Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Absurdities of War

Most average people have to make a few sacrifices in order to live as inexpensively as possible. They do this so they can afford to spend more on recreation, hobbies, and addictions, save up for a home, or perhaps so they can pay off debt. I am an extreme example. I occupy half the basement of a large and venerable house that was long ago converted to six apartment units, and I enjoy telling people that my rent is $225.00 a month, which includes utilities. You can't get your basic costs much lower than that in any region of the U.S. unless you move back in with the 'rents. Part of the reason I live in this charming dump is that it's hard to find rental properties that accept my two cats, but the main thing is that I'm being thrifty for the reasons stated above. My lifestyle, however, is not for the faint of heart.

I run an extention cord from inside to plug my truck or car in (whichever I anticipate being the most useful the next day), and being paranoid, I roll it up every morning and hang it in the stairwell. Every wall and baseboard I try to scrub crumbles due to water damage and an old termite problem. My plants sit clustered around one of three small, high windows that let in a surprising amount of afternoon light. I have to kick my door to get out and cuss to get in. I have no counter space, and no three-prong outlets; I have installed adapters, but one of these days the ancient wiring is going to fail. I have separate faucets for hot and cold in the bathroom sink, and most of the shower walls are now silver duct tape. The pump that moves the heated water around to heat the house occasionally makes an intolerable racket, and one of these days it's going to go kaput. If the high school kid who mows the grass doesn't replace the five-foot drain pipe that carries the roof drainage away from the house and out into the center of the lawn, the water flows directly into my living room window. This has happened twice. I have no concrete sidewalk to my front door, which means that the snow drifts three feet deep between me and the street and freezes to a sheet of ice where it gets walked on very often. This year I'm sprinkling icemelt on my path, which means that the high sodium content is going to kill a strip of the pathetic, patchy lawn. So, no big deal. And please understand, I'm not actually complaining. My home is cool in the summer and warm in the winter, very quiet 99% of the time, and since I'm fairly adept at interior design, it's tremendously cozy. In fact, I'm getting very attached to it.

The string of temporary tenants marches by overhead while Dean and I remain comfortably ensconced underneath. Dean and I almost never speak, but it's hard not to feel close to someone when you hear almost every intimate aspect of their daily routine. We each have private entrances, and our only shared wall is the one between my bathroom and who knows what part of his apartment, and the rest of our units are separated by the boiler room, which suits me just fine. Dean smokes constantly, a cheap and ghastly brand. I have a difficult time keeping my sink plugged so his secondhand smoke doesn't creep into my kitchen through the pipes, and I've filled every reachable crevice between us with Space Invader foam from Cazin and Houtz Hardware on Front Street. I've taped all the gouges in my shower closed where termites once chewed through the particle board behind the flimsy laminate, but I can still hear Dean coughing in the typical phlegm-laden style of a lifetime chainsmoker. Sometimes near the end of the month he runs out of money for cigarettes and I get a short reprieve. I don't have the guts to tell him his secondhand smoke is increasing my cancer risk by 50%. I just retaliate by watching British comedies at all hours and practicing the violin.

