But the biggest draw, and what newcomers always ask about first, is NASA’s third floor, which is beyond a black-velvet curtain, past the sign that reads GUIDED TOURS ONLY, and up the stairs designed to look like a suspension bridge. The 16.5-feet-high cathedral ceiling provides the perfect space for a loft room, covered in a wide assortment of pillows, stuffed animals, and board games. The far wall is one large window, overlooking the city of Boston. A ladder hangs down to the floor below, swaying slightly as three grad students climb up to build mini cabins with Lincoln Logs. A homemade movie based around a trip to the Salvation Army is projected onto the wall. It’s on a continuous loop, but you still might miss some: a rowing machine, suspended by sailing rigging, dangles precariously from the ceiling, obstructing the view.
On a recent visit, one room over, a man in a wheelchair races across the oak-covered floor and shoots a basketball at a regulation-height hoop, his opponent breathlessly following. Others sit on the side of the court on a futon. This is where Gonzo is covering tea tins with duct tape today, creating personalized, mobile “cubbies” for his frequent visitors’ belongings. His long, tightly curled brown hair covers his face as he sits cross-legged in the corner of the loft, contemplating where the silver pieces of tape should be applied. Little scraps stick to his purple-and-blue mohair jacket. A comment is made about the ensemble and he jumps up and starts rummaging through a box full of odd clothes picked up at consignment shops over the years. “I can’t decide if I’m a pimp or a Muppet,” he says, before triumphantly pulling out a leopard fur hat. “Maybe I’ll wear the pimp hat, too. Then there’s no confusion.”
A friend in need
Gonzo loves the constantly evolving nature of NASA, but he admits, “It was never intended to become what it has.” He laughs, then recalls, “I bought it for a completely different reason.”
The smile then disappears. “My godfather, Steve, from Saratoga, taught me to sail when I was five. When I was 10, we built a small wooden sailboat together. Around that same time, he was diagnosed with heart disease.
“He always told me to leave a place better than I found it,” says Gonzo, who remained extremely close with Steve throughout the years, and considered him both a mentor and a friend. “That motto is so applicable to so many things: places, projects, people.”
When Steve’s condition worsened, Gonzo promised his godfather that he would watch out for his wife and three young children. Toward the end of Gonzo’s senior year, Steve had his third heart attack, and Gonzo decided to use the money he’d saved since summer jobs in middle school to buy a house for Steve’s family — as a security for them when Steve would no longer be there to provide.
But what started as a six-month project to fix up a dilapidated house turned into a decade-long way of life. At first, that was because Steve lasted longer than any doctors would have believed. “Steve stayed around for seven more years, so I kept renting the house out to people who needed it,” explains Gonzo. “Then he got really sick and I was always aware that the call could come from his wife. And then, three years ago, it did.”
Steve’s family, however, didn’t move to Boston to take up residence. Instead of selling the house when the family didn’t move in, Gonzo kept it as the organic community that it had become: NASA. “This house had become so much more to people,” notes Gonzo. “When my friend, Jeremy, moved out after three years, I remember what he said to this day. He told me, ‘This place opens your eyes to the fact that it doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been before.’ I couldn’t give the house up after seven years of hard work and memories.”
As Gonzo is finishing up his story, friend and serial tenant Bryan Long walks into the room. After introducing himself, he explains that he’s lived in the house on three different occasions, the most recent time after a divorce. “I came here a mess. I was sobbing in the hallways. And Gonzo just let me stay here. Never even asked for rent money. He knew I didn’t have it.”
While this isn’t unusual for Gonzo to help out a friend in need, it is not the case for most tenants. They pay a fixed rent ($750 downstairs, $1100 upstairs) for their rooms, but all tenants have access to the entire house. Each and every tenant also has to go through a long interview and application process before being admitted. “I have auditions for all the musicians that live here,” says Gonzo. “I have to — I’m listening to their music all the time, so it better be music I like.”