Thursday, August 26, 2010


In Which We Get A New Lease...

For the first time since 1996, I have a landlord again.

It’s weird to be a renter once more, especially after so many years of home ownership. Of course, that’s what’s put us back on a lease again: With the Magazine Mansion still unsold, I’m in no position to buy another house. And even when the place does sell, Her Lovely Self and I will probably look long and hard before choosing another property. So an apartment made the best sense no matter how you looked at it.

Still, it is, as I say, weird. And I’m getting to that age where I begin to wonder what my kids must make of the Old Man. Did he let them down, losing his job and forcing them to move from a neighborhood they love to a strange city and a new school? Do they see this as a setback, especially in light of the fact that, since winter, we’ve been housesitting in a truly huge mansion that was awesome in all kinds of ways (except for the roaming attack dogs out on the grounds)? And now, Dad’s making them pack up again and move to a small three-bedroom apartment in some godforsaken suburban cookie-cutter nowhere?

Well, no. Apartment life is turning out to be a welcome novelty for them—after all, it’s not something they’ve ever experienced in their lives. And it must be said, Her Lovely Self found a very nice place in Suburban Cookie Cutter Nowheresville. For our reasonable rent, we’ve landed in a fairly new complex (it’s called The Village, and we’re in building #6, which pleases the Prisoner fan in me). The apartment is actually pretty spacious, when you consider that its square footage is just a little short of the footprint of the first house we ever owned. Plus new carpets, new fixtures, attached garage, and a nifty community pool that the Éclair believes is there for her private enjoyment (and who are we to contradict her?). And I don’t mind it that much myself. When the dryer failed to complete its eponymous function after the first load we tossed into it, it was the work of a phone call—and the work of some guy who wasn’t me—to fix it. I enjoy being mildly handy—I am my father’s son, after all—but it’s nice for the moment to have someone else muckle onto a heavy household appliance and make it work.

Indeed, there’s lots to be said for apartment-dwelling, which may explain why I did so much of it as a young person. I loved apartments when I was in my 20s, although I never lived in any one for more than a year, much to the despair of nearby friends who helped me move, and distant friends who were constantly scratching out addresses for me and writing new ones in. But it suited me. After my college years, I was a long time shaking off the migratory impulse that the life of a full-time student instills in you, the late-summer loading of hatchbacks and moving into dorm rooms, followed by the late-spring process in reverse and heading home.

When I finished graduate school in June of 1991, I walked out with both a diploma and a job in hand. The job didn’t start until July, so I had a few weeks to find a place to live. That was the beginning of my Apartment Era, an era that seemed very long in the living of it, but which lasted just five short years and included six apartments, each distinctive and cherished in my memory. And each equally awful and eccentric in its own way. Especially the four I rented as in my Single Guy years, which will always stand out for me as being particularly, astonishingly, dementedly distinctive and cherished and awful and eccentric.

The Olmsted

I had lived in dorms or rented rooms in houses throughout the college years, but this was my first real place of my own, a first-floor, one-bedroom flat in a massive old brick building on the very border between Park Ridge, Illinois and the city of Chicago in a little neighborhood called Edison Park. The building was called The Olmsted and it was on Olmsted Avenue, a lucky accident of mnemonics, since I was never likely to forget where I lived. No matter how drunk I got (which in those days was quite often), I could always slur to a cabbie “Olmsted on Olmsted!” and expect to find myself more or less on my doorstep (except for the time I found myself deposited in the lobby of the Homestead Hotel in Evanston, but never mind).

The building’s super—a cranky, thick-accented Polish guy straight out of Chicago Central Casting—made a big deal of how special this apartment was as he took me through it. He told me it had once been the home of the owner’s mother and that he had spared no expense in lavish appointments, especially in the kitchen, which included a massive refrigerator, huge multi-burner stove, and even a dishwasher. Which all sounds really impressive, until you actually see the kitchen and realize the appliance set dates from the late 1950s. The dishwasher—an old top-loading model that could have been in the Smithsonian—was rusted shut and didn’t work (although it gave off a constant aroma of decay and water left too long on the stove. Visitors speculated that a corpse—possibly of the mother herself—was hidden away in its porcelain-and-steel confines). The bathroom appeared to have the ceramic equivalent of mange: tiles were forever falling from the walls and ceiling—it was vital to keep the toilet lid down at all times, except when in use. Every humid shower softened the grout further and it fell in clumps—often with sharp bits of tile—whenever I washed. There were only three working electrical outlets in the whole place—that changed to two when the outlet behind the fridge burned out one morning in a spectacular flash of light and smoke. The super’s answer was to run a meager extension cord from the back of the fridge to the other working outlet in the kitchen. That Eisenhower-era fridge sucked a lot of juice through the little straw of that cord, which was often hot to the touch, but never actually managed to cause a fire.

