By Ann Sterzinger
THE FILTHENING. Oh, and how I could have escaped.
Peace Is For People Who Know How to Drive
My lease in Chicago was ending, but Hammer Man took his sweet time. He and Psycho Roommate were supposedly cleaning the place up, but a month after I forked over $1700, they hadn’t begun. They were very busy and important people, and they would need another month.
Note: If you have a normal attention span and you want to begin this tale at the beginning, CLICK HERE to read Part I of this series.
My lease in Chicago wasn’t going to give me another month. Furthermore, every day I stayed in my apartment was another day my rapist had to come back at his leisure and maybe kill me for real this time. Oh God, Ann, shut up and don’t tempt the Fates.
Pffffft. If there are Fates, they are so incoherent, I’m firing them from this story. You hear that, Fates? YOU ARE FIRED.
Fortunately, the writer Jim Goad was kind enough to say yes when I asked if I could sleep on his couch in rural Georgia. (He doesn’t live in a couch; he has a house. Actually, two, but that’s a whole other hilarious story.) Well, I flew to Georgia (yes indeed, the devil went down), but I didn’t actually sleep on the couch. Which wasn’t as much fun as it should have been due to the urinary tract infection I got due to being shot up with every goddamn antibiotic ever invented post-rape, but it was good anyway.
In fact, it was lovely. Jim told me that people are often surprised that he is quite tender, because of all that stuff in ANSWER ME! and whatnot. Which is a bit shocking to me, because if you do read ANSWER ME! (and all the hundreds of thousands of words he’s written subsequently) and you are actually literate, you get an eerily accurate picture of his character: straightforward but kind.
Maybe this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I first read all of ANSWER ME! plus the entire works of Edward Gorey in a single acid trip at the age of 19, Jim introduced me to an important idea: the people who talk the most about being moral are usually the people who are the most — to use their own stupid word — evil.
People who are painfully aware of the tragedy of life tend to talk and write frankly about it, but they behave in a way designed to carefully and unobtrusively take the edge off the sadness and the terror, for themselves and others (till those others prove they don’t deserve it). Maybe this has made me too trusting of people who try to present themselves as tell-it-like-it-is guys when they’re actually assholes, but hey, you’re never too old to recalibrate. Maybe too late, in terms of avoiding some awful situations, but never too old.
So when he was tender, polite, and kind in real life, I wasn’t surprised in the slightest. Jim hates the French for good reasons, but I often compare him to Europeans in that your opinion of him tends to reflect your own behavior. Like Europeans, his default setting is kind and polite, almost to a level that makes my Catholic guilt uncomfortable — “What did I do to deserve kindness?” — so when someone describes him as an asshole, I wonder what the hell kind of shit they must have pulled to draw that behavior out of him.
People who like the truth are nice, till you fuck them. So most of the time, if they fuck you back, it only makes me wonder what’s wrong with you.
No, We Did Not Rape Each Other
When I came to Jim’s house, he didn’t press me to come; we had been having very pleasurable phone conversations after he held my hand through my actual rape (not rapey) experience, and although I’ve always had a silly little crush on him, my 19-year-old feelings developed into post-traumatic 40-something feelings. Out of all the so-called friends I had, many of which abandoned me, stole from me, or worse during this period of my life, he’s one of the couple of friends who has always seemed genuinely, if not slobberingly, concerned about whether I’m OK. And he’s been the most concerned.
However, I felt slightly uncomfortable in Georgia, because there are no sidewalks, and I have to walk everywhere I go. I can’t drive, for several reasons, none of them legal. I just would make a terrible driver, starting with the fact that I have terrible eyesight and no depth perception. So every time I needed a tampon or milk or cat insulin or I lost my phone like a dumbass, Jim had to stop what he was doing and put me in the truck. I was raised Catholic and this bothered me.
It’s a subtle difference: I’m not a feminist, but I don’t like feeling like a burden who doesn’t pull her own weight/share. Is that too fine of a distinction to go around making? Something about growing up in Wisconsin. Everybody has to help with the chores or you’ll all die.
I Know I Have a Bad Reputation
There was an odd O. Henry/”Gift of the Magi” moment where we figured out that A. I was keeping my location a secret because I was afraid some stupid fuckweasels would give him shit over giving me shelter (“White knight! White knight!” Believe me, Jim doesn’t need a horse and a lance to get laid), and B. He wasn’t telling anyone my location because he thought a different bunch of fuckweasels might give me shit over being associated with him.
