11 January 2013

“Hey, I can see my house from here!” part 2.

I was gonna write about several of the places I’ve lived—as sort of a continuation of my previous post on the subject—but writing about my first place started getting longer and longer. So I figured, “Screw it,” and decided to just tell this story. I’ll save the other places for future posts.

After high school, for my first three years of college, I lived with Mom. I spent two years at Solano College, then a year at CSU Sacramento. I spent three semesters commuting to CSUS from Vacaville. Not an easy proposition. Vacaville is about 40 miles away, but if you don’t have a car (and I didn’t) it may as well be in the next state. I had to either get a ride there with friends, which I did Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; or I had to take a string of buses: I had to bike three miles to the Factory Outlets for the 6:30 a.m. interlink bus to Davis. I then had to take the 7:30 Yolobus to Sacramento, which took an hour ’cause it went all the way through both Davis and West Sacramento. I then had to take the 8:30 bus to Sac State. I’d just get there in time for my 9 a.m. class.

But what tended to happen, once I was on the staff of the State Hornet, was I’d work till after midnight on the Tuesday and Friday editions, then stay in Sacramento overnight. The first couple weeks it was on my office floor, and I’d shower in the gym in the morning. Then Dave, our editor-in-chief, decided to adopt me, and have me sleep on his couch. The next year, Dave told our new editor-in-chief, Jenni, “Okay, now you get him,” so I wound up sleeping on her couch for a semester. (Usually with her cat sleeping on me. I think it bothered her that the cat liked me more. Maybe I’m warmer.)

Anyway, after three semesters of semi-homelessness, and not really getting all that far on my journalism degree, I decided to bite the bullet and move to Sacramento.

I hadn’t yet taken out any student loans. My tuition was one-third paid by Mom, one-third by Dad, and one-third by me. At the time, CSUS didn’t call their tuition “tuition,” because they’re fond of the myth that they’re a tuition-free public university. But you have to pay a certain amount in fees per unit, and that’s essentially the same thing as tuition. So I paid a third of the fees. And I also paid for 100 percent of the books and expenses.

Room and board would now fall under the category of “expenses,” so I needed a job. My stipend as Associate Editor of the State Hornet was only $350 a month, and I got occasional freelance work, but that wasn’t enough to live on. But in December the Sacramento Observer had contacted the State Hornet looking for someone with layout experience. I jumped on that job. It paid $6.50 an hour, but I managed to get 30 hours a week, working 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays. I could live on that.

Then I went to the Student Housing Office and found a place to live: A room behind a house, less than a mile from the campus. Walking distance. Biking distance too.

Plus, since CSUS students got free bus rides within Sacramento County, I could get to the Observer without too much difficulty: A bus down J Street, a bus down Alhambra, and a brief walk.

The owner had built a separate unit behind his house, with a common bathroom and wall heater between two rooms. It was basically a sparsely furnished bedroom. One wall was the door to the room, with a desk and bookshelf built into the wall. One wall was the bed, with endtable, with an air conditioner hanging over it. One wall was a built-in armoire that was sort of a closet; then the door to the house’s kitchen (which was locked on both sides) with a cord snaked under it, plugged into a refrigerator that was provided in case I wanted to keep cold stuff, perched on a dresser. The fourth wall was a picture window, with an uncomfortable armchair in front of it, facing outside… as if I wanted to wile away the hours staring at the driveway. Overhead ceiling light. Tile floor. Clean. A bit musty. The fixtures suggested it had been built in the ’70s.

The deposit was $50, and the rent was just as amazing: $125 a month. True, this is in 1992 dollars, but rooms were not to be found for so little back then. Utilities were included, except the telephone. But my landlord asked me to keep the use of the heater and air conditioner to a minimum. And he expected me to eat at the CSUS Student Dining Hall. There was to be no cooking in the room. At all. He was paranoid about cockroaches.

“Is it okay if I keep a microwave,” I said, “for heating stuff up?”

“I suppose so,” he said, “for reheating stuff. But no cooking.”

So in January 1992, at the age of 20, on a Sunday afternoon, I packed up my clothes and books and a spare microwave and an extra dresser, and moved out of the house.

Since I’m the oldest kid, my parents both came to move me in. You know, out of the novelty of it all. Mom was weepy. Dad gave completely irrelevant advice. Then they left, and there I was—home. In my home.

I didn’t jump on the bed or anything, but I decided to celebrate by going downtown. ’Cause I could.

At which point I discovered downtown Sacramento was closed on Sunday evening. No, I’m not kidding. Nothing was open but bars, and I was 20, so they weren’t an option. Stores were shuttered. There was nowhere to go but Carl’s Jr. So I had an anticlimactic hamburger and fries, and went home.

Rent was a very sweet deal. Even with my low-paying Observer job, I could afford to eat out every day. Not the best diet, but I didn’t know any better, and at least it kept me from cooking anything in the room, lest my landlord find out. I know he could hear me through the door; I could hear him when he forgot he had tenants.

Though I ate out a lot, I still went to Safeway and the Grocery Outlet for stuff I could reheat. You know, TV dinners and heat ’n’ serve entre├ęs. And junk food. And breakfast cereal. Only someone who doesn’t cook would call any of the stuff I nuked in the microwave “cooking.” I didn’t know how to cook, anyway. I zapped TV dinners, or cans of chili or ravioli or peas or corn. Some of the things I reheated had some extra steps to them: Ramen requires that you zap the noodles in water before adding the bullion packet. But the only thing that came close to cooking was macaroni ’n’ cheese, which required milk and margarine. Cereal, of course, required no microwave time.

