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Monday, 22 July 2013

Hogtown Diaries, Part One: When Egg Met Apple

Trying to crack the career code in B.C. had left me hovering dangerously close to destitution's lap and having to flog most of my priceless 'stuff' just to pay the rent. Amid the financial (and emotional) chaos I was, however, able to hatch an escape plan. To start again at the age life famously ‘begins’: 40.

In the town famous for its hogs: Toronto.

Arriving in May 2013 with barely a dime to my name, I knew sacrifices and compromises would need to be made as I initiated a Mike Holmes-style* renovation to my financial foundations. And attempted to restore my career to its 'glory' days.

Which meant budget accommodation. And, more precisely, subletting some student digs for five weeks.

Now student digs, as we all know, can be quite terrifying. I’m not sure whether it’s the new-found freedom – or parents that did all the ass-wiping for their kids during those first 18 years. But students, generally, are clueless when it comes to cleanliness. Or they simply don't care. After all, there are more important things to focus on. Like getting blitzed most nights of the week.

Any which way, if you're a pretty clean and tidy dude (cleanliness is definitely next to Godliness for me; in fact, as a converted atheist, it's now Top of the Pops) enduring a stint in the House of Student is going to be some kind of colossal compromise.

McTavish Avenue as a whole is a leafy street in the quirky suburb Cabbagetown, an artistic haven north-east of downtown featuring the biggest batch of Victorian architecture in North America. The area was also once so poor Irish immigrants had to grow cabbages in their front lawns for food (an option I was considering).

Cabbagetown has since been gentrified (which means it's... become more manly?) and now majestic exteriors abound on many a street. However, the tale (sic) wagging on the inside can often belong to a very different puppy.

All seemed well as my cousin Mark dropped me off and I was greeted at the door by a pleasant young chap with the face of a 12-year-old, but the height and voice of someone more advanced in years. Perhaps 15. Kind of like a 21st Century Donny Osmond.

The house was split into two apartments: one up, one down. Donny led me up the stairs to the main living area of Apartment B; my new home for the next month and a bit.

As I hauled a bag the size and weight of a handsomely fed buffalo carcass due north, I eagerly anticipated a lounge/living area that mirrored the attractive-looking pad from the Craigslist ad. How naive I was.

The view that welcomed me caught me in the Queensberries like a Cantona kung-fu kick**. There appeared to have been a nuclear incident in the living room. Or, at the very least, a World War or three.

The beige carpet (aren’t they always?) was splattered with so many stains it must have technically been 51% red wine. Or ‘red wine’. I shuddered to think what 21st Century student drinking games might entail. Possibly a new version of strip poker, where the loss of a round resulted in the forfeit of flesh? Or to be more exact, a limb?

Suffice to say, if these carpets could have talked there’d have been enough material to fill all 32 volumes of the 2010 Encyclopedia Brittanica. How the hell do landlords get away with this? And why, more to the point, do students put up with it?

I took caution assessing the furniture. One example was a smallish white cupboard upon which the communal microwave was perched. Possibly a relic from IKEA’s maiden batch of North American houseware, this piece had apparently been ridden like Red Rum winning the Grand National at some point (perhaps during one of those World Wars?) and was now on its last legs. Literally. Whenever I opened the microwave door the cupboard rocked from side-to-side, creaking in pain and appearing poised to collapse and die. If I’d accidentally sneezed at the wrong moment, it would surely have disintegrated to dust.

On the second day of my stay I attempted to vacuum up some of the ‘evidence’ to make the area more palatable. However, the VC had also seen better days—apparently afflicted with some kind of respiratory issue. On its inhale, it would suck up an item or two. Then, on its exhale, spit that same item back out… along with a little something extra ‘for the weekend’. Its hopes of competing with the all-singing-all-dancing Dyson Supervac were now a rapidly fading dream.

My room had a couple of weird stains of its own, but my sub-letter did an admirable job of whipping it into usable shape. Having come close to accepting her offer to refund my first rent installment, I decided to embrace the challenge of surviving here five weeks. It was unquestionably a great location. Plus, finding alternative digs at this 11th hour would have been one hippopotamus-sized pain in the posterior.

With my room habitable, it was now merely a case of surviving the sharing of the communal areas. Namely the kitchen and bathroom.

Sharing a bathroom with two female students (well, one who’d just graduated) would be fine, I thought. They were a tad messy, and one seemed to have the memory of a fish. She frequently left lights on, toiletries open and once even a special ‘message’ in the can. But generally this worked out OK. Sharing with two guys would have been a different matter. I still have nightmares about an overnight stay in Milwaukee during U.S. Thanksgiving weekend in 2003. The dirt and grime that oozed from every pore of that house was so bad I refused to sleep there. We ended up kipping on the friend of a friend’s friend’s couch. It put me permanently off a life of grime.

