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Goin' to Carolina in his mind

Couple's love of house and Raleigh's small-city charm make selling not an option

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / June 25, 2006

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My grandmother, the only family member honest enough to be nosy, asks me whenever the subject of our house in North Carolina comes up: Why don't you sell it?

I can see her point.

My wife, Carlene, and I are from Boston. We now live in Boston. For us, North Carolina was meant to be a way station, a steppingstone for two writers in their 20s. So it's perfectly reasonable for my grandmother to wonder why we still own that house, four years after moving back north.

Why not cash out and throw the $60,000 we clear into our Colonial in Arlington? Or a mutual fund? Or a dozen trips to Tuscany?

All great ideas, except for one complication: We don't want to sell.

Believe me, owning two houses 730 miles apart is a pain. We're not real estate tycoons; keeping the Raleigh house was not part of some long-range investment plan -- consciously at least.

No, it must be about love -- a genuine real estate romance.

So, on a recent Friday afternoon I packed up a rented Pontiac and started the 14-hour drive to Raleigh. Our house needed a paint job, and I was unwilling to fork over $5,000 to a crew of college kids and undocumented day laborers.

From the sidewalk, it looks like a typical bungalow. Inside, the house is, in my view, a stunner. A previous owner, Cynthia, an architect, ripped out walls and turned two small sitting rooms and an entryway into a spacious chamber with built-in bookshelves.

Her most daring stroke came with a nonworking fireplace. Instead of burying or removing it, she ripped down the plaster and exposed the thick column of bricks that, for some reason, was built so it twisted at an angle, like a strand of DNA.

Cynthia turned the chimney, soaked in salmon-colored paint, into sculpture. It played off the old pine floors, which she painted light green, and made the house feel both old and new, Southern and SoHo.

We hadn't been planning to buy on that summer day eight years ago when we walked through the house. In fact, we had been planning not to buy. A mutual friend had mentioned that the owners of a fabulous house in Boylan Heights were moving, and suggested we take a look.

At the time, Carlene had just earned her master's degree. I was entering my second year at the Raleigh newspaper, the News & Observer. We were getting married, and planned to breed. Boston, our destiny, seemed to be inching closer.

But somehow, we weren't in a rush to come back. We loved Raleigh, the nights drinking wine and talking on the front porch of our rental, the restaurants, the hiking trails and music clubs. The city had a legit symphony and art museum, and a hockey team that, who knows, might one day win a Stanley Cup.

There were also the things Raleigh didn't have: traffic and snow. The so-called hog-farming, Jesse Helms-voting, moonshining masses? Apparently, they were on sabbatical. Contrary to the cartoon image of the Bible Belt, Raleigh introduced us to gay ministers, yoga instructors, and self-employed artists.

At Raleigh prices, we could easily afford the house; the real question was what buying that house meant to our exit strategy. Our parents were near their 60s. Three of our grandmothers were alive. We didn't want our relationship with family to be limited to four flights to Boston on holidays.

That day in July, after walking through, Carlene and I looked at each other as soon as we got back into the car. She seemed to know what I was thinking. ``We're buying it," she said, and we laughed.

Just south of Washington, D.C., the road seems to open up. No more traffic and tolls. Just open space, tall grass on the side of the road, and my radio.

I arrived in Raleigh around 5:30 a.m. Boylan Heights was asleep. I gazed at our little green bungalow. The tenants had been planting, and one of them, an artist, had installed a rocking chair she built out of twisted branches.

I felt an immediate sense of relief. These women ``got" this house. In 2002, we had a tenant, a perfectly sweet woman -- the mother of a friend -- who allowed her Corvette-driving, nutrition powder-pushing son to shack up. He had placed what appeared to be a 97-inch TV console on a bath towel in the center of the living room floor. He had candles and magazines strewn throughout his bedroom. Ugh.

After a four-hour catnap and a trip to Lowe's, I was ready. There were minor repairs to be made. I found a piece of rotting fascia board in back. Though unsure of my carpentry skills, I bought a 2-by-10 at Lowe's, borrowed a friend's drill, and went to work.

Our house in Arlington is larger, and has been dramatically improved through a kitchen renovation and other projects. All it lacks, really, is side-street location. That, along with the Northeast's paucity of front porches, cuts down on spontaneous socializing.

As I painted in Raleigh, people just started to emerge. Amy, our friend across the street, loaned me a saw. JiNan, the patent attorney who lived next door, sent her 4-year-old, Gaetano, over. He seemed fascinated by the work, and kept asking me where ``my husband" was.

Bill, the next door neighbor on the other side, stopped by with a beer. I borrowed a ladder from Deborah, who once asked me, without malice, ``if the Jews pray." She was also among the most appreciative when, after 9/11, we hosted a potluck dinner, renting long tables and inviting more than 30 friends to work through the numbness of the attack with pasta and meatballs, lots of red wine, and peach cobbler.

Maybe I'm being sentimental -- this is where my wife and I created our first, real home, after all -- but why would we give this up? Even when it's 730 miles away, and not a place we might use again for what, two decades, when we're in our 50s and want to be somewhere warmer in winter? For now, it just seems to make sense to hold onto something we know we want, rather than to let it go, only to have to find it all over again some years down the road.

There is something about Raleigh, its rhythm. Some people need the energy of New York City, with its Ethan Hawke sightings and 3 a.m. Korean food deliveries. Others need to be surrounded by trees. For us, Raleigh struck that perfect balance between big-city life and small-town charm.

We're happy in Arlington. We spend weekends on the bike trail, take in Boston's arts scene, and, on Father's Day, are grateful we can get the family together for an impromptu barbecue.

But that afternoon, as I slapped paint on the side of the house, I thought of the charm of our old neighborhood. One minute you're working the ladder, sweating under the afternoon sun. The next, a friend wanders by, starts to chitchat. There are dogs, kids, an artist working on a new piece on your front porch. And then you think two things:

How can anyone get any work done here?

And is there a way, someday, you can come back?

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.