Ten years ago:
There's a house about half a block down College Avenue from 17th Street in Holland: a common two story affair with a driveway and a garage, nondescript in comparison to the surrounding neighborhood. It is still there today, although it seems to have foreclosed and abandoned for a few months now. I lived by myself in the second floor of that house for six months.
It wasn't exactly the most hospitable place I had ever been in. The stairway to get up to the apartment was at least a 60° angle, and required dedication and precision to use. The floors were a little weak and creaky, and tended to tilt a bit with the building. The ceilings were very low, and the doorways were slightly less that six feet tall. I discovered this the first time I was there, knocking my head off of door casings at least three times before I learned my lesson. There was a solid overuse of chintzy wood paneling and cheap linoleum throughout, covering up what must have been decades of quick repairs. But the place held together, and after a week of filling out lease applications and coming up empty, this apartment was looking very serviceable.
The landlord was a little too happy to be showing me the place, but explained that the previous tenants had left in a hurry due to an impending eviction order and he was just looking to get someone in there as soon as possible. In fact, they had left so quickly that the apartment was largely furnished already. The landlord said that he was going to get rid of all of these things, but left them in case the new tenant might be interested in keeping them. Seeing as we had common needs, I told him that I would take the place furniture and all. After writing a check for the security deposit and prorated rent for the remainder of December, he handed me the keys right there. Within a space of half an hour I went from looking at an apartment, to actually standing in my own apartment.
The apartment needed a lot of cleaning before I could even think about moving anything in. On one of my few days off in that time, I enlisted the help of my brother an his wife, and we set to the place with mops and sponges and pine-sol. After several hours we discovered that the kitchen appliances were white under the cream-colored accumulation of grime. The same went for the shower, which was blatantly neglected by the previous occupants. For all the elbow grease, there was only so much we could do with the place before we ran into the structural limitations of stains and wear. We did our best getting rid of the remnants of the previous tenant's possessions, which sadly included a number of baby toys and bottles. But we also discovered that the cabinets were full of pots and pans and dishes, which was a welcome relief to my wallet. I spent hours doing dishes at the large kitchen sink, thinking of what the future held and how much this place would actually feel like home.
Moving my stuff in was the easy part. It only took one carload to get all of my belongings down the two and a half blocks they needed to go. I don't remember exactly where I got the bed from, but it was moved in on the same day, cursing as we hauled it precariously up the steep steps. We put plastic on the windows, assuming that the winter must be leaking in pretty severely. By the 19th, I was fully moved in, trying to create a home for myself.
I was struggling for comfort in an unfamiliar place, and I wasn't truly prepared to do any of that. I didn't know what that felt like right then, so I ended up shuffling furniture around for a few days as if the random placement of objects would somehow magically make things more comfortable. I would lay in bed, underneath the window in the bedroom, and stare up at the leafless tree limbs waving in the breeze. I ripped the plastic back off the windows when I realized that the downstairs neighbors kept the house at a constant 84°F for their baby, turning my apartment into a subtropical nightmare. I sat on the couch, looking at everything around me and trying to draw meaning out of them.
But I do remember sitting in that living room and thinking about where I had been only a few months before, and realizing that I was incredibly lucky to find myself there in the heat of that apartment. It was only through the help of others and the struggle within myself that I had been able to make it back into a semblance of normality that other people took for granted. I felt very lucky to be there, even it I wasn't sure what to do with it all.
Christmas season at the mall progressed on, without much changing for a while. I dragged myself through open to close shifts as needed, ringing out customers and trying to keep the store from falling into a ragged pile. At this point, foot traffic became too heavy to even attempt to interact informally with the part time employees. But we ran well on an operational basis, keeping things moving until it was time to close the gate.
However, my one source of interpersonal contact happened when I was able to sneak out the side door for a cigarette. This is one of the well-known secrets of smoking: cigarettes make an easy ice-breaker to build off of. I occasionally ran into a girl who worked at the candy shop next door, who was also the girlfriend of one of the part-timers. She had worked at my story a few months ago, but took this other job for some reason I can't remember. Her name was Allie, and through these little interactions in the lake effect snow, she became one of my few friends in Michigan.
Allie was very settled in her life, which made her a good sounding board for the things I was going through. She sat through my stories and my thoughts about things, and pointed out where I was overthinking. She was a source of moral support for me in this way, helping me recognize the success of these situations. For all of the problems I had leaving the folks in New York, it was nice to hear an outside point of view that saw the actions I was taking in a critical yet positive light. I didn't realize how much I needed that until it was given to me.
Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
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