By Tom Robotham

For the last few weeks, I’ve been looking for a new apartment. It’s not that I’m unhappy with my current place. Not by a long shot. For 17 years, it has served me well. In the afternoons, on clear days, the living room is bathed in sunlight filtered by the tops of sweetgum trees. Adjacent to that room, separated by French doors, is my library, with bookshelves on every wall. There’s also a long hallway, leading to the front door, adorned by two dozen black-and-white photographs: A shot of a young B.B. King on Beale St., taken by the renowned photographer Ernest Withers; a large photo of Jackie Robinson, in street clothes, walking away from Ebbets Field; my own Little League team picture from 1965; an Ansel Adams print, and many more. The gallery-like display pleases me every time I walk in the door.

That said, the place has two drawbacks that weren’t an issue when I moved in.

First, after all this time, it needs a deep cleaning and a new paint job—and with all my stuff here, I don’t see how that would be possible. The other problem is that it’s a fourth-floor walkup. I can still handle the stairs easily enough, although ascending them with heavy bags of groceries is a struggle, but as I approach the age of 68, I figure it’s time to plan ahead for the day when they’ll no longer be manageable. 

Moving to a new place, though, is a lot easier said than done. For one thing, there’s the aforementioned stuff: some 2,000 books; nearly 1,000 LPs; 10 musical instruments, and decorative items that have deep personal meaning, not to mention furniture, clothes, kitchenware, tools and other things. I don’t mind parting with some of it—even some books and records—and I’ve already made a few drop-offs at the Hope House thrift store. But hauling things to my car—down those four flights of stairs—is daunting and, at my age, potentially dangerous. Same goes for the piles of junk—old papers and such—that just need to go to the dumpster. I’ll hire movers for the big stuff, when the time comes, but a lot of it has to go somewhere else in the meantime.

Then there’s the challenge of finding a new place that’s both suitable and affordable. I’ve already looked at two newer complexes that have attractive features like swimming pools, workout rooms, community courtyards with gas grills, and shiny new kitchens. But even those that are significantly smaller than my current place, are going for twice my current rent, and in many cases much more than that. I’ve looked at older buildings as well, but first-floor units are hard to come by. I did find one. It was smaller than I’d like, but I decided it would be workable. Alas, as I was online at my bank, waiting to get a cashier’s check for the deposit, someone else beat me to it. The realtor told me I was lucky to even see it. Many places, she said, are going sight unseen.

All the while, I’ve been forced to reevaluate my possessions. Do I really need to live with all those books, for example? Perhaps I could pare my collection down by 25 or even 50 percent. But the bottom-line answer is, yes! I need them because I use them while preparing essays or lectures; I need them for the daily inspiration they provide, even while sitting on their shelves; I need them for the aesthetic pleasures that they offer, and I need them for the sense of warmth and continuity that they sustain. Some belonged to my father and have been a presence in my life since I was born; others were acquired in college or grad school and remind me of beloved professors; still others were gifts and remind me of the person who picked them out, wrapped them up, and presented them to me on Christmas or my birthday. My books, in short, remind me of who I am. 

The same is true of all those records. Sure, I could satisfy my musical needs with Spotify. But there’s something about playing my original copy of Rubber Soul—which I got when I was 10—that enriches the listening experience. 

I’d be hard-pressed as well to part with most of my decorative items. Two of my musical instruments—my first acoustic guitar, which I bought with money earned at an after-school job, and my father’s mandolin—are not in playing condition. But they radiate memories, as they hang on my living room wall—as do so many other things on my walls or windowsills: My father’s microscope; an Eiffel Tower statue that a girlfriend gave me after I talked incessantly about missing Paris, a wooden box that my great-grandfather made by hand, and vintage toys that I’ve had since early childhood. 

There are so many other objects like this, and in an ideal world I’d have the space to display them all. I’d have a large library room too, of course, and a dedicated music room with a baby grand and several new guitars. 

Alas, for most of us, there will always be a huge gap between our dream life and our life as it is. And perhaps that’s for the best. The hard realities force us to make choices. Would I be better off stripping myself of most of my possessions and living in a small but comfortable apartment?  

I honestly don’t know. 

Meanwhile, there’s another concern: The prospect of growing accustomed to a new place makes me uneasy. For better or worse, I crave familiarity. From the age of 3, until I went off to college, I lived with my family in the same house. In the ensuing 50 years, I moved only seven times—considerably fewer than the average American, according to the Census Bureau. I simply don’t like moving, not only because of the hard labor it requires but because living spaces have a way of storing memories. 

I moved into my current apartment after my marriage of 21 years came to an end. When I went looking for a new place, I reached out to a realtor friend. She gave me keys to two vacancies. The first was ok—but when I walked into the second, I thought, this is it. This is home. Now, after nearly two decades, it feels more like home than ever because of what’s transpired here and the people who’ve crossed its threshold: friends and lovers in good times and bad, with whom I’ve played guitar, watched movies, savored cocktails, and—on more occasions than I can count—talked until dawn. 

Wherever I go, of course, those memories will remain with me. But I have a hard time imagining a new place where I can no longer look at my couch, in its place, and think, thats where we sat—she and I—the first time we kissed, or sit in my easy chair by the window, bathed in sunlight, where I’ve spent countless mornings absorbed in one book or another. 

Above all, I think, I’ll miss the view of those trees outside my living room window. Year after year, I’ve watched their branches sway ever so gently in the breeze and shake violently during late-summer storms. I’ve seen them lose their leaves for 17 autumns, then blossom again for 17 springtimes. At the moment, they are lush and green again, which makes it harder to bid them farewell—especially since the living rooms of several places I’ve seen lately have views of neighboring fire escapes. That’s par for the course in places like New York. But this ain’t the Big Apple. One reason I was drawn to Norfolk in the first place is the greenery, and daily walks in a park just don’t cut it. I like living with it. Indeed, I’m reminded of a friend’s reaction when she first saw my apartment: “You live in a treehouse!” she said.

Well, maybe not for much longer. I don’t know. There are points in life when we realize it’s time for a change—time to let go and move on. Perhaps tomorrow, or next week, I’ll see a place that evokes the same reaction I had all those years ago: This is it. This is home. At the moment, though, that remains hard to imagine.