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Searching for a house -- and a sense of security

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002


Suits that haven't moved from the hanger in four years. Keys for doors that I can't find. Furniture that needs fixing. Lamps and framed pictures and pieces of toys that are always underfoot.

I am in serious need of a garage sale, but I can't bear to part with this stuff. It scares me to let go.

I have to, though. The moving truck won't have room.

It won't be a huge move, probably only a few miles from where I now live in Tampa. All the same, the act has ballooned to battleship size in my mind. I am not relocating from one hunk of plaster, wires, tile and sod to another. I am changing safe havens and I am closing the book on one part of my life -- sadly, I am getting divorced -- and launching into an unknown other.

The closing of the last life began when I turned my life over to a wise friend, a real estate agent, who sold the house where I lived for a decade. I felt utterly on display.

Each morning, for several weeks, the routine was the same. I couldn't leave the house without making the beds and cleaning every dish in the sink. The place had to be impossibly clean.

I had to let in strangers, prospective buyers who felt entitled, in my absence, to do God knows what -- size up the decor, cluck at the color scheme, note the balls of dog fur in the hall.

Now comes the search for a new house.

You can buy more house in the suburbs, yet I'm not going to spend half my life waiting for a light to change on Dale Mabry. I want to stay in South Tampa, part of the great flock that rarely ventures north of Kennedy Boulevard. But since every other sheep in the flock has the same idea, you can spend a respectable amount, say $175,000, and not get much -- likely a two-bedroom, one-bath concrete block house from the 1950s or '60s on a small yard with a couple of fruit trees in the back.

These are the houses some developers are snapping up and demolishing to build the enormous places -- with grand columns and vaulted ceilings -- that are so out of place on small neighborhood streets.

For those of us without such deep pockets, and for those of us who want to live in something bigger than a shoe box, South Tampa is a challenge.

So I may have to look elsewhere in the city. To do so, I will have to step out of the comfortable confines of the familiar and cross Kennedy Boulevard, that great dividing line of our city.

The last house I bought, I bought as half of a couple. Now, on my own I have to thrash out questions about taxes, schools, whether there is a neighborhood association, if the air conditioning will hold up, and if I am right in guessing the neighborhood is getting better. What if I get it wrong?

You'd think a grown woman could navigate all this with ease, but I got the usual dose of girlish helplessness growing up. It should have dissipated by this date, but hasn't. So the prospect of buying a house, starting over alone, being a statistic under the heading of single mother, has thrown me utterly.

I may be whistling in the dark, but I have decided this house business is part of the journey, and that you're supposed to be afraid until you surprise yourself. You do what needs to be done, you make it to the other side, and you open that door on the new.

* * *

A correction: In a recent column I attributed a famous remark about the journalist's task, to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," to H.L. Mencken, a columnist for the Baltimore Sun in the early 20th century. I was wrong and made an error many reporters have. The remark came from the pen of 19th-century Chicago journalist, Finley Peter Dunne. The phrase was popularized by the movie, Inherit the Wind, which depicted the trial of a Tennessee schoolteacher for teaching evolution. Gene Kelly played a reporter -- resembling Mencken -- who covered the trial and said, "It's the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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