By Wil Forbis
In 1992, at the age of twenty-one, I moved to Seattle, Washington and stayed there for nine years. It was a decision I've always cherished as it allowed me to witness two of the most important social events of the nineties - the rise of alternative music and the onset (onslaught?) of the internet - in a town that was vitally important to both of them. It was an environment that lent itself perfectly as a backdrop to an infinite array of twenty-something adventures. Awash in a sea of heroin snorting rock stars (and their hangers-ons) and nose-pierced CEOs of internet porn startups (I shared the same chiropractor as Seth Warshavsky), I was playing in bands, working at the Elephant Car Wash, drinking forty ouncers outside the infamous Lake Union Pub and having the time of my life. I wouldn't trade my time spent there for even a thousand dollars. (Do I hear eleven hundred? Eleven hundred! Sold to the gentlemen wearing the peacock hat and feather boa!)
But being in Seattle had its downsides as well. Or at least being poor in Seattle had its downsides. Over the course of my near decade in that town I lived in a steady stream of seedy, cockroach infested, crime ridden apartment buildings; tenements that were often the site of rampant drug use, murder investigations, shrieking, crying babies (and full grown adults) and extremely ugly people having sex. In my first years in Seattle I lived smack dab in downtown. The apartment manager was by day a likeable Hispanic woman; at night she would drink malt liquor and walk through the halls screaming obscenities at her boyfriend. (It was from her tongue that I first heard the term "beeeeyaaatch" applied to a man.) When I traversed the area outside the building I would often encounter an old black grandmother selling crack while being pushed in a wheelchair. (Her coffers were never lined with my silver due to my longstanding admonition against buying crack from grandmothers. Fool me once, etc.) A few years later I moved a few blocks north into a one-bedroom apartment (shared with four other guys and two cats) that was the site of an almost infinite amount of alcoholism, debauchery and unsanitariness. (I still remember a dried cat turd that lay in the bathroom for weeks because no one wanted the responsibility of cleaning it up.) From there I moved into a series of apartments in the Capital Hill area that, while offering improvements over downtown, still presented plenty to complain about. One night I was almost mugged by three punks while throwing out a carton of rotten eggs. Used condemns were continually draped on the sidewalks. In 2000 I watched out my window as dozens of Seattle riot police marched through a thicket of tear gas during the infamous WTO Riots.
But one apartment building outdid them all and I have consequently come to refer to it as the Apartment From Hell. (Hey! That's the title of this article!)
The circumstances for my moving into the Apartment From Hell were a sterling example of my tendency for procrastination. I had committed to leaving the domicile I had been staying in by the end on the month but did not actually bother looking for a new apartment until a few days before my due date. With the pressures of time closing in upon me, and no car to readily move my belongings around, I walked up the street and found a rather desolate looking building advertising unspeakably cheapo rent on an efficiency apartment. A manager took me up two flights of stairs to show me the room - it was a wooden floored shit-hole with a refrigerator and rotisserie oven (that doubled as my heating source during the winter I stayed there) and a bathroom down the hall. As my toes curled I said, "I'll take it."*
*In the interest of historical accuracy, I should confess I'm not sure I actually said, "I'll take it." I might have said, "This will have to do," or "I will concede rent these premises from you sir or madam," but the gist of whatever I said was, "I'll take it."
I'm not sure my toes curled either.
Problems started right as I moved in. I was lugging my belongings up to the third floor when one of my neighbors stepped out and asked if he could borrow a hundred dollars. The details escape me but the conversation escalated to the point that I snapped something sarcastically at him and he said, "You better watch yourself. I know where you live." "Great," I thought. "I've been here a couple minutes and one of my neighbors wants to kill me." But the real kicker came when I realized that one of my other third floor neighbors was Charles Manson.
Not the real Charles Manson of course - he'd never stoop to live in such a hovel. This guy was an eerie Manson lookalike who was infamous for walking the streets of Capital Hill while having animated conversations with himself. He obviously bathed about once a year and a friend of mine who worked at a bagel store told me Manson had once come in and defecated all over the bathroom. And now he was my neighbor. Many a night would pass where I would hear him pacing the hallways having detailed two-way conversations with himself. It was hard to get the gist of his ruminations but I think religion was involved because more than once I heard him mention the name "Satan." I was, of course, curious how a man completely removed from reality could pay rent and through a little snooping learned he had a sister who took care of all his bills.
