By: Bill McFadyen
There is no arguing that it was indeed a very cool condo. Eighth floor, facing west toward Molokai and the sunset, and looking down on a coral reef below the surface a hundred yards off the beach. But then, everything on Maui bordered on beautiful. Still, $900 a month in 1984 was big rent. The only way to mathematically tackle it on the wages made by this busboy/prep cook was through division. Nine hundred dollars divided by four people was much more manageable. As I climbed the restaurant’s hierarchical ladder toward waiting tables and tending bar, I was able to divide by three and finally by two. Still, there were permanent stripes left on my shoulders from paying rent. When I returned to Fayetteville in 1985, I was determined to be able to designate a higher percentage of my earnings to things not associated with my leasing commitments.
I began the quest for affordable housing in September 1985. In November, I happened upon my old basketball coach, Big Al Prewitt. He had a vacant house on the compound across from the eighth fairway of Cypress Lakes golf course where he kept his horses and where many a high school bonfire had burned on weekends in the ’70s. It was the house at the bottom of the hill always known as The Shack. It required only a small percentage of my Davidson education to deduce that anything named “The Shack” was likely to be economical. In what turned out to be one of my life’s finest negotiations, I was able to beat Big Al down 25 percent off his initial asking price. I moved in under a handshake month-to-month contract at $75 per month. It so endured for about 24 months.
The Shack had everything a young bachelor needed. Electricity, though the fuse box looked like it would broadcast “The Shadow” at night. Indoor plumbing replete with warmish water. A refrigerator made popular in “The Honeymooners.” A roof. Two doors. Windows in the main room. There was a central HVAC system, but it was a Hobo – meaning it worked only occasionally. The window unit was more reliable. The Blackbart wood heater was suitable for winter in the Yukon, thus in a typical North Carolina January, you used the Blackbart and ran the window unit at the same time. The bedroom had no windows, so when you closed the door to sleep, there was darkness like in the bowels of a cave. Clocks required either batteries for which one had to pay or reliable electricity. Having neither, the best way for me to tell if it was morning was to lean out of the bed and look at the back wall three cypress boards over, where there was a slight gap that revealed sunlight once day had dawned.
The neighbors were fantastic. My pre-school childhood pal Tom Prewitt (son of the Landlord) lived in the Rankin House up the hill. He roomed with Tom Hollinshed, who had grown up a year before and a block away from me in Vanstory Hills. David Drake, a chum from high school, lived in The Log Cabin on top of the hill. We took hippie baths outside in lounge chairs to take pressure off the septic drain fields. Tom Prewitt had a black lab named Bear that would fetch cold cans out of the refrigerator. We knew the words to every Jimmy Buffet song and proved it almost nightly. We had a pet armadillo for about three days that David imported from Texas via his carry-on luggage. (It did not thrive.) Marlene Floyd, the prettiest professional golfer in the history of the LPGA, once drove into my driveway with Sawyer, the runaway bird dog puppy, standing with his front paws on the dashboard of her Cadillac.
Looking back on it, had Big Al stood firm on his initial demand of $100 a month, it would have still been worth it.
Two years later, famous Fayetteville farrier Russell Hill told me of a vacancy in the main house of the Renfrow Farm on River Road. I engaged Dr. Raymond Renfrow in a test of wills over the price he would demand for this dwelling, which rested in the forefront of his 160–acre country get-away. Dr. Renfrow was a tougher negotiator than Big Al had been. He stood firm on his price, even inviting me to move along after my attempt to beat him down a bit. I shook hands with him on a month-to-month arrangement at the now-familiar price of $75 per month. That arrangement also subsequently endured for 24 months.
The Renfrow place was bigger than The Shack. There were three window units and a wood stove. House plants were unnecessary, as the vines grew in through the window seals. Breakfast at Renfrow’s was a healthier meal than it had been in The Shack because the slant in this kitchen floor meant that all the bacon grease naturally ran to one corner of the frying pan. Less hydrogenated fats in the scrambled eggs, therefore. Once moved in, my mother came out to cozy up the house. I surmised that she had eaten some bad chicken for lunch that day because she did not stay long, and she did not look well at all when she got in her car to leave. Apparently, the memory of that food poisoning stayed with her because I don’t think she visited even once in those subsequent two years.
I loved my time on The Renfrow Farm, but it did prove slightly more hazardous than Cypress Lakes Road. One night, Bill Wiggs and I drag-raced using his Blazer in the driveway and me paralleling him in the hay field, a hedgerow between us. Watching him instead of the field in front of me, I ran my Ford F-150 up on a round bale of hay, nearly turning over, but stubbornly pressing the gas pedal to the floor to remain competitive. The hay bale eventually rolled itself out flat, putting me back on four tires, but Wiggs won the race. Stuart Williams left a healthy meniscus in a deep ditch riding a horse one night. Chester, one of my Australian Shepherds, lost an eye to a horse kick. Then Maggie, his step-sister, lost the same eye to an infection. I was going to train them to pull a small wagon for kiddie rides, but they always kept veering to the left.
Russell eventually moved into the house on the other side of the horse barn, which was not nearly as nice as mine. We had to first figure how to get the snake out of his toilet, as it was shocking to lift the lid and find him uncoiling back into the septic tank.
In 1991, I bought a real house with a real mortgage and home owner’s insurance and HVAC and level floors in the kitchen. I moved in the prettiest, craftiest girl you ever saw in 1995. She and I are a couple of years away from having raised three kids, nine dogs, six cats and one hamster in that house. If I had to choose between the four places mentioned herein, I would take the real house and all that came with it, but probably because of those very things that came with it.
Still, if any of those three children-turned-self-sufficient-adults ever come to me for housing advice, I will tell them to never underestimate what you can get for $75 a month.