My ghetto home
(This is not technically a monologue – but who cares?)
Not until we got out of the car in Passaic did Carol begin to believe my warnings. She had insisted on coming home with me after classes, one of those sweet young 19 year olds who had spent her life in the protection of Wayne where constant police patrols kept her from encountering any thing more serious than a night time burglary or a day time shoplifter.
I was the 30-year-old exception, someone who had climbed out of my old working class life to better myself with courses at college, doing it by day light because of the wider choice of classes.
I don't know why school kids found people like me romantic, seeing us and our lives as freer and without rules. Carol had some idea that sex in my place would be better than in some more appropriate venue such as her dorm room. Or perhaps, she simply needed to delve into the mysteries of my life, like an archeologist digging up artifacts of my now remote civilization, clues to what made me -- as an older man -- tick.
At school, I tried to paint a picture of the dismal conditions she would encounter, remembering how upset she was at the mere sight of a spider on the window sill in one class. She either did not listen or could not comprehend the meaning of my words and insisted I drive.
Not until I turned the car over the bridge from Garfield to the Dundee section of Passaic did she begin to get the idea, as the brighter lights on the Garfield side gave way to the gloomier Passaic Street, where she could just make out the shape of legs sticking out of store front doorways and see the shattered glass of cars unwary enough to park without alarm or other security device.
The smell of vomit, alcohol, and urine swirled through the air like a permanent perfume, under scored by the more deadly scent of previous fires, fires that routinely sparked up due to a shorted electric heater or worse a fallen heater fueled with Kerosene. We lived in constant fear of waking to the smell of smoke.
By the time she reached my door, she looked pale even in the dim light, her gaze taking in the dilapidated wooden structure around her: car port surrounded by broken down garages and buildings whose back porches stood on stilts. She looked relieved when I directed her to one of the few ground floor doors, as if she feared the rickety stairs would not have supported our climb up or our return later.
I asked her if she wanted to go home; she shook her head. She was of that stubborn breed that would not give up once she had made a decision. She had displayed similar attributes at school when arguing with professors, often carrying on her points long after the rest of us realized she could not support them.
I tried to explain how little money I had, how I had saved from the days when I worked full time to pay the rent while I let government loans pay for college itself -- not that life was any better previously driving or loading a truck.
I also tried to explain how sloppy I'd become, part of the luxury of living alone, not having to pick up everything, or even letting laundry go for an extra week. She nodded, but her shock seemed to emphasize her visual sense, and I was not certain she understood me.
I admired her tenacity.
Although I had lived a hermit's life, I had also suffered a hermit's secret longings to share a moment, and despite my efforts to warn her off, I secretly feared she would heed them, leaving me to sink even deeper into my funk.
For a long time, she studied the floor boards, the two-inch wide planks of wood off which the paint had pealed and which now showed rusted nail heads. My tiny porch gave clues to the apartment's interferer: rusted tools, dusty empty plastic soda bottles, piece of yellowed junk mail.
She shuddered, as if thinking of all the spiders she might find lurking in the corners. How much worse could the apartment be?
Apartment, unfortunately, was the wrong word for the space I rented at $80 a month. A more nostalgic person might have claimed the place as having "turn-of-the-century charm," by which they would have more accurately meant it lacked most conveniences provided places more entrenched in the 20th century. In some ways, the place was a classic urban dwelling, part of that 19th century construction that had designed living spaces behind the store fronts where families did business. While some early landlord had divorced these rooms from the store front by sheet rocking over the connecting doors, I could often hear the conversations of the people doing business on the other side of the wall.
Various landlords had tried to bring the place up to date, each leaving his or her mark. One landlord had, for instance, installed a 1930s gas stove that had a heating element built into its side. Thus he could honestly advertise the place as a heated room. On most winter mornings, the heating unit turned to full blast could not melt the frost from inside the windows across the room.
The bathroom -- which did not have a bath -- was the addition of another landlord, who apparently saw bathing out of the kitchen sink as slightly unhealthy. But lack of room had left him with few choices, and the best he could provide was a shower stall -- inserted into a closet-sized space with the toilet.
On extremely cold days -- with the hot water tap opened to its fullest -- the shower was the warmest spot in the apartment, and even then the cold wind managed to ooze through the cracks from outside to give a flutter to the shower curtain.
For all its flaws, the apartment fit me, and I was grateful to it for rescuing me from a rooming house where I had previously lived. I remembered all too well the lack of privacy, the eyes and ears always open whenever I came or went, the long lines outside the bathroom each morning and evening. Coming here for the first time, seeing the bathroom, and the emptiness of the rooms, I felt a wealthy man.
What did I care about the potential for frost bite each time I eased my nose out from under my electric blanket?
She did not see any of this until I felt through the dark room for the ceiling light cord, at which point, the burst of florescent light revealed it all in one sweeping moment and she let out a gasp.
Perhaps I could have demanded the landlord paint the ceiling or the walls, both of which had begun to peel. But I maintained my privacy, even against him, thrusting the rent out a slightly opened door each month when he came to collect.
Carol's stunned expression said it all as she stared around at my sparse life, the desk, typewriter, two large pillows, old card table. The other room seemed fuller because of the bed, dresser and book cases, yet even that seemed Spartan by most people's standards.
I offered her a seat, pulling open one of the wooden folding chairs, and she eased herself down into it, clutching her purse in her lap, as if she feared a mugger might leap out at her from under the table, her long legs and sheer stockings a sharp contrast to the few scattered piles of unwashed laundry. She flinched slightly when I touched her shoulder, but seemed to unwind a little after I had broken open the German May wine and filled a mostly clean glass. She did not flinch when I led her into the other room and the bed.
Forty minutes later, she jerked up at the sound of scratching from one of the corners. The wine and our encounter had dulled me a little, making me forget her previous encounter with the spider at school.
"What was that?" she asked.
"Nothing," I mumbled, tugging on her shoulder for her to ease back next to me in the bed.
"It's something," she said. "There is goes again."
"It's probably only a mouse," I mumbled, only then realizing my mistake, dragging myself up as she screeched, and finding our clothing in the dark.
It would be a long ride to her house and an even longer ride back here -- alone.