Monday, June 23, 2008


  • by Gina Sestak

    Those of you who have been reading my blog posts over the past year or so know that I made it through college by working menial jobs and doing things like selling blood plasma to survive. I haven't mentioned, though, what that survival sometimes entailed. I'm talking about student housing.

    Many people think student housing means dormitory rooms. I could never afford to live on campus. My student housing was "off-campus housing," a euphemism for slum, akin to the living conditions experienced by Richard Papen in The Secret History.

    This came to mind because student housing has been in the news recently; the City of Pittsburgh is finally cracking down on landlords in the Oakland area (near my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh) who rent substandard fire-traps to students.

    I first moved into off-campus housing in the middle of my freshman year. I had been living at home and commuting but, as I've mentioned in previous posts, my parents opposed my going to college, so home was not a haven. Between the long walk to the long bus ride to school and work and the constant noise at home that made it impossible to study, I found myself having to make a constant conscious effort not to scream and beat my head against the wall. Instead, I moved in with some people I'd met through the anti-(Vietnam)war movement. I was eighteen.

    These folks had a six-room apartment above a large garage, which meant that I got my own bedroom. We all shared a kitchen and bathroom. The furnace was broken -- no heat in January! -- but the price was right. The $75/month rent split between us came to $12 each. And it was an easy walk from campus, only two blocks from my work-study job.

    Alas, that only lasted for a few months. I moved to a one-room efficiency with one of my roommates, Audrey, in an old square yellow building about a 20-minute walk from campus where the hallways always smelled like old soup and the rent cost us $30 each.

    We stayed a few months, then moved to another room in a house that had been converted to apartments. I began to paint a forest mural on our wall and became friends with the art students who lived on the first floor. We would sit in their kitchen and watch them shoot up -- anything they could get through a hypodermic needle. A police raid prompted the landlady to insist that everyone move out, so some of us moved into a one-bedroom efficiency. There were five of us living there. We shared a bathroom with two other apartments. And the users continued to shoot up in our little kitchen. There was usually too much commotion going on to sleep, but I was going to school full time and working, so I didn't really have time to sleep anyway.

    From there, for the first time, I moved to a place by myself, a sleeping room in the same house that had been raided. The landlady didn't know I was moving back in because I'd made the arrangements with her husband. When she realized who I was, she left me a note telling me not to let any of the other people who had lived there before come to visit and DON'T PAINT ANYTHING. I lived there for several months, sharing my room with a mouse to whom I fed cracker crumbs.

    Then I heard about a cheaper place, and so I moved. A Pitt bookstore employee had rented one floor of a house, and I could get a sleeping room plus share a kitchen and bathroom for $33 per month. By then it was winter again, and once again I found myself living without heat. The water froze but, luckily, the apartment was close enough to Chatham College for me to use their bathrooms in an emergency. Otherwise, I pretty much lived at Pitt, taking showers in the gym locker room and washing up in ladies' rooms. In the spring, the landlord forced us to move out -- apparently, the guy I was subletting from had been supposed to pay the gas bill. Oh, and this was around the time I acquired a cat, Jorma, who would get under the blankets with me to keep warm.

    This blog is getting longer than I intended -- I've only covered a little over one year, but I think I'll save the rest for another day. I guess it's a good thing that the City is cracking down but, in a way, I hate to see the cheap crappy housing go -- where else can poor students afford to live?


Tory said...

Gina: you didn't tell us you were an artist! Did you keep pictures of your mural?

nancy said...

Ye gods, Gina. How's that memoir coming??

Annette said...

Gina, you never cease to amaze me.

I'm taking a wild guess here, but I'm assuming you no longer had the mouse after you got the cat. Nevertheless, I have this mental picture of you, Jorma, and the crackercrumb-eating mouse all snuggled up together under the covers trying to stay warm.

Gina said...

Tory -
I didn't keep a photo of the mural, and I wasn't able to get much done before we had to move. I planned a river running through a forest, but only got blue sky and river and green banks finished. I still like that color scheme, though -- my present house has bright blue walls on the first floor (except for the orangy-yellow kitchen) and bright green walls on the second (except for the wall-papered bedroom). These are true nature colors -- trees seen against a summer sky -- not those pale beige-y things they call nature colors in the catalogues.

Nancy -
I am keeping these posts, but I can't imagine that anyone would want to publish my memoir unless I do something spectacular, like throw myself in front of a bus to rescue a bunch of toddlers or thwart a serial killer.

Annette -
You're right -- I didn't have the cat and mouse at the same time, but since I'd left the mouse behind when I moved, the cat wasn't a threat. That mouse did come up on the bed occasionally, which freaked me out no end, but it didn't snuggle. Usually, I'd startle and the mouse would jump off the bed and run.

Cathy said...

I can't imagine living without heat. Your experiences do put the student housing situation into perspective. More great stories, but sad that you've been there.

Gina said...

Cathy -
Looking back, it seems pretty awful, but at the time it was an adventure.

lisa curry said...

Gina, good heavens -- my experiences in off-campus housing at IUP seem quite tame by comparison. And of course, that was in the '80s, so I've never even seen anyone shoot up with anything in real life. We smoked it, we snorted it, we swallowed it, but we didn't stick ourselves with hypodermic needles. I'm sure now it's a different story -- funny how drug trends come and go just like fashion. What a colorful life you've led. Thanks for sharing!

JennieB said...

I'm with Nancy. Write a book, Gina! Heck, write a memoir and sell it as fiction if you want. No law against that, right? It's just writing fiction and saying it's a memoir that you can't do, isn't it?