Spaf's Journal: Gene Gets a Roommate, and is Listed With the EPA

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Usually, I write about my travels. This one is a change -- it is a little reminiscence of my grad student days. This was brought on by a visit by my former roommate, Dave. It is, like my travelogues, almost 100% based in the truth, with a few details changed to protect the guilty (and a few others forgotten because I'm getting to be a senile old fart).

During my first year of grad school, I lived in a single-bedroom apartment. This was in Atlanta, as I was going to grad school at Georgia Tech. I got the apartment in a big complex about 2 miles from Tech. The apartments were old, and a bit rundown, but the location was ideal: it was right on a bus line that went to Tech, it was near an entrance to I-75 for travel around the area, there was a grocery store a block away, and -- perhaps most important for some occasions -- there was a liquor store within walking distance.

I was able to convince the management of my good character, despite being a Yankee, primarily because I could afford the rent and had a real credit rating. I had been lucky enough to get a major fellowship that would cover the rent, the security deposit, and leave enough left over to buy grits and beer. I opted for the single apartment rather than look for roommates for two major reasons: 1) I wasn't entirely sure I was going to stay, and 2) if I did stay, I was hoping my longtime (5 years) girlfriend might come to Atlanta to join me. Fate was clearly laughing behind my back, because I ended up staying in Atlanta for 8 years, and Diane dumped me for some yuppie about 3 months after I started grad school.

So, I spent a year running at the ragged edge of poverty, but enjoying my privacy. Right, like I had much time in my apartment. Actually, I spent most of my time in the lab or in the library, trying to study for exams and pass my courses. Another reason I spent my time at the library was the noise. My downstairs neighbors were apparently a family of 22 Asian students who never slept, but who shared their one-bedroom apartment in shifts so they could play Donna Summer disco records through industrial sound systems. This was before karaoke, so they simply sang along loudly. Even to this day, if I hear "I Will Survive" I want to grab a broom handle and pound on the floor. (I know it was about that many people, because in 12 months, whenever I went to the laundry room , there were 2 or 3 of them doing their laundry -- 6pm, 3am, 7am, noon -- it didn't matter. Always someone different, always 6 loads of wash.)

After Diane gave me the heave-ho, the image of a hot bachelor pad may have come to mind. Hot it was, because the rent was so high I couldn't afford the electric bill if I ran the A/C much. So, I usually worked until 10pm, then came home and opened all the windows and sweated a lot...by myself. I remember that there were 3 women in my classes in whom I had some interest. Unfortunately, all were sighted, mostly sane, and they refused to date outside their species. Tech was not exactly great for the single male, as the male-female ratio at the time was 7-2, and of those 2, 1.5 were best described as "burly" and dreaming of a career directing drilling on an oil platform in the North Sea. So, the usual visitors to my den of potential iniquity were male classmates in study sessions.

At least a few of my classmates, however, also came over to drink beers, watch bad movies on TV, or do some gaming. The really good ones did all three. One of these was a somewhat quiet classmate named Dave. Dave & I didn't really notice each other in class at first, but we were forcibly introduced by a young woman we were both trying to ask out who told us that we'd be ideal roommates. She was right, but we thought it was a ploy so we'd stop trying to get her as a roommate. If so, it worked.

Dave & I hit it off. We had similar strange stories to tell. We liked the same odd movies. And, Dave was interested in games -- something I had as a hobby at the time. So, we got a group together to do D&D gaming some Friday nights, which was principally an excuse to tell bad stories, drink warm beer, and watch bad movies. (The cable installer had left the wrong cable box in my apartment, and I had all the premium channels although I was only paying for basic service. They never replaced it.)

One weekend, we had about 6 people over to play D&D. We had what seemed like a dozen pizzas, several cases of beer, and played until 4 in the morning. I eventually went into the bedroom and fell asleep in my clothes. A few people left, and Dave and others too tired or inebriated to drive home ended up falling asleep on the floor and couch amidst the empties.

