I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now by
(30 Stories)

Prompted By My First Apartment

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By Edward Guthmann

Arcata Commons, where I rent my first apartment.

Terry comes charging through the front door spewing tears and rage. “Janet just broke up with me!” he howls. And with one long wave of his arm, he sweeps dozens of beer and wine bottles off the kitchen counter and sends them crashing to the floor. The party grinds to a cheap, ugly close.

I’m 18, a month shy of 19 when I rent my first apartment. At Humboldt State, 300 miles north of San Francisco, it’s de rigeur to move off campus after freshman year in the dorms. And so, with three others I find a two-bedroom furnished unit at Arcata Commons.

Our rent is $180 for two bedrooms, $45 per person. Our apartment, 10D, is utilitarian and mostly inoffensive: modest living room, kitchen and dinette where our menu varies from spaghetti to Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks to Hamburger Helper to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. I still remember how much macaroni & cheese cost at the local Safeway – 19 cents a box.

It’s a heady time to be a college student. During that summer of 1969, just before we rent the apartment, Apollo 11 lands on the moon; the Woodstock Festival unfolds in upstate New York; the Manson gang slays Sharon Tate and four others in Beverly Hills; Ted Kennedy receives a two-month suspended prison sentence for a fatal car accident in Chappaquiddick, Mass., and the Stonewall Riots erupt when police raid a gay bar in New York City.

The war in Vietnam rages on, thanks to the oily, much-despised Richard Nixon. I’m passionately, righteously anti-war, but when I look back I’m embarrassed at how lazy and unserious I was in regard to my studies. During those first months at 10D we party all the time and flip the weekend fun switch as early as Thursday night. Six-packs of beer, gallon jugs of Red Mountain rotgut, and bags of Mexican weed that sell for $10 an ounce and mostly contain stems and seeds.

One night my roommates and I host a Friday-night blow-out. Twenty or twenty five people show up. The Beatles’ just-released “Abbey Road” album is playing. Cream’s “Wheel of Fire,” the Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet” and Jethro Tull’s “Stand Up.” Indian-print blankets hang Bedouin-style across the living-room ceiling. Some scented candles, psychedelic posters.

The party’s been roaring for a couple of hours when one of my roommates, Terry (not his real name), comes charging through the front door spewing tears and rage. “Janet just broke up with me!” he howls. And with one long wave of his arm, he sweeps dozens of beer and wine bottles off the kitchen counter and sends them crashing to the floor. Huge clatter, mounds of broken glass. The other roommates grab Terry before he can wreak more chaos, and the party grinds to a cheap, ugly close.

Overview of Humboldt State campus

Drunken histrionics aren’t the only problem with Terry. Each morning after showering he clears his sinuses by snorting loudly and at length at the breakfast table. One weekend as the four of us settle the grocery and phone bills, he loses his temper and shouts, “Holy shit! We’re fighting over nickels and dimes like a bunch of Jews!”

Thank God for Bill. A friend from freshman year in the dorms, Bill is a reserved, soft-spoken longhair who grew up not far from my hometown of West Covina. Our politics align, he’s got a cool sense of humor and sometimes we sing together as he plays Beatles songs on his guitar. “Run For Your Life” from “Rubber Soul” is the one I remember best: “Catch you with another man, that’s the end’a, little girl!”

Apartment 10D: Roommate Robby with his girlfriend. Beatles, Rolling Stones and Toulouse-Lautrec posters on the wall.

Terry and his friend Cliff move out a few weeks after the night of shattered glass, and Bill and I find new roommates who bring their own brand of oddness — but thankfully none of Terry’s lurid adolescent drama. Effervescent, barefooted Robby moves his bed into the living room and tents it with an American flag, creating a little love chamber for himself and his girlfriend Nora. The other guy, pathologically shy, barely says a word until one night he gets drunk and describes in detail the night he hired a hooker in Nevada (“I felt sorry for the poor girl”).

Nineteen is an age for dumb mistakes, and I make more than my share. For April Fool’s Day, I place a phone call and in a forlorn voice say I’ve been busted and booked in county jail. The roommates and neighbors all panic and flush their weed down the toilet. When I shortly reappear wearing a “April’s Fool” grin I become persona non grata for at least a week.

