Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Seven-problem sublet

Thank you all so much for your kind words about Cava. The last couple weeks have been challenging, even before I found out about the dog, and it meant a lot to me to see all the sweet things you guys said. I wasn't sure I felt like writing a Tuesday Retrospective this week, but I decided it would be good to distract myself, so I decided to write about something that is, in retrospect, funny. At least to me.

The summer before my senior year of college, 2005, I lived in DC with a good friend of mine, Tamar. I had two internships with literary agents, as well as two nannying jobs and a temp job at a non-profit. I had just gotten back from my semester in Senegal and my sister had just gotten married. I had set up all my jobs from Senegal, using the internet. I was lucky that so many people were willing to hire me without having met me in person.

Tamar was still at school up in Massachusetts, so my sister, who lived in DC, was in charge of finding us housing. She found us a great apartment to sublet for the summer, but at the last minute it fell through and we had to scramble to find something else.

The something else turned out to be the basement of a nice house in Takoma Park. It was really like its own apartment without a kitchen--it had a living room, a bathroom, and a bedroom with a smaller room off it that we used as a second bedroom, as well as its own separate entrance. We were told we'd get this basement to ourselves, as well as unlimited access to the upstairs kitchen that we'd be sharing with the main renter of the house as well as another subletter. The basement was a little damp, but pretty much okay, especially for people desperate for housing, as we were at that point.

Everything started out fine. I had this crazy schedule, working one or two of my five different jobs every day. But it was good, really, and I was making plenty of money and also getting good resume experience and all of that. Some days I got to work from home, just reading manuscripts, which was fine or at least would have been fine if I'd actually had the basement apartment to myself as promised.

The first thing that went wrong was that our landlord turned out to be this passive-aggressive, holier-than-thou wholesome type. She taught ESOL (English for speakers of other languages, in case anyone didn't know--the PC replacement of ESL), and had her students call her Tia. She did a lot of yoga. She shopped only at the organic food co-op down the street.

Not that there's anything wrong with those things. We shopped at that co-op, too, and I have a yoga/pilates exercise DVD from Netflix waiting for me at home right now. It was more the way she was so smug about her lifestyle choices that was irritating. For example, one night Tamar and I went to Cheesecake Factory and brought the leftovers home. The next day, a magazine article about the 10 worst foods for you, which included Cheesecake Factory, appeared on the door of the refrigerator.

Anyway, we could have mostly ignored our landlord, except that then the second thing went wrong. The second thing was that she started a summer camp for children at her house, in the basement, otherwise known as our apartment. Not only did this badly interfere with my ability to work at home when necessary, but those brats were loud and woke me up early even on days when I wasn't going to be staying in. When we tried to discuss this with her, we were informed that she assumed we'd be working 9-5 and wouldn't even notice the kids.

Except that even if she had been correct about our traditional 9-5 schedules, we would have noticed the kids, because problem number three was that she left their artwork all over our apartment every night. The worst was when they did big painting collage things that had to be spread out overnight to dry, and thus covered every surface, including our couch, meaning that we essentially had no living room.

Problem number four was that the basement had bugs. Specifically, it had some sort of cricket spider thing that Tamar referred to as "hoppy bugs." They were extremely disgusting and they could leap really high in the air, making it horribly nerve-wracking to try to kill them, because if you missed then they could jump anywhere, including on you. They kept appearing, consistently, every few days all summer. It was awful.

Problem number five wasn't that big of a deal, since I'm naturally not a terribly clean person, but there was very limited space for me to keep my stuff, so most of it ended up piled on the couch and the floor. That wouldn't have been a big issue either, if it weren't for problem number six.

Problem number six was that the power went out, and while it was out, the basement flooded. This had something to do with the fact that the toilet was below-ground and therefore had some sort of electric suck-pump that didn't function properly when the power was out. Of course, we didn't know that. It was a Saturday night and there was a huge thunderstorm. Tamar and I were sitting on the couch in the living room, talking, until about three in the morning. In the dark, of course, since like I said, the power was out.

Then I got up to pee, and stepped in a puddle. Investigation by flashlight showed that there was water all over the floor of the living room, the bathroom, and of course, my bedroom. You remember, I presume, that problem number five had to do with me keeping my stuff all over the floor of the bedroom. So of course the bedroom flooded too--because how else would all of my stuff have gotten thoroughly soaked?

Anyway, there was (clean-ish) water pouring down the base of the toilet, and we could not figure out how to make it stop. We tried turning the water line off but no matter which way we turned the knob, nothing changed. We ended up having to call the property manager, who told us how to turn off the water but also informed us that even though this whole fiasco was obviously not our fault, we might be held liable if there turned out to be water damage.

