- 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?