Places I’ve Lived: Monster House, Single-Women-Only Complex, & More

by Sarah Collins

We have a gesture in my household for the guilt grenade: a clamp down of the teeth to remove the pin, then a gentle lob in the direction of the offender — or a less gentle lob depending on how unsubtle I’m being. Passive aggression is a sport in my family, and while I may never achieve my grandmother’s mastery, I show the occasional flashes of brilliance.

This is probably why I’m a terrible roommate.

I like to point to several contributing factors and personality traits in my defense. Only child. Neat freak. Really great hearing. But the reality is that I am pretty happy in my cave with minimal input from the outside world. When I emerge, I’m very sociable. But in the cave, I am a wizened old crone with a staff I use to periodically point at things that displease me. That staff usually being brightly colored Post-it notes and all-resident emails. This has created some tensions in my living situations.

#1) Oak Street, Evanston, IL — $450, my share of of some horrifyingly large mystery amount, plus utilities my beautiful roommate calculated and split five ways each month

Three months into my sophomore year of college, I decided that I desperately needed out of the dorms and into a place where I would have my own door. Being impetuous, I moved right into the first place I found. Clues this was going to be a bad idea included the fact that the original student/drifter occupying my room had decorated with naught but two mattresses. And the fact that it was the only residential building on the block.

Before I moved in there was an infestation of squirrels in the home. Teeth marks still scarred the built-ins. The landlord, eager to avoid whatever fees he assumed animal control would levy, decided to exterminate the squirrels by stabbing them to death whenever he could find them. He did not catch them all. The second floor had a vague smell of rot coming from the attic, and about a month into my living there, maggots started falling into my ceiling light. I would watch them try to climb out for a few days, then eventually die and pool at the bottom of the light.

That room is still my favorite room I’ve ever lived in. It was tiny. My brand new full-sized bed touched three of my four walls, and my desk nestled into the fourth. I could touch everything I owned at once and it was perfect. I shared the house with four, then five, other roommates, but thanks to the slapdash construction of the place, I shared a wall with no one.

This did not stop the drama. Coming out of a living situation where I regretted talking about nothing, I would listen to my roommates grousing, combine it with my own frustrations, and then put all the bad feelings into an email so we could “be adults” and “just talk about it.” This is not actually how adults do things, and it did not solve a single problem the entire time I was there. My roommates were a wonderful group of interesting people, and I regret that we spent most of our time rolling our eyes and sighing at each other.

We would have ridiculous “fundraiser” parties for every group on campus, and regularly come home to find people sitting on our stoop, assuming the house was abandoned. One time my roommates signed up to get the leftover bagels from Einstein Bros. and we ate nothing but garbage bags full of bagels for a week.

Another time, after weeks of careful stalking, my roommates brought home a huge Jackson Pollock print that had been abandoned in one of the campus buildings. I contributed my parents’ old peeling leather couch. Toward the end, the place felt pretty homey, and I was terribly sad to go. No one else in my life felt the same way. They all referred to the residence as Monster House, after the lesser-watched Disney movie of the same name.

Today, that house is gone. I went back to check on the place when I was in town a few years ago and found rubble and a fence. Which is probably what everyone else saw when they looked at it to begin with.

#2) Pratt Court, Evanston, IL — $550, my share of $1,700, plus utilities split three ways

After refusing to entertain my suggestion that he move into Monster House with me, my friend and I found a great three-bedroom near campus on a street that was blessedly residential. And by three-bedroom, I mean a house that had been converted into a two-flat, with every open space walled off and doored so it would count as a bedroom. One roommate’s “bedroom” included the front door. The other was clearly a pantry.

Regardless, we found a third roommate and made the place look pretty adorable. I was the only one there over the summer, so I cleaned it up nice, got a sofa, a kitchen table, and all the essentials. I also picked up a bookcase and a penguin-shaped ice cream scoop that I still have, as well as assorted other leftovers from previous tenants. I proceeded to spend almost every night at my boyfriend’s house, because being alone in a quiet house in a suburb is creepy as hell.

When my roommates returned, my months of owning my own little kingdom ended, and the fact that my “bedroom” was off the “living room” and shared a wall with the TV started to become less than ideal. We also had a perpetual dishes problem. In an attempt to be better, I tried to confront these issues head on and in-person. I’m pretty sure I still relied on many awful emails and Post-its, though. Life is a process.

That winter I skipped town to intern in Austin, Texas, and scrambled to find a subletter. I ended up with a nursing student who was very confused about the dishes situation and seems to have spent most of her time hiding. She was probably glad when I came back and reclaimed the room.

