Before I say anything, I need to apologize for having such petty problems. I feel like an asshole for having the degree of internal angst that I have over problems that are so small. I’m entirely aware that there are people who are hungry, people who are homeless, people who are sick with physically painful illnesses, and I feel that I have no right to be so miserable over things in my life that are so comparatively small. But still, it’s there. I am miserable, miserable enough to start my morning swallowing an Ativan with my coffee. I don’t like taking the Ativan because it makes me feel sluggish and taking one in the morning is especially bad. However, it keeps me from having a full-blown anxiety attack, the kind where I start acting out and do weird things that I regret when I calm down.
One of my problems is that I’m lonely. Now lonely isn’t dying, but sometimes if feels like it is. The other problems, well they’re the petty sort of problems that don’t deserve a blog post, but I have no one to tell, so I guess I’ll put it on the internet and tell anyone who’s listening.
First of all, I’m a slob, not so much the dirty kind, but the disorganized kind. When things get disorganized enough, then my place may start getting dirty too, but my principal problem is disorganization.
Several years ago, I had to leave New York City because my income had stagnated and my rent and my health insurance kept rising. Eventually, I was priced out of the place in which I’d been living. I needed to make a change. My career, if my life’s hodgepodge of unrelated jobs can be dignified with that word, had stalled. I enrolled in a Master’s Degree program in Computer Science in the hope of straightening it out and moved in with my sister, which definitely relieved my rent problems.
My sister has been living in Baltimore for the past thirty years. She came here to go to college and never left. She’s married and she and her husband own a large house with a spare room and they did their best to make me feel welcome and comfortable. So I put most of my possessions in boxes. I was coming from a small Manhattan apartment, so there wasn’t too much. Years earlier, I learned that my disorganization meant that it was better if I owned less rather than more. Still, there was stuff and that stuff went into boxes. Occasionally, while I was at my sister’s I would need an item that was in a box. The box would dutifully be hauled out, actually, several boxes. I would rummage through the boxes looking for the item, and then the box would go in the corner.
Finally, we agreed that although it was economical to live at my sister’s place, it was awkward for me. As a temporary move it was good, but after a year and a half, I wanted to have what felt like a life again. There was something so contingent and unsettled about living in her spare room and having most of my possessions in cardboard boxes. I was living in Baltimore, but it felt so temporary. She lives in a suburban section on the edge of town and without a car I felt trapped in the house.
So I got a condo closer to the center of town. Baltimore is a city full of row houses. As a single woman living alone, I didn’t want a whole house, just an apartment. That meant there weren’t many choices about where to live. There are some nice condos down near the harbor, but they’re comparatively pricey, well, pricey for Baltimore. So I moved into a condo just north of Johns Hopkins University, right at the point where the urban density of the city changes to a suburban environment. Although I thought it was an urban area when I moved here, I’m more car dependent than I hoped. For the first few months here, I didn’t have a car and I felt trapped. I now have a cute little economy car which I happen to like, although I still don’t like driving. That was the reason I moved to New York City in the first place, because you can have a full life there without a car. Most of the rest of the country is not like that, Baltimore included.
The place wasn’t quite a “fixer-upper”, but it definitely needed repairs. Had it been a house rather than I condo, I’m sure that it would have been a fixer-upper. I shouldn’t complain about the condition too much because I had a tight budget. It’s an inherently nice apartment in a frankly elegant building that is noted for its architecture in a nice, if stuffy, neighborhood. Had it been in good shape, I could have never afforded it. A few repairs and I could easily sell it for more than I paid, so there’s the nice assurance of not being “under water.”
But those repairs. Throughout the period I was describing I began falling into a depression. There were several stages to the decline and if things had gone right rather than wrong at several junctures, I think I could have avoided a full-blown depressive episode of the sort that wound me up in the hospital.
