Essays > A Fondness for Basements

If the only people going into your basement are strangers and you have to write them a big check afterwards – as has been the case with me lately -- you know you’re in trouble.
On the other hand, this dark, dank part of the house is one of the richest, most interesting features of Midwest architecture.

Like attics, which I celebrated on this page two years ago, I’m a fan of basements.
As many of you know, I spend my summers in Los Angeles, and here I am again, sitting on my San Pedro hillside in a one-floor apartment and thinking about how weird it is that I do my laundry here on a deck at the top of the stairs – a deck with an amazing view, no creepy bugs, no mold, barely a single thing to be scared of. What fun is that?

The other night there was a tiny little 3.2 tremor here (I felt it, but it was so subtle I forgot to mention it to my husband, who was snoozing over a book in the next room) and I’m thinking, that would almost never happen in Flint (I do seem to remember an anomalous 4.0 quake back in the 80s, but still…) The thing about earthquakes is there’s no escape. If The Big One decides to joggle your longitude, you just have to ride it out and hope the earth doesn’t open up and swallow you. I’ve darted to doorways several times, which is what you’re supposed to do, but really, if the looming five-story apartment building above us crashed down on our humble abode, I doubt the measly, cheesily-contructed door frames here would save us.

In Flint, in contrast, if a Big Storm hits, we have a choice. We rush down our unreliable, code-busting steps into the moldy refuge of the Michigan basement. (I can never remember which corner, but Google tells me: usually it’s the southwest. You can thank me later.)
In fact, though, most of us don’t go there willingly: basements are sinister, more than a little frightening. How many times have we yelled at horror movies: “Don’t go down there!” Basements are creepy.

Maybe that’s why I like them.

The first basement I cherished was in one of the six parsonages of my nomadic preacher’s kid childhood. Somebody gave us piles of old National Geographics, which my mother stored in the basement tied up in twine by the year, and for school projects I used to go down there and pore through them, startled of course by the bare breasts, Ubangi lip plates and coiled stretched necks. It is hard not to associate those jarring, irresistible, wildly exciting images with the musty basement smells, and the inviting dark, and my mother calling out from the top of the stairs, “Janice, come back up, you’ve been in the basement too long.” What did she know?

In my first Flint house, there was a deliciously dark “wine cellar” in one corner that we planned to hide in if Y2K led to the Apocalypse. We put a couple of bottles of Bushmills in there, just in case. And canned tuna fish, chocolate bars, and a couple packs of Marlboro Lights. We could have lived well if we had to – I was almost disappointed we never did, eventually remembering the stash and consuming the goodies one by one until the marriage fell apart. I don’t blame the basement.

Maybe the best basement in Flint is at Sylvester Manor, where pool tables and comfy chairs share space with washers and dryers – and casement windows bathe the rooms with believable light. As a new divorcee, I really liked it there, where “going to the basement” meant only clean clothes and running into other heartbroken sots.

In general, though, basements are the province of spiders and non-green stuff that spreads alarmingly on its own, attracting things that like the dark. We don’t trust such critters.
We’re scared of basements, yet we have to go down there to do our laundry or change the kitty litter or pop the blown fuse or face down our fears.

I like how basements remind us that nature goes on, with or without us. As I write this, my friend Todd is working on my Flint basement, because it is crumbling in the corners. Water’s been leaking in (from the southwest corner, I might add, making escape from tornadoes distinctly unpleasant), and there’s a rude carapace of ugly mold creeping resolutely up the walls.

The first time I took Todd down there I was ashamed of myself. I’d let the basement go to hell. The place smelled dangerously organic and one of the cats, I was abashed to discover, had decided one of the moldiest, dampest corners was a better place to poop than his litter box a mere three feet away. Little primitive!

But I’m saying that it’s good to have natural life not too far away. I should go down there more, just to remember how real earth smells. I’ve been thinking about getting a worm farm, and I think they’d like my basement. I’ve been thinking how if the pretensions of certain sides of academic life get to me, I could go down in the basement and watch the worms.

I guess I don’t have to wait for the worms. Basements are the foundation, after all, the underpinnings of lives we build – impolite and insistently full of life – even the life that grows stubbornly, audaciously, and wonderfully out of the dark.