A new family has moved into the faded white house at the top of Kent Street,* the one we have come to call the Tenant House.  Miss R.,* who lives on our side of the street, owns this house, but as she is in her eighties it is her family who rents it out.  Despite the fact that her memory has grown porous, she remembers the distant past quite well, and has imparted the details of her sister’s occupancy there in the 1960s, as well as the span of years when the police chief resided there and Kent was the safest street in town.
        I was invited in to see the house during a period of vacancy that followed the tenancy of a large family who had lived there barely a year.  They moved in during a cool spring, suffered through a torrid summer without air conditioning by mostly living on the porch – all ten of them -- and decamped early the next year when the rigors of raising children in an unheated house proved too formidable.  Miss R. was hoping to sell the century-old cottage and was hoping her neighbors might know someone willing to live there, so she gave me the tour. 
           The house is well-built, with a step-down porch in front and a deep backyard.  On one side of the yard is a collapsed shed where I surprised a tomcat sleeping in a bathtub.  Indoors, the previous tenants left thick sheets of plastic hanging from the windows in a failed attempt to keep the house habitable through the winter.  There was only one ancient electric heater in the hallway; the fireplaces in the front parlor and dining room had long been closed off. 

In the service porch off the kitchen there was a wide hole in the floor, and Miss R. alarmed me by maneuvering nimbly around the hole in order to see what the tenants had left scattered on the shelves. I wasn't sure which prospect shocked me more: that my neighbor would be willing to rent this house in its current condition, or that anyone would be willing to pay money to live there.  Even more shocking, I suppose, is the fact that no law in Traveler's Joy prevents such a transaction.
That was several years ago.  What we have come to understand in the years since is that there are people living in conditions of such appalling squalor in this community that a house like Miss R.’s presents itself as a palace to some.  It offers an opportunity for families splintered by joblessness or divorce or incarceration to unite under one roof at last, be it ever so humble.  Such people are willing to overlook modern amenities for a chance at being whole again.  Unfortunately, those forces that interfered with happiness and stability in bygone days are not banished by a family’s occupying a house that lacks twentieth-century wiring and stable flooring.  Discomforts such as these may even precipitate domestic crises.  That appears to be what happened to the set of tenants who covered the windows in plastic sheeting.

            At first, there were parties on the porch.  At Halloween, young women knocked on our door dressed in feathers and fancy hats, toting their babies and their costumed dog.  But we sometimes heard fearful yelling coming out of there, directed at a hyperactive boy who swung from the tree in front and hurled himself down the hill face-down on a skateboard like an Olympic luge competitor, with far less control. With the summer recess, this boy was often sent outside with a bag of empty soda cans.  Exiled from the house, he spent hours jumping off the porch on to the cans in the yard below, smashing them flat.  I grew so accustomed to the noise of imploding aluminum on long weekend afternoons, to the mother’s screams of frustration and the one-ended cellphone chatter of the enormous youth who paced Kent Street and Lime at all hours, passing under our windows while carrying on the intimate conversations he could not conduct when confined with his family in the too-small cottage, that one morning when the familiar din was replaced with silence I paid attention to what was taking place up at the house.  The tenants were moving out.

           I take responsibility for the next family who moved in; I was on my own porch taking a call when a red-haired woman pulled her car over in front of my house and got out, asking me if there was a house for rent in the neighborhood.  Without thinking, I told her to go knock on Miss R.’s door, which is just what she did.  She and her family moved in soon after.  

The husband drove a truck and she waittressed; he was gone for long periods of time and when he returned there were sometimes loud quarrels.  The woman dressed the porch in strings of Christmas lights and adopted a tiny black kitten; she seemed to be making a stand.  But the barking of dogs confined in the backyard began to sound desperate, going on for longer periods of time.  One day the two mutts got loose and came across the street to frolic at our place.  After knocking uselessly on the tenants’ door, I fed the dogs and led them to the pen in the backyard.  It dismayed me to see how filthy it was, and despite the fact that it had been raining for days, there was no roof on the pen or shelter for the animals. Eventually, it became clear that the family was living elsewhere, and that the red-haired woman was returning alone at night to put kibble in the pen and leave something for the kitten, who roamed the neighborhood looking for better options. 
I was finally able to catch the tenant at dusk one night and ask her about the situation with the pets.  She was wearing her work uniform and seemed stressed, tired.  She explained that the family had broken up and she was temporarily living with a relative, along with her children.  She promised that the dogs would be leaving too, once she had lined up a more permanent situation. 
            That word ‘permanent’ impressed me because of how she spoke the word, giving it very particular value.  I realized what an undervalued concept it is for most of us.
            The family that moved in last week is very similar to the ones that preceded it.  They appear to be poor; one of their vehicles clatters so loudly going up the hill it sounds as if the engine is dragging on the ground.  The children playing outside don’t seem dressed well enough for the cold, and when I recently looked out my kitchen window and spied the pre-schooler walking on the porch roof, I realized that they are not well supervised.  A nervous dog is tied to the tree in back. 

            Most of the residents of this neighborhood own their homes and lead fairly stable lives, so there is unhappy talk about the tenant house.  Some are displeased with the flow of people through the place and some share my view that the town is shameless for allowing human beings to live in such deplorable housing.   In any case, there are houses (or trailers) just like it all over Traveler’s Joy, so putting a stop to the practice on our street wouldn’t make much of a dent in the problem.  These are the places with dangling shutters and leaning foundations, the ones I pass on my walks when they’re swarming with children and neglected animals, radios blaring from the cars pulled up on the grass and tobacco smoke wafting from doorways.   When I pass them a few months later the houses are silent and dark, looking like they’ve shed a layer of paint since the last occupancy.  Bags of trash are piled at the curb for the Claw and an abandoned cat or two slinks under the porch at my approach. 
            The common thread running through this sequence of rootlessness and chaos is poverty, a condition we specialize in down here.  I have known many young people whose dreams have been deferred by the insidious, complex tentacles of generational poverty, a phenomenon that is not well understood in more prosperous regions of the country.  As many recent studies have shown, the bad luck of being born poor can doom children to repeat their parents’ and grandparents’ struggles with little hope of breaking free of the cycle. 
            Everyone tells them that education is the key; this is the message they hear even from figures at the highest levels on our national stage.  This simplistic formula for success overlooks a difficult reality.  A student who misses her college classes repeatedly because her entire family has only one functioning vehicle between them, or who fails to get a paper in on time because his mother was arrested for driving drunk (again) and who has to be in court for her hearing, has little chance of passing rigorous courses.  It’s the same for the student who simply doesn’t do the work required or who works such long hours at low-paying jobs or caring for an infant that he or she doesn’t study adequately or doesn’t have the first clue how to study.  Lacking a generation of college graduates in the family to counsel the novice student about the expectations that need to be met, help the girl defer motherhood, or protect the boy from having to work at Bo-Jangles in order to pay the family’s rent, these would-be college graduates are almost certain to fail. When they do, financial aid is curtailed and eventually cancelled, cutting off the opportunity of higher education for virtually all of them.  This is why Tomahawk County Community College has a completion/graduation rate of less than 12%.  Really . 12%.
            It takes more than a village to raise a child.  It takes stable income.  It takes jobs that pay living wages and a culture that values education and achievement.  And yes, the village could play a positive and productive role in providing poor families with more stability, if the entrenched power-base in the village was willing to take responsibility for improving the quality of its residents’ lives.  This villager, while hopeful, knows better than to hold her breath.

The photographs included here depict properties in Tomahawk County that were available for occupancy within the last four years.