Work wasn’t the only crazy thing going on for me, living in Waltham, Massachusetts seemed no more sane than spending all day — sometimes two — inside the wards.
I lived in a three bedroom apartment with four roommates, two of whom worked at the same hospital. It was a cheap, relatively run-down 4-apartment building owned by a guy who managed properties for other people, and had scraped together the cash for this place. None of us had much money, and we managed to get the rent reduced even further by agreeing to paint the kitchen ourselves and accepting the fact that we had no refrigerator. We never ended up painting the walls, though we did think about it, and the five of us squeaked by on a little dorm fridge with a capacity under two cubic feet.
The apartment was infested in a way that I’ve never seen an apartment infested before or since. Roaches seemed to be everywhere, at all times. Although they mostly disappeared with a faintly horrifying clicking whenever the lights were turned on, there were always a healthy amount around and underfoot. Other insects abounded, and every shower was preceded by a ritual that involved trying to rinse down the drain the smattering of insects that managed to find their way inside the tub and onto the shower curtain. This was true even if only a few minutes elapsed between the last shower and your own.
It’s amazing what one can get used to. We simply kept all food items tightly sealed, and what couldn’t be thoroughly sealed got crammed in the little fridge whether it actually needed refrigeration or not. Early on, we made a few calls to the landlord, who promised to fumigate, but not much happened.
We met our downstairs neighbors first, which included “Rose,” who appeared to be a single mother in her 50s or 60s with a group of somewhere between 5 and 10 adult children, their spouses and/or girlfriends, all living in an apartment approximately the same size as ours, which was at capacity with 5. I first met her when returning from second shift, around eleven. She was in front of the apartment in a folding chair, drinking something out of a paper bag.
Across the street, her son emerged from underneath a 70’s-era rustbucket of a car holding a muffler with the entire 6-foot-long exhaust pipe attached, waving it over his head. “Hey, ma! I think I know what’s wrong with the car!” he yelled triumphantly, waving the exhaust assembly like a flag.
She looked at me, and said without irony, “that boy’s mechanically inclined.”
I ran into her again the next day when I went to a Shell station to put some gas in my car; she was sitting in the attendant booth, reading a magazine. I paid her, and she recognized me, and said hello, and confided that the Exxon a little down the street was a little cheaper, and they were having a special on oil. I needed oil, so I thanked her, and planned to pick some up.
After work, I headed to the Exxon to pick up the oil, and there she was, in the attendant booth. “Oh good,” she said, “I’m glad I told you about that.” It had been a long day, so instead of asking if she’d quit her job to join a different gas station, I headed home.
I had picked up an early shift the next day, so on the way to work, I stopped by a Texaco to get a convenience-store style lunch in a microwavable container, and there she was again. “Hi!” she said, as if I should expect her to be working in every gas station in the greater Waltham area.
“Wow,” I said, “in how many places do you work?”
“Five,” she said. “All part time. Takes all damned day, but I’ve got a family to feed.”
After a long double shift, I drove home. Not many people are out late at night, but there was a man walking his dog. Just as I was driving up, he pointed toward the street, saying something to the dog. The dog danced into the street, watching its owner excitedly, as if expecting something to be thrown.
I swerved to avoid hitting the dog; since a car was coming the other way, I had little choice but to swerve up on to the sidewalk, narrowly missing the man. Momentum carried my car up and onto the lawn of a corner house. I could feel the car sinking in the wet lawn and mud underneath; afraid of getting stuck, instead of stopping, I eased on the gas, moving off the lawn, over the sidewalk, and ultimately back onto the street where I was.
Checking my rear view mirror, I saw a house with splashes of mud and sod across its facade and big picture window, deep furrows where tires had torn across the lawn… and a man scolding his dog.
I didn’t stop, I’m sorry to say, but the next day, guilt got the better of me and I visited the house to apologize and see what I could do to fix the lawn. It was a little after noon, and a tired-looking man answered the door. As I launched into my explanation, he seemed to wake up a little, and said, “wait, what?”
I explained again about the dog, and how I’d trashed his lawn.
“Oh thank god,” he said. “I thought I’d done that and blacked it out.”
My roommates and I were invited over to meet our adjacent neighbors, whom we ran into out front while talking to Rose and a few of her clan over beers. They were a nice Indian couple. Only two of us could go, the other roommates having to work.
They opened their apartment door to one of the more amazing things I’ve ever seen. Their walls, floor, and ceiling were crawling with insects. It was a swirling, disorienting feeling, like all the surfaces were constructed entirely of roaches.
“Tom,” my roommate, simply said, “Oh. My. God.”
It was suddenly, horrifyingly obvious why our apartment was overrun, and why our best amateur efforts at eradicating our own insect scourge appeared to have no affect whatsoever.
“Please be careful not to step on them,” our neighbor said, using a broom to gently sweep us an insect-free path to the table. “We believe in the sanctity of all life.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say. Tom and I walked dumbly to the table. I brushed off my chair and sat down, fascinated as the bugs occasionally crawled over our hosts, who made every effort not to hurt them.
“Welp,” said Tom. “I gotta go. I … just have to. Nice meeting you!” and he bolted for the door.
“Would you like some tea?” the woman asked me.
“Well, I…” while I had gotten used to cleaning every cup before I used it in our own place, this was a bit much for me. It was like being inside the Smithsonian roach exhibit, intended to demonstrate what a roach population would look like in a typical kitchen if a few generations all survived to adulthood.
Tom leaned back in the door. “He has to go, too.”
And we still had one neighbor yet to meet.