Friday, July 18, 2008


In Which We Tell a Tale of Beds, Butts, and Boxers...

I don't know what it is--some kind of congenital schadenfreude, maybe--but whenever I tell my kids stories from the vast canon of The Misadventures of Daddy, some of their very favorites come from the subsection known as The Misadventures of Daddy When He Had No Money.

Maybe it's because my kids have really never wanted for a single thing that they find privation so amusing. Of course, I can't claim to have grown up wanting for the necessities, but there were plenty of things I did without for many, many years, things that are so ubiquitous in our lives now, my children simply cannot conceive of their absence. And I'm not talking about the obvious stuff, like computers and video games (neither of which appeared in my life until I was pretty much an adult). I'm talking about things like air conditioning. A bed. Pocket money in excess of three dollars. Things like that.

In the wake of my last post--and since some of you asked--the dinnertime story I ended up telling the Brownie was about the time I bought my first bed. It was the very weekend I moved into my crap apartment in Chicago, right after the 4th of July, 1991. I had arrived in this vast, one-bedroom, unfurnished apartment with a duffel bag, a suitcase, a basket of garden vegetables transported all the way from New Hampshire, a 20-pound sack of potatoes and a 10-pound bag of onions, a shoebox full of vintage football cards (which I would later sell to make rent), two short boxes of comics (which I couldn't bear to sell), one small window fan, and three standard-issue plastic milk crates full of kitchen and bathroom sundries. My electronics consisted of two items: one black-and-white TV with a broken channel knob (I had to jam a fork into it to get it to work. I called it a tuning fork. Get it?). The other item was my one true valuable possession: a two-year-old Mac SE computer, with a whopping 2MB of RAM and an 8MB hard drive, my college graduation present from my entire family (and believe me, it took all of them to buy it), and which I carted around in a black foam case roughly the size of a child's coffin.

I was moved in and unpacked in less than four minutes.

The Mac sat on the comic boxes, with one of the overturned milk crates as my office chair. The other two milk crates I placed in my living room, about eight feet apart. They were end-table honor guards, marking the empty space where I hoped one day to have a couch or some other kind of actual item of furniture (I would get my wish just a few weeks later, when I intercepted my neighbor in the house next door, carting an ungodly sagging brown sofa out to the alley. He was only too glad to divert up my back stairs and drop it in my apartment, between the milk crates. A Salvation Army comforter--saturated with an entire can of Lysol--made an excellent slipcover). But that day I had no furniture to speak of, not even a bed. I spent my first night on my duffel bag, with the squashy foam Mac case as my pillow.

I've spent some uncomfortable nights in my life: once on a night train from London to Inverness, sleeping upside down in a hard plastic seat with the sleeve of my coat tied around my eyes because they never dimmed the lights. Once I drank a little too much and rather than drive home, accepted a friend's hospitality. But there were about 10 of us with that friend and there was only so much hospitality to go around. So I ended up sleeping flat on the bare, tacky linoleum of his kitchen floor and awoke with the Crick of All Cricks in my neck. Those were the most uncomfortable nights of my life.

But that first night in my Chicago apartment was a close third.

For one thing, it was HOT. The apartment had no air conditioning, as I may have hinted. I did have a fan, but the windows were all painted shut and not one of them could be pried or forced. I finally positioned my duffel bed in the kitchen, where I propped open the back door with the fan and let it suck in the sweltering, putrid night air from the back alley my building shared with, of all things, a liquor store. I didn't worry about anyone sneaking through the back door and murdering me in my sleep, because really, I didn't sleep at all. By 2 AM my duffel was soaked with sweat and I was stripped to my boxers. I was so desperately hot, I took a cold shower in those boxers, then went back in the kitchen and stuffed my sopping undies in the freezer (at the telling of this, the Brownie began choking on food, she was laughing so hard).

Alas, before I could retrieve my chilled boxers, I passed out sitting up, buck naked, ass perched on a shelf inside the open refrigerator (boy, THERE'S a picture for my scrapbook). When I awoke around nine the next morning, I borrowed a crowbar from the building super, pried all the windows open, and shoved the fan in my bedroom window, the one that seemed to be getting the most breeze. Then I put some clothes on and drove off to the nearest mall, determined to buy either a bed or an air conditioner.

