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Bitter is the new black, p.22
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       Bitter is the New Black, p.22

           Jen Lancaster

  I’m SO bored. It’s the Christmas season, and I spent all my temp money on presents, so I can’t do anything. I haven’t gone to any holiday parties because we’re on a tight rent-paying budget.136

  For a while I played the Sims, the purpose of which is to build interesting lives for these simulated characters by having them interact nicely with other Sims. The better the interaction, the happier they are. All I want to do, though, is decorate their houses, and I laugh when they get into fights. I wonder if this says something about me.

  Lately I’ve been haunting a Web site called Todd Rosenberg, a laid-off guy in New York, created a Flash cartoon about a day in the life of the unemployed. His blue bathrobe–clad character slogs through his day worrying about his bank balance (nonexistent), his 401(k) plan (a jar of pennies), and not having the means to go to a strip club. Substitute strip club for Nordstrom’s shoe department and this is my life! Every time I get discouraged or worried about money, I log on to watch the cartoon again. (I must have seen it a hundred times so far.)

  Todd’s site includes his writing, and it sounds like having an outlet has really helped him with his job search frustration. Maybe I should do something similar?

  Really, why not start a Web site? I mean, what else do I have to do? It’s not like I’ve got anywhere to go. (If I didn’t have to take the dogs out, I bet I could go DAYS without wearing shoes.) Now that I’m not in the position to refer business to them anymore, I never hear from any of my friends at the PR agencies. I still talk to old pals like Melissa and Shayla, but I’m tired of them offering to buy my lunch. I HATE being pitied, and if that means I interact less, so be it.

  Maybe if I started a Web site, something good could come of it. That girl from suckered hundreds of people into giving her money to pay for her $20,000 credit card debt, and she got a book deal out of her story. OddTodd has a virtual tip jar, and people voluntarily give him money all the time. Of course, he actually produces cool cartoons, whereas I have no discernable skill, but still…if I had something to do with my time, I might stop obsessing about money so much. And maybe if I kept my hands busy, I wouldn’t be able to snack so much.

  Anyway, I’ll consider it.

  I just invented the Twinkwich—a sandwich made by wrapping a Hostess Twinkie around a Ding Dong hot dog–style. This insane, long-stretches-of-boredom-laced-with-short-bursts-of panic-attacks-induced eating has to stop.

  Step One: Create Web site.

  Step Two: (deep breath) Move.

  My Web site is up! I now I have my own corner of cyberspace. I put a picture of myself on the front page with the word UNEMPLOYED across my eyes, and I don’t mention my last name, so it’s kind of cryptic. Then I listed every company that’s rejected me so far under the heading Companies That Suck. Each time I look at my home page, I laugh myself into an asthma attack. I’m going to send the link out to some of my friends and see what they think.

  I already feel less stressed, so this was definitely a good idea.

  “Honey, it’s almost noon. We’ve got to be at the broker’s office in an hour.” I gently shake Fletch to wake him. He’s been extra tired lately, so I let him sleep when it’s my morning to take out the dogs.

  Fletch hasn’t had one nibble on his résumé in the past month, and it’s starting to get to him. Back in October, he was superconfident about his chances, but lately his enthusiasm has waned. The eruption of WorldCom has devastated the telecom industry, and there’s a ton of people fighting for a handful of jobs. I try to build him up as much as I can, but some days he’s just overwhelmed by sadness.

  I think deciding not to renew our lease has hit him harder than it has me. I mean, I’ve loved living here and showing the place off, but he was the one who picked out the neighborhood and found this apartment and his salary allowed us to afford it. Deciding to move has to feel like admitting defeat.

  “Tired. Very tired,” he mumbles into his pillow.

  “I know you’re tired, but we’ve got an appointment. You have to get in the shower. Let’s move it.” I yank the comforter off him.

  He wraps the sheet over his head. “Nooo. Too sleepy. Want to snooze.”

  I’m getting aggravated. I’ve been up for four hours looking for jobs, walking dogs, cleaning the house, and making breakfast. “Sweetie, come on. You have to get out of bed. You’ve snoozed about ten times already this morning. We have less than a month to find a place, and we need to be on time for this appointment, so please get up.” I tear the sheet away, and he curls into a tight ball.

