Posted: February 12, 2012 in New York City

 Getting used to living in that tiny apartment wasn’t easy. Even the simple act of taking a shower was a task of complex proportions. Whenever Helena or I needed to use the bathroom, I had to open the water valve located under the kitchen sink first and hope my hand will come out of that black hole without a rodent attached to any of my fingers. Leaving the valve open all the time wasn’t an option either, primarily because that would surely mean losing gallons of water into the Hudson River, but also because the whoosh of rushing water emanating from the walls was surely what the Titanic must have sounded like when it was sinking.

Upon entering the narrow shower stall, we had to be careful when twisting open the hot water faucet more than one eighth of a centimeter lest we boil the skin off our bodies. The stall floor was so stained with God-knows-what that we had to buy a plastic mat to place on it so our bare feet wouldn’t have to touch it. This however posed two additional problems.  After a few days, the mat would capture soapy water that turned into black scum underneath, and Helena would insist on cleaning it despite her grumbling about it. The mat would also prevent the water from draining immediately, so we had to take our showers quickly before the water overflowed into the rest of the bathroom, since the edge of the shower base was only a few inches tall.

Getting out of the shower required dexterity and skill. The first step was to make sure that your body never touched the shower curtain since it looked as if it hadn’t been replaced or cleaned since the day it was hung there. Not touching the curtain proved impossible however, since it was hanging from tubing that was contoured in the shape of the stall. The L-shaped tubing was attached in its center by a bar leading to the ceiling. That bar prevented the curtain from being pushed all the way to the opposite end, so we had to squeeze ourselves out between the wall and the curtain and inevitably, our skin would have to come into contact with one or the other. Then, I had to undergo the task of stepping out from the shower mat to my plastic slippers nearby, because the thought of standing anywhere in the entire apartment with bare feet was unthinkable. This was not always easy because, even though I made sure to place the slippers within foot’s reach and next to each other, most of the time I managed to kick one of the slippers by mistake or move the other one cockeyed, making the act of putting them on as well as avoiding shower curtain contact, all without landing onto the floor on my naked, wet ass, a virtual impossibility. As a result, inevitably, I wound up having to place a foot on the bathroom floor anyway.

Drying oneself with a towel was infinitely easier outside the bathroom, where there was elbow room, but we had to be careful not to lean on anything when doing so. I put my hand on a nearby bookshelf once for balance and the whole thing teetered, threatening to fall. It was the same for the shaky end table near the futon. I quickly had to learn how to balance myself on one leg so as not to fall over when drying the other leg or a foot.  Sitting on either of the two chairs in the living area was also out of the question. One was a stiff wooden chair and the other one was an old theater chair complete with the brackets left from when it was screwed on to the theater floor. Since we only had one towel for each of us, we couldn’t use it to sit on, so the whole drying process became an acrobatic maneuver.

If taking a shower was an action-adventure, it was nothing like the nightly ritual of going to bed.

On the first night, we decided to sleep with the living room light on because you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face if you turned off all the lights, and if any creepy-crawly was going to appear at two o’clock in the morning, we wanted to make sure we could see exactly who our nocturnal visitor was.  But the living room light proved too bright, so I left the bathroom light adjacent to the living area on instead. By leaving the bathroom door open, it cast just the right amount of light into the bedroom to serve as a night-light.

Climbing onto the bed required deft skill as well because the mattress was about four and a half feet above the ground and we needed a chair to stand on so we could jump onto the bed.  The mattress had been placed on a four foot tall wooden base. I supposed it was to store things underneath.  Helena chose to sleep on the side of the bed closest to the bedroom threshold, which meant I had to climb over her if she got into bed before me (which was all the time) and climb over her again if I needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Getting down from the bed in the dark was tougher than getting up on it because you had to remember that there was quite a distance between your feet and the floor.  Many times I landed with a thud , forgetting in my sleepy state that I was coming down  from a high summit, and startling myself awake.

