The new apartment had four cozy wee rooms: kitchenette, bathroom, central room, walk-in closet alcove. Each had a window with oil-heat radiator facing west, looking up at a six-story brick wall of windows and a little slice of sky.
How was I lucky enough to get that? Three reasons. One, I walked in to a rental office with check book in hand for first + last + security at the moment that Manager George heard from Maintenance Master Frank that the former tenant had bailed out leaving a unit filled with cockroaches and rotten food and thousands of dollars in unpaid utilities and rent. Two, as rental applications came pouring in through the fax machine and onto the floor, Manager George was busily typing the names in to a database, and found that each tenant had a credit history which dashed all his confidence and hopes. Three, while waiting for George to hang up with Frank I glanced at George’s business card on the desk and said “Oh my gosh, YOU are descended from Byzantine Royalty!” This Reason 3 clinched the deal. Apparently at his hassle of a job, no one had shown interest in his royal heritage. George lit up, leaped out of his chair, and grabbed the keys to show me at least the building. On our way we had an enjoyable visit talking about Byzantium and the Orthodox Church.
Faithful friends Bill and Sarah moved my stuff in their van. They planned to carry my things in, then take me shopping for a full selection of winter groceries and new household goods. But on our way, it began to rain. Then the rain roared down and turned to sleet. So with curbside hugs and a promise to return next day, they dropped my boxes at the door and leaped in the van for what proved a dramatic and strenuous trek over the bridges and down the shore to their seaside home.
I took the boxes in. It was 3:00 pm. In the winter courtyard the daylight had disappeared, to return at 10:00 next day. In the early darkness, high-intensity timed floodlights switched on. They gave our courtyard an evocative Stalag Newsreel look. This was enhanced by a loud radio in a window across the way bouncing echoes of distortion off the brick walls, with an assertive news broadcast in the Russian language.
Closing the door, I said a few prayers to dedicate the apartment as a refuge of prayer and introspection, naming it Little Beje after Corrie ten Boom’s family home. I opened a special housewarming present from Bill & Sarah, and laughed. They’d given me a mascot of theirs, an inflatable nine-foot boa constrictor from the Museum of Science nicknamed Mr. Snakey. When coiled in the closet alcove, Mr. Snakey looked impressively lifelike and vigilant.
Next I plugged in the refrigerator, and flicked on the light switches. Nothing happened. I plugged the landline phone into its jack. There was no dial tone. But thanks to Frank, the gas stove pilot light was on and the floors gleamed with fresh polyurethane varnish. The walls were slathered with fresh paint. So were the windows; they were sealed shut. The oil radiators had no off valve. They poured out dry heat and the roasted rancid-blood essence of dry-roasted cockroaches in the pipes. The whole floor was crunchy with grout bits or paint chips. I grabbed a box lid as a broom and cleared the central room at a walking squat, moving each box at a time. Opening the hall door for light and air showed that the bits and chips were in fact a layer of fumigated cockroaches, lying on their backs with folded multiple arms. That was great incentive to sweep the place corner to corner. Wrapping my hands with sleet-soaked advertising circulars from the lobby, I scooped the whole rout into a garbage bag, grabbed the keys, then slipped and skidded across the courtyard to the dumpster.
The gas stove worked like a charm. So did the water faucets. But the water smelled like paradichlorobenzene, the active ingredient in mothballs. After running the kitchen taps for twenty minutes I made tea, took a sip, and gagged it into the sink. Then I grabbed the keys and my coat and slipped and skidded to the Store 24 on Beacon Street. The men in the long line snapped up soda, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, scratch tickets, and magazines discreetly wrapped in brown paper and stored behind the counter. Unlike me, they had tuned in to the weather and spent their day not packing, but shopping the goods off the store shelves.
On the short return walk I was hit by a hissing whiteout snowfall. At home I stored the grapefruit on the cold bathroom windowsill. In the baking heat I locked the door and dropped all my clothes on a chair. To protect the pipes from freezing I turned on all the taps to a trickle. I washed up, and fixed distilled-water oatmeal and tea in the dark while snow hurtled past the Stalag lights. Then for a breath of air and to vent the stove gas and polyurethane I put some clothes on, opened the hallway door, and set up for the night in the doorway with sleeping bag and Bible.
