Well, it’s back-to-school time, and nowhere is that more exciting than in a college town. I rode my bike through the Berkeley campus recently to enjoy the secondhand tension and giddiness of the new kids milling around. In their honor, I’m running this piece from my archives about moving into my new apartment, and getting to know my new roommate, at the dawn of my sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara.
Enjoy please enjoy.
Moving in to my college apartment – September 21, 1989
We’re all moved in here, pretty much. We’ve had a hell of a time trying to get furniture. The manager is always ready to talk our ears off, but never seems to get anything done. We had a big mix-up when T— arrived: seems the manager thought that my brother Geoff was our third person, because he happened to be hanging around when she came by. So when T— showed up, she tried to get rid of him. What a mess. I’m working really hard to believe that the manager isn’t just being racist (i.e. maybe she wouldn’t have rented to T— if she’d known he’s black). Maybe she thinks Geoff was planted as a ruse. I still can’t convince the manager that Geoff doesn’t have a set of house keys.
I got my new roommate at random. I was in the housing office trying to find an apartment for T— and me, and absolutely couldn’t find a place the two of us could afford on our own. Last year we had three guys in a one-bedroom and it didn’t work out so well, though that was mainly because the third guy was a jerk. Still, we wanted a bit more space ... but I finally gave up. Thus the third roommate I now had to produce out of thin air.
I have to admit, it makes me feel like something less than a social success to be in this position. All my friends from last year met their future roommates in the dorms. The dorms were like the perfect dry run. Not having lived in the dorms, I didn’t have this option, and I couldn’t predict if any of my pals would make a good roommate. Besides, if you consider the odds of growing to hate your roommate, it’s best to pick a mere acquaintance; that way you don’t risk ruining a friendship.
And why didn’t I live in the dorms? Too pricey. Even the bottom-of-the-barrel, very cheapest off-campus dorm, called Fontainebleau, cost too much (though I actually came within one signature of committing to it before chickening out). It was $4,500 for nine months and I was afraid to ask my parents for that kind of money. (Not afraid they’d say no, which is a certainty, but that they’d be disgusted with me for even asking.)
Not that I’m bitter about missing the dorm experience. For $4,500 you live in a closet (albeit a closet with two beds and two desks) and eat recycled food. My freshman friends last year waxed eloquent on this point. The unused French toast from breakfast is repurposed for grilled cheese sandwiches at lunch. Quiche from today’s lunch is tomorrow’s soufflé (which, in dorm kitchen parlance, means any unidentifiable food that is covered with a fresh layer of cheese and re-baked). Most students like dorm food at first, because it’s not the whole wheat, lentils, alfalfa sprouts, and ground turkey they had to eat at home; refined flour and fat at first seem like luxuries. This gets old, so soon the students are merely tolerating their dorm food; then they start complaining; then they subsist on microwave popcorn and Pop-Tarts for the rest of the school year. Me, I gotta have my own kitchen, even if it’s infested with roaches.
My new roommate is really strange. He’s the result of my settling for almost the first guy I could find hanging around the Community Housing Office. It was my third visit there and I was desperate, and grabbed this greasy, puffy, nerdy guy and said, “Dude, you can be my roommate. It’s the Penthouse apartments on Abrego. Come sign the lease.” The guy looked really hesitant, and just stood there humming and hawing and mumbling stupid things like “Um, I don’t really know you,” until I was ready to punch him in the face. Standing nearby watching, looking amused, was this really thin, pale guy with a huge curly sphere of hair ensconcing his head. He was like this giant photo-negative dandelion. He walked up and said, “Hey, I’ll be your roommate.” Now the first guy looked torn, but I wasn’t about to give him a second chance—he was dead to me. The second guy, my new roommate, is named C—. I instantly took a liking to him, and this liking has grown over time.