Once I settled into my corner of the bed, I prepared myself for my nightly habit of reading in order to doze off. Next to me was a small table, which was about a foot higher than the mattress. On top of that table was a small lamp. I reached up to turn on the lamp that first night, but it didn’t turn on. Somehow, with all the quirks and surprises of The Apartment From Hell, that made sense. We didn’t bother to check and see if it was just the light bulb that had burned out because something told me that the lamp still wouldn’t work even if we changed the bulb. Besides, the lamp was a one-piece object and I had no idea how to access the bulb even if I did want to change it. Thankfully, Helena was thoughtful enough to buy me a nightlight to clip onto my book the very next day, so the lamp remained on the table like a conversation piece, unlit and unused.

We had to be very careful not to sit up in bed suddenly because, since the mattress was so high above the floor, we were close to the ceiling fan, and unless we wanted to get scalped by the rotating blades, it was important to remember to sit up halfway whenever getting out of bed. One particular night when I was sound asleep, I felt something fall on my face. It felt flat and cold and it stuck to my cheek, startling me awake. It had me wondering if this place also had frogs, but it was just a piece of plaster, shaped like a jagged square about a couple of inches in diameter. It took me days to figure out where the plaster came from. I looked at the ceiling right above me and the wall behind me but I couldn’t find any plaster holes. It wasn’t until a week later, when another piece fell off the day New York City experienced a slight earth tremor that I saw that the chunks of plaster were coming from the base that held the fan to the ceiling. I couldn’t decide if the tremor was more worrisome than our rapidly deteriorating surroundings, and at first, I didn’t even realize we had experienced a tremor at all. It was Helena who pointed it out. I had figured it was just the building itself, settling or on the verge of collapsing.

Despite this comedy of circumstance, I felt responsible to honor my verbal agreement with Jerome to stay through November. After all, it wasn’t his fault we didn’t check his apartment first. In fact, had we seen it, we surely would not have left Miami in the first place, so it was a bit of a mixed blessing moving to New York to an apartment sight unseen. We were quite happy to be living in The City That Never Sleeps as long as we got shut-eye, and during the first few nights that wasn’t an easy thing to do. As a result, Helena kept making me promise to move to another apartment by the end of August. After all, we had no written contract with him and he never asked me for a deposit. But August came and went, and despite our profound discomfort with our habitat, we stayed in the apartment, primarily because we grew to love the West Village and we spent most of our days out in the city anyway. But then, Helena made me promise to look for an apartment by the end of September. Once again, I felt a twinge of guilt… until the day our cable went out.

Jerome told us before we moved in that he was behind on his cable payments but he would make sure he would pay for it before we moved in. That was very important to me because the cable company also supplied us with Internet capabilities, and a large part of my work required my being on-line. He kept his promise, but nine weeks later, we suddenly had no TV or Internet. When I called the cable company, they told us that the past due amount had only been partially paid. I called Jerome and he expressed surprise.

“Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck,” was his response.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“OK, I’ll take care of it next week. I’m a little tight right now but next week I’ll be able to take care of it.”

I thanked him and he asked me if everything else with the apartment was all right. I lied to him and told him everything was fine, since there was no point in going through the litany of misadventures we were undergoing. Just then, as if to mock me, a tiny, dark gray mouse scurried quickly from under the kitchen stove to the front door. The damn thing was so fast that I barely noticed it until it ran behind the kitchen sink on the opposite side of the room. Helena was sitting beside me on the futon reading a magazine, so she wasn’t an eyewitness to the fact.

“Jerome,” I said into the phone.  “I think I just saw a mouse run by.”  Helena’s ears perked up and she dropped the magazine.

“Ya did? Fuck! That’s impossible. I stuffed the hole they were coming through with iron wool before you moved in and bought a few mousetraps and placed them all around behind the kitchen!”

“Well, this one didn’t cooperate with you because it just ran out from under the stove and I think it went under your front door.”

“Oh my God… OK. If I were you, I would get some more mousetraps and lay them anywhere you last saw them.”


“It! I mean it. I’m sure there aren’t any more.”

I’m sure that wasn’t true because when I’d go to throw out the garbage in the lovely dank area directly below us down in the first floor, I’ve seen, more than once, rodents scurrying over the refuse, much to my blood-curdling disgust.

“Allright, I’m gonna buy some more mousetraps. Just please make sure you take care of the cable bill because I really need to go online.”

He promised me that he would and we hung up. I looked at Helena.

“Don’t tell me,” she said and curled her legs up under her.

