Editor’s note: This column was previously published in the early 1970s. Will Schubach (Will S. and his brother Ted) requested it, saying, the column “is essential Tim Woodward.”
I am writing this on the heels of a visit from my mother-in-law, who lives in Washington state and has just spent four days at our house. The occasion of her departure seems as good an excuse as any to pursue the subject of house guests, or, as they are sometimes called, bums.
My mother-in-law is no bum. She doesn’t eat much, cleans up after herself and does not overstay her welcome. She plays with the children and reads them stories. She is a wise counselor, a good cook and an engaging conversationalist who carries in her purse a notebook with the punch lines to her favorite jokes. What I mean to say is that we hated to see her go.
This is not true of all house guests. A few years after we were married, my wife and I were visited — plagued might be a better word — by the oddball, a bum of the first water. A friend of a friend, he dropped by on his way to Canada and stayed forever.
The oddball had wild eyes and a flowing mustache and a unique way of alternating between moody silence and inordinate rudeness. A typical conversation with him went this way:
“So, you’re planning to go to Canada?”
“Yeah, or at least I was until I got stuck in this lousy place.”
“You don’t like Idaho?”
“Sure, it’s great — if you like stupid hicks.”
“You must be leaving soon then?”
“Not soon enough to see the last of this dump. Is this the best house you could afford?”
The oddball suffered from terminal hunger. He had a unique habit of lightening the load on the refrigerator while delivering himself of disparaging comments on its contents. At any moment his voice could erupt from fresh foods (“Hey, who ate all those crummy tomatoes?”), the freezer (“Geez, nobody buys vanilla ice cream!”), or beverages (“What’s the matter, haven’t you heard of beer in this crummy state?”)
Just short of the point at which the house became too small for the both of us, the oddball pulled out. The last we saw of him, he was complaining about the mattress on our bed.
Still, I cannot be overly critical of such behavior, having once been a party to it. As a boy of 19, I was one-fifth of the platoon that invaded a hapless family of southern Californians. It was the summer of 1966, the year that my colleagues in rock ’n’ roll and I journeyed to Los Angeles to fulfill our destiny of eclipsing the Beatles.
The only people we knew in Los Angeles were Will S. and his brother Ted, who was best known for falling off a stage and breaking his two front teeth. Will and Ted had moved to Los Angeles with their parents that spring. As they departed for the big city, they suggested that we come visit them at their new home, an offhand remark that we accepted as the gospel according to Ted and Will.
It was hot and smoggy on the day that aging panel truck and oversized trailer filled with high-powered amplifiers pulled into Ted’s and Will’s new driveway. The brothers were delighted to see us, but their father didn’t exactly seem tickled. His expression was that of a farmer welcoming a swarm of locusts. This was out first hint that the unexpected addition of five teen-aged boys to a family might not be a parent’s fondest wish.
The problem is compounded when the additions exhibit a predilection for spending eight to 10 hours a day playing their musical compositions at concert volume. The members of the family had various ways of reacting to this. Ted and Will were thrilled. Mrs. S. gently but repeatedly informed us that the neighbors had threatened to sue. Mr. S. went into seclusion.
It didn’t occur to us that our presence was costing the family money, to say nothing of the strain on domestic relations. We thought that because we had brought our sleeping bags and were eating at McDonald’s, we were paying our way. We didn’t realize what the hot water for our showers and the juice for all that high-powered rehearsing did to the electric bill. And McDonald was only providing lunch and dinner; breakfast and “snacks” were on Mrs. S., who spent most of her time in the kitchen, weeping.
The inevitable happened one morning at breakfast, the only time of day when Mr. S. showed himself and we could be certain that he had not moved to a monastery. On this particular morning, he delivered a brief but moving piece of oratory. I remember the words:
“Will,” he said (addressing his elder son as if he were the only one in the room), “I want them gone. When I come home from work tonight. I want them out of here. They’re bums, Will. Do you hear me? They’re nothing but bums!”
We were struck by the way he referred to us in the third person, as if we were already gone and not sitting right beside him at the table.
“Do you hear me, Will? They’re eating our food, they’re using all our water, they’re driving our neighbors crazy. I don’t want to see them again. I want those no-good bums out of here by tonight.”
By evening we were most of the way to Sacramento. It was clear by then that we weren’t going to push the Beatles off the charts anyway, and the thought of home had begun to seem enticing.
But none of us will forget the time we joined the bums, and I sometimes wonder of Mr. S. is still alive, and if he ever thinks of us.
I haven’t moved in on anyone since.
Tim Woodward has retired, but we’re continuing to publish the best of his columns through June 3. If you’ve got a favorite, send a date of publication and a headline or brief summary to Niki Forbing-Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org.