SLUM LORD: Day One

 

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.

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