Salt Lake City, UT – 2001
For a year in my early 20’s, I lived in crash-pad we called the Squalor House. The Squalor House was nothing more than a squat where we paid rent. It had been condemned as a meth lab, and the owner had set out to renovate it, but lost interest or money or both. He was going to dump the place, but somehow got connected with some people who would actually rent it as is – us. I doubt it was legal to live there. We paid cash month-to-month and never signed a lease.
It had two levels: the top was rented out to the three of us plus a toddler, and the bottom to an alcoholic mother and her teenage son. The downstairs was stripped to the studs and the baseboards; the tenants had simply moved their furniture in onto the particle board floor. The upstairs was better, but was obviously dilapidated from neglect and abuse. Four of us lived there including a child, but more than ten stayed there on a regular rotating basis.
The house was located in a nice part of town, in a good neighborhood, right on the edge of the wealthy part of town. It is no wonder the landlord could find no one who wanted to rent his crappy house if he were searching for tenants in the local community. The house was a blight in that area and the neighbors hated its presence.
One night our downstairs neighbor drank a bottle and a half of Jack Daniels, smashed the window of our friend’s car, got in, rummaged through the glove box, and passed out in the passenger seat. We tried to confront her and get her out of the car but every time she woke up she fought with us. The cops came and took her kicking and screaming to jail. I was not home at the time this happened; I pulled up to the house to find cop cars in the driveway with their lights on. Like so many times before we had to pass the house, call and get the scoop, and double back once we knew they were not there for any of us.
We didn’t pay the heat for months at a time. We heard that the city couldn’t legally shut it off because we had a child living with us, but they did. It was freezing cold one night, and we had no food and no heat. We spent every spare cent we could find on alcohol. We were squeezing McDonald’s ketchup packets onto saltine crackers to keep the hunger at bay.
I broke apart the headboard of my bed and we burned it in the fireplace to stay warm, using some gas we siphoned from my broken-down car to start it. It was not made of the kind of wood that you want to burn indoors; it was coated in thick laminate or lacquer. As it burned it emitted a jet black, toxic smoke that flooded the room. We were forced to open all the doors and windows to vent the smoke, which made it even colder. Our house reeked for several days and all the cobwebs in the corners turned black.
Every night I would have a few people over and we would trash the front yard with beer cans and liquor bottles. We routinely had four or five guys drinking twenty to thirty beers apiece, which made for a lot of trash. My female roommate had scolded me the day before about the cleanliness of the house, so I was conscious of the need to clean on this particular evening.
And like usual, on this particular evening, I had seven or eight people over. We had our usual setup in the front yard – a circle of lawn chairs and three or four thirty packs of Keystone or Bush. We were reaching the crescendo of the evening when I decided I should do a sweep of beer cans. I grabbed a medium-sized trash can and everyone helped me fill it. I felt good about my contribution to the cleanliness of the yard. I left the circle and headed to the side of the house to dump the contents into the recycle bin.
To get there I had to jump over a row of hedges between the yard and a small brick ledge that lined the driveway. I made the jump a hundred times a day, every time I wanted to go from the front lawn to the garage. But I had not made the jump before holding a trashcan full of beer cans, much less after twenty beers.
As I committed my full weight to the jump my toes caught the ledge and I fell directly on my shin, scraping down the ledge with the full weight of my body. I fell into the hedges and the trashcan crashed across the driveway. My friends erupted in laughter.
I laughed too. I laughed and laughed as I lay in the bushes. But quickly pain spread through my leg. I sat up on the ledge and it got much worse. I covered the spot I had hit and felt my finger sink into a very deep hole. Suddenly I broke into a full body sweat. I said something like, “Oh shit guys, I think I’m really hurt” and I lay down on the driveway. Several of my friends came over and asked to see my leg, which I was still holding. I showed them without looking myself and they both gasped. I knew it was bad. They ran back to the circle and got everyone else.
My friend Greg was the oldest and most experienced in the group, so he naturally started delegating tasks. He had someone get a clean towel, and he applied direct pressure to my wound. He filled a hand towel with blood. I asked him if I was ok, and he said, “Yeah, you’ve got a pretty big cut here, but you’re going to be ok.” His composure encouraged me. He called for hydrogen peroxide and applied it to my wound. He asked for a sterile dressing, and the best we could come up with was a maxi pad from one of the girl’s purses. With a maxi pad electrical taped around my leg I was helped to bed. I knew the next day would be rough. One of the girls stayed over to help me if I needed anything in the night.
I slept like shit. In the morning I could barely bend my leg at the knee and could not put any pressure on my toes. I hobbled into the bathroom and we began to change the dressing. We pulled off the maxi pad and I stared at the hole in my leg. It was about three inches long, an inch wide and at least an inch deep. It ran directly through the center of the tattoo on my shin. Looking into the hole I could see what appeared to be a nerve severed cleanly on either side, and if I pulled the wound open I could see shinbone.
I had no medial insurance, and I wasn’t about to risk incurring a thousand-dollar bill. The only choice I felt like I had was to tough it out, keep it clean, and let it heal on its own. “How bad could it be?” I thought, “People went thousands of years without doctors, right?” My friends supported this logic. This was life as we knew it.
The girl, Red as we called her on account of her hair, insisted on cleaning it out. It hurt so badly I thought I might die. We applied a soft, rubbery band aid to the wound that was supposed to seal and sterilize it. It held tight for the day, but when I changed it that evening it stuck to the wound. I had to reopen the wound to get the bandage out. It was misery.
Meanwhile I could not walk on that leg at all. I called in to work for the week which pissed my boss off tremendously, and was only able to make it in the following week with the help of a cane. I was worthless at work, but at least I was there. I only kept this job for another month at most. I was fired for backing into another work truck, along with many other grievances, primarily my horrible attitude.
It took a full year for the hole in my leg to heal in a way that it didn’t feel like it was going to tear open at any moment. I remember walking into a movie theater several months after it had happened with the help of a cane and having a middle-aged man say to me, “Aww, are you looking for some attention?” My best friend Buddha responded on my behalf, “Motherfucker, does it look like he has a hard time getting attention?”
I bear the scar to this day, and to this day I am completely numb in a four inch radius around the wound. The wound was deep enough that it removed about three inches of tattoo from my leg. I asked a plastic surgeon once if she thought she could fix it. She looked at it and said, “Meh, there’s not much you could do for it now.” I wasn’t holding out any hope for fixing it; I’m just glad it healed.
By December our landlord had sold the house to someone who was interested in renovating it. We had less than thirty days to evacuate. We scattered to the winds.