|Opal jumping over our tiny apartment patio's brick wall.|
We lived in our sweet little house on Elm Street for fifteen years, so our kids have only known those walls and corners, that teeny tiny kitchen, that fabulous neighborhood. And at the beginning of the year, we changed all that.
We moved out entirely to do renovations—to move and add walls and add a big window downstairs and also even add a bathroom—so that our residence would better accommodate us for the longer haul. Opal, who is twelve, Ruth, who is six, Jesse and myself (and our dog, cat and guinea pig), have been living in a 700-square-foot apartment for nearly five months while our house changes and evolves while under our noses and a mile down the road. Time here at our modest apartment dwelling will soon come to a close.
The apartment isn't the fanciest place, not a lot of green or a courtyard or anything. Our patio has a view of the parking lot. The entrance frequently smells like old puddles. But the whole experience has—overall—been a blast. It's good for the bored brain to be in a fresh space, with vacation-y elements of newness and surprise layered over the everyday particulars. The senses are more alert and the living spaces feel fresh and vibrant, newly birthed, intentional.
It's also good to be reminded that even though freshness inevitably fades, there is something to be said for new routines, new rituals, and getting the hang of new steps to the same old dance. As it took time to get used to having to pay for laundry, and compete with an entire apartment building to do so, it will take time to get used to having a laundry room (in the best of ways!) where I can put in a load and leave. (Here, leaving laundry in the washer or dryer while others are waiting will likely end in having your clothes piled on the dryer, bras and undies in horrifically plain view.) It'll take time to get used to no longer having a Rachel, our apartment manager, to call when things break or tear or smell like melting plastic. I won't, however, miss the fireplace that I was initially so excited to have. It turns out our dog has a visceral reaction to the crackle of burning wood. Poor guy goes into convulsions and hides in the bathroom.
An unexpected bonus has been that the apartment is a simple dash across the street from Opal's middle school, whereas our Elm St house is easily a half-hour walk with her heavy-as-hell backpack, meaning she required rides. The timing of her current commute depends entirely on whether or not she catches the crosswalk light. The last many months of walkability has given her a ton more independence and we've all grown accustomed to strolling with her to school when the mornings are nice. I will miss that lovely detail.
Only now, nearing the end of our stay, is it starting to feel claustrophobic—and that likely has more to do with how much we’ve been sick lately in this tiny place than the tiny place itself. The magnificent book called The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron comes to mind. Our Elm St house, though a modest 1600 square feet, still gave us plenty of places to escape one another. I could do a workout first thing in the morning downstairs while Jesse got the girls started with breakfast upstairs. I could avoid anyone who was chewing too loudly without it being obvious. I had a separate room with a desk to do my writing while in this very moment, I am typing at my desk which happens to be in Opal’s room.
We are on top of each other, but that isn't all bad. It’s been a submersive study in relating with our irritations, in being tolerant. And there is nothing like being on top of each other to feed the longing and enhance our appreciation for what we will be moving back to.
In short, we’ve been lucky lucky lucky.
Here are a few thoughts from our experience at Christopher Village Apartments, #100:
|Our little bricked-in patio.|
Renting on the ground level, with a tiny bricked-in patio that backs up to the parking lot, was an accidental but lucky convenience. (It was simply what was available.) It has allowed us to pop in and out to our car in two steps, without the hassle of going all the way around to the front door, as long as we aren’t actually leaving and don’t need to lock the sliding door from inside. We moved all the furniture in through the patio door. I often zip out to the trash dumpster and back before anyone realizes I’m gone. I unload the groceries from there, line them up on the brick railing then go around and let myself in through the front. I sit up on the brick railing and blow bubbles the way, I'd imagine, parents do in Brooklyn, while Ruth chalks up the sidewalk with sideways letters and hearts.
Also, the door buzzer. Next to the locked outside door of the apartment building is a panel with all the apartment numbers and a little white button next to each that buzzes into that apartment for them to let you in. (You can also use a key and still need a key to get in the inner doors.) It’s a non-verbal urban communication that's been around since the dawn of time. You can imagine what joy this has brought the girls over the last many months and even still now. Yesterday, Ruth and I came home and Opal was waiting for us inside. I had my keys out and opened the outside door but Ruth still yelled, “Buzz me in, Opal!” so I let the door click-lock again behind me in order to be buzzed.
It took quite a while for Ruth to understand that pushing those little white buttons would actually activate a loud buzz inside any and all of these apartments, information that didn't deter her at all. (Think: the scene in Elf where he pushes all the buttons on the elevator in the Empire State Building.) Our across-the-hall neighbor, Garrett, has had to come out more than once when Ruth buzzed his apartment; he thought it was the Amazon guy. Sorry, just us. The other people learned to ignore us, or also just thought it was the Amazon guy.
I have always loved walking on railroad tracks. I imagine what those tracks would look like if viewed from a greater distance and from above—galvanized metal slicing through a varied topography of rolled out dough.
