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Prompted By My First Apartment

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I lived in my first — and only — apartment building the summer after my sophomore year of college. I had snagged a great summer job working for Houghton Mifflin Publishing Co. in Boston. My dear friend Kit, who was part of my Comstock Hall crowd, had a job as a research assistant for a Harvard professor, so we decided to get a place together. The address was 65 Martin Street, at the corner of Martin and Gray Streets, near the Radcliffe Quad. I don’t remember how we found it, but I suspect it was through the Harvard Housing Office. It must have been a summer sublet, because it was fully furnished, and equipped with pots, pans, dishes, etc. This was fortunate, because neither of us had any of that stuff.

It was the basement apartment, and we entered through the outside stairs you can see in the picture (right where the red pointer is – thanks Google Maps!), so we never went into the lobby of the apartment building. I didn’t really have the sense of being in a large building, and was surprised to see how big it actually was when I pulled it up on Google Maps to get the picture. I’m not sure if we ever took a broom and knocked three times on the ceiling to get our upstairs neighbors to quiet down, but we might have, so that’s the reference in the title song.

I have only fond memories of that apartment and that summer. I loved my job and I loved living with Kit — there are no horror stories. Because we were in the basement, the windows were quite high up, and all we could see outside was people’s feet going by on the sidewalk, but we got used to that pretty quickly. Kit’s boyfriend, who was in Providence for the summer, came to visit on many weekends, and that was great, because he was a good friend of mine too. There were lots of other friends either living in Cambridge or visiting from time to time, so life was never dull.

1482 Cambridge Street

My first grown-up residence, after I graduated from college, was less than two miles away from the Martin Street apartment, on the other side of Harvard Yard, in a neighborhood called Inman Square. I definitely found this place through the Harvard Housing Office, which had a large bulletin board filled with “roommates wanted” notices. It was the second floor of a three-story house. There were two actual bedrooms, and the dining room and family room had also been turned into bedrooms. Cathy and Bonnie were already living there and looking for two more roommates. They had the two real bedrooms, which were at the back of the house. I was the third one, and I chose the family room, which was a spacious room at the front of the house, symmetrical with, and about the same size as, the living room. Arlene, who arrived last, got the dining room, which had swinging doors into both the living room and the kitchen, so not an ideal arrangement, but she made it work. We each paid $110.00 per month, and all utilities were included.

Since I was moving into an unfurnished room for the first time, I needed furniture. My mother took me to buy a foam mattress from a little old mattress-maker in Nutley, New Jersey. It was a beautifully crafted mattress, which I still have today in my house in Sacramento. The wooden frame for the mattress we bought in Cambridge either at Design Research or the Door Store. That frame died after a few decades when the rubber holding the wooden slats became brittle and cracked, but the mattress is still in perfect condition! My father wondered aloud why I wanted a double bed instead of a single, but my mother and I just ignored him. My parents drove me up to Cambridge from New Jersey with the mattress, a maple dresser that had been my grandfather’s, two small bookcases, and a 6′ x 9′ Rya rug from my bedroom at home. I have no idea how we transported it all, but somehow we did.

It turned out to be a wonderful living situation. Cathy was a nurse who worked at Cambridge City Hospital, right across the street from our house. Bonnie was a social worker at some social services agency. Arlene was a graduate student in sociology at Boston University. I had a job at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s think tank in Kendall Square near MIT. We all had very different schedules, so we mostly didn’t cook or eat together, but we got along pretty well – at least most of the time. There was some friction, like when Bonnie’s parents sent her a box of oranges from Florida and she wouldn’t let the rest of us have any. We had the last laugh though, because the oranges went moldy before she could eat them all.

On the other hand, when I decided to audition for a musical that was being put on at Harvard Law School, Bonnie was the one who wanted to go with me. We both got roles in the show, and had a great time singing and dancing, as well as dating the law students who were in the cast. Bonnie ended up marrying one of the law students, and is still married to him!

After the first year Cathy left to go to dental school, so we had to interview for a new roommate. When Lita came to see the place, she was not at all bothered by the fact that all four of us were sharing one bathroom, but she was shocked that all four of us would be sharing one telephone! Despite that glaring defect, when we invited her to move in, she accepted.

It was sad when we all decided at the end of the second year that it was time to move on. I was going to California to start law school. Arlene was moving to Knoxville to finish her Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee. I don’t remember where Bonnie or Lita were headed, but it was somewhere else. We hated to leave that wonderful house, but it was time for the next chapter in all of our lives.

 

 

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Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. jshutkin says:

    Great story, Suzy — and not (just) because I know some of the pieces (and players). It really captures the sort of places and arrangements we took on in our formative days. And implicit throughout your story are the things (accommodations, in several senses of the word) that we happily settled for then, and we would not consider doing now — particularly one bathroom for four people and, even more incredibly, one telephone. Oh, the humanity!

