Friday, July 10, 2009

roommates, part 2

I’ve never liked to live alone.

In spite of this, I’ve told friends things like: “Oh, you really don’t want him to move in with you. Right now you’ve got the best of both worlds. You’ve got a boyfriend, but the TiVo has all your programs on it. And you only see him when you want to.”

Hypocrite. I’m a giant hypocrite.

The last (and perhaps the only) time I lived alone was my stint in the Leon Capri Apartments, a two-story apartment court in Pasadena that was so depressing that every visitor I had over would ask me when I was going to move.

They’d look around at the studio apartment, its ugly day beds ill-camouflaged by brown-and-orange plaid covers. They’d squint at the 1960s-era kitchen table and the noisy, aging window air conditioning unit. They’d note the perpetually dripping bathtub faucet that had left a hard water stain the color of dried blood. They’d wince at the coughs of the tubercular old man downstairs; he kept the drapes open so you could look in on him on your way up to my place, check on his steady downward progress. There he’d be, watching The Price is Right from his Barcalounger, just coughing his fool head off. Then they’d peek out my curtains at the useless swimming pool—that peculiar vestige of Southern California glamour—a kidney-shaped pool perpetually in shadow and unheated, too cold to swim in and littered with palm tree residue.

Then they’d waggle their heads back and forth skeptically: “So how much do you pay for this place anyway? You found another place yet?”

I was seeing a much older man, N., at the time. He lived around the corner in a larger, more modern, apartment building with his wife. He had talked me into renting the studio apartment; he was even with me when I first looked at it on impulse. I was living in the back of my car, an orange Opel station wagon crammed full of most of my earthly possessions, save four heavy boxes of vinyl records. Those would warp in the October heat if I kept them in the back of my car. As it was, the LPs were disappearing one-by-one, in order of desirability, from another friend’s living room.

N. and I had driven by The Leon Capri Apartments on a Friday at lunch. There was a sign on the front lawn. VACANCY. Furn. Studio Apt.

N. swung his Rabbit to the curb and we got out.

He went in with me to look at the place. There wasn’t much to see. It was small; it was dingy; the furniture was particle board with wood-grained plastic veneer.

He flushed the toilet. It worked.

“This looks fine,” N. said without much confidence in his voice. “It’s fine for you anyway. It’s not too big. You’re like a small animal. You don’t need much space.”

I filled out an application.

“When can I move in?” I asked Chip, the building’s manager, a short gay man with a bad toupee and numerous flesh-colored bandages that protected injuries that he’d been careful to attribute to the many repairs he’d been making on the apartments.

“Any time you want to, darlin’.”

“You mean I could move in today?”

“Yes. You could move in today.”

“You could move in today.” N. nudged me. He winked. “She’ll take it.”

“I’ll take it,” I said. If I took it, I could stop looking for apartments. I hated looking for apartments. This was before Craigslist, and looking for apartments involved circling cryptic two- and three-line classified ads in The Pasadena Star News and wondering what ‘limited kitchen access’ meant.

No ads. No calls. No driving around. I could start unloading my Opel this very afternoon. I could sleep here tonight.

I wrote a check—it felt like a large check, the largest check I’d ever written—to The Leon Capri Apartments and handed it to Chip. He handed me the key to Apartment 24.

Less than a week after I had moved in, N. claimed that the apartment was so depressing that it made him impotent.

“You should move,” he said.

I didn’t move right away. Instead I slept. A lot. Normally I have insomnia that puts Sandra Tsing Loh’s insomnia to shame, but the Leon Capri Apartments acted like a barbiturate on me.

There’s a lot you don’t notice when you’re asleep.

I never bothered to install a phone in Apartment 24. Instead I made infrequent phone calls from a phone booth at the grocery store across the street. Chip had forgotten to give me the key to the mailbox. I could see through the slot that I had mail, but there was no way to retrieve it.

Once in awhile a friend would drop by.

“You should call before you come over. What if I’m not at home? Or what if I’m asleep?” I’d say.

“You don’t have a phone,” they would tell me.

“Oh.” I’d say. “Oh. Right.”

I’d slept through most of the winter in the Leon Capri Apartments. Hibernated really. I stopped seeing N. Friends worried about me.

