First Comes Love, Then Comes Mortgage. But first! How our basement apartment tried to evict us.
I lived in a basement apartment for nine and a half years. The lack of light warped me of energy, the railroad layout made co-habitation a challenge, and the low ceiling gave the false impression that I am, at 5’3, actually a giant. We had pipes burst and mice scurry and water-bugs creep up through the drains. We had a stray raccoon pee all over our stored Christmas ornaments; had a gigantic rat find death beneath our fridge. We had squatters to the right and a shifty slumlord to the left. We were there long enough to see a dozen upstairs neighbors come and go– listened to every step overhead, heard all their fights, smelled all their dinners. We were there long enough to see the house change owners, long enough for our first landlord to become sick and pass away.
And now, just after making our long-awaited getaway, we discovered that we’d been in that basement long enough for things to get really, really weird. The minute we bought a house, there was a shift in the energy down there. It’s like the basement got wind that we were gonna bail and was like, “Oh, you think you’re gonna leave me? Let me make it real easy for you.” Our apartment started doing the thing people do when they want to end a relationship but don’t want to initiate a break-up. They start acting like an asshole so the other person pulls the trigger first.
I moved into that basement nine years ago without expecting to spend that much time down there. I chose it because it had a cheap price tag, a great location and an old Turkish fig tree in the yard. For seven summers, I planned my July and August dinners around those deep purple orbs– baby spinach leaves with goat cheese and walnuts. Salty prosciutto and crusty bread. Rosemary-cornmeal tarts lined with rows and rows of them, topped with lemon mascarpone cream and drizzled with lingonberry jam.
When the tree stopped producing figs two years ago after 50 years of abundance, I took it as a sign. There is no more fruit here for you. Climb another tree. Go in search of greener pastures. Find a home where guests won’t bump their heads on the kitchen ceiling.
November 18, 2015: After a year of searching nearly every weekend in Brooklyn and Queens, we put an offer on our first house ever. It’s in Astoria, Queens and in great condition. We want it desperately.
November 20th: We’re out-bid by 15 people. We don’t get the house.
November 21st: We begin using the real estate agent we met during the open house for the home we put an offer on. He’s young and eager to make sales. He shows us three houses a week for the next few weeks.
December 16th: We put an offer on another house. It’s not on the market. The only people who see it are me, Vin and a group of investors. We are avoiding another bidding war. It’s also in Astoria, and appears move-in ready.
December 18th: We’re told our offer was accepted, right before Christmas, like a gift. A very expensive gift we buy for ourselves like a washer and dryer or a sports car. We basically freak out, and try to weasel out of the deal. When our realtor asks what I’m giving Vin for Christmas I say: “Debt– the gift that keeps on givin’.”
December 19th: On my way to work, I walk by a local bakery and the smell of fresh Italian bread wafting through the air vents actually makes me cry. We’re buying a house in New York City. We’re staying in Astoria. I can’t believe it.
December 26: We have an inspection. The inspector offers his hand to Vinny and exclaims, “So you’re buying a house!” He looks at me and says, “And you must be the buyer’s wife.” Vin and I are buying a house built in 1945; I didn’t realize we were buying a house in 1945.
January 26th: After weeks of nail-biting, the seller finally signs the contract. We put 10% in escrow. Things are moving. What could go wrong now?
January 27th: Vin is home alone when he hears a sharp crack, followed by a waterfall of glass crashing to the hard tile floor. He walks toward the bathroom to discover that the shower door, for no particular reason, has shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. He spends the next hour sweeping up ribbons of glass, then duct-tapes a black Hefty bag to the shower door frame. We wash in pitch darkness for the next three weeks, sudsing and shaving while intermittently batting wet garbage bag away from our arms and legs.
February 14th, 6 a.m.: I bolt upright in bed and poke Vinny, hard and fast in his side. “Do you smell smoke?!” In hindsight, I realize this is a terrible way to wake your spouse on Valentine’s Day. In foresight, I recognize that having a great sense of smell is my super-power, and one day– perhaps today– I’ll have the opportunity to save my loved ones from a smelly heap of danger.
Vin runs upstairs in his boxers to find two firemen inside our house. Firemen don’t ring doorbells; they pry open metal door frames and invite themselves in. They run past Vin, up the stairs to the third floor where they use pointy instruments to crack open the ceiling so they can get up to the roof. The house attached to ours is currently on fire, and they need to access our rooftop to put out the flames. Frankly, I could have done without all this. It’s Sunday morning and two degrees outside, and all I really want is a cup of coffee and a little light reading.
I throw on my wedding ring and puffy coat and shove my pajama pants into snow boots. We watch from across the street for about 10 minutes, then get too cold and head to Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner. Finally we get the all-clear and go back inside. For the next few weeks, the house smells like roaring campfire.
March 2, 11 pm: I’m home, relaxing, tacking things to my secret Pinterest board called “New House” where I save articles about open shelving and packing tips and how to find decent, God-fearing tenants who pay rent on time and scrub floors with a toothbrush. I’m about to close up shop for the night, so I shut my laptop and drop my feet to the tile floor, which is currently covered with hundreds (HUNDREDS!) of tiny fluttering insects. The scene is grisly, as they all appear to be fighting for their last breath, some already dead, some only mostly dead.
