We always had boarders in our old house. Only two still have names that stick in my memory. One was Charlie and the other, Mr. Ferris. But there were many more that came and went; but those two must have been there the longest.
Charlie was a sweet old codger. I remember him with gray/black hair and rough calloused hands, missing teeth, and a cigarette dangling from his mouth or fingers at all times. I’m pretty sure he rolled his own. He laughed a lot and he would talk to me as we sat on the front porch watching the rain or people pass by. His most distinguishing feature was his left ring finger. Somehow, as a result of an accident, a sloppy repair of his hand bent his finger permanently down into his palm. I remember watching his hand whenever he did anything, the oddness of it.
As a child, I thought of our house as big, but really, it wasn’t; the rooms were good-sized and square with high ceiling, but we only lived on the main floor in three rooms until my father began renovations, adding a kitchen and back porch. There was a fourth room, the “front” room, like a parlor, but that was rented to Charlie. Upstairs, there were three rooms, each with a sink but no toilet. Everyone, boarders and family alike, shared a single bathroom on the main floor. Back then, the bathroom had a tub (no shower), a toilet (precariously placed facing the hallway door), and a small sink. There was a storage area under the stairs we accessed through the bathroom and where my mother stored her wringer washer.
While my father was alive, he handled the boarders, collected rents, and made repairs as needed. Most of this was accomplished with his minimal English and lots of gesturing. My mother saved the log book he kept of the rents. I may still have that too, in a box in the basement. Like her, unable to throw it away.
The other boarder, Mr. Ferris, outlasted them all. He had the largest upstairs room and although my mother let the other boarders go, one after the other, she never had the heart to ask Mr. Ferris to leave. He was a Mr. Magoo lookalike and had a mysterious accent always wore a tie. He was amiable but in a limited way. He never sat outside with the rest of the men and even when he was the only boarder left, he stayed to his room most of the time. He gave me the creeps.
Was there any negative impact on my life from these renters? Oh, there were occasional embarrassments when I would forget to latch the hallway bathroom door, the same door the men used, but other than that, their existence remains a general blur. As an adult, I know they were essential to our family’s ability to pay off the mortgage, which was all of $7,000, and yet, a small fortune for my parents. But did it matter to me personally? Was it dangerous? Was I damaged?
It simply was the way it was. Just like everything else. We were poor and I didn’t really get it. I didn’t know until I got into my middle grades when I began to see how other kids lived. But until then, I was blissfully content, dirty bare feet and stubbed toes, hanging out on the porch with the guys.