Of course, our landlord had conveniently left on a two-week trip to Guatemala a couple days earlier, so it was just us. We dug around upstairs with our flashlight and found a mop and a child-size bucket, and ended up taking turns mopping (and emptying the tiny bucket outside every three minutes) and holding the flashlight. We were up until six a.m., scrubbing. Tamar ran back upstairs and got some towels, which I later found out were our landlord's good towels. Call us bitches, but it was so satisfying to use them to clean up the flood.

The property manager sent out a cleaning service to deal with the aftermath the next day, so we wound up spending the next week with huge, loud, industrial green fans blasting in our apartment. But the three hours of mopping by flashlight had prevented any permanent water damage, so we were at least spared a battle over that expense.

Problem number six seemed like it put a lid on the whole summer, and the whole ridiculous subletting experience, but no. Really it was just a warm-up for problem number seven. A dress rehearsal, if you will.

Problem number seven was that we got evicted. We had found out earlier in the summer that our sublet was illegal because our landlord had a no sublet clause in her lease, and we had also found out that in the state of Maryland it's illegal to use a room without a window or a second door (such as Tamar's room) as a bedroom, so we had been a little nervous about the whole thing, but as it turned out, that wasn't the reason we got evicted. Our landlord had failed to tell us when we moved in that there was a clause in her lease that stated that if the house owners wanted to move back to Takoma Park for any reason, they had only to give her thirty days' notice and she would have to get the hell out. I guess the owner had some issue with his new job and decided he wanted to move back home. So it wasn't just us who got evicted--it was our landlord, too.

Of course, she didn't tell us that as soon as she got the thirty days' notice. First she procured another house, even further from the Metro than the current house (which was already a 15-20 minute walk away). Then she told us that surprise! We'd all be moving together! And wasn't that fun! And it wasn't an issue that one of us would be staying on the second floor of the new house with her while the other would be living in the basement, right?

This happened with about a month left in the summer, so Tamar just quit her internship and went home early, and I moved in with my sister for the last three weeks. Getting evicted was pretty much the best thing that happened to us that summer.

What was the worst living situation you've ever had to deal with?

Update: Tamar has just read this post and reminds me of many, many other problems that I totally forgot about. She wants me to clarify that this was at least a 17-problem sublet. I must have blocked the other problems out. But they bear repeating. Here's Tamar's contribution:
  • The saw in the couch. [We found a handsaw in the couch by almost sitting on it and when we expressed concern she said, "Ah, I was wondering where that went."]
  • The sour yogurt smell in the fridge.
  • The rigging of our cable so that it was a jungle. [We couldn't pee without crawling both under and over cables.]
  • That she only had one mop and only had kiddie buckets so we had to mop with only one mop and only tiny buckets and the property manager kept yelling, "Put your sheets down! Your blankets! Babies poop all the time and if they can get cleaned so can sheets!" instead of telling us how to turn the water off.
  • When she surprise retroactively upped our rent when we decided to move out because Mal [Tamar's girlfriend] had been around.
  • That "wireless internet" meant "stolen from next door maybe."
  • The Korean roommate who kept talking about dirty Americans even though she was born and raised in Ohio.
  • The bathtub burping things up!
  • The door that wouldn't lock.
  • The caulking so we couldn't shower, in DC, in the summer, for two weeks. [I feel compelled to add that we DID shower. We just had to use the upstairs shower, and share it with the landlord and the other subletter. We are not dirty people.]
  • How she advertised as a "young professional" but was a 50-year-old divorced yoga teacher.
  • Her random, ever-changing kitchen rules.
  • The branchless, leafless Christmas tree with the peace sign.
  • How she forcibly re-futoned my bed and moved my sheets.
  • Her ongoing battle with the city to keep old furniture on the porch.
  • The chanting women's circle and discussions of egg freezing.
  • The hoppy bug that died in my water glass that I almost drank in the night ARGH DISGUSTING.
  • Also, the peppermint smell of the industrial cleaner.


  1. Oh my word, those are possibly the worst living conditions I've ever heard of, short of living in Drew Carrey's van down by the river. (I have no idea if I spelled his last name right, sorry.)
    My worst living situation was nothing even close to that awful, but it would have to be the winter that I was engaged but had not yet moved out of my parent's house. I basically got in yelling arguments every single day with them over their desire to still have curfews and know where I was every second, and my desire to come and go (mostly GO) as I pleased. Lots of tension.

