Introduction The Bad Homes Correspondent
Every journalist has a niche—it’s inevitable—and I was just a few days into my career when I stumbled upon mine. It started as a running joke at the office: I was the magazine’s Bad Homes Correspondent. The production department quipped about changing my title on the masthead. I laughed it off, but some of the older writers definitely thought there was something wrong with me. “Did you grow up in some sort of dysfunctional household?” a senior editor asked. No, I told him. “Well, there’s got to be something in your past that makes you interested in these stories—you ought to think about it.” The magazine I worked for was the New Republic, and my coworkers were a mix of policy wonks, art critics, and political junkies. I was none of these, and instead of trying to pass as one, I set out to write a different kind of story; yet every time I did, it ended up being about some outlandish and often hellish place inhabited by a handful of stalwarts who refused to leave. Iron-willed, unfearing, and utterly immovable, these characters captured my imagination. They were the nation’s toughest home- keepers, and I was their aspiring chronicler. It was an odd niche of journalism, if you could even call it that, but it grew on me quickly.
It all began my first week at the magazine when a friend from college sent me an e-mail message with a rather cryptic lead: “Looking for a story? How about an old coal-mining town in PA where the whole place is cooking like a giant BBQ?” Initially, I thought it was a joke, but after doing some research, I discovered that this bizarre little town did exist. Its name was Centralia, and its coal mines had been on fire for almost forty years. Sinkholes had swallowed back yards, clouds of carbon monoxide had enveloped homes, and a network of smoldering coal veins continued to warm the earth like revved-up heating tubes in a giant electric blanket. Eventually, Centralia was evacuated and the government claimed ownership of the town, but a handful of residents defied their eviction notices, and the town’s aging mayor, Lamar Mervine, vowed there would be “another Waco” before he’d relocate.
The following Thursday, while the rest of the magazine’s staff mused over D.C. politics at our weekly editorial meeting, I pitched my very first story, a dispatch about a burning town that nobody wanted to leave. An awkward moment of silence came over the room. Finally, an editor spoke up: “Sounds interesting!” The following weekend I was in Centralia, chatting with Lamar Mervine himself. “I have no reason to relocate at all—I like it here,” he told me from the comfort of a living room that wasn’t legally his, while sitting in a well-worn recliner, gazing out the window at a mist of white smoke. Lamar’s wife, Lana, nodded her head in agreement. “Besides,” she added, “where would we possibly move to?” Sitting with Lamar and Lana, sipping tea from a cup resting in a chipped saucer, admiring a collection of cheerful knick-knacks and dog-eared Centralia scrapbooks, I felt oddly at home. Something about the Mervines seemed familiar, even endearing. Lamar bore a vague resemblance to my own grandfather, with his stubbly chin, thick glasses, callused workingman’s hands, and that same slightly melancholy, unfocused gaze of a workaholic ill at ease with the prospect of rest. Lamar had labored most of his life in the coal mines beneath Centralia, paying off his mortgage in seven-hour shifts of unremitting darkness, and even now, without a deed or any legal claim to show for what he had earned, Lamar remained proud. His house was more than an asset or a piece of real estate, more than mere clapboard and cinderblock—it was an extension of his own life.
Later that day, as I said goodbye to the Mervines and headed back toward Washington, D.C., I tried to stay focused on the story at hand. But as I cruised south along the Appalachians and down past Gettysburg, through a forlorn landscape of zinc mines, landfills, and falling-rock zones, I couldn’t help but wonder: How many other Americans held fast to this ironclad sense of home? Who else was making this stand, doggedly refusing to leave the grueling environs in which they lived?
In the weeks after my Centralia article saw print, I began to look for leads on similar stories. This process involved a lot of digging, but I didn’t mind, because digging was essentially my job. My chief responsibility at the magazine was researching and fact-checking. I spent hours, days, and weeks looking for correct spellings and exact dates. Being a quick fact- checker was always a point of pride among the office grunts like myself, and though it was an obscure and largely useless skill, I found it quite helpful in tracking down information on outlandish towns lllllike Centralia. On my lunch breaks and in between assignments I searched for clues, and gradually I found them—reports of holdouts like Lamar living on lava fields, windswept sandbars, and desolate arctic glaciers.
I spent Sunday afternoons combing the Web, using a smattering of search terms like “squatter,” “won’t leave home,” and “people call him crazy.” I became friendly with the press office at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and I pumped them for ideas. It turned into something of a hobby. Some people collected stamps, others pressed leaves, I scavenged for strange and daring homes.
These holdouts formed a curious cast of characters—fiercely loyal, seemingly unfazed by danger—the sort of diehard Americans you’d see on the six o’clock news and promptly dismiss as nuts. Even when given an out, they refused to take it. Neither buyouts, nor threats of eviction, nor astronomical insurance rates, nor any amount of reasoning could uproot them. What was their motivation? Was it stubbornness? Was it fatalism? Or had they actually found some strange hidden paradise that the rest of us could not see? Despite the overwhelming drawbacks, home still held some transcendent value for these people, and I couldn’t help but feel moved by their will to hold fast. I was impressed by their fierce pioneer spirit, clearly atavistic, yet proudly unyielding. They struck me as throwbacks to another era, when traveling of any kind was burdensome or downright dangerous and a person’s world was often no more than a few miles in any direction. Home was not just a place but a way of life, a work in progress, something you built and rebuilt over the course of a lifetime, until at last, like the old-timers who went by geographic names—Francis of Middlebury or Jeremiah of Ipswich— home was simply who you were.
I grew up in Buffalo, New York, which is best known as a place that people like to leave. This never-ending exodus has created a bleak landscape of deserted factories, boarded-up houses, and crumbling train stations. As kids, my brother and I would drive along the windswept shores of Lake Erie and sneak into abandoned buildings where green moss carpeted floors, rainwater cascaded down stairways, and busted typewriters rusted firm against dank walls. On one of our later expeditions, when I was already in college, we were caught by an ancient, toothless security guard who then handed us over to the police.
“You graduated from high school?” the police officer asked me as I sat in the back of his squad car.
“Yes,” I told him.
“You in college?” “Yes,” I said again.
“Where?” “Yale.” “Quit fucking a...