About 8am, I was awakened by the sound of the doorbell. I staggered to the door, in rumpled clothing, my eyes somewhat bloodshot, and opened it. Two freshly-scrubbed, preppy-looking young people. They wanted to tell me about their religious sect and bring the word of God to me. Well, I wasn't particularly interested, especially before noon on a Saturday, and my lack of concentration was obvious. The young man suggested that they come in, and we could go over their Bible while sitting down. I stepped to the side so they could look into the living room -- beer cans everywhere, bodies stretched out among empty pizza boxes -- and took a step back. Dave had stirred himself and was sitting partially upright. Because of the lack of A/C, I seem to recall he had partially disrobed, which only heightened the effect of his disheveled appearance. He squinted towards the door, and roared something like -- "Send in the woman so we can ravish her!" He then threw some dice left nearby, looked at them and hollered "The fates say to send in the man, too -- she won't be enough!" With that, he fell back to the rug, more or less in a stupor.

I decided to cut things short, seeing as they were now horrified and speechless. I put on a severe expression and asked "Does your religious group make human sacrifices?" The young man barely squeaked out "N..n...no!" So, I shook my head sadly and said "Then I'm sorry -- none of us would be interested." and I closed the door in their faces. I then stumbled to my room and went back to sleep. Oddly, I was never bothered by religious solicitors at that apartment again. This may have been coupled to the skull and crosses that were mysteriously carved into the door frame sometime in the next few days. Or, it might all have been coincidence.

Anyhow, Dave & I realized that our joint performance that morning presaged a long and productive friendship. So, when my lease was up, we looked about for an apartment to share. Oddly, we ended up at the other end of the same complex, in a "townhouse." The location was ideal, after all (the grocery store expanded to 24 hours, and absorbed the liquor store). On many occasions we found that the "town" in "townhouse" was actually Arkham from H.P. Lovecraft, but that simply added to the charm.

Many adventures occurred at that locale over the next 5 years, and I may relate some of them in later stories. However, I will tell here the tale of the dishwasher, mainly because Dave and I got a severe case of the giggles a few nights ago reminiscing about it. Of course, we were sitting out on the porch drinking beers and giggling about life in general, but I'm sure there must be something about this that is likely to amuse sober people, too.

After Dave & I had been living in the apartment for a few years, we noticed that the management kept changing. Apparently, this complex was well known for tax dodges. Some company would buy in, run the place for 6 months, then sell at a paper loss for tax reasons. Meanwhile, they would invest nothing in the townhouses (they kept up the single-bedroom apartments, because that is where some of the staff lived, as did some city officials). Thus, we were sort of conditioned to not expect speedy maintenance service at our end of the complex.

One fine winter day, we loaded up the dishwasher and started it. Our usual approach to this was to wait until there were no clean dishes. We'd then chip away the dried food holding the dirty dishes together in the sink, put them in the dishwasher, put in too much detergent, and wash them a few times. This was a waste of water and energy, but we weren't really into that whole environmental mindset then (although we were preserving some odd species in containers in the back of the fridge; do you know that jalapeño peppers kept in the dark for 18 months grow pink mold that is faintly phosphorescent?). Plus, the disposal in the sink was able to chew up food less efficiently than the guy in the "before" part of a Fixodent commercial, so we usually left it to the grinder in the dishwasher: two cycles through the dishwasher could handle pretty much everything but chicken bones and one instance of Jell-O gone terribly awry.

This time, the dishwasher didn't do its usual half-assed job. It didn't do any job. It got a little way into the wash cycle and just stopped. We swore, we checked fuses, and we tried manually advancing the timer, but we had no success -- we had a dishwasher full of dirty dishes, dirty water, and large chunks of food that just kind of floated forlornly in the gray water. So, we went over to the office and filed a maintenance report.

A week later, the dishwasher was still broken. So, we finally pulled the dishes out and washed them by hand. We noticed the water was beginning to smell bad, so we did what any other trained scientist would do -- we pulled out the bottles from under the sink, and poured stuff into the dishwasher on the theory that if it would deodorize the floor, it ought to work in the dishwasher too. I seem to recall that some pine scented cleaner was the principal ingredient in this mixture. I know we got a little silly, and squirted in Windex, too, and maybe also some furniture polish. We figured it smelled bad, so some lemon fresh scent wouldn't hurt. Besides, in a few days when it was fixed, it would all be pumped out, right? We reported the problem again to the office.

Another week went by, and Dave and I switched to paper plates. We reported it again to the office, but nothing continued to happen. Eventually, we got used to using paper plates and washing the pots by hand. We saw the apartment management come and go, but no fix was forthcoming. Throughout the spring, we did dishes by hand, used disposable plates and forks (adding a certain je ne sais quoi to our all-too-infrequent dinner dates), and forgot about the fact that we had a dishwasher.