I cringe to think how much of my paycheck I blew on that pit every month, but it was still superior to every dorm room I’d ever lived in. And it was spacious. Aside from my bedroom, I had a massive living room (made all the more so by dint of my having no furniture beyond an old sofa and a milk crate for a TV stand) and a capacious formal dining room, complete with pull-out buffet table. The kitchen was large enough to accommodate a little eat-in table, and the oven at least worked well. I used it to bake my first on-my-own Thanksgiving dinner (served to pals who made a 13-hour road trip to share it with me, there on the dining room buffet table).

That stove was also a valuable ally in my love life. One cold November Sunday, as I was sitting with my feet on the open oven door (the apartment had almost no heat to speak of—no wonder utilities were included in my $525 rent), reading a book, the phone rang, and it was Her Lovely Self. By sheer luck, the Olmsted sat near to the route she took every Sunday from her apartment to her sainted grandmother’s house, a few miles away on Overhill. “So, what are you up to?” she asked.

“Oh, just puttering around the kitchen. I thought you had a date with whatsisname.”

“Yeah, well, he blew me off. So…are you cooking or baking or something?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, taking my feet out of the oven. “Just whipping up a batch of cookies.” In my experience, few women could resist fresh-baked cookies of a cold November Sunday.

“Ooh, they’re not chocolate/peanut butter chip are they?”

“How’d you know? Want to come by and try some? Should have the first batch out in about 20 minutes.”

“Okay! See you in a bit.”

And then I hung up and dashed out the back door on smoking feet, headed for the grocery store a block over, hoping I had enough money to buy the ingredients for the cookies I’d said I was making. I always did. I baked cookies for that woman for 10 Sundays in a row and it never once occurred to her I did it only to lure her to my wonderfully crappy first apartment.

The Monticello

By late spring of the next year, Her Lovely Self and I were dating, and so she felt a little more confident revealing to me something I knew all along: the Olmsted was a disaster area, a monument to lack of maintenance, not to mention freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer (most of the windows were painted shut). Plus it was expensive—she was convinced I could find better, cheaper digs if I moved further into the city. The fact that she also was moving into the city may have figured in her arguments as well.

That very weekend, by happy coincidence, I got a call from my pal Matt, a photographer for the Chicago Tribune. Matt had grown up in and around the city and knew all the great neighborhoods (where “great” is tabulated by the number and proximity of Irish bars that have live music and serve Guinness). He himself lived on the second floor a three-story building between Addison and Irving Park, called the Monticello. It struck me as a lyrical, romantic name, like Jefferson’s home atop a mountain. Except that it was just a basic red brick building on a street populated by cars up on jacks, dirty children playing in the street, and an alley with a Dumpster that was home to a pride of feral cats. But otherwise just like Jefferson’s home.

Matt’s downstairs neighbor was moving out of his one-bedroom apartment, and my friend wondered if I wanted to take a look. I did. The rent was 30 bucks cheaper, plus it had several luxurious touches the Olmsted lacked—windows that opened, working outlets in every room, kitchen appliances that were younger than I was. As a bonus, the former occupant was leaving behind several items of furniture, a carpet, and a color TV. Plus the landlord was willing to go month-to-month on the lease. I already had a girlfriend, so that was enough commitment for me. I had my security deposit in the owner's hand by the end of the day. Her Lovely Self was excited—she was just a couple miles down Addison in Wrigleyville—and I didn’t mind it so much either.

The Monticello was far and away my favorite apartment. I was just starting to freelance for national magazines when I lived there, and the spacious closets and vast hardwood floors seemed purpose-built for much of my work (which at that time involved reviewing sporting and exercise equipment). Matt was a good neighbor, often inviting me up to dinner (by stomping on the floor four times) and I just as often had him down at my place to drink beer and try out whatever toy I was testing. Every other Thursday, we got together with Declan, the crazy Irish guy on the third floor, and had a poker night, playing for laundry money. I loved the convivial, sit-com feel of the whole arrangement. It suited me down to the ground floor.