I had no telephone. Nor answering machine. So I went to a thrift store and bought them. I know; you’re not supposed to buy appliances from the thrift stores. Well, what did I know? Besides, they worked, more or less. Okay, the tape deck didn’t. And the Dustbuster didn’t. But the bicycle did.

Subscribing to the newspaper was tricky. Technically I didn’t have my own address, and my landlord got the newspaper too. I had to explain to the good folks at the Sacramento Bee how I was a tenant and wanted a second newspaper, and that I was to be billed separately.

But then there was the difficulty with the mail. My landlord sometimes took a week or more to hand off mail to me. So phone bills were late. And the newspaper was actually canceled once. I eventually gave up and got a post office box. The post office was only five blocks away down J Street.

I had no laundry facilities. But that was what visiting Mom was for. Saturday morning, I stuffed all my laundry into a duffel bag, took the bus downtown, and took the Yolobus to Davis. The Solano County bus didn’t run on weekends, so Mom had to pick me up in Davis—usually at the downtown Taco Bell, where I’d wait for her by eating my weight in soft tacos. (I don’t eat at Taco Bell anymore.) Then I’d go to her house and launder my clothes; go to church with her in the morning; grab the 6:30 a.m. bus in the morning and go home, then to class. My first Monday class was at 10.

But working late at the Observer pretty much killed my nightlife. I couldn’t go to college parties till I got off work. By the time I got to the party, which was near 10:30 or 11, everyone was wasted or stoned and no fun anymore. Since I didn’t drink, and (by then) had sworn off weed, I never went there to “catch up” and get equally drunk or stoned. I simply found myself in social functions with a lot of heavily impaired people. You might know how useless those conversations can be. I stopped partying.

So, my weekdays consisted of classes. I wasn’t on the State Hornet staff anymore, though I knew a lot of the people and visited the offices pretty often. I still contributed Mr. Squish strips. So, no more insane late-night newspaper production marathons. Instead, I got on the staff of KEDG, the student radio station—which is a wacky story in itself; I’ll tell it later. I had the Friday afternoon timeslot. The rest of the week was spent on classes and homework, and sometimes errands.

Around 3:30 I’d go to work, stay till 10, then go home. I’d fire up the VCR, watch all the primetime shows I’d missed that evening (which went a lot faster, now that I sped through all the commercials), and went to bed.

Other than sleeping and late-night TV, I didn’t spend a lot of time in my rented room. I didn’t have a computer, so all my homework and computer stuff had to be done in CSUS’s computer lab. My other time was spent in the University Union or the library, which was where the KEDG studio was located. Weekends were at Mom’s.

I spent one weekend in Sacramento, and I was so bored I decided I wasn’t doing that again. And it was uncomfortably warm that weekend. I ran the air conditioner all afternoon. The next day my landlord stopped by and asked me not to run the air conditioner any more. He only wanted it run for 10 minutes at a time, at the most. Electricity costs money.

One thing I did discover in this experience: Living on one’s own is ridiculously easy.

See, my parents had always exaggerated how tough it was going to be. Paying all my own bills, every month and on time; buying my own groceries; holding down a job; they acted as if it was impossibly hard. Whenever I complained about something, their response was, “You think that’s hard? Wait till you’re on your own, and have to be responsible for yourself.” Well, being responsible for myself was a cakewalk.

For a few months in my junior high years, Dad decided to make me help him pay bills. He kept all his banking stuff in his house trailer (he used it as his office), and every month we’d shlep out there and pay the mortgages, the utility bills, the credit card bills, and so forth. I’d fill out the checks and the checkbook; he’d sign ’em. But one week I visited my aunt Jill, and watched as she picked up her phone bill from the mail, and paid it immediately. “I pay it when I get it,” she explained. “That way it’s never late, and I don’t have to blow a whole afternoon paying bills.” Made total sense to me. That’s what I’ve done ever since.

At first, loneliness was tricky. (My parents had always warned me about that too.) At the time, I honestly didn’t like myself all that much. So I kept busy; that way I wouldn’t have to think about it. Still, living alone forced me to think about that, and slowly come round to the idea I needed to reform a lot of my self-centered or obnoxious behaviors. But that took time. Far more time than the years I lived in Sacramento.

Come April, my landlord said we needed to talk. “You’ve been cooking,” he said.

“Reheating,” I said.

Cooking,” he said. “You and the other guy. Neither of you have been eating at the Dining Hall.”

“I’ve been eating out a lot,” I said.

“You’ve got a lot of stuff in that room,” he pointed out. Which was true. I had brought an extra dresser from Mom’s house, and it filled up the rest of the space in that room pretty well. But since I never spent any time in the room—and didn’t spend a lot of time cleaning up anything other than the food, ’cause I didn’t want roaches either—it was cluttered. To conceal the clutter, I kept the drapes closed. He noticed I never opened them, and this bothered him. A dark room, with food in it, with clutter in it, was like a roach ranch.

“All the stuff in the room. Plus the cooking. It’s a fire hazard. I can’t have that. You’ll have to find another place. Consider this your 30-day notice.”

Nuts.

So I started apartment-hunting. The more I looked, the more I grew to appreciate the really sweet deal I had. I had figured a price range of $400 or less; it was the absolute most I could afford. Any apartments in that range were tiny, decrepit, or inaccessible. One place I looked at was actually right next to a rock quarry: It was a mile away from public transportation, and the bathroom was black with mold.

And summer was coming. This meant all the dorm-rats had to move out of the dorms, so apartments were scarce. Most of my friends already had apartments, and no extra space.

But, thank God, I finally did find a place. I’ll write about that another time.