In June 2000, my boyfriend and I stood inside a plush condo in a Washington, D.C., suburb, tended by a sharp-cheeked realtor who looked like a character from “Frozen.” We were 21, about to start our first jobs after leaving college in Massachusetts, and nothing seemed more adult than renting a one-bedroom plus den complete with central air. The complex had swanky amenities like a pool, tennis court, and fitness center. It even had a soothing name — something like Sage Crossing or Spearmint Cove.
“Just look at these walk-in closets!” the real estate agent trilled.
I had seen the future, and it resembled the set of “Friends.” We were ecstatic.
The following week, we discovered that my commute to NBC News, in Northwest Washington, would take two hours in traffic and that a murder had been committed next door. Just like that, we were back on the streets with an $850 security deposit, a futon, and my grandmother’s old TV set. I started work as a desk assistant in a week.
My college roommate had rented a room inside a two-family in Washington’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. These days, it’s the provenance of hipsters and artists with bottomless bank accounts. In 2000, an aroma of stale urine wafted through the streets, and walking to the nearest market involved sidestepping syringes and dodging drifters who loitered at the bus stop. But it was 10 minutes from the newsroom via Rock Creek Park and rent was reasonable. What could go wrong?
We found a basement apartment a block from my friend. Picture a prison converted to a bowling alley: This is a fair image of our subterranean hovel. The windows were barricaded with wrought-iron bars. The “front porch” was a moist concrete slab with a drain in the middle. A musty bedroom was off the long alleyway, which led to a living area and galley kitchen. Adjacent to the living room was a windowless pink bathroom that defied all geometric reason. A hulking toilet abutted a shower stall, and the sink stuck out at an improbable angle. Out back was a weedy terrace accessed through a barred door, where stray cats foraged.
Our landlords lived upstairs. He owned a boutique; she was a dance instructor with long flowing hair. They seemed friendly and mellow.
‘We found a basement apartment a block from my friend. Picture a prison converted to a bowling alley: This is a fair image of our subterranean hovel.’
“You’ll like it here,” he said, tapping the kitchen counter with a big onyx ring. “Just one thing — don’t touch the dishwasher. It has problems, and we need to yank it.”
We shrugged. At the time I was more concerned with Tim Russert’s phone calls than dysfunctional dishwashers.
My hours were peculiar. I usually entered the newsroom at 6 a.m. and got off at 2 p.m. But about two weeks into my sleep routine, the galloping started. Clop, clop, clop. I pulled a Laura Ashley comforter over my head and tried to doze. Clop, clop, clop. What was going on? These were the days before text and e-mails, so I couldn’t send our landlords a diplomatic missive. I didn’t even have a cellphone.
I ignored the noise until autumn, thinking our landlords were perfectly entitled to a noontime romp and that I was the one with the odd schedule. But by fall, my hours were even more erratic, and I was working from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m.
Daytime rest was essential and so I found the nerve to dial upstairs. “I’m so sorry!” our landlady exclaimed. “I’m teaching salsa every afternoon! But” — she laughed gently, as if to say, oh you silly girl — “I’ll try to keep it down.”
A rash and wheeze I’d developed worsened. It must be stress, I decided. I was in a constant state of panic at work, petrified of leaking exclusive news or making our anchors look stupid. I’d already hung up on Tom Brokaw and clogged the copier.
Come winter, my neck and arms were blanketed in welts, and I couldn’t breathe deeply without coughing. An allergist prescribed inhalers and allergy medication, and I found a new job at a magazine, where my hours were normal. Still, I kept hacking.
One night, lying on our futon as my boyfriend snored, I watched a gigantic spider inch across the wall. I sat up in bed and wheezed. I was tired: tired of this dank cave, tired of my galloping landlady, tired of the damp critters that frolicked around our futon every night.
We broke the departure news to our landlords, giving the proper one-month notice. We helped them advertise on the Internet — a new, cool concept — and delightedly greeted the young couple that opted to move in as we were moving out.
“This place is like a palace!” said the woman.
“Wow, the bathroom is huge,” said her boyfriend.
Mature 22-year-olds, my boyfriend and I grinned.
I took one last lap through the place, down the narrow hallway to the kitchen. I walked to the dishwasher, about to be replaced, and tried to open it. To my surprise, it sprung open immediately.
And so I was confronted with a carpet of furry mold that looked like the walls at Studio 54. Fronds of fungus protruded from the utensil tray. Something resembling a fat stem of broccoli was growing from the detergent hutch. Here, at last, was the root of all of my woe, I was sure of it.
Down the hall, the new tenants were assembling their bedroom furniture and chatting excitedly. I pressed the dishwasher closed, walked down the hallway, shut the wrought-iron gates, and stepped into the light.