As a result of one stupid decision that I made as a young man, I went from living a wonderful existence in a tiny cabin on the banks of the Shenandoah River, to surviving day-to-day in a rundown old house in the middle of Small-Town, Virginia. (Edinburg, to be exact) Traded in a beautiful girlfriend, two dogs and a canoe for a bachelor’s life shared with a childhood friend of mine.
The new home wasn’t your everyday, run of the mill bachelor pad. In short time, it would become commonly known to many around town as “The Junkie Pad”. It wasn’t a shooting gallery littered with heroin needles, but it did share several characteristics found amongst other dens of sin.
Steve and I moved into this little “fixer upper” for several different reasons. First off, we didn’t have anywhere else to live. The house would prove itself to be the ultimate Do-It-Yourself project, a real challenge for a couple of twenty-somethings with zero knowledge of home improvement. A blank canvas for starving idiots to make their mark upon. And the most inviting incentive in signing the lease was that the rent was cheap.
Like $150 a month cheap. Including basic utilities.
The house was situated smack dab in the middle of a town with a population of 752. The Hub of Main Street it was, across the road from Wightman’s Grocery (the town’s only) and down the street from the U.S. Office. It was a three-story structure, once painted white, proudly adorned with wrap-around porches on levels one and two. Back in its hey-day, the home was probably the pride and joy of a well-to-do family. That would have been about 80 years earlier, at the beginning of the 20th century. But then, we moved in.
A small parking lot behind the house made for easy access to the stairs leading up to the rear entrance. A long hallway led to the door of our apartment. For $150 a month, you only got one half of one floor of one great big house. And Fort Knox it wasn’t. The back door was never locked and our apartment door would barely close, no less lock. The door opened into the living room; a vast, hollow space dotted with a couple of simple chairs, a ratty sofa and a TV set. Black and white, with rabbit ears supercharged with aluminum foil for better reception of the three available channels. The entire house had large, rope and pulley windows and ten foot ceilings. The back third of the apartment showcased our huge kitchen and dining area. You had two choices in getting from the living room to the kitchen. The options were walking through either Steve or I’s bedroom. The one small bathroom was tucked away in the kitchen, opposite the refrigerator and our two chair dinette set. (An aqua blue pattern, I believe) Leading down from the kitchen to the first floor, and a permanently locked door, was a grand wooden stairwell.
We moved in during late summer and THE WORLD WAS OURS. Evenings were filled with cold beer, loud music and the giddy excitement of experiencing our first taste of freedom out living on our own. The Junkie Pad was born. It soon became a hangout for friends and strangers alike, all desperately looking for a place where they could bond with other rebels without a cause. Just up the street from us HAD been The Edinburg Teen Center, a dilapidated old building which hosted dances every Saturday night. Complete with live rock bands and a hundred of the area’s youth, it was a weekly scene of sweaty young bodies, grinding and bouncing to blaring renditions of “China Grove” and “Celebration!”.
The area’s youth were starved for something to do. We found out just how hungry they really were during our first ‘organized’ party, held over the Thanksgiving Day weekend. Not the entire weekend, but most of it. Earlier on that Friday, we had told somebody to come over. They told somebody else, who apparently told a whole lot of other somebodies, who brought along their 20 closest friends. By 10 o’clock that night, there were bodies everywhere. Party-goers were hanging from the balcony. The living room looked like a Rave without a DJ. My friend Anne invented couch dancing. Numerous area Fire Marshalls were waking up sweaty and inexplicably scared. Making the 20-mile pilgrimage from neighboring Luray was Greg S., that town’s version of Keith Partridge, along with a bunch of his buddies.
Did I mention that our landlord was a Deputy Sheriff?
Our only source of heat for this great, big space was our little, inefficient kerosene space heater. It did put out heat, but also produced a continuous plume of black, sooty smoke, which clung to everything. Especially the ceiling.
So the party finally broke up around 2AM and the heathens had all gone home. Except Steve, myself and our friend Nicky. We were just chilling in the living room, watching a little TV, when a loud series of knocks rattled our door. Being the mature elder of the trio, I answered the door. Standing there in uniform were Deputy Landlord and the town’s Chief of Police (the only member of the force). Seems that there had been a few complaint calls about loud noise coming from the general area of our living room.
“Does it look like we’re having a party?!? I can’t even HEAR that little TV. Are you sure it wasn’t our neighbors? Maybe WE’RE the ones being disturbed!”
There’s a fine line between blabbing coherent, intelligent glib-gab and drooling down the front of your shirt.
