Tuesday, April 5, 2011
The Walls Can Talk
You know those moments that pop up in your life-a conversation or a song or even a smell-that bring back a flood of memories you'd previously blocked out for a very long time? I had a whole bunch of those at once last night regarding a place I used to live with some friends and fellow coworkers (and one of the coworker's partner who wasn't on the lease but did most of the decorating and organizing and kept us from hurting ourselves with sharp or boiling hot things). Despite the stories I'm going to tell, I'm happy these memories came to me.
Looking for a place to live is difficult, especially when you're looking with a group of people. You have to find something affordable that's also in a nice enough neighborhood, structurally sound, has enough space for everyone to not be in each other's shit all the time and also a laundry tub in the basement where you can pee if someone is taking too long in the bathroom.
You also meet some very interesting people when you're looking for a rental house. For example, one of the first places we looked was a place where the landlord dwelled in the basement of a shared two story house. He insisted when my soon to be roommate S spoke with him over the phone that we meet him outside on the corner of the street and not anywhere near the house itself. Here he proceeded to tell us that it was the current tenant's birthday so she was still there getting ready to go out with her friends and we should be VERY respectful. TIPTOE through the house even and only speak if ABSOLUTELY necessary. Okay. When we quietly walked into the house and met the current tenant, she was made up like a sorority girl getting ready to enjoy a night of alcohol poisoning and possibly a roofie in her drink later. As she was wafting her Macy's perfume aisle smell past us on the way out the door, the owner of the house asked what she was up to. "Oh, I'm on my way out for my birthday." His response? "Oh, its your birthday today? I didn't know!"
Huh. Fortunately, if this hadn't happened, we would have eventually noticed the gigantic stack of Playboys on his dresser downstairs (which he insisted on showing us) along with the fact that the back entrance was shared so we would have no way of locking him out of the place if he got all stabby or (more likely) rapey. We thought *he* was too creepy, so we continued our search. Little did we know what was ahead.
Soon after this experience, S found a listing for a house in South Minneapolis, which seemed perfect for what we were looking for. When J and I met D, the landlord, he seemed normal. Mustache, real estate agent business casual dress suit and jeans, calm demeanor. Upon closer inspection, I realized he had a giant scar down the side of his face. During that awkward moment when someone knows that you're noticing a giant scar down the side of their face and you're trying to ignore it and act like nothing is there so as not to embarrass the other person, I swear I saw something flash behind D's eyes. The story of a past life of thuggery hidden behind white suburban facial hair and an Eddie Bauer button down, maybe. But we decided to give it a chance anyway. Since our other two roommates couldn't be there, J and I were left to fend for ourselves on this one. We looked around a bit, checked out the attic (which was perfect for the straight male roommate who would eventually need to hide often from several loud, very willful, certifiably insane female roommates whose periods all lined up shortly after moving in together). Then we went down into the basement.
The basement. Somewhere along the line many, many years before, a previous owner had chosen to decorate the wall that separated the laundry room from the storage room with some DIY wallpaper. They'd separated a bunch of old record covers from their original homes and decoupaged them onto one side of the wall. At least a hundred of them. They then proceeded to go through with some sharpies and turn every single cover into a pornographic version of the original album. There was genitalia, crudely drawn partners, creepy extra makeup on faces, brand new suggestive titles. There was a goat drawn on one of them. I was mesmerized. And while I was trying to take it all in, J walked over to the tiny storage closet in the very back corner and opened it. Out popped "Rita", D's friend that he "uh…totally just found in here". Rita was fully blown up and ready for action. All this basement was missing was heavy duty plastic covers over everything and maybe a wood chipper to be complete.
We'll take it!
So we signed the lease and said goodbye to our previous living arrangements (S to her weird roommate, L to her basement of a mid-remodeling project home, me to a different creepy landlord and J to his apartment that always had the smell of ammonia wafting up from the apartment below) and moved on in. I brought Ella and S and L brought Emmett, a fiercely loyal antique schnauzer with sight, hearing and incontinence issues. The following conversations began the week we moved in:
S: "Hey guys…there aren't any smoke detectors in this house."
J: "You can see a spot in the attic where there used to be one"
L: "WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE AREN'T ANY SMOKE DETECTORS?? DO YOU KNOW WHAT CAN HAPPEN WITHOUT SMOKE DETECTORS?? SMOKE COULD GET IN!!"
The following day, a conversation like this one would ensue:
S: "Hey, thanks to whoever got the smoke detectors!"
J: "It wasn't me. L, did you get them?"
me: "Uh….nope. Not me."
This conversation happened several times over during the course of our lives there. Only, replace "smoke detectors" with "anything that we bitched loudly about while in the house." Don't like the paint color on the wall? Tell the corner what color you want and it would be changed by the end of the week. Need a new filter in the furnace? Talk about it in front of the bathroom mirror. You shall receive.
