The Philadelphia City Paper, January 13, 2000

Home sweet home

for the Opinion/Commentary page

By Teresa Leo
There's nothing like a new year to get you thinking about the meaning of the word "renewal." Perhaps you revived your commitment to health and fitness. Maybe you renewed your vow to clean out the closets, take up windsurfing or brush up on a Romance language. The most urgent resolution on my list was to renew seven books I borrowed from the library. That is, until I got a letter from my new landlord, the first piece of mail I opened this year.

My building was recently sold, which happened to coincide with the end of my lease. Imagine finding, among the belated holiday cards and party invitations, a letter that starts like this: "Your lease is coming up for renewal. We hope that you decide to continue living in your home." This is an amiable opening for a letter that goes on to say I'd have to come up with an extra $290 a month to continue living in my home. Apparently this 41 percent rent increase, which I can in no way afford, is necessary to bring my humble abode "closer to the market rate for a comparable two bedroom apartment in Center City."

You may think I live in a penthouse suite overlooking Rittenhouse Square. Or that I have a doorman, an elevator or French doors leading to a veranda from which I can address the masses and sing "Don't Cry for Me Philadelphia." I don't. I live in a small, two-bedroom, third-floor walkup where the second bedroom can accommodate little more than an army cot, and have witnessed odd, cataclysmic acts of nature outdone only by such Biblical tours de force as the plagues of locusts and frogs.

I moved in four years ago during a torrential downpour. Within hours, a leak began in my living room ceiling, and, before I could unpack the pots and pans, turned into an outright flood covering a five-foot area. I spent the first night in my apartment holding vigil, swearing like a sailor and emptying buckets until the storm mercifully subsided.

Within weeks a brood of pigeons moved into my bedroom wall. They squeezed in through a gap where the roof didn't quite meet the cornice, nested, then woke every morning before sunrise to begin their incessant crooning. Before this I didn't know any good party tricks, like tying a cherry stem with your tongue, but now I can reproduce upon request the low, guttural trill of the city's greatest form of wildlife.

The pigeons were replaced, in Darwinian fashion, by a family of squirrels. They took to burrowing down into the wall above my bed, and, over a three-month period, clawed and scratched an elaborate system of tunnels and throughways in the south and west corners of the room.

I became an insomniac. I slept with a broom next to the bed. I got to know the maintenance crew and later the pest control men on a first-name basis. I watched a grown man on a 40-foot ladder shriek and recoil from a face-to-face encounter with a frightened squirrel. I stood by stupefied as he pored pesticide into the outside hole, boarded it up, and told me to "just wait a few days until they die of thirst," at which point a hole would be cut in my bedroom wall to remove the carcasses.

But the squirrels broke into the heating ducts and thereby used my apartment as a giant habitrail to scramble for an exit. A trap baited with peanut butter was set in the crawlspace above my watertank, and in the next two weeks, five maniacal squirrels were caught and removed one by one.

Why then, would I even want to continue living in an apartment that could easily be featured on "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom"? Because I survived. Because I know the exact interval at which my refrigerator clicks off and on, then sounds like a 747 clearing the tarmac. Because my stove's so old the Gas Company guys who come periodically to relight the pilot stand back in admiration and reminisce about how they don't make them like this anymore. Because I've grown accustomed to the dark 70s-style fake wood cabinets in the kitchen and know what to do when the HVAC unit's drain pipe clogs and floods the closet.

Because this place is my place, and I like the way the light bounces off the synagogue's stained glass windows across the street in early morning and how the cityscape looks before the sky goes black. This is my definition of renewal.


© 2000 CPCommunications, Inc.