Once again, pictures in old photo albums conjure up memories.
It was the first real place that I could call my own. I was all of 24 and had spent the previous five years living in either dorms, shared apartments, or group houses. I was free of the loose entanglements created by cohabiting with strangers, all for the primary reason of saving money rather than any notion of camaraderie. It was 1985 and I had found this sanctuary in Arlington, Virginia. Rent was $385 a month, which in today’s dollars amounts to about $855. With student loans still to pay, it was more than I really could afford. But I desperately wanted a place to call my own, and I was exceedingly grateful for the first time in my life to live by myself.
My post-collegiate roomies didn’t resemble the fun-loving cheeriness of the later “Friends” or “Big Bang” groupings on television. Although perfectly fine in their own way, each was typical of those with whom one arranges temporary living arrangements in a big city like Washington, DC. They were ambitious types who worked for the government by day and attended law or graduate school at night. We were all from mostly middle-class backgrounds, cordial with one another but never hung out or socialized together. The degree to which we communicated was usually in the form of notes left out as reminders that rent checks needed to be written, payment for the phone bill was due (cell phones had yet to be invented), and perhaps a plea for someone to please clean the bathroom. There were no memorable laugh track moments that I can recall. One of them a couple of years ago sent me a Facebook friend request in what I assume was a serendipitous, curious moment for him. It took me several beats to recall exactly who he was. We have never commented on each other’s postings.
In spite of the financial challenge, I somehow managed to pull off being able to live in this one-bedroom apartment. It certainly wasn’t much to speak of. A second floor walk-up with no linen or coat closets, its non-insulted windows whistled during winter snow storms, and there was a depressing and mildewed laundry facility in the basement for resident use. The tiny kitchen had no dish washer, but it did have a manual defrost refrigerator, and an early 1960’s gas stove with an oven that required a lit match at the pilot hole to start. The property had been advertised as “on a major bus line,” which was true enough. But that route was a destination to the Pentagon only, and from there I was able to get to the Metro and downtown to work each day. A Giant Food grocery store served the neighborhood of predominantly low-level civil servants like myself, working class families, and a large Hispanic community in the nearby Arlandria enclave.
It wasn’t tony Georgetown or prosperous Woodley Park. It was a rank and file suburban neighborhood literally at the very edges of the county line. Except for the famed Birchmere folk club, which at that time sat in its original tiny and cramped location, there was really no reason to come to this part of Arlington unless your friends thought it’d be fun to have a picture taken in front of the unique spelling of the Waffle Shop’s awnings on Mount Vernon Avenue. Later on, that all changed. At that time, however, there just wasn’t much to see and do there. It was a place to live inexpensively and that was it.
Ah, but I had determined that this was nevertheless where my private den of inequities was to flourish. I was a budding Casanova who had visions of unbridled moments with countless women who would visit the love nest. And indeed that all happened, except I experienced it through vicarious means of proximity rather than anything first-hand.
I immediately recognized that several of my new neighbors were extraordinarily successful in that pre-Tinder, non-electronic hookup era. In time I got to know a few of them and had my own perch, as it were, to admire their skills. They actually met prospective lovers in person, with follow-up interactions that by my observations included genuine conversation and actual eye-contact. Looking back on it now, it was all rather quaint approach.
The walls in that apartment building were quasi-sound proof. By this I mean that my neighbors probably didn’t hear the Today Show coming from my TV in the mornings because they were often in a comatose state after getting home around 2:00am each evening. In spite of the fact that I had already been asleep for a few hours, I was often generously offered drunken lullabies from these returning conquerors that stretched from the parking lot, up the hallway stairs, and all the way to their final bedroom destination. The sound of Prince’s “New Position” remains a special memory for me to this very day.
Among the interior decorating options at my disposal, I ultimately went with something called Parental Rustic. What it lacked in originality was more than made up by the need for economic necessity. In a display of both generosity and opportunity, and ascertaining once and for all that their last child’s move from home was a permanent one, my parents happily shipped off to me the remnants of their 1970’s furniture. Reveling in my newly received booty, I added to it by hunting in second-hand stores and scanning the classified ad listings in the Sunday paper. Craigslist and eBay had yet to be invented.
My interior design intents were succinct and simple: brown. And lots of it. I made my apartment a sea of brown with occasional genius touches of rust or faux-oak. Not only did it convey a sense of manly comportment, but it also had the added benefit of hiding beer stains.
Looking at the pictures now, I am struck by just how much I miss about certain aspects of modern life from that period. Although digital recordings were just a few short years away, I love seeing my Technics turntable prominently displayed in that living room. My Advent speakers, the pride and joy of what I still proclaim is an admirable word, the hi-fi system, are far and away the best sonic experience I’ve ever had in a home environment. To this day I mourn the regrettable decision of selling them prior to my move to California.
Even then my black and white Sears television was considered laughable, yet I recall many a night when New York friends who lived in DC would come to my home and happily watch Met, Yankee, Ranger, and Knick games, which for one reason or another were blocked from the District of Columbia cable offerings. Years later one of those friends shared with me the wonderful memory he had of watching all of those games on my tiny 12 inch screen.
And, of course, there was that bulky, brown, corded phone. It was just waiting for Joe Mannix to pick it up and check on a source to give him vital information about a blackmail threat.
I lived in that apartment for three years before moving to a nicer place just up the road in Pentagon City. It later went through three name changes and renovations to the apartments and outside facades. Reading Yelp reviews of it now, it seems that it enjoyed having a semi-chic standing for a short period in the early 2000’s, to again settling back to the fading property that I might recognize from my own time there — but one that is now roach-infested and suffering from a neglectful management.
The young man who lived there himself eventually began to develop skills at both conversation and eye contact. He likewise acquired an ability to glimpse out at a world through hues that provided far more than the those earlier, singular tones in which he felt more comfortable. He later developed an appreciation for shades, and all the subtleties that they offer.
It is those shades, after all, in which one sees so many of life’s interesting facets.