The first time I drink wine it’s the aforementioned Red Mountain, a vile swill that’s popular because it costs just two dollars a gallon. I know nothing about drinking wine — certainly nothing about moderation or how to pace myself — so I pour a glass, add ice cubes, then another glass. And another. Four or five altogether.

That nasty venom sneaks up on you. The other guys suggest walking to the campus where a band is playing, but I only make it two blocks before I stumble and splay out in a vacant lot. “You’re a walking bust!” one of them laughs. Somehow I make it back to 10D, start puking in the toilet and spend the rest of the night on the bathroom floor watching the room spin. Retching, shivering, convulsing with dry heaves. The horror of that night still affects me. To this day, I don’t enjoy wine.

A jug of red wine. Still get queasy thinking about that night.

The year I spend in Apartment 10D, I also lose my virginity, declare a Journalism major and get involved in a large campus-wide strike following Nixon’s May 1970 bombing of Cambodia. The strike unifies the campus, gives everyone a shared purpose. By the end of the spring quarter I’m so comfortable in Arcata that I spend the summer there instead of going home to smoggy West Covina.

But first my roommates and I have to close out the apartment. We’ve heard it’s dicey getting back the cleaning deposit, given that management’s hard-nosed agent concocts any excuse not to refund. I still remember the creep’s name: John Dyer. I’m the last to vacate, so I’ve inherited the task of dealing with Dyer.

He struts in, officious and intimidating. Peers into the stove and fridge, inspects the bath and living room. “These drapes have to be cleaned,” he announces. “I can’t refund your deposit.” I argue the case, but with no photos proving the condition of the drapes at the time we moved in, I have no recourse. Welcome to the real world.

A lot of this story, I realize, is what Carrie Fisher called “bad reality/good anecdote.” But here’s the upside: I’m still friends today with Bill the soft-spoken guitar player, as well as Pam and Katie and Pat, friends who lived in the Arcata Commons the same year I did. We laugh and sometimes cringe at the memories of our unfinished, embarrassingly naive teenage selves.

Profile photo of Edward Guthmann Edward Guthmann

Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Lots of great memories from that year in your first apartment…weird, then fun roommates, smoking pot, lots of parties, losing your virginity, getting sick drunk (I had one of those at a project delivery lunch with my husband and other work friends while living in my first apartment too; I still can’t stand the smell of gin – I drank too much gin and tonic). That was, indeed, a memorable year that in some ways united all college students (I wasn’t one yet, but my husband was a freshman at Brandeis and has told me about going out on strike after the bombing of Cambodia). So it is interesting how common the themes are that run through your story, as they seem quite typical of that era, and of young independence.

  2. Suzy says:

    Edward, this is a wonderful story! I was in college at the same time, and it sounds like life in a dorm on the east coast was not all that different from life in an apartment on the west coast. Dime bags of weed that are mostly seeds and stems, the music, the politics (the strike!), the posters, the parties. We didn’t drink, because it was easier to buy dope than to buy alcohol if you were under 21, plus there was no nausea or hangovers. And thank goodness I never met anyone like Terry – between the shattered glass and the anti-Semitic comment, I don’t think I could have handled it.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Your story took me back to the era you describe. I love the details that capture the politics and music. So much turmoil brought on by cultural changes and the war. I remember it well.

  4. Marian says:

    Great, evocative story. The photos remind me of my graduate school place and a friend of my roommate’s, who lived in an old water tower a few blocks away. He had very bushy blond hair. Goodness, I’d almost forgotten about Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks. Hamburger Helper I know well, because my brother and his roommates lived on it at Cal. We girls were weight conscious and would go to Spengers in Berkeley and buy salmon tails for $2, which would last us several days. That and dark tuna from a can were our proteins–can’t abide dark tuna to this day.

  5. Risa Nye says:

    Edward, such great details! It really brought me back to those days of sketchy roommates and bad wine experiences. Nicely done!

  6. mizgeee says:

    Great story, Edward! Isn’t it wild to think back on those times when we were so young and everything was an adventure, even if it resulted in puking all night (although I mostly smoked pot, didn’t puke into a toilet until I was living out here in my 20s). Also, so great that you’re still friends with some of your college friends–I’ve found that the friends I made when i was in college, high school, and even before are so dear to me. We knew each other before we became cynical, guarded adults and to me it feels like these people know me better in some ways than the friends I made as an adult. Treasure!

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