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Jan 2002 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Packin' It In
By Chrissie Richards

I'm a serial mover. At first I moved for petty reasons: to escape the university, my roommates, or a particularly dark apartment. But over the years, as I've repeated the cycle of tossing and packing and hauling, the motives for relocating seem less clear. In sixteen years I've moved sixteen times, and I occupied my sixteenth apartment just this weekend. The move was treacherous; it dragged with decisions, details, worries, and worst of all, inertia. I found myself nostalgic for the early moving years, the St. Louis years, when reading the real estate listings was a hobby and housing concerns revolved around annoying flatmates and dirty toilets, and one could apartment hop without looking back. The years when a move promised not only clean corners and closets, but relief from adolescent funk.

Though harrowing in their own way, the St. Louis moves were relatively easy, perhaps even reckless, small escapes unencumbered by history or responsibility. After a requisite year in the dorms, I beat my way north to the student ghetto just shy of Delmar, away from the University where the sons and daughters of lawyers, professors, economists, and parents who traveled to faraway places moved with confidence and entitlement, and dressed nicer and talked smarter than me, a southern salesman's daughter away from home for the first time. I hoped to distance myself from the loud New Yorkers around whom I became very quiet, and from the elusive college self I anticipated but never realized — a version of a neat young woman I spied on prospective student day with the silk neck scarf, dark-eyed and pale, talking intelligently in French lit class.

I moved again the next year, to the other side of Delmar, a neighborhood populated by non-university families and a few old Greek and German ladies. I hadn't known ethnics growing up and found the big bosomed gals with their wrinkles and smells curious and strange. But the kids tumbling on the alley mattress and playing pitch ball in the vacant lots were familiar and I actually liked the new digs. The area had an old-time jazz club where every couple of months well-meaning professors took students for a dose of real St. Louis, and packs of white post adolescents would turn up to bite their lips, and tap their feet to a strange music, eager not to offend the locals watching from the corners.

Much as I liked the neighborhood, I found my hyper-feminine roommates to be intolerable and I moved north and east, just up the way from A.M. Tea and Coffee, where I worked part-time and fatted myself on pastry while waiting (and waiting!) for the dainty and particular customers to mull over the stinky cheese, debate the goldfish: pet for the puffy and lethargic olive imports, sample the pate and test the latest flavored coffee. While living there, I took up goldfish for a hobby — too puffy and lethargic to do much else — and began regular treks to the friendly Clayton pet store where fish came with seven day guarantees and where, indeed, they cheerfully handed over swollen, moist zip-locked replacements, with helpful hints about water temperature or feeding schedule. After several months, though, folks at the store became less friendly, and I began to feel uneasy about the mounting body count — a massacre, really — and the apartment began to stink. When the fish smell, after weeks of scrubbing, wouldn't leave, I did.

I moved quite a bit further north, to Chicago, where I've continued to act out a twisted wanderlust, an adolescent yearning for purge and beginning. Here I have moved 11 times in 11 years, and I'm perhaps single-handedly responsible for gentrifying the city's north side. I did last two years in one place, but interrupted that promising tenure with two six-month mistakes: a dark and cramped apartment overlooking the air processing vents of an immense and decaying Goldblatt's department store; and a studio above a young stud who bedded his broads loudly and often. The sex sounds drove me out — the arc, the pitch, the pace became predictable and, finally, maddening.

The life of an adult serial mover is complicated. Roommates are traded for neighbors with whom one shares sounds and smells but over whom one has less control. And even though the process becomes second nature — an annual shedding of skin, the fleeting moments of almost-homelessness, the upheaval, the forced examination of one's previous lives preserved on scraps and notes, (a paper home the mover clings to in the absence of architecture) — this upheaval, complicated by the nesting instinct, causes one to unhinge. The adult mover becomes fussy, prone to fantasy, neurotic.

There are things you can't know about a new apartment until it's too late: the tiny water heater, the flicking lights, the honking in the alley. Though there are clues, spots on the floors, lingering odors, you can't really know what's gone on in the space before. My first evening after the move, I ran a tub and, though I was too tired to scrub it, and had to supplement the bath with three pots of boiled water, I was eager for the calming soak. But once in, I was seized with paranoia: the strange smell in the closet; the musician's practice upstairs, the flute, the oboe, the vocal exercises — barking, and high pitched trilling; was the heater broken, and was the pilot light out; did Finklestien, the previous renter, dump his mop water, or rinse the cat litter pan in the tub; and, finally, a flashback to the time a patient at the clinic where I worked presented with athlete's foot of the labia — a gray flaking mess — something she picked up while taking a bath at a Holiday Inn.

A post-bath half-bottle of wine, intended to tamp the white noise, made it worse, and I spent the first night in my sixteenth apartment trapped in a nightmare about Finkle's fungus feet and crusty girl parts. Real estate escape only gets you so far.

When not moving, Chrissie Richards works for an affordable housing watchdog organization in Chicago.

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