Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House

April 1, 2011

When I was young, my friends and I played a game called MASH, which stood for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. The goal of the game was to predict your future, and according to some, it was shockingly accurate. What type of house would you live in as an adult? What model of car would you drive? Who would you marry? How many children would you produce? All these questions could be answered with just a piece of notebook paper and a Number 2 pencil.

Of course, we all wanted the mansion. No one ever came out and said so, but it was fairly obvious that if you lived in a shack, you were poor. If you lived in a house, you were middle class. And if you lived in an apartment…well, there were no apartment buildings in the small town where I grew up, so we decided that the “A” in MASH would stand for “A Cheap Hotel near the Pizza Hut.” And if you lived in an A Cheap Hotel near the Pizza Hut, you were probably either a traveling salesman or a serial killer. Either way, it was better to live in a mansion.

*     *     *     *

The first domicile I can recall with any clarity from my childhood was a broken down farmhouse just outside the city limits of a town called Fort Morgan. It was located at the end of a long, dirt driveway, and it included a garage, a row of palsied elm trees, and a wide variety of poisonous snakes. My father was a fundamentalist preacher who believed the end of the world was coming soon, and he insisted we learn to live off the land in order to improve our chances of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. Chickens were purchased, a garden was planted, and soon we were completely self-sufficient. Sort of.

It turns out living off the land is extremely difficult to do, especially when you are attempting to feed and clothe a young family. Money was tight and we couldn’t pay the electric bill with chicken eggs. A year passed with no Armageddon. And then another. And another.

Finally, when I was eight years old, we gave up on Fort Morgan and moved to an even smaller town called Yuma. I wouldn’t have called our new home a shack, but it was certainly closer to an S than it was to an M. The former residents were either meth addicts or members of the witness protection program. The entire house had been gutted shortly before our arrival, the carpet stripped from the floor, the windows busted out, the walls smeared with a mysterious brown substance. And if that wasn’t welcoming enough, there was a dead bird in the middle of the living room. I think it was a sparrow, but I will never know for certain because my mother snatched me away before I could properly investigate it. Something about bugs and deadly diseases.

The first year in the Yuma house was not a pleasant one. All six members of our family lived in the basement while my father rebuilt the main floor with the help of various plaid-wearing churchgoers. The basement was divided into two rooms by a plaster wall. My brother and I slept on a bunk bed next to the kitchen table, and my parents slept in the laundry room, a thin white sheet separating their bed from my sisters’. The television was positioned on top of the refrigerator. If you needed to use the bathroom, you had to climb the stairs and pray that the plumbing was working.

It took nearly a decade to get the Yuma house in working order, and by that time I was off to college, where I lived in various dormitories with obnoxious coeds. Some of my fellow students were shocked to learn that they would have a roommate their freshman year, but I was delighted. Bunk beds, cramped living conditions, unpredictable plumbing–I felt right at home.

In my late twenties, I moved to Prague and rented an apartment in the middle of the city, where prostitutes roamed the streets at all hours of the night, smoking cigarettes and propositioning male tourists from all over the globe. When I was drunk, which was often, I would stumble home from the bar and pretend the prostitutes were elegant ladies determined to gain my attention by any means necessary. “Hello. How are you this evening?” “You think I’m attractive, do you? Well, thank you. You are quite lovely as well.” “What’s that? Fifty euros, you say? Oh, no, I would never charge you for the pleasure of my company, my dear.” I didn’t make a lot of friends, but my confidence went through the roof.

The Prague apartment was the cheapest place I have ever lived. It was also the nicest. Hard-wood floors, a furnished kitchen, two bathrooms, twenty-foot-tall ceilings, a laundry room. All for just $200 dollars a month. Thank goodness for the post-communist economic collapse! My roommates were two medical students who were studying at the local university. There was always a human skull on the kitchen table and a book of hideous wounds next to the toilet.

After drinking my savings down to nothing, I returned to Colorado, where I lived on my friends’ couch for six months while I half-heartedly looked for a job. Finally, much to my chagrin, I found one.

Currently, I live in a mansion a few blocks west of the University of Colorado in Boulder. That is, it used to be a mansion. Many of the buildings in this area are beautiful Tudor structures that have been purchased by wealthy fraternities and sororities. When they were first built, several hundred years ago, I’m certain the owners had no idea that one day well-tanned coeds named Chad and Britney would be vomiting PBR on their solid oak floors and smoking pot in their foyers.

The building I live in was once a sorority house, but has long since been converted into a series of individual living spaces that are rented out to the dregs of society. Affordable housing is difficult to come by in Boulder, so this place attracts some interesting characters. There are illegal immigrants, welfare recipients, panhandlers, drug dealers, drug addicts, hermits, and one curmudgeonly writer. My room is approximately ten feet long by fifteen feet wide. There’s just enough room for a bed, a couch, and a coffee table. The bathroom and kitchen are both across the hall. You can’t run the microwave and the toaster at the same time or you will cause a building-wide blackout. Air conditioning, no. Mice, yes. We do have heat, but there’s only one thermostat for the entire building, so we all have to make do at 55 degrees, which is apparently the temperature most suitable for the cold-blooded miscreants who live downstairs.

Altogether, it’s not exactly what I pictured for myself when I was a young child playing MASH. When I landed on M, I thought my destiny had been determined. I would live in a mansion, drive a red Ferrari (like Magnum P.I.), marry Sandy Freytag who sat in front of me in homeroom, and have seven children. Thank goodness it didn’t turn out to be true. How would one fit seven children in a Ferrari?

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One Response to “Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House”

  1. Debby Says:

    Having been raised in a family with similar religious leanings as yours, I’ve never figured out why a person who expects Armageddon on any given day would need to prepare to “live” off the land. I was taught that the goal of living was to die and go to heaven. Then (G)od takes over, right? No chickens necessary.


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