It was nearly four am when I awoke to the sound of a powerful combustible engine outside my window. With great annoyance I got out of bed and stumbled over and peered out the blinds and felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. The house next door, the house nearly 10 feet away from my window was consumed in flames. I thought to myself that this is that quintessential moment in which I was to race around my place and grab the things that were the most important to me. I briefly reflected on how empty my life must have truly been since the only things I grabbed were my laptop and sunglasses. I raced down the stairs to find four fire trucks lining the narrow street.
Moving into the house on Ferry Street was a great mistake. It was constructed in 1905 and had since been remodeled into a multiple family dwelling. The space I occupied had one bedroom, a small bathroom and an even smaller kitchen. Nearly every night around midnight, the guy downstairs, who I secretly believed was a skinhead, would fry up bacon and potatoes and the smell would seep through the ceiling and flood my nostrils with the scent of breakfast that I couldn’t have. Consequently my clothes would smell of bacon grease as I believe my closet was directly above his stove. The surprisingly drop dead gorgeous landlord ensured me that the majority of the tenants were law students as the house was four blocks from Willamette University, when he sensed my apprehension. I signed the lease with a warm feeling that I would be in good company, at least intellectually. I later found that only one of the tenants was a student and he moved out a week after I moved in. I was left with the old man who continuously reeked of Hennessy, the aforementioned supposed skinhead, and some random dude in the basement who I never saw, but later found out had a stockpile of firearms and a supply of weed large enough to sustain a Harold and Kumar convention.
Through rose colored glasses, I fancied myself to be a resident of the historic section of Salem, as the houses lining the streets had all been built close to the founding of the city. This assessment had absolutely no basis in reality, as I had officially moved to the sketchiest part of town. To be fair, there were a few respectable neighbors, such as Sharon, the 60 something butch lesbian across the street who refused to put a razor to her legs. She served as sort of a neighborhood watch, as the woman was fierce. Next to her was a halfway house on the corner, every time I walked by there was typically a man on the porch garbed in a single pair of white briefs, leaving his white, blotchy pot belly for the entire neighborhood to behold and marvel at. He was balding, but compensated it by growing his brown stringy hair to his shoulders in what can only be described as the most glorious mullet ever. The houses directly next to me wasn’t exactly a halfway house, but more of a three-quarters house, as the residents sort of had their shit together, but were still prone to bouts of insanity. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of being their neighbor was the fact that my walls would shake at any moment from their stereo blasting Creed’s greatest hits, which many consider to be an oxymoron.
A block down the road there was a scummy corner market that boasted of having the largest beer selection in town. I never knew it to be true as I wasn’t a beer drinker. The shelves were never fully stocked, and the ‘produce’ section always seemed to have a few shrunken oranges and a couple bruised bananas. It served as a local hotspot for the area’s insane, homeless, insane homeless, druggies, whores, and the drunken college student. I often made the four minute trek to the place when I had forgotten anything from my grocery list. The man behind the counter never made eye contact with me and blatantly avoided casually touching my hands when giving me my change. I’d pick up my brown paper bag and exit the store. It was then when I would typically come into contact with the white briefs gentlemen, only he would be fully clothed. He’d smile when he recognized me.
“Hello.” He’d say.
“Hey, how are ya?” I’d respond. His face would light up at the mere concept of a stranger asking him how he was doing. He would be so overjoyed that the words would stumble out of his mouth.
“Well hey, I’m…I’m just great…nice day huh?” he’d say with a lisp. I’d smile back at him and continue on my way. On a few occasions, there would be a police car parked across the street observing the people entering and exiting the market. I saw him eye the brown bag I had tucked under my arm. If he only knew that the bag contained a few bottles of Vitamin Water and beef jerky, he probably wouldn’t have stared at me with such an austere expression. It was at this moment when I looked around my ghetto neighborhood which then forced me to examine my own life, and the decisions I had made that led me to this exact moment. Was I really this ghetto? I never considered this before. I went to college, I drove a decent car, and maybe I sometimes had to ask my parents to float me some cash when rent was due, but what mid-twenties person didn’t have trouble paying the occasional bill? Was I really as ghetto as my surroundings? I asked myself this as I walked by the halfway house, and as if on cue I saw a man urinating on the side of the house.
