Just when I thought that my life was beginning to settle down a bit after my tumultuous years with Paul, things started getting even crazier. Paul was now living with one of our old friends whom he’d had a crush on for years. Unfortunately, she and Justin didn’t get along, and he soon moved in with us. So much for my hopes that he and his dad would finally figure out a sustainable relationship. Understandably, our fourteen-year-old was angry about many things, my new relationship, his dad’s relationship and leftovers from all of the fighting he’d heard over the years. Dick and I were living in The Free School neighborhood. I was still working there at first, and Austin was still a student there. This new apartment was very convenient and, although it was small, it was comfortable and affordable. It was in the South End of Albany, and Justin started running around with the neighborhood kids who were also troubled. He had gotten caught smoking pot with some friends when he should have been in school and was suspended for a while. He hated school and kept getting into trouble, so I agreed to let him homeschool. My kids were smart and my own experience in school had been such a disaster, I hoped he would thrive by being on his own. Unfortunately, all he wanted to do was read about gangsters. I did manage to get him to do more than that, but I was worried about the direction he was going in.
He decided to apprentice at The Free School and loved it. The students liked him, and he was thriving on being in that leadership role. But in the evenings, he was out cruising around in the ghetto. Then, one night, he and a friend decided to break into the school. They stole a bunch of AV equipment, VCRs and the like. They brought them up to the roof of one of the buildings and wrote a note apologizing for the theft, but it was too late. They got arrested and hauled off to jail. It turned out that all of the equipment was broken, and the school decided not to press charges. However, the DA decided to prosecute anyway, probably because Justin’s partner in crime was a black teen. He ended up spending a little time in jail before we could post bail. He was convicted of the crime, put on probation, had to pay a fine and do community service. But he continued to flounder. Soon, Dick noticed that his box of change seemed to be reduced, and the loose change in his locked car was disappearing. He set a few James Bond type traps, like a hair across the crack, on his drawer to prove there was thieving going on. The hair was never disturbed, and the car was always locked, but the money kept disappearing. It was making us crazy. Many years later, I found out that Justin was wise to the hair and just replaced it every time he went into the drawer. He didn’t tell me how he got into the car, and I didn’t ask.
Understandably, after the theft, my relationship with the other teachers and Free School community changed. Although other kids in the community had stolen things from time to time, Justin was made the scapegoat. I suppose it was because I always kept myself a little removed from the cultish nature that I perceived in the community, always being a bit of an outsider. Justin lost his full-time babysitting job because the woman he worked for lived in a Free School apartment. Then, I was told that Justin was not allowed to live in the apartment we were renting from The Free School. I responded with a reminder of the illegality of that decree and started looking for another place. We soon moved to The Mariner’s House on South Pearl Street. Although I understood their feelings, after working at the school for a total of 12 years and all of my children going to school there, I felt betrayed and hurt. That betrayal colored my relationships with these friends for many years.
The Mariner’s House was a mansion built in the early 1800s located two doors south of Second Avenue. I had been visiting there and going to parties for years while various friends rented it. There were five bedrooms upstairs, four bathrooms, one with a shower and tub, one with a shower and two half baths. Downstairs, there was a double living room, an office space, an eat-in kitchen, dining room which became our music room, an unheated sunroom and an extra wing with three rooms and the bathroom with the shower. There was also a large fenced in yard that extended on all four sides of the house and off-street parking for up to three vehicles. The rent was $700 a month. This was more than we could afford and bigger than we needed for the three of us, so we decided to live communally. We moved in with a friend and her young daughter. We had all lived communally before, so we set up rules for the household. There was no arguing in the common areas, everyone had their own set of dishes in their assigned cabinet with a dish pan to put dirty dishes into while waiting to be washed and we had our own shelves in the refrigerator. Chores were scheduled and communal meals were optional and occasional.
Once we settled into our new place, I started hosting weekly music jams. Every Friday, we had a room full of people playing a variety of instruments. Some of them were long time players, others were beginners, and they were all ages. I insisted that we go around the circle with each person responsible for choosing a song. They could either lead a song or just play one for us. I had been in many situations before where the musicians were either shy or hogged the show. As one of the shy musicians, I was determined that, at my jams, everyone would have an equal opportunity. The newcomers were allowed one pass, but the next time it came around, they were required to pick a song. That was really the only rule. They could even choose something for someone else to lead, but they had to choose something. I also frequently counseled folks about playing at a reasonable volume so that everyone could be heard. That was probably the hardest part. Everyone was welcome and encouraged. The beginners often placed themselves outside of the circle so that they could stumble without distracting the other players, eventually making their way into the center as they improved. Eventually, word got around, and I was meeting new people who heard about it via word-of-mouth. It was wildly popular.
One Friday night, there was a knock on the door. It was someone new with a guitar in hand. We invited him in, and he stood in the kitchen looking around before finally saying, “I think I know this house. I think it’s the house my mother ran.” He was Mike Milks, who has since passed on. His mother, Eunice Milks ran The Mariners House for many years. It was a place for foreign sailors to stay while their ship was docked at the port. She would help them with any paperwork they had such as visas or help them make phone calls home to their families. This project came about because she had found out that the sailors staying on their ship would take their pay and go to the local tavern for a night on the town. The longshoremen had a deal with the taxis to drop the sailors off at the entrance to the port at the end of the night rather than taking them all the way to the ships. When the sailors stumbled their way back, they would be rolled, losing all of their money, and sometimes even their passports and visas. Eunice decided to take this project on as a missionary work and began bringing them to her home in Guilderland until her husband put his foot down. She finally found the house on South Pearl Street and housed them there. Mike brought her to one of our summer parties and, when she died, he brought me photos from her time there. We all loved hearing the history of our home.
Many people came and went during our time there. We even had my former son-in-law and grandson living with us for a while. I found hidden overgrown gardens and put in my own gardens as I do everywhere I live. We had a big tire swing in the climbing tree just outside the back door and a rope swing in the side yard. Dick even built a tree house in one corner with electricity running to it. We had multiple parties, including an annual New Year’s Eve party, which also grew through word-of-mouth. When we finally decided we’d had enough strangers coming to that party, we shut it down and had people come knock on the door on New Year’s Eve for two years afterwards. Sitting here thinking about it now, I count at least nine people who rented from us. We lived there for nine years until the deterioration of the neighborhood and the refusal of the landlord to fix the deterioration of the house finally drove us out. I loved that house and have a lot of great memories from that time. But like with all good things, there always seem to be other factors that get in the way. Little did we know when moving in that Dick would run into health issues and some old legal trouble with his child support payments. And now, we were living right in the gut of the ghetto with all of its bad influences on my already criminal-leaning son.