saavedra77: Forget Me Not (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Fo)
[personal profile] saavedra77
Cleaning house a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a box full of pictures from the 1990s. Pulling the first couple out of the box, the sight of them was literally dizzying: they were packaged in little envelopes with the logo of a photo developer, the images were washed out, there were brown negatives behind them in the envelope.  Pre-digital.  Pre-digital. And, it started to dawn on me, predating almost everything that I’m taking for granted as I sit here typing.

More than the antediluvian format or the dust, the realization of difference, distance shocked, couldn’t be assimilated–as if the digital and online facts of my present life had been identical in 1990.  A part of me recoiled from the realization that this was even the past.  The people I was connected to, the clubs we went to, the books and films we were talking about, the local politics.  But everything in those photos was ten-to-twenty years ago, when pictures were taken on film and life online mostly just meant email.

And I lived in the Bates Motel.

For the entire decade I lived in a third floor flat in the middle of Amherst, Massachussetts, sharing that space with about a dozen other people over the years, all of them students or recent ex-students. Two college friends and I first stumbled on the apartment during the summer of 1989, as we were casting about for what to do with ourselves On the Outside. (Ted had majored in theater, Kelly in film, and I'd rounded out the unmarketable liberal arts backgrounds by doing comparative literature.)

The apartment comprised the entire third floor of an ominous-looking grey Victorian near the center of town. We christened the house "the Bates Motel" at first sight, for reasons that I think you can discern from the photo. The place looked particularly awesome with a full-moon in the background. We lusted after it from the moment we came across the "For Rent" sign--and that was before we glimpsed the inside.

The bottom floors were all professional offices, and not the kind where people worked late, so we would have the building to ourselves at night. What would become our apartment was easily twice the size of any other place I've lived in since: eight rooms, including a large, L-shaped kitchen; a pantry roomier than many apartment kitchens; a dining room; a living room whose entry was flanked by--I kid you not--Doric columns; a tile-floored bathroom centered on a huge claw foot tub; two official bedrooms (although one of the other rooms had to be converted to this purpose, as well); and a walk-in closet (in addition to several regular ones). The floors were hardwood, rendered all golden and shiny on clear days by the light flooding through the giant windows found in literally every room--even the walk-in closet.

Ted, Kelly, and I snatched the place up pretty much immediately, and spent the next two years living lives of Wildly Diminished Responsibility: Video store jobs were landed. Bills were paid ... eventually. We wasted hundreds of hours watching movies brought home free of charge from that video store. We threw awesome parties at night, frequently with cinematic themes. (For one, we decorated the walls with black trash bags, and then left them like that for nine months.) We snagged a shower curtain that actually read "Bates Motel" from some novelty catalog and felt amazingly cool hanging it above that claw foot tub. We went to a dizzying array of shows: the Ramones, Michelle Shocked, Bob Mould, the Mekons, Cordelia's Dad, Martin Carthy, Beausoleil, Warren Zevon. We opened our doors to a long succession of girlfriends and couch-surfers. Kelly made lots of gumbo. I made improvisational stir fries. During an unusually ambitious autumn, Ted directed a mesmerizing production of "Marat/Sade" at our alma mater, Hampshire College--just to keep his hand in the theater game.

Typically, I would find that a given configuration of housemates lasted no more than two years. Ted and Kelly established this pattern. Ted found a set design job in Boston in 1991, and Kelly lit out for San Francisco the same year--the last I heard, he was working in porn.

I however stuck around, recruiting an eccentric microbiologist named Sian and an even more eccentric supermarket clerk named Bob to help me hang on to that fabulous flat.

Sian brought around a large circle of friends with science backgrounds and lots of geek-fu. She also came with two hedgehogs (Tiggy and something ...) and an older Maine Coon cat named Gregor.

Bob walked around town wearing a straw boater and a shoulder bag shaped like a fish (patterned on something in a Magritte painting, I think). We listened to a lot of Laurie Anderson.

Sian soon persuaded me to adopt my own Maine Coon kitten, one who who would grow up to be my favorite cat ever, Puig (pronounced "Puj"--it's Catalan, fyi). Puig had long black-and-white hair, a white snub nose, wide saucer eyes, and ginormous paws. He'd be with me for the next fifteen years.

But I digress.