So it’s ironic that the Monticello was also the apartment where I spent the least amount of time. By that point, things were getting serious with Her Lovely Self and I was over at her apartment most every spare minute, except when she was over at mine (except on Poker Night, of course). Then winter rolled in, and I got a shock. Unlike at the Olmsted, utilities were not included in the rent at the Monticello, and my flat had had its radiators torn out long ago, replaced by electric heat. And with a cold empty basement below, I used a lot of juice to get the apartment to a temperature where I didn’t see my breath in the morning. Suddenly all the money I’d made freelancing was going to pay enormous heating bills. And I needed that money; I had begun to think I might want to save it up for something, something diamond-like and ring-sized.

So it was with some regret—and after just eight months--that I gave my 30-day notice to my landlord and began casting about for new digs, and a roommate. I found both with the aid of Jeff, a grad school classmate who had taken over my lease at the Olmsted and had found it just as crappy as I had. God love him, he did all the legwork and found...

The Eastwood

This was a three-bedroom apartment that occupied the entire second floor of a brownstone over in Lincoln Village, even closer to Her Lovely Self. Rent was $650, split down the middle, with heat included. Since he had found the apartment, Jeff took the big front bedroom with the picture windows and the view of the tree-lined street below. I took the small room—small like a walk-in-closet—off of the kitchen, which itself was little more than a glorified porch that stuck out over the back of the apartment and almost touched the El track platform that ran behind it (so close, in fact, that the train often sounded like it was running through my room). The third bedroom we used as a shared office. I tended to take over this space. My freelance work was booming--I had landed a regular writing gig for a local business magazine, and it paid really well. That money, plus the hundreds I was saving every month in rent and heating bills, I socked away like a madman, saving enough to buy an engagement ring early that spring.

It was also around this time that I got an unexpected job offer back east in Washington, which I took (without consulting my girlfriend, an unwise decision recounted in painful detail here). I only had a weekend—really, just a Saturday afternoon—to find a place to live. The Beltway is a painfully expensive place to live on $27K a year, so my only option was to find an apartment in the vast warrens of those ugly brick postwar constructs that I called…

The Slums of Arlington

The landlord was a criminal. The apartments smelled of fumigant (except for the closet-sized kitchens, which smelled of beans and diapers). The buildings were stuffy and irrepressibly hot well into November, after which they immediately became bone-chillingly cold. The faucets groaned like the ghosts of women in labor, and spewed greenish water. The carpet was thatched with the severed legs of ten million crickets and roaches. But the rent was under 500 clams a month, making it the only thing this side of the East Falls Church Metro station that was within my price range. And I was close to one of the many access points on the extensive system of bike trails that networked across the DC area, so that was nice.

However, I was warned by numerous coworkers and neighbors that the area was notorious for petty crime and break-ins of both the vehicular and the apartment variety, news that I absorbed with keen if dismayed interest, living as I did in a ground-floor flat. Luckily, I had taken the precaution of owning a crappy, cheap old Toyota, which I kept unlocked, a public service much appreciated by the dozen or so career criminals who anonymously rooted through my car and, finding nothing of value inside, left it largely unmolested during the 11 months I lived there.

I did have a bad scare regarding an apartment break-in, in the wee hours of one early spring night. It was growing hot again, and I had fallen asleep with the windows open. At around 2:30, I was awakened by a clattering in the kitchen, the sound of a window shifting squeakily in its aged frame. Instantly, my adrenal glands swelled to the size of footballs and sloshed a bathtub’s worth of adrenalin into my bloodstream. I snatched my trusty cricket bat from underneath the pillow—I had taken all those warnings not just to heart, but to bed—and stepped into the hall.

The kitchen doorway was to my right. After much mental self-talk of the emboldening nature, I finally sprang into the kitchen, bat raised high…and saw nothing, except the window canted slightly in its frame, the dingy, threadbare curtains fluttering listlessly.

He’s behind you, a voice in my head hissed.

I whirled. Opposite the kitchen stood a small coat closet, its door slightly ajar. Trembling, every hair standing on end, I edged to the door, nudged it open with the cricket bat.

There, in the shadows of the closet, I saw the broad shoulders of a man.

I let out an involuntary and embarrassingly effeminate scream, then brought the cricket bat down on the intruder’s shoulder. There was a satisfying visceral crack—as of wood breaking—when I shattered the burglar’s collarbone and he collapsed to the floor. I emitted two more piercing shrieks, just for good measure, at the lifeless form on the carpet. I may also have tinkled a little, but with that carpet, who would have known? I turned on a light.

