Susanna Salk


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Curb Appeal
Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Local legend refers to him as Cadillac Joe even though he was always spotted driving a Lincoln. For decades it was said that this former demolition man drove every Sunday to visit and complete the road side folly he had erected stone by stone single handedly over the course of decades. It looked like a drip sand castle Scarlet O Hara would have constructed as a child…if Salvador Dali had been her father. You can Google “abandoned stone house in Woodbury, Connecticut” and many posts pop up, often by fascinated people determined to understand the houses’s story by detective work or through taking their own photos or even videos. The best part about reading these posts is the enthusiastic chain of comments that always follows by equally obsessed people. One woman named Chrissy said that she had snuck onto the property and taken pictures, reveling in its beauty. An anonymous comment immediately followed, warning: “I am watching you, Chrissy.” Was it Cadillac Joe? Or some creepy individual, enjoying the game of speculation? The house seemed to have a magnetic pull both on people who had made pilgrimages from towns far away to see it, to people who passed it on a regular basis. In a world where curb side appeal is measured in tidy window boxes, plush lawns , its intrigue seemed to lay in its unapologetic state of constant construction and deconstruction. Staring at it is like the Esher drawing of the stairway that never goes anywhere yet your eye longs to follow its infinite path just the same. Now that my son was back in school, I passed by today after several months away and suddenly noticed a For Sale sign tacked on its exterior. For Sale signs and houses usually have a codependent relationship but here the pairing felt completely inappropriate and I wanted to rip it down. How could something from the real world have anything to do with something that was obviously so far beyond maps, monetary transactions, and logic? Had Cadillac Joe gone and died or had he finally given up?
Of all the comments online I could find only one person had ever met Cadillac Joe. She had wanted to take pictures of her daughter’s ballet troupe in front of the house for professional purposes. He had happened to be there and although had denied her the picture, gave her a tour. She described him as eccentric but kind. And then there was me.
Five years ago my older son had been scouting for a backdrop to a key scene in his student film and knew he wanted to shoot there, having passed it countless of times on his way to childhood play dates. The house had always seemed deserted whenever we drove by and he’d only need a few minutes to capture his actor walkig by its exterior. On the day of the shoot a light snow was falling which made the bare winter afternoon feel even more cinematic. As we drove up to the house we saw a car pulled over in front: a wisp of smoke was curling out of one of the three stone chimneys that looked like something out of a Grimms fairytale.
As my son and crew expressed frustration I told them to wait in the car and I walked inside. A man in his late 70s was hunched over a small fire in a giant stone fireplace, feeding it sticks in a repetitive, rather than contemplative manner. Stacks and stacks of newspapers crowded around him in the rubble. The top of my head felt wet and I looked up and could see the darkening sky creamy with snow, as at home here as the fire. I said hello and asked permission to quickly shoot outside his property.
When he saw they were just teenagers he nodded and offered the interior as well. As the boys scrambled out of the car I remained by his side and listened to whatever he wanted to tell me. He had built this place for his late girlfriend who died of cancer and he intended on finishing it. “I’m finishing up that stone terrace over there and inside will be a garden.” I looked over to where he gestured and all I could see were more stacks of newspapers, stones and weeds. In the next room giant shadows lay like sleeping house cats. “Are those cars? ” I asked, almost more to myself in amazement than as a question to him. He had once collected cars and watches.
He then inquired if I knew a place where he could sell his watches and I was foolish enough to suggest an online web site. He nodded blankly and I felt a strong sense of powerlessness surge through me.
I don’t know if the house will ever sell and if it does whether it become monument or a McMansion. All I know is up until today every time I drove by it, I still looked to see if the terraced garden had been finished.