We had three blizzards in five days. The streets were silent. There were no people afoot, no traffic noise but sirens, no trolleys on the Green Line. The nearest pay phone was a 25 minute walk each away up and over snowdrifts. I called my family, Bill & Sarah, and our office. The boss answered, but the company was closed for the week. He ordered me to stay home until after New Year’s. Other businesses were closed too. The drifts were 5 feet high. On side streets the plows could clear only one central lane both ways for cars and pedestrians to share, with blackening snow walls that lingered until April. Maintenance Master Frank worked all hours on the roof chopping ice, or fixing burst pipes for tenants with no heat, or plowing snow from the doors. He promised to get my windows open soon.
Every morning it was time to break camp, roll up the sleeping bag, and lock the door. Then I dropped all my clothes. (Naturism was soon a necessary automatic reflex, that is if naturists vacation all alone in small dark rooms.) With the cardboard lid I’d sweep up the cockroaches, re-robe, drop the garbage in the dumpster, and gather some pine twigs on the way back. The pine twigs went into a stock pot of tap water boiling all day with grapefruit peels and cinnamon to improve and moisten the atmosphere. There was always pease porridge to tend on the stove too, with legumes and seaweeds and grain from my boxes. Then after a dip in the trickling bathtub I’d wash the laundry and dry it on the radiator in minutes. With a pickle crock weight as a hammer I’d tap a wooden spoon all around the window frames, in hopes of a paint gap for fresh air. When the fumes and heat made my head spin, I’d get dressed and stroll a bit on the snow drifts. Then with the Bible and Mr. Snakey for company, and a bath towel over my head for the draft, I sat in my doorway on the sleeping bag to study, read, and write, in hopes of meeting some neighbors.
But where was everybody? There was plenty of bustle in the building across the courtyard, but our floor had no one. Perhaps the other renters were students, at home for winter break. Only a couple of men traipsed through now and then, kicking the advertising circulars into a junkmail-mâché across the floor. I always said hello. They took one look at my setup and kept walking.
Before Christmas the dizziness from the fumes was getting worse, even when I stepped outdoors. The trip over drifts to the dumpster was extra tiring. The cold in the hall felt shivery even with extra bundling up. The heat with the radiators felt feverish even with bathtub dips and clothing-optional living. A sore throat set in with laryngitis, a cough, and shortness of breath. One night I was resting in the doorway with head wrapped in towels, with a fold tucked down to cover my eyes; the fluorescents had a painful glare, and my stomach queased up at sight of the mâché slush on the floor. It was stained by melted rock salt from the snowplows in two city-issue colors (cotton-candy pink, and inauspicious pea green).
At about 3:00 am a rustling noise shook me out of a fitful reverie. Peeling back the bath towels I looked around blinking, and caught sight of Mr. Snakey. He was across the hall in the opposite doorway. Oh no! While stumbling around feeling sick, I must have fallen asleep in the open door of the wrong apartment! In a panic I flailed around to an upright position against the door frame, trying to stand up.
To my further dismay, Mr. Snakey seemed to come alive. He yanked back his head at sight of me and the feel of the cold hallway. Then a young man appeared in the open doorway. With a whispered epithet or two he grabbed the moving snake, glared at me, and slammed the door with his pet in hands — another nine-foot python that looked a lot like the inflatable one right behind me. I wobbled up to my hands and feet, crawled into my apartment, and locked up. Then, a good idea dawned: because the bathroom was all tiled walls and floor, Frank hadn’t painted or varnished in there. So that night I pulled my sleeping bag into the bathroom, closed the door, and had caught some rest beside the trickling tub under a reassuring view of sky slice with star.
That day or next, a cheerful cricket noise rang out in the alcove. The telephone! The first call was from Bill and Sarah. All during the blizzards they’d been telephoning my new but inactive phone line, wishing they could pick me up to stay with them, or at least drop off some fresh produce; but by the sea the roads were still hazardous, and they’d had flu themselves.