There were several things I knew I had to do. One was taking up the worn, ugly vinyl sheet flooring in the kitchen which I replaced with linoleum tile. Next was refinishing the hardwood floors. This turned out to be a disaster. The concrete slab floors are covered with hard wood parquet tiles. These are very common in buildings in Manhattan built in the 50s and 60s and I’ve spent much of my adult life in apartments with floors like this and visiting friends with similar floors. I refinished a floor once and it was a big job. My thought here was that before I moved in, I would hire a professional to refinish the floors while the apartment was empty.
First, however, we discovered a problem we didn’t know we had when we bought it. The heating/cooling units did not work. They had to be replaced for quite a lot of money, thousands of dollars. It was now summertime and the large windows resulted in a lot of solar gain. The architectural masterpiece was built in 1959. If you know a little about architecture history of the period, this was the era in which Le Corbusier said that the world should be eighteen degrees. This was long before the oil crisis, long before Chernobyl, people were optimistic about the possibilities enabled by modern technology and they built buildings that were heavily dependent on it. Without air-conditioning and elevators this building is simply unlivable. The apartment was broiling hot and no work could be done until the hvac units were fixed.
It took some time, but after a few weeks that was done. It wasn’t cheap, but I do have to say that the company was competent, perhaps the only competent people I’ve met in Baltimore.
There were two things I wanted to get done before moving my possessions into the apartment. One was painting the walls and the other was refinishing the floors, two things that are infinitely easier to do in an empty space. I used to work as a decorative painter and normally would do any painting myself. However, my sister said that I should just make life easy for myself and hire some people to do it for me so I could get going on other things. It sounded reasonable. One upside of the apartment having been owned by an elderly woman who didn’t really take care of it is that there wasn’t a lot of thick, bad paint jobs. This had to be the world’s easiest paint assignment. A modern apartment without a lot of nooks and crannies, smooth flat walls and not much in the line of woodwork or moldings. The job also required some wallpaper removal in the bathroom and the removal of a wallpaper border along the ceiling in the bedroom.
First of all, they didn’t remove the wall paper. They painted right over it. The paint hasn’t adhered properly and in the bathroom it is literally sliding off the paper. The painting itself is among the sloppiest I’ve ever seen in my life. Even though most of the hardware hadn’t been painted in the past, they didn’t take it off before painting as I had asked. Nor did they tape it, or even make an attempt to paint around it neatly. On one knob on a cabinet, they slopped paint on it at one point, yet failed to cover all of the previous paint at another point on the other side of the knob. They clearly just swirled around it quickly with a brush like they didn’t give a damn. Same around switch plates, towel racks, etc. Considering that the modern apartment had so few features like this… well why go on, it’s clear they were incompetent and didn’t give a shit. The painters had come recommended by a contractor friend of a friend. It’s not as if I had tried to hire the cheapest people out there. Fixing the paint job will take more effort than simply painting it myself would, far more effort. Taking off wallpaper is enough of a pain. Taking off wallpaper that someone has painted over strikes me as a nightmare. I’m not even sure how to do that. Plus, I now have to scrape off all the drips. Even worse, they must have used a 3/4 inch nap roller cover. The previously smooth walls are now covered with those thick bumps and there’s those ridges someone gets when the paint spreads out along the edge of the roller and the person painting is a total incompetent who’s not paying attention and doesn’t go back over it to smooth it out. These ridges are all over the place and they make me angry every time I see them, which is several times a day. I don’t know what to do with this awful paint job. I feel at a total loss. Can a bad paint job drive someone into a depression? There are days that I think about how much I hate my life and I want to get out of this crummy little city. I think to myself, I’ll just sell the fucking condo and go somewhere else, anywhere. Then I think that I have to finish fixing up the things I started. Then I think of the paint job and I feel trapped. I hate this city, I hate this apartment and I hate the fucking painters who ruined it.
