I went to college in a smallish midwestern city with a gorgeous lakefront, gritty urban streets, and crazy lunatics roaming the alleys (campus was two blocks from the Rescue Mission, a psychiatric hospital, and the Pabst Mansion open to the drunk public). Most of my classes were held next to the Y on the city’s major thoroughfare and it wasn’t unlikely that I’d encounter a bum or two on the way to J101. More often than not, I fought the urge to ask them for money, as my broke ass in those days lived on 25-cent Red, White and Blue beers and $1 pizza slices.
I was 25 pounds heavier than I am today.
The only thing I don’t miss about college.
Although my family moved an insane amount of times when I was a kid, we always settled in suburban towns with streets named after a tree,(except for the one or two times my dad drove us kids to the “ghetto” in his 80-ft. white Caddy so we could get a “taste” of how the more “unfortunate” lived), so my stint in my college city was decidedly, emphatically different from anything I’d experienced to that point. I relished in the yappy sirens, the cheap empty vodka bottles wrapped in brown paper bags left in the alleys, the corner stores that sold milk for $5. I loved the urban dirt and bars with neon signs, and my off-campus deathtrap house.
Well actually there were two deathtrap houses. One for junior year, and one for senior. Both were built in the early 1900s, had exposed wiring throughout, outlets that sparked just because, and the most beautiful woodwork and fixtures you’ve ever seen. The fact that a wood beam or cast iron door knocker might fall on your head at any turn only intensified the awe. There were window seats and leaded glass (all the better to see the bum sleeping outside your window) and built-in lacquered wood bars. The kind you might see in a western saloon with stairs leading to a brothel.
Both years, I lived with seven-eight other women — Pis, Dog, Bone, Kithy, Lice, Cran, Nana, and Jul-i. Man, we had the times. Traipsing out to slip and slide on city ice in our chunky heels — except for my beloved Jul-i, who wore white pumps with acid-washed jeans, to house party to jukebox dive to after-bars at Slooch’s house. Or someone just like him. We had a communal kitchen table where we ate our Froot Loops and Little Debbies, and we grew close, like only college friends do. It was during one of these group eating sessions, where one of us finally noticed that the door leading to the basement was locked. And not just locked, but sealed. At that time, we had no idea that Jeffery Dahmer was living about four blocks away, so we didn’t go to body parts right away, but the thought did occur to us, right after speculating that our horrible landlady, Starr, she of the bottle red hair, sharp Cruella DeVille nose, and waxy alcoholic skin, probably hid her illegitimate mutant child down there. A kid who’d never seen the light of day. A child so horribly deformed that he didn’t even have a mouth, which was why we never heard him screaming.
So weeks passed. We walked past that basement door of doom on the way to the kitchen every day, speculating and shucking and jiving about who — or what — lay in the dirt below our house. Starr avoided our questions, saying something about equipment and crawl space, and warned us horror-movie-style, to not go down there; not that we could with the lock and the sealing and all that.
One night, Willy Graham, and us girls came back to the Starr House (our senior year place was the Busch House. I know.) to hang out and unravel the basement door mystery. Well somehow a hatchet showed up. A hatchet. Like an axe, but heavier and sharper and spookier. To this day, I don’t know where we got it. But up it goes on Willy Graham’s shoulder and he swings it smack dab in the center of the locked basement door. And nothing happened. Not a scratch on that dang door. The paint even stayed intact. So Willy lifts the hatchet again and takes another shot at it. This time, some wood splintered and the barest crack appeared. For the next several minutes, Willy took swing after swing after swing and made just the sparest of progress. Finally, a few small and narrow spaces opened in the door, just enough to stir a draft, but not nearly enough to see inside the basement. Willy gave up. He downed a beer and off he went. And so there the seven of us were. Laughing, staring, wondering, freaking. Starr was gonna kill us. Maybe that’s what’s down in the basement. Co-ed remains.
Kithy, always the quick thinker (and now an engineer), went and got a Hammer Time poster and taped it to the somewhat destroyed door. The poster wafted in the wind drifting up from the basement, but for the moment, it’d do. But as eight girls living together in a communal college home will tell you, we forgot all about the important stuff in the midst of the chunky heel goin’ and dive bar jukebox playin’. Until the day Starr came by for her inspection. Something she did out of the blue every couple of months or so. Always unannounced, always a source of great fear.
The eight of us all happened to be home, and so we huddled together on our Swingles Office Furniture rental couch and waited for the inevitable. Starr’s bloodhound nose and hawk eyes missed nothing. She went from room to room, and we, never sure what she was looking for exactly, tried to distract her with news of a mouse in the house. A feisty little creature that just the night before, ran over my foot as I washed my face in the bathroom. “It’s an old house,” she shrugged. And that was that. She passed us on the couch, looked disapprovingly at the Ben and Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream stain on the armrest, and proceeded to the kitchen. Long minutes passed. She opened the back door to the alley, tapped this and that, and exited to find us still on the couch. And of course as she did, she passed the basement door. With the Hammer Time poster undulating in the wind.
Time stood still. Honestly? I truly believe that some of us and I’m not saying who, believed she was a dalmatian murderess with a secret locked basement past. We waited for what was to come next. And so here it was: eyes narrowed, nostrils quivered, chest heaved. RIIIIIIIIPPPPPPPPPP! went the poster. Into pieces it fell onto the 80-yr.-old carpet. “What is this?” Her voice seethed, but it was quiet, which made it even creepier. We yammered some story about Willy Graham and he was drunk and there was a hatchet and we couldn’t stop him and don’t kill us, don’t kill us and throw us down into the drafty sub room.
There is not a word to describe the degree of her piss-offitude. She made us sit on that couch while she called her handy henchman, who looked just like Uncle Fester, to come and repair the door. He securely nailed large blocks of wood to the cracks, which we all had to admit was nicer to look at than the Hammer Time poster, and they both left with a warning: “Don’t do it again.”
We never did find out what lay in that basement, but 15 years later, I heard they tore the house down (before it exploded from faulty wiring I suppose) and I waited to hear what might have been discovered below the house.
I never heard anything, but I’ll tell you what: some days, when I’m sitting here on my tree-lined street in a state with no basements, I miss those ridiculous days.