When you hear the phrase “living underground” images of guerrilla fighters or some resistance movement comes to mind. Lone idealists or outlaws removed from the “grid” evading the authorities or a banned political movement hoping to wait it out until change is heralded in the capital. For Luso-Americans living, it is just the normal way of life.
Many Portuguese immigrants living in America spend most of their time at home in the basement. I am not talking about dirt floors or a laundry room. No! They fully renovate their basement and make it into an apartment even though they have an apartment on one of the floors of the house they own. They install a full kitchen, bath, living room area in addition to basement staples like a laundry room and storage.
The upstairs apartment is what I like to call the museum. You are typically only allowed to sleep there. Every other room: kitchen, bathroom, dining room, and living room are decked out with the finest furniture, sculptures, framed photos and artwork. It is the place where you receive guests. The couches are prepped just before they arrive by removing the plastic cover or the throw placed there to preserve the “newness” of the furniture. The bathroom contains embroidered and monogrammed towels which are beautiful to the eye but otherwise useless. Once I accidentally used one of these towels and I was punished in two ways: it chaffed my more delicate areas and I got an earful from my mother! The soaps are beautifully carved but lost their scent a long time ago. I call it the museum because it is just that: a showcase apartment containing the finest they can afford.
Why is this? I understand the practicalities of having an extra space and a “fixed” basement is a great way to utilize the small urban houses but why replicate an entire living area? I can only take the information I collected from my own family and friends. They want to preserve the upstairs apartment in an almost pristine condition to showcase their success in the new world they emigrated to. The basement is thus utilized as a living space that can be used without guilt preserving the upstairs for showing off.
The basement was where my family spent time together. It is where my dad cooked dinner and my mom sewed our clothes. Its where we ate and watched the world unfold on the nightly news (at first on a black and white TV then color TV in the 80s but without cable). It was a playroom and a party room since we held large family gatherings like my communion and some really roaring New Year’s Eve parties.
We also had an intercom system: it consisted of banging on the ceiling of the basement in order to communicate with those upstairs. Different banging meant different things. It was sort of a Portuguese Morse code.
So it wasn’t awful and we had so many great memories and milestones that were experienced in the basement. But the upstairs had so many tantalizing things in it that made my childhood head spin!
In 1979 my parents renovated our house on Elm Street in Newark. I was 7 years old and I can remember that they spent a ton of money and decked it out with the latest appliances, cabinetry, furniture, brand new Sanyo stereo system with an 8 track player and a Zenith wood console color TV with cable! As a kid I was excited! Color TV for the first time and cable to boot! New kitchen and a refrigerator so I could grab a drink during the night or if I was in my room playing with my toys. A dual oven that would create some memorable feasts. Well, I was in for a disappointment.
My parents never really used the space or the kitchen. That oven is brand new and still in showroom quality conditions. The couches, which they finally threw out in the early 2000s, were in mint condition and were quickly grabbed from the sidewalk on bulk garbage day. The console TV was polished every other day and only replaced in the mid-1990s after it blew a tube. No one took that off the sidewalk on bulk garbage day but never was a piece of wood so carefully preserved as it was on that TV.
The rules for upstairs were as follows: Positively NO SHOES! If there was someone in need of medical attention upstairs, you would be expected to take off your shoes before administering life saving techniques. My mom and dad had radar for this sort of thing. Say I came home from school and rushed into the bathroom without removing the shoes I would hear the screams from downstairs (or the banging on the ceiling). You were only to use the apartment for sanitary purposes (we didn’t have the space for a bathroom in the basement), doing homework, watching TV (only if my dad was present) and sleeping. Oh, and if important guests came it was opened like a museum opens a special gallery on weekends.
Not all guests got the honor. Regular friends and all family were quickly shepherded downstairs but new friends, guests or “important” people got the first-class treatment. You were “important” if you were of the clergy, visiting from Portugal, a supervisor or boss (from my parent’s collective employers), a dignitary, a salesmen or government official (like census takers or the one time the mayor of their hometown in Portugal visited us in the States), and photographers for my wedding and my sister’s. One Christmas I convinced my parents to have Christmas Eve dinner upstairs and after much pleading was granted that wish. The evening was a success until someone spilled something on the carpet and we never ate another meal there again.
Our basement was fixed so it wasn’t like we lived in squalor. It had tile floors, wood cabinets handmade by my uncle Alfredo Valente, a couch and TV, a full kitchen with a large oven for making glorious meals. We had a deep freezer and refrigerator and eventually a dishwasher and double sink. But man that color TV with all those channels and the stereo with the potential to play Debby Boone (I had a childhood crush on her) was like a beacon going off in my house. It was like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and like God who created paradise my parents had placed these tantalizing objects right in my way that was sure to get me in trouble.
Many a time I was caught straying into the space and if I wasn’t caught red-handed, I would leave behind forensic evidence of my exploits like not straightening out the cushions after sitting on the couch and leaving the electronics on or tuned to a different channel. The Debby Boone 8 track still in the deck. The punishment would be swiftly administered like some 1950s Southern Sheriff. The enforcer, judge jury and corrections personnel were efficiently unified under the wrath of my father. I quickly learned how to “clean up” after myself. So like Winston “the Wolf” in Pulp Fiction I would carefully clean the crime scene leaving behind no traces of my activities.
When I purchased my first home it had a basement and my parents began their campaign to have me “fit it out” to include a kitchen and eating area. I drew the line and said no way! I finally had a huge kitchen which I eventually remodeled to include industrial appliances and an oven and range with a grilling element. I had a double door refrigerator and wine cooler and I wasn’t going to let it be a museum. They implored that cooking would stink up the house and clothes, dirty the living space and all sorts of doomsday scenarios. I also didn’t take my shoes off before entering my house! Bedroom and living room were off limits to shoes but the kitchen and other spaces were now shoe friendly!