One day I heard through the Caltech grapevine that a Deadhead named Tom was looking for a roommate for his apartment on California Boulevard, close to Pie and Burger. That he’d asked his last roommate, a purported meth dealer, to move on. Tom’s name was on one of the most coveted rental agreements in Pasadena: he was the official occupant of a flat in one of two neighboring fourplexes in a nice neighborhood near Caltech.

Eight apartments with the cheapest rent in town.

Everybody who was anybody had lived in those apartments. Steve, aka Mailbro, a postman with the Caltech beat. Martha, the welfare queen, whose kids lived with her mother in another city. Mike, the guy who lived in his van in the backyard. Dave, whose tortoise-shell cat was a cantaloupe-eating vegetarian. A lady lawyer who clicked around the bare hardwood floors downstairs in her high heels. Two Mexican guys who were prone to violent domestic disputes: a Telemundo/telenovela-ready couple.

It was a colorful cast of characters, a WB sitcom. The minute I laid eyes on the place, I knew it was home.

Goodbye, Leon Capri. Those cropped pants do make your butt look big.

Tom had blue eyes, Grateful Dead posters that he’d tacked to the living room wall, and two black cats named Yin and Yang. He was a vegetarian. A devotee of zen poets like Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg.

But none of that mattered.

I renamed the black cats Fishbreath and Fuzzface and moved in.

Tom was my new roommate.

I threw my stuff—a scratched Teflon pot with a tight-fitting lid; a dented cookie sheet; a large square of foam rubber (my bed); several large pieces of velvet (the bedspread); some miscellaneous sheets and towels; a floor pillow; and four Xerox paper boxes that I’d been using as a bureau— back into the Opel and moved out of Apartment 24 and across town. It only took one trip.

I moved out with as little ceremony and as much stealth as possible. I felt defeated by the Leon Capri Apartments. Done in by the details. Humiliated by the coffee table that’d gouged my leg. Debilitated by a relentless case of food poisoning that I’d weathered in the depressing little bathroom. Even my ironic love affair with N. had faded, overpowered by Apartment 24’s bad mojo.

I slunk by Chip and Marty’s apartment with two Xerox boxes stacked in my arms.

“Moving out?” Chip asked.

“Yeah. I guess I am.” I said.

“You should’ve given notice on the first. You’re late with your rent.”

“It’s not the first today?” I feigned ignorance; it was already five days into March.

“You won’t get this month’s rent back. You should’ve told us you were moving out.” Chip said. He wasn’t actually surprised I was moving, nor was he unkind. No-one lived in the Leon Capri Apartments for very long. I’d paid my last month’s rent when I moved in; it was almost 30 days’ notice. Close enough.

I thought of the sad first-floor apartment Chip and Marty shared, littered with spent prescription bottles, TV Guides, and movie magazines. I was anxious to end our impromptu interview.

“It doesn’t matter,” I told him. “I don’t care about this month’s rent.”

I was tempted to lie and to tell him I was moving out of state, simply because I’d been busted trying to sneak out. The truth was, I’d never given notice on an apartment before, and I couldn’t summon up the nerve. It was like I was rejecting Chip himself, his bad wig, his legitimate prescriptions, his bandaid-covered boo-boos, and every other gloomy detail of his life in the Leon Capri Apartments.

In the end I wrote down my new address on a scrap of paper so the mysterious property owner in South San Gabriel could mail me back my damage deposit. It arrived not long after, minus fifty dollars for “cleaning the oven.”

“I never even turned on the oven,” I explained to my new roommate Tom, indignant that my last landlord had confused me with someone whose oven needed anything beyond a quick dusting. “I just stored a few things in there. It wasn’t dirty.”

Tom agreed with me that it was outrageous.

The new apartment was, in my mind, gorgeous. I saw the high curved ceilings, the 19th century moldings, the burnished hardwood floors. My room had windows on three sides, windows facing west, south, and east. Even the closet had its own tiny south-facing window. A glass-paned door led to a shared balcony that looked like it hadn’t been used in many years. The neighbors’ ancient Siamese cat looked across the balcony at me and let loose a plaintive wail.