The phone line felt like a gift from heaven. People called every day for long insightful conversations. “You are SUCH a wonderful listener,” said one girlfriend. “Nobody pays attention as well as you.”
“Conditions are perfect,” I explained. “You’ve reached a snowed in person sitting in the dark with no clothes.”
The phone gave me a new daily ritual: calling the electric company.
“This is Mrs. Washington,” a customer service associate snapped. “Name and address?”
“Hello Mrs. Washington.” My throat was still husky and sore. “It’s Mary —”
“Speak UP!” she barked. “How do you spell that?”
“It’s M –“
“Is that M as in ‘Mary’?”
“Why… yes. Here is my address and unit number.”
“What is the nature of this call?”
“I paid Management on December 1 for the first month, but…”
“EXCUSE me! We are under a SNOW EMERGENCY!”
“Yes Ma’am, I see it out the windows. Just wondering, in a case like this —-”
“Hold the line.”
After 25 minutes of Muzak, the call disconnected.
So did the other calls. I kept on dialing, night and day.
Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Jefferson, Mrs. Monroe, Mrs. Madison, Mrs. Buchanan all looked up my address and unit, then simply put me on hold for 25 minutes of Muzak until the call cut off.
Finally, Mrs. Roosevelt explained. The former tenant had finagled thousands of dollars out of the electric company, and now they were in no scramble to light up my life. I would have to prove to them that he was not me, that I was not him, that were not in cahoots, that I was hereby renouncing all his vain pomps and works. “Only a supervisor makes exceptions. And they are all out with the repair trucks. To speak with one, you’ll have to call back.”
Mrs. Coolidge wanted a letter faxed to her with my previous addresses, signature, date of birth, and social security number.
Mrs. Eisenhower said I’d have to fax her a postmarked envelope showing my new name and address. (I didn’t have any. All my mail went to my post office box downtown. I would have to mail a letter from myself to myself, but I was too sick to walk to the mailbox and mail it. Besides, they preferred that the envelope be from a utility such as the electric company.)
Mrs. Cleveland said that the fax needed to show a copy of the cancelled deposit check. (I didn’t have the copy. The month wasn’t over, so the bank statement with cancelled check wasn’t issued yet. Besides, the statement was going downtown to the same post office box which I was too sick to get to.)
Mrs. Wilson wanted the fax to show a money order with a future deposit of $500. (I couldn’t get one. The bank was probably closed, and I was too sick to get there on the trolley that was not running.)
Mrs. Harding wanted a past bill from some other utility company. (I didn’t have one. For years I’d lived in group houses.)
Mrs. Wilson wanted a copy of my lease.
Mrs. Truman wanted a government-issue ID with photograph, and my birth certificate.
At least waiting on hold for all those calls made a good meditation and stretching practice. Soon I could hum along to the different classical Muzak pieces while eating dinner or napping with the receiver tucked nearby.
On New Year’s Eve day I called again.
“Ms. Jackson. State your name & address.”
“Lo, Ms. Jackson.” I told it to her.
“What do you want?”
“Not a thing, Ms. Jackson. I’ve been calling about this account for a couple weeks. This is just to say that any day now it will stop snowing and I won’t always be sick, and then I’ll go out and find an open business with a fax machine and send you all the documents that you would like.”
“What is the nature of your emergency?”
“To say thank you. You have a high-stress job, and you’re saving lives in this terrible weather. And your Muzak! It’s all I have to listen here at home in the dark, and it’s LOVELY.” I started getting tearful. “So thank you. Happy New Year.”
“Unh.” Pause. “Right. Bye.”
For dinner that day I had the usual split pea soup and the last two figs. An empty potato chip bag turned up in one of my boxes; the crumbs gave a delicious seasoning accent to the meal. Eating dinner, I was longing for a church, a place with electric lights and people.
So I wrapped up warm with a bath towel around my neck and ventured out for the first time in days, down Beacon Street. Eureka! A large community church was open. In an upper floor all the lights were on. I hurried over snow drifts and up to the parish hall. About a hundred people were gathered for the service.
