselves. “Any day now, it’s gonna turn the corner and really be something.” The city’s motto is “The Richest Hill on Earth,” and we hoped we could help the place cash in on that promise. But our payday never came and we eventually realized we were fools for waiting on the town to turn a corner.

Butte has been punched to the ground time and time again by the economy (and the occasional corrupt city leadership), but it’s always managed to stagger woozily to its feet and continue the fight. Over the years, we’ve heard it all. Butte is quirky, Butte is a hard nut to crack, Butte is beautiful, Butte is fugly, Butte is Butte and don’t, by God, try to change it. About two years ago, Jean and I realized that the town was starting to drag us down emotionally and physically. And so, eighteen months ago, we started to plot our escape.

At first, we thought we would literally escape in an RV, roaming the country like nomads in our 26-foot Thor Vegas; but one evening of sober math and writing a list of pros and cons made us realize that wouldn’t be financially feasible. And so we started planning for other options. Around this time, I got a new boss at work and I screwed my courage to the sticking point by going in to ask her if she thought telecommuting would be a viable possibility. To my surprise and overwhelming gratitude, she said yes. And so, starting this week, I am officially telecommuting from Helena, driving the hour south to Butte to my office just one or two days a week. The rest of the time, I’ll be working from our apartment in the state’s capital city.

The Blackstone in the 1930s

Ah yes, the apartment. Let me tell you about this place we found: we have fallen in love with it as surely as any high school geek fell in love with Molly Ringwald by the final reel of an 80s movie. The Blackstone is an old-school apartment building, built in 1915 (yes, we like to date older men—what of it?) and still going strong today with twenty-eight units for rent among its four floors. It has the atmosphere, as someone said on my Facebook page, of an apartment building from an 80s sitcom. I tend to liken it to apartments from noir films from the 1940s and 50s. I mean, it even has an old timey-time manual cage elevator.

Our apartment is also less than one-quarter the size of the living space than what we had at Argyle Street House.

We are not complaining, we are adjusting.

The Blackstone is located just off of Last Chance Gulch, Helena’s historic district, and we’re within easy striding distance of a dozen good (and gluten-free-friendly!) restaurants, two movie theaters, several banks, the post office, two yoga studios, art galleries, antique stores, the civic center, and not one but two independent bookstores. There is even a community theater kitty-corner from the Blackstone for goodness sake! The public library is less than half a mile away. It’s a tread-worn cliche, but I’ll say it anyway: Life is good.

We’re in a two-bedroom, one-bath on the fourth floor—the entire east side of the building—and, to our joy, we still have hardwood floors (with a whole new playlist of creaks). Here are a few photos of the decorating magic Jean has already performed in our new small space (with many more tweaks and changes to come, she assures me), complete with the typical feline photobombs....

The Entryway

The Living Room

The Dining Room

The Bedroom

The spare bedroom is taken up with a bed (go figure), so I have settled on a different location for my writing space: a sun porch near the back of the apartment which looks out onto the backside of the Blackstone and the opposite sun porches and neighbors’ windows. There is a strong Rear Window vibe going on here. I expect to gather new stories every time I glance out the window. A plastic owl perches on the top railing of my fire escape and I still do a startled double-take when I walk into the office. It’s not a huge writing space, but why should that matter much when all I need is a laptop and a place to set my coffee mug? I managed to get a metal shelf loaded with about two hundred of the books that are on my immediate to-be-read list (it’s only the tip of the TBR iceberg—the real list goes on for fifty single-spaced pages on my computer).

But even in this cold and drafty room, I find pleasure and comfort. I have my reading chair, I have a large folding table that works well as a desk, I have some companionable books smiling at me, I have my three cats that take turns curling like soft fuzzy heaters on my lap, I have the sound of my wife listening to YouTube videos in the next room, and, by walking a few short steps out to the dining room, I have a beautiful view of dawn breaking behind the spires of the Cathedral of Saint Helena a few blocks away. I’ll say it again: Life is damn good and I’m glad I’m here in this moment in this new town in this new life at the dawn of a new decade. Turn the page, begin a new chapter.


  1. I love your rear window view including the owl. We have been in this apartment for seven years and I want to move. There is nothing to do in this part of Texas except shop and go the doctor's appointments. The only thing keeping us here is three great hospitals and a few good doctors. We are thinking of moving to Tucson, AZ. Approach avoidance is making us stuck. Arizona has scenery, we are living in a very flat area. I have a lot of medical things wrong but I am bored with the flatness. I love museums and history, all they have here is a cockroach museum. Although they are dressed up and have furniture, I have never had a fondness for cockroaches, dead or alive. I want to move too!

  2. Knowing Butte well, and having spent time in Helena as a visitor, I so appreciate your lovely essays on this transition. Well-put and may 2020 bring you many creative pleasures within an easy walk of Last Chance Gulch! xoJane

  3. P.S. We made it a year in Elk Park (between Butte and Helena) in Mark's mother's Finnish family's homestead before decamping for San Francisco.....

  4. Thank you for sharing. Your description of the old house in Butte is especially warm. I share your feelings about Butte. Though I have not lived there, I watched property there for 20 years, visited every summer and a few winters too, made friends there, shopped at your wife's store and dreamed of which buildings I might move my life into. But in the last few years, Beautiful Butte mostly just makes me sad. I'm sure someone with more youth and energy will still see dreams in her, but it won't be me, either. Best of luck in your new adventures. I love your new writing room!

  5. This all looks lovely and feels just write/right. To your next chapter - the one you are writing and the one you are living.

  6. Anything is better than California