I stashed my Xerox boxes in the closet; made up my foam rubber bed and covered it with the velvet remnants; and threw the floor pillow on—where else?—the floor. I fetched my remaining records from Holliston House; bought a new turntable and pre-amp from Bill Gross and a $19 floor lamp from the unfortunately-named “Lamps R Us”. Done. Done and Done.

It looked a lot like home to me.

Really I’d fallen in love with my new digs. I failed to notice the numerous roaches in the kitchen scurrying hither and yon, busy and happy with their own ecological niche in the apartment. Didn’t mind that the ancient refrigerator needed to be propped closed with a folding chair. Didn’t quite see the long-term implications of the mountain of recycling—stacks of empty six-packs and old newspapers—that had amassed in a narrow hallway, rendering it impassable.

I could even ignore the poster of Jerry Garcia staring down reproachfully at the two sad couches in the living room.

“Be careful!” Tom said the first time I lowered myself onto the off-green couch, “That part is broken.”

Indeed I could see that a stack of books was holding up the middle and there was a suspicious sag to the cushion I was about to sit on.

“You’ll hit the floor if you sit there,” he said. “It’s much better to sit at the other end.”

I moved a pizza box with a single congealed slice of cheese pizza still in it and sat down. Jerry Garcia scowled vaguely over my shoulder at some imagined audience. Or perhaps he was scowling at me; perhaps I had moved his piece of cold pizza.

“They were going to throw both of these couches out. I had Mike help me get them up the stairs,” Tom said.

I felt a flea bite my ankle.

Tom plucked another flea off of his leg and pinched it between two fingers. He disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a glass of soapy water which he set on the floor by his feet.

“You just drown them in soapy water,” he said.

“Oh.” I said. “Okay.”

“They’re kind of hard to catch at first, but you can get good at it.” Tom drowned a second flea in the glass.

“Do the cats need flea collars?” I said.

“Pesticides aren’t good for them. I feed them yeast and garlic tablets instead. You can get them at Trader Joe’s; you just chop them up and mix them in the cat food.”

“Does that work?” I asked.

The glass was already dotted with tiny black flea carcasses. Tom had been drowning them steadily as we talked.

“You should’ve seen how many there used to be,” he said. “Before I started putting garlic in the cat food.”

We sat companionably in the living room reading copies of the LA Reader and exterminating fleas. The living room window was open and a gentle breeze rippled Jerry’s edges and tickled the top of the pizza; a discarded part of the newspaper fluttered into the corner of the room. I felt my depression lifting.

I was so happy to have a roommate again.

The rent on my new flat was indeed breathtakingly cheap, $115/month for my half of the two bedroom upper floor apartment. There was a banana tree growing on the front lawn and a magnificent persimmon tree on the side of the house. In the fall, sparrows would perch on each persimmon, which were by then just sweet bags of orange goo, and they’d tweet and eat, tweet and eat, tweet and eat. Birdsongs filled the apartment.

The building had been condemned several years before I’d moved in and was in a state of genteel decline. The landlords, a corporation in the Valley, were waiting to tear the place down, so they did no repairs.

The rumor about the building’s disposition changed weekly. Sometimes the owners were waiting for the permit that would allow them to tear it down; other times they were waiting for the permit to build the condos. Still other times, they were stalled out, pending undelivered financing for their project. Still other times, they were waiting for nothing at all and we expected to be awakened the next morning by a wrecking ball and the sound of heavy equipment, scraping our beloved building down to splinters and rubble.

It wouldn’t have taken much to knock the place down; the rats could’ve stopped holding hands and the place would’ve fallen in on itself. Already a railing was missing from the back stairs, making them a treacherous proposition at night. A leak in the roof had so badly discolored and softened the ceiling in the back bedroom that a poke with the broomstick brought down a shower of plaster. The building no longer had trustworthy heat (a wall heater threw a giant line of flames into the living room) and the construction had long predated air conditioning.

Tellingly, we wrote our checks to “California Street Condos,” a name which we rightly interpreted as threatening. Our corporate overlords were so oblivious that they didn’t even know that they wanted to tear down lovely old apartments on California Boulevard, not California Street.

We alternated months for paying the rent. Tom paid one month; I paid the next. Toward the end of our tenure in the building, it turned out that we were only paying rent every other month—my months—but that was years later, and it was an effective cost-saving strategy. The landlords did not seem to care that one month they’d get a compulsively on-time check written with a triple-aught Rapid-o-graph in my small slanty hand, and the next they’d get nothing.

