The House of Dreams: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

The "House of Dreams": the Dubner farm in upstate New York, circa 1960.

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “The House of Dreams.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript below; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) 

In this episode, Stephen Dubner returns to his childhood home in Quaker Street, N.Y. It’s a drafty farmhouse on thirty-six acres where his parents, a pair of Brooklyn-born Jews who converted to Catholicism, raised eight devout children. The house, Dubner says, felt like the eleventh member of the family. Which is why his family took it so hard after his mother finally sold the house and the very bad thing happened to it. A while back, Dubner wrote a New York Times essay about this terrible turn of events. But now, as the podcast explains, there’s been a new development — a “boomerang story,” if you will.

(Some of) the Dubner family, clockwise from left: Stephen on Mona's lap, Ann, Marthe, Gary, Dad, Peter, Patty, Joe, Beth.

As a teenager, Dubner stocked shelves at Wolfe’s Market, and in this episode he calls up Chris Wolfe, still a family friend, to talk about the moment he found out what had happened to the house: 

DUBNER: I came into the store, and I said, “Hey Chris.” We were catching up, and I think I just said something like, you know, “How’s the house?” And you said, “You don’t know?” And I said, “Know what?” And you’re like, “Oh boy.” 

You’ll also hear from Dubner’s oldest sister, Mona DeMay, and from Quaker Street residents Aaron Yerdon (check out Yerdon’s symphonic metal band here) and Danica Linn about “The House of Dreams” and what it has become.  

Audio Transcript

[MUSIC: Nicholas Tremulis; “Juju’s Farewell” (from Little Big Songs)]

Stephen J. DUBNER: You know what I love? I love a good boomerang story. What’s a boomerang story, you say? All right, here, I’ll tell you one; this one’s about the price of horse manure. So, back in the 19th century, when cities around the world began to grow like crazy, they were mostly powered by horse, more than 200,000 horses in New York City alone. Now, all those horses produced about five tons of manure a day. When the cities were smaller, there had been a healthy market for manure, because farmers from the surrounding area would buy it as fertilizer. But as cities grew, and took on more and more horses, there came to be a manure glut. The price of manure fell from strong positive to zero and then to negative —you actually had to pay somebody to get rid of the manure. Now, not surprisingly, most people weren’t willing to pay to have their manure taken away, so it piled up on the streets. It was a nightmare, in every way: it was a health hazard, it stank, it made it hard to get around. Thankfully, the automobile and the electric streetcar came along and replaced the horse as the engine of cities. Decades passed. The horse population declined. So therefore did the supply of horse manure. What rose, however, was a boom in home gardening, and, among a certain type of connoisseur, a demand for primo fertilizer. Like horse manure. So, today, a twenty-five-pound bag of manure mulch can sell for about fifteen dollars. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a boomerang story. Something that starts out in one place, and then goes far away, and then ends up right back where it began. 

On today’s show, another boomerang story. This one is about a house. My house. The House of Dreams.

[THEME]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[MUSIC: Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics; “Looking For A Better Thing” (from It’s About Time)]

DUBNER: So I grew up in an old farmhouse in upstate New York, outside of Albany, in the back of beyond. The nearest town was called Quaker Street. There was one stoplight, a general store, a diner. There were eight kids in my family: four girls, four boys. I was the youngest, so, even Stephen. I loved my family and I loved my house. So years later, after I’d gone off to college, and my mom sold the house, when the terrible thing happened to it, I took it hard. I asked my oldest sister, whose name is Mona, to help me tell the story.

DUBNER: Hey Mona, are you there?

DEMAY: Yes.

DUBNER: Hey, it’s Stephen. How’s it going?

DEMAY: Stephen, great. How are you doing?

DUBNER: I’m good. Um— family okay?

DEMAY: All real good. How about yours?

DUBNER: Good. Everybody’s good. Looking forward to seeing you soon.

DEMAY: Yeah, same here.

DUBNER: So, as you know, I’m thinking about doing a radio show on our house.  

DEMAY: “The House.”

DUBNER: “The House.” I always think of the house as, like, the eleventh member of the family, I don’t know about you?