Only then did it occur to me to wonder why the burglar was wearing my overcoat. And what he was doing without a head. Or body.

As it turned out, an errant gust of wind had merely knocked a glass into the kitchen sink—that was the sound that woke me up. I had attacked my own overcoat, resting innocently on the wooden hanger I’d stolen from a hotel long ago.

Three weeks later, I moved out.

By this time, Her Lovely Self, then known as my fiancée, had found a job in Washington and we were just a few weeks away from getting married. She found us a one-bedroom apartment (on the third floor) at a nice place over in Alexandria. It was, on its small scale, very much like the place she recently found for us—a well-tended community with a pool and various amenities, and none of the, um, character I had managed to find in all the apartments I’d lived in. But that was okay. It was the end of an era for me—the close of my life as a Single Guy—and I welcomed the change this new rental wrought in my domestic life, much as I welcome it now.

So we are settling in to our latest rental. Thomas, ever sensitive to changes in routine, has had some trouble sleeping in his new digs. But the other night, as I was checking on the kids, I noticed he was already fast asleep, but had something sticking out from under the covers—the wooden handle of my trusty cricket bat, almost the last remaining possession of my Single Guy days. He hardly needs it—the biggest crime in our neighborhood is residents failing to sort their recycleables. Plus, we have Blaze now, who prowls the apartment at night and sleeps in the hallway to the kids’ rooms.

Just the same, on the way back to my own room, I took a moment to close the door of the coat closet. Thomas tends to let his imagination run away with him in the middle of the night. I wouldn’t want him to be startled by my overcoat.

And besides, this apartment has all-new carpets.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, August 12, 2010


In Which We Load the Trunk...

So I’m moving again.

Sadly, that preface must also serve as my four-word apology for being absent from here for so long. When I was a kid, moving--which we did a lot--always struck with the suddenness of an environmental disaster. That’s how it seemed to me anyway. One day you’re sprawled on the blue shag rug in your bedroom, lazily pushing your Batman action figures out onto Lake Shag, where Mike Power, the Atomic Man and GI Joe are stranded in their amphibious vehicle, unable to restart the engine because your Big Brother nibbled off their little kung-fu grip fingers (not that Batman’s any help because he’s got two big blue oven mitts for gloves, but never mind). Next day, you’re standing on a bare wood floor, Lake Shag rolled in a corner, Mike Power and GI Joe are trapped somewhere in a gulag of stacked Mayflower cartons, and your mother is screaming at you in the distance, as though a tornado or a tsunami or killer bees were on the horizon and closing fast.

Actually, mostly Mom yelled at us to “Load Your Trunks!” My brother and I each had a sturdy little metal footlocker, complete with lock and key. Our parents had told us to pack into them only the most special possessions that we couldn’t bear to have lost or broken in a move. It was one of the wiser parenting decisions they made, as it forced us early to take responsibility for our stuff, to make discriminating (and often hard) choices about what was most special to us. And to get us used to the idea of a nomadic lifestyle.

Our parents had given one to my brother. Mine was more special, because we had found it in a crawlspace of the first house I can remember living in. It was a thing of great mystery, hidden way in the back of the eaves, a drab green box, locked tight. Dad had carefully picked the lock with a paper clip and a toothpick (a feat that impressed me then and impresses me still) only to find inside a few pennies, a coverless comic book (Donald Duck) and--you guessed it--the key. But I loved that trunk. Dad cleaned it up, painted it shiny black, and gave me the key on a keyring I still carry in my pocket. When moving time came around, I always packed that trunk with the same things: a short stack of my favorite comics, my Batman action figure (and his Batmobile), my favorite personal accessories (at first, it was usually just a baseball cap or a favorite t-shirt. Later, I would include my fastest tennis shoes, Boy Scout-issue shorts with their awesome pockets and clips, and my Mobile Crime Lab from my Boy Detective days), my lucky arrowhead, and my baseball glove. Packing the trunk was the longest part of any childhood move, and it usually took less than 20 minutes.

Now moves take longer, and heavens are they time-consuming. Especially if you are living in one state, engaged in a prolonged house-sitting situation, while your actual house--the albatross formerly known as the Magazine Mansion--sits hundreds of miles to the west, empty and unloved. Also unsold.

This last little fact has weighed heavily on the mind of Her Lovely Self, whose father is quite possibly the greatest amateur realtor of the 20th century. This is a man who has sold every house he’s ever owned at asking price (or higher, if he got a bidding war started, which apparently he often did), usually within a few weeks of putting it one the market, but sometimes within a few days of just thinking about putting it on the market.