While Tom and I lived there, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

We even supped together on occasion, moving us perilously close to being an actual household.

I wasn’t a vegetarian, but I also wasn’t a cook, so Tom’s gloppy cashew sauce, adapted from the Moosewood Cookbook, poured over steamed vegetables and brown rice seemed like an exquisite culinary endeavor compared with the 29-cent canned pilchard from Trader Joe’s that was the staple of my own diet. I usually shared the pilchard with one or both of the cats, who would clamor around my feet as I opened the can and mixed in plain yogurt and diced avocado. The cats would gladly eat part of my dinner as long as I didn’t go to the trouble of seasoning it with cayenne.

As for Tom, he alternated between macrobiotic fare and delivered pizzas (and the occasional In-And-Out burger, I seem to recall). A Vietnamese woman dating a mutual friend asked me why Tom didn’t eat meat.

“Oh, he’s a vegetarian,” I said, aware that I hadn’t explained anything.

“I thought it was because he was poor,” she said, skeptical and somewhat convinced of my naïveté. “Is he poor?”

“I don’t know,” I said. And in truth I didn’t know what motivated his mostly consistent vegetarianism. It’s not a question I would ask of a roommate.

A few months after I moved in, out of the blue Tom said, “Don’t use my spoons.”

“Don’t use your spoons,” I echoed dutifully, unsure of what lay behind this edict. “Okay. I won’t use your spoons.”

Spoons? It probably didn’t have anything to do with eating meat. You don’t eat meat with a spoon. There is no beef-flavored ice cream, no chicken pudding. Perhaps he thought I’d use them to shoot up. Or perhaps he thought I’d use them to shoot up and eat venison sorbet afterward. As mysterious as the new rule seemed, it was a relatively simple one to follow.

“Should I get some dishes of my own?” I asked.

“No. No,” he said. “There isn’t room.”

So I complied as literally as I could. Puzzled, I left several cheap spoons, borrowed from the Dabney House dining room, in the drawer.

And he was right. There wasn’t room for any other kitchen supplies. Tom was an early proponent of recycle and reuse, a philosophy that I couldn’t disagree with. Hundreds of Molly’s Natural Yogurt containers were stacked in the cabinets. Glass jars were at the ready. Plastic tableware had been reclaimed, along with disposable chopsticks.

The canonical Mr. Natural comic, “Mr. Natural Does the Dishes”, had been hung above the sink well before I moved in. The comic—hung in dorms and communal kitchens everywhere—is a story without words that shows Mr. Natural gamely washing a veritable mountain of dishes. A mountain! He applies elbow grease and washes and washes until there is nary a mac-and-cheese encrusted pot in the sink.

Good for Mr. Natural!

The comic neither reflected the state of our kitchen sink (which was heaped with dirty dishes that showed no sign of being diminished by human action or act of god) nor motivated either of us to wash the dishes. I was moved to do dishes sporadically, not by disgust (I wasn’t easily disgusted), nor by duty (I seldom used many dishes, and hence felt no particular call to wash them), nor by kindness (I wasn’t particularly kind). Rather I washed them because I liked to wash dishes; it fulfilled some sort of compulsive urge. I could stand at the sink and daydream with no fear of interruption.

But much of the time, the apartment teetered between unhygienic and downright filthy, and the level of clutter vacillated between simple disorder and out-and-out anarchy.

Once I noticed that a houseguest had demurely slipped off to the Caltech campus to take a shower in the student houses.

“You could’ve used our shower,” I told her, somewhat defensively. “It works. The water pressure is actually good, better than you’d expect.”

“I was going over to campus anyway, so I thought I’d take a shower,” she said.

I could tell she was lying.

When I looked in the shower later that evening, I noticed that one of the giant outdoor cockroaches (as opposed to the faster, sleeker, and more petite kitchen cockroaches) had become trapped in the tub. The sides were somehow too steep and too slick for him to climb, although he tried again and again, failing before he’d gotten all the way up the side. I wondered whether it was the roach himself, or the futility of his endeavor, that had driven my friend a half mile to Caltech to use another, more public, shower.