    I also loved the fact that, through the wonder of (today’s) Google Maps, you could readily find and picture your first apartment. Will definitely have to do that myself.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. It’s funny, but at the time neither the shared bathroom nor the shared phone seemed like a problem, and the rest of us laughed at Lita for worrying about the phone. She did talk on the phone a lot more than anyone else, so I guess it was understandable.

      I do love the ability to visit places via Google maps. I couldn’t figure out how to download the picture without the red arrow, although I know I have done it in the past. I was annoyed until I realized the arrow was pointing to our entryway, so it was actually useful.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, you were fortunate in your housing and roommate situations. You got along well with all those women and seems like you made the one bathroom, one phone deal work with four women, which can only be described as miraculous! Good locations too.

    Your reference to the Rya rug brought back all sorts of memories. I never had one, but a very close friend, who lived in Boston after we graduated from Brandeis had one and that first year, we went back and forth, entertaining at both our apartments. It was THE thing at that time and I remember hers well.

    • Suzy says:

      Betsy, thanks for your comments. I loved that Rya rug! It was brown and orange and gold, with a geometric pattern. I wish I still had it. I think I lost it in my divorce.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, I love some of the details you shared about your summer basement apartment in Boston and your second floor unit after graduating. Four women sharing one bathroom and one landline phone would be unthinkable to young folks today. Having grown up sharing a bathroom and phone with my brothers and later with college roommates, somehow we survived these primitive conditions. Never thought of searching for my former residences on Google Maps. Something to try!

    I’ve really enjoyed our virtual friendship via the Retrospect Team. Thanks for your patience with my learning curve.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks Laurie, both places were actually in Cambridge, not Boston. I’ve never lived in Boston, I suspect it would be a very different experience.

      We are learning together in this venture, and your learning curve is just fine!

  4. Terrific story, Suzy. Love all the details. I agree that it’s amazing how little friction occurred with you and three roommates in a confined space. And very classy of your mother to support your choice of a double bed vs. a single.

  5. Kit says:

    Wonderful way to bring back memories, Suzy! That was my first apartment as well, though I rented a house with about ten other women the summer before. My favorite memory of that summer is the time Paul and John came to visit and we went to Winthrop beach (taking the subway). Paul, who really can’t see without his glasses and so never takes them off, went into the water and brushed what he thought was seaweed off his face. Unfortunately the seaweed was his glasses. Despite the help of all of us plus a lifeguard he was unable to find them. So he, rather blindly, took the bus back to Providence for his extra pair (squinting at the buses to make sure he got on the right one). Luckily he had left our number with the lifeguard and amazingly the glasses came in with the tide, so he was able to recover them the next day. (He still wears his glasses on the, admittedly rare, times he goes in the ocean.)

  6. Two great stories in one, Suzy! Each place held its own tales. I also appreciated the sense of expansion from one roommate in house #1 to four roommates in #2. At first, I was amazed by imagining the four of you stirring around in one apartment until I remembered all of the places where roommates and assorted acquaintances popped out of every room, nook, and cranny. The single phone certainly wouldn’t go over well these days! Great to see so many of you chiming in, having shared your lives for such a long time. Here’s to lasting friendships!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your comment, Charlie! The Cambridge Street house was not one of those places with people popping out of every nook and cranny. The house is quite large, so one floor of it, 6 large rooms, was plenty of space for four people. We never felt crowded, even when we had male friends staying over. And sharing the phone and the bathroom was not a problem, although that seems incredible now.

  7. I’m sitting in Paris, watching Guys and Dolls, and reading this at intermission, with tears in my eyes. I remember your parents moving you in – and I thought you were so sophisticated because of that bed and the Rya rug – and, of course, that car. The swinging door on my bedroom is just as vivid. Such good times – and you captured them beautifully. I love that you mentioned Lita and the phone. Still surprised she ever accommodated to that. Btw, I think she was moving back to sf to go to law school, a much better decision than my following my advisor to Tennessee. Thanks for reminding me of all this. On the cusp of 70, it seems like yesterday.

    • Suzy says:

      Arlene, thank you for your sweet comment. We did have such good times! And you are still one of my dearest friends! Lita may have moved to SF, but she didn’t start law school until a year after I did, so I don’t know how she spent that intervening year.

      Happy early birthday! Paris seems like a great place to celebrate!

  8. Thanks. Those really were the days. I remember having a conversation with you about using hair conditioner. You said you got cold waiting for it to soak in. I suggested washing your hair first, then leaving the conditioner in while you washed. No wonder I got that advanced degree with insights like that. I don’t remember much friction, but there was mystery. Do you remember when we couldn’t figure out why the glasses were always dirty. Then we “discovered” Lita washing them and the mystery was solved. Two fingers with soap was not an effective technique!

  9. Risa Nye says:

    It’s so much fun to read these! It’s amazing to me how easily we adapted to sharing tight quarters, one bathroom and one phone line–and we seem to have that in common with several others here. I enjoyed reading about those good old days!

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