#3) Linscomb Avenue, Austin, TX — $200, plus snacks and furniture

A family friend lived in Austin, so I planned to move directly in with her and save some money on rent. It was probably the coolest apartment I’ve ever seen, let alone lived in. Sitting at the top of a hill across the river from downtown, it was a complex of stone houses built as part of a public works project and populated entirely by single women. The driveway was gravel, it was surrounded by green space, and a gnarled old tree followed the staircase to the front door. It was incredible.

It was also home to a very sweet cat, to whom I was very allergic. Instead of inhabiting a bedroom of my own, I was crashing on the futon in the living room, which is not a perfect way to live, even if you do share the place with the loveliest hippie.

Hopeful for the chance to breathe through my nose, I embarked on the oddest quest for a new house I’ve ever had. I looked into two different houses occupied by roller derby girls, one house occupied by a somewhat creepy tech dude, and one house owned by a man who wanted me to live there rent-free but care for his menagerie of animals while he went to set up a retirement community in Costa Rica.

That last one did not work out.

#4) Glencrest Drive, Austin, TX — $450 including utilities

I ended up living with one of the roller derby girls in a house that had three dogs and a Whataburger at the end of the street. I still dream about it. I had my own room, my own bathroom, a huge yard, and a washer and dryer. There was no furniture, but my roommate found me a spare mattress, and I used my moving boxes to build shelves and a desk. I should have stayed forever.

Living with this roommate had the upside of teaching me a modicum of chill. She was older, wiser, and much cooler than me, so my freak outs over Southern bugs did absolutely nothing to move her and my little comments were entirely ignored. It was good for me. I was still not cool enough to deserve her as a roommate, but she forced me to occasionally stop binge-watching Bones on my laptop and go outside and do fun things.

We ended up having several friends and bands in common, because the punk rock world is very small. Plus we shared a deep love of her dogs. On nights when she stayed with her boyfriend, all three dogs would share my bed, the hound dog sleeping under the covers along my back, one beagle curled up under my feet and one beagle curled up at my tummy. It was heaven.

#5) Gunnison Street, Chicago — $400, my share of $1,100 a month, plus utilities

After returning for a quarter to the Pratt house, I retired my Post-it notes and emails and moved in with my boyfriend and his roommate, who was also my friend. We still regret leaving this apartment, and if it weren’t for the no-dogs rule, we probably never would have. The apartment was classic Chicago, a three flat, with an all-window front room, a living room, three bedrooms and a bathroom, all off a long, narrow hallway, and a big dining room that opened onto the kitchen. Plus, a walled-in back porch for storage.

The landlord lived below us, and was a professional floor guy, so all the wood in the house was immaculately finished, warm and beautiful. He would bring up beers for the three of us, and we loved him so much we never bothered to tell him my boyfriend didn’t drink. He had a portrait of Pope John Paul II hanging in his kitchen, and one year he bought a smoker and would bring us home-smoked meats. So yeah, the most Chicago apartment of all time.

The best part, though, was the backyard. This is where the smoker lived, so it always smelled like sausages, and the landlord’s wife kept it up beautifully. She grew so much produce that we often got handfuls of that too. Our back stairs were large enough that they sort of counted as a porch, and I spent part of every summer day sitting out there drinking the second-cheapest beer money could buy. Only because our roommate insisted you could “taste the value” in the cheapest beer.

One summer the neighbors raised some ducks, so I had them quacking as a soundtrack to my reading, watching and drinking.

We had excellent parties there. Our last New Year’s Eve, the landlords and upstairs neighbors left, because they wanted us to party in peace. We sang the loudest, drunkest single verse of Auld Lang Syne before realizing no one actually knows the words to that, then we set off fireworks in the alley. It was a perfect Viking funeral for the perfect apartment.

Loving the people I lived with curbed my obsessive tendencies a bit, though they would both probably roll their eyes at that. I did learn that the shared cause of hosting a party is a better way to get everyone to clean up than sighing deeply every time you look at the dining room table.

When we closed on our house, we worked hard to find friends who would be good tenants to rent the place after us. To thank us for our help, the landlord’s son barged through the back door one day, arms above his head, bearing gifts of a liter of rum in one hand and a home-smoked ham in the other. They never raised the rent.

Sarah Collins likes to build audiences. You can hear all about her dog @badscenemyfault or brace yourself for the next billion-dollar idea @gethustlin.

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