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.
* * *
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?
Mona 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, I mean, 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.
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 had 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.
Chris 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.
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.
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 sexual fantasy and send it in with a deposit or a big check, and then they would accommodate your fantasy.
* * *
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.”
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.
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?
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.
I didn’t think that sounded strange at all. I was upset for the house too, and for us. 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.
It turns out that, just recently, “The House” got back to being a home.
Danica LINN: You can go first, babe.
Aaron 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. Yes.
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.
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, now, for 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 —a nd 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.”
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. 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 like 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.
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.