The words are flying out quicker than I can digest them. People are so proud of their cities. “Where are you taking her?” one asks. “She has to see the Bean – let me know when you’re going, I want to come,” another chimes. “Whatever she wants to do,” my friend says. Then she turns to me, “Hey, did you know the Winslow house is like, five minutes away from here?”
This is the part where my jaw drops. I’ll be honest – I didn’t come to Chicago with any particular goal in mind other than to see my friend, but the mention of Family Matters made my ears perk up like someone had just told me I’d won a free something. “Really? Can we go there? After this, maybe?” “This” is drinks with her coworkers at a cute taco bar. Angels and Mariachis. We’re sitting outside, so naturally my eyes begin to dart around in search of the coveted Winslow home. “Sure,” she agrees.
“If you’re interested in visiting movie houses, there’s a ton nearby. The Home Alone house is in the suburbs, and John Hughes shot basically all of his films here,” someone offers. My eyes light up like I’d just snorted any number of white, powdery substances. “Maybe we should do this during the day? We can map out all of the houses we want to go to and…” my friend starts. “Sure,” I say. “As long as we can take pictures.”
On Labor Day, three of us pile into a rented car and prepare for the drive. Shannon, Mark, and me. I’d been in Chicago for a few days now, and partying with my former college roommate like we were still in college had taken its toll on all of us. Our minds and bodies were moving in slow motion. Still, I couldn’t leave Chicago without taking this ride. It’d been on my mind all weekend.
I sit shotgun and hold the directions in my hand, feeling less-than-confident about directing our driver. I’m too distracted by Chicago. It happens every time I visit a new city, some sort of foreign familiarity washes over me and I feel like I’ve seen all of it before except it’s slightly off-kilter; a tweaked version of something I know already. It’s kind of like falling in love again. Distracting.
“We’re going to the Winslow’s first,” Shannon announces. “Sweet,” I say. I glare out of the window. A rock station plays softly in the background.
We arrive in 15 minutes or so. Shannon eases up on the gas pedal as we drive down the street. “Keep your eyes peeled, it’s going to be on the left,” I say, which is sort of obvious because there’s a park to the right of us. Did you know the Winslow family lived across the street from a park? I didn’t.
We park alongside a playground and look at each other stupidly. “Now what?” I ask. There’s a ton of people outside, doing normal things like bringing their kids to Little League or watering their lawns; and then there’s us, casing the joint, waiting for the right moment to hop out of the car and take photographs of a stranger’s home.
We reluctantly stand at the entrance of the park and zoom in with our lenses. The house seems to have been frozen in time. Wedged between two modern residences, it felt a bit left behind — the way most of the ‘90s does. I was happy it hadn’t been restored, perhaps selfishly so.
We snap a few shots of the house, none of them spectacular because we were intent on remaining inconspicuous. Do people know what we’re doing, whose house this is? Does this happen frequently? A man walks through the sideyard to the front of the house and begins fiddling with a front step. We all feel slightly distressed – is this awkward and are we being obtrusive or is this kind of thing expected, what is it like to live in this house or in any house made famous by a popular sitcom? “Let’s go,” someone says, and we all agree and silently trudge back to the car.
Once we’re situated, the tension melts and we dissolve into relaxed giggles. “That was so weird,” one of us says, all of us say. Home Alone house is up next, so we buckle up and set out on the road.
In high school, I shared a county with a wealthy enclave called the Redwoods. Intimidating mansions peppered the mountain it was situated on; the higher you went, the more impressive the plot. At the very top of the mountain was a gated residence that belonged to Madonna. She didn’t actually live there; in fact, it’d been on the market for some time when I’d first heard of it. Hidden from plain view, the only way to see the actual house was to pull into the driveway – a feat that proved difficult, since the gate was locked indefinitely. Except for one day when my friends and I drove by on a blunt ride. The gate was wide open, so we pulled in and navigated the winding driveway. We chattered excitedly; so much had led to this moment. The buildup was incredible. When we’d come to a stop, we rolled down the windows and peeked out. The house engulfed us with its mass, casting shadows over my friends, the car, the mountain. Swallowing us. Even a house no one lives in has the potential to take on a life of its own.
The McAllisters live in a nice neighborhood, we decide. I have trouble connecting to this one, and I question if watching Home Alone to refresh my memory before coming would’ve been the right thing to do. It’s unfamiliar but impressive nonetheless. Vivid red brick with creamy white trim. It’s quieter than the Winslow’s block, zero foot traffic and minimal cars. We take turns standing in front of the house, open palms on our cheeks and our mouths agape in an exaggerated “O.” This is easy, I think. Whenever a car appears, we run onto the curb, pretending to be lost or stretching or just… normal. We look away as they drive past, down or up or at each other; except one time, we see a Jeep full of guys our age, showing us their teeth as they sail by. It’s then that we realize they don’t belong here either; that they’d come for the same reasons we had. The owners of the home crossed my mind again – where were they on this holiday Monday? At a friend’s barbecue? Shopping a Labor Day sale? How strange it must be, to have people visiting your home without knowing where or who you are.
I grew up in a Park Slope co-op. Unlike the majority of the houses in the neighborhood, it wasn’t a brownstone. Instead it had two grey pillars; the door and panes were painted a baby blue. We moved away when I was 13, but I’d make time to visit whenever I found myself in Brooklyn. I also made a habit of taking my boyfriends there, like it was an exhibit in the museum I’d curated. Maybe I thought seeing it would help them understand something about me that I could never quite articulate.