And then we each figured out that the other didn’t give a shit about the peanut gallery, so that short story resolved rather like the Gift of the Magi, except if they figured it out BEFORE she cut off her hair and he sold his watch.
I felt at peace, except for the PTSD that made me lay awake every other night thinking there was an ax murderer standing in the driveway ready to mince me and Jim and the dog and the cat. But that’s just the way I am now.
Why did I ever leave Georgia? Oh, yeah: I can’t drive, and so I was starting to feel like a burden. Like I should stay in my lane — a lane with buses so no one had to cart me around. (Well, except for the bus driver.) Also, I’m one of those bulldog types who never just drops a plan. I had planned to go to LA, and damn it, I was gonna do it.
Among the many things that draw too many people to California, the transit system is better than they tell you it is. It’s also much more beautiful than it is in the movies — you just gotta look up at the mountains, not down at the trash castles and the rat dancing on the dead guy. (Don’t get me started on various levels of the city government’s refusal to do anything about the professional homeless.)
Fine, there’s mall architecture, but there’s also Spanish architecture. The ocean is vast. The mountains are near, the desert is close, and hawks wheel down Wilshire Boulevard. The weather is so good that as a native Midwesterner, I had to experience it to begin to understand it. No freezing. No steaming. No suffering. It’s eerie. I move through every day as through a dream, the soft air massaging my buttocks like a thousand tiny hands. No wonder half the world is trying to cling to a corner of a piece of real estate.
It’s a holy wonder the entire world isn’t trying to pack into California. I guess its reputation for overcrowding is all that keeps it away from the lip of a complete sewage system failure.
Off I went.
Oh, dear lord.
Home Sweet Home
LA is great for my pleasure-walking hobby — the entire view changes minute by minute — but its disease control standards would shock an arsenic-sniffing Victorian. I had yet to learn this, however; I had only visited a couple of times, and chalked the filth of North Hollywood up to, oh, it’s just that neighborhood. Ha ha, dumbass.
Jim drove me to the airport like the gentleman he is, kissed me goodbye—when I said I would miss him, I had no idea how excruciatingly true that would be—and helped me get all my heavy stuff onto the plane as a matter of course.
But chivalry is dying unevenly — and often it’s the people who yammer the loudest about trad crap who are totally willing to let a woman carry twice her own body weight in luggage. Leaving Atlanta was hard sentimentally, but pleasant in the physical ease department.
When I flew into LA, on the other hand, no one was there to meet me at the airport. Certainly not my psycho roommate, who would later punish me for not letting him show me off around his favorite bars as his semi-well-known writer friend; and certainly not the Hammer Man who had already taken $1700 for an apartment that was six weeks late getting ready. I was all alone and loaded down with everything I, for the moment, had to call my household.
But the deals don’t stop there, folks! To add some comedy to the mix, minutes after arriving in my new hometown, overweighted by the cat carrier slung round my back, I fell ass over teakettle, backwards, on the airport floor, screaming animal and all.
Yep, kaboom, live cat, me, everything, turtled up on the LAX floor. This is what happens when you own a cat who weighs more than your boobs do. Tourists walked by wondering whether to giggle, like it was maybe some Buster Keaton shit. Cat petrified and and panting with fear. As I caught my breath, got up to my knees, and struggled to the second floor to get a rideshare, I lost my Kindle somehow, and I still haven’t found my cache of special books; they may have been stolen later, but I can’t even talk about that without my mind bursting into flame.
When I staggered into Lawndale — the scummy patch of suburban LA County where my great rental deal was located — I found that Hammer Man had STILL DONE NOTHING.
The once-lovely yard was loaded with so much junk I almost couldn’t get to the place at all. The kitchen was filthy enough to leave tacky strings of dirty goo trailing from your shoes when you walked across the floor, like the aftermath of Withnail and I if you buried all the whimsy under mouse poop.
I was almost too exhausted to register the rage that boiled up from the pit of my soul. It turned to steam and rose to the ceiling with the scent of mouse shit. My back was killing me from falling on the floor; I looked dully at the garbage stacked to the ceiling. I should have left while I still had money in the bank. I could have gotten my own NICE AirBnB and used that as a home base to search for an apartment. But I was exhausted and my ears were still ringing from falling on the airport floor. And I knew Hammer Man would rather gouge out his own eyes than let me have my $1700 back. Further, I was here, with a live animal, and nowhere else to stay the night.
