The monster insect moved from the middle of the hall to the stairs. I saw only a small part of its silhouette in the dim blue light of a cheap fluorescent bulb. I was creeping over squeaky boards of a 100-year-old house, hunting a 4-inch-long cockroach. I squeezed a flip-flop in my sweaty hand, held my breath, and hit the floor to squish the roach. I missed.
Call for adventure
Two months before that, we broke our lease in California and lived for four months in Brownsville, TX, to spend time with my wife’s side of the family. We meant to stay there temporarily before moving to France for two years.
For many years, Brownsville was the country's most affordable city, ethnically 94% Hispanic, and it's the most southern point of the US, except for the Florida Keys. When Brownsville's Boca Chica Beach became the home for SpaceX's Starbase, the real estate prices in the area skyrocketed, and some people created high-quality Airbnb rental units specifically for rocket scientists to stay in during work trips.
Trial of smell
We wanted to make our family comfortable, so we spent two weeks looking for and discussing the best Airbnb places in the area. Finally, we found a cute place hosted by Shanelle, an awkward woman in her early 30s, always wearing black yoga pants and a loose white blouse.
I arrived at the Airbnb after five days on the road from California. I immediately noticed a slight but unmistakable smell of sewage. Since I was tired, I gobbled my dinner and went to bed.
After sleeping the night, I no longer sensed the smell. However, after leaving the building for 15 minutes, I could still smell an overpowering stench when returning.
We talked to Shanelle. She tried to help - she cleaned the house, especially the stinkiest room upstairs, with baking soda and smell-removing chemicals. Nothing helped. Something in the house was producing the smell it was impossible to remove.
Trial of roach
It took a while to rent another place because no one rented houses large enough for our family. Even Shanelle's house was undersized. Ultimately, we found only one option - a 100-year-old yellow colonial house that stands proudly in the middle of a rough-looking neighborhood. It was a luxury house back in the day, but it no longer met monger standards.
The house's owner was Amadeo, a 65 years old Hispanic man named after the famous Austrian composer. One of Amadeo's legs didn't bend, and he had difficulty climbing the stairs to the second floor. However, he was very welcoming and even purchased a baby gate to make the house safer for our toddler son.
The house was full of antique furniture. Some items had shaky legs. Metal parts were rusty. Windows panes had holes that let the outside air in. The kitchen was filled with cheap tableware, which I suspected was left by the previous tenants. The whole house made me cringe with discomfort. I didn't like the furniture. I didn't like the kitchen. I didn't like the bed.
On the third day, I met the four-inch cockroach.
He ran surprisingly fast for his size. I was scared at first and didn't know how to kill him. I was afraid to tackle him with just a piece of paper. What if his jaws were strong enough to bite through? I went to get a broom, but the cockroach ran away. I found him a few hours later in the middle of the hall. I stalked like a cat, stepping silently toward him. The cockroach didn't move. I quietly took off my flip-flop and hit him as strongly as I could. I missed. The cockroach started running away, and I chased it through the hall. I noticed the broom, took it, and swung the insect with the pole, and this time I was successful. The creature's body burst with white paste like a creme puff accidentally put on the bottom of the grocery bag. I was wrenching. In a few minutes, I cleaned the murder scene with a paper towel folded in 8 layers. I disposed of the body in the outside trashcan, fearing the roach would rise from the dead and take revenge on me while I was asleep.
This unwelcoming environment started to affect me mentally. I wasn't my calm, composed self. I started to get impatient. What bugged me the most was the inability to solve problems. I don't go with the flow. I identify deep problems and fix them. I'm a solver.
In Brownsville, I was stuck. It wasn't my house to invest in fundamental improvements. It didn't make sense to move again because moving is time-consuming. And there were no places to choose from. So I just had to breathe and go with the flow, waiting until we moved to another place. Buying nice cooking equipment didn't make sense either because of the imminent move.
Three months in, my wife and I were fed up. We didn’t want to be on the move anymore. We wanted a home to make our own, tailored to our needs. We wanted to raise a family and have peace of mind. We wanted to focus on our work and connect to the community.
We canceled our trip to France and bought a beautiful house in Austin, TX.
What I learned
My surroundings deeply affect my mood, energy level, and the quality of my attention. If my home smells bad - it’s the only thing I can think about. If I have quality exercise, my energy level is doubled. I usually cook at home using free-range meat and organic vegetables that helps me to keep to stay focused and avoid brain fog. My elaborate office setup makes me more productive than a simple laptop.
I want control over my immediate environment. And most of the time, it’s possible only when you own things, starting with your house.
Of course, you can say you have a good landlord who would install a central HVAC system or allow you to hang art on walls. Granted. However, your standard may be different from your landlord or other service provider. For example, Shanelle didn't feel the stench in the house or decided not to notice. A few cockroaches in the house weren't a huge problem for Amadeo. But they were for me.
When you own something, you have the autonomy to make decisions without asking other people. You don’t have to conform to someone else's standards. You can explore your own authentic taste by changing your environment and seeing if you like it. How would you know what you want if you never tried to get it?
Ownership can give you the freedom to make your choices and live your authentic life. Build your castle and set down the roots, even if it makes you miss some exciting adventures, like hunting giant cockroaches in the dark halls of a colonial house.