When I turned 20, my parents gave me one of those heart-warming print shop calendars with images of familial significance replacing those of birds, or unicorns, or my personal favorite, surfer-dudes with dazzling smiles and perfectly-mussed salt-encrusted hair. 12 glorious months of bronzed chests and puka shell necklaces – a perfect antidote to the scrawny sun-deprived boys who made up the bulk of my junior high school’s male population.
Thinking themselves quite clever, my parents had decided that my calendar would showcase the many houses I had lived in during my 20 years on this earth – a journey that would end, in December, in exactly the type of funky student digs to which I was born, replete with the still au courant beatnik jug lamp and barrel stool that my father had fashioned when they were first students. That we still treasure these items is a testament to both my father’s ahead-of-its-time recyling ingenuity and craftsmanship, and to the fact that some things – like a brown jug with an orange fabric lampshade and a beer barrel with a matching orange corduroy cushion on top – just simply never go out of fashion.
But, as is often the case, I digress…
I first moved out of my parents’ house when I was 19 years-old. My friend and I rented a weird little bungalow down the hill from the university that had three separate living spaces. The price: $600 a month. We took the main house, and furnished it with borrowed furniture and a picnic table, which to this day is the best kitchen table I have ever owned. We rented the back apartment to a young man who in addition to being a friend, was a rather eccentric computer science student with a penchant for wearing nothing but sandals and Adidas short shorts. That this was Calgary in the not-so-balmy months of September through April meant that his heat was always cranked, and his hydro bill, skyrocketing.
He also had a computer. Now, if I tell you that my parents gave me a typewriter for my 21st birthday, and that I was thrilled to receive it, thinking how much easier it was going to make my life as a writer of countless essays, you can imagine how significant it was for someone to have a home computer. On one unbelievably glorious occasion, he invited me to use said computer to finish an essay which was long overdue. He set me up in front of the magical device, gave me the lowdown – which I felt was alittleunnecessary, seeing as though I had aced my grade 12 computer programming course – and went off to work. You know how the story ends. Several hours later, suffering from exhaustion and heat stroke, I put the finishing touches on what I’m sure was a brilliant concluding sentence, breathed a sigh of immense relief and accomplishment, and then promptly deleted the whole thing. I wept. He apologized. And I swore I would never again entrust my scholarship to such a fickle technology.
There was also a basement apartment which was painted in a rather horrifying array of gray and purple hues. We rented it to a small town cowboy named Cyril. I will never forget his name, because at the time, having grown up in an extremely mono-cultural suburban community, it was just about the strangest name I had ever heard. Unfortunately, that is all that I remember about Cyril. He moved in. He wore a cowboy hat. He paid $150 a month. And then at some point during the year, he moved out again.
When the landlord told us he was going to raise our rent to $700, we freaked out and jumped ship. My friend moved in with her boyfriend, and I, not for the last time, moved home again. And though my parents were thrilled, and implored me to stay, well… forever, they had already converted my bedroom into a 40-something male’s leisure palace, replete with parquet floors, dark green plaid, a bookshelf full of paperback thrillers, and a liquor cabinet. And so I sequestered myself in the basement, basking in the comforts of home while stealthily planning my next escape from suburbia.
Since then, I have called at least 20 different houses (or apartments) home – that’s equivalent to about one move for every 13-month period. I have lived in four cities, with boyfriends, and best friends, and people I have actively disliked. I have endured the company of cats who urinated on my favorite leather satchel, mice who waited until they were directly under the bed before chomping down on the foil-wrapped coconut powder that was their preferred snack, multitudes of cockroaches (see below), moths and their larvae, and fleas. In addition to the plethora of places that were absolutely fine, there were four pretty sweet deals, three basement apartments of varying unpleasantness, two instances of shacking up (of which only one was successful), and an adventure in ultra-trendy warehouse living.
There were also three failed attempts at living alone. One lasted only two weeks, though to be fair, the grocery store beneath the apartment was robbed at gunpoint while I was moving in. I cannot for the life of me remember why my sojourn in bachelor pad #2 was less than a month long, because though the neighborhood was sketchy as hell, the apartment itself was awash in gorgeous art deco detailing. The third was in Toronto, and was a roach palace, though later on – in the aforementioned trendy warehouse living experience – I would discover what it really means to live in a roach palace, where semi-annual fumigations could not stem the tide, and it was not uncommon to stare down a cockroach on your toothbrush, in the clock on the microwave, or on the butter.
Bathed in the rose-coloured glow of memory, I look back on my time in the first roach palace with some fondness. For though it was really a terrible, terrible place, a new-to-town friend stayed with me for two of those four weeks, and we spent several lovely afternoons, sitting on the futon, drinking tea and watching Blossom, safely removed from the 24-hour roach convoy, which traveled in a direct line from the kitchen to the bathroom.