I stood up cautiously and tip-toed to the front door, careful not to get near the stove. I peered over the kitchen counter, expecting to see a mouse chilling there, but there was nothing. I looked at the walls for it and peered into the bedroom. The idea that the mouse could have easily scurried into the bedroom was a notion I preferred not to entertain.

“Do you see it?” Helena asked.

“No. Maybe I was just seeing things.”

“Or maybe you weren’t. We’re getting mousetraps now!”

Helena and I wasted no time. We immediately went to the nearest pharmacy to buy an assortment of mouse traps. There were all kinds of modern traps, some were in the form of a box that came with some type of sonar to attract them, others looked like some hi-tech contraption too difficult to figure out. We opted on the simple traditional mouse trap, the kind you saw on the old “Tom & Jerry” cartoons, where you put a piece of cheese on a lever and the weight of the mouse on the trap triggered a vise that would crush its little body. The whole idea of the rodent’s death was as equally repulsive to us as the rodent itself, but these weren’t palmetto bugs where you simply used bug spray or stepped on to kill. First of all, these damn critters were lightning fast. Secondly, the idea of crushing a mouse under my shoe was something I wasn’t about to do even if I could catch the little buggers. So despite my personal feelings about killing complex life forms, I prepared myself to become a mouse’s worst nightmare:  a rodent murderer…  a vermin serial killer.

The only problem was that the damn traps didn’t work most of the time. We bought some gouda cheese, specifically because we liked eating it ourselves, but also to put it on the trap. After a few days of this however, we started to associate the smell of gouda with the mice and we suddenly developed a permanent distaste for that type of cheese. I would break off a tiny morsel and carefully place it on the mousetrap. As careful as I was in setting the traps, I would still trigger it inadvertently at times and catch one of my fingers in it, much to my painful chagrin. But soon after I managed to master the delicate process, I learned how to smear gouda on the lever first, before clamping the vice down, and then I’d put it down near the last place I saw them.

These little bastards were smart though, and I was sure there was more than one hanging about, but several times when we walked into the apartment, I’d only catch a glimpse of one. I would see a long tail protruding from the corner of the stove top, then disappear. Fortunately, we had decided on the first day we moved into that apartment that we’d either be eating at restaurants, ordering take-out or consuming raw food in order to never have to use that dilapidated old stove, but the sight of any part of a mouse near where someone is supposed to cook was unnerving nonetheless. Other times I’d be sitting on the futon and a tiny mouse would peer from under the stove, just inches from the mousetrap. I’d make a sudden move and the thing would either go back under or scurry away towards the front door.

But the worst time of all was one particular night, when we were asleep.

I woke up that night to a rustling sound outside the bedroom. We used plastic shopping bags to put garbage in and we made it a point to hang them from a knob of one of the kitchen cabinets so a mouse couldn’t crawl in there. Somehow though, the damned things wound up in there anyway, rustling around for food. I sat up, careful not to behead myself with the ceiling fan, and climbed over Helena who was sound asleep. In the partial darkness, I was able to make out silhouettes of not one, not two, but three nasty rodents scurrying across the darkened kitchen looking for a late-night snack and ignoring the mouse traps. Without realizing it, I let out a loud, low yell at the sight of this mouse-a-thon. My yell apparently startled them because they scurried away with incredible speed in different directions. One ran towards the bedroom threshold and under our bed.

“What’s the matter?” Helena asked groggily.

“Nothing.  I stubbed my toe. Go back to sleep.” I couldn’t bear to tell her that we may be sleeping over a mouse mall because I knew she wouldn’t get any more sleep that night.

I got up from under the bed and checked the mouse traps. The traps had not been triggered but the cheese was gone! How the hell could those tiny animal burglars do that? I picked a mouse trap up to see if the stupid thing even worked and it immediately snapped on my finger. Stifling another yell, I bit my lip and threw the goddamn thing into the plastic garbage bag, then carefully looked inside it to see if there was anything alive in there. I caught a glimpse of a small, furry gray thing in the bag so I tied it up tightly and walked out of the apartment to throw it out. I didn’t throw it out into the garbage area of the building though, because I didn’t want to meet any more mice, particularly while I was holding a bag with one of its cousins thrashing around in it, so I went out into the street and tossed it into the nearest trash can at the end of the block.