But I’ve never lived as close to a train as we do now. The apartment is a stone’s throw from railroad tracks and I have found the sound of the actual moving train to be rhythmic and even, at times, soothing. The horn is a different story. It sounds sinister and invasive. (Like Ruth’s new move of sneaking up behind any of us and yelling BOO!) It’s a strange thing to be awoken at night by the body first, as it convulses in response to blaring noise that shatters any hope of sleep. With windows closed and a noise machine, it’s manageable and sleep is fine. Jesse wears ear plugs, and the others don’t seem to notice. But lately, with Spring, we’ve had our windows open and that changes the tone of the train to abrasive and, just rude. It’s hard to visualize the conductors as anything but sociopaths, with horns blowing at 11pm. 1am. 4am.
So I looked it up:
From the city government page: This is an exciting time as Louisville joins many of our neighboring communities in successfully establishing Railroad Quiet Zones at-grade highway-rail crossings. This quality of life improvement is a partnership between communities and railroads to provide safety improvements at crossings, and cease routine locomotive horn sounding.
The word choices: exciting time and quality of life improvement. At the time the article was written, though it wasn’t dated, the city had anticipated the improvements would be implemented and complete by Spring of 2022, which has nearly passed. We are leaving in a matter of weeks, but for the good of future apartment dwellers, I hope the quality of life improves soon.
DOGS AND DOG SHIT.
So. Many. Dogs. Eight apartments per floor, three floors, and at least half have dogs—all eight on the first floor do—and many have two. For the most part, they are surprisingly quiet, but that’s a lot of feces to deal with. There are three buildings that share our parking lot and, though anything that could be classified as “lawn” is sparse, you are never more than 20 feet from a poop-bag-dispenser/trash can. Our preferred place to take Elvis, just out the door to the right, sharing the wall to our bedroom, is a dusty patch of sun-abused scrub grass. It’s at a slant and usually bone-dry, so when Elvis pees, it pools then swirls down the slope in foamy tributaries that he often steps in as he walks away. (A fact that I remind Opal of when she invites him into her bed.)
Every few weeks, our apartment manager sends out an email that essentially says, “Reminder: Please pick up your dog’s shit.”
Even though Elvis has pooped on the sidewalk and landscape gravel lately more than he’d like to admit, there is absolutely no reason why it should not get picked up. And yet, there is a remarkable amount of dog shit out there in the scrub-grass by our window as well as the shadier, real-grassier nook on the opposite side of the building. More often than not, a pile of shit will be sitting a spit’s distance from a doggy-bag/trash can station. I often pick up a couple extra nuggets when we are out.
“What is that about?” I asked Jesse after weeks of this. “To just let leave your dog’s shit like that?”
“I think people are hanging on by a thread,” Jesse said.
Hanging on by a thread. Right. The guy who yelled at the mom in the minivan this morning at Middle School Drop Off because she stopped for kids at the crosswalk—that is a guy who is hanging on by a thread, who doesn’t pick up his dog shit and then is somehow mad at you for it. The world needs less guys like that.
When I meet someone, I either dictate their name into my phone or I write it on the dry-erase board on the fridge that we also use for a grocery list—Nick the mailman next to bananas, and Henry/Sally/DogPumpkin by laundry room by granola. It’s not that I’m better at remembering names than anyone else, I just put in about 5 seconds more effort because I love the way it feels to know someone’s name. If you told me your name and I’ve forgotten it but I continue to talk to you, I am guaranteed to be distracted by trying to remember. I won’t be present with you. Knowing your name helps me to feel at ease and there with you. It’s a selfish thing, really.
Garrett was the fellow who lived across the hall. He is—and this is totally a guess—twenty-something, with a scrappy build, a ton of tattoos, and a man-bun. He was the head chef at a popular restaurant down Main St, to which he commuted to and from on an electric bike with huge tires. He frequently cooked up delicious smelling food in his bachelor pad and Opal would walk into the hallway and say, “Mmm, wonder what Garret is cooking up today.”
Garret was also a dedicated weed smoker, something I know only by listening since we shared a wall and he was basically a roommate. Throughout the day, I could hear bubbling followed by him coughing like a lunatic. And then I’d hear the click of his door as he left to zoom back to work on his bike, man-bun in the wind. He had a dog named Coda. Early on, I asked if my kids woke him up in the morning (namely Ruth's loud-talking at 6am) and he said he had ‘selective hearing,’ and smiled coyly. That comment made me love him. Just last week, though, we noticed his door was slightly open and we peeked in to find his place entirely empty.
“He didn’t even say good bye,” Opal said.
Ruth and I collided with Isabelle in the stairway with her dog, Francisco, on our very first night in the apartment. I’d guess her to be in her twenties like Garrett. The next day, she left a package at our door: a loaf of honey bread, four fresh dinner rolls, four massive cookies, and a brownie that was the size of a meatloaf, all from the bakery where she worked. She wrote a note that said “not to hesitate” to text her if Francisco was too loud upstairs, and included her phone number. That note is still on our fridge and I plan to use it as a bookmark forevermore. We started a light stream of texting and checking in. Ruth delivered her an envelope full of hand-scissored confetti. Isabelle delivered Ruth an envelope of paper to make snowflakes. Ruth delivered Isabelle the snowflakes she made. Isabelle sent Ruth the secret recipe for brownies from her bakery. And then, earlier this month, she found a job in Jackson Hole and was gone.
