A wandering scholar, I’ve lived many places. The absolute worst was 1915 Pershing Avenue, named for the general but pronounced perISHing.
It was 1975 and I was in desperate need of a job. Universities had hired every professor they would need until the year 2000! That’s what one of my eight hundred rejection letters said, all hand-typed on my Olivetti.
With a useless PhD in English Renaissance lit and the cupboard bare, I headed for the only offer. Notre Dame High School in Portsmouth, Ohio, the poorest county in the state. $7500 a year including volleyball coaching, and I was the highest paid on the faculty. I preferred Coach to Doc, which was what Principal Big Mac called me.
With little industry, fewer jobs, and a population which had peaked in 1940, Portsmouth had almost NO rental property. I found an entire house in scruffy West Portsmouth across the bridge for $75 a month. 900 square feet, ruthlessly paneled into three bed nooks. I U-Hauled my ancient fridge and borrowed a hot plate from the chemistry lab at school.
The day I inspected the house, fleas joyously leaped onto my bare calves for a long-awaited meal. Fumigation solved that very quickly. The bathroom had a mushroom growing in the tub grout and a cupboard I NEVER opened. What lived in there I had no desire to meet.
It was very damp by the Ohio River, the windows crumbling and the roof sagging. Light glinted where the walls met the ceiling. But the property came with a chicken house, a playhouse, and a lovely maple ridge behind which I never got around to hiking. I jogged instead. No sidewalks. A steer tethered in front of a trailer.
People were friendly, considering that I was a young single woman, quite the rarity. When the town water ran out for a few days, Old Bill next door gave me buckets from his well. He seemed to live on bacon and fried potatoes, but he always had a coffee for me.
Trying to save a few dollars, I made my first big mistake by keeping the heat way down when I left. Every weekend I drove an hour and a half back to Athens, where I had friends. Then in January, the temperature sank to a record -20F. When I returned Sunday at dusk, a glacier of ice was crawling down the drive. A kindly neighbour got up cheerfully from his supper table and turned off the water main for me.
The pipes had blown over my “closet,” actually an open side of the hall, wrecking some of my clothes. The water heater never worked right again, chuffing in the night, threatening to explode. The pastor who owned the house came every Sunday to tinker until I gave up and showered at school.
The drywall in one bed nook remained a sodden mess, having soaked up the water like a vertical sponge during the flood. Good thing I knew nothing about black mould. And the mice ran everywhere from the crawl space. I tucked my white cat into bed with me so she wouldn’t run around the house all night.
I moved out in June, fortunate to find a couple of itinerant university jobs until I finally escaped to a permanent position in Northern Ontario. Not long after, the house was demolished.
In the cloistered nunnery, high on the top of a hill of leafy oaks, Sister D, our school librarian, lived. As I paged through The New York Times during my free period, I envied her.