Feed on

I knew, from back when I was a kid, that I wouldn't live in the country anymore when I grew up. I enjoyed my rural childhood mightily, don't get me wrong, but I always felt a sense of exhilaration and longing when we visited in cities, a sort of sensory Ashcan School aesthetic that appealed to me on a level I still can't entirely articulate.

There was something about the taste of toothpaste and orange juice in my mouth and the rumbling, clashing harbinger of the garbage truck. Something about the angle of a sunrise reflected off the mirrorlike windows of a skyscraper. The smell of diesel exhaust from buses and the tik-tik-tik of businesswomen's high-heeled shoes. The heat of a summer afternoon in a tarmac parking lot, with little, spindly yellow trees interspersed in concrete islands, while teenagers in battered import cars cruised around on idle, blasting the latest radio hits. Something told me I'd eventually abandon the shockingly big skies of western Nebraska, with their ever-present haze of blowing dust along the horizon line.

I was not a sophisticated child. I'd watch re-runs of Bewitched, the Beverley Hillbillies, The Honeymooners, or Andy of Mayberry after the noon news during the summertime, and mistakenly believed these shows were contemporary. My family had a black-and-white TV set until I was 9 or 10, so I didn't know the difference between shows that were black-and-white because they were filmed that way, and shows that were black-and-white because our TV portrayed them that way. I knew the colors of the Muppets thanks to licensed merchandise, as well as the dialogues wherein Muppets identified their colors. “I'm fuzzy and blue, oh yes I'm fuzzy and blue/From head to bottom of shoe, I'm fuzzy and blue!”

So I watched Throckmorton clamber into the Cramdens' apartment via the transom vent, and Fred and Ethel circulate in and out of Lucy and Ricky's apartment, and knew that people in cities live in apartments. Apartments were very glamorous to me, and I longed for the day when I'd be a grown-up lady like Miss Jane from the Beverley Hillbillies, and drive a long, low, white convertible and have my own “flat,” with, if at all possible, a folding Murphy bed, like what the 3 Stooges were always getting shut into. My grandma Helga and grandpa Maks , and my great-grandma Elly all lived in cities and lived in single-family houses, but my Grandma Davis and my aunts on my dad's side lived in apartments. In fact, my aunt Franny lived in a super-cool apartment for a while, with a balcony and a fishpond in the courtyard full of fat goldfish, and my aunt Glenda and uncle Henry lived in a posh flat in an old Victorian villa in Sausalito. You could see Alcatraz from their balcony, and they had a hot-tub on the little patio attatched to their unit. It was pretty swanky.

In the fine, old-fashioned brick “blocks” in Chadron and Alliance, the second story (and on the rare occasion that there was a third story) of the buildings had once been apartments, usually inhabited by the shopkeepers themselves. In our time, many of the upstairs apartments in Chadron were rented out to students, while the ones in Alliance were sometimes used as artist studios or small-business offices. Whenever we'd drive down the main drags in these towns, I'd try to peer up to those windows, and see if I could catch a glimpse of the furnishings within, imagining that they still sported their original ludicrous Victorian clutter. In reality, of course, they probably contained Budweiser bikini girl posters, brick-and-board shelving, and a sofa which was its own micro-ecosystem. Reality, however, has no place in the mind of a child who imagines hidden trapdoors to other times and other worlds and who firmly believes all lives other than her own are without a doubt more glamorous and exciting.

I loved reading real-estate want ads, and looked forward to the time when I could call around and make inquiries and visit prospective apartments for myself. When that day finally came, toward the end of my Sophomore year of college, I was as excited as a kid at Christmas. Perhaps I'd live in the darkly elegant Coffee apartments. Maybe that little nest at the top of Campus View would be a cozy one. Maybe I'd rent somebody's converted garage. Maybe, but I hoped not, I'd be one of the students who took up residence in a trailer in Redwood or Pony Park. As it was, of course, I ended up choosing the nest at the top of Campus View, due to its extreme cheapness, the proximity to the campus, and a quixotic approach to ergonomics as related to my own living space.

When we went to England, our living quarters were assigned, as we reverted to student housing, but it was a pleasant enough room.

When we moved down to Kansas City, finally to a real live city, with stinky buses and multi-lane freeways and a big, fat phone book you could really kill a roach with, we started apartment hunting. Relying solely on low rent cost as our criteria for a place to live, we found ourselves circulating in a specific part of Westport, and settled in the place that gave us the least hassle about deposits and move-ins. For those of you who have been renting for a while, this may raise some well-deserved red flags. It was a wretched hive of cockroaches and druggies, with faulty heating, dank, stank hallways, and a fire-escape that creaked and wobbled when you stepped out onto it.

Slightly dubious surroundings notwithstanding, there was a lot to love. There was a big ol' pig of a clawfoot tub in the bathroom, with a rickety shower arrangement bolted to the ceiling. Miniscule, dizzying hex tile on the bathroom floor. Sure the bathroom floor tilted toward the south wall, as did the hallway floor toward the bathroom. All the cat's toys ended up behind the toilet. There were hardwood floors throughout the apartment, gouged and scuffed though they were, it was only a bonus—then I didn't have to worry about tracking in mud or skinning it with a chair. Eventually, however, the everlasting darkness of the place began to wear on me…you could hardly get a speck of decent sunlight in that place. The weird neighbors with the shouting and the smelly dogs and the falling naked off a third story balcony, the evictions, and the constantly non-functional car they'd noisily try to fix all weekend long. The crackheads smoking up in the foyer. The infamous transvestite hooker incident…it all made interesting dinner party tales, but eventually living it grows old. Todd got a new job, my job became more solid, so we decided that we didn't strictly have to live in the cheapest apartment in town anymore, so we moved up. For an extra $125 a month, we stepped into a roach-free establishment with great sunlight, a gas-jet fireplace, and a much prettier balcony, plus a fire-escape you'd trust in a fire. Nice neighbors, too…no crackheads, no dealers, no violent, alcoholic, co-dependent gay couple whose weekly bouts of vitriol usually ended in a 911 call. The worst I can say is that the upstairs neighbors had really loud sex at any and all hours, but after crackheads horny neighbors are absolutely no problem whatsoever.

And you know, no matter how lame Kansas City can be, it has its points. It has stinky buses. It has buildings that are tall enough that you can stand at the ground level of them and look straight up and lose count of how many floors there are. It has noisy garbage trucks on crisp mornings, when you're yukking over the taste of toothpaste over the orange juice you drank only minutes before. It has parks with lots of swingsets and grocery stores that stay open all night long. It has wails of sirens in the night as firetrucks and cop cars whizz around to fulfill their duties. It has dull orange streetlights that make your brain feel heavy like a hangover when you wake up in the night with their bilious light shining in your eyes. It is a city, and on many days, that's simply enough for me.

Leave a Reply