One man's home is another man's -- whoa -- castle

Martin J. Smith is a senior editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, a novelist and coauthor of "Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America."

The cable installation guy was the first to see me squirm. He was standing slack-jawed in the front entryway of the 4,500-square-foot bluff-top home into which we'd just moved. He stared across the expansive dining room and through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors at a sweeping wide-angle view of Santa Monica Bay framed by dramatic cliffs that tumble to the sea.

"Whoa," he said.

"See, here's the thing," I explained, "we don't own it. We're not rich. We're just caretakers. Squatters, really."

He looked at his paperwork. My name. This address. "But you live here?"

"It's not what you think." Like he cared.


How this happened is a complicated story involving my wife's job. Trust me, it probably won't happen to you. By any measure of fairness, it never should have happened to a family of middle-class Midwest transplants whose previous idea of living large meant expanding an 813-square-foot California bungalow to 1,100 square feet. But it did happen, and for the last few years my family has been fortunate enough to live in a borrowed house situated on one of the most breathtaking and unavailable pieces of property in Southern California. The voice of the Talking Heads' David Byrne runs on an endless loop in my head: "And you may find yourself in a beautiful house.... / And you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?"

I have no answer. Dumb luck? Great timing? Hard work? Coincidence? All those things. Regardless, we are raising our children in this house. For much of that time I've felt like a valet-parking attendant in a Lamborghini, a transient in thrift-store Armani, the Little Leaguer on the Yankees bench. People see where I live and assume I'm a man of wealth, success and social status. But in my mind I'm living the life of an Enron executive -- extravagant, inappropriate and wholly unearned -- which is why I'm compelled to puncture the illusion for visitors, to convince the cable guy that I'm not who I appear to be.

Friends tell me to relax and enjoy living above my means, but a home is so much more than a shelter, a status symbol or a place to put your stuff. It's a statement about who you are, or who you perceive yourself to be. When you're living in someone else's house -- someone very different from who you are -- it's like trying on their skin. If it doesn't fit, there are issues. Foremost among them, I struggle with the fear that this stroke of good fortune has put me in a whopping karmic hole. Reincarnation promises nothing for me but leprosy, lice and savagery. If my debt comes due in this life, I could find myself playing center for the Clippers, or being Martha Stewart's cellmate, or a contestant on "The Apprentice."

I cope by trying to explain. "It's a long story, and it has nothing to do with talent, success or money," I now tell astonished first-time visitors. "Feel free to resent me anyway."

Thing is, this place that doesn't fit and isn't mine has changed me in ways both powerful and unexpected. In gratitude for our good fortune, I plunged into community service. Four years as the local Cubmaster. Three years as a commissioner for the local soccer league. I pitch batting practice, line sports fields, repair goal nets, pick up after litterbugs. The community where I once felt like an intruder gradually became our home. Still, those efforts were not enough, because although some people can afford to live in so lovely a place, no one less than Mother Teresa truly deserves it.

Eventually, I looked inward for answers. Before this house, I was an agnostic. Now, every morning when I let the dog out, I stand humbly in a backyard at the very edge of the continent and pray my gratitude, because for a blessing like this surely there must be someone to thank.

Lately, I've sensed another change. Something inside me wants to possess this place, to make it mine. I know this because I've had a recurring, telltale dream. In it, years from now, I'm on a boat and looking up at the cliff upon which this house is perched. I am trying, earnestly and futilely, to convince a fellow tourist along the port rail that, yes, I really did once live in that house up there on the hill. It was never really mine, I'm careful to explain, but for a period of my life I ate my morning cereal in its kitchen and sipped sugared coffee on its decks. I could lie in a hammock with our kids and watch red-tailed hawks and owls hunt the nearby canyons. With binoculars, I watched spouting whales through the window by the stove, and from that same spot once tracked a pod of dolphins for an hour. On summer nights, through our open bedroom doors, we could hear the crashing surf and the sharp bark of seals. About once a week, at dusk, a bagpiper trekked down the winding dirt path to the middle of the cove below, and we would eat dinner to the rising, mournful sound of "Amazing Grace."

"Riiight," he says just before sidling away to find a new spot on the starboard side.

In some ways I hate that dream. It reminds me that this house -- this place of both powerful discomfort and unexpected joy in my life -- is not mine, that it never was and never will be. It reminds me that we will have to leave it someday and find another place to live. I vowed from the beginning to always keep that in mind, to never forget that we're just passing through, squatters in paradise.

On the other hand, I love that dream. It reminds me that, in a broader sense and regardless of what we own, we're all just passing through, squatters in paradise. It reminds me, too, that where I've lived has become part of who I am, and that's something I'll have forever.

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