A place to start
In my last post I linked to a story about my first apartment. I wrote it when the blog was new and had few readers. I think it deserves another chance.
I got my first apartment just before I turned 22. I had just graduated from engineering school in Terre Haute and had landed a job in town. I was excited about having a place to myself, but on my salary I feared I could afford to live only in a rough neighborhood. On the way to see an apartment on the wrong side of the tracks that summer, I passed through the Collett Park neighborhood with its American Foursquare and Craftsman Bunaglow houses. Built for a growing middle class around the turn of the century, it was a neighborhood of sidewalks and wide front porches. I admired its tightly packed homes as I drove slowly down one of its concrete streets. I noticed a For Rent sign in the front window of a tall house wrapped in red Insulbrick. Even though I doubted I could afford this neighborhood, I stopped and rang the bell. A large, gruff man in a thin, wrinkled, v-neck T-shirt and pale chinos answered the door and looked me over. I asked about the apartment and he disappeared to find the key. He showed me around the side to the entrance and as soon as I entered I was more concerned that I couldn’t afford the place. It was clean. Hardwood floors glowed subtly around the room’s edge as they framed the fresh carpets. The walls were recently painted and wallpapered. The large, gruff man, who finally introduced himself as Steve, had clearly cared for the place.
Steve, suspicious of this wide-eyed kid, began to size me up by asking where I went to school. When I said Rose-Hulman his voice rose a note toward tentatively cheerful. He said he went there, too, back before the war when it was still called Rose Poly, but he couldn’t hack it and went on to work 30 years at the post office. He talked as he led me through, alternating between Rose stories and calling out one or two features of each room as we passed through. I was glad he was talking, because I was becoming excited and didn’t want to betray it. The apartment was good sized and nicely laid out. The bedroom had a built-in cabinet and chest of drawers. The bathroom was easily 12 feet square, with white porcelain tile covering the walls to four feet high and original antique fixtures. An early-1950s Tappan electric stove, gleaming in white, stood across from a long, shallow farmhouse sink in the kitchen. A breakfast nook off the kitchen came with with a built-in table and benches. French doors led the way from the living room to the den. The woodwork was 12 inches tall with corner posts, and the doorknobs were either glass or ornate brass ovals. By this time Steve was telling me that he bought the house when he married in 1935, that it was almost 100 years old, and that the original owner had built the apartment for his mother-in-law by blocking off three rooms of the house and adding the kitchen and den.
The history charmed me even though the place had a few faults. The hallway wallpaper had a hideous check pattern with large bright yellow flowers, the bathroom walls north of the porcelain tile were painted what a friend called whorehouse pink, I would have to supply my own refrigerator, the house had one furnace and Steve controlled the temperature, and Steve made clear that tenants could have all the friends over they wanted as long as they were white.
I wanted the place. I decided I could live with the shortcomings and I would cross the color line should it become necessary. I drew a breath, sure he was going to set a price beyond my budget, and said, “I like it. How much?”
Steve drew back and narrowed his eyes at me for a minute. He said he’d had a lot of trouble with recent tenants; he had just evicted a “coupla girls from Indiana State” for having a string of different men staying overnight. He wondered aloud if I could afford it and if I would cause him any trouble. He examined me — and in that instant I was sure that he was setting the rent just outside what he thought I could afford. After a long pause that made me fidget, he almost barked, “$250.” I reeled, dizzy with disbelief over my excellent luck. That was less than what the rough neighborhoods were asking for lesser apartments. Still trying to mask my excitement, I quietly said I’d take it. He said, leaning well into my personal space, “Are you sure? I said the rent is $250.” I pulled my checkbook out of my back pocket and said, “Would you like me to pay the first month right now?” He backed off, took the check, shook my hand, and that was that. I had a home.
I can’t imagine renting on a handshake today, but this turned out to be a great situation. Steve and his wife Henrietta were honorable people who stayed out of my business and kept the apartment in good repair. After Steve died, Henrietta took care of things herself. “If you’re happy, I’m happy,” she said to me several times, and never raised my rent.
When I moved in, I owned a bed, a dresser, a desk, and a broken black-and-white console TV. I bought a recliner and some tables at a used furniture store and accepted charity from Mom. Once I had the place suitably appointed, I started building my budding adult life in my little place, and invited my friends in. My girlfriend spent many of her evenings there watching TV with me. My parents visited from time to time. My brother would drive to town and we’d go out for drinks, or an old college friend would come up from Louisville and we’d bring dinner in and rent videos. An old girlfriend came to see me from Bloomington, and a dear old friend flew in once from Toronto. I had a dear friend and some of her friends over for a toast of sorts when she graduated from St. Mary-of-the-Woods. I even made a nice dinner for my boss, his girlfriend, and my girlfriend (by this time, a different one). We all squeezed into the little breakfast nook to eat. My little apartment was at the center of many of my activities and so of my world.
A few sad and lonely years passed while I lived there. I broke up with the first girlfriend at about the same time another friendship ended very painfully, and meanwhile most of my friends were finishing school and moving away. I had a hard time getting over these changes, and I found it hard to make new friends. I was beginning to see some of the ways I wasn’t healthy in my relationships, including how my behavior contributed to the breakup with my girlfriend and the messy end to my friendship. I felt lost and didn’t know what to do. I used to beat myself up over not working harder to grow past these challenges, especially when I married that second girlfriend and the same issues contributed heavily to the divorce that followed years later. Fortunately, I have since forgiven myself for being human.
While I liked to take long drives to escape my feelings, I had to go home sometime and face myself. In hindsight, I see that my apartment was a blessing for reasons beyond the hardwood floors, the rent, the landlord, and even my friends filling it. It was a blessing because it was comfortable and safe place to start to learn to be me. I did a lot of things there that I enjoyed and that helped me figure out who I was and what I liked. I watched a lot of late-night cable in the dark with a beer in my hand. I taught myself how to cook and made myself any number of enjoyable meals. I sat on the floor in the den listening to album after album, sometimes singing along at the top of my lungs, thankful that Henrietta was hard of hearing. I participated in the local computer bulletin board community. Still, I spent many depressed days there and I couldn’t seem to break out of it. I frequently wished for companionship, thinking that it would make the rest of my problems go away. When I found companionship, to my confusion the rest of my problems were still there. I found myself unable to make things better on my own. In the end, I realized there that I needed God.
And so the seeds of change were planted in me. Eventually I found God, who has healed me mightily. I started to learn there how to be content with my circumstances even when they’re not ideal. Those days enabled me to learn later that uncomfortable and unwanted feelings will pass on their own if I just let myself feel them. Those days tried to show me, though I still struggle with this lesson, that part of humanity’s core beauty is its limitations and its imperfections.
Today when my days are troubled, I am likely to have dreams where the setting is that apartment. It represents comfort and a place where difficult things can happen safely. I miss the place. I’ve never felt as secure at home as I did there. When I’m in Terre Haute, I try to drive through the old neighborhood and see what shape it’s in. The last time was a few years ago. While the block I lived on was still in pretty good shape, the blocks to the south had become rough. The house is now sided in grey vinyl with white trim. Henrietta’s health declined to the point where she had to sell the house. It’s a shame, because she had lived on that street all her life. But her life has moved on, and so must mine. But still, when I drive by, I want to park and go in. I would probably be surprised not to see my brown recliner there, the remote on the arm, waiting for me to sit and watch the evening news.
I started again when I bought my house after my divorce. Read that story.