I once moved to Binghamton, New York. I wouldn’t recommend you do the same. For the five months I lived there, I often found myself anticipating the next way our landlord would screw us over. I hated it at the time, but I’ve learned to look back at this period with fondness. I mean, I learned some neat things like how roaches aren’t really anything to worry about and how easy it is to live with them. In line with bug issues, my roommates and I experienced mild forms of delusional parisitosis. I also embraced the idea that it’s not entirely crazy to prefer working over spending leisure time at home.
Theoretically, this was supposed to be time for me to take a break from school and relax, try to find myself, and make some life decisions. Being a first time tenant, I had no idea what to look for or the general procedures of renting an apartment. Someone smart would probably say do some research, maybe look at the obstacles tenants have faced and how to protect yourself from fraudulent claims, lying landlords, and potential problems with renting. What can I say? I’m not that smart.
Instead of worrying about potential problems, here were my general priorities:
- Cheap rent
- Be near other college kids so there is potential to socialize
- Get money, make lady friends
And that’s how I ended up living in a Main Street slum. It’s also how I met Natalie.
We had already toured two other apartments before finding our future home that day. The first one was located on a rural hill and looked like it were straight from a scene in Deliverance. The neighbors also left a discouraging impression.
Moments after pulling into the driveway we saw a toddler rolling down the dirt-hill road on a Big Wheel in his diaper. A young girl with long, greasy brown hair in a dirt-stained pastel summer outfit chased after him, yelling, “Get back here you little shit.” On a porch a few houses down, an overweight woman sat in a rocking chair, attentive to the strangers pulling into the apartment complex, oblivious to the children who disrupted the path on the way in. The amount of time it took to pull in was enough for myself, Homeschool, and Jimi to notice the dirty bomb of oblivion that had been detonated and enveloped this complex.
On our tour we learned this particular apartment had been broken into by the neighbor kids and trashed. When we entered, the whole place smelled like mildew and urine, as if the bastard kids who’d broken in were also peeing throughout the apartment. Hopefully it was just some animals.
“I’m so sorry about this,” our guide said. “Had I known this happened I wouldn’t have wasted your time.”
With this apology, the guide made a gracious effort to show us around, her sunken posture and flattened tone signalling that she knew it was a futile effort.
After the abbreviated tour we thanked the guide politely and said we’d have to get back to her in the next couple days and, “Let her know.” Needless to say it didn’t take long to reach a group consensus—we were going to avoid waking up to rabid children roaming and pissing in our apartment throughout the night.
Any place, compared to that first apartment, would’ve been an improvement but the second apartment we toured that day turned out to meet all of our demands. And it didn’t hurt that the guide was an attractive, young female student.
“Do any college kids live around here?” I asked, making sure to keep our priorities straight.
“Oh yeah, I actually live right around the corner from here. Most of my friends are close by too.”
Check and check, one last concern. “How much is rent?”
“$2,400 a month.”
An hour or so before our long drive home we received a reply to an inquiry we made on Craig’s list earlier that day. It was the tenant of that apartment and he said we could tour the apartment since he was moving out within the next couple weeks.
Little did we know the ensuing months would conclude with us truly understanding the sentiment of the almighty Rod Stewart when he wrote Ooh la la. I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger…
* * *
We parked on the street shoulder in front of the three-storied, lavender building we were scheduled to tour. The door, wooden and heavy, contrasted with the sterile concrete walls, and gave the facade a more welcoming appearance. It was like the owner had stolen the door off a church and placed it on his building to deter sacrilegious street dwellers from approaching.
To the left of the small front stoop a woman was bent over weeding the grass and raking what seemed to be a flower bed. She wore a dress that dangled like a set of drapes, tied back at the waist with a belt that accentuated her curves.
We walked up to white Aunt Jemima and asked, “Do you know where the landlord is? We’re here for a tour of the apartment that’s up for rent.”
“Oh yes, yes,” she said in a raspy voice with a heavy Russian accent. Her face looked like what would’ve been the result of Harvey Dent’s reconstructive surgeries had he not died. “Please, don’t mind my mess. I am Natalie. I’ve been working all day. I own this building and that purple one across the street. I showed four girls around there earlier today. They will probably move in in September.
“You guys are so handsome. You must be students,” she assumed. “Everyone is a student here except first floor.”