  “Shh, sleepy. Go ’way.”

  Sometimes I need to be gentle with Fletch. And sometimes he needs a bit tougher love. “GET YOUR DEAD ASS OUT OF THIS BED RIGHT NOW!”

  That seems to do the trick. He scrambles out of his flannel pajamas and into the bathroom.

  While Fletch showers, I make him a fresh pot of coffee.137 I print out some promising real estate listings from the brokers’ Web site, find my Mont Blanc pen, and start to fill in the rental application.

  Name. Easy enough. Date of birth, social security number, current address… done. Current rent. I fill in the dollar amount and stare at it for a minute. Wow, that’s a lot of money. A LOT. How did I ever agree to pay this much a month to live in a place that I don’t even own? I could have taken a year’s rent and bought a brand-new, fully loaded Lexus. It seems sort of surreal that Fletch and I routinely shelled out this much cash without a second thought.

  I run my hand over the smooth, cool granite countertop in my gourmet kitchen, wondering if it was worth it. Then I remember when Shayla and Chris came over for the first time. Although it was winter, it was a particularly warm night, so we decided to use the roof deck. We set it up with comfy chairs and coffee drinks and put Sinatra on the stereo. Right as they stepped onto the deck to take in the incredible skyline vista for the first time, as if on cue, ol’ Francis Albert began singing “My Kind of Town.” It was like a scene from a Meg Ryan movie, and at that moment, I thought my heart would burst with pride.

  I’m misty at the memory, so I continue with the application. Length of residency. Three years. Landlord’s name and phone number. Another easy question…that’s Pammie Kozul at 1-800-SHE-SUCKS. Nope, I’m not bitter about Pammie keeping $2000 out of our security deposit because I “destroyed that beautiful wallpaper in the bathroom,” even though any judge in the world would consider its removal a mercy killing. But it would cost more to fight her than we’d recoup, so it’s not worth it.138

  And finally, I get to the employment section.


  Landlords are going to expect one of us to have a job, aren’t they? Shoot. What I am going to fill in for this part? Maybe if our credit were still perfect, I could be honest, but we no longer have that luxury. We will have rent money because we’ve held on to most of Fletch’s severance, plus we have his unemployment checks, but we can’t put that on the form. We’d be better off saying we’re drug dealers—at least that’s a growth industry.

  I really hate to stretch the truth, but what other choice do I have? After much deliberation, I say that Fletch is a self-employed consultant. Technically, Chris did call last week with a question about a router, and to thank us, he took us out for drinks, so that’s a form of compensation, right? And Fletch has talked about doing consulting—it’s just that no one’s hired him to do it yet. So it’s not really lying when I provide large numbers in the Salary line—it’s a prediction.

  When I get to the part where I have to detail my own employment situation, I say that I’m a freelancer—free being the key word here. I mean, I do spend a lot of time posting my most trenchant thoughts on my Web site, and I already have a small fan base. At some point, it could turn into a moneymaking enterprise, although I presently have no idea how.

  Besides, I’ve earned the right to call myself a writer because this rental application is a tremendous work of fiction.

  We meet our apartment broker, Brandon, in his office, which
looks like the basement of a run-down fraternity house. The desks are of the plywood and sawhorse variety and the couches are circa 1962. I can practically feel my shoes sticking to what should be beer-soaked floors. Brandon matches his surroundings perfectly, from his three-day stubble to his filthy U of I sweatshirt. Melissa says she and her fiancé found a condo-quality apartment through these guys, but I’m a little wary. I’d expect this guy to slip a roofie in my cocktail, not to find me a cute but cheap living space.

  Since the burden of maintaining our application’s lies falls on me, I do the talking. “Brandon, it’s been a few years since we’ve looked for a place, and we have no idea how far our money will go. Like anyone else, we want the most apartment for our dollar but there are some basic amenities we need.”

  “What specifically?” Brandon leans forward and cups his chin in both of his hands.

  “We absolutely have to have a dishwasher and air-conditioning, or we’ll get divorced,” I reply.

