The last days
It's been a brutal summer, but it's finally cooling off. Leaves are turning red and gold, and there's a chill in the air in the mornings. Behind my hilltop campsite, I can watch fall settling over the Pennsylvania countryside.
I've been here four months... by far the longest that my motorhome and I have ever sat in one place. For much of that time, it seemed as if the yard-long list of estate-related tasks would never be finished. But things seem to have shifted into high gear in the last few weeks, and one after another, items have been checked off.
The shipping crew from Wes Cowan Auctions showed up with their truck. They carefully and efficiently packed up and loaded all the antique furniture and hauled it off to Cowan's big auction center in Cincinnati, where it'll be sold in several "themed" auctions next year, they tell me.
Local antique dealers took most of the smaller, less valuable items. And I gave away a number of things to family members—mainly my sister Laurel, who drove down from Michigan for a few days, and my cousin Hugh Watkins, who lives in a Pittsburgh suburb. Hugh and his friends put in some heavy labor removing the tools, which Donald had bequeathed to him, from the basement. They were old tools. Heavy tools. Not just hand tools, but the forge, the anvil, and the wall-mounted post drill. Hugh wrestled them all out of the house and carted them away, along with a number of cabinets full of parts and about forty pounds of lead, to my everlasting gratitude. (The lead was used for casting toy soldiers, and bullets for Donald's antique guns.)
After four separate trips up from Texas and more than a month of work altogether, Bob Hook (with help from his scientific colleagues) has completely cleared out the basement. The Smithsonian Institution's Archives have all of Donald's correspondence... 65 years of letters to and from just about everyone in his field. All the fossils, plaster casts, latex molds, books, and scientific papers have been sent to half a dozen different researchers, who will see that they're put to good use. Donald's work will be carried on. I know that would please him.
It's shocking now to see all those shelves in the basement office empty. They've been full of books since my grandfather moved here in the late Fifties. This photo only shows about half of them. There were easily two thousand books down there—and that's in addition to the thousands of volumes upstairs. There were bookcases in every room of the house, except the bathroom.
I've had book dealers in here all summer, taking out hundreds of cartons. The folks who got the cream of the crop were my friends the Townsends, whose bookshop in Pittsburgh is just a couple of blocks from Donald's house. Donald did a lot of business with them over the years, and we became friends in the course of the summer. As it turns out, they're RVers who've recently spent time in New Mexico, so we have lots in common.
With the house emptied of everything worth saving, I called in a local outfit to clear out the rest: 1-800-HAUL-OUT. I'd seen their truck with that phone number in huge letters on its side parked on Washington Avenue almost every day on my way into town. Good advertising... it got my business. They came and hauled away one and a half truckloads of miscellaneous stuff at $600 a truckload. I told them, "Take everything that isn't nailed down," and they did.
That left selling the house as my last big hurdle. It could have been a nightmare: the real estate market has been crappy nationwide—certainly crappy in Pittsburgh. And to make matters worse, the house is in lousy shape. Donald had neglected maintenance in recent years, and the place needed all kinds of repairs: a new kitchen, new wiring, new plumbing, new gutters and leaders, new landscaping, a new back porch, new windows... tens of thousands of dollars worth of work. To be perfectly candid, it was the neighborhood eyesore.
I had long ago made up my mind that I wasn't going to try to renovate before selling. If I had, I would have been stuck here for another six months at least, and I have no desire to spend the winter in Pittsburgh! Besides, you never get back the money you put in. My taste in wall colors might not be a prospective buyer's taste; my idea of a great kitchen might not be theirs. Better to sell the place "as is" and let the new owner renovate it to their own taste.
But with regard to the real estate market, I was extremely lucky: Ellsworth Terrace turns out to be a very desirable neighborhood. It's a tiny, picturesque brick-paved cul-de-sac, lined with Edwardian row houses that give the feeling of a small town a hundred years ago (in fact, the neighborhood is a historic landmark)... yet is within two blocks of the Shadyside university and professional district. It's within easy walking distance of schools, churches, the twin Carnegie museums, and plenty of good restaurants, not to mention bus service to anywhere in the city. "Small-town atmosphere, big city conveniences" is the way a realtor would probably sum it up.
I actually had a couple of developers interested in buying the place to fix up and resell, but those deals didn't pan out: one guy backed out when he saw the appraisal, because he didn't want to spend that much, and the other made an offer so insultingly low that I didn't even bother to counter-offer.
So I placed it with a realtor, a very experienced agent named Marce Schwartz, who had sold and resold a long list of houses in the area, including several on Ellsworth Terrace. We agreed on an asking price that would encourage a quick sale—well below the average of houses in the neighborhood. (Remember, the place needed major work, so it wasn't worth as much).
Prospective buyers thronged the place. The house was under contract in four days, at 97% of my asking price.
Of course my lawyer said "You know what that means—you could have asked for more." Probably so. But I'm not trying to get rich on this sale. After four months here, I'm sick and tired of Pittsburgh traffic, Pittsburgh noise, and above all, Pittsburgh's climate. I just want to get it over with and get back to the southwest.
My lawyer, Phil Irani, is a great guy. He grew up with my cousins Hugh and Jonathan Watkins, and he's not only a lawyer but a Certified Public Accountant as well. That made him ideally suited to handle the affairs of Donald's estate: he took care of all the legal matters, and will handle the taxes as well. In fact, he'll be doing my taxes from now on too. After forty years of doing my own, I'm fed up with the complications. And after seeing how badly my usually meticulous father screwed up his own taxes—he overpaid grossly and depended on the government to catch the errors and refund the overpayment—I'm determined not to make the same mistake, and convinced that a professional of Phil's caliber can do a better job than I can.
Phil was very helpful this summer. He drove me downtown in his fast little BMW convertible and walked me through all the necessary filings. He knew everybody at the courthouse, which I'm sure helped when I had to start proceedings with a "pending" death certificate, because the coroner's office took nearly three months to determine the cause of death (heart attack). Phil's cheerful personality eased the way for me, and made the legal parts of this job almost painless.
By the way, those downtown municipal buildings are typical of old Pittsburgh: horrendously sooty. I suppose the city doesn't have the money to clean them, and I certainly wouldn't argue that cosmetic appearance should take priority over providing essential services. Still, they're not a pretty sight.
So I now have a buyer who'll take possession in a month. I've signed the necessary paperwork so that Phil can handle the closing in my absence. I've emptied out the house. I've dropped off Donald's ashes at Homewood Cemetery (and paid an outrageous thousand-dollar fee to have them buried in a plot that the family already owns). Apart from filing some final paperwork, my responsibilities are just about ended. It's time to leave.
Sitting at my portable table in the big empty living room one last time, I find my eyes filling with tears. I've known this house for more than fifty years... it was my father's, and his parents' before him. I've visited Pittsburgh uncounted times in my life. I'll never see this house or this city again... and of course I'll never see Donald again, except in the videos I shot. A big part of my life is over.