But two weeks ago, Dean stopped coughing, and in the exposed pipes in my kitchen and bathroom I could hear water running nonstop for days. I thought for sure he was a goner. Turns out I was wrong. When I went to pay my scant rent on the 2nd I mentioned my suspicion to Mary, who blanched. "Don't say that!" Before I could apologize, she wailed, "I don't want to imagine having to clean his apartment!" She explained that in one of the units on the top floor, the hot water had been running in the bathtub for days, and the residents in the other units had alerted her. She called the tenant and asked if she was experiencing plumbing problems. "Oh, it's just a drip in the tub," said the fool, which everyone knows (by the constant rush in the pipes and lessened hot water pressure and supply) is not the case. Mary identified the problem as one common in older houses, a broken gasket that shuts off the faucet's flow. "I've got a plumber on the way," she assured me, but the water continued to flow, until Wednesday night when I came home to find no response from the hot water tap at all. The next morning I called her from work to complain. "I know it's off," she said. "I shut it off. The gas bill is going to be outrageous." She had told everyone who was home, but didn't bother to leave a note for me. Luckily I have my own restroom at the plant with an ivory-tiled, chrome-plated shower in it, a Rec center membership (a last resort- the showers are just sick), a key to Jo's, and my sister lives in town. I figured the plumbing problem couldn't last much longer, now that it was an emergency. Two days passed. Mary called me Friday night. "Would you consider turning the hot water on and off certain times of the day? I can't get a plumber." I thought of all the men I have faith in and offered Jeff's services, Mr. Goodwrench's, Kelly's, anybody's. "It's something Kathy [the owner of the property] knows how to fix, but I hate to have her come all the way from Salt Lake to do it." (It's a measly hour-and-a-half drive to Salt Lake, and her tenants have no hot water. What's wrong with this picture?) She said she thought she could get the man who rents the whole house next door to do it; he's renovating the bathroom in that house (which seems odd, but I know about improving a rental property, believe me. It took $200.00 and four people a whole month to make this place livable, but it's paid for our trouble several times over). But today there's still no change, so, being a fairly proactive person, this afternoon I crept into the terrifying cellar behind my kitchen wall (down a staircase in the back) and turned the red rubber-covered valve handle. I ran back in before anyone else could discover it and took the hottest shower I could stand, washing my hair until it squeaked, standing in the stinging downpour until I couldn't take anymore. I left it on for everybody else until I got home tonight, and I assure you, I will never go back there after dark again. I'll have to turn it back on in the morning, and I might let it run all day; serves Mary right for being ridiculous, having to explain the gas bill to Kathy. I thought tonight as I turned it back off: I hope somebody's in the middle of a shower, and I hope it's the kid in the silver Impala who always parks facing the wrong way, stomps up the stairs at 3:00 a.m. and shot off fireworks in the yard at 8:00 a.m. the day I wanted to sleep in.


Blogger Pegasus said...

Simplicity is beautiful. I lived that way for 20 years and than life changed and I bought a house. I spend a lot of time in my garden in the summer and have all kinds of birds visiting my garden. Be well and enjoy life...war is horrible.

December 11, 2005 at 1:11 AM  
Blogger a572mike said...

Wow! That sounds like quite a place that you live in A! I know what you mean about having limited options when you are honest and have feline roommates. Whenever a potential landlord tells me that they don't allow pets, I always counter with "ah, you must not allow children then either?" Which always gets me a look of disgust.

The old house that I live in is off the alley, as it's on the back of a lot where there is a larger house on the front near the street. In some parts of the world, this would be referred to as an in-law cottage, but here, they call them "half houses" since the address is a whole number plus 1/2. (1432-1/2). It always makes me smile when I pay my rent, if this little "half house" was in 95124 or 95032 where I used to live, it would easily rent for 4-5 times more. Being on the alley is nice, it's super quiet back here...

December 11, 2005 at 8:05 PM  
Blogger dorothy rothschild said...

I have lived in places just like you describe my whole adult life. I am in my late 30's and still have grad student furniture. It's what I've done to be able to study and travel and now to live in NYC without sellin' out to Tha Man. I have rigged up incredibly complicated systems of extension cords in order to be able to have lights, have lived with the corner of the kitchen ceiling spewing bits of plaster after a gutter backed up and froze and then thawed, received a subpoena to testify in a case brought against a landlord by a creditor.

In one apartment in Brooklyn, I endured a winter of freezing cold showers because tenants in the building would run the hot water to steam up their apartments and make them warmer. Putting on an extra sweater and remaining faithful to their personal hygeine apparently wasn't an option.

I feel yer pain, darlin'.

If it gets down to it, though, I am sure there are tenant rights (check your city government) regarding hot water access.

December 12, 2005 at 8:26 AM  

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