  “She doesn’t deal well with hot or dirty,” Fletch adds helpfully.

  I whip out my typewritten list. “We need two bedrooms, if not three, and at least one and a half baths. Plus, it has to have a tub. Jacuzzi would be nice, but not absolutely necessary. We also like exposed brick walls, skylights, stainless appliances, granite counters, glass block windows, and hardwood floors. What else?” I flip to the next page. “Oh, yes, it’s got to be safe to walk the dogs in the neighborhood—naturally we’ll need a landlord who accepts pets—and we have to have a deck or a patio, preferably with a southern exposure. A duplex apartment would be nice, but we also like town houses, coach houses, and lofts. And if you could find all of this for a thousand dollars or less in a good neighborhood, that would be ideal.”

  “Lemme see if I’ve got this straight. You want amenities, safety, and affordability?”

  “Exactly!” Maybe Melissa was right—this guy does know what he’s doing.

  “Easy enough. Pick two.”

  “Well, that was a bust.” I’m totally discouraged. All the apartments in good neighborhoods in our price range are either tiny or decrepit.

  “I didn’t think that one off of Western Avenue looked so bad. What was wrong with it?” Fletch asks. “It had a yard.”

  “Yeah, but it was right next to that business that stores all those gas canisters. If somehow we managed to not get exploded, we’d still hear those workmen loading up their trucks all day. Clang! Clang! Clang! No dice.”

  “I liked the artists’ lofts on Paulina. What was the problem there?”

  “Exactly what would we do with a twenty-five-foot-long, sloping concrete ramp in the middle of the apartment? You know we’d get a couple of beers in us and try to race our office chairs down it, and boom! Broken Wrist City. Considering neither of us has health insurance now, it seems like a bad idea. Plus the bathroom was grody.”

  “How about that one off of Fullerton? The one with no closets?”

  “You can’t seriously be considering it. IT HAD NO CLOSETS. How do you build an apartment without a closet? Where do you stow your vacuum? Where would your coats live?”

  “Yes, I’m kidding. The Silence of the Lambs trapdoor in the pantry was a deal breaker for me.”

  “What did that door lead to? I was too scared to look.”

  “I don’t know, but it was dark, dirty, and full of spiders.”

  I shudder. “No, thanks. But, really, what are we going to do? We have to be out of here by the end of the month, and we need to schedule movers. We should probably know where we’re moving first.”

  “Well, it might make things a bit tight, but other than moving to the suburbs—”

  “Perish the thought.”

  “I’m with you on that. We don’t have a lot of options at the $1000 price point. Let’s up our search to $1200 per month and see what Brandon can do for us in Bucktown,” Fletch suggests.


  Brandon could do nothing for us at that price, nor at $1400. Plus, he’s lost his gas cap since the last time he drove us around and is now using a sock to plug the hole. He’s turned his car into a giant Molotov cocktail. I’m sitting in the backseat, huffing gas fumes, while Fletch and Brandon figure out our next steps. In my gasoline-induced high, I hear myself agreeing to see apartments off the beaten path for $1600 a month. There’s no way we can pay that much until one of us starts working, but everything’s so pretty and floaty right now that I find myself saying yes. I inhale deeply and smile.

  We pull up to a craptacular crumbling limestone building on the unfashionable end of Ohio. “Blech,” I say. “Hate the ’hood, hate the building. Next.”

  “Jen,” Brandon pleads, “just give it a shot. Sometimes these places are nicer on the inside than you’d think.”

  Fletch shoots me a warning look. We’ve seen about thirty apartments so far, and I’ve found something wrong with each of them. The problem is that none of them are the Dot-Com Palace. I want to stay in my home and I hate that we can’t afford it anymore.

  “Fine.” I trudge along behind them, kicking up small sprays of snow with my boot. “But I guarantee you, I won’t like it.”

  We climb the freshly painted staircase, and Brandon works the double locks. He opens the door to a spacious apartment with brand-new hardwood floors, a gourmet kitchen with granite counters, stainless steel appliances, and cherry cabinets. The kitchen is huge and modern with a gorgeous breakfast bar. Opposite the kitchen is a living room flanked with a marble fireplace, an ornate mantelpiece, and recessed, backlit shelving. The room has exposed brick walls and is at least three times the size of what we have now. “Is this the same place?” I ask, wondering if the gas fumes made me lose a chunk of time.