Sharing a kitchen with two girls proved more challenging.

The now working housemate was generally clean and tidy. Sometimes a bit of fried egg spillage had to be tiptoed around when I descended post-run for my giant bowl of cereal, fruits and nuts. Or some errant popcorn kernals sidestepped. But that was all.

The other, however, lived on a different planet. Every time I followed her into the kitchen, it looked a food bomb had just exploded. The stove top was decorated with fried egg at various stages of manufacture, pools of coffee and/or soy sauce (often a blend of the two) freely seeped across countertops and splashed up kitchen cupboard doors, while random pieces of salad (usually kale but sometimes cucumber) and three kidney beans (always three) were scattered liberally across the floor tiles like leaves from a deciduous tree in the fall.

How the kitchen wasn’t ravaged by ants, I’ll never know. I did find one the size of a Chihuahua edging its way across the tiles one afternoon, and had to politely usher it out the back door via a glass and coaster (OK, when I say 'glass and coaster', it was more like 'vase and table mat').

I subsequently had a word with my housemate ~ let's call her Alicia ~ requesting she clean up her act: literally and metaphorically. She did her best. For a while.

Until one morning, when I gingerly approached the kitchen following a morning run. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Which could have been workout-induced wind, but turned out to be more.

I could hear somebody in the kitchen. It would be Alicia, cooking breakfast. I peered cautiously around the corner, bracing and trying to steel myself for what lay in store. I knew it could be life-changing.

What greeted me was something akin to the scene in the famous (although not famous enough) Popcorn video performed by Muppets legend The Swedish Chef. Every kitchen appliance was on full-blast, some for no apparent reasons, and had been joined by several guest 'performers'.

Perilously balanced at the edge of the sink was a laptop, playing some strain of rap music by an artist whose name I'd likely need three attempts to correctly pronounce. Various other electronic items, presumably belonging to Alicia, were also sprinkled liberally around the work surfaces, including an iPhone, Kindle and what appeared to be a digital voice recorder (she was studying journalism). Her backpack was wedged in beside the toaster.

Amid all this electronic excitement, Alicia was attempting to cook what vaguely resembled an omelette. Eggs were certainly involved. And mushrooms. Red pepper. Kale, I think. Plus kidney beans at some point (three, of course). That was a given. I couldn't see the pan, but all of my housemate's belongings – plus every young, free and single workspace and cupboard door were now handsomely bedecked in the contents of an omelette grenade.

If you didn't know it was a kitchen beforehand, you wouldn't have recognized it as one. And it was surely only a matter of time before the dramatic climax to the Popcorn song (see the YouTube video here) was reprised in our apartment. Except the egg-to-popcorn ratio would be greater. I pictured the raccoon-sized ants doing a team Lambada behind the skirting-boards in celebration.

My first thought was disbelief and a feeling this surely could not be happening. Had my consistent cleaning up and impassioned plea been unceremoniously ignored? I don't expect people to live like monks, but a certain level of consideration to fellow housemates should be a given. At least on my planet.

However, I then had a strange epiphany. Perhaps it was what you find beyond your tether's end. There were no bright lights (aside from the inferno of eggs and orgy of electronica) or chorus of angels AHHHHH-ing in realization. But I was overcome by a dual-pronged wave of resignation and e mpathy. Alicia was doing her best at this particular moment in time, and I needed to appreciate that. For all I knew, she was just as freaked out by this crazy-ass English guy with mild OCD and an obsession for cleanliness.

As such, I adopted the time-honoured philosophy that goes back, ooh... literally YONKS: if you can't beat 'em (that's your housemates, not the eggs), join 'em. So, instead of The Swedish Chef waving the white flag (see the video), I surrendered to the situation; strapping on my eggproof suit and venturing forth.

I offered to help Alicia finish cooking her breakfast, and she invited me to join her. It was like trying to spin 10 wild-and-crazy plates keeping the hyperactivity of that kitchen under control. But somehow we made it, and all seemed well again (relatively speaking) in the House of Student.

We sat down at the (surprisingly sturdy) dining room table and eagerly prepared to eat. I tucked into my plateful and raised a stacked fork to my mouth. Poised to deliver a first mouthful, my eyes were suddenly and inexplicably drawn to my housemate's plate.

With my fork suspended in the air and a blob of drool now abseiling down the side of my mouth, I felt compelled to speak.

"Alicia, I may be hallucinating here... but is that an iPod in your omelette?"


** Mike Holmes is a Canadian (and probably North American, if not global) DIY icon.

** A famous (for the wrong reasons) football (/soccer) incident from the mid-1990’s involving then Manchester United and French star Eric Cantona.

1 comment:

Sonya Solomonovich said...

Haha! Love the descriptions of food messes!