So, economic conditions notwithstanding, it’s come as something of a shock to my wife that our own house has been somewhat slow to move. It hasn’t helped that we had the misfortune of choosing a realtor who appears to have gone into semi-retirement shortly after taking our listing. Some weeks ago, we finally got fed up with his laziness and broke our contract with him. This coincided with the impending end of our sweet housesitting deal, and a lucky break finding a cheap rent in a nice apartment complex, which we will call home until we can sell the old place and buy a new home.

All of this necessitated a return trip to the Magazine Mansion, which we hadn’t seen in six months, not since we closed the place up for the winter. It didn’t look like the same inviting house I remembered leaving back in December. I wouldn’t have wanted to buy the place. The kitchen looked dark and small, the yard looked patchy and woebegone. Mud-encrusted footprints from a long winter of showings were embedded in the carpets. Something bad and leaky had happened to the dishwasher. The sheep were in the meadow, the cows were in the corn.

So it was a painful, exhausting few days of Extreme Makeover, the MM Edition, as we repainted, shampooed rugs, pruned hedges, and fired realtors. I had to fiddle with the water supply and in the doing of it discovered many impending plumbing problems worse than the dishwasher, although the dishwasher was pretty bad. Here’s a tip: If you think you can remove an old dishwasher and install a new one all by yourself, think again. Especially when it comes to jockeying the thing into position in a space under the kitchen counter that is precisely one-quarter of an inch too small for the new unit. Your fingertips will thank you for it later. Because you will still have all of them. Unlike me. Now I know how Mike Power and GI Joe felt.

And that was really just for openers. We got a new realtor--a real firecracker whom I dearly wish we’d met six months ago. He hit the ground running, showing the house twice within 72 hours of our signing him on. He also brought some realtor tough-love down on us, and made us realize that it was long past time to get our stuff out of the house and into storage or, as it will turn out, into our new rental pad.

In fairness, we managed to empty most of the living space of the house before we closed the place up last Christmas. But we had lagged in emptying our garage and, of course, the Incredible Basement of C.R.A.P. Our new realtor pointed out that when it came to selling points, storage was huge, and the fact that our house is the only one in its price range with a three-car garage was nullified by the fact that we had it partially filled with boxes. So we got a U-Haul and Thomas and I spent the hottest day of the year hauling boxes to an unventilated storage unit. While we were gone, Her Lovely Self divested us of the last of the Basement of C.R.A.P. junk, literally giving it away to neighbors and passersby. I think she went a little crazy that day, because she also started giving away our furniture. As Thomas and I returned, I saw three burly college kids hoisting our beloved sofa onto the back of a truck, along with my favorite LoveSac.

But I didn’t have long to lament their loss. I was too busy reloading the U-Haul with beds and furniture and my Emergency Stash of C.R.A.P., long hidden in the crawlspace over the garage. While Her Lovely Self was engaged in a distant part of the house doing loud things with a carpet shampooer, I smuggled the very last of my C.R.A.P. down into the garage and well into the back of the truck. It was, it must be said, a pretty small collection of stuff, the smallest it’s been in years: Just two Mayflower cartons of old toys, a plastic bin of assorted electronics, a bag containing the belt from the Mobile Crime Lab, and my last 27 boxes of comic books.

When I was done, there was just one thing up in the crawlspace: my old metal trunk, its shiny black finish long since scuffed off. I fished the old key off my keyring and opened it. Inside were a few old newspaper clippings, a handful of spare change, a Red Sox cap and the severed forearm of my old GI Joe, his maimed hand splayed on the floor of the trunk in a sad little five-knuckled wave. I hunched there for a moment under the eaves of the Magazine Mansion, sweat running off the end of my nose. Then I clambered down the ladder and returned with an armful of items such as I thought a young person might like to find. I dumped them all in, tossed in whatever loose bills and spare change I found in my pockets and then--what the hell--flipped the key in too, locked the trunk and shoved it into the deepest, darkest corner under the eaves.

It seemed like an appropriate offering to a house that has been good to me and mine, that had sheltered me after many illnesses and incidents of self-injury, that had welcomed me home after many a misadventure, that had seen the arrival in my family of the Éclair, and of Blaze before her. And that, last but not least, had witnessed the birth of this blog.

So I wish them well, whoever finds that trunk. I wish them many happy and healthy years in that house I once called home.

But mostly, I just wish they’d hurry the hell up and buy the place.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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