DEMAY: I think of it as “The House.”

DUBNER: Capital T, capital H.

DEMAY: Yes, yes.

DUBNER: It was a big, drafty white farmhouse, tin roof, asbestos shingles, everything falling apart a little bit, sitting on thirty-six acres of not-very-arable land. We were a big, rambunctious family, lots of kids, lots of animals, lot of activity. I think we all have our favorite memories, our favorite room in the house. Here’s how my sister Mona remembers it.

DEMAY: The kitchen because that’s where I remember, besides having to eat liver and onions and stuff like that, I remember our family dinners, our family meals. Sunday breakfast after church, mom making waffles. And all of us kids would sit around the table. I remember dad putting ketchup on his steak. It was a family time there. You know, us feeding the dogs under the table some of the food we didn’t really like. But it was family time, and I think I’ve always, always valued, and I know I’ve always loved the family. The other favorite spot was the Other Side, where our big old piano was. And mom and dad would encourage us to play our clarinets, and play the piano, and sing. So again, it was togetherness. Plus, that room held the TV which we could watch Sunday night Ed Sullivan, that type of thing.

DUBNER: I always think, whenever I drive by, I think of how in the summers sometimes Mom and Dad would all round us up to all recite the Rosary in the afternoon on the lawn there.

DEMAY: Kneeling in the grass, right. That image is imprinted in my brain too.

DUBNER: Yeah, yeah.

[MUSIC: Das Vibenbass; “Film Noir” (from Fodakis)]

DUBNER: We were a very, very Catholic family. Now, my parents were both born as Jews, in Brooklyn, but before they met each other they each converted to Catholicism. And, like a lot of converts, whether it’s religion or politics or a former smoker who used to smoke three packs a day, they were extremely devout about their new faith. And so we were too. So, I, like my brothers before me, was an altar boy from about the age of four. We prayed a lot, we obeyed the teachings of the Catholic Church (for the most part, at least). And holidays, like Christmas, they weren’t just holidays, they were Holy Days, celebrated in the religious spirit. So the house itself, or “The House,” as my sister Mona calls it, it felt kind of consecrated. That’s why it was so strange, so unsettling, when we learned that something profane happened there, after we moved. I talked to Chris Wolfe, an old family friend, who still runs the local general store:

DUBNER: Now, so, we should just say, I used to work for you back in my early teens at your general store, Wolfe’s Market, Quaker Street, New York. I stocked shelves, and I mopped floors, I mowed the lawn. I don’t think I was a very good employee, honestly.

WOLFE: Well, you were on time. And you were clean. And you did your job. And you never gave me any trouble.

DUBNER: That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but that’s all right. I’ll take it. I’ll take it.

WOLFE: That’s a good endorsement! And you were good to the people. You know, everybody liked you.

[MUSIC: Das Vibenbass; “Film Noir” (from Fodakis)]

DUBNER: So Quaker Street is a small town, obviously, and Chris Wolfe eventually hears about just about anything that’s going on there, including what happened to my house.

WOLFE: Well, when we first heard about your mom selling the house, you know, after your dad had passed away, and she was there for a while and then she sold it. And then this couple took it over. And then it wasn’t for a little while that they were there that we found out that through the grapevine around here as small towns have grapevines that it was being turned into an adult swinging house.

DUBNER: Oh god.

[MUSIC: Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics; “It’s About Time” (from It’s About Time)]

DUBNER: Yep, that’s right: my house, my very proper house with my very Catholic family, was sold off to a couple who turned it into a swingers’ house. A sex club. A sex farm. They called it The House of Dreams.

Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: things get worse at The House of Dreams before they get better:

DEMAY: You could write your fantasy, your sexual fantasy and send it in with a deposit or a big check, and then they would accommodate your fantasy.

[UNDERWRITING]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[MUSIC: Cuchata; “Nueva” (from Sangre Mixto)]

DUBNER: So I’ve known Chris Wolfe since I was a kid. I used to work at the general store she ran, and still runs, with her husband, Denny. Chris was the one who first told me about my family’s old house:

DUBNER: So, Chris, I remember how I first found out that my beloved old house had been turned into a sex club, do you remember...Which was several years after it had been going, do you remember?