  2. Oh my GOD, that is all horrifying. I've never had anything that bad.

    On my internship in college, I shared a two-bedroom apartment with FOUR girls, and that was pretty bad. There were four GUYS sharing a two-bedroom next to us, and their living conditions were DISGUSTING. I still have nightmares about that.

  3. WOW! That is horrific! I've never been through anything even close to that. Actualy, I've always just been pretty comfortable, living wise.

  4. OH MY GOSH. i've had some awful situations, but that's a lot all for one house :-)

    let's see.. my last place was a good one though.

    a) we had those hoppy things too. spider crickets. GOD I HATE THEM. i found one IN MY HAIR one time. ARGH.

    b) our basement flooded too! luckily, none of us lived down there. less luckily, it flooded with backed up sewage. like... actual turds, floating around.

    c) we got a leak in the roof. over my bed. and my room was so small that there was literally nowhere else to move my bed that it wouldn't be dripped on.

    d) our front wall.. fell off. like i went to close the blinds one day, and the wall they were attached to fell off.

    e) my roommates used / took / borrowed / broke / stole my stuff ALL THE TIME. i found my dad's guitar thrown on the floor of the basement with broken strings when i came back from a weekend away. that was when i finally moved out.

  5. OMG... i thought having mice problems last year sucked...wow. what a summer! um.. i can't think of my worst thing... maybe i'll use that as my topic today if i can think of something later :)

  6. That beats the hell out of my worst living situation story, which involved a summer sublet at 36th and O and the entire Georgetown lightweight crew team, because even though I'd have to step over them passed out in the living room using my stuff as a pillow, they did provide lots of free booze.

  7. I don't think anyone can compare to that awful experience. Thank god it was only a summer.

    I think my worst living experience is my apartment now, where the two worst things that have happened are 1) my roommate and 2) I saw one cockroach. Once.

    Like you said, I'm sure it's really funny. Now.

  8. hahahah i laughed out loud at all that. you poor thing. moving onward & upward is all i have to say!

  9. Oh man, this was too funny. I wonder where that woman is now . . . and thank goodness we don't have to live like that anymore!

  10. So sorry about your dog.

    I've got a living situation story that will far, far exceed cava's experience. But you will have to WAIT FOR IT on my own blog because it's a long one, and it's good.

  11. I am laughing up a storm here. Thank you for that!

  12. that sounds like a housing nightmare!!!

    i have nothing even close to comparable to share.

  13. um, i have had more than my fair share of housing issues, but they mostly had to do with roommates. i've always lucked out with physically nice places to live.

  14. Oh, that's just too much! I can't believe you had to live like that!

    The worst living situation I've been in...My oldest son and I lived in an apartment that was infested by cockroaches and a few mice and they wouldn't investigate why. (There was a shared wall with another apartment and apparently mice and roaches were getting in through by going under the sink.)Also, the apartment below us had a broken out living room window for MONTHS and I ended up picking up the large sheets of glass to prevent kids from getting hurt. It was totally insane.

  15. How awful! That woman could be a character in a book!

    My worst was in university when I lived with 4 guys one year. They were nice and fun, but sooooo disgusting. I had a room in the basement where I kept my own dishes and cookware. I would just wash them after I used them and carry them back to my room. I could not wait to get out of there and live with girls!

  16. Wow. I seriously needed a post like this today! What a nightmare. I can't even imagine! Luckily, I've never really had horrendous living quarters, but roommates? I could write a book.


  17. Oh DEAR GOD! How horrible, and also so funny I am actually laughing out Loud!

    The worst place I ever had to live was a houseboat converted into a rental house. It was so moldy and damp that when we moved out the duvet in the guest room was black and blue with mold.

  18. ugh that is so so irritating and invasive.

    especially the cheesecake thing...which implies she TOTALLY snooped through your fridge.

    i don't know how you guys lived with it!

  19. It must have been horrible at the time- but it sure as heck is funny now :p You know, for those who didn't have to live there.

    I've had my fair share of interesting living conditions.
    Just of the top of my head... a two bedroom apartment shared with 3 other people; one of them a paranoid pothead, a ultra-Christian I-speak-in-tongues-on-Saturdays baptist, a gay guy, me and the termites. That was interesting to say the least.

  20. Oh my gosh, this is the worst living situation I've ever heard of and I have to post this as my post of the day. Just must.

    I could offer up stories but nothing compares to that!

  21. Wow I thought my living arrangement was bad... hey it kinda was.. But yours was way more traumatizing! At least you had a friend thru it all i guess?!! My worst was with 3 complete slobs (moldy food, hair everywhere) boys and a girl. or should i say a 30 old guy! wierd and a bunch of potheads! the worst.