© 2023 Robert Sickles
A few folks I met after returning to college in ’71 talked about living cheap and sharing the rent on a large house. We four became the first of a larger group who lived somewhat communally in a big old 1920’s house in the Wallingford district of Seattle. Two of the guys were big fans of Kurt Vonnegut, and the title of one of his books gave our place its name, The Monkey House. Don’t ask. I read the book and can’t say why the name stuck.
At first, we were spread out pretty comfortably in the four-bedroom house. We had a huge kitchen, living room, and dining room. There was a third story, a big open space we called the Loft which eventually became sort of a dormitory for the rest of the residents. As people moved in and moved out, the Loft looked like a youth hostel at times.
The first new arrivals were “The Cousins.” Kevin beamed one day that The Cousins were moving to Seattle and they’d be staying with us for a while. I needed clarification, “Who are ‘The Cousins?’”
He explained, “My cousins Mary, Molly, Lori, Gerry and Suzie— all one big happy family from Buffalo, New York. Plus, Suzie’s husband Dave, and Dave’s cousin, the other Mary… my favorite relatives, The Cousins!” This close-knit clan had all worked in a co-op foundry, making cast-iron manhole covers or whatever, but were tired of the rust belt, yearning to live in the clean Evergreen State. They brought their Lake Erie dialect with them, and I became known as “Baab.” Instantly, we added seven residents.
Some of my friends and I in the vegetable garden. As you can see, hair was required. You don't got hair, you're not in!
Our number varied with the turnover of passers-though, but eight regulars made their home at the Monkey House. Only one of the Cousins from Buffalo stayed on, while the others found jobs and moved to their own place a few blocks away. We started calling them Buffalo House. A little later two of them moved next door with “Farmer” Del and his bunch. They planted corn in the front yard, so it was named Corn House. Another nearby group included us in a buying co-op, distributing cheese and other products to several homes. They were referred to as Cheese House. The couple next door to us merged their backyard with ours to form a huge garden. They planted flowers so we called them Rose House. Not far away, we hung out with friend Bill and his wife Nancy. She was studying to become a doctor, so we named their place Medicine House.
At our peak, there were six houses with over twenty-five members connected loosely, a blend of extended family, old friends, friends of friends, and neighbors who wanted community to be our central purpose. A far-fetched dream of many was to buy land in the country and create some sort of enterprise and lifestyle. That would have taken a pile of money and ambition, of which none of us had very much.
No, for the foreseeable future we were city renters, and our day jobs were adequate for just that. I was among a few who hired on with the Ship Scalers Union and did this and that at local shipyards and drydocks. My best stint was with Foss Tugboat Co., preparing tugs and barges to be loaded with everything needed for construction of the Alaskan pipeline. Kevin was using the GI Bill to learn boatbuilding. Jon spent half the year working with Army Corps of Engineers in dredging operations in the Mississippi Delta. Tim flew to Alaska for seasonal fisheries work; Jess was going to welding school; Mary and Anne worked in a bakery; Gerry and Dave worked on cars.
For an inexorable soundtrack, Jon’s brother Bob shared his boundless enthusiasm for The Grateful Dead, and Kevin got people moving in the morning to The Allman Brothers and Pink Floyd. Basically, the same 4 or 5 records morning, noon or night. Wow. It got old. I took a pass on joining the others for the group’s pinnacle experience, a Grateful Dead concert. Just to test the waters, and knowing what kind of reaction I’d get, I invited the house to a Baroque flute concert at St. Mark’s. Yeah, of course not.
When Tuck joined the house, we understood that he roamed around Mexico looking for pottery to import, but we soon realized his import business had more to do with Mexican pot. The Monkey House became known as the place to buy baggies of high-quality weed. I sounded the alarm one day that a Seattle police car with a K-9 insignia was parked in front of the house across the street. Tuck said, “Oh, yeah, they moved in last week. No Sweat. That’s Steve Randall and his German Shepherd Bluto, they’re great!” I assumed Steve was already one of Tuck’s customers.
There were three resident dogs who belonged to no one in particular. A long-legged scraggle named Ganglyhoof always sat by the door with a ball in his mouth. Sibling retrievers Wolff and Ralff… well, their names were aptly descriptive. No matter how crowded and busy the room got, Bandilegs. our only cat, would always sit in the center, serene as an Egyptian queen.
Our do-everything-yourself home economy was rooted in organic gardening. Our backyard garden was magnificent! Enjoying and preserving the harvest were chores shared by all. What we couldn’t grow, we bought directly from dairy and farm. We searched the forest for chanterelle mushrooms and gathered oysters, clams, and mussels in a Puget Sound cove. I had a favorite place for u-pick berries and cukes, and Jess had a knack for getting farmers to let us glean the fields after the harvest. It’s amazing how many gallons of peas or potatoes are left on the field! Part of any weekend was spent canning, drying, stewing and baking everything in big batches. I know it sounds very wholesome, organized, and productive. But how long do you think four loaves of home-made bread and a big pot of minestrone lasted, after Tuck came home with a duffel bag full of Acapulco Gold? I was not a big a fan of weed, I saw how a lot of great ideas and considerable talent went up in smoke!
I learned a lot from my time with The Monkey House, and have fun memories of that energetic community. But it was clear that I was lacking something that seemed natural to everyone else there: I was not an extrovert. All that togetherness, sharing meals and evening hours…for me, a little bit went a long way. Many of my housemates grew up in big families, whereas I was practically an only child. It just wasn’t in my genes.
At first, I wondered if there was something wrong with me. Was it not OK for me to retreat and have some alone time? If I snuck off to my room for a quiet read, someone might pop in and ask if I was alright. If I chose to enjoy a walk alone in the woods rather than being with the group around the campfire, someone might comment that I was being unsociable. It got to be a thing around the house, “Is something the matter with Baab? And by the way, I wanted to turn off that stereo so I could listen to the birds singing and to enjoy the stillness! How selfish I was! I was the first to separate from the “community,” and breaking up was hard to do!
When it was time for me to move out, Jess was with me in this idea. As “defectors” we had formed a bond, so we found our own place a few miles north… what a relief, so peaceful. When Kevin got miffed and asked why I was leaving, I had to put it in terms he’d understand—lyrics to a song—and I sang him the first lines of The Allman Brothers’ oldie, to which he nodded and grinned:
“Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man
Tryin' to make a livin' and doin' the best I can
And when it's time for leavin'
I hope you'll understand
That I was born a ramblin' man.”
I call myself a recovering introvert now. That is, I can enjoy conversation in the company of a others, but I observe my limits. Linda honors that in me as well, and when we have a houseful of family or friends, she is not surprised to see me retreat after half an evening. After all, she might find me in my office, writing my memoirs!