I took the first boyfriend to see it after we’d spent the day shooting photographs. He’d taught me how to use a camera at Coney Island and Greenwood Cemetery and afterward, I told him, I’d like to go to Smiling Pizza on 7th Avenue. My dad would take me there for lunch whenever we spent the day in Prospect Park. “Let’s go to my house, while we’re over here,” I said. My house. He agreed. “I want to take a picture,” I told him, and I did. He also took a few, and when the rolls of film were developed, his photos were decidedly better than mine. I’d been standing too close.
Our adrenaline levels are ebbing and flowing. “I’m really dehydrated,” I say once we’re driving away from the brick house. “I need… something. Can we stop somewhere before the last house?” We pull into a small strip. I order soup and water and a Diet Coke. We pass the camera around, laughing at the photos because who knows why? “I’m so happy we’re doing this,” I say aloud, or maybe I say it to myself. I picture myself in an alternate universe, back home in New York and wasting the day and my body and my mind. I am so happy, I think.
My friends and I had a blunt trail, one that took us through the winding roads of Chestnut Ridge. The third or fourth time we drove those roads, I discovered and dumbly coined what’s now referred to as “The Cool Room.” The Cool Room is an uninspired name for a room that’s anything but. It was on the second floor of a stranger’s home and had large, inviting windows. The lights were always on. I don’t know what kind of room The Cool Room was – if it was a living room or a study or a bedroom – all I know is that every inch of space was covered with something I wanted to touch. Colorful books and swirling tapestries and marionettes and art deco light fixtures. We’d slow down whenever we drove by, but it was impossible to take it all in at once. Years later, we drove by and The Cool Room was gone. The owners had redecorated or moved, who knows. I never found out who lived there.
“Goddammit. We can’t see anything!” We’re parked outside of Cameron Frye’s house, made infamous in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – a film as old as I am. What you maybe don’t know about this house is that it’s actually a garage. There’s a paneled, partially transparent house on the same plot of land, but it didn’t appear in the movie. Cameron’s bedroom, the Ferrari – they shared the same home. I wouldn’t learn this until later on.
The road we’re on is narrow; parking the car would prevent two cars from passing one another. Luckily, there aren’t many cars on this street – save for one, parked in the driveway. A pickup truck. We pull over and walk up and down the curb, but we can’t get a view of the garage without trespassing. “Come over here,” I say, crunching fresh foliage beneath my feet. “I can sort of see something if I just zoom in…” but no one comes. We’re fatigued, discouraged. The three of us exchange a look that says maybe it’s time to pack it in.
We resign to the car and begin to pull a U-Turn when we see them – another car full of kids looking for Cameron Frye’s house. I see them and I don’t want to give up just yet. “Keep going.” We drive to the top of the road, then turn around, passing the house once more. To our surprise, a tall, older man is rummaging through the front of the pickup. “Steph, ask him if we can see the house!” and I freeze up. Are we doing this? Am I doing this? I roll the window down. “Excuse me,” I yell, my voice raspy, “Can we take a look at the house?”
One day, my doorbell rang and when I opened the door, an older woman was on the other side. “May I speak with Lawrence?” she said. My forehead wrinkled in disapproval. “Why?” Lawrence was my then 92-year-old grandfather. “I’d just like to ask him a few questions.” My guard is up, waving like a red flag. “My mother handles all of his business. He’s 92. Who are you?” “Your aunt called because she visited yesterday, and she’s concerned about your grandfather.” My muscles relax. “I don’t think so.” The social worker persists. “Your Aunt Karen wasn’t here?” Had I been drinking a beverage at the time, I would’ve spit it out in disbelief. “Who? I haven’t seen her in well over a decade. I can assure you she wasn’t here yesterday, or ever. She doesn’t even have this address. If you want to speak to my grandfather, you have to go through my mom.”
I shut the door and called my mom at work. When she came home, my grandfather told her that it’d slipped his mind; but her estranged sister had visited the day before. Walked around our home without our knowledge and man, were we upset. Our home had been violated. We had been violated.
“I don’t own the place, I’m just keeping it for the owner,” he tells us. He’s a tall, fit man in his fifties or maybe his forties, if he’d had a rough life. At first you don’t see them, but there are welts on his skin – the shape and size of cigar burns. He continues. “I’ll show you the garage, just don’t wander off the path.”
We walk around the side of the house and there it is: the glass garage. It’s empty now, or mostly empty. A mop and bucket rest in the northernmost corner. The garage sits on stilts, and beneath it is a ravine 30 or 50 or some other large number of feet below. We could die here, I think.
“People think they can just come here, you know? But it’s my home. I’ve been assaulted twice protecting it. Once, a bunch of kids came here to have a picnic – when I caught them and told them to leave, one of the guys pushed me, told me ‘Don’t ruin our day,’ …imagine? I mean, this is my home. I live here,” he tells us as he suffocates a cigarette with his sneaker.
Everything I’d done that day replayed in my head. Was I a bad person? I would never threaten or assault someone, but I’d forgotten that these weren’t just houses, they were homes. With people living in them. How could I forget that? The laughs and the pictures and the excited air we were exhaling – those shiny moments dulling with every word he spoke until they were extinguished completely, like the butt under his foot.
“The movie wasn’t even that good,” he says.
The second boyfriend I took to see my Park Slope co-op wasn’t my boyfriend yet, but I wanted him to be. And eventually he was, and eventually he wasn’t. We had some time to kill before a concert in the park, so I took him there. But when we arrived, the baby blue door was gone. A brown door with gold accents took its place and that’s when I knew it wasn’t mine anymore. That’s when I knew every shiny moment grows dull, it’s just a matter of time.