Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Voyeur at the Round House

Every day when I'm in Flint I walk by the round house. It's on a corner lot down by Gilkey Creek, and it looks very odd in this neighborhood of colonials and small Tudors. Its single story is contructed of dark gray brick and has a flat black roof with two cylindrical brick chimneys, each with a conical tophat, poking up from the roof. There's a tall white fence around the back third. Unshapely, monstrous evergreens obscure all its windows, except for the front, next to an attached garage. Whose idea, probably back in the Sixties, was this architectural anomaly? For months it's been obviously uninhabited and overgrown, a hopeless "For Sale" sign up in front. Lately, somebody's at least trying to do something with it: it's been a big mess, trucks coming and going, a huge dumpster in the driveway. I always crane my neck when I stride by, having a big appetite to see inside other people's houses, but it has always been obscured by the dumpster or vehicles, or the curtains were securely pulled shut.

But yesterday, whoa, the round house sat completely open to view. The curtains were gone and the curved driveway was clear, with nobody in sight. So, after looking furtively over my shoulder, I walked right up to the round house and took a good long look.

What a weird place! Totally empty, inside it looks like a set from the Dick Van Dyke show. The one of the brick chimneys visible from the street is connected to a circular fireplace in the center of the living room, which has a carpeted, semicircular "conversation pit" and a step up to a circular carpeted area around and behind the fireplace. The whole thing is strangely set off by white cast iron railings separating the conversation pit from the rest of the room -- as if the residents or guests couldn't be trusted not to fall off the step down. Off to the left is a dark kitchen that looks more like a bar, and on the far side of the circular living room are big glass doors to -- a small, triangular swimming pool! I'd never have guessed it was there from the street.

What's so cool about peering into other people's houses is the way you can start to imagine a whole new life. What if I lived here? What would I be like?

I tried to picture the sensibility behind the round house -- not the hippie part of the Sixties, but rather something related to Hugh Hefner and martinis at 5 p.m. and men in black suits and skinny ties and glamorous women in tight dresses, high heels and beehives. At one point in my young life, that was how I thought sophisticated adults lived: not like my parents, who didn't drink, didn't care about clothes, kept the same couch for 50 years and favored digging homegrown potatoes over anything having to do with, say, New York.

This is a house from StarTrek, a house from the Space Age. Sixties architecture was fun -- so unlike our parents' predictable block structures, buildings like comfort food. It would be hard to get comfortable in the living room of the round house -- and you'd be quite exposed -- like those damn "open plan" schools that never worked.

Now, though, it looks, well, kookie. Some of it even was called, wasn't it, "Googie architecture" ? The round house doesn't quite ascend to that moniker, but getting a chance to peek inside made me smile. I know nothing about the people who lived inside -- whether they smoked Parliaments and had sophisticated cocktail parties or whether the woman of the house made rumaki and donned a skinny black dress. It does seem, in retrospect, as if the Sixties weren't about being comfortable, but about being...daring. It was fun back then. It was fun being young in the Sixties.

But I don't particularly miss the Sixties, except that I sometimes miss having a young body. And while I enjoyed picturing myself skinny dipping in the very private swimming pool at the round house on a hot Flint Sunday, I don't want to live in the round house. I don't particularly want to push the envelope or wear high heels or grip the cast iron railing to keep from falling into the conversation pit. But it's a deliciously taboo pleasure to walk up to somebody else's house, stare right in the windows, and imagine another life.