Like Rita and the wall in the basement, we casually decided to ignore the weirdness and go on with our lives. And better than that, we turned that pauper's place into a party. Since we all hated our jobs, we drank a lot. A *lot*. It got to the point where we would have to trade off going to the local liquor store and never be seen together so that they wouldn't know how much we consumed. We bought plastic 1.5 liter bottles of Liquor Store Brand Name vodka. We looked for deals everywhere ("Target tonic water is only a dollar! We can buy 20 bottles!"). During the winter, we spent hours in front of the TV (L was a nanny which meant she was sick all the time which meant she stayed home a lot and watched Lifetime for kicks. On days I didn't have to work, I would join her for a game of "guess the plot in five minutes". Abortion! Eating disorder! Murder! Pretending to be in love with the disabled woman until she signs her trust fund over to you and you can throw her off a cliff and tell everyone she committed suicide!). We ate vegan food cooked by S. We dealt with each other's psychoses. We cleaned schnauzer shit off the floor.
And then one day, the floor in the bathroom fell through. All the way through. LIke, to the basement. I'm not sure how it happened. I think someone stepped out of the shower and onto the tile making only a narrow escape. In any case, we'd suddenly found ourselves with a serving plate sized hole in the bathroom floor between the shower and toilet. Needing to use the bathroom while drunk suddenly became perilous. Needing to use the bathroom with snarky roommates who would catcall from the basement suddenly became perilous. For many weeks, we tried to explain this to our landlord. We started off by talking about it loudly in the house (toward the corners and mirrors) which was always how things got fixed in the past. When this didn't work after a time, we made the effort to call him directly. Weeks passed by. The hole remained. We walked carefully.
Eventually, we did get a brand new, shiny, very cheap, very white plastic bathroom to replace the charming but deadly salmon colored one. However, this only forced the house to come up with more creative ways to try and kill us.
There was a very unstable tree in the backyard whose branches were entwined with power lines and pointed right at the attic where J slept. Any time a storm would hit or a squirrel would jump on it or a breeze would come through or someone would think "tree", it would sway dangerously toward the house. We tried not to anger it. One day I came home from work to find J standing puzzled by the window.
J: "Did you say something to the walls about the tree?"
me: "S and I were talking about it a couple nights ago during that breeze. We were trying to decide whether or not we should wake you up and possibly keep you from dying horribly. Why?"
J: "Our landlord was just here. Swinging from the tall branch up there."
Apparently, lacking any kind of trimming equipment, D had been out there for several hours, trying to swing the loose branches off the tree. He was startled by J's presence and left before completing this task not only leaving the tree in its original treacherous condition, but leaving large, loose branches hanging over the side of the neighbor's fence where their small children played. As we stood there, one of them fell into our yard with a loud THUMP. We jumped. The schnauzer peed on the floor.
This tree would eventually have its revenge for this treatment. One day while doing laundry, L noticed foliage coming up from the drain in the basement. Being the good Panic State Nanny that she was, she freaked out. "THE TREE IS GROWING INTO OUR HOUSE!!" We convinced her that this was an anomaly and went about our business, casually using the sinks and such without a second thought of danger. Then one day, the bathtub started spewing organic matter. Chunks of dirt, leaves and other such things. Thinking they'd buried a body under the new tub when they installed it, we panicked. (I'm still not convinced they didn't). But after mentioning something while in the bathroom, our landlord happened to show up a couple days later to check it out. He found that L was indeed correct. Roots from the tree outside were growing into the plumbing system of the house. The tree, no longer able to crush us was slowly getting ready to catapult the whole house off its foundation. S asked when he planned to fix it. He asked when we planned on moving out.
We persevered through many more death traps that house had to give. Everything from carbon monoxide poisoning to exploding dishwashers to strange fumes coming from the furnace that made us dizzy. But we made the best of it. And there were many great things about that house. It was a fantastic space for parties (assuming you didn't have wine glasses that, once shattered, had pieces that fed on crumbs and dirt while multiplying and thriving so that no matter how often you swept them up, they would still find their way into your bare feet). We always ate well with S's culinary experiments (except the vegan key lime pie. DO NOT EAT). We provided a place for many a dramatic lesbian to cry on the couch and lament their relationship problems (unending). We listened to J and his dude friends be dudely upstairs. We watched shitty movies, drank at questionable times of the day (all times of the day). We lived through the reelection of George W. (Worst. Election Party. Ever). We sat on the couch and cried together for days after Hurricane Katrina hit. We helped each other through personal problems, told many tales of bookselling and nannying gone wrong and kept each other from going insane. We transitioned in this place.
And when we moved out, a group of nuns moved in to spiritually cleanse everything we'd done there and keep the tree appeased.
And somewhere, on some internet site, it is probably all available on camera to watch over and over and over again.