  “It sure is.” Brandon beams. This is the most positive reaction he’s gotten out of me so far.

  We check out the first bedroom, and it’s spacious and bright with a walk-in closet. Nice. Attached is a spankin’ new bath decked out in sandy limestone tiles and glass block. Correction, very nice. “And you’re sure this is only $1600 and they take dogs?”

  Neither Brandon nor Fletch hears me. They’re in the back room, which is the master suite. I join them, and when I notice the south wall, my jaw drops. One-third of the room is covered in dreamy aquamarine marble with sparkly blue-gold veins. Centered against the wall is the biggest Jacuzzi bathtub I have ever seen. It has three steps leading up to it and could easily accommodate two people. It’s not a tub—it’s a bathing altar. If we lived here, my dream of sitting in the tub while watching TV could finally come true.

  We all stand gawping at the bath’s magnificence. The only other lavatory I’ve ever seen like this was in Vegas, when the Luxor upgraded me to a high-roller’s suite.139

  Next to the tub is a gigantic glassed-in shower, and beyond that is a double marble vanity with cherry cabinets, framed in adjustable lighting. On the other side, a cherry-shuttered door conceals the commode.

  On the opposite wall, huge French doors lead out to a spacious balcony, and almost the entire wall is made of panes of glass. And to my left, there’s an enormous walk-in closet, brilliantly outfitted with adjustable shelving and bars. This is truly one of the most lavish living spaces I have ever seen.

  “So are we looking at your new master suite?” Brandon asks with a giant grin on his unshaved maw.


  In unison, Fletch and Brandon shout, “WHAT?”

  “I’m a very modest person, and this bathroom, although lovely, leaves no room to the imagination. If I wake up in the morning and see Fletch in that clear shower soaping up the crack of his ass, we’ll get divorced. Next.”

  I think Brandon is going to cry.

  “Jen, this is IT. If we don’t find something today, we’re going to have to live in a van down by the river because our lease is up in ten days,” Fletch says sternly. We’re in the parking lot outside the apartment brokerage, about to meet with Brandon to see another round of choices.

  “Chris Farley was a tortured genius,
and I won’t have you using his words against me,” I retort.

  “Regardless, we have to make a decision. We’ve looked at a dozen different places that could have worked but you’ve nixed all of them for patently ridiculous reasons.”

  “That’s not true.”

  “We didn’t take the place on Ashland because the stove was electric. Why do you care? YOU DON’T COOK.”

  “I might cook if the stove were gas.” I pull a tube out of my bag and apply a fresh coat of gloss. People? I can’t stress this enough. When it’s cold and raw outside, you MUST protect your lips or else they’ll get all flaky and disgusting.

  “OK, what about the place on Division with the roof deck?”

  “The railings were too low. One of the dogs could have fallen over the side.” I fluff out my hair. Since I’m not getting it colored as often, I have to wear it a bit bigger so my roots don’t show. And, yes, I’d allow my ears to freeze and fall off before I covered my head with a hat.

  “And the beautiful loft on Cortez?”

  “The dark wood floors were fugly.” I rim the inner part of my eyelids with BeneFit Eye Brightener and I instantly look refreshed.

  “How about the duplex on Wabansia?”

  “The hallway smelled like curry.” A couple of quick blots to my chin, forehead, and nose with rice paper and I’m ready to go.140

  “You like curry. You order it whenever we go for Thai.”

  “But I don’t want to smell it in the hallway! Every time someone comes over, they’ll ask, ‘Are you cooking curry?’ And I’ll have to say no, and then they’ll feel sorry for me for having to live in a place that smells like curry. I don’t want to live anywhere that will engender sympathy.”

  “What was wrong with the town house on Erie with the yard and the skylights?”

  “The corner supermercado was skeevy. Those people were standing out in front of it eating mangoes and throwing the pits on the ground. Yuck.”

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