(Written in 2013)
A former resident of Seattle’s Malden Apartments told my friend Mark he thought of the place like a kidney. It was a system of sieves where people arrived toxic and left purified. Mark had lived at the Malden for several years, but he kept any authority on the theory concealed in raised eyebrows when he mentioned it to me.
The Malden was a brick cube sitting at the crest of Capitol Hill, encircled by a dense cluster of stores, bars, cafes and other residences. It appeared to be just another stack of living quarters in an urban microcosm, filtering occupants for over a hundred years. The lobby must have been grand a century ago; its chandelier dangled with hundreds of crystals, the arc of its central staircase swooped over an extra-wide fireplace. Ornate carpeting spread throughout the entryway, its bold flourishes now slightly murky from wear.
My second floor corner studio was about the size of a rest stop bathroom that had been squeezed into the shape of Idaho, but with tall ceilings and windows that allowed views of the condo units a few feet away on one side and the gravel parking lot on the other. Facing away from the Space Needle, Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, I instead looked at my neighbors doing synchronized aerobics or sitting in their cars after they’d pulled in, probably listening to the end of a story on NPR.
The most notable feature of my apartment was its silver radiator, perched in the corner like a scrunched tube of toothpaste. The building’s heat was regulated by a master control somewhere in its depths, and so I had no say about when the radiator would sputter into action, spraying hot water on everything within a foot. After a series of creaks and bubbling noises, its sound would eventually morph into a relentless clatter that reminded me of a shopping cart being pushed down an unimproved road and was just as loud. In addition to the clamor, the temperature would often escalate to unbearable levels due to the excessive amounts of time the heat was on. It didn’t take long to overheat such a tiny space, causing me to be on a never-ending patrol of opening and closing the windows.
On my first day living at the Malden – which was also my first day living in Seattle – I locked myself out of the building. With the on-site manager out of town, I was left sitting on the stoop waiting for the maintenance guy to drive across town and let me in. But then a group of three approached, unlocking the front door, ushering me into the lobby and up the stairs to the third floor unit where one of them lived. Ricky, the room’s occupant, was moving to England the next day and had planned to have a yard sale that morning to get rid of his stuff, but had been too hungover to do so. He asked me, “Do you need a bed?” I did. The inflatable mattress I’d slept on the night before was already caving in on itself. Ricky gave me his bed, an orange easy chair, a houseplant, a set of cheap knives. Later that night we all went out to a bar and I met Mark who lived across the hall from me in a studio mirroring my own. After choosing songs from the jukebox together at the bar, Mark started lending me his DVD’s – David Bowie, Nico, Iggy Pop. Some weekends we’d play lazy games of pool at a dive down the street called The Canterbury or wander the neighborhood with cups of coffee.
Inside my apartment I listened to the neighbors in the condo across the way sing karaoke in practice for the party they’d have a few months later. I listened to the sharp snap of the electrical wire when the bus drove by on the next block. I listened to the clock radio I’d gotten from a free pile in the laundry room that served as my stereo. I listened to the stomping of my upstairs neighbor’s combat boots as he constructed tall bikes above me.
The tall bike guy moved out after a couple of months and in came another guy who refused to answer the door when I knocked to ask him to please turn down the single techno song he listened to on repeat, sometimes at four in the morning. The techno guy mistakenly tried to unlock my door on a couple occasions, keys jangling at the knob, until I yelled “Hey!” I’d hear his footsteps hurry up the steps in the stairwell as he called out “Sorry!” After awhile he switched from incessant techno to making a sing-songy phrase with his own voice which I puzzled over for weeks until one day when I finally put my ear on the vent and heard “Honk your horn!” And then, “Just honk it!”
Six months later, a friendly guy moved in above and even told me to please pound on the ceiling if he was being too loud, which I only did once. But one night I heard a different kind of disturbance when the thud of a rock being thrown by his ex-girlfriend hit my window. She had been aiming for his, but her eyes were red and unapologetic when I looked down to see her standing in the gravel below.
As we passed each other in the dim hallways, striding over a different, but still ornate version of patterned carpet, my building-mates and I became familiar. Next door to Mark lived Andy who traded me his Soul Coughing CD for my VCR before moving to Chico with his girlfriend. Below him were Shawna and Paul, a couple crammed into a studio not much bigger than mine. Upstairs was Aaron, the emergency room tech who told me stories about his job in too much detail. I ran into him in the stairwell the day after my bike was stolen from the hallway. He said a couch he’d kept outside his apartment had been taken, as well. When we approached the lobby, we discovered the chandelier was gone, a ladder left in its place. I laughed trying to imagine someone detaching a three foot long mass of tinkling chains and jewels, embracing it awkwardly as they ran out the door. “Fuck the ladder!” he or she had yelled back at their accomplice. Aaron said the recently hired manager, a frail woman named Miranda who skittered around making only brief eye contact, had allowed a sketchy new tenant, Jesse, to start renting an apartment down the hall from his. Aaron suspected Jesse was a meth dealer whose clients were now swiping anything they could.
A few days later, Shawna told me her bike had also been ripped off. That evening I looked out my window after dark to see Miranda scampering across the gravel with a cat carrier in hand. She got into a car full of boxes and drove away. The day after, I received a notice on my door that the building had a new manager.
The new manager was Jesse the alleged meth dealer. A couple days after the announcement of his managerial status, I got a buzz on my intercom phone. Not expecting anyone, I picked up the receiver without speaking and listened to a haggard woman’s voice yelling “Jesse! Jesse! Let me the fuck in!” That night I awoke to a hubbub in the parking lot; gravel crunching under car tires spinning too fast and the urgent shouts of three men. Later I learned they’d been stealing a car.
I put in my month’s notice. But before I moved out, Mark and I went to the Canterbury for one last round of pool. As the Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” played over the bar speakers, I took aim at a ball and he leaned in to offer himself as a listening ear, if I should ever need one. “I promise to keep my libido in check,” he added. “Uh, ok,” I said, recoiling against the table.
Upon my departure, I wasn’t sure what the kidney of the Malden had purged from me besides my bike and some sleep. It did feel a little like I’d been wrapped in cheesecloth and strained of petty complaints. I still had Ricky’s bed, chair, plant, knives, and the clock radio from the laundry room free pile to start me off at my new apartment down the street. The building had funneled me through, eliminating and replacing in preparation for whatever was next.