Of course, an air conditioner was way beyond my meager financial means then, and for years thereafter, but Sears was having an Independence Day closeout sale on beds and they wanted 99 dollars for a particular full-sized model, which included both the mattress and the box spring. Well, I didn't have 99 dollars. I had about 10 dollars in cash--all that I'd have to sustain me until my paycheck from my first job, which wasn't coming for another three weeks. I had a single credit card to my name, but I had taken a cash advance on it to pay my security deposit on the apartment, on top of money I already owed on it. I guessed that I was about 50 dollars away from being maxed out on that card. So I offered the salesman 50 bucks.

Maybe it was the desperate look in my eyes, the look of a destitute man who'd just spent the night with his ass in a fridge, or maybe he was just really tired of seeing that particular bed and wanted it gone, but the salesman agreed to the price.

And then he ran my card through the register and it was rejected. With tax, see, the total came to a little over 50 bucks. So I broke my 10, gave him some cash and he finally ran it through at $49. The register was in hangtime for a long while, then finally blinked its approval. Just like that, I had a bed. But having it, and having it in my apartment were two very different things.

Delivery was out of the question--it would have cost as much as the bed--so I carried the thing a piece at a time through the Skokie, Illinois, Sears and out to my little hatchback. I heaved the box spring up on to the roof, then managed to get the mattress on top of that, where it wobbled precariously. I went round to the back, opened the hatch as much as I could and extracted my trusty length of clothesline. My Dad was a big believer in the many uses of clothesline and never went anywhere without a hundred or so feet of it. Before each of his sons left home, he made sure they too had their own lengths of clothesline, and by God, wasn't the old man right to do so?

I was terrible with knots and such, so I opened both the driver and passenger side doors and just looped that rope around and around and around my rooftop bed, running the line into the car and out through the top again and again. Then I slammed both doors shut--they barely closed--and that was enough to secure the bed to the roof. I rolled out of the parking lot and onto the street, feeling for all the world like a float in a parade.

It was a long drive back to the apartment. For one thing, I discovered that when I tried to goose the car up to speeds above 25 miles an hour, a stiff wind seemed to come up, lifting the bed, the box spring, and the front end of the car just enough to make the engine race and impede forward progress. But finally, I made it back to my apartment and, after a colorful moment of sweating and swearing in the narrow stairwell, managed to jockey the box spring through the door of the apartment and into my bedroom, where the fan was blowing puffs of what seemed like deliciously cool air. I went out, got the mattress, and brought that in too. I flopped on my new bed and was asleep in minutes.

Financially, that was a particularly desperate time of my life, but looking back now, it's hard to remember the desperation. What stands out for me was the way I adapted and improvised and made doing without a kind of badge of honor, promising myself that it wouldn't always be this way. But even as I looked forward to a future that involved having money in the bank and air conditioners in the windows, at the same time, my existence in those early days had a kind of romantic feel, too. And I came to appreciate everything I had in a way that's not easy to describe now. The simple joy of a cool breeze being sucked in by a fan, for example, or the delicious feel of a 50-buck bed under your butt, instead of, say, a cold refrigerator rack.

In time, I would have other experiences to appreciate, such as when Her Lovely Self would come by of a Sunday night, as she so often did after spending the afternoon with her grandmother (who, by the greatest twist of fate, lived about 10 blocks from my apartment). Typically, she would find me in my kitchen, baking cookies--chocolate peanut butter chip, her favorite, coincidentally enough (it never occurred to her that every Sunday afternoon, I ran down to the corner grocery and spent whatever spare money I had--and it was never much--on chocolate and peanut butter chips against the moment I saw her car round the corner into my street). We spent many wonderful moments in that kitchen (as well as an early awkward one, when she opened my freezer and discovered a pair of boxer shorts bound in permafrost. I swore up and down that they'd been there the day I moved in) and at times like those, the lack of air conditioning, or the dearth of foodstuffs beyond potatoes and onions, or the hardship of getting a bed, all blurred away, rendered inconsequential by the simple joy of being in that moment, with that person.

Which ended up being the moral of last night's story.

Alas, it was a moral that was lost on the Brownie, who only wanted to know one thing: Did I ever clean the fridge after I fell asleep with my sweaty butt in it?