Aside from the guy who wanted to kill me and the Manson-clone, the rest of my third floor neighbors were amiable, if reliably course, people. Across the hall from me was a guy I'd seen panhandling many times on Capital Hill's main drag, Broadway Ave*. He seemed to speak mostly by coughing. I might peak in his usually open door and ask him what time it was and in between swigs of booze he would erupt into a Influenzic spasm - "CoughCoughCoughCoughCoughCoughCough" - while pointing to his clock. In the apartment concurrent to me was another alcoholic bum, but a nice guy generally capable of speech. Upon meeting him I told him I liked his shirt and that seemed to win him over.
* In this way the Apartment from Hell was a real eye opener to me. I'd always assumed all panhandlers curled up under an overpass or atop a heating grill when night came, it was a surprise to me these guys had actual apartments.
Of course the lower floors also had a cast of freakos just as determined to prove their mettle in the realm of degenerative weirdness. For instance, there was "Hideously Burned Man," a fellow who looked like he stepped on a claymore in 'Nam and was now a mass of pinkish scar tissue. He seemed quite comfortable with his disfigurement and in fact years after I moved out I saw him on the bus joshing with some punked out teenagers. A few apartments over from him was "Grizzly Adams" an eight foot mass of hair and fat bundled up in a western style overcoat. He never spoke a word and if anyone was taking bags of severed heads in and out of the building it was this guy.
Perhaps the queerest (and I mean "queer" in the old English sense of the word, a relative of "odd" but an adjective with its own unique flavor) inhabitants of the building were an old gay couple that lived on the second floor. They were both well over fifty and a studied example of the "opposites attract" theorem. One man was an old American Indian who looked exactly like the wizened archetype Will Sampson used to provide for Hollywood. He was disabled to some degree and walked with a cane. His partner was a short but massively muscled Hispanic man with a full duck tail hairstyle. It was as if Chief Geronimo and the Mexican Elvis had gotten together at the retirement home.
The building went through several apartment managers in my short time there; the one that stands out most on my mind was Sarah, a friendly, fleshy lesbian in her mid twenties. She ran a tight ship and had an army of lesbian cohorts that served as handymen, security forces etc. One problem with the building was that it had so many cockroaches that they would get in the walls and electrocute themselves on the faulty wiring, thereby shorting out a floor or two. This would require that a lesbian would come to my room, inspect the wall socket and go into the basement to throw the switch. I remember on one such occasion I had to fight the urge to cut palpable "hetero-homo" tension by saying, "At last we can be alone together."
There's no doubt that managing such a seedy premises would be emotionally taxing but Sarah never let it slip. One night I arrived home and was forced to step over a man having some sort of drug seizure in the hallway. Sara popped out of her office and, while never dropping a smile, informed me that the paramedics were "on their way."
Of course, a couple of psychotic bums, burn victims and lesbians managers does not an "Apartment from Hell" make. What, exactly, was so hellish about the whole place? First, the basic living situation just plain sucked. As I mentioned, the only cooking utensil was this rotisserie oven and since I've never been a fan of rotisserie chicken it was next to worthless. (On top of that it operated on some sort of crank timer that made a hideous grinding noise as it unwound.) Fortunately I'd pertained a microwave from my Dad's house years earlier and could subsist on a steady diet of Lean Cuisine and Stouffers.
The bathroom down the hall thing was another problem. I like to pee a lot and it's a big hassle to have to leave your apartment, lock the door and walk down the hall just to take a leak. It didn't take me long to adopt a habit of pissing in the sink. And anytime I took a shower I'd made sure to bring a large scuba knife with me to fight of any of the numerous child molesters in the building who were probably fantasizing about a trim, wide-eyed youth with classic Carey Grant looks.
