I want to tell you about a man named Jack.  That was his real name, and his father, who owned the apartment complex we managed at the time, also owned the better part of East Portland.  Name a building, apartment or otherwise, and he owned it.  He was a very kind, gracious older gentleman who had sired just one heir to the family throne:  his son, Jack.  Jack joined up with Big Daddy right out of college and soon became a junior partner in the whole operation.  Jack and his father were different.  Remember a long time ago when I told you that Jack’s father was kind and gracious?  Well.  Jack and his father were different.

The privilege of working for Jack extended far beyond him simply signing our paychecks.  It just so happened that out of all the apartment buildings Big Daddy owned, ours was the building that boasted Jack’s personal office just across the parking lot from our own front door.  Meaning, Jack spent eight hours every day merely yards away from the property we managed and for which we were accountable–to him.  He managed his father’s other properties and employees from a distance, but was able to flick open his blinds to see whether we had kept every blade of grass and each piece of shrubbery groomed just so.  And Jack certainly liked things just so. 

Working for Jack didn’t bother me too much, because I was a poor, pregnant woman who had lost any shred of self-dignity eons ago.  Living under Jack’s scrutiny every day was just another log on the fire.  Working for him did, however, bother Derrick.  Because–do I even need to say it?–Derrick is a guy.  And though my last post focused on my own hardships, let me tell you how much fun my dear hubbie had with all of this.

Every night, after working ten hours at a stressful engineering job, Derrick spent another hour in standstill traffic to finally make it home sometime after seven o’clock.  Once home, he inhaled dinner, stripped off his shirt and tie, put on his jeans and sweatshirt, and started on the maintenance jobs.  Think of it as a kind of reverse Superman trick;  instead of becoming buff and powerful after changing clothes, he was diminished and weakened by an immediate drop in social status.  Nonetheless, he swallowed his pride and cleaned and repaired cheerfully, knowing that our combined efforts allowed me to stay home with Rachael.  We knew that eventually, together, we were going to get ahead.  Jack, on the other hand, seemed to have picked up the Golden Goose on his way home from a frat party.  (At least, that’s the way we liked to see it.)  (Not that we were jealous.) 

One weeknight, after a particually harrowing rush hour experience, Derrick parked his car in the lot, ready to take a break with his family before putting on the ‘ol work duds.  As he was heading toward our front door he ran smack into Jack, who was heading for his own car to leave for the night.  They stood facing each other for a moment, then exchanged grumbled pleasantries, each standing on either side of Jack’s new Ferrari.  (He’d recently traded in his Mercedes for something a little saucier.)

Jack informed Derrick that I must not have done the evening “walk-through” yet, because he had seen some trash on the ground.

Derrick asked him, “Where?”

Jack pointed to a small wad of paper on the pavement at his feet.  “Right there.”

“Oh.”  They both looked at it.  Silently.

“It needs to be picked up.  Your duties included walking through the property morning and night, making sure it’s clean.”

“Yeah, sure.  Sorry about that.  Jen must have gotten tied up with Rachael.  We’ll get right on it after dinner.”

“No.  It needs to be done now.”

“Right now?  Oh, um, okay…I’ll just go and change and we’ll head out.”

“No.”  He smiled, pointing to the trash.  “It needs to be done now.”

The two men locked eyes, but it might as well have been horns.  If you know my husband, you know that he does not like being told what to do, especially by this undereducated prince.  But of course he had no choice; his wife’s maternity crop pants from Target depended on his ability to provide.  Time warped and then stood still as Derrick bent slowly over, keeping his eyes on the ground to avoid his taskmaster’s glare.  He could almost hear the Ferrari laughing at him, it’s red glare so harsh it was palpable.  Jack stood and watched as Derrick picked up the paper and walked it over to the dumpster, threw it in, then came back.

“Thanks.  I don’t enjoy seeing trash around here.  Have a good night.”

“Yeah.  You too.”  Jack hopped into his car and spun out of the driveway.  Derrick slowly made way to his two-bedroom hovel and fat, pregnant wife.  He told her about the encounter, and she laughed hard.  He laughed, too.  But not quite as hard. 

Until last night, ten years later, when I was writing this post and we both laughed so hard we cried.  Real tears.  Good ones. 

But we’re still mad at Jack.   (A pox on your Ferrari!)



I’ll start with a hot summer night in June 2001. I am eight months pregnant.

For starters.

It’s eleven-thirty on a Saturday night and the hot, damp Portland air is pressing against my bloated skin, greasy hair and–yes, my friends–maternity overall-shorts. I promise they were cute at the time. Kind of.

I am on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor of an apartment who’s now-missing tenants have fled in the night. They informed us they were moving, but apparently didn’t understand me when I told them I we had to walk through the place with a checklist to make sure everything was in order before they left. They just left. And though they didn’t leave a forwarding address, they did leave their apartment covered with knee-high piles of trash and a terrific odor of rotten milk and fresh placenta. (Sorry for the graphic image, but all you mothers [and milk drinkers] know what I mean.) It was horrible.  I wore a mask over my bloated face to not only protect the fetus from harsh cleaning chemicals but to protect my own olfactory virtue from the pornographic vapors which  now assaulted it. It would have taken at least ten Hail Marys to exorcise those wicked fumes from my nasal passages.

And we need to talk about those “knee-high piles of  trash.”  Right now you’re thinking: okay, so there were some potato chip bags and crumbs on the floor, maybe some old newspapers. Icky, but standard for this kind of tenant.