It didn’t turn out well, of course.

Why “of course” you might ask.

We’d lived there together for quite awhile—several years at least—by the time Tom moved out. Together we’d battled forces of man and nature: the 14-year-old squatters that’d moved in downstairs when the attorney moved out; the fleas and roaches and rats; several stalkers I’d absentmindedly accumulated; the negligent landlords in the Valley; and our own non-admirable tendencies (which this blog post will leave to the reader’s vivid imagination).

Tom’s girlfriend Trish had finally taken Madame l’ Fishbreath to be spayed after numerous litters of kittens born as the result of an incestuous relationship between the original two litter mates. Tuna-toes, Meatloaf, and all the kittens who’d followed, needed care, catfood, and ultimately new homes. We were perpetually looking for friends and co-workers who would give a kitten a good home.

Tom even decided that the kittens were better adopted in pairs, so once we’d enlist someone to take one kitten, we’d persuade them into taking two.

In other words, we’d weathered innumerable crises together.

I don’t have any desire to turn over those last few months in my mind. They were traumatic, almost as traumatic as a break-up, and in the end, the events had little to do with me.

Mark had moved in.

There is a physics to roommates. I’m sure you knew that already.

Two roommates, oppositely charged, will bond together. Four roommates can yield an “us against them” chemistry that’s almost fun: the Oscar Madisons versus the Felix Ungers. The Kramdens versus the Nortons. Different pairs bond and re-bond.

But three, three’s unstable. Of course there’s Jack, Chrissy, and Janet. Right. And you remember what happened to Chrissy. She got too big for her britches and was exiled to Fresno. That’s right. Fresno. Then there’s Wilbur, Mr. Ed, and Carol, another troubled roommate triangle. Remember: only Wilbur could hear Mr. Ed talk.

Where there’s three, there’s trouble.

Remember these plots?
Wilbur pleads with Ed to stick to being a horse, especially when Ed wants to go to college to become a doctor.
Ed answers a hard question regarding chess on a radio game show and ends up winning Wilbur a new color TV set.
Carol attempts to publish Ed’s memoirs.
A neighbor who happens to be a builder needs an architect. Ed comes up with an idea that go-go music might just help Wilbur get that job.

See? Three leads to nothing but tension. Tension and go-go music.

Tom moved out. We haven’t spoken since. There were no fisticuffs, although some were threatened.

The building was torn down soon after that. The promised condos were built. They were on the market for a long time without selling, but now they’re just part of the California Boulevard landscape. I’d imagine no-one even remembers those two ramshackle four-flats.

Except the ghosts of so many roommates, and their roommates, and roommates beyond.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The empty apartment pictures you posted are going to be leaving craigslist mighty fast...

11:42 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

The weird thing is, this is the same apartment building I'm writing about. Really. It used to be the Leon Capri Apartments.

I think there are always apartments for rent in this building.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

With some regret I took out the link to the craigslist post advertising what used to be the Leon Capri Apartments.

The apartment listing is still there this week (under a new URL), but of course I'd need to reliably compute the new link to it.

Remember: these are the most depressing apartments in the world; even if someone moves in, someone else'll be moving out. They'll have their meds adjusted, regain a measure of their self-respect, and move on. There are plenty of listings for people--perfectly normal people without the vaguest hint of syndromes or bad habits--looking for roommates.

6:36 PM  
Blogger Jaina Bee said...

They might have venison sorbet at Humphry Slocombe!

10:17 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

When I said, "There is no beef-flavored ice cream," I'd completely forgotten Humphry Slocombe.

When they concoct a raw pork flavor, I'm throwing in the towel.

Or when they make towel-flavored ice cream, I'm throwing in the raw pork.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Susie said...

Hey, thanks for this. I'm currently in the thick of my shitty apartment years, and it's weirdly comforting to know I'll be nostalgic for them someday.

(But I'll never forgive whoever it was who left that beer can in the shower two weeks ago. Jackass.)

4:13 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...


You've got to remember: it could be worse. I'm thinking the beer can in the shower just had beer in it, and nothing more vile, right?

Since you read this post, you're allowed to complain about your own roommates at great length and in minute detail.

See you Sunday! I'll expect a full report.

6:03 PM  

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