The roommate had bedbugs, which didn’t bother him. The hoarded junk was all wearing a fur coat of dust. If you moved a couch to clean under it, an infinite supply of mouse poop kept pouring from its innards. The driveway was full of hammering projects — so much shit that one day, when I was coming home tired and Hammer Man came staggering down the driveway straight in my direction, and obviously oblivious to walking etiquette, I was forced to swerve, and fell into a palm tree because there was nowhere to maneuver. (This was bad, because the palm tree was damp, and I already had a deadly flea bite on my leg. More on that in a bit.)
The fire hazard changed daily, as Hammer Man had a habit of coming into the house like he still lived there and moving the piles of junk around. Atop one of the junkheaps in the living room he carefully kept a heinous straw boater hat with some scrap of hippy print cloth around the brim so he could claim we were his roommates and not legal tenants with rights.
This is what $800 gets you in an American metropolis.
I did what I could to clean. I got OCD. But the filth was worked into the soul of the building.
I never found the source of some of the smells. The third bedroom was the landlord’s “office”: a room full of half-functional electronics that was usually locked. But it still managed to leak its stench, filled with piles of junk so deep that even when the door was open I couldn’t even get over them to get at the flea-infested piles of possum shit.
Yeah, there was a live possum living in the building. Hammer Man and Psycho lived with him for months, unawares.
Those piles of shit are probably still in the “office” today.
Me and Anne Frank: Typhus
I’m not sure if the nightmarish cloud of floor-roaming fleas that bit me in the leg came from that possum shit — or the mouse shit that filled the stinking pair of couches Hammer Man refused to get rid of — or from my cat, whom Hammer Man and Psycho, as they wandered mouth-breathing in and out of the house, leaving the doors open, would continually allow to escape. The cats would either get lost for days, breaking my heart, or they would run into the disgusting hole that had opened up under the house.
But wherever they came from, bite me those damn fleas did.
I was only there a few weeks before they gave me typhus.
Yes, typhus. I got fucking typhus from my LA dream rental. The medieval and/or concentration camp disease; you have heard me correctly.
First the flea-bitten leg turned purple, developed cellulitis, and swelled up to three times its normal size. After I ate a few more pounds of antibiotics (after this year, antibiotics will never work on me again), my legs began to feel less full of crunchy glass. Then they began to look more like legs and less like tie-dyed telephone poles — things were looking up! — but then the fever and vomiting and the full-body rash hit.
I was blisters from my knees to my eyelids, with two balls of itchy swollen fire for armpits. I soon couldn’t keep down food or drink. I fell into my bed and found I could not rise. As you might expect, the two nightmare creatures in the house did not so much as offer me a glass of water. (Hammer Man told my sister he thought I had an eating disorder.)
Actually, Hammer Man did pay me some attention. He came into the room to bitch that I hadn’t paid the rent. Well, he should have found my checkbook for me and brought it over, because I couldn’t stand up.
After I spent nine days in a bizarre waking coma, unable to sleep or move, a friend who fortunately happened to have planned to visit from France came and found me in a puddle of death. He spent his vacation taking me to the hospital.
If he hadn’t arrived, I’m fairly certain I would have died there, listening to Psycho Roommate talk to himself, beat my cat because I couldn’t do anything about it, and listen to music with clever lyrics like “I hate you” repeated over and over and over.
At the hospital, much like at the doctor’s, they had no idea what to do with a medieval fever, and they didn’t really believe I had typhus anyway. I was raving; I think I listed my employer as Bob Barker. So they — get this — threw me in the loony bin for a while, hoping I was just mental and sweaty.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I’m oddly difficult to kill. Sure, I should probably sue the shit out of that hospital for refusing me medical care and declaring me mentally incompetent when I was clearly delirious from malnutrition and fever.
But having access to (comparatively) nutritious loony-bin food, combined with my natural cussedness, was somehow enough to clear the deadly virus from my system. I was probably fifty percent likely to live and fifty percent likely to die; in the end, I won that coin toss, as I usually do. I’m like a really weird cat that always lands on its head, but somehow survives. Until I won’t.
Unfortunately, I was hallucinating heavily, although the sane part of my mind knew that I had typhus. I also thought that President Trump had gotten tired of his job and had appointed me president of the United States. Mostly he chose me because I happened to be the person who was having the hallucination, but also because he has a pathological need to be liked, and he knew everyone was mad at him for stealing our first female president.