WOLFE: Yeah, you were really upset.

DUBNER: So do you remember that day that I came back home?

WOLFE: Yes I do.

DUBNER: And I came into the store, and I said, “Hey Chris.” We were catching up, and I think I just said something like, you know, “How’s the house?” You know, it’s this house I’d lived in forever. And you said, “You don’t know”? And I said, “Know what?” And you’re like, “Oh boy.”

DUBNER: At one point, Chris told me, she got hold of an application for The House of Dreams. I asked her what kind of information they wanted.

WOLFE: Well of course, you know, your name, your address, well they didn’t want to know your social security number, that’s for sure. So then they said they wanted to know what your preferences were.

DUBNER: Your sexual preferences, right?

WOLFE: Yeah, sexual preferences. Your race.

DUBNER: Okay.

WOLFE: How much you made.

DUBNER: Yeah, were you supposed to…

WOLFE: Where you live.

DUBNER: Were you supposed to attach a picture?

WOLFE: A picture. Yeah, and some of these people who came in, some of these guys come in used to have their hair slicked back with that greasy stuff, and used to have like striped shirts and plaid pants. I mean, it’s a riot. I mean…

DUBNER: So they stuck out a little bit in little old Quaker Street.

WOLFE: Kind of, yeah. But it was kind of...and, you know, a lot of people around here tried to close it down, but…And I know the cops went up there, you know, some of the BCI boys went up there. And they’d come down, and they’d talk to us, and I’d say well what are you going to do about that? They’d say there’s nothing we can do about it because it’s consenting adults.

DEMAY: You really want to know the details I found out?

DUBNER: That’s my sister Mona again.

DEMAY: A couple years before mom died, you told me about it, so I started researching it, and what I remember is this is what you could do. You could write your fantasy, your sexual fantasy and send it in with a deposit or a big check, and then they would accommodate your fantasy. That’s all I remember from researching it. I’ve probably blocked other stuff out. And then I remember thinking I’m just going to kill them. Our bedroom, the girls’ bedroom is involved in this? We were the most pure girls in the area. We were raised strictly and morally, and you know, nothing like that ever went on in the house when we lived there. And now it was like a desecration and a huge slap in the face to our family and to the house. I was upset for the house, strange as that might sound.

[MUSIC: The Wintermarket; “Thank You There Will Be No Encore” (from The Ballad of Artie Funken)]

DUBNER: I didn’t think that sounded strange at all. I was upset for the house too, and for us and for my mom especially. We weren’t sure what to tell her, if anything. We debated whether we should keep it secret but I decided it was wrong somehow to hold out this info that she might hear from someone else. And the amazing thing is, when we did tell her, she handled it better than any of us. She said, “You know, it’s just a house. The house wasn’t us, wasn’t the family. We were the family. The house was just sticks and stones.” Now I want to believe this, that a house has no allegiance to the people who live in it. But I couldn’t quite get there. It still hurt. My sister Mona felt pretty much the same way.

DUBNER: So this is, you know, we’re just two people in the world who don’t amount to a hill of beans or anything, but I still maintain that this was at one point the saddest story in the world.

DEMAY: I totally agree with you.

DUBNER: I was, it really was our house, “The House” as you call it, the eleventh member of the family. And if it were to end here, the story would be the dang saddest story ever.

DEMAY: Yeah, and I’d still be very, very angry. Although, you know, I’ve learned to let go of that.

DUBNER: You have not. You so have not, but that’s okay, you fake it well.

DEMAY: I’ve learned how to deal with it. Thanks, okay.

DUBNER: But that’s not the end of the story, right?

DEMAY: No. Right. What a lovely surprise.

DUBNER: It turns out that, just recently, “The House” got back to being a home.

LINN: You can go first, babe.

YERDON: I’m Aaron Yerdon. I work for the distribution center at Walmart, and play in a rock band...I guess that pretty much sums me up.

DUBNER: Hang on, you’re not only a proud homeowner, but you’re also a home renovator.

YERDON: Absolutely.

LINN: Yes, a very good one.