“You’re here!” The organizers rushed to greet me at the door. “Thank goodness! Wait — aren’t you…? Well, the invited speaker couldn’t make it. Can you lead the meeting anyway?”
“Meeting?” I looked around and saw the 12-Step slogan banners all over the walls. “Oh sure.” I was expecting a prayer service, but this was fine; I’d led many Anonymous group meetings before, including the mixed-program share-a-thons on holidays. “No problem.” Walking up to the microphone I greeted everyone, and suggested a moment of silence followed by the Serenity Prayer.
“We welcome you, to this meeting of –” I opened the speakers’ binder. “Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.” I stopped and looked up at the audience.
They looked back at me.
These hundred people came through snow and ice, who knows how far, for my story of experience, strength, and hope in recovery from this addiction. I was the keynote speaker for the evening.
First, in keeping with Program standards of complete honesty, I let them know precisely how qualified I was to serve as their speaker.
Well now. That led to a moment of silence for sure.
Then, they laughed. Soon laughter rolled through the hall in waves.
People would start to calm down, take another look at me, and start laughing all over again. They laughed until they were weeping, slapping their sides or waving their hands in surrender.
“So were you gonna walk into just ANY meeting?” one man called out in friendly fashion.
“Meeting???” I said. “I thought this was Vespers!”
Everybody just howled, laughing all over again. While they did, I looked out over the hall and thought: Come Holy Spirit; this would be a fine time to give me an idea of what to tell these good folk. Finally I said “But aren’t we all here for the same reason? Isn’t it just human, to want to find safety and comfort, and also connection with other people? Isn’t that how we got here? Isn’t that how we can come together right now, this evening? We’re not alone; we made it here. We are in good company. We have wisdom and stories to share, and that starts now. The floor is open for sharing.”
So people shared their stories and treatment plans and recovery. There was a lot of adversity and courage and wisdom and cooperation in that room. It was a great meeting. And then people joined hands and said the Serenity Prayer, and gathered around with coffee and cookies and punch before saying goodbye. Hearing from these people did my heart a world of good.
That week, my flu got better.
Frank fixed the radiator valves and got the windows open.
Bill and Sarah took me to my favorite thrift stores and then to the Food Coop.
As the snow began to melt, neighbors showed up out of nowhere.
Here I’d been feeling down, thinking everybody else was off on vacation. But no. Some were hiding in their units all scared and waiting to venture out to stores. They needed their checks to arrive from Social Security. They needed pain meds, baby formula, diapers. There must have been some way to help them. If only I’d put up posters in the hallways, or asked Frank in Maintenance to give out my phone number!
After that big snow, one lovely frail couple had to be taken to a nursing home. They’d survived World War II together in Belarus, and were so overjoyed to find that I was a Russian speaker that they begged me to come for a goodbye visit, to have tea and view their photo albums.
What a life lesson for me! There is always more that one can do, to get out and meet and check on our neighbors.
But meanwhile, on New Year’s Eve, the walk home from that SLAA meeting was beautiful. The air was cold and clear. In some places the snow still had some glitter to it. At Store 24, they had bananas!
Locking my door at home I dropped all of my clothes in the darkness, put the groceries on the windowsill, fixed some mint tea, and sat watching six floors of neighbors together enjoying their TV shows and parties.
The sound of early fireworks sent me running to the bank of windows. I stretched up against the glass, peering at the scrap of sky in hopes of color and flash.
And at midnight, the electric company made a judgment call. The First Ladies — Martha, Dolley, Mamie, Lady Bird, et al. — they turned on my lights. All of the lights. Happy 1993!
With a yip of chagrin I hit the floor out of public view. I shimmied into my sleeping bag, zipped it decently up to my neck, teetered upright against the wall, and hopped around in the bag long enough to turn off all the light switches with my chin. Then back in the dark and popping out of the bag again I moved my bananas from the windowsill to the humming refrigerator. Then I drank a tea toast to Mrs. Washington and Mrs. Lincoln et al., humming my favorite piece from their Muzak ensemble.
You can hum it too. It’s the Intermezzo instrumental interlude from “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni.
Happy and Blessed New Year to Everybody!