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?

The Museum of Stinginess

October 16, 2010

In the summer of 1999, I found a mattress leaning against the Dumpster behind my apartment building.  There was nothing wrong with it—no unsightly stains or rodent nests—so I put it on my back and carried it Sherpa-like up the stairs.

“What the hell is that?” asked my roommate, Megan, as I pulled the large, rectangular object through the doorway.

“It’s either a really soft tombstone with springs in it or a mattress,” I said.  “I’ll need to perform a few more tests before I know for sure.”

Megan folded her arms over her chest the way I imagine Mussolini used to right before he ordered an execution.  “And what’s it doing in my apartment?” she said

Both of our names were on the lease, but that didn’t mean it was an egalitarian arrangement.  Megan favored democracy when it came to government and reality television shows, but her personal life was less Bill of Rights and more Mein Kampf.  For tasks like vacuuming or taking out the trash, Megan considered me her equal, but when I proposed we paint the bathroom black because I wanted to feel like I was taking a shower in outer space, suddenly my ideas were “impractical” and “borderline psychotic.”

“Why don’t you just buy a mattress from the store like a normal person?” Megan said.

“Do you have any idea how much a new mattress costs?” I replied.

“I don’t know, two hundred dollars, maybe three hundred.”

“Two hundred dollars!  I’m not going to spend that kind of money on a stuffed quilt.  Are you out of your mind?”

“Right,” said Megan.  “You’re going to sleep on a piece of trash like a hobo, but I’m the one who’s crazy.”

#     #     #

Megan eventually abandoned me for a graduate school in California, but she left behind a pile of belongings to remember her by.  Dishes, towels, pans, a microwave, and her old futon.

“Get rid of that disgusting mattress,” she said.  “And buy some real furniture, for the love of God.  You’re living like a refugee.”

As the years went by, this kept happening.  Friends would get better jobs, move to better houses, and inevitably they would give me their used belongings.  A television with no volume control here, a lamp shaped like a hula dancer there.  They knew I was too lazy and cheap to purchase these things on my own, so they passed them along, pretending the reason for these gifts was because I was a good friend instead of a hopeless charity case.  Cups, vacuum cleaners, coffee tables, nightstands.  I am thirty five years old and I have never purchased a single piece of furniture.  I still sleep on the futon Megan gave me more than a decade ago.  My couch was a gift from Megan and her husband Chris.  The coffee table came from Megan’s mom.  My entertainment system was once owned by my friend Travis.  I have a bookcase that was given to me by my old roommate Paul.  My ex-girlfriend Ashleigh provided two of my four pillows.  The others were taken from my mother’s house.

Nothing in my apartment belongs to me.  It was all stolen, scavenged, or given away as a hand-out.  My apartment is a museum of stinginess.  I am surrounded by other people’s lives, taking naps on their hard work.

I’d been living in the apartment building for about six months when a guy named Craig moved in next door.  It’s a small building, eight single rooms total, but the residents are mostly rejects, freaks, and everyone keeps to themselves.  I passed Craig in the hall a few times, and we exchanged nods but that was it.  He seemed like an odd duck but generally harmless.  We left each other alone.

One night I woke up at two in the morning to the sound of Craig screaming.  He was really going at it.  “All homosexuals are retards!” he yelled.  “Never trust a homosexual!  Never trust a retard!  They’re in this thing together!”  After that he began yelling about niggers.  Apparently there was a government plot that involved homosexuals, retards, and niggers.  Something to do with Hollywood movies and chemicals in the tap water.  To be honest it didn’t make much sense.

After about twenty minutes Craig calmed down and I went to sleep.  The next day I saw him in the hall and I said hello for the first time.  He mumbled something back but didn’t make eye contact with me.  He seemed embarrassed about his outburst and I felt sort of sympathetic toward the guy.  It was obvious he had some form of Tourette’s and couldn’t help himself.  I don’t have an official disorder but I constantly feel compelled to say and do inappropriate things in public.  I identify with weirdos.

Craig didn’t have a job but he had a hobby.  Every day he would stand in front of a sandwich shop about two blocks from our apartment building and dance to techno music.  He didn’t have a Walkman or an iPod, so the music must have been playing in his head.  He stood out there for hours, writhing around like a hypnotized snake, his eyes closed, a serene smile on his lips.  It was the only time he seemed happy.  He always wore a hooded parka, sunglasses, long pants, and gloves.  He duct taped the gloves to the sleeves of his parka.  He also taped his pant legs to his shoes.  He was afraid of touching things, or of things touching him.  I didn’t know which.

As the weeks passed Craig’s outbursts became more frequent.  There’s a community bathroom on our floor, and he started sneaking in there late at night to scream and slam the toilet lids.  SLAM!  “Faggots are retards!”  SLAM!  “The pigs are after me!”  SLAM!

It was the blond hippie girl in apartment nine who finally complained about him.  I heard her telling the landlord that she was concerned about her safety.  I didn’t blame her for that.  The guy was weird and some of the stuff he yelled was really offensive.  I suppose I could have defended him to the landlord but I didn’t.  I let him get kicked out.

Craig didn’t sound surprised when the landlord told him to leave.  I heard that conversation too.  Instead of giving him the real reason, the landlord said he needed to “repaint the apartment.”  There were no other rooms available, so Craig would have to move out of the building.  The landlord apologized but he didn’t sound sorry.  I thought this would be a prime opportunity for Craig to fly off the handle, but he didn’t.  He just said, “I’ll be gone by the end of the week.”  This had obviously happened to him before.

The apartment building is located on University Hill, and most of the people who live around here are college students.  There are five frat houses and three sorority houses on our block.  At night they throw parties.  They get drunk and vomit on the lawn and yell offensive things at each other.  “Stop being such a faggot!”  I hear that at least once a week.  “You’re a cunt!”  “Eat my dick!”  “Fuck you, you cocksucking homo!”  As far as I know, no one has asked them to leave.  They’re just kids having fun.

Craig still dances in front of the sandwich shop, but not every day.  I don’t know where he’s living now.  Sometimes people walking by will point at him and laugh.  I’ve seen a few take pictures of him with their cellphones.  Craig barely seems to notice.  He closes his eyes and sways to the music in his head, untouched by the world around him.

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