The final straw came when the house next door burned down. It was the result of a man falling asleep with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Luckily the house was empty for the most part. The man’s girlfriend was the only other person there at the time. I saw the 50 something woman wandering around barefoot as the firemen continued to put the blaze out. I went to the back of my car and searched for some shoes, as the firemen weren’t allowing me back into my place. I came across an old pair of Croc’s, yet another glaring example that perhaps I truly was ghetto. I handed them to her and she smiled and took them from me. I realized that I may have been wrong in my assessment of her age. She was probably in her mid 40’s but looked as if she were in her mid 60’s, after decades of drug abuse. She slipped my size 11 Croc’s on her size 6 feet and hobbled awkwardly away. I never saw her or my shoes again.
It was nearly daylight when the firemen put the fire out. I was exhausted when I was finally able to return to my place, to find it ransacked by the firemen in an attempt to get into the attic to make sure the fire hadn’t spread to the house. I ignored the mess and went straight to bed and woke up four hours later. I was in desperate need of caffeine and went downstairs to go to the coffee shack down the road. As I exited the house, I saw the white Fox Local News van parked in front. I stared at it blankly for a moment before the door slid open, and one of their senior correspondents (age wise) exited carrying a microphone followed by his cameraman. They were there shooting the images of the halfway burned three-quarter house. He asked me some asinine questions such as ‘what I thought when I saw the house burning’. Before I could attempt to answer at length, in full complete sentences, the interview was over. As I walked away he told me to watch the 10 o’clock news.
I made the mistake of telling my mother that I was interviewed and by 10 o’clock that evening many of my family and friends were tuned in. The establishing shots for the segment did little to bolster the appearance of the neighborhood as it showed a wide shot of the house with a few druggies standing by admiring it in its burned splendor.
“A Salem man was rushed to the hospital early this morning as the firemen dragged him out of a burning house. Luckily no one was seriously injured. But the fire has left some of the neighbors a bit shaken.” At that moment the screen cut to a horrible image of me, having just woken up, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, looking as burned out as my surroundings.
“I was like, whoa, it’s on fire!” I said, squinting into the camera. And that was it. It was a ten second blip of me standing in the ghetto, speaking as if I were some kind of stoned high school dropout. It wasn’t as if I had a public image to worry about, although it was slightly disheartening when friends and family would see me and say ‘saw you on the news the other night’. It was tinged in sympathy, as if they had caught me eating out of the trash. It was more than apparent that I needed to move.
When moving day came, my cousin helped me with all of the big furniture, including the couch that I was planning on donating to Goodwill. After successfully navigating the awkward beast through the labyrinth of stairs, we secured it in the back of the minivan. The couch was a generous donation from my aunt, who was an artist. When I received it, the couch was already snuggly wrapped in a nice slip cover and it matched the rest of my furniture so I kept it on the entire time I was in possession of it. We pulled up to the Goodwill donation center and a tall sweaty young man came out and greeted us. I was feeling very philanthropic to be donating an entire couch to Goodwill. Most people donated old clothes; here I was donating a quality piece of furniture that perhaps a nice family would enjoy. I reveled in my generosity as he inspected the couch.
“I can’t accept this couch.” He said with a hint of disgust. I was more than shocked. He had pulled off the slip cover to reveal a stained and filthy couch. My aunt had used it in her studio where she had continuously spilled paint, glue and lacquer on it. To an artist, it looked slightly messy with a bit of art supplies spilled on it. To the untrained eye, it looked like a crime scene with highly suspect fluids and stains smeared across it. I couldn’t even look the attendant in the eye. I had been using a couch that Goodwill deemed unacceptable for months. It would be quite some time before I would ever recover from that.
Thoroughly embarrassed, we got back in the car and drove away. I had no idea what I was going to do with the couch, as I didn’t need it any more. After getting rejected by the Salvation Army, desperation began to sink in. I had absolutely no room for it. As a last resort we drove to the Union Gospel Mission downtown. They were closed but had a covered section in the front of the store that housed a series of mismatched couches, end tables and chairs. We pulled the van around to the front and quickly unloaded the couch next to a worn threadbare sofa. I felt slightly guilty at abandoning a couch that had been with me during my darkest times in the ghetto. But since there was other furniture surrounding it, I took solace in the idea that I was simply dropping it off at its foster home. Its foster brother and sister couches would keep it company while it waited for a new home. We raced back to the van as we weren’t sure if there was anyone watching us from inside the building, and there were most likely laws regarding the abandonment of furniture. We reached the van and peeled out, the back end, now empty of the cargo fishtailing as we fled. There was most likely no need for the dramatics, but the adrenaline coursing through our veins told us otherwise. As we turned the corner and drove on the main road that would take us home, we passed the front of the shop and saw the couch sitting there inconspicuously, as if it had been there all along. I breathed a sigh of relief as I watched it disappear in my rearview mirror, a fitting conclusion to my stint in the ghetto.