Next, the floor. Even more so than painting, refinishing the floor before moving in makes so much sense. Refinishing the floor was not a choice. It was a necessity, one that I was aware of before buying the place. Some idiot, in the great Baltimore tradition of total incompetence, put down a coat of polyurethane without wondering what might already be on the floor. It was probably a Swedish finish. In any case, the polyurethane didn’t adhere and it has been coming up in spots over time. It looks like there are pieces of old cellophane tape scattered all over the floor. They stick to my feet and I have to brush them off my clothes. I’ve even picked some out of my food on several occasions. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Once, when I was twenty-three or twenty-four and I found a reasonably priced apartment in Manhattan in “as is” condition, I refinished a floor, but I’m going on fifty and this just seemed like a job for a professional. So we call the company in town that everyone recommended, whose website advertises how they repair and refinish floors in historic houses, etc., etc. Certainly, my nineteen fifties parquet tile should be nothing for them. After all, I’d seen floors like this my whole life. It’s not particularly unique. Well, never underestimate the ability for someone from Baltimore to be totally incompetent.
So they came in with great big sanding machines and they noticed that some of the floor tiles were loose. They decided to try it anyway. When the turned on the sander, the tiles started flying up. They said they couldn’t do it. They recommended that we replace the floor with new hardwood flooring. Oh, and by the way, they no longer make the parquet flooring that’s in the apartment, so I’d have to choose something else. That would be a little over a thousand square feet because the floor covers the entire apartment, there is no saddle or other divisions between the rooms and it even goes into the closets. I said, “No thank you. I can’t afford that and I want to keep the current look of the apartment.” Damn, I chose the fucking place because it’s beautiful. In fact, I’d been resisting the urge to do a complete period restoration, but I really don’t want to change anything that’s already here. I just need something to fix this crummy peeling top coat of polyurethane. Ironically, the floors wouldn’t even be that bad if it wasn’t for that, which unfortunately can’t be ignored, although I’ve been ignoring it for nearly three years now, or trying to anyway.
So, Lady Baltimore, the incompetent floor refinishing company, left with one big bald blond mark in the middle of the dark floor of one of the rooms. So we couldn’t just fucking leave it. My sister and I got down on our hands and our knees and sanded and finished the floor. It took about a week and it was only the bedroom, perhaps one fifth or one sixth of the total surface are that would have to be refinished.
I’m actually pretty happy with the result in this one room, but it took two of us working full-time for a full week and my sister has a demanding full-time job. There was no professional we could hire to do anything like what we did, and we called a few others, and we couldn’t take the time to do it. Professionals have sanders that can be operated standing up. Doing it with a little hand sander on our knees was murder. I was not about to do the rest of the apartment. So, the bedroom floor no longer matches the floor in the rest of the apartment which as the crummy, peeling polyurethane on it.
I mentioned resisting the urge to restore the place back to 1959, but one thing I did attempt to do was to find old Uniline bakelite switch plates and outlet covers. I tried buying some on Ebay, but they never arrived. Just one more little thing. Not a big one really, but there are days that is seems that this entire project is just cursed.
So, that was three years ago. Moving day came and the walls were still a mess and the floor was still not finished. I moved my stuff in, but somehow I never got settled. I began sliding into a depression. I did do a few more things. I found someone to put a linoleum floor in the kitchen and the same person built cabinets for the bathroom because that was broken. For what it’s worth, I love the kitchen cabinets which are original to the building. I see many of my neighbors have been ripping them out, which I think is a shame. Sometimes I think people should have to take an architecture quiz before being allowed to renovate.
So, at some point, I just gave up. That was two or three years ago. Then the other day, my mother gave me a little pep talk. She joined the gym to which I’d been going and we went there together. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve really let myself go since moving here. It’s hard to explain. I didn’t suddenly become obese, but I’m terribly out of shape, so I’m happy to have someone come to the gym with me and keep me company. Her little pep talk went something along the lines of, “Before you can help anyone else, you need to take care of yourself. Just take care of yourself. Eat the diet you want to eat and everyone else can mind their own business. Do want you need to do to feel happy.”
Then I started explaining how I felt that I couldn’t get out of my own way, how as soon as I fixed one thing, something else started falling apart around me, that there were so many things to be fixed that I didn’t know where to start and I was overwhelmed, that I was still, nearly three years after moving in to my current apartment, living out of boxes. I said that I knew it was a fantasy, but I just wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over again in an apartment that was clean and where nothing was broken and with the body I had three years ago.