C— is an art studio major, and he doesn’t own anything. I mean, he literally has no belongings other than a big Glad bag full of his clothes. His wardrobe is about the size of my “unwearable” collection (which I stuffed into a Huggies box that serves as a table for my typewriter). Among his garments there’s not a shred of cotton anywhere. I think he’s trying for the “starving artist” look. I can’t quite place the fabric ... all weird shades, stripes, or plaids, some of them having a weird shiny sheen to them. Maybe they’re the same material as those original Star Trek uniforms. I checked the labels: lots of Rayon and Polyester. Actually, cotton is represented, but only as a part of a complex hybrid involving at least two other fabrics. C—’s attire is sort of like what a real bona-fide grownup would wear if he couldn’t afford new clothes. Wait … could these threads be hand-me-downs from his dad? No, couldn’t be that, because come to think of it, these clothes actually look a fair bit more stylish than what forty-somethings would ever wear. Could it be that C—’s wardrobe is actually cool? Hell, I don’t know. (I mean, how would I know?)
I had to ask C— where he got his weird boots. He said he got them from some old man and before he could wear them he had to pull out these funky inserts that were supposed to fix up the old man’s back. Those boots look like something out of an ancient still life oil painting, maybe of the Georgia O’Keefe vintage. I guess that fits: an art studio major ought to look like he came right out of some weird painting. C— always wears a pair of jeans with paint spattered all over them. He calls them “work pants.” Except that all his pants look like that and I don’t think he ever works. I mean, I guess he works in the sense that painting pictures is work, but it seems like he’s having too much fun to think of it that way. He likes to say, “I’m gonna head over to the studio and put the hammer down.” But he says this in a laughing way that implies “as if.”
The thing is, C— could probably afford a lot fancier duds if he wanted to—he might just have to cook once in a while instead of eating out every meal. Okay, I’ll give him a little credit: he went to Lucky’s the other day for a major shopping trip. Here’s what he bought, taken right from the receipt: “deli, chnk tuna, Campl soup, clam chowder, boysen prsvs, clam chowder, ll pnut btr, salami, mayonnaise, whp crm chs, tomato soup, bn/bac soup, mex salsa ml, campl soup, salami, olym rnd tp, kleenex, lettuce, non food, coke clas 6p, dr pepper.” I’m not sure what “olym rnd tp” is … I think it’s bread. And I know what the “non food” is: Velveeta.
The Penthouse Apartments are much nicer than La Loma, where I lived last year. I will confess that La Loma had one advantage, at least on paper: it had a pool. That said, I never so much as dipped a toe in that pool because on my first day I saw the neighbors giving their dog a bath in it. I don’t know why this bothered me so much; I guess I just wondered what else that pool was used for. It’s also the case that I never saw a single tenant swim in it ... what did these people know? My roommates steered clear too, other than one of them throwing up in it one night.
So, the Penthouse Apartments look pretty sharp, with their crisp blue doors against the white exterior walls. La Loma was this uniform ghastly green. Also, the Penthouse has regular college-aged neighbors, instead of the blue-collar guys from last year, packed like ten to an apartment, who seemed to despise all college kids. Not that everybody here is a UCSB student. It turns out the guys next to us in #23 aren’t really college students per se—they’re all here for the English Extension program. One guy is Swiss, another Japanese, and the third Korean.
The Korean, A—, is really strange. He just cruises right into our apartment like he owns the place, and talks our ears off while picking up and inspecting all our belongings. On the plus side, he’s also very generous, feeding us tasty Korean dishes his mom somehow mails to him. (Freeze-dried, perhaps?) He also offers us free cigarettes, which we decline, and various Kent-branded chotchkies (pens, lighters, keychains) from his dad, who manages the Kent affiliate in Korea. A—’s English is surprisingly good, considering that he’s only been in the U.S. for eleven days. He complains that he doesn’t get along with his roommates very well. Apparently the Japanese guy hardly speaks a word of English, and the Swiss guy only speaks German—that’s all he needs, because he always has at least half a dozen other Swiss guys couch-surfing in the apartment and “borrowing” A—’s stuff.
