31 December 2007


To close out the year, I'm going to do something a little different: an autobiographical flashback to my younger and more innocent days. Most of you were not in the picture at the time, but a couple of you were, so let me preface by saying that I have tried to recount things as accurately as possible, and if I've screwed something up, it's because I'm getting old (which means you are too, ha) and don't remember things as well as I used to.

1985 was a big year for me. I graduated from college, entered my first real relationship, became fully self-supportive for the first time, and otherwise did quite a bit of growing up. It was also a very challenging year, as I faced some real adversities for the first time in my life. At this time of year I tend to look back on the events of '85 and think about what I've learned, and how far I've come.

I had lived in the cocoon of on-campus housing for all of my undergraduate years, so as graduation approached, one of the major challenges was finding a place to live. I had a friend who had been living in an off-campus house for the previous year, but he wanted a slightly calmer and more, um, adult living environment, so we decided to find an apartment together. This proved more difficult than we had anticipated: in the spring, everyone else is looking for an apartment at the same time, everyone else wants the good locations and wants to pay the least rent possible. Basically, we were screwed. We were unable to find a place in time, so he ended up staying in his house, and I moved in there as well, sleeping on the floor. That house has probably fallen down by now; if it hasn't, it should have.

By mid-June we had found a two-bedroom apartment, in a much less desirable location way, way out on the 57 bus line in Oak Square, about as far out in Brighton as you can go and still be within the city limits of Boston. (I would later end up living in another place on the 57 line, much closer in, for more than two years; eventually I had the entire schedule--inbound, outbound, day, night, weekend, holiday--committed to memory.) It was one of those horrible, square brick three-story buildings with four apartments on each floor and really thin walls. But it was all we could find that we could afford, $600 a month at the time, split between us.

Meanwhile, during my senior year I had a part-time job. I worked 3 PM to 11 PM on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, sitting at the front door of a small private hospital in Brighton (I'm reluctant to use the term "security guard," though that's how the hospital described it). As the end of the school year approached, I was asked if I wanted to work a full 40-hour week. I agreed, because it meant I would not have to look for a "real" job. In hindsight, this was a critical mistake; because I chose to blow off doing any serious thinking about my future, the reverberations of this decision in the years that followed ultimately set back my career goals by probably a decade.

Naturally, the job didn't last long. I honestly can't remember the exact circumstances, but I'm pretty sure they dumped me right after Labor Day. After an ill-fated stint attempting to do customer service for the IRS, I wound up working at the Harvard Coop. My starting pay was $4 per hour, but it was full-time hours with benefits--try finding that now in a retail job. At first I was what they called a "contingent," meaning I worked in whatever department needed extra staff on a given day. But by the end of my first week, I had been assigned permanently to the textbook department, which I believe is still on the third floor of the rear building over there in Harvard Square. I haven't been in there in years, except occasionally to browse the regular book department, which was moved over to the main building several years ago.

During the summer, my friend/roommate met a woman and started dating her. By fall it was pretty serious, and one day I came home from work and he told me he was moving in with her. This meant I had to find another roommate, or find somewhere else to live myself. It was around the beginning of November when he told me, so I had only a few weeks to make other arrangements. I immediately decided I didn't want to continue living in the apartment, mostly because it was a crappy, roach-infested hell hole in an inconvenient location, things that I figured would make it a tough sell for a potential roommate.

Back then there was no craigslist, so the place most people looked for roommates was the Boston Phoenix classifieds. In the midst of trying to find another place to live, I got very sick. The change from eating unlimited, fattening cafeteria food to feeding myself on a very modest budget (anyone remember Purity Supreme?) had caused me to lose about 20 pounds over several months, but I hadn't noticed. The result was that my immune system was fairly vulnerable, and I caught an early-season flu or something like it. I was knocked on my ass for a week; while sick, feeling the pressure of time running out, I dragged myself out in pouring rain to keep one appointment I had already made to see a room. That probably set back my recovery by at least a couple of days.