DUBNER: Yeah, unbelievably good. Okay Danica, your turn.

LINN: My name is Danica Linn, I work for the New York State tax department. And as you know, in my spare time I love to renovate homes. And I like to paint, and do stained glass, and mosaics.

[MUSIC: Madrona Music; “Cafe Window”]

DUBNER: This past summer, I was upstate with my wife and kids, visiting Mona and her family, and we decided to take a drive, out to Quaker Street. We wanted to visit the cemetery where my parents are buried, stop in at Wolfe’s Market, maybe even drive by “The House.” Now, I’d tried this once before, with my kids a few years ago. The guy who answered the door was “The Sex Club Guy,” and even though I played dumb, just told him I grew up there and only wanted my kids to see the house, he shooed me away. So this time we planned just to drive past it. But my son Solomon, when he saw the house, he really, really, really wanted to knock on the door, meet the people who live there, maybe take a look around. Mona and my wife and I are all looking at each other: no, bad idea. But Solomon was insistent. It was a Sunday morning, about eleven o’clock. I figured, what the hell. So we parked in the driveway—there was only one car there, a good sign, no sex party going on—and gave a knock, expecting, of course, “The Sex Club Guy” again. But it wasn’t him. It was this nice young couple, Aaron and Danica.

DEMAY: You turned around. Someone opened the door and you turned around—and I wish I had recorded what you said, it was so cute—you said something like come on in they’re friendly here. Or something like that. Do you remember what you said?

DUBNER: What I think I said was, “Hey, it’s new owners and they’re not jerks.”

[MUSIC: Jessie Torrisi and the Please Please Me; “Breeze in Carolina” (from Brûler Brûler)]

DUBNER: The new owners, Danica and Aaron, are very much not jerks. They’re nice and talented people who, it turns out, love old houses, especially our old house. They’re renovating it, beautifully.

YERDON: And we jumped right over all the things that we thought we had to do right away and we dived right into opening archways up and ripping floors up and our most recent project is that porch, where the Jacuzzi was at one point. That room is going to be an actual living room soon. We’ve reframed walls, redone the entire floor, we actually removed the two sliding doors that were kind of dilapidated, and put in a single French door for our back entrance.

LINN: When you walk in through the French doors it just has that just openness, you know, and it’s like a breath of fresh air!

DUBNER: As happy as we were to know that our house was in good hands, Danica and Aaron were happy to know that a nice family used to live here, before it was a sex club. They wanted to hear our stories about the game closet, and the hallway where my sisters talked on the phone to their boyfriends and about the upstairs bathroom that my brother Peter turned into a darkroom. And, us being us, not exactly a shy family, we told them everything.

DEMAY: I was ecstatic with this young couple. What they were doing to “The House” was gorgeous and it was wiping out any remnants of the sex club. But it was really —they were restoring this house to, say, a former glory or a current glory that our family couldn’t do because of lack of finances, and time, and talent maybe.

DUBNER: And having eight kids running around.

DEMAY: Well yeah.

DUBNER: I mean they were just everything they could do to keep everything together.

DEMAY: It was a trip down memory lane painted with a modern brush. It’s hard to explain because the rooms were all still there. Here’s Joe’s room, here’s the girl’s room, Stephen, here’s the alcove where you were. Oh look, the upstairs bathroom works now, wow. It was amazing, and I think gave all of us that day, especially you and I, a sense of real happiness over this house.

[MUSIC: Jonathan Clay; “Close To You” (from Everything She Wants)]

DUBNER: So that’s my boomerang story. I know it’s not as dramatic as the horse manure story, but I hope you find it instructive, the tale of my old house becoming an orgy castle. If nothing else, it tweaks the old conventional wisdom, you know, Thomas Wolfe, no relation to Wolfe’s Market, by the way, writing, “You can’t go home again.” Actually, you can go home again.  Sometimes you just have to wait a while.

