There’s a great deal of talk about “safe spaces” these days, but I put the phrase in quotes because rarely do these conversations refer to actual spaces. Instead, people seek social environments in which they’re proteced against verbal assault, or confrontation, or mere discomfort. Place as such doesn’t enter into it.
In stories, though, the idea of the safe space is a powerful one — even if the safety often proves illusory. (“The calls are coming from inside the house.”) And when there is genuine safety it’s rarely complete or permanent. In The Lord of the Rings Tom Bombadil’s house and Rivendell and Lothlorien are places of absolute refuge for the beleaguered characters, but we are reminded that none of them could hold out forever against the evil of Sauron. Perfect rest can be found in them; but only for now. The contingently safe space is a curiously strong theme in the Harry Potter books: living in the Dursley house grants Harry protection from Voldemort — until he comes of age; 12 Grimmauld Place protects members of the Order of the Phoenix — as long as they manage to prevent anyone from seeing them enter or leave; Hogwarts itself is invulnerable to Voldemort and the Death Eaters — but only as long as Dumbledore is present and in charge.
There are of course genuinely safe spaces in literature, and perhaps many readers will have favorites. I certainly know what mine is: it’s Nero Wolfe’s brownstone on West 35th Street in Manhattan.
Of all fictional series, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories have the most ingenious and fertile conceit (with the possible exception of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books). It is twofold: that the enormously fat Wolfe never willingly leaves his house, preferring to solve crimes simply by application of brain power; and that the man who moves for Wolfe, who serves as a kind of mobile prosthetic body for him, Archie Goodwin, narrates all the stories. There’s much to commend about this double conceit’s power to generate good stories — and about Rex Stout’s ability to conjure a consistently delightful narrative voice for Archie — but I want to talk about the house.
If you climb the steps and knock on the door, it will probably be answered by Fritz, Nero Wolfe’s chef — simply because Fritz’s kitchen is on the first floor, along with the dining room and Wolfe’s enormous office. The rest of the house is described at the Nero Wolfe Wikipedia page (linked above):
Nero Wolfe has expensive tastes, living in a comfortable and luxurious New York City brownstone on West 35th Street. The brownstone has three floors plus a large basement with living quarters, a rooftop greenhouse also with living quarters, and a small elevator, used almost exclusively by Wolfe. Other unique features include a timer-activated window-opening device that regulates the temperature in Wolfe’s bedroom, an alarm system that sounds in Archie’s room if someone approaches Wolfe’s bedroom door or windows, and climate-controlled plant rooms on the top floor. Wolfe is a well-known amateur orchid grower and has 10,000 plants in the brownstone’s greenhouse. He employs three live-in staff to see to his needs.
A back door, rarely used and treated as something of a secret, leads to a small garden where Fritz grows herbs and which features a vaguely described way out onto 35th Street (which seems also to be a secret, and is probably invisible from the outside, like 12 Grimmauld Place.)
The brownstone possesses an aura of self-sufficiency: I suppose Fritz has to shop for the food he cooks, but his larder seems magically full, and the meals served in that kitchen or in the adjoining dining room are in my imagining conjured more than made. (Fritz’s rooms are in the house’s basement, where he keeps an extensive collection of cookbooks.) The little world of the greenhouse, with its custodian Theodore Horstmann who lives among his orchids at the top of the house, is like a chunk of Faerie that one enters not by walking through a strange forest but by taking Wolfe’s little elevator.
Often in the books one of Wolfe’s clients finds himself or herself — usually herself — in danger and is brought by Archie to the house, whereupon the doors are locked and all creatures of evil intent are excluded. In one story a woman tries to stab Wolfe as he sits in his custom-made desk in his office; she dies instead. Wolfe is invulnerable there; I’m reminded again of Tom Bombadil, though in darker and more cynical form, utterly safe “within limits he has set for himself” and making others safe there too.
All of this is of course merely a dream of refuge dreamed by someone (me) who is one of the safest people in the world. As I write these words, refugees from the Middle East are pouring into Europe, and someone posted on Instagram images of notices that the city of Vienna has put up in all the transportation centers. The one in English (I saw Arabic ones too) begin with the word “WELCOME,” and go on to explain the various services the city provides for refugees, and to instruct visitors how to find help. Then, at the end, there is a single three-word paragraph:
You are safe.
“You are safe.” Could there be more powerful, more important, more consoling words? I have never needed to hear them in the way those thousands of refugees need to; and yet they answer to the deepest of all needs. For even water and food can wait for a while.
I have thought sometimes of finding myself in New York City, pursued by evil people who will do terrible things to me before they kill me. Somehow, against all odds, I make my way to the house of West 35th Street and rush up the steps and knock. Archie Goodwin opens the door a crack, then ushers me in. Up we go to the guest bedroom on the third floor, down the hall from Archie’s own room. The room is clean and quiet, and an orchid from Wolfe’s greenhouse stands in a vase on the bedside table. Once alone, I take off my clothes and turn out the light. In the morning Fritz will make a delicious breakfast, and there will be plenty of hot strong coffee. In the meantime, I sleep soundly and peacefully. Because here I am safe.