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An Abundance of Atmosphere

by Charles Crockford, '62 BA

A house is not a home. And when your wife and you are newly married university students, your home is probably not a house, either.

In our case, our first home was half a house — the top floor of an old house in the Garneau district (Garneau obviously being the French word for, "I didn't know you could get that many students into one room!") Our apartment was furnished, had two balconies, and rented for $85 a month. What more could Arline and I have asked for almost 40 years ago?

What more? A lot, as it turned out. You've heard the expression, "Everything but the kitchen sink," for us, "sink" was a four-letter word, since we washed our dishes in a dishpan filled from the bathtub tap. And every apartment has a door, right? Wrong!

Our apartment's lack of a door probably made our guests feel quite welcome, but apart from making us somewhat paranoid, it did nothing for Arline and me. Arline put a curtain across the opening at the top of the stairs, but while this gave us a feeling of privacy it did not stop noise from coming up from downstairs — or vice versa. I can still remember writing a term paper while listening to The Ed Sullivan Show — and we didn’t have a television set. And one evening I heard a very loud, very disgusting burp. Arline immediately called out, "Chuck, really!" "It wasn’t me," I replied loudly and ungrammatically. "Wasn’t that you?" When Arline denied being the guilty party, I realized the burp had come from downstairs — I wonder what our landlord thought about our commenting on his manners?

Archie, our landlord, was a real character (read frugal). The house was heated by a hot-water system. Archie had decided the system was wasting water, so he had disconnected the automatic water feed, which meant that periodically he would have to run water into the reservoir. This worked — except for the time he fell asleep while waiting for the reservoir to fill up. We did not know this had happened until I got up from my desk to get a book, and discovered that rather than going 'flop, flop, flop,' my slippers were going 'squish, squish, squish.' The system had been filled to the point where water was being forced out the loose joints, of which we seemed to have had more than our share. As Arline and I were mopping up, I can remember thinking, no sink, no door, but almost a swimming pool.

Our landlord was quite adept at salvaging material from his place of work and using it in the house. As a result, his bedroom had a very rustic appearance — not because he had planned it that way, but because the bedroom was finished in plywood, a very thin plywood that Archie had salvaged from packing cases he had brought home from work. How atmospheric — we had no door and not kitchen sink, and our landlord and his wife were sleeping in packing cases.

Our landlady was also a character. Her name was Dorothy, but Archie called her Dot — although the dear lady was anything but! Two or three times a week, Dot would sit down to play the piano. She would practice for 10 or 15 minutes — 10 or 15 minutes that seemed like hours, since at times the notes seemed to have been chosen by chance, and all the tunes were played at the same temp and volume (loud!) Such musical interludes made studying difficult, but we did learn to appreciate a properly played rendition of "Oh Canada."

Our landlady was also partial to plants — at least to the one that was on the post at the bottom of the stairs to our apartment. We named this plant, The Octopus, since it had stems shooting out in all directions — perhaps Dot thought this plant was an herbaceous watchdog that took the place of a door.

As if all this weren't atmospheric enough, to make up for the missing sink and door, we had not one, but two porches. Unfortunately, both were completely open, so we called the front balcony, the Patriotic Porch, since we turned red, white, and blue if we tried to used it any time except during the summer. And the back porch could not be used at all, because its metal floor sloped down at a rather alarming pitch, and the railings around could be wiggled with your hands. Since sliding off houses was not one of our favorite sports, we ignored this porch entirely, and concentrated on blocking out the arctic gale that blew in around the porch’s door in the winter (saying we had, "The coolest kitchen in Edmonton," was not a compliment.)

If we wanted to enjoy a tall, cool one on our front balcony on a warm summer evening, we had to remember that the apartment fell under a no-liquor-allowed rule that covered the entire house, including the two students who boarded there. (Two former borders had once made the mistake of passing a "twenty-six" through a basement window into their bedroom, but what the outside student had taken to be his roommate's hand was Archie's, proving again that booze and bedrooms don't mix.) We obeyed the rule by being as discreet as possible when we were imbibing — which was particularly difficult the first summer we were in the apartment, since I had managed to get a job with — you guessed it — the Alberta Liquor Control Board. I felt I should try the products I was selling at the liquor store — for my customers' benefit, of course — so I took my lunch in a large paper bag that, quite by coincidence, was just big enough to hold my thermos and a bottle of wine when I returned from work. Since we suspected our landlord could hear every word we said we called the wine, lemonade. From the number of glasses of lemonade we had and from what we said about it, Archie must have thought we were lemonade connoisseurs who were doing their part to keep California citrus growers in business! (I am sure our landlord suspected we did indulge occasionally. After all, the ALCB on my workshirt didn’t stand for Arline’s Little Chore Boy.)

And what else contributed to our apartment's atmosphere? Would you believe... the electrical wiring? One afternoon Archie came to the top of the stairs and called to me (he couldn't have knocked on the curtain). He told me we shouldn’t use any electrical appliances, and when I asked why, he took me downstairs and showed me the fuse box (which, believe it or not, was located in his daughter's bedroom). He didn't have to tell me what the problem was, since the box's door was open, and I could see that the main wire in the fuse box was glowing bright red. A few hours later an electrician arrived (the electrician from the place where Archie worked, of course), and Archie brought him upstairs to show him the wiring in our apartment. The wire to the only outlet in the living room was a braided wire that went up the side of the wall in the hallway. When the electrician saw it he was quite concerned — until Archie told him it was the wire from an extension phone that used to be upstairs. (We didn't have our own phone; perhaps because a separate phone might have aroused suspicions that the house contained an illegal suite, our phone was an extension of our landlord's phone. The electrician had asked Archie why there was a stove and a fridge on the second floor of his house, and Archie had told him that Dot had relatives who liked to visit for a week or two, and with a stove and fridge they could do their own cooking.) Our callers would dial, let the phone ring twice, then hang up and dial again, except for the rare occasions when Dot's friends thought they had misdialed and hung up after two rings, this procedure worked quite well — and it did save us money.

I should explain that Archie and Dot weren't mean, nasty people. They were really very nice, and we got along quite well with them. One afternoon Dot called up to us to say that they were going out, and to ask if we could look after a roast she had in the oven. We said that would be no problem, and one hour later I went downstairs to see how the roast was doing. The roast was fine, but I was amazed (looking back, perhaps I should'’t have been) to discover that the spring on the oven door was broken, and that the door was held shut with a stick that was wedged between the door and the wall; furthermore, the end of the stick was charred, suggesting it had been burned down to the right size. But I did like Dot's oven; hers had a temperature control – ours didn't.

In any case, we must have handled the 'roast request' to Dot's satisfaction, because a few weeks later Archie asked me if I would look after the furnace, since they were going away for a few days. Naturally, I agreed. (The idea of being found frozen to my psychology text did not appeal to me, so I was shown how to light the furnace.) After 40 years the exact procedure escapes me, but I recall it involved rolling up a newspaper — the Journal, not Gateway — lighting the paper with a match, turning on the gas, thrusting the burning paper into the furnace, and trying not to be scared out of my wits when the "Fires of Hell" suddenly erupted in front of you.

So that was our home 40 years ago — an illegal apartment with no front door, no kitchen sink, a porch with a ski slope for a floor, and the "Fires of Hell" in the basement. But we couldn’t complain. After all, other young couples might have lived in rented apartments, but for $85 a month we didn’t have just an apartment — we had atmosphere!

Published Winter 2001.

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