[CREDITS]

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  1. MsLeading says:

    I was fairly surprised and disappointed at the judgmental, derogatory, sex-panicked tone of this story. Underlying the whole theme of the house (sorry, The House) being “perverted” was an implication that consenting adults congregating at a private venue for sexual purposes is the most morally corrupt thing imaginable, as though being used to house a sex club was just as bad as the house being used to cook meth or traffic child slaves. The obsession with purity, with the right kind of people vs the wrong kind of people… how grossly sanctimonious! Professional sex workers and facilities can provide valuable and necessary services for some people. Sure, they can be seedy and disgusting just like any industry, but the assumption here was that kinky sex – I’ll say it again, by consenting adults – is necessarily a perverse, shameful state of affairs whose very existence is so offensive that Dubner & family are actively angry at its presence in their lives. For a show that so often looks at controversial issues from a sane and rational perspective, I was very disappointed in the knee-jerk sex-negativity in this story.

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    • Molly says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Kevin Shmevin says:

        “…but I do believe that casual sex with random people to be immoral”

        Why?

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  2. Seminymous Coward says:

    That was a rather odd look into what pretty much amounts to puritanical fun-hating and bizarrely assumed malice.

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  3. Blaise Pascal says:

    I think MsLeading said what I was thinking. Would it have bothered you as much if the house had been turned into some other legal small business that was distasteful to you but not sexual? If your old bedroom housed the small offset presses used to print a white supremacist/anti-semitic newsletter?

    It seemed to me that it would have been in keeping with the nature of the program for you to have tried to interview the owners of the sex club, to air their view on the matter. I would have liked to hear why they chose that house, and why they decided to leave it.

    At best, you said you went there, did not mention that you were a journalist, but rather a previous inhabitant, and got blown off.

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  4. James says:

    I likewise don’t see anything wrong with the sex club. Far worse things could have happened. At least the place is still a house, isn’t it, and not a suburban development or strip mall?

    But I do have to argue a bit on one point, where you say “So, today, a twenty-five-pound bag of manure mulch can sell for about fifteen dollars.” Now that’s strictly true. My yuppie neighbors in the McMansion down the road (yeah, suburban blight is stretching out its ugly tentacles) probably buy the stuff, just as they carefully rake up fallen leaves, stuff them into plastic trash bags (about 40 of them) and leave them out for the trash* pickup, instead of making a compost pile. Which just proves the old adage about fools and their money, because there are about a dozen horse owners within say half a mile, who would gladly give them manure by the pickup load.

    *The trash company, though, has rules about how much trash they will take each week, so the pile of bags has been there for a couple of months, decreasing by two or three bags a week.

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  5. Dennis says:

    This was possibly the most pointless Freakanomics story ever. First, there’s nothing interesting that happened. Second, there was nothing to be learned from this story.

    That aside, I don’t see how its any business of yours what legal activity is going on in a house that you don’t own and I’m appalled at Stephen’s puritanical attitude.

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  6. kommunic8 says:

    I found this episode of Freakonomics preposterous, petty and verging on bigotry. Your podcast is one of my favourite, this is what makes the story of your house particularly difficult to listen to. With so many people sleeping on the street, people who do not have a house nor a country they can call home, your lament about the destination of use of what used to be your house seems obscene, to say the least. If you wanted to keep your house so badly, you shouldn’t have sold it. And I really don’t understand the problem you seem to have with consenting adults paying to have sex. Get over it. Probably you did, I don’t know because I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to the end.

    I am really looking forward to listening to your next podcast. I love you work, love the stories you tell, the angle you choose. I’ll forget about this last one.

    Have a great break,

    Cristina

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  7. Stephen says:

    Did I really just hear this podcast, or was it all a bad dream? Either way it was awful. By that I mean truly, remarkably awful. Here’s my synopsis: I used to live in a nice house. Then it became a sex club. Now it’s a nice house again. The end.

    But the broadcast would have simply been an innocent misfire if it wasn’t for Dubner and his sister’s intolerance. That took it from dull to downright obnoxious.

    Let those people do what they want with the house. It’s theirs, after all. You have no right to approve or disapprove of their decisions.

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  8. Chuck says:

    Agreed. The sex-negativity is appalling. It’s nothing whatever to do withi economics, everything to Puritan sexual ideals. I wish Stephen and his sister the best with their blindly simplistic and narrow view of sexuality, conflating “purity” with the absence of sex.

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