In Toronto, no matter how nice your apartment is, you are likely to have at least one verminal intrusion. Even in the house that has come to be known as The Nicest Place We Are Ever Likely to Live – in addition to gazillion-foot ceilings and stained glass windows, it had a room whose sole function was entertaining – there were moths. There was also a basement full of high-pitched females who did karaoke every weekend and who only liked Shania Twain and Celine Dion, an upstairs neighbor who only listened to Elton John, and a third neighbor, and as we later discovered, distant relative, who refused to close his bathroom window while showering and who was learning how to be a Multi-Orgasmic Man.
But by far the craziest living situation I have ever endured, was the three months I spent living in the House of Love, a three bedroom bungalow in Calgary’s Kensington neighborhood that housed approximately 40-odd people in a 2-year period. How is this possible you say? People moving out, people moving in, why? Because they were 20-something and impoverished and prone to wandering off, and because there was a responsible engineer from Saskatchewan who despite his cowboy boots, torn jeans, tied-dyed t-shirts, and passion for all things hippy, had signed the lease and made sure that the rent was paid each month.
For most of those 2 years, there were 6 permanent residents, all male: the previously mentioned engineer, an aspiring model, three others who had serious office jobs, and a guy – who I think was called Muck – who held some sort of job, but whose main passion was finding new and disgusting ways to prepare Kraft Dinner. He ate these nightly, and called each one Mucky’s Surprise. The aspiring model made spaghetti, and though it was not intentional, I would often catching myself eating the mushrooms out of it while it was simmering on the stove. Considering the role that food plays in my life today, I cannot remember ever cooking a meal in the House of Love, or even keeping food in the fridge, though I am sure I must have. What I remember is daily meals at the downtown food court, where we would meet to consume what came to be the House of Love’s signature dish: white rice with teriyaki sauce.
I was one of the house’s short term residents, spending about 3-4 months there in the fall of 1991. There were about 11 of us living in the house at the time, and when I moved in, I was the only girl. That my parents actually helped me move into this situation seems impossible now, though they must have, for we were always close, and they only lived a 10-minute drive away. What a horror to see your daughter shacked up with a hoard of men, though I suspect that their unusual pedigree as 9-5ers helped to ease the blow. They were also insanely healthy, and despite drinking tons of coffee and beer and consuming copious amounts of hallucinogens, were engaged in all manner of long-distance endurance activities. During my respite, I took to the paths, running every night before dinner, regardless of the weather. I actually started to think of myself as a runner, though my commitment to fitness ebbed quickly when my residency came to an end.
Shortly after I moved in, another woman joined us, and there were some girlfriends who kept us company. Most nights, there were additional guests: the participants of sexual encounters, friends from out of town, visiting family members, or people who came to dinner and couldn’t be bothered to go home again. Most of the time, they would sleep on the couch, or on the floor, but on countless occasions, having spent a night out with someone who didn’t live in the house, I would come home to find someone asleep in my bed. The first couple of times, I got angry and made them get up and leave, but time, and the “peace and love/everyone’s welcome” vibe of the house got the best of me, and I would simply nudge them until they moved over enough that I could climb in beside them.
This “peace and love/everyone’s welcome” vibe also contributed to the house’s reputation as a good place to go if you were having a bad trip. Those were terrible nights, because as hard as it is to fall asleep in a house full of people, it is even harder to do so when there is someone yelling and screaming in the living room because they’re in the midst of a full-blown acid-related panic attack. That this happened on more than one occasion was seen by the house’s primary residents as a compliment, for it had become a place of nurture and support for anyone seeking a path to a more righteous and happy experience.
But in the end, what made the house so bizarre was not its function as a three-bedroom chill-out room, for there have long been (and continue to be) frat houses and band houses and punk houses where such activities and lifestyles endure. Because I never lived in a dorm, I saw this as my chance to experience the highs and lows of communal living, a quintessential experience that I knew that I would never repeat. No, what made the house so unusual was the fact that despite its appearance as a den of iniquity, most of us actually held down 9-5 jobs and so held to a rigorous morning bathroom schedule of 10-minute visits, which were scheduled to the second between 6:30 and 7:45. That the shower had a clear curtain meant that I was less comfortable with doubling up, as many of the guys did to extend their allotted time, yet somehow I always made it to work. At the same time that we were polishing our free-wheeling gadabout ways, we were also somehow learning how to be responsible, hard-working adults.
When, on the day we moved out – for the house was sold out from under us at the end of my last month – we discovered a small green fern growing out of the bathroom carpet, it was seen as a sign that this was indeed a house of love, a house of growth, and a house of spiritual, sexual and intellectual nourishment.
Today, as a homeowner, I see things in a much clearer light, recognizing the fern’s appearance in the bathroom as nothing more than a sign that the support beams had begun to rot.