That’s why we called it crazy house! Part one: Eccentric millionaires, dilapidated houses and sharing beds with strangers

I moved to Crazy house in spring of 2007. I was a year and a half out of high school and living at home felt immature to me. I’d spent time doing service work in New Orleans the previous year, and I was fresh off of a trip to Ecuador, and an adventure attending the Earth First! Anarchist gathering in Palm Beach Florida. I was broke and looking for cheap accommodations. Before I’d left for Florida, my friend Kamali had mentioned a fairly unique situation that might fit the bill. I called her up to inquire about it.

From what I remembered, she’d had the good fortune to meet an eccentric millionaire named Erik (name changed) who’d purchased a house in South Philadelphia and was looking to fill it with community-oriented people working on positive projects. Kamali confirmed this, and told me that the house had been a shell when it was purchased. Some rooms were fully finished now, but many had their walls gutted. Others still had the original dilapidated walls, lined with wallpaper, sagging from years of water damage and neglect. The rent would be free in exchange for improving the house and helping to make it a “commune”.

Curiosity and free rent got the better of my doubts about eccentric millionaires and their motivations.

The location was prime, the heart of south Philadelphia, 10 minutes walk from the Italian market, 15 minutes from South Street. The house was three stories and easily the nicest on the block from the outside. Front doors opened into a spacious living room. Hardwood floors, couches arranged invitingly, and, oddly, a motorcycle parked on the far side of the room. Beyond the motorcycle was a hideously green kitchen. The laminate flooring was chipping and the wallpaper was peeling. A small gas range, plenty of cabinet and counter space, a sink and dish rack. Behind the kitchen was a small back yard, a rarity for South Philadelphia.

The upper floors were considerably less complete. The second floor mostly featured original, or partially gutted walls, the houses innards exposed in the form of slats and insulation. Besides a bathroom, there were three rooms with a sum total of two beds and a chair as furnishings.

The third floor was interesting. The back room was fully finished, new walls and paint. The next two rooms were filled with construction materials. Sheets of drywall, rolls of insulation, levels and power tools, but all of the walls were original and in poor repair. The front room had been divided into two by a partially complete wall. The ceiling had new drywall, the final sheet held in place by screws on three sides, sagging awkwardly.

The room smelled of incense, its floor almost entirely filled by a queen size mattress. Several beer cans decorated what space there was next to the bed. The rest of the floor was hidden from view by a pile of clothing and a box full of small bottles, each one carefully labeled. Lying on the bed was Drew.

Photo credit: Sarah Gzesh

Six feet two inches tall, he looked to be about twenty with patchy facial hair, dreadlocks and glasses. He wore cut-off jeans dyed grey from bicycle grease, and a dirty-looking under shirt decorated with a stencil of a smoking handgun and the words“be reasonable, expect the impossible.”

Drew, it turns out was Kamali’s connection to the house, and she introduced the two of us. Pleasantries were exchanged, but were interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs.

Without a knock, a giant man swung the door open. At six feet five he dwarfed even Drew. His build might have been described as skinny, except that his narrow frame was covered in muscle. His hair was straight, brown and tied back. His facial hair a well-trimmed full beard.  All six five of him seemed to shrink into the old t-shirt and khaki shorts he was wearing at the sight of visitors. He stared.

“Hi, you must be Erik, I’m Matt,” I said. He still hadn’t blinked. He paused, as if he could see my mouth moving, but the words were taking a bit longer to reach him.

“Hello,” still not blinking.

When nothing followed this, I told him I was friend of Kamali’s, and that Drew had told us about the house. I told him the house seemed very cool.

Photo credit: Sarah Gzesh

Another pause, a blink, “Thank you, well, welcome.” Another long pause, “I’m glad Drew brought friends over. Have you seen the whole place, the roof?” His words came out slowly as if he was trying very carefully to say exactly what he meant and nothing else.

The four of us took a final flight of stairs to the roof. The house was a full story higher than the other houses on the block, and the view was spectacular. It was a clear night, and we could see most of Philadelphia in every direction. The roof might’ve been what convinced me that living there would be a good idea, or at least a good story. I asked Erik if I could move in.

I brought a minimal amount of stuff, one carload in my Toyota Camry. I asked Erik whether I could take one of the second-floor bedrooms for my own. He seemed uncomfortable with the arrangement. It was his vision, he explained, that we would always have a bed available for guests.

We had no guests, and I couldn’t imagine we would have many soon, so I put my stuff in the back room anyways. Still uncomfortable with Erik’s unblinking eye contact and nonplussed by the lack of direction about where to sleep, I decided to go upstairs and chat with my other new housemate.

Drew was another wandering soul looking for cheap residency. A self-identified anarchist, he’d butted heads with his Christian minister father over the course of his adolescence. School didn’t like him, and the feeling was mutual, so he dropped out. That gave him more time to fight with his dad, who eventually kicked him out as well. Drew took to sleeping in abandoned houses. He entertained himself by marking his territory in tags from Media to Philadelphia along the R3 train line, for which he was later arrested, and fined heavily.

Photo credit: Sarah Gzesh

For Drew, living in a half-finished house was a comparative luxury. Despite his difficulties with his father, he still identified strongly as a Christian and conducted himself accordingly. He was over-generous to a fault, and deeply religious, if non-traditionally. He was also constantly seeking connection with higher powers, which he explored through the use of psychedelic drugs and altered states of consciousness of all kinds. His box of carefully labeled bottles contained a variety of roots, barks, powders and spices, which might or might not have psychoactive properties. He was conducting a slow and thorough exploration of their effects.

Drew rolled a spliff and asked whether I smoked. He cracked a window and took a drag, holding his breath. I declined the offer and he exhaled, blowing smoke out his nose. We talked on into the night. I told him Erik hadn’t offered me a place to sleep. “Well, whatever he says about those guest rooms, they’ve been open for the couple months I’ve been living here. Of course, and don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t mind the company if you wanna stay here.”

That was the first of many nights we’d stay up till the morning hours talking. Drew smoking while we philosophized, talked politics, and discussed our millionaire benefactor. We shared that bed for the entire time we lived in the house, with few exceptions. I came to find out that Drew and I are very very different people, but we got along extremely well and are still close friends today.

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2 Responses to That’s why we called it crazy house! Part one: Eccentric millionaires, dilapidated houses and sharing beds with strangers

  1. Blake Boles says:

    I want to read less about drywall and more about your time in the house!

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