Randy, however, isn’t going anywhere. His ground-level, bricked-in balcony has the look of someone who’s not just passing through, with Astroturf and weathered chairs, like once-upon-a-time he tried to make it look homey. He is a weathered old hippy with straggly silver hair and skinny arms with faded tattoos he doesn’t mind showing off with a tank-top. He’s a cigarette smoker, so he’s often just standing out in the parking lot among the cars, called out by the puff of cigarette smoke wafting from his face. He drives a massive truck that is somehow never dirty, the same shade of blue as my toenails. The license plate says “Ministry,” which is a riddle unto itself that I’m not in a rush to solve.
Randy is a neighbor I see outside the most, since our balconies are adjacent and he frequents climbing in and out over his brick wall as much as I do. We’ve had a number of quick exchanges where he peppers in details of his life, “my motocycle is parked at my ex-wife’s… I used to do that when my kids were little…I can’t wait to get out on my bike.” He sometimes has a lady-friend visit—usually on Sunday morning— and she, Randy, and her visiting Border Collie pop outside for cigarettes. Just recently he told me his dad died, as we stood in our respective balconies, waist-high in brick, separated by roughly ten feet of the entryway stairs.
“I am so so sorry, Randy,” I said.
He didn’t rush off, didn’t avert his eyes. Just stood there and let the words land on him. Then, as if he woke with a start, he blurted, “well, thanks Heather, I appreciate it,” and turned to slip back into his apartment.
He’s the only neighbor who says my name.
Since we have a corner apartment, our bedroom windows look out to the sidewalk out front as well as one of the few scrub-grass, dog-shit areas. The way the apartment is built, they are high-up windows from inside, low from the outside. They let a ton of light in when the blinds are open. They also put our entire bedroom on display for anyone who takes their dog out for a shit and walks by.
|Our bedroom (and life) on display.|
This particular scenario unplugs a throng of odd memories that may have fossilized into oblivion otherwise.
Years ago—decades, rather—I went to an exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art. There were many rooms, it took up a good chunk of real estate. I don’t remember the artist’s name or what it was called. The idea was that we—the viewers, the voyeurs— were strolling through the home of a twenty-something female who was not expecting us to be there. Beyond that, she was a slob. As in, disgusting. In particular, I remember there being a torn bra with visible dirt draped over the bed pillow and a dirty maxi-pad on the floor in her 'bedroom.' Mess everywhere. Even if the physical scene was fictional, walking through it felt wrong, icky, like walking through the house of a hoarder and thinking when did things go so wrong here?
Also related: a line of conversation with some mom friends has popped up over the years in the fall when the “Home Tour of Louisville” happens. The Home Tours are pretty much what they sound like, regular people buy tickets to walk through spacious, freshly renovated homes (that have recently been professionally cleaned) and leave feeling bad about themselves. (I’ve never gone for this reason, though, to be fair, it is a fundraiser for the local elementary.) It’s not the size of the house or the fresh renovations that’s the issue for me, it’s the portrayal of this being where someone lives, versus the truth being that this is a staged home for the benefit of wowing the public. It feels utterly inauthentic. This is how you could live if only you had your shit together. There is a brochure.
Some moms and I decided many years ago that we should have a sort of “Underbelly Home Tour” happening simultaneously. Cheap brochures made at home and colored in with crayons. The tour would essentially be the experience of “dropping-in” unannounced to a typical family home. But instead of inviting us in while nervously tidying displaced clothes into a pile, clearing the dishes, stashing toy-shrapnel into a laundry basket and pretending she needs to pee real quick so she can wipe down the bathroom sink, the host invites us in with open arms. "Welcome! This is how it is right now and I am not feeling shitty about it." As a bonus, the visitor would even be able to open the fridge to view the moldy tater tots in the see-through container. The medicine cabinet would also be slightly ajar, exposing the host's Zoloft and vagina cream and her husband's athletes foot spray. I would pay good money for a Home Tour like that.
That's where the art lives—in the land between home-tour-perfection and the disturbing art installation.
There have been days in our apartment when I’ve picked up the bedroom (which holds two beds, might I add, since Ruth is in there with us) and opened the blinds as if I’m switching the sign on the store window to OPEN. There have been days when it looks like a bomb of clothes and toys went off and I still open the blinds like, oh well. There have been days when Ruth is home sick and propped up in her tiny bed with a mountain of crumpled tissues surrounding her or day-napping (a rarity) and there have been days when I’m sick and propped up in our bed with my eyes closed and mouth-breathing as I listen to a podcast. There have been many days when I change clothes after I open the blinds because, well, it’s more exciting that way.
Our bedroom blinds have become our apartment-version of drawing-back-the-curtains to a certain scene of real life as it is today. Until the scene changes again.