The officers retreated their way down the long, dark hallway, pausing repeatedly to convey multiple variations of “Sorry to have bothered you guys”. As I turned triumphantly to brag to my partners in crime, Nick calmly pointed out the obvious. “Good thing they didn’t see the ceiling.” Clearly smeared in the ceiling’s thick layer of kerosene soot were hundreds of hand and finger prints left behind by Anne and her troupe of couch dancers during their premiere performance earlier in the evening.
Speaking of Anne. I’ve repeated the following tale a thousand times, but the first public slurring was part of my “Best Man” duties at the wedding of Anne and my best friend Mitch. I needed something ‘catchy’ to say to express my belief that theirs was a love that was meant to be; joined as one for the ages. Eve had the Garden of Eden. Scarlett O’Hara was the belle of Tara. When I think of my introduction to Anne, I think back to the epicenter of budding romance – “The Junkie Pad”.
It was a typical Sunday morning. Nicky had crashed on the sofa overnight, which was often the case. Steve, Nick and I were having breakfast beers, watching a muted TV and listening to J. Geils on the stereo. The phone rings. It rang a few more times before anyone noticed. I answered the phone. It’s Mitch, calling from his home, some 30 miles away.
“Listen, I’m coming up there in a while. I’m bringing along this girl. I think she might be the one. You idiots try and act like you got some sense about you…”
So we did what good friends do. We didn’t move. I can still see it in my mind. I was leaning up against the little kitchen table, wearing ripped sweat pants. Nothing else. Nick and Steve were sprawled out on the sofa. Nick was looking exceptionally punkish, with no shirt and his purple-tinted Mohawk. Steve was dressed and looking pretty normal, except for eyes that were extremely blood-shot after a Saturday night’s belly full of beer and chain-smoking Merit UltraLights. Mitch and Anne arrived through the permanently unlocked door, all squeaky clean, dressed like preppy Ken and Barbie. We Three Sedated Misfits looked up from our muted TV as Bon Scott was screaming “She’s Got the Jack!” through cheap stereo speakers, the coffee table cluttered with pizza bones and empty cans. But we didn’t scare her off, which was the point of my wedding speech many years later. She left that day, but thank God, never out of our lives.
Geez, that was way too nice:)
Winter was coming. Life in the new apartment had been comfortable up to this point, but now the temperatures were dropping and the winds began to howl. A few of the Junkie Pad‘s structural shortcomings became painfully evident as the leaves changed colors and the seasons transitioned from Fall to freezing your gonads off.
The long hallway from the outside world, with the unlockable door, was an unilluminated gauntlet that led to the apartment’s entry door and served as a prototype for wind tunnel research and development. You’ve got your drafts, and then you’ve got your DRAFTS! Standing in the living room one afternoon, we checked for the source of a draft coming from the general area of the door. A half book of matches were lit and blown out by breezes, while checking around the frame of the door, finally narrowing the main source of the jet spray to the large opening of the old fashion key hole.
An older, wiser person suggested stapling plastic sheets over the large rickety windows, another obvious source of cold air. Whenever a gust blew outdoors, the interior plastic ballooned like a ship’s sails after the vessel had turned to catch the wind.
The observant reader may have noticed a quirk in an earlier description of the morning in which we first met our friend Anne, with me leaning against a kitchen table, while Nick and Steve lounged on a sofa, yet we all saw her at the same time. Well, there’s a perfectly sane explanation for this seemingly obvious typo. It came to the point where attempting to heat the entire space of our living quarters seemed hopeless; a futile attempt at comfort and a big waste of money. There were several hot-water radiators located throughout the apartment, but nothing warm ever flowed through them. Our entire source of heat came from the sooty grates of one little kerosene heater. The first warning flare that signaled to us that a drastic change was needed, was when we began noticing the snow accumulating in the carpet of the living room. As packed snow fell off the boots that entered into the apartment, it would remain there in the carpet’s ugly tan fibers, clumped in its original frozen state, sometimes for days at a time.
So we moved everything of importance from the living room into the kitchen. The ratty sofa, a few chairs, the little television and the modern-for-its-time stereo system. Our living room had become unlivable. Ergo, the old idiom “Let freezing carpets lie.” The faithful kerosene heater began its mornings in the bathroom, then spent the remainder of its day in the kitchen, napping during work hours. Our apartment had evolved into three distinct temperature zones. The frozen polar icecap of the living room and the temperate zone of the kitchen, which were separated by a third; a sub-climate zone found in the two bedrooms, its average temperature leaning towards polar. We slept at night fully clothed, further insulated by three or four blankets. You could see your breath in the air that you’d exhale, illuminated by the street lights, as you settled in for a comfy night’s sleep. Sleep Tight! you could, as your muscles were constricted and your mind was comforted, knowing that it was too cold for bedbugs to exist. On a brighter note, the thin walls between our bedrooms helped us in developing an Abbott and Costello-type routine, performed every workday at 6:30 A.M. (Who’s on Kerosene Heater Maintenance ?)