Additionally the surrounding buildings outside carried their own curses. To my left was a sort of halfway house for recovering drug addicts and it was not uncommon to hear their pained screams cut through the night as they jolted awake from claustrophobic junkie nightmares. (This was assuming I could hear the screams over the Satanic mutterings of the Manson clone creeping just outside my door.) And if you continued up the street you fell deeper and deeper into a world of low rent apartment buildings in an area that seemed to have been forsaken by the City Maintenance Department. It was not uncommon to look outside and see a police car or ambulance lining up along the block.
On one occasion, had my luck turned a little more for the worse, one of those ambulances could have been for me. About four months into my stay I was awoken at around 5:00 AM by a pounding on my door. I rolled out of bed and stepped on my glasses thereby knocking one of the lenses out of the frame. Upon opening the door I was greeted by a large black man fuming because someone had taken the pile of books he'd left in the hallway. I would have offered the staid advice that it's entirely predictable that your books will be stolen when you leave them in the hallway of an apartment building filled with junkies and criminals, but I was half asleep and he was, as I said, a large black man. Though he didn't live in the building I ended up seeing the guy in the hallway a few times over the next few months and we seemed on friendly terms.
Then, a couple nights before I was about to move out of the building, a knock came on the door. I suspected it was my book-loving friend and I must have already grown a little wary of him so I grabbed the trusty scuba knife and holstered it in the back of my belt. I answered the door and once again saw the big black dude. He sort of invited himself in and started rambling about how he'd been up for three days and needed a place to crash. It was pretty obvious to me that he was coming down from some sort of amphetamine high and was on shaky mental ground. I tried to explain that I was just on my way out and that he'd have to leave or I'd have to kick him out, but he just gave me a steely glare and said, "Naw, that ain't gonna happen man." Somehow though, with a bit more verbal jousting I managed to talk him out of the apartment and I figured that was the end of it. But the next day I discovered he'd left my apartment gone down to the manager's office (the manager at that point was a fat, short, black, gay dude) and pulled a gun on him. I didn't need to do much mental math to realize he'd been armed the whole time he'd been in my apartment.
A few days later, I moved out of the Apartment From Hell into a two bedroom with my friends Ashley and Mica. I recall coming down while carrying a load of stuff into Ashley's car and seeing him having a bewildering conversation with coughing man. I put my arms around both of them and said, "Somehow I knew you two would hit it off." Coughing man coughed in agreement.
Of course, that wasn't the end of it. About a week later I discovered one of my checkbooks had been stolen and someone had written hundreds of dollars of checks in my name, thereby depleting my account of much needed funds. I soon learned that a few people from the apartment building had had their checkbooks stolen and it clearly seemed to be an inside job. (I've always suspected the a fat, short, black, gay dude.) Eventually the bank reinstated my funds though not before several nights of dining exclusively on ramen noodles.
In the years since my time in the Apartment From Hell, I've moved up in the world and have found myself living in improved degrees of comfort. I often wonder, were I forced to go back to living in the sorts of places I lived a decade ago (for instance, when the global race war that is sure to happen occurs), whether I would blanche at the experience. Have I grown soft over the years with such pleasurable amenities like a bathroom that's actually part of my apartment and working smoke detectors (which I have disabled in order to make my delightful recipe for seared salmon)? Have I, no longer challenged by a living environment that includes the pained screeches of junkies, the onslaught of burn victims, Grizzly men, Manson clones, checkbook thieves and gun toting bibliophiles, become soft like the underside of a baby walrus? And I must concede that the answer is yes, yes I have. This is the trade off one must make in life. Good living, comfortable dwellings and calm surroundings may allow the mind to relax, the soul to breath, the psyche to sigh, but they also kind of turn you into a pussy.
There's a bit of a postscript to this story as well. Several years after I'd left the Apartment From Hell I was reading an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about the difficulty sexual offenders had finding places to live once they gotten out of jail. Most apartment managers, it seemed, simply didn't want to rent rooms to convicted child rapists. In fact there was only one building in the city that would even consider it and it had become well known amongst the sex offender community as the place to go. Sure enough, it was my old apartment building. And suddenly I didn't feel so silly arming myself with a scuba knife in the shower stall.
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Wil Forbis is a
well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending
chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the
world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy,
he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.