We followed her into the building, trying to figure out how to tell her only one of us was a student and settled on letting her talk to our one roommate, Homeschool, in order to avoid the issue.
Natalie told us to wait in the entryway before scurrying up the set of stairs to check if the apartment was open. A loud knock came from the second floor followed by brief quiet. No response. Knock knock. Again, no response. Natalie’s patience had reached its limit.
“Khristoff, answer the door. It is Natalie. Please, I am trying to give tour.” Still, Khristoff wouldn’t answer and Natalie wasn’t ready to give up. She came rushing back down the stairs and said, “I’m so sorry. Please, wait one minute I will get Khristoff,” then went out the front door.
In hindsight, I’ve realized Natalie’s body always seemed to be in conflict with her feet. Like in cartoons where the character’s feet move so fast that the motion becomes a blur, Natalie’s feet seemed to rush around while the rest of her body, including her customary oversized sunhat, seemed at rest.
Outside, Natalie resumed her yelling. “Khristoff, I must give a tour. Please come to the window.” To our surprise, we discovered Khristoff was home when the window slid open and he shouted back, “I can’t today, Natalie. I have work and the place is a mess. Ask Curry Monster.”
“But we agreed…”
“No. I said you could yesterday. You didn’t say anything about today.”
“Oh, oh. Okay. I will speak to Curry Monster,” Natalie said. Turning to us and shielding her mouth to the side with one hand, she added, “I knew he was in there. His car’s parked out back.”
Leading us back inside, Natalie continued her rant, “Khristoff… such a pig. He leaves giant mess. I tell him he must be out this week, but he says, ‘Oh Natalie I am just cleaning, please, just a couple more days,’ but he never leaves.
“Oh, I am so sorry guys,” she said, then knocked on, what we presumed to be, Curry Monster’s door. This time the door opened after the first knock and a young Indian man with a scraggly beard opened the door.
Before he could greet her, Natalie said, “Ah yes, Curry Monster, can I please show these boys around your apartment? It will only take a few minutes I promise. Out in no time.”
“Probably, Natalie. Let me just check with everyone else.” Curry Monster closed the door and shouted a warning in Hindi to his roommates. Exactly what he said I couldn’t tell you, but it probably warned them of the three white guys coming in to look around with Natalie.
A few minutes later he re-opened the door and said, “Ok, you can come look around, but we haven’t cleaned yet or anything.” This invitation was a welcomed release from our awkward soiree of avoiding Natalie’s small-talk in the hallway.
“Thank you, thank you, Curry Monster. We will be very quick.”
When we went in, the first thing I noticed was a lack of any real furniture. Shortly after I was nostril raped by the smell of curry. It was like these students had bathed in curry then sprinkled the rest around the place as some sort of Indian deodorizer. Perhaps they’d never heard of a Glade Plug-in?
The apartment had been turned into a giant bedroom with mattresses in each room except the kitchen and bathroom. It’s a good thing these rooms hadn’t been converted because the filth would have been almost intolerable, even to someone with the most liberal standards of cleanliness.
The stove seemed old and perhaps even dangerous, toxic. On one burner set a frying pan, on the other a spaghetti pan with rice in it. I didn’t try to move them, but it seemed neither dish had been washed in at least a week. Like a boxer’s forehead at the start of each round, the grates which propped the pans above the burner were shiny from a thick layer of grease.
I didn’t notice at the time, but the bathroom was even worse than the kitchen. The bathtub and surrounding walls were covered in mildew, giving the room a greenish swampy feel. One dim light bulb added to the dingy feel of the bathroom. This lack of light also helped Natalie’s sales pitch by making the mildew seem less prominent.
Blinded by cheap rent, off street parking and what seemed to be a good location, Homeschool and I overlooked this “mild” filth and were content with renting the apartment. Our other roommate, I’ll call him Jimi, voiced his apprehension.
Jimi’s protests came off as a polite, “I don’t know guys, this place is pretty messy and the landlord seems kind-of off.” Really, it should’ve been more like, “Holy fuck, are you guys crazy? You’re really considering this pig sty? Located a couple buildings away from the projects? Surrounded by meth-heads and drowned in the stench of curry? The landlord is obviously a kook. I refuse to move in here with you.”
Even then he would’ve been missing the bigger problems we would face. Oh well, I would, soon enough, realize my mistakes.