I tried to give her an example of how I get overwhelmed. In the sitting room, there is a built-in cabinet with bookshelves. It’s not original to the building and it’s ugly. However, I thought I could paint it and make it acceptable because it is handy. The interior was obviously meant to house a television back when they were bulkier items than they are today and it had a little sliding platform. Three years ago, I thought that I could rearrange the shelves and put my old stereo equipment that I bought back in the late eighties in it. The little sliding platform would be convenient for the turntable. When I first moved in, I put it in there to get it out of the way, however although there was an electrical outlet inside the cabinet, I couldn’t use the equipment because I needed to drill a hole in one of the shelves to run the wires through to hook up the equipment. No big deal. So, one day, shortly after moving in, I decide to tackle drilling some holes in the shelf. Well, damn, I don’t know what on earth that shelf was made from, but it was the hardest material I ever tried to drill and I could not do it. My sister said that she had friends with more serious power tools than we have, so she took the shelf and put it in the trunk of her car with the intention of asking someone for help. That was two and a half years ago. In the meantime, I got the urge to listen to some music, and I cleared some books off of the shelves and put the stereo equipment on top of the cabinet, half sticking out of the book shelf. Now the books are all over the floor – and have been for two and a half years. Several times, I’ve suggest just cutting a new board out of plywood since that old one is so impossible to cut. However, I live in an apartment and I don’t drive on highways, so I’m dependent on someone else to help me with this. All I wanted was a 26 inch by 19 inch board of a suitable thickness for a shelf. At the same time, I didn’t know how much effort I wanted to expend on this because, after all, who the hell listens to cassette tapes and vinyl records anymore. However, I have them. In fact, this is a puzzle to me. How do people listen to music these days? What kind of equipment do I need? I have stuff on vinyl, cassettes, cds, mp3s. I want to some how rationalize all this. To make it functional and not so awkward and inconvenient to use. I have no way of listening to mp3s, so I stopped purchasing any. At some point, I’m going to need to figure this out.
So, my mother said, “Why don’t you make that a project.”
But then, I mentioned to my mother, that I’ve been hesitant to make any moves because what’s been happening is that I try to do something and then I can’t finish it immediately for some reason, and it never gets finished and it never gets put away and my place just gets more disorganized and messier. In the mean time, I’m drowning in disorganization. I just want to put my stereo inside the cabinet and pick the books up off the floor and be able to listen to music and worry about upgrading to a more contemporary system at my leisure.
She asked, “What do you need to do that?”
I said, “I need to drill a hole in the shelf that’s in the back of Sissy’s car, or I need to get a piece of plywood that’s the same width and an inch or two shorter in depth.”
She said, “Would you like me to drive you to Home Depot and you can get some plywood cut to size.”
Of course, I said yes. “This is good,” I said. “We can get this done today and I won’t be making a bigger mess.”
So, we go to Home Depot, buy a piece of plywood and get it cut to size. We get a bite to eat and my mother drops me off at my place with the plywood. Yippee! Almost.
I get home and start measuring the height of the turntable with the dust cover open and try to figure out at what height to put the shelf. It had previously simply been resting on some screws and I figured I’d just move the screws to the appropriate height. Then I realize, the board is too short. I measure it. It’s twenty-five inches. Later I confer with my mother and she agrees that I said twenty-six. It seems that the guy at Home Depot cut it to the wrong size. That’s too much of a gap to have it resting on screws. I’m going to have to go back to the hardware store and I wasn’t able to achieve my absurdly simple goal of moving the shelf and putting the stereo equipment in the cabinet and putting the books back on the shelves.
So, I woke up this morning and it was as I predicted. My attempt to make my apartment more organized and neater has made it messier. The board is on the floor, as is the turntable. There are screws and a screwdriver on the coffee table. The toolbox is sitting in the hallway, and of course the books are still on the floor where they’ve been for over two years. And I just started hyperventilating and having the urge to run away, just pack a suitcase and get on a train and go anywhere. I took an Ativan instead.
And I feel like an asshole and a jerk for making such a big deal out of a minor thing.