By Thanksgiving, it was clear that I was not going to be able to find a new place to live in time. My friend, having already moved out of our apartment and feeling somewhat guilty for leaving me in a bit of a jam, offered to let me stay temporarily in his new place. So on December 1st, I once again packed up my clothes and other belongings, and headed across Brighton to his new apartment, on Comm. Ave. near BC. At the time I felt like I was intruding on my friend's new-found cohabitational bliss, but the offer to stay with them turned out to be the bridge that I needed.

After three or four days, on my day off that week, I decided to check out an untried option, the off-campus housing office at my alma mater, BU. Most of the listings were old, from the end of the summer and the start of the fall semester, but one had been placed just that morning. It was for a room in a house in Allston shared by a total of seven people, and the rent was only $180 a month. I called immediately and talked to one of the residents. Apparently one of the housemates had moved out very abruptly, without giving proper notice, so they were in a bit of a bind and needed someone to move in right away. I was in a bit of a bind myself, so I made an appointment to visit that evening.

The house was on the corner of Cambridge Street, on the 57 line between Union Square and St. Elizabeth's Hospital (just barely in Allston, according to the post office), across from some sort of parochial school. There was a bus stop right in front of the house. It was three floors with a total of ten rooms, plus two full bathrooms. The place was old and parts of it were in pretty rough shape, but it also had interesting details like french doors from the front hall to the living room, lots of original woodwork, and a built-in bench at the bottom of the stairs. The residents were a combination of graduate students and folks with jobs.

The total rent was $1400 a month, a convenient number to divide between seven people. The room was advertised at $180 because it was the smallest bedroom, and very small indeed, just about big enough for my bed, dresser, and desk. Up on the third floor was an enormous space that was almost as large as the entire second floor, and at some point it had been decided that the person who had that room (because s/he had lived in the house the longest) would pay $20 more per month for having so much space, and the person moving into the smallest room would pay $20 less.

I was able to meet all the other residents that night, and felt pretty good about the place. Although I knew I would have to take the first place that was offered to me, this didn't feel like a desperation choice. I left feeling like I would want to live there regardless of the circumstances. I didn't have to wait long. I guess they talked it over after I left, and if I remember right, they had called by the time I made it back to my friend's place to say I was in. I made arrangements to move in that weekend. Just to review, this would be my fourth move since May.

By this point my family had tired of helping me move, so I enlisted a friend to rent a vehicle. I probably should have just rented one of those little U-Haul trucks, but I was trying to spend as little as possible, so we went with one of those Rent-a-Wreck places (do those still exist?). We ended up with a station wagon that was about seven or eight years old, and with the back seat down it had a pretty good-sized cargo area. It had a split tailgate, with a metal-framed glass window that flipped up and a lower door that flipped down. When we were finished unloading the car at my new place, I went to close the tailgate. I lifted up the lower part, then brought the window down. The entire window shattered, leaving just the frame. Made a hell of a noise, too. Fortunately, it was covered by insurance.

I lived in the house for two years. Every time someone moved out, I moved to a better room. By the following September I had moved into the second-largest and second-nicest room in the house, a large space at the front of the second floor. It had a turret section with three big windows, with curved glass and frames that followed the shape of the turret wall. Had I stayed a bit longer, I would have moved up to the penthouse soon enough, but I got tired of living with so many other people. What was I thinking? I would have been able to go up to my third-floor sanctuary and get away from all of them.

There were also crime problems. My bicycle was stolen from the basement: someone had washed their car and left the bulkhead unlocked. A few months later, someone (possibly the same person, we never established who) left the front door unlocked, and someone came in and rifled through dresser drawers, stealing cash and a few other small objects; I lost an antique wristwatch that had belonged to my grandfather.

But regardless, I loved the big beige house. In a way, that house saved me. It got me from uncertainty back to stability, and gave me a place to call home when I most needed one. I haven't been by it in at least a dozen years, so I'll have to do that one of these days, just to make sure I don't forget.

(To be continued...)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read your memoir for that year of 85. I thought the piece was well composed and sprightly blithe. Nice one!