This is about where I got caught up in local politics: I joined a scruffy little activist group working on campaign finance reform. We'd stumbled onto the idea that the main problem with American politics consists in the fact that we put our politicians up for auction every election season, and they often feel more beholden to funders than voters.

The group organized ballot initiatives, at the town, state senate, and (with the help of larger organizations) ultimately the state level. We never lost one. Our last ballot questions dramatically changed Massachusetts election law--although in the end the legislature found a way to avoid implementing the changes.

So I spent many a frigid New England weekend going door to door gathering initiative signatures. I designed posters and flyers. I wrote letters to the editor. I called precincts on election nights to get correct vote tallies, made sure that local newspapers reported them right. I even gave a speech on local cable access once; someone stopped me in the supermarket the next day to compliment me on it. It was all very exciting. In a further spasm of civic-mindedness, I ran for and was elected to Amherst Town Meeting in 1993, and remained involved in town politics until moving away in '99.

Around the time that I first got elected to Town Meeting, I was dating a grad student named Deanna, who doted on me and made me feel exceedingly lucky. Unfortunately, after two years together I was still terrified of commitment and pretty much fucked it up.

At some point, Sian and I had a falling out with Bob, and chose to renew the lease without him. His replacement was Sahra, another Hampshire College alumn, with whom Sian and I immediately hit it off--her housemate interview seamlessly morphed into four hours of just hanging out, making each other laugh. Sahra promptly moved in and we settled into new household routines: watching an embarrassing lot of television, exchanging music, cooking almost every night.

The good times with Sian and Sahra unfortunately ended in early 1994, when they both moved to Seattle, leaving me with the problem of finding two new housemates in a hurry.

For me, however, this process included a bright silver lining: She was a spunky, headturning UMass senior with a killer smile, a sharp, practical mind, and a whimsical sense of humor. We met at a point when she was on the rebound and I was about as cocky and confident as I've ever been. Our dates were simple, as neither of us was exactly flush with cash: we took long walks and drives, rented movies, hiked, made one another mix tapes. She introduced me to Bruce Campbell movies, the Maxx, Mystery Science Theater, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alanis Morissette, Schubert sonatas. I introduced her to the Coen Brothers, Neil Gaiman, Pedro Almdóvar, Gloria Anzaldúa, cycling, politics. We explored weird little Western Massachusetts hill towns. We became inseparable in no time.

She moved into the Bates in January, 1995. Truthfully, I'd never been so happy. For the next year-and-a-half, the apartment became more than just the downtown pad it'd been with my former housemates--it actually felt like home.

Buoyed by this sudden rush of happiness, I went back to school in the fall, completing long-neglected distribution requirements and a senior seminar, beginning work on a senior thesis. The beginning of 1996 found me teaching a January-term course on democratic theory. That spring, I landed a fantastic job: researching and writing a handbook on money and politics for an Amherst-based foundation.

Naturally, though, my run of success and good fortune was neither indefinite nor unbroken. I suffered my first epileptic seizure in the fall of '95, after pulling an all-nighter; more episodes followed, with increasing frequency. I left school again after my brief teaching experience in January, hoping to deal with these new health problems and buy more time to work on the thesis. The foundation job came my way at about this time--but this was about the only positive development in my life during the ensuing months. And by the summer my co-authors and I had finished the book, meaning that I had worked myself out of a job. I found another eventually, but it wasn't anything to brag about---handling text orders at a book shop just by our house. This just enabled me to keep afloat financially. I was becoming increasingly anxious about the future.

And then my most important relationship started to deteriorate. She became moody, evasive. I pressed her to find out what was wrong, and finally tapped a deep vein of discontent. I wanted to work it out, but she remained ambivalent. I think she just wanted more, didn't want to become caught up in the rut I'd let myself descend into. She moved out at the end of the summer, into an apartment a couple of towns away.

After she left, the Bates stopped feeling so much like home. I found new housemates, but didn't bond with them the way that I had with Ted and Kelly or Sian and Sahra. More than that, I'd become used to a completely different kind of cohabitation and now resented having to share my household with virtual strangers.

My circumstances improved somewhat in 1997: Sian finally moved back. My coworker Andrew moved in with us. He was the kind of character Robert Downey Jr. would play: breezy, witty, boozy, libidinous. Being around him never failed to improve my mood: his conversation provoked and inspired, his behavior reminded me to seize the day. During these months, I managed to put myself together enough to return to college, finish my thesis, and graduate.