But that's a tale for another dinner time.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

My mom is 72 years old and writes a weekly column for a local newspaper in Texas. That article is the only time she ever uses a computer. Would you belive that she still uses my old Mac SE that I gave her back in '93?

I'm really enjoying your work!
There's a radio commercial playing these days.. I think it's for Dunkin Donuts? Where they mention putting underwear in the freezer as a way to keep cool. First time I heard it, I thought-- that's crazy, nobody does that!

Got to that part in your post and laughed OUT LOUD.
When I was in college, I used fabric samples left over from the theatre costume shop as makeshift curtains and slept on blankets piled atop the boxes I used to move in.

Every Tuesday I'd get together with my other poor friends, make spaghetti--no sauce, and watch "Gilmore Girls" on my best friend's mom's 5 inch display B/W portable tv. It was my favorite night of the week.

Wonderful post!
You probably would have qualified for a Sears charge card...but you were wise not to fall into that trap, and instead furnish the place you had using available cash on hand.

I hope that when I'm that age, that I'll be as creative as you. I would have never thought of sitting naked in the refrigerator. :-)

Love the story. I'm glad the Brownie made you tell it.
10 points to your thriftiness quotient if you know where that mattress is now.

50 points if you still have it. (but suffer -10 points on your 'yuck' quotient)

200 points if it's still in daily use. (but -500 on your 'yuck' quotient)

Seeing as how you're from thrifty stock, I'm betting you get some points here....
Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch"

"I keep my undies in the icebox."
To be honest, if I was there during the telling of this story, I probably would have choked on my food too.

Also, saying the boxers had been there since day one? GENIUS.
Dan--I almost mentioned this as a coda, but the post was getting long. That bed is still in the family. In '94, it became the guest bed in our first married apartment. In '01, it was Thomas's first big-boy bed, when he moved out of the crib to make way for the Brownie. In '03, we took it to my parents' house and it became the bed we used whenever we came to visit. At this writing, it sits in the bedroom next door to BB's and hasn't been slept in in about a year. But when I go to NH in about a month, I'll be sleeping on it. Again. So let the Yuck Points descend!
You really must stop posting funny stories during office hours. Loud laughter coming from my cubicle is a dead giveaway that I am not working on my accounting duties as assigned.
Must be one of those things - the first treat I bought myself upon getting a "real job" was a real bed, complete with box spring and that cheap metal frame that they all seems to have (luxury!)
Up until that point, I'd been sleeping on a friend's discarded mattress on the floor. The linage of that mattress was long (and frightening,) but it was better than the floor alone...

As usual, you writing never fails to make me think. :)
- K.
Now, see, this is the difference between a real writer and me. I would have made the finding of the underwear in the freezer the focal point of the whole tale (and grossed out many of my readers, losing them forever.) In your hands, it became just a funny throwaway near the end of a lovely moral story.

laughed out loud, and nodded with earnest when you talked about not remembering the suffering through poverty, just recalling with glee the absolute joy of being alive. so true. a heady feeling that I fear is lost these days among many of the well-to-do youth who've never had to "make do." you rock, MM.
as a newcomer to your world, it has been a pleasure to read your have allowed us to look into your life and it is amazing how the path we chose has lead us to this...good story that I am sure was lost on the brownie..
of course 20 years from now the story will be retold with different characters...
Great prose.

I used to sleep with a towel tied around my face to block out the light in certain cells, and wet toilet paper in my ears.

Shaun Attwood
visit me on naruto episode

My husband have a similar tale of tying a clearance sale mattress to the top of a beat up tiny toyota and driving across Kansas City to our tiny first home. I was absolutely convinced we were going to get pulled over, but miraculously, we did not.

One more week before I start to worry, Mister Masthead! Post you human crud-bum ;p
When Dave and I first married, I had one new pot that my Mom gave me and a plastic container that was full of stuff we collected over the three years we dated~ That period of time was one of the happiest in my life. A real adventure in survival.

I have one bath towel and a glass mixing bowl left to date~ 27 years later ;)
just got back from being away on a week's vacation and there's still no new entry? That book you are writing for the kids is probably really really cooking now.

If not that, then I hope all is well. I am starting to worry (as are other MM fans, I am sure...not that we mean to bug you or anything...)

While it is amusing to continuously see a title with BUTT in it, I'm ready for a sign that you are still alive.

Even "hi" will suffice.
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