Whoever it was at the housing office who thought it would be cute to put these guys together sure wasn’t thinking very clearly. As if it weren’t hard enough for a foreigner to adjust to a new country, each of these guys has to cope with three distinct cultures, all squeezed into that tiny space. Shouldn’t these people live with Americans so that they can learn the language the way we speak it? As it is, they’ll all probably reinforce each other’s mistakes. I guess it could be worse: they could be sharing a tiny apartment in La Loma.
Of course, the Penthouse isn’t without its problems. The door jamb is broken so we can’t lock the front door, and the “porch” light outside is full of water. The chandelier/fan unit in the kitchen hung too low, and I would always bump my head on it, so I finally got pissed and took the whole thing apart, and at least half a cup of orange water poured out. Good thing this was before we tried turning it on. After removing the lamp part for head clearance, we were left with these hanging wires, and theorized that when the maintenance guy, Calvin, would try to rewire the light next year he’d have to use trial and error, and could end up knocking out power for all of Isla Vista. So T—, being the electrical engineering major that he is, enclosed a schematic of the wiring before putting the thing back together.
The bathroom is really not this apartment’s best feature. Due to routine flooding I should probably invest in waterproof shoes. Check out the neat pattern on the sink tile. You know what that is? It’s human hair! Left over from last year’s tenants! Preserved, like a fossil, or a scorpion’s skeleton encased in amber! I think it’s actually set in epoxy; I’ve scoured and scoured but I can’t get rid of it. But now that I’m satisfied that this hair wont’ interact with me or any of my toiletries, I kind of like it. It looks kind of cool! It could actually be decades old!
I’m not so happy about the sink itself. They gave us this little rubber plug that we have to shove in there whenever we run the water, whether we’re filling the sink or not, because otherwise the bathroom fills with this terrible raw sewage smell.
The toilet pretty much works, though it does slobber a little and of course overflows from time to time. But a real bonus is that the seat isn’t cracked. You literally cannot cut your bottom on it. It is also attached pretty well; it doesn’t slide around like so many cheap apartment toilet seats.
Now, we’re not so lucky with the shower and tub. The lag time on the shower is devastating. You get the water temperature just right, then engage the shower head, and everything’s fine, and then suddenly the water is coming out scalding hot, it’s just blanching your flesh and you grope desperately with the controls to cool the water before all the skin melts off your body. And nothing changes, at least at first, and then suddenly it’s liquid nitrogen spraying on you, and you have to hold still lest you bump into the wall of the shower and have your arm shatter like glass. You go back and forth between boiling and freezing until you’re too scared to continue and just decide your shower is over. Now you find yourself standing in four inches of dirty, sudsy water, which forms grey rings around your ankles. The drain at this point is making sounds like a fat kid choking on a piece of chicken skin, fighting for air.
This bathtub drain seems to have a more or less infinite amount of human hair trapped in it from probably every past student ever to live here. Every morning I go at that drain with the plunger, and the drain vomits up another big clump. See that thing that looks like a rat? It’s just a big clump of hair! I haven’t thrown it out because I’m kind of hoping my roommates will step up and do it, in the spirit of fairness, since I’m the only one who ever plunges. I’ll admit that I’m actually just too scared to throw out the hairball ... I mean, what if I it turned out it was a rat?
But things are coming along. We’ve actually managed to score furniture. None of us owns any furniture at all, and in fact most UCSB students don’t own any furniture, but the landlords play this stupid little game where they pretend the place comes unfurnished. I guess they don’t have enough furniture to go around, so getting anything is like horse trading. Except we have nothing to trade, we just have to beg. Now the apartment is finally equipped: two desks (but no dressers), five chairs (two ripped; all heinous blue-green vinyl), three beds (none of them capable of being stacked as bunk beds, so they take up most of the single bedroom), and yes, the pride and joy of our furniture fleet: a sofa. That was really hard to get ... almost nobody gets a sofa just by asking. But the manager finally took pity on us when she saw T— sprawled out on the coffee table after eating too much. I’ll have to remember that as a tactic for next year!
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