In 1971 I moved into a basement apartment in Chicago with my then-husband, who was a medical student. The floors were covered with ugly carpeting installed by the previous tenants, who told us that if we wanted it to stay we had to pay them. I was appalled. “You mean you’re going to remove the carpeting if we don’t pay you?”
That’s exactly what they meant. It would be completely worthless, but they would pull it up, nail by nail, and take it to the dumpster rather than allow the new tenants to enjoy for free what they had paid for. This is when the stubborn hot-headed New Yorker in me kicked in. “Well, I guess you better get going,” I said, “because we don’t want it.”
The truth is we did sorta want it, but it was a matter of principle. (Don’t ask me which principle; I don’t know.) It just seemed cheap and mean-spirited of them, and it pissed me off. They were moving up in the world, leaving this dreary place behind, and rather than doing so with good will toward the victims next in line, they intended to extract some petty cash. And I do mean petty. I stood my ground. Or rather my bare floor.
Maybe I was just calling their bluff. I think on some level I honestly didn’t believe these folks would go through all the trouble of removing the rug. But indeed they did, and now everything the ugly carpet had covered was exposed. It was a realm of rough and uneven wood splattered with stains and residues of glue and paint, with occasional carpet shreds, bent nails poking through, and sundry traces of history’s long and messy procession through these very rooms. The predominant color was something in the dark brown family. The medical student looked at it sadly, shook his head, and said, “Maybe we should have given them the money.”
I should point out here that no amount of decor was going to turn this into a charming apartment anyway. The ceilings were low and adorned with pipes, and the front windows faced the street at the level of passing pedestrians’ feet. The walls were white yet somehow still seemed dingy, and most of our furnishings were the motley discards of an old fraternity house. There was a faux leather sofa that was cracked and worn, a chunky bed with an ill-fitting mattress, and a typical student bookcase constructed of bricks and cement blocks.
“We just need some color and cheer,” I said unconvincingly, and I decided then and there to paint the floor. It will be like the floor of a country porch, I thought, conveniently ignoring the fact that we were about as far from country porch country as one could be.
I bought a bucket of peacock blue paint, a brush and a roller, and began the transformation. Readying the surface? Scraping and priming? These things never occurred to me. I poured and spread, slopping the paint around with a brush and telling myself it couldn’t possibly look worse than it already did. At one point I literally painted myself into a corner, but managed to step gingerly with minimal damage and leap over into an adjacent room.
I looked at the blue floor with a critical eye from the space as yet unpainted. As with many endeavors past and yet to come, I had to admit that the result of my effort bore little resemblance to what I had envisioned. The rooms that had escaped my paintbrush suddenly by contrast didn’t look so bad. If the peacock blue floor was an old crone in thick pathetic make-up, the rest of the floor space was a tough broad who’d lived hard and wasn’t in denial. I knew which one I preferred. Some dormant remnant of good sense told me to confine blue-ness to the one room and quit while I was, if not exactly ahead, at least less behind than I might get.
The story has many endings. One of them is happy. Not long afterwards, I took a shortcut through an alleyway, past the very same dumpster where the previous tenants had left their ugly carpet. On the cement pad by the dumpster there was a record player, a sturdy and handsome one with wood veneer and all parts seemingly intact. I carried it home, set it down, rode my bike to the library, and checked out a couple of records to test drive the thing. I went for classical, randomly choosing something by Beethoven because I’d heard of him. Maybe it was the 7th symphony.
The record player worked. The sounds of the music filled the basement apartment, and everything was changed: enchanted, elevated…I don’t know…maybe even lifted off the ground. I sat on the peacock blue floor and cried.