Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tales from the Universal Building, Part 1


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This is the Universal Building in Fargo. At least that was its name when I moved in there in November of 2000, though I eventually just started calling it the UB. I found a one-bedroom apartment after an embarrassingly brief housing hunt. Basically, I looked at this building first and signed a lease immediately, a practice housing experts likely frown upon. The ridiculously low price - $275 a month and that included the utilities - seduced me. As did the location: downtown, it was about a five-minute walk to the newspaper's offices.

On the first floor, through those main doors, a tanning salon catered to attractive women who always had an apprehensive look when they stepped inside, owing to the shady residents loitering in the lobby area. The tanning salon must have offered a superior brand of fake sun, because if you went there for a tan, you really wanted a tan.

I lived on the fourth floor, in the apartment that's third from the right. Looking at this picture, I'm reminded of the Texas School Book Depository. One of the occupants helps with the comparison by having a random open window. You can almost see Oswald peering down.

On that first trip, if I had to characterize my future home in two words, they'd probably be "trash-strewn." Also, it reeked of cigarettes. Even the walls gave off secondhand smoke. And cigarette burns populated the carpet. The couch and bed - fully furnished! - hosted stains that I prayed came from food, but might have been bodily. The living room and bedroom looked like leftover set pieces for a Saw movie. But the bathroom, improbably, was fairly clean. And it had a cool view. And did I mention it was less than $300 a month?

A twentysomething woman showed me the apartment. Blond, bored, borderline-hostile, listless, unhelpful on even the most basic of questions, her only response to the unoccupied disaster was, "We'll clean it up before you move in."

Her words were even cheaper than the apartment, as the lack of action taken by moving-in day laid bare her falsehoods. My parents drove to Fargo to help with the move. The same trash greeted us - no one had much interest in reading the People magazine from 1999 that still sat on a coffee table. The same cigarette burns. The same...stains. They were too busy scrubbing to question my judgment out loud. The lady was gone, the manager's office locked.

I called the number for the maintenance man, which the pseudo manager had provided when I first looked at the apartment. He lived on the fifth floor, directly above my apartment. The guy expressed shock that a new tenant had arrived. No one had told him, meaning no one told him to clean the place.

He promised to return later that night to clean. He never came back. I like to think he forgot, though it remains possible he simply lied. My parents scrubbed some more.

I had to work that afternoon and didn't get done until 1 a.m. It was my first night at the paper.

A few hours after being introduced and once things had settled down in the hectic newsroom, I chatted with one of my new co-workers, Dan. I told him where I was living, "The Universal Building, just down the street."

Dan didn't respond immediately. His brow furrowed. He seemed to be reaching for a forgotten fact or anecdote. "The Universal Building," he repeated. "I think there was a big murder and fire there last year."

A quick search of the paper's archives confirmed it. The year before, in March 1999, there had been a horrific murder in the building. The victim, a lawyer and former judge, owned the building. A former client, who was also the handyman, bludgeoned the man in the owner's apartment, then set the entire building on fire. He was eventually arrested and convicted.

The victim's widow still owned the building, even if it appeared she was no longer actually in control of it.

I never again saw the lady who showed me the apartment. Not just on moving day, but for the 10 months I lived there. Part of me wonders if she really did work there, or was she part of the riffraff that gathered in the lobby every day. Perhaps she pretended to be the building's manager for a day on a dare from a drinking buddy. Security was nonexistent, even to the manager's office. She certainly seemed like the type of gal who knew how to pick a lock. And why did she struggle so much to find the proper paperwork that first day?

Here's a view of a different side of the building from another street. Amazing how a little sunlight helps with the appearance. The UB looks 60 percent less depressing from this angle.

Over the next 10 months I met the whole cast that starred in the UB Show, from that maintenance man who didn't maintain much of anything, to my next-door neighbor, an older man named Pappy. Thin walls revealed everything. They allowed me the chance to listen to Pappy's ups and downs, at all hours, every day and every night. I hosted late nights with my co-workers - where we dissected the night at the paper over beer and Cinemax. I called 911 twice. I should have run the first time I saw the place. And if not then, I should have fled the second time I saw it and all the filth remained from the initial trip. But I stayed for nearly a year.

Another fire, this one in 2004, again devastated the building. But the UB survived. The place had...character. Character. That's the all-encompassing, sort-of-vague word that, in this case, means the place had miscreants, drunks, survivors, and a substandard and dangerous elevator. But it was also home.

1 comment:

Patricia said...

Oh my gosh!! sounds familiar..the scubbing that is...LOl but I am so glad I was`nt around for that clean up...poor mom and dad...winks

I love your writting you have a way with words capitivating!!