My across-the-street-neighbor, Rich Lee, welcomed me to the neighborhood with a photograph and back-story of the house we'd just moved into, on Green Street at the edge of Walltown in Durham. He'd been a tenant in the house for the past 14 years, and told us before he lived there it was a party house called Big Funk.
He presented me the photo from a Duke yearbook, circa 1972. And boy, what a picture! There's like a bajillion hippies on the front porch all proudly displaying every conceivable hippie prop. A kite, a flute, a kitten, a Jesus picture, a jack-o-lantern, environmental pumpkin, a jack-o-lantern peace sign pumpkin, (ah ... is that Chairman Mao?), and a friggin sitar. What an incredible piece of unlikely art. Who are all these past Durhamites, to pose for this wacky Sergeant Peppersesque picture on my porch?
Neither of us are speaking, just intently studying the picture. Although I don't know any of the people photographed, some seem sad or sulking or rejected. Some are angry and some are proud and, damn--some are baked. There is some kind of implied drama happening, all these stories, perhaps, just beyond myself, beyond my reality, stories of the lives of these people. I was completely lost in the photograph, thinking these thoughts when I become aware of porch planks under my feet and the friendly face of my neighbor. Where are we sharing this synchronicity, this big chill? On my porch!, the very spot in which the picture was taken! Whoa... OK, so maybe it was just me, but I totally felt it.
I did some aw, shucks, awkward good-bye and thanked him for the marvelous gift. Anyway, I love this picture and still cherish it. I show it off to all guests unfortunate enough to be trapped by the unmerciful and nostalgic small talk I am apt to lay on you when visiting me, the steward of...BIG FUNK!
My neighbor was right about the amount of work needed to put Big Funk back to its original splendor. Built in the late '20s, this one-story bungalow originally had a central hallway and 10-foot ceilings in spacious, plaster-walled rooms with heart pine floors, a butler's pantry and slipper tub. Sometime in the '50s the house became a duplex rental. The hallway was divvied up into closets, the plaster was covered up with ugly paneling, and the ceilings were dropped with acoustic tiles.
So I rolled up my sleeves. Stage one of this enormous makeover was the very forceful removal of wall and ceiling. My wife, Jenny, and I were living less than a block away from Big Funk on Lancaster Street, an equally ancient and funky house, just not as spacious and not ours. Every day I would walk sledgehammer and coffee over to Big Funk from Lancaster Street to renovate--ahem, knock walls down. Two Dumpsters later, Benny and I were done with the demolition part.
Then, a small cast of incredibly generous buddies, sometimes working for beer only, and I put up and mudded dry-wall, tiled a bathroom, plumbed sinks and bathtub, refinished hardwood floors, and recently painted the outside of the house. Other stuff done was new wiring, central heating, and putting in a kitchen. I'm not the greatest craftsman so don't look too close. And boy, I hope my friends never find out any ill effects of being exposed to tons of dry-wall mud. But it was a great satisfaction learning "hands-on" about the integrity and make-up of an old house.
Renovating an old house is an archaeological dig at its most commonplace. One never knows what treasure the house will reveal. I always thought I would come up with some scrap from the '60s or '70s--some hippie-Boo-Radly-like stash tucked away in a secret tapestry in a wall somewhere, complete with roach clip with feather attached and a ticket stub to see Janis Joplin at Duke. But no. No burnt orange wallpaper, or kitschy vinyl flooring in the kitchen, or even cheesy light fixtures to gaze upon.
The lack of personalization, or evidence of human habitation over all those years was puzzling, but not on second thought. Although the house was almost 75 years old, a big chunk was as a rental for Duke students. One lays down intense memories but few physical tracks during that time. My wife remembered the beautiful but neglected, not-so-kept-up houses she lived in during college. The heating wasn't too great but there was plenty of room. Wood floors were covered over in squares of carpet samples, Indian print cloths for curtains, a guitar case for a table. All the stuff is cruddy and abused, passed down from one hand to the next. You can throw your grandma's hand knitted crochet blanket over the rip in the couch, put the bong on the nice arts and crafts fireplace mantle. But deep down inside, you know this place is only a way station, a temporary oasis, on your travels somewhere else to your Real Life. When the lease is up you have to take your pictures off the wall, roll up your futon, pack up your crap and get outta there, and nothing is left behind, except maybe the lingering smell of cigarette butts floating in a half-empty beer can.
The treasures I did unearth went farther back in time. Vestiges of the original family home were seen in a set of stairs in the dirt basement going up into the floor of what is now a walk-in cupboard, but what previously must have been an entrance to the root cellar. There's a cedar wood closet in the attic, to keep their Sunday best. There were other finds. One day while hacking though some nasty-ass ivy in the skinny side yard, I shoveled up a golden locket. Inside was a tiny faded brown photo. Somebody's sweetheart back in the '40s. A man, or a handsome woman? In one of the walls, newspaper from 1925. A Boy Scout camping set of a knife, spoon, and fork from the '50s, also inserted into a wall. It seems that Big Funk doesn't give up any answers, only more mysteries.
When I turned 35, I had a birthday party. Instead of renting out the Armory and having a pie fight (which I am gonna do someday) I had a let's-get-on-my-porch-and-recreate-the-wacky-old-photo party. I urged everyone to bring props if they wanted, something that represented themselves or our times. I managed to get a pretty good strata of Durhamites of all ages and degrees of kookiness for an afternoon in March to pose on our porch. People played along and brought with them some great props: a long board skate board, an accordion, clown suits and other stuff. Some dude even jumped out of his car and rushed over to get in our photo shoot.
The renovation jobs are less frequent, and Jenny and I started a family (Penelope just turned 1). Although we are enjoying the process of re-domestication, it's nice to reflect on the house's history, its journey from a family bungalow turned rental turned notorious party house turned rental now turned back into a family house, a friendly old bungalow with the moniker, "Big Funk."
Mark Cunningham is a painter, comic strip artist, drummer for the band Malt Swagger, and bartender at Satisfaction's in Durham.