Summer came upon us in full. The A/C didn't work well, either (besides being an old unit, and often broken, the apartments weren't well insulated. It wasn't that the walls were empty of any barrier. No, it was the fact that the solid layer of cockroaches that was there instead of insulation didn't keep the heat out). Because we were in a "high crime risk" neighborhood, we kept all the windows closed while we were at school....as if there were thieves desperate enough to steal orange crate bookcases, beanbag chairs held together with duct tape, and large packages of paper plates. The apartment would get really, really warm during the day -- often above 90. So, around about August, we were complaining to a visitor, impressed with our table settings and ambiance, about the A/C being broken, and the dishwasher still being broken, and on and on. She pointed out to us that we should demand that these things get fixed, or we would pay to have them fixed ourselves and deduct the cost from our rent. As she was cute and we didn't want to appear as wimps in front of her, we marched to the office and complained. (Footnote -- didn't help, she never came back.)

Interestingly, a month before, the apartment complex had been sold yet again. Only this time, it was to a company that wanted to turn the place around and make a long-term investment. So, they took us seriously and told us they would fix it the next day. Of course, we didn't believe them.

The next day, Dave & I returned from classes to find all of our windows open. And all the windows were open next door (there were 4 apartments per building). Our cat was cowering in a tree in the courtyard. Our neighbors were eyeing us with incredible fear and loathing in their eyes. The wallpaper was hanging off the wall in the kitchen. The maintenance man was hovering in the distance, pale and drawn, with a wild look in his eyes and the smell of strong alcohol on his breath.

And we had a new dishwasher.

As it was later related to us, the repairman had shown up shortly after we left. He had tried to start the dishwasher from the front panel, but nothing happened. So, he decided to open it to look inside. Now, as best as I can recall, Dave and I had last opened this device about a week after it failed. At the time, it contained about 10 gallons of water, and about 2 or 3 pounds of various bits of food, including some eggs, grits, bacon grease, and other items of down-home Southern cooking. It also had about 3 cups of pine scented cleaner, maybe some lemon freshened soap, and who knows what else. And all this had been sitting in the dark for about 8 or 9 months. Most recently in 95 degree heat.

Anyhow, he undid the latch, and the accumulated gas pressure inside the unit blew the door open. The miasma that barreled out nearly knocked the poor man unconscious. I seem to recall him telling us that he threw up into the dishwasher as a matter of reflex. If so, it couldn't have made it any worse. Heck, he could have urinated in it and it would have sweetened the mixture. 6 hours later, the lingering smell was enough to cause a mild retch reaction in passersby, so I cannot imagine what it must have been like at ground zero.

Apparently, the contents had become some primordial soup that was breeding new and interesting anaerobic life forms. A common characteristic of these life forms was that they excreted sulfur compounds and (very) aromatic hydrocarbons. There was no longer any trace of pine or lemon, or any other scent that humans normally tolerate.

The workers involved evacuated the apartment after turning on the exhaust fan in the kitchen. Of course, the exhaust fans in the cheap construction all vented to the same flue, so the the fumes got pumped into the other apartments (from our experience, when our neighbors behind us cooked their weekly feast of braised skunk in kim chee with Limburger cheese, it was imperative that we get our exhaust fan on first to prevent a kind of sharing we could do without). One set of neighbors called the gas company, thinking there had been some kind of toxic leak. Our other neighbors -- who did the skunk cooking -- came over for the recipe.

After bringing in a portable exhaust fan, the workers discovered that the motor had rusted from the exposure to the water and chemicals, so they needed to replace the whole dishwasher. At least, that is what they claim. They simply closed it up and removed it to an EPA-approved dump site (we hope). It is possible it was shipped to Fort Dettrick for some biowarfare program. I think that maybe they simply were afraid to bail out the contents to fix it, and decided it was worth the expense to replace it. Whatever the reason, we had a nice new dishwasher...that we didn't use for several weeks, because we wanted to finish up using all the paper plates.

Oddly, thereafter, whenever Dave and I reported a maintenance problem, they fixed it right away, especially if we said "There's no rush -- we've put in a temporary fix." Our cat, Waldo, refused to come back into the apartment for weeks. And the maintenance man continued to cross himself whenever he saw either of us.

To this day, we continue to wonder why we didn't have more dates.


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Copyright © 1999 by Eugene H. Spafford. All rights reserved. Do not copy without the author's written permission.