So he was like, “There! I gave you your lady president! And this one is actually human!” I hesitated, since only a madwoman would want that job, but then I remembered I had typhus and the president gets the finest healthcare in the world.
My two accomplishments as president were to convince the nurses to quit force-feeding the elderly grandmother in the bed next to me quite so much opiate (I made a big stink about it because goddamn it, I’m the president; she actually recovered to the point of deciding to take a leave of absence from the loony bin to visit her family for the first time in years), and trying to escape in a laundry cart.
Talk about comedy: try talking your way out of a psych ward when you know you have typhus, but you also think you’re the leader of the free world, and also they found you hiding in the towels yesterday.
But loony bin inmates always help each other (the nurses sure as shit won’t), so my fellow inmates finally taught me how to navigate the senseless labyrinth of red tape that tied me to a madhouse cot — without pulling Bugs Bunny hijinks.
They gave me my few personal items in a clear, flimsy plastic bag, along with a bunch of literature on what to do when you suffer from schizophrenia. I walked out onto the street, dazed and still mildly hallucinating (I would continue to confuse reality and the carnival in my fever-ruined brain for weeks) and realized I had nowhere to live and my cats were probably dead.
What to do? There was no way I could rent an apartment before I needed to sleep, or even within the fortnight. An inflated rental market is also a glacially slow rental market. They need to finger you and your credit score like a fabric sample to make sure you’re boogie enough to pay the comical rent, and sane enough to not ax murder your neighbors.
Then I had an idea: Go on AirBnB! Brilliant. You just need a few days’ payment up front. I already had a profile I’d been using for years, for classy purposes such as low-budget trips to Europe (I AM classy, goddamnit; this is just a bump in the road, so fuck off). On AirBnB, I actually looked kind of desirable, typhus scars and all.
This is the same stroke of inspiration which, as it turns out, has struck many margin-skirting losers, plague victims, and budding shitty hostel owners before me. As long as you can post a sane-looking photo and write a coherent introduction, AirBnB has no filter for poors, slumlords, or ax murderers!
Despite some malingering hallucinations, I quickly found a room around $20 a night. It included a couple of resident cats, which for me was a welcome distraction from the question of whether Hammer Man had let my cats starve, but it bumped the price down on what was listed as a private room in a nice neighborhood. It was one of about four rooms in the back of the landlady’s house that she let, so how bad could it be?
It seemed OK at first, because it wasn’t a mental ward, so no one was pissing on the floor. However, it wasn’t actually a private room. I did have a curtain, but past the curtain and down a set of stairs was a couch inhabited by a visually attractive young male whose hobbies included snorting, gobbling masses of gross food noisily, and farting all night long. (I don’t normally say the word “fart” anywhere near as much as I’m going to have to do to get through this story.)
The shell of the building was a charming little villa. But nobody cleaned up after themselves, and there was no maid service. I would find this particular tragedy of the commons to get heavier on the violins the further I went into the AirBnB underground, but to someone who had narrowly missed death by microbe, it was gross enough already. I was trying to bring myself back to life, mentally and physically, so to build up my strength (and kill parasites) I found the cleaning supplies and went to town.
I scrubbed and mopped and polished. The owner noticed this. She smiled inscrutably, like a Polish La Joconde — she and her family were very excited to be Polish — and asked whether I would like a job cleaning one of her other houses after my paid stay was up. Turns out she had properties around the city, despite her own home’s disheveled appearance, all of which she rented on AirBnB. She offered me free rent in exchange for “Oh, just making beds, checking people in, and a little cleaning.” Famous last words.
The place she wanted me to go was in Silverlake, a fairly upscale, mountainous neighborhood. She took me for a tour; the house was perched on a beautiful hillside looking out over a valley and up over the mountains. It wasn’t too dirty that day. It had a porch with a stunning view. How bad could it be?
Not that it mattered. I had no idea where to go and no money to go with. Right before I was raped, I had been working my ass off as a freelancer and had thousands in the bank. But when you’re hallucinating too badly to read, writing for pay is a bit difficult, and money in LA evaporates like water in the desert. So I agreed.
Free rent! For just a couple hours of work a day. I could work freelance and save! And the site looked idyllic. I had no idea that I had a shovel in my hand, and was digging my way toward the circles of rental hell that lie under even the circle where I caught typhus.