Unfortunately, this little renaissance was even shorter-lived the previous one: I found that having my degree did not appreciably improve my job prospects, at least not as a carless wonder living in Western Massachusetts. Andrew moved away to New Orleans--which was perfect for him, but a real loss for me. Sian and I never became as close as we had been before, and our experiences with a succession of third housemates were hit or miss.

By 1998, I was more than ready for a change--I just needed to figure out where to go and what I would do there.

That October, Sahra invited Sian and me to Seattle for her wedding. The ceremony would take place on Halloween at a little church north of the city; Cordelia's Dad would be playing at the reception. Lots of Hampshire College alumns would be in attendance. Meanwhile, I had a week's worth of free time to explore the city. By the end of that vacation I knew for certain I wanted to live here: Seattle was everything I was looking for: Urban but not overcrowded, walkable, beautiful, artsy, educated, liberal, and--at the time--boasting a terrific job market.

The next time I spoke to my ex--who was now living in the suburbs of Boston--I told her that I was thinking seriously about moving cross-country. She said she guessed that I should go for it. That was extremely hard to hear, but it helped give me the impetus to pick myself up and move on.

It took me nearly a year to get my act together, but in August 1999, I finally packed my worldly belongings into a truck. Sian saw me down to the driveway and hugged me goodbye. And I drove almost the entire length of I-90, through Buffalo, Chicago, several states worth of mind-numbing prairies, the Badlands, and then over the Rockies and Cascades to Seattle. Where I have spent the subsequent decade feeling right at home in the middle of the city.

Sitting on the floor with the box of pictures, though, I feel just, I mean just like the guy in that Barenaked Ladies song "The Old Apartment", which I first heard on Sian's stereo, longer ago--do I even have to say it?--than I care to remember. I'm right there with him, wanting to go back to the place like it's the time, break the window, reach around and undo the latch, like it's still 1995 in there. The song even gets a few weird little details right, like the "crooked landing," which I guess the singer's dysfunctional house had, too. I know that there's nothing clever or witty about the refrain--"This is where we used to live"--but the timbre of his voice nails me, exactly where I am.

Date: 2010-04-13 07:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Nice: for some reason, the characters/people in this piece remind me of ones from novels written by Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tart, though yours seem to have a lot more heart and humanity.

I really like this post. It is provoking me to get back to my Livejournal writing.

Espero todo bien.


Wonderfully written!

Date: 2010-04-18 11:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I meant to comment on this post sooner. I realized that I had been to the Bates Motel way back when I was dating [ profile] number42 (and was living in Northampton, having graduated UMass and was trying to figure out my life). Of course I'm embarrassed to say my silly brain refuses to release any memories of meeting you. How sad, since I do remember enjoying myself whenever I visited, including a fun Thanksgiving dinner.

Sometimes, the world is bizarrely small.

Re: Wonderfully written!

Date: 2010-04-30 04:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I knew that we were part of the same pre-LJ social network, but guessed that we just had friends or friends-of-friends in common. That's really cool that we met @ the Bates; I have vague memories of that Thanksgiving, but I must admit that I don't clearly remember who was there (except Sian & Sahra, b/c it must have been during that period), but I remember the food set out on the table. (Sadly, not all of my most vivid memories are of people & relationships, just in case the above makes me sound overly deep ...). It'd be cool if we ran into one another again, sometime, see what memories that shakes out of the trees ...

Re: Wonderfully written!

Date: 2010-04-30 04:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
My memory of the Thanksgiving dinner was bringing along an apple pie (my first!) that I had spent the night baking from scratch (why I'll never know) and making Glühwein - which became tricky because the pot I brought along starting leaking the wine and a new pot had to be procured. Funny how I'm remembering "stuff" and not people. (Well, I remember Dan and Sahra - and a cat - being there but that's mainly it.)

Re: Wonderfully written!

Date: 2010-04-30 09:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Cat was Gregor, R.I.P. Very dignified feline, whom we all miss.

Re: Wonderfully written!

Date: 2010-04-30 04:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, and I also know that was a couple of weeks before Dan and I broke up, which an unpleasant memory. But, well, shit happens.

And yes, maybe we will meet again someday. That would be fun and interesting.


saavedra77: Back to the byte mines ... (Default)
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