Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tales from the Universal Building, Part II

Part I of the award-winning series:

Someone discovered my blog by searching for Universal Building Fargo apartment.

I don't know who searched for this, whether it's a he or a she, a teen or a retiree. I don't know if they're looking for a place to live or a place to drop out of society. Maybe it's for a child, maybe for themselves. The Universal Building doesn't make the news much. I haven't been to Fargo in five years. I don't know if it's even an apartment building anymore, or even any kind of building at all. When it does make the news, it's for stories like "Biggest recent fires in Fargo," which ran in The Forum last month after a massive apartment fire, which recalled the horrific fire and murder in the UB in 1999.

I moved in about a week before Thanksgiving in 2000. It took several months before I moved out of the bedroom and took up permanent night-time residence on the already-furnished couch. The reason? My neighbor, Pappy. That wasn't his real name, I don't think. Probably a nickname from the second World War or something his fellow cell-block mates called him in the winter of '71. One morning someone pounded on my door for five minutes before I finally opened it. The elderly man standing there with his hat in his hands said he was looking for "Pappy." The blank look on my face didn't give him the answer he needed but as he started to ask again, the door to the apartment next to mine flew open and another elderly gentleman stuck his head out.

"Pappy, you son of a bitch!" the knocker yelled, before walking down and hugging his long-lost...brother? Platoon mate? Partner in crime? Pappy. So that was the man who moved in a week earlier.

I returned to bed but not for long. The thin walls refused to mute their conversation, which the men conducted at a decibel level most people use only when yelling at a speeding car that just ran over their left foot. Until that day, Pappy had lived a lonely life for a week, the type of monastic existence I think you were required to live the moment you signed a lease at the Universal Building. Very few couples lived in the building. Mostly single men, many likely hiding out from federal marshals, others plotting crime sprees that would almost certainly violate the conditions of their parole. A couple lived a few doors down for a brief time. Each afternoon when I left for work I heard the woman - a twentysomething gal - screaming at her no-good boyfriend. He was a jerk, a prick, inconsiderate, selfish and thoughtless. At night I'd return and as I exited the elevator it became clear she had forgiven the man's sins as her screams again filled the hall, though the words were - aside from an enthusiastic and possibly faked Yes! - mostly unintelligible.

But for the most part it was middle-aged men with thousand-yard stares and old guys who spent their money on Wonder Bread and lottery tickets. And Pappy. Over the next few months I greeted Pappy in the hall on several occasions and each encounter shortened my life by six months, thanks to the secondhand smoke that wafted from his jacket. At this stage in Pappy's life, his internal organs very likely resembled the inside of a cigarette. If you had cut him, smoke would have billowed out, followed by some leaking tar. It turned out he had a daughter, who visited about once a month and engaged in fights with her father that usually ended with her slamming the door while calling Pappy the same name his friend used the first time I saw him in the hall.

Pappy's domestic problems didn't run me out of my bedroom, though; his snoring and morning bathroom stops did. Remember the scene with Frank Drebin in the bathroom in The Naked Gun, after the press conference? That wasn't over-the-top; it was based on Pappy's morning ritual. That woke me up, after I'd spend each night struggling for sleep as Pappy's snoring threatened to set off car alarms in Grand Forks. It's a sound I'd never heard before, and one I hope to never hear again. If a doctor heard it they would have sent him to an emergency room and notified next of kin, but not before drawing up a three-page outline for an article in a medical journal.

Eventually I surrendered. I started sleeping on the couch, an uncomfortable piece of furniture that didn't contain my 6-3 frame but was at least in the living room, giving me some breathing room away from Pappy's abnormal breathing. The bedroom became a storage space, a cursed place to throw books and basketballs. One night, at the end of a blind date that the referee should have stopped in the first round, I took the couch while the lucky lady - who was stranded by a blizzard - took the bed. I felt bad, knowing she'd be haunted by internal regrets and Pappy's nightmarish sounds.

Still, she got a free dinner out of the deal and she got to flee the next morning. The next night, I'd still be in the Universal Building. And so would Pappy.

No comments: