A few years ago I lived in a terrible, run down apartment. It was in one of three brownstone buildings across the street from a house I lived in as a child. I used to look up at those buildings and say "thats where grown-ups live" and was reminded of the houses I saw on Sesame Street.
In college when looking for an apartment, I saw a "For Rent" sign on the side of the building. The sign was large, visible to people on the freeway, maybe I should have been wary of a building with a permanent for rent sign, but I visited the place and loved it. The place was really neglected, and I actually liked it. It was a disaster, but to me it gave it character, I felt so authentic, I lived in the type of building students should live in, it felt New York, it felt "Punk."
Two weeks after moving in I came home around midnight feeling awful (hmmm interestingly I had been hanging out with the identity theft accuser...hmmm) I ran a bath and I layed down in the tub and suddenly I saw a cockroach!!! There are some things I loved about about the "grittiness" of the place...but I didn't know cockroaches were part of the package! My roommate and I agreed we wouldn't move- we had already settled in, and for some time it was okay- you would only see a bug once every two weeks or so. I handled it.
We had drug-dealers as neighbors, if that wasn't bad enough they stole things from the basement. I found out it was them when I saw a phone of mine in a garbage bag outside their apartment. How nice, steal someones stuff, throw it away and don't even try to hide it. Most of the things that were stolen were only inconvieniences to replace except my class ring...my dad bought me the 14k gold version when I was in high school, and we could not afford it. Even though I knew who it was, the police could not recover it.
Hmm what else happened when I lived in that building? Someone got my debit card and tried to spend $350 at a liquor store (yeah- that wont attract attention) they also tried to purchace things on QVC. The way I learned this is the Mail Carrier saw my name on an envelope with a different address and delivered it to me. I called QVC and the funniest thing is they wouldn't give me any information about my account- which is hilarious, you will allow someone else to register my name and debit account to buy things- but you cant give me, the actual card owner, any information. Oh well, I guess I can't buy anything from QVC now, what a shame.
We also had squatters in the basement, other neighbors who I smoked a bowl with, who then offered me red opium "Its like hash" they told me, yeah, opium, not dangerous at all. The landlord instructed the caretakers to turn the radiatiors on once in the morning and once at night, well we lived on the top floor as far from the boiler as possible, so the apartment was so cold my fingers were blue during the winter, and I sometimes took two baths a day to bring my body temprature up.
Did I mention that our first caretakers were an alcoholic and a felon, and the second ones looked like meth heads (if not meth, than something else hard!) Oh, and there was the time that the tenants moved out and left a garbage bag with a dirty diaper, which sat for a month. I went next store to investigate when our apartment became overrun with cockroaches. Nice lifestyle right? And for a two bedroom (one the size of a walk in closet) we were paying $800 a month to live there- (years ago- before prices went up- BTW I pay less than that now- and our apartment is georgeous, well maintained, and in the best neighborhood in the city) Near campus the slums are shocking. I had a lease, and wanted to learn if I could sue the guy or something, I learned that the landlords in this neighborhood get away with this stuff all the time.
So now the scene is set. One day I entered the front door of the building with bags and bags of groceries. A sweet 19 year old girl tried to say something to me but spoke no english, so I didn't understand her. Finally through gesturing and spanish I realized she offered to help me carry them up and she did. I gave her my telephone number to say "call if I can help you" and I was surprised when she did.
We ended up becoming friends. She stayed at home while her husband worked. She spoke no english and so I was forced to use the spanish I had learned in school (for the first time I realized I could carry on a conversation in spanish!) They were illegal so their employment options were limited. Her husband worked for a food service temp agency on campus that I used to work for. The owner Lisa was very unethical. When I met Erika and her husband it turns out Lisa was not paying for the work he did, so I helped them get in touch with legal aid and he did end up getting paid.
Erika and her family moved to a house in another neighborhood. The house was full of people. Speaking of cockroaches, this house had so many that you could see them in the daytime! Erika and her baby slept on a blanket on the floor. I had given them alot of things, like plates and a garbage can, stuff I didn't need, and it was really appreciated. When I came over to the new house to spend the night, she cooked a huge Mexican feast. They slept on the floor in a cockroach infested house in a bad neighborhood, and they were spoiling me! She even gave me this hideous laqured wall hanging with an aztec warrior heroically carrying a overly-buxom maiden. This wall hanging had to be the ugliest thing I have seen in my life, I still have it and absoulutely treasure it.
That night while we were laying on the "bed" talking something struck me...I asked in Spanish "Are you happy?" and she said yes, like it was a weird question to ask. Why wouldn't she be happy really? She had running water. She had food. She had a husband and baby. She had entertainment (we watched "a perfect storm" on video- in English) what else could someone want in life?
I layed in my bed the next night in my slum. I thought about how hard walls like these would be a luxury to many. I thought about having radiatiors that go on twice a day would be so welcome to someone freezing. How my archaic two faucet sink would feel like a miracle to those who have to walk miles for water, which could still give them diseases. Erika gave me alot, she gave me gifts, she gave me friendship, she gave me the opportunity to use Spanish, but most of all she gave me reality. I miss her. I wonder how she and Carlos are doing. I lost touch and have no clue how I would find them.
I think about Erika regularly, and what a gift she gave me. Around my birthday, when I was depressed, I considered sponsoring a child through Save the Children, as a monthly reminder to myself about my blessings. Tonight I sponsered a 4 year old girl named Hosna. She is cute with a necklace and a little bald head. She lives in Bangladesh. Now every month I will get a reminder about the reality of my situation. I think I am so poor, but I will be reminded that the $28 deducted from my account is going towards things I was born receiving, water, food, medicine, shelter, education, safety. I hope I may also recieve correspondance from Hosna's family and am able to learn something about south Asia, which I have such interest in.
This is not just a reminder to see how lucky I am, but also to judge the wealthy less. I still think status symbols are vulgar (those items that are expensive beyond the point of being high quality- for no reason but to be unavailable to the majority) but many of my feelings about the wealthy are unfair. I may want to point my finger and say "YOU- you are the problem" But in the grand scheme of things I am wealthy too, and so I too, am the problem, and so must also be the solution. The great majority of the world is in danger of not having enough water...let me think of that next time I am mad about having to do dishes.
mood: blessed (Thanks Hosna!)