“You takin’ a shower?”
“Nah, you go ahead. I went first yesterday”
“Seriously dude, you go ahead”
“That’s OK. I smell fine. You first”
It went on and on like this until we both were late for work, then the body’s temperature surpassed 98 as we scurried around getting ready.
In my younger days, I pretty much guaranteed myself a front-row seat in the burning coliseum of Hell, through different acts of rebellion and misguided stupidity. Now-a-days, I return the grocery carts of old ladies in the store’s parking lot and make random visits to convalescent patients in area facilities, in an effort to secure a Visa for an eternal journey northward. I know that’s not the way it works, but perhaps a handful of brownie points might help out at the luggage-check counter.
My parents came to visit the Junkie Pad once, at the beginning of the Christmas season. Steve and I had followed holiday tradition by putting up a festive tree, the base of which provided ample space for potential gifts from Santa. But this tree hadn’t been trimmed in the traditional sense. Empty beer cans adorned the ends of numerous branches. Freshly chewed chicken bones clung to the needles of the pine. And at the top of the tree, instead of an Angelic ornament dressed in white, with sparkly wings, was a pair of underwear, the sex and name of the owner long forgotten. But that day will most certainly never be forgotten. Not at least by my Mother anyhow, who still reminds me from time to time.
The large stairwell in the kitchen, which led downstairs to nowhere, was another source of the winter’s chill trying to invade our comfort. So we dove headfirst into one more home improvement project in an attempt to keep 1/3 of our home toasty lukewarm. Nothing too drastic, just the best idea that we could come up with at the moment. An entire roll of plastic sheeting was stapled from floor to ceiling, enveloping the entire staircase like one great big polyethylene malaria net. A name for the monstrosity was quickly bestowed (it was so obvious). “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble”. The focal point of the kitchen became the target of an ongoing, growing barrage of jokes. “Turn that crap down, he’s trying to sleep.” We didn’t actually know anyone with a malfunctioning immune system and John Travolta had to work that day, so no one really existed inside the stairwell, but it was always an eye-magnet for any unknowing visitors to the Pad. Most guys would usually just go along with the running gag. But occasionally, young women would become curious and increasingly intrigued by the bubble, as the tour guide told the story with a trusting, straight face. As they slowly got closer and carefully peeked through the opaque plastic for a better view, the questions would begin.
“There’s REALLY someone in there?”
“What’s his name?”
“Don’t know, never talked with him”
One of the bigger snowstorms of recent history blanked the town that winter. Schools were closed. Businesses shut down. Public service announcements declared that the roads were only open to four-wheel drive vehicles. We had a case of beer and some food, so being isolated from the world was no big deal. In fact, it was a blast. But then around Day 3, the beer started running low and the food was almost gone. Steve and I were friends, but after three days, we were both starting to go a little bonkers. We called our friend John. They were having a little snow-day party and invited us over. “We’ll be there in a minute !” What could go wrong?
John’s place was only 5 miles away, so the unplowed road shouldn’t have been much of a challenge for my ’64 MGB convertible with its 5-inch ground clearance. We began our journey carrying a broom and our only shovel, heading down to the street in hopes of locating my car. I was pretty sure that it was out there somewhere, having abandoned it there only a few days earlier. Main Street had been scraped occasionally since Thursday, the snow jettisoned over the vehicles resting along the curb. The only sign of the MGB was its antenna sticking out of the avalanche of snow. We laughed and cussed as we begun to excavate our chariot to freedom. In complete darkness, the streets were eerily silent, free from the sounds of machines. The only noise to be heard were the crunches of hard snow under the shoes of restless residents, shadowy silhouettes going nowhere slowly, but at least it wasn’t in the living room. Two of the storm zombies stopped by our work site.
“Goin’ to see a friend”
“What, are ya crazy?”
“Want some help?”
They weren’t licensed counselors, but with their help, our immediate problem was exposed. We warmed up the engine and headed South on our Northern bound journey. The car jumped from the curb like a little bronco leaving the shoot at a rodeo. In front of the Phone Company, I spun the wheel and the car into a really cool 180, and off to the Great White North we went. Laughs and giggles became expletive’s as we slid along Route 11, sobered by the headlights of an oncoming tractor-trailer. But some things are just meant to be and we safely passed by, either on the right or underneath, it was hard to tell with my eyes closed in fear. After reaching Woodstock, a series of four attempts up side streets, which lead to the general vicinity of John’s house, ended with spinning tires on the ice-packed pavement. The last failure was eased with the help of the town’s maintenance crew, who probably had better things to do at the time. Finally accepting defeat, we headed back home. One more James Bond maneuver and the car was deposited back into the same icy grave from which it had risen not an hour beforehand.
