There’s nothing worse than moving. I hate, hate, hate spending all my time hunting for a new place. And then, when I find one, I’ve got to pack all my stuff into cardboard boxes and do all of the cleaning that I’ve put off for two years. It sucks. Plus, I never get my deposit back. Not once has that happened. The whole experience is miserable.
About a year and half ago, my wife, Kia, and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in “The Avenues,” a quiet Salt Lake City neighborhood northeast of the downtown area. The moving process was shitty, but our new place was perfect. It was the one of five units that occupied a 1902, two-story brick building that had originally been built as a grocery store. We had stained glass windows and hardwood floors, close access to stores, restaurants, and public transportation, and our landlord was a genuinely nice dude through-and-through. We loved it.
Then we got to know the neighbors.
To be fair, most of them were cool enough. There was the house full of pothead musicians next door, a pothead grad student across the hall, a pothead law student upstairs, and a few more scattered here and there. Kia and I shared interests with all of these people. But right down the hall, separated only by our thin kitchen wall, lived a mid-fortyish woman whom I will call “Sarah.”
Every time my wife and I went outside for a cigarette, Sarah would wander out to casually bum smokes off of us. She parked herself and started in on these long, wandering rants that went on without pause for upwards of 45 minutes at a time. Even from the very beginning, these sessions were intensely personal and highly uncomfortable. She told us about her damaged relationship with her family, her weird sex/masturbation habits, and, eventually, once she somehow decided that we were trustworthy, how she had just gotten out of prison. Then she would start crying.
“There, there,” I said. “It’s all cool.”
I felt far, far from cool. It wasn’t just the prison thing. Everything about her weirded me out big time, but I was self-conscious. I thought that maybe the awkwardness of our interactions wasn’t her fault at all. What if I was to blame? I worried that I might be unfairly prejudiced against her because of her status as an ex-con. Kia told me that she felt the same way. Because of this anxiety and guilt, we let Sarah manipulate the shit out of us.
This was before Orange is the New Black inspired everyone to get a little more hip to the issue, and I had a pretty damn meager concept of the lifestyle that prisoners are forced to adopt. So I had no idea that Sarah was still trapped by those habits.
Inside our apartment building, a prison-style barter system had started taking over. She began to leave plates of baked goods outside our door. It was a nice gesture, even though she cooked these totally awful chipotle chocolate chip cookies that went straight into the garbage can. A couple hours later, she would come over and see if we had any cigarettes or booze to spare. It didn’t take us long to learn that there was no such thing as something-for-nothing, even if whatever she was giving us wasn’t anything that we had wanted in the first place.
Sarah could hear enough through the walls well enough to know when we had company. Because company usually meant a bottle or two of wine, she’d show up halfway through dinner, weasel her way through the front door, and start crying in front of our guests. Once, she burst into my Kia’s birthday party and began to pour herself drinks. The apartment cleared out in less than twenty minutes. After a few weeks, our friends stopped coming over altogether.
“Nah, man,” they’d invariably say when I invited them. “I think we’re busy that night.”
We started telling her that we weren’t going to give her any more booze, but that didn’t stop her. She just had to take wilder measures to get what she wanted. Once, while Kia was home along, Sarah pounded on the door, pushed her way in, and ran to our kitchen where she swung open the freezer and snatched a bottle of whisky. She poured a glug or two into a dirty glass that was sitting next to the sink, drained it, and poured another. She finished that one and stomped out without a word.
We didn’t know what to do. I googled Sarah’s full name and learned the full story of her arrest. At a motel on Salt Lake City’s west side, a cop saw her getting into a stolen truck with her skuzzy-ass boyfriend. When he approached them, the dude made a run for it. Not so quick, Sarah stayed and fought. She took off her shoe and started beating the cop with it. He attempted to tase her, but his taser malfunctioned, so he tossed it aside. Big mistake. She threw cleaning chemicals in his face, and, while he was temporarily blinded, she picked it up the taser and tagged him with it. This time it worked. Then she broke his collarbone.
When K-9 backup came, she beat the dog unconscious and poured cleaning chemicals on it, too. At last, the pigs were able to restrain her. It turned out that she was high on crack.
Kia and I had already told her that we didn’t want anything more to do her shenanigans, but that hadn’t been working. What was next? Ratting to the landlord? What was he going to do about it? What if Sarah went nuts again and beat the shit out of one of us this time? Was I going to have to start carrying a shiv?
We tried simply avoiding her for a while, and it worked pretty well. We spent a lot of time away from the house, and kept the lights off at night. It was a ridiculous way to live, but it worked. She spread out to other neighbors and starting mooching off of them instead. In particular, there was a kindly Dutch widow who lived across the street. She was the sort of lady who put out food for the neighborhood pigeons and raccoons, so she took compassion on Sarah too. They started spending a lot of time together. Amazed that we had managed to scrape our problems off on a poor old lady, we thought we were off the hook once and for all.
Then, weird, scary people started showing up outside our building at all hours of the night, folks with meth-teeth and Insane Clown Posse t-shirts. One night, somebody drunkenly drove their car through the chain-link fence separating our building’s parking lot from the next-door neighbor’s backyard.
Around this time, Sarah got audibly crazier. She spent whole days banging things around in her apartment and screaming at herself. Usually she would just yell “SHIT!” or make some weird yawping, whooping sound, but once I heard her shouting over and over, “It’s not fair! It’s not fair that I can’t have a mother!”
Finally, $600 in cash went missing from the nice Dutch lady’s house. Nobody could prove anything, but now that their connection had soured, Sarah started knocking on our door again. My wife and I suspected that we were next in line to be burgled. We called Dan, our landlord, who came over to talk with us about the messy situation we were in. That night, Sarah’s parole officer happened to come over, and he found a crack pipe in her purse.
The next day, we were standing by the curb, smoking with some of our other neighbors, and Sarah exploded out the front door, screaming at both of us, but mostly at Kia for some reason.
“You bitch! You cunt!” she managed to spit through her sobs. “I can’t believe you talked to Dan! I thought we were friends. I shared all of those things with you in confidence.”
The other neighbors, ever sensible, stubbed out their cigarettes and took off as fast as humanly fucking possible.
Kia, who is much tougher than I will ever be, dealt with the situation in a mature, head-on matter. She told Sarah that she wasn’t going to let anyone scream at her. We were going to go inside. When Sarah was calm enough to talk, she could find us there.
Sarah found us there, but she was far from calm. The shouting match moved outside. I found myself standing out of sight, just around the corner of the building. I told myself that Kia was better at these kinds of things than I was, and that she could handle of it. This, of course, was true. Kia could handle anything. But here’s what I was really doing: I was cowering. I was cowering while a violent ex-con screamed at my wife.
God, I thought, I really hate moving.