Sunday, February 21, 2010

BackDraft, or HellHoles I Have Lived In

 "I was moving again. This time because of the neighbors. 'Oh no,' my mother said. 'They're not to blame. Let's be honest now.' She liked to take my problems back to the source, which was usually me. Like, for instance, when I got food poisoning, it wasn't the chef's fault. 'You're the one who ordered the lomain." 
--David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

I got through college and grad school the way most everyone else did -- with an endless cycle of rotating roommates splitting rent and utilities. After I finished my master's I had one of those "as God is mah witness, I'll never live with another human being ever again" moments, and I've stuck to it, save the occasional boyfriend here and there in the 90s, but those were more de facto camp-outs, not true live-ins.

My first experiment was admittedly pretty modest -- about all I could afford working for an engineering firm in communications (/making coffee). It was my quarter-life crisis.  I was stuck in the wrong job; I was stuck with the wrong boyfriend I'd inexplicably planned to marry; and where I lived seemed like the one thing I had a little control over. With a little paint and a lot of castoff furniture (a little something we call "early American, Want This?" in my family), it wasn't so bad.... (Oh what am I saying? It was a hellhole...with no air conditioning and no dishwasher.)

I picked it because if you really squinted, it was a little bit Mary Tyler Moore's apartment in Minneapolis/ and a little bit "Mare Winningham-in St. Elmo's Fire" when she has that soliloquy about how "I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and I realized it was my apartment and it was my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and it was the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich I ever had." Or words to that effect (that's how I remember it).

I tried to love it, I really did.... but then the noises started.

I lived on the second floor, and every night, at 11 pm sharp, I could hear this... chanting, for want of a better word. It was more like a half-chant, and a half moan that built to a high-pitched whine -- it was the noise you imagine a tomcat might make if it were being strangled with a piano wire. It would go on for about 15 minutes, and then it would stop. And I mean: every night.

Even then, I was an occasional insomniac, who had to get up for work by 6 (engineers like their coffee hot, and early), so I finally got up the nerve to do what I thought I had seen Mary Tyler Moore do -- I took a broom and banged the handle against the ceiling.

Yeahhhhh..... That was a mistake.

I heard this frantic scutter, scutter, scutter, a loud crash as the attic door slammed open, and then the ominious sound of running as the upstairs neighbor thundered down the stairs... and then hurled his not inconsiderable weight up against my door. It gave a little, but held. I just sat there in the dark and held my breath till he got tired of pounding on the door and left. I called the landlord from the office the next morning and he chuckled, not-at-all-reassuringly, "yeah, the guy's ...eccentric." (That is not the word I would have used.)

Great. Now I was a hostage. Creeping in and out of my apartment under the cover of dark, trying not to make any noise that would rouse the beast. I didn't know what to do next. I didn't think he was doing anything criminal enough to call the cops. The landlord was no help. And I had no intention of taking matters into my own hands. Even in my 20s, I prided myself on trying to lead a drama-free life, and white trash screaming matches with a neighbor --inevitably involving law enforcement and camera crews from what I'd seen so far of Life in the Big City -- struck me as a good way to get off to a bad start.

A few nights later, I was lying on the floor in front of the windows wearing boxers and a wife-beater trying unsuccessfully to catch a breeze, when I heard sirens outside. Powerless from the heat, I just stared up at the ceiling where I halfheartedly noticed the lights were flashing red (fire, not police), too exahusted to investigate.

The next thing I heard was a loud CLANG -- which turned out to be a metal ladder banging into a brick wall -- and the next thing I saw was the top of a fireman's helmet peeking over my windowsill. He had come to "escort" me from the building, which was, apparently, on fire. Reassuringly, it was a very small fire -- originating in the attic (it hadn't spread, and none of us even smelled smoke) -- but the marshall had to kill the power and kick us all out for a few days while everything was investigated.

But they knew instantly what had happened, and one of the more loquacious firefighters was happy to fill me in.

As we stood outside, where it felt suddenly felt surprisingly cool in boxers and a wifebeater, he put his big coat over my shoulders and steered me over to the sidewalk where I could get off the broken glass that was grinding into my bare feet (beer bottles always littered the yard there). "Listen," he said.... motioning me a little closer. I leaned in.

"Do you know that guy...that guy who plays ...Mr. Edwards?" he asked, almost conspiratorially, clarifying helpfully, "the guy on Little House on the Prairie?" (It had been off the air for years by that time, but of course I knew the reference).

"Sure," I said. "You mean Victor French? I think he was on Highway to Heaven too," (I had never even seen that show, but suddenly, I was a gameshow contestant.)

"Yeah, well" (the implication being 'whatever') "your ol' neighbor upstairs has this, like, ALTAR built with that guy's picture all over it. And there are candles everywhere, so I guess he was like, praying to him or something."

It was the candles that had started the fire, he added, almost as an afterthought (and that was, admittedly, the least interesting detail of the whole conflagration).

A shrine?
To beloved character actor Victor French?
Of course.
The moaning. The chanting. The subsequent fire.
I probably should've suspected as much.

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