Our friend Nicky was a constant staple in a home that was constantly lacking staples. Except the ones holding the plastic sheets in place. Sort of like a man’s best friend; he’d blend into the background because he was always around, but he’d be there instantly when you really needed him. Just feed him an occasional beer and pat his Mohawk from time to time.
So the usual suspected idiots were hanging around one Sunday morning, drinking breakfast beers, listening to some tunes and talking up a mess of nonsense. It was common for people to spend the night at the Junkie Pad, in lieu of drunk driving or facing the real world. In fact, various people hung out there, at various times, with or without our invitation. I remember rolling into town with Steve one night and noticing the living room lights shining bright, a beacon of no good, which was easily seen from the road below. “Hey, looks like somebody’s here” is NOT the kind of thing that the normal person calmly says as they turn into their driveway after work. But that was our normal.
Without anyone noticing, Nick had quietly slipped into the bathroom to shower. The Redskins were playing on TV that afternoon at 1:00 and the breakfast beer gang was busy sharing their expert two-cents with one another other, which added up to the equivalent of 400 worthless dollars by this point of the morning. Suddenly the madness was muted and heads turned around, as the bathroom door swung wide open. There, shrouded in a haze of shower steam, stood the dark outline of a man, looking like a rejected promotional poster for the movie “Saturday Night Fever” (another Travolta reference?). Emerging from the fog was naked Nicky wrapped in a bath towel and sporting a Mohawk full of shampoo. Before anyone could spit out a “What the..”, and with his soapy hair visibly parted down the middle, Nick morphed into a Denorex Shampoo commercial. With a straight face and a puzzled look, he calmly explained to his idiot viewing audience –
“This side tingles. But this side doesn’t”.
Back in those days, there was only one fast-food restaurant in all of Shenandoah County. A Quarter Pounder w/cheese and some hot French fries, were well worth the 10-mile round trip for a ‘special’ dinner. Oh, if we’d only known just how ‘special’. Steve’s ugly -ass car (a 1976 AMC Matador, scab-ooze yellow with a black Landau roof) was loaded with carbs and fountain drinks. We were halfway home when disaster struck. As I was reaching into the darkness of the floorboard, searching for my tasty beverage, a violent ‘thump’ impacted the car. “Son-of-a-Bitch” Steve screamed, as he pulled off of the road. “I think that I hit a deer…or a dog…or something!” Steve had to follow me out of the passenger door; the driver’s side door was so badly damaged that it would no longer open. Walking back to the spot of the impact, we discovered in the far ditch, one very dead deer.
Being the law-abiding citizens that we were, sometimes, we backtracked a 1/2 mile up the road to the only payphone around (The Hamilton Motel) and called the Game Warden. Well, he was off that night, so they sent a Deputy Sheriff. We met up with him back at the carcass.
Now Steve and I were ‘townies’. The only thing that either of us had ever butchered in our entire lives were final exams during High School. The Deputy seemed oddly more inconvenienced by us than the deer had seemed.
“You want him?”
We grab the shattered legs of this poor animal and threw him into the trunk of Steve’s car.
Which at first, seemed like a good idea. Have you ever asked yourself “Wonder what I should do, on a Sunday night at 8:00, with that dead, bloody wild animal lying in my trunk on top of my jumper cables”? Must have missed that day of Driver’s Education. Remembering that our little town’s only Grocery store, with its own butcher counter, stood directly across the street from the Junkie Pad, and was owned by the family of Steve’s girlfriend Sharon. So we called her brother Jeff. Shirley, he must know something about processing dead animals.
Jeff cleaned and butchered our little hitchhiking buddy, yielding us numerous steaks, stew meat and a huge mound of burger (even after he took his cut, pun intended). Now, times were lean, as was the meat, and venison had come to our budget’s rescue. That night, we made cheeseburgers, the size of the 8″ skillet in which they were cooked. Breakfast, for the next several days, was sirloin tips and scrambled eggs. It was nice having red meat for a change, but the sight of venison in the fridge did get a little bit old after a while, both figuratively and literally.
Yep kiddies, we walked to work each day, uphill both ways, in a driving snowstorm. Shoes! We had to share a pair of shoes! Almost had a thought of my own one day, but I had to share it with Steve. There was snow in the carpet, and we liked it. We loved it.
Just remember, Utopia is wherever you’re standing at the moment. You just gotta look at it from the proper angle, with a smiling set of eyes.
Nicky, God bless him and keep him, has since left this Earth and signed a long-term lease at a much better place up in Heaven. I can’t help but smile when thinking of Nick, which is how every person should hope to be remembered.