No. That is not what I mean when I say “knee-high piles of trash.” What I mean is that my husband walked into the apartment and was instantly wading in a wall-to-wall ocean of spilled Cheez Whiz jars, dirty underwear and used q-tips. By the time I came in for reinforcements he’d bagged much of the debris but had left several mysteriously large, rectangular plastic bins filled with liquid of some sort sitting in pools of more such liquid in the kitchen. This liquid was pale yellow with dark yellow flecks floating on top. I looked at the floaties. I smelled the placenta.  Who were these people?

Fast-forward three hateful days of cleaning, which brings me to my hands and knees and the crux of the story. I had finally reached the final phase of Operation Nasty, which was scrubbing down the kitchen floor. I had to do it on my (well-gloved) hands and knees because the linoleum was too crusty to be sanitized with a mere mop. It actually felt good to kneel down and let gravity pull that huge belly away from my tailbone for a change. This luxurious feeling, of both belly-weightlessness and almost-finished-nastiness, should have made me happy, but it didn’t. A singular thought kept sprinting across my mind as I scrubbed back and forth, back and forth, getting angrier with each swipe of the Brillo pad (for that is what this floor required.) What was this thought that scoured my brain with the same vengeance that I scoured the floor? It’s a thought that I know many of you mothers have had while scrubbing floors of your own:

Why did I ever go to college?

Why? Why? Why?

No canned answer came to my mind, despite the thousands of them I’d used to comfort myself since quitting “work” in order to–what was it I was doing now? No quote from the Ensign, no Anne Geddes image, not even a measly Erma Bombeck anecdote popped up into my brain to ease my troubled heart. I just stayed mad and kept scrubbing, the yellowed floor soon revealing a surface as blank and white as the once-colorful pages of my mind now felt.

I neared the last quadrant of the linoleum which placed my large self directly in front of the screened back door, opened to let some night air into the stifling apartment. A single kitchen bulb was lit overhead, illuminating the homely (that’s with an L) scene for any midnight passersby. Just as I was wringing out the last rag over the last bucket, I heard two young men walking through the courtyard in cheerful conversation. Probably headed for a fun night out, I thought glumly, hating myself for no longer being eighteen. As they grew closer their voices came into focus, and I overheard with crystal clarity the one sentence that my best professors had never prepared me for in all my years of study:

“Oh, look,” said one guy to the other, pointing my way. “The cleaning lady’s still up.”

I did not look up.  I hung my head and just kept scrubbing, perversely grateful to have at least been referred to as a lady.

That was a new low.

Sorry, we don’t take your kind

As I mentioned in my last post, we sold our house this month.  This is big news for us, as we’ve been trying to decide whether or not to move for the last half of a decade.  (Really.  We’ve been talking about it for five years.) Should we:

a) go to Portland or b) not to go to Portland?

a) upgrade or b) not upgrade?

a) live within our means or b) keep up with the Joneses?

As you can see, we finally settled on (b), (a), and (b).  And we’re excited.  Kind of about the new house, but mostly about keeping up with the Joneses.  What can I say?  I love the thrill of competition.

So my big project for the week was to find an apartment for our family to stay in over the summer while the new homestead is being built.  I took on this task with the naive optimism of a freshman in college trying to register for a 10 am Communications class.  Yep–all filled up.

Did you know that the rental occupancy rate in the Tri-Cities right now is 99%?  There is nothing, nothing available.  (Okay, that’s not completely true.  There was a two-bedroom available for such a low price in such an unsavory part of town, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  If my mother thought I was unfit before, she would have had CPS at my door had I taken her grandchildren to dwell in this meth lab.)

So the hunt is still on, and I’m not giving up.  If the Universe can clone our family to move into our old house, it can certainly produce an apartment for us to live in over the summer.  Said clones have politely asked us to extract ourselves from their new place by early June, so we’d better hustle.

The funny thing is, all of this pavement pounding has actually evoked some lovely memories for me.  You see, in our early years of marriage, Derrick and I spent a couple of years managing apartments.  No, I didn’t say we lived in apartments, like most young couples do, I said we managed them, which is, ahem, somewhat of a different experience–and certainly more enjoyable when it progresses from an experience to a memory. But as I toured apartments this last week, smelling the heavy cigarette smoke in the stairwells and hearing the little bell ring as I pushed open the door that said “MANAGER,” I couldn’t help but drift back to those rainy Portland Saturdays when Derrick would pull weeds for six hours while I collected smashed beer cans and cleaned green stains out of the basin in the laundry room.  Ah, the innocence of youth.

So to honor this week of The Hunt, I will be posting a new memory every day, for the next seven days, that will illustrate for you–and recapture for us–a day in our past lives as the ever-earnest, always-detested, often overdressed slum lords that we were.  I will be calling it Thisisanewlow Week, and I hope you’ll join me.

The exciting thing about Thisisanewlow Week is that on Day Seven I will announce here, to my three faithful readers and the world at large, where the Smith family will take residence for the next four-to-six months. (or six-to-nine.  we’re building a house.  who are we kidding?)  By announcing it here I am committing myself to find a place within this time frame while you will read things about my past that will make you oh-so grateful for your present circumstances, humble as they may be.  It’s a win-win, no?

I hope my trip down memory lane will help pass the time until the grand, highly anticipated announcement is made.  I know you’re all just dying to find out where we’ll end up.

So am I.