After several weeks of waging war against these resilient animals, I did manage to kill a grand total of five mice. Another time, also in the middle of the night, one death was particularly gruesome because when the mouse trap snapped shut, it woke me and I could hear the poor mouse struggling to escape it as the trap clattered against the floor, then suddenly stop, then resume with waning effort, going through the motions of its death throes before my ears. The mental image I had conjured up of aurally witnessing that mouse’s valiant struggle for life was one I couldn’t shake for weeks, and having to pick up and throw out these little corpses with what appeared to be pained expressions in their faces was something I hoped I’d never have to do again. Still, I much preferred killing them than living with them, because after I did away with the Rat Patrol Five, I didn’t see another mouse again. Either I had taken care of all of them or word spread out in the mouse community that a heartless, deranged killer was living upstairs.

But still, all this wasn’t what convinced me to move out of the apartment early. It was the phone call I made to Jerome the next week to follow up on the cable bill he still hadn’t paid for that made me decide it was time to skedaddle. Whenever Helena or I had to go on-line,  we’d go to the nearest Starbucks or at that charming tea place nearby we liked so much, which was fine with us because as I explained, we didn’t mind being out of that apartment for long stretches at a time. But after a while we did grow tired and wanted to go back home to relax as best we could in that place. Helena liked to watch Ghost Whisperer on TV and she hadn’t been able to for several days so I called Jerome. When he answered, he didn’t sound happy.

“Hey, Jerome. How are you?” I asked. He sighed, which was what he usually did whenever I talked to him, as if the effort of everyday living was too much.

“I’m OK, I guess,” he said, sounding a bit despondent.

“Listen, I was just calling to remind you about paying up that overdue cable bill.”

“Yeah, yeah I know. I’ll get to it sometime this week.”

“Well, it’s just that, I’ll still have to pay for the current cable bill this month regardless of how many days I’ve been without it so if you don’t mind paying for it as soon as you can I’d appreciate it because I’m kind of paying for something I don’t have right now.”

I don’t know if perhaps I had a certain aggravated tone in my voice when I said this or perhaps I may have sounded like a cheapskate to him, but it seemed to have rubbed him the wrong way. He didn’t speak for several seconds.

“Hello?” I said into the phone, thinking I had been disconnected.

“Don’t push me, Robert. Just don’t push me.” Jerome warned.

“I’m not trying to push you, it’s just that…”

“I’m sick and tired of this bullshit!” Jerome suddenly exploded. “I’ve done everything I possibly can to accommodate you! I bought a new air conditioner, I paid for the overdue cable bill and I don’t even watch cable! I didn’t even get a deposit from you!”

“You didn’t ask me for a deposit, Jerome.”

“Don’t push me on this shit because you’re not gonna win!  You got a great apartment in a great part of town and I could have gotten a lot more for it! But I’m stuck with you instead and now you’re goin’ on and on about this fuckin’ cable bill! Well, I’ve had it! I want you out of there by the end of next month!”

“All right, Jerome, just calm down…”

“I’m not gonna calm down! I’m not gonna calm down!”

“Allright then, don’t calm down.”

I’ve had it with your bullshit! Now as I just said, I’m gonna pay the motherfuckin’ cable bill in the next few days so stop pushing me on this! I’m gonna hang up now and I don’t want to hear another thing about this ever again, is that clear?

“Perfectly,  Jerome.” I said, wanting to reach into the phone and grab his little scrawny neck to place in one of the mousetraps.

He hung up the phone and I sat there immobile, fuming. We had never missed a rent payment. In fact, I had always paid before the first of the month, so for him to act as if we were unpleasant tenants because I asked him to pay for something he had to pay for anyway, was beyond anything I could fathom, let alone tolerate. My face must have betrayed what I was feeling because Helena looked at me with concern.

“Are you OK?” she asked me.
“That’s it. We’re looking for a place today and moving out of here by the end of the week.” I declared, my guts turning inside out by the anger I felt for being talked to in such a manner.

“What happened?” Helena asked.

I told her the entire conversation and she immediately called the broker agency that we had passed by in our walks through Hudson Street.

It was on. We were a week away from the end of the month, and even though it was probably just his anger talking and he didn’t really mean to unceremoniously throw us out, he had given us a perfect out to break our verbal agreement and leave this mouse infested dungeon once and for all.

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