I’m staying in a little house with a funky smell. It’s not a “cottage” because that word implies cuteness. It’s not cute. It’s a modest house on East Haymore Street, borderlining on ugly.
Cheap carpet, old wood, vinyl siding, nothing fancy. And for the love of God, what is that funky smell?
In the den is a sofa with faded plaid upholstery. It looks like something my granny would have owned. Like something everyone’s grandmother owned, back when grannies still watched Billy Graham on black-and-white television sets the size of chifforobes.
The ceiling has water spots. The kitchen is dated. The appliances are ancient. Especially the stove. It’s a 1950s Hotpoint electric range.
And just when I don’t think this place could get any more hideous, I see across the street—not fifty feet from my bedroom window—the dang city water tower. Two hundred stories of municipal eyesore towering overhead like a monster.
My wife rented this ugly house for my birthday. You’re probably wondering why. I am too.
Maybe she did it because I’m a low-rent kind of guy. Maybe because I come from modest people and I’m uncomfortable in fancy digs.
When I first started public speaking for a living, I once stayed in a notable hotel that gave new meaning to the word “swanky.” I was there to entertain members of a big organization that required me to sign privacy disclosure agreements beforehand.
The elaborate shindig was held in Alabama. I have no earthly clue why they hired a yahoo like me.
It was pure extravagance. You should have seen it. The event was catered by a barbecue joint from Kansas City. A private pilot had flown the steaming pork 700 miles south while it was still hot. And, by God, they had a party.
Southern dignitaries discussed their golf swings while sipping highballs made from liquor that was worth a working man’s salary.
The organization put me up in a hotel suite with three bedrooms. There was a hot tub shaped like a butterfly. A bottle of bourbon on my pillow.
I was miserable. For one thing, I don’t care for bourbon. For another, what was I going to do with three bedrooms?
But getting back to this dingy house. It’s wonderful. The worn out carpet, the stained kitchen countertops, the microwave looks so old that it could cook food from across the kitchen.
The tiny bathroom requires you to hike your knees when you sit on the john. A musty smell comes from the water heater closet that makes me nauseous. The wingback chairs are pure dust.
The dilapidated neighborhood is even better. The driveways all have high-mileage vehicles that look like my aunt and uncle are going to crawl out at any second and start arguing about how my uncle was grinning their waitress.
I count five rundown trucks parked alongside the curb. They are the kind my father spent entire weekends underneath. He would shout, “You miserable piece of—” then fall silent when he saw me nearby.
There is a church across the street, they’re holding a funeral today. All the cars have headlights blaring. The little church looks like the one I grew up in.
Churches with old ladies who believe in the healing power of lemon chicken casserole. And quilting circles. Women who make sure all God’s children are so terrified of the Rapture that no child’s underpants stand a chance.
My wife paid top dollar to stay in this dump. Funky smell and all. And you’re still probably wondering why we’re here. I’m getting to that.
One time my brother-in-law invited me on an all-expenses-paid cruise to Mexico. The boat was ridiculous. Brass railing, chandeliers, people wearing tuxedos, and a buffet with one purpose: To make me fat.
I ate meals between meals. By the middle of the trip my belt was showing signs of structural damage.
Each evening we attended high-brow concerts on the main deck, featuring Russian and Polish pianists who all had names like Fgieüdnemwoeoej Van Gieiêbsospoihhhh. The music was so sophisticated the audience applauded using only their index fingers.
A wine sommelier asked if we wanted refills, only he didn’t call them “refills,” he used a French word. God forbid anyone offer us a Miller Lite.
Our cabin’s balcony overlooked the Gulf of Mexico. Trailing behind the ship were white waves the size of Houston. After dinner, I would visit the casino and watch men in white ties play blackjack with blue chips that represented condominiums, swimming pools, and Lexuses.
It was the finest place I’ve ever seen. But compared to this funky-smelling bungalow, that cruise ship was a festering dung heap to me.
Because you can’t change who you are or who you come from. And I come from common people. My people believed in simplicity. They wouldn’t dare buy a new stove when they could fix the 1950s Hotpoint for twenty bucks. They changed their own oil. Burned their own trash. They had simple houses just like this one.
Right now, I am lying in a twin bed, staring at a sign which reads: “Andy Griffith’s Homeplace 1935-1966.” That’s because this house was Andy Samuel Griffith’s childhood home. This is his bedroom. His mother probably measured his height on the kitchen doorjamb in pencil.
He was a hero of mine. And after my father died, you could even say Andy helped raise me. One of the reasons I liked him was—at least on TV—he never seemed to care about the finer things. He cared about people like me. Because he was people like me. Somehow, he made me proud to be from simple means.
And here, lying in this bed, with an ugly water tower above me, and this godforsaken funky smell, I understand why.