I spook easily and have, at times, an uncomfortable awareness of not really being alone despite, well, being alone. Not always, I’m not like, some creepy ghost girl or something being followed around by netherworld apparitions. But my childhood home certainly let my imagination run from doors mysteriously locking, my bedroom TV volume crawling up and down as I tried to fall asleep at night, and my younger sister "just knowing." We were kids, so this isn’t something I’d put my hand to a Bible over, but like I said, I spook easily. Oh, and it didn’t help matters any when I learned about my bruja great-gmom, so there’s that (they say it runs through generations).
From day one, the basement was an utter fright. It’s the one place I don’t have any pictures of in its original state. Probably because I was afraid some dog-size rat would gnaw off my leg before I spotted it coming at me with my meager flashlight, so I never ventured down much. It was, like the rest of the house, bursting with junk-- a pool table, half walls, shitty graffiti and unmarked boxes and trash bags. Buckets full of dirty, brown water lined the parameter. An old punching bag hung from the ceiling; a stuffed animal skunk dangled from a chain noose. Used condoms swung like loosely strung Christmas lights. Do you really blame me for not going down there? A girl can only handle so much.
After the rest of the house was cleaned out, the basement was our last hope to find something treasure-worthy. You know, to ensure we could actually afford to keep moving forward. Well, that didn’t happen. Our old house booty consisted of a 1923 dime and cuckoo clock. The dime is worth about a buck and I saw the cuckoo clock on EBay for $60. That was prior to D chucking it down the basement stairs in anger (home renovation makes you crazed, not unlike a rabid animal, at times).
There was some part of me that figured, statistically, that out of the 80 TONS of trash we yanked out of the house, surely, SURELY, there’d be a single prize-worthy ounce. If there was, it never made it into my hands. That’s not to say it didn’t exist. The demo crew pulled a few things out and slyly put them aside in their truck. We were too dumb/overwhelmed to ask what though (do you think there’s a chance they were balling in Miami while I was using a bucket as a toilet?).
What did the basement provide? An additional opportunity for demo and digging. Ever heard of someone digging inside her house? Allow me to share.
One of the first things we did after the space was empty was remove the rusted out, leaking sewer pipe and run temporary lights, which felt like a small victory. The floor was the real pisser though.
We thought we’d just need to pour a cement slab to even out and reinforce the existing dust cover of a floor. D, never content with shortcuts, backed out of this plan. We wanted to keep the option open to finish the basement in the future. If we allowed for a shoddy floor now, that’d be off the table. To do it proper, we’d need to add 4 inches of crushed stone and another 3 inches for a cement slab (I won’t bore you with any details on why). If we did this right on top of what existed, we’d considerably shrink the ceiling height of the basement, again killing the future finished option. Ah, the mind fuck that is home renovation. So many things to think about now, to avoid screwing yourself later. Manipulating a house like one is like putting together a 5,000-piece puzzle, tediously, one tiny mismatched shape at a time.
And with that, the digging commenced. Well, after the original floor was sledge hammered to a cold death. The plan was to dig down up to eight inches in some areas. In case you’re reading this and seeing a possibility to heighten your basement by digging, take heed. You can only dig as deep as your foundation goes, lest you run the risk of your house crumbling down (literally). There are ways around this, but it’s above my head and should be done by experts only, k?
It took two days to dig out the basement, carrying the dirt out one bucketful at a time. By the end of which, it looked like we had buried an elephant in our front yard.
But don’t worry, I haven’t been holding out on you all for the sake of some dug-out dirt. It’s what was IN the dirt that got me all spooked. And as I’ve already explained, it doesn’t take much to make me scurred.
Buried beneath some 6-8 inches of dirt was a bone. This had crossed my mind as a remote possibility when we began digging, but it was sort of laughable. I mean, you don’t really find a friggin BONE in your home, do you? Sure do.
AND SO, just as digging finished, the ethical dilemma began. What do you do when you find a bone in your house? Do you call someone? And who? And then what? Does your home become some archeological crime scene? Our house is from 1875, and while I haven’t pinned the exact time people starting cementing basements, it’s safe to say this has been under there a loooooong time. So this wasn’t like, a pending crime. But it was still creepy. Especially because there was a hush-hush news leak surrounding a nearby casino wherein a Native American burial ground had been discovered during construction, and then, with the proper amount of money, razed over before anyone could stop them. I stay away from this place.
But let me remind you, I’m in Philadelphia, a historically rich American city. Betsy Ross’s house (you know, where she sewed the first flag!), the Liberty Bell and the church that the Washington and Franklin families attended are two miles from my house. Going out to my favorite sushi spot, I run into nightly ghost tours and men dressed in stockings and knickers. Going further back than that, D still has arrowheads he found as a child in his (woodsy) backyard. It’s hard to escape that we live in an old-ass city and for real, there’s probably more stuff buried in these parts than anyone would care to discover.
Afraid to do anything too dramatic, we had D’s godfather, a doctor, take a look. He reported back:
It actually looks like a head of a Humerus (thigh bone). Would need to do DNA testing to determine the species (human or a four legged friend). The clean cut may only be the sign of a particularly gifted serial killer. (We had helpfully/hopefully pointed out how neatly cut it looked.) In any event don't let it keep you two from a good nights sleep! Happy Dreams!
Suffice to say, Ira did not give us the answer we were hoping for. How doctorish of him (just kidding, I, we lurve you!). Why a bone was buried beneath a house, who knows? We’d need some serious testing to figure out its age and first determine if it was there before the house was (which is my hope!). Otherwise, I don’t want to know why something would be buried inside a house (but feel free to take your guesses). And let me remind you, this was mid-Winter, and our house was in a state of total wreckage, hemorrhaging money at every busted seam. To stop work and venture down this new rabbit-hole seemed totally impossible.
Then, naturally, being crazed and knocking down everything in our path, we somehow misplaced the bone. I KNOW. And as quickly as it appeared, it sort of disappeared again.
We kept moving forward because it didn’t seem there was anything else to do, especially considering this was our current state:
A couple months later, I was out front (likely dragging out some old piece of rotted wood full of tetanus-inducing nails) when a Jesse Pinkman look-alike swayed down the sidewalk and yelled over to me that “There’s a lot of animals buried in that yard” and keeps moving along before I can say anything back.
Another two months later, and a friend pulls this out of the backyard.
I didn’t really skip a beat at this point, as I’m fairly confident it’s a long-gone pet. But still, WHAT IS WITH ALL THE BONES? Like I don’t have enough to chew my nails over. That said, the basement and I are no longer on speaking terms, which totally blows seeings as it’s the only place with indoor running water. I hate when I have to wash my face down there, scrubbing off my mascara. The 30 seconds my eyes are completely closed feel like an eternity. Which is why I learned how to wash one set of eyelashes at time. Even though the bone is gone and the basement floor is sealed, I just can’t shake the eeriness of it and when my eyes are closed, I totally imagine some awful horror film scene.
About a month after the basement was dug up, we had a proper cement slab poured, smoothing out whatever lay below.
And with that, I close the basement chapter. I’m still planning to fully tear up the backyard excavation-style with my Pa. Hopefully we’ll have more luck than we did at the beach two weeks ago, where we found a quarter and a small toy truck, aka, more things to NOT help pay for all this madness.
The basement meant the end of demo (this is sort of a joke, demo kind of never ends) and we slowly moved onto building, which felt like a novel notion, a triumph. Until licensing and inspection busted in on us one afternoon, spiraling us into a new tiz.