It’s like that scene in The Notebook where Noah takes Allie into the canoe and they’re surrounded on all sides by beautiful white birds except google tells me these tiny winged insects are termites which is far less romantic and way more grotesque. I always assumed termites just snacked on wooden poles inside the walls until the whole house caved in on itself, but apparently they sometimes do a “swarm” inside the home to give a little sneak peek of the havoc they’re wreaking behind the scenes.
11:10 pm: Vin comes home and duct-tapes a plastic garbage bag to the heating vent that runs overhead, which appears to be their port of entry to our living room/ kitchen. This time, the Hefty bag is clear. This way, whenever we walk toward the area where we eat our food, we pass under a translucent canopy of partially-dead termites. I have a picture, but I am choosing not to post the picture.
Use your imagination.
They swarm a few more times over the next several weeks, one time after we’d already removed the plastic canopy thinking the coast was clear. Vin was so grossed out he was unable to eat dinner that night. I didn’t have that problem. I’d made lamb burgers and hell if I was letting those go to waste.
During this time, my friend Aubrey — along with everyone else– was reading The Magical Art of Tidying Up, which apparently warns against talking shit about your current house when you’re in search of a new one because houses talk to one another. Aubrey cautioned me about speaking too critically of our apartment during this delicate time, as we wouldn’t want our current house to tell our future house that we’re ungrateful jerks or insufferable whiners. We were having a tough enough time getting through the mortgage approval process and certainly didn’t need any bad house- juju standing in our way.
I took her advice to heart, and quietly swept up sputtering termites while reminding the apartment that it was still our special sunflower and looking pretty good despite its dank basement smell, terrible fluorescent lighting, and burgeoning mold issue.
(Our old apartment on the good days. When it was good, it was very good.)
(our old apartment on the bad days. some days it was quite bad. But hey– at least we didn’t have to pay for the repairs!)
In early April, potential tenants started coming in on the weekends to check out the basement. We’d told our landlord that we were under contract, and he wasted no time getting his rental back on the market. Our stuff was piled in boxes in every corner, as we waited to get final approval and an actual closing date on the calendar. This process was a bit like chasing a unicorn through a dewy meadow filled with land mines and prairie dogs- -just when you think you reach the prize something pops out of the ground and bites you on your ankle. (Have four letters written by Tuesday! Get receipts for that thing you did in 2011! Have your employer call us a fifth time! Contact the IRS and tell them to send you last year’s tax bill! Pee in this jar while tap-dancing! Sign this document in your own blood!).
When the same realtor who’d rented me the basement 9 1/2 years prior came in to show the place, he looked at me and said, “You’re still here?”
Not for long, I thought. Unless, of course, the bank finds a problem with that stool sample they’d requested.
Just before moving out, the landlord stopped by to make sure the termites were gone. I’d always assumed they appeared because of the house fire in February. I figured that hosing a place down and leaving all that wood to rot seemed like an invitation for breeding something, be it termites or mold or chlamydia or something awful.
“We’ve gotta get rid of that old, dried out stump in the backyard,” said the landlord in his thick Greek accent. “That’s where the termites came from. Go look at it– they ate it up from top to bottom.”
“Are you talking about the fig tree?” I asked. Was this man trying to break my heart?
“Yeah, looks terrible. Gotta cut that down or they’ll come back again.”
The fig tree stopped producing fruit two years ago, right when we started our home search. The thing I loved most about my home gave me termites and made my skinny husband lose his appetite. Vin thinks I’m nuts always talking about signs, but what else could it be? There is no more fruit here for you. Go in search of greener pastures. Climb another tree.
The new tenants moved in a week before our closing date, so we packed our stuff in a U-haul and parked it in my mother and father-in-law’s driveway. For a week we lived out of duffel bags; Vin’s guitars and my underthings splayed out across their living room floor. The new tenants texted us a few times: the dryer had already broken, the oven wouldn’t turn on and sugar ants had completely obliterated the kitchen.
They must have talked shit about their old apartment.
May 5, 2016: We close on our first house. When the papers are signed, I thank the seller and burst into tears. We drink margaritas down the street in celebration.
May 6: It pours on moving day and I barely notice. Vinny returns the U-haul. His brother assembles our new queen-sized bed. His mother sprinkles holy water on our kitchen floor. I get to work ripping open boxes with scissors, slowly introducing my silly old things to their pretty new home.
I come across a box filled with scented candles. The glass jars gleam under all the natural light pouring through the front windows. I unwrap them all, lining them up in a neat, tidy row on my white kitchen countertop. There’s a wide variety– Lavender and spicy bergamot. Cucumber and fresh sage. Jasmine. Warm vanilla. Fresh fig.
The last candle is made from soft yellow wax and smells like Prosecco. Across the label, its name is scrolled in fancy cursive: Champagne Toast.
Time to light that motherfucker.
More reflections on our time in the basement. Thank you, Basement. You sheltered us for a long time and helped us save so much money. We hope your next occupants are able to do the same.