1400 Pennsylvania Avenue
On April 18, I read at My First Time, a reading series benefiting CHIRP. A handful of people read a story about their first time doing something, and a band performs a song relating to that thing or event. The theme this time was “first digs,” so I wrote about my first apartment. Here it is, for posterity:
1400 Pennsylvania Avenue
My first place in college after the dorms was 1400 Pennsylvania Ave. I know what you’re thinking — the White House is 1600 Pennsylvania.* That didn’t stop people from signing the address up for junk mail under the names of presidents — Andrew Jackson got quite a few catalogs.
1400 Pennsylvania was a two-story brick house of a simple Germanic style that was common in Columbus, Ohio. The current owner when I lived there was an Indian businessman who purchased it when his daughter began med school at Ohio State. Our street dead-ended one house north of us into the parking lot for OSU Hospital. After she graduated he kept the house as a rental property. It was painted white (yes) and had a nice porch overlooking the cobblestone street, and four bedrooms, which is what drew my housemates and me to it. There were two bathrooms and, oddly, two kitchens — one on the first floor and one on the second. This seemed to be the only movement toward converting the house into two apartments that some previous owner had made — apparently in the ’70s, based on the avocado formica in the upstairs kitchen. The garbage disposal in that kitchen was permanently frozen thanks to who knows how many beer bottles shattered into it. We soon learned that this was courtesy of the previous tenants, a heavy metal band. And it was our first hint at how reluctant our landlord was to fix things. More about that in a minute.
My housemates were Shannon, Angie and Jen. Shannon and Jen were girls from my floor in the dorm; Shannon asked me to live with them in large part because her father would only agree to let her move off-campus if there was a man in the house. Angie was an art student at CCAD whom Jen had gotten to know… somewhere. None of us knew any of the others very well, but somehow that didn’t matter at the time. Ah, college.
Jen called dibs on the room in the converted attic, and Shannon really wanted the room on the first floor, back behind the kitchen. That left Angie and me to take the two rooms on the second floor. Those rooms were pretty small, and mine was made smaller by the queen-sized futon bed I ended up buying after the discount mattress I bought turned out to be made of wood. There was barely enough room to walk between the bed and my desk when it was opened out, so it stayed a sofa most of the time.
My year at 1400 Pennsylvania was a tumultuous one. On the upside, I got a job at a bagel sandwich shop that would become a second home for the next three years. On the downside, my girlfriend and I broke up the first quarter of the school year, and my school and work schedule made for some late nights and early mornings. On the even worse side, first Angie and then Jen dropped out of school in order to focus their energies on partying and stuff. That meant they hung out late into the night in either the second floor kitchen or Angie’s room, getting high and listening to music really loud. I mean REALLY loud, at 2 in the morning. Mostly Cyprus Hill. It took years before I could hear “Insane in the Membrane” or “I Love You Mary Jane” and not instantly change the station. And it made an already pretty depressing quarter even worse, since I was only getting a couple hours’ sleep a night.
It was bad enough that I spent a lot more time hanging out with Shannon on the first floor. She and I became relatively close, and I became friends with some of her friends too. So I decided to move — downstairs. After our New Year’s Eve party, just before winter quarter began, I dragged all my stuff down to the basically empty parlor, bought a couple of sheets of plywood and put them up across the big archway for some privacy, and that was that. I gained a lot more space and a fireplace (not a working one, unfortunately), but I lost a lot of privacy. All I had separating my room from the front hall and stairs was a layer of plywood and a sheet, and Shannon’s room was separated from mine by heavy pocket doors — her bedroom was once the dining room. We shared a bathroom literally the size of a closet — it had been the kitchen pantry. But it was quieter than my room upstairs, so I dealt with it.
And that’s not to say we didn’t party on the first floor. We had plenty of parties — Shannon and I would throw the doors open between our rooms and w’d have 20 or 30 people people in there. I remember drinking a lot of gin at one of our house parties and wandering down the alley before eventually puking in the landscaping around some university graduate housing. Another time, one of Shannon’s friends passed out face down on the floor, and we rolled him over to discover that he’d peed himself — and all over someone’s gym shoe that was under his crotch when he landed. After he peed himself on Shannon’s bed during another party, we made sure to get him into the kitchen whenever he got too drunk.
Anyway, during winter quarter my schedule got even worse. Between a full load of reading- and writing-heavy classes, and 2- or 4am closing shifts at the sandwich shop, I was up at all hours of the night. I took to sleeping two hours at a time whenever I got the chance, day or night. A buddy of mine, an engineering student named Ross, had a similarly brutal schedule, and we’d check on each other at random hours of the night, telling the other to go to bed. We started calling it the Ohio State Insomniac Society.
The crazy hours often meant I couldn’t fall asleep when I wanted to, a fact made worse by the birds. As I mentioned, the parking lot for the hospital was two doors down. A large number of finches or sparrows lived in the trees edging the lot, and they apparently never slept. I don’t know if the streetlights that lit the parking lot overnight had messed with their circadian rhythms or they were just nocturnal birds, but they actively chirped all night long and all day, too. There were enough of them and they were noisy enough that I couldn’t fall asleep, hopped up on caffeine as I was. I’ve noticed the same nocturnal birds in parts of Chicago, confused by the eternal sunshine of the city lights.
Things got a little better spring quarter, with a more normalized schedule and the ability to get outside more often. I was still working the Friday night closing shift at the sandwich shop, which meant I got home at 4 or 5 in the morning and slept in till 11 or noon. Which brings me back to my landlord. After months of not being able to get him to fix some things around the house, the housemates all decided to withhold rent until he did. That got him out to the house in a hurry — such a hurry, in fact, that he didn’t bother telling us he was coming. I woke one Saturday morning at around 10am to find a man on a ladder next to my bed patching cracks in the plaster ceiling. My landlord was standing next to him, watching as plaster crumbs dropped onto me. I got up and yelled at them to leave, but this was the beginning of a string of unannounced visits.
So it wasn’t hard to make the decision to move out when the time came. I’m not sure where Jen and Angie ended up, but Shannon and I continued to live together, hunting for another house to live in with some friends we knew better. We nearly rented a house behind a bar whose manager showed us the place and offered to run a tap over into the kitchen if we paid for the keg — ah, college! But we ended up renting a huge house across the street with an amazing deck. It was perfect for huge, out of control parties, especially once they tore down the neighboring houses. But that’s a story for another day.
This weekend, my friend Mike here in Chicago has his birthday party at the Brauhaus, where they put postcards on the tables. Whenever we’re there, we write a few to 1400 Pennsylvania. Sometimes addressed to Andrew Jackson.
My song was “Insane in the Membrane,” and the band — three members of the defunct band Frisbie — performed it admirably.
* I originally had it as 1500 Pennsylvania, but was reminded it was 1600 after I got off stage.