A Frightening Underground Life -- but on the Cheap

Sunday, August 23, 2009

To find a cheap apartment in Washington, it helps to be willing to live like a mole.

I found the apartment in the classifieds section of the City Paper. I had just finished graduate school and didn't have a lot of money. For a basement apartment, they weren't kidding. It was entirely underground. With the exception of two narrow windows hidden behind an overgrown hedge, the apartment was as tight and lightproof as a mausoleum.

I am claustrophobic, and even though I felt like I was entombing myself, cheap apartments are hard to find in D.C. So I signed the lease and moved in with six full-spectrum light bulbs and a can of cheerful yellow paint.

The house was in a neighborhood of stately old mansions on Alaska Avenue. An ornamental Chinese partition separated my apartment from the rest of the basement. On my side of the partition was a cheery yellow room with a table and a bed. On the other side was a dark basement stacked with suitcases, broken appliances and old magazines. Winding through the hidden chaos were pitch-black tunnels that ran like fingers to the different ends of the house.

I went back there once -- to find the fuse box -- and practically started to hyperventilate.

In order for a basement apartment to be considered legal, it needs to have a front and a back entrance. Mine was of the illegal variety. With only one escape route -- up a set of steep stairs into an overgrown back yard.

The other set of stairs went upstairs into the house, where my landlord and her two adult children lived. The washer/dryer closet was at the top of the stairs. The first time I used the dryer, there was a streamer of lint about two feet long hanging out of the lint vent.

Cleaning a lint vent is, for me, an extremely satisfactory experience. But this one left me with a feeling of alarm. And I couldn't help but notice that whoever had cleaned the lint vent on previous occasions had just thrown the lint behind the dryer -- where it accumulated on the back and sides of the dryer, just waiting for a stray electrical spark.

My landlord explained her family's pack-rat tendencies by describing them as a family of artists. From my vantage point -- cleaning out the dryer vent -- I couldn't see any art. But I couldn't help but notice the box of 24 seedlings I had seen my landlord carry into the house at the beginning of spring. They were still sitting in the hallway, all dead now, the flower heads dried up like ash at the end of a cigarette.

I was out of town when the snowstorm hit, dumping 10 inches of snow on the city. In the District, it doesn't stay cold for long. By the time I came home, the snow had stopped and it was starting to rain.

It rained all night.

When I woke up the next morning, my apartment was solidly underwater. My dog (who loves to swim) was using the stairs as a springboard as my personal effects floated by.

What happened next was pure survival as I scrambled out of bed and splashed across my apartment unplugging electrical items before calling a friend. She showed up with another friend and a truck. They were wearing waders. They packed my things up and moved me out.

Two weeks later, I dropped by to return the keys. There was a "For Sale" sign in the front yard and an open house in process. Milling through the house were groups of stunned aristocrats.

In their faces, I saw the house for what it really was -- one of those places you see on the news after the occupant has become lost and died inside a house filled with homemade trash tunnels. While there weren't actual trash tunnels through this house, some rooms were stuffed with so much junk you couldn't push the doors open. The master bedroom, surprisingly tidy, was covered in a fine layer of gravel and dirt, which crunched under my feet. In the center of the room, covered in 20 years of dust, was an old 1980s upright vacuum cleaner -- still plugged into the wall.

-- Adele Levine, Wheaton


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