Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Home before dark

As the days in Mason City dwindle, I’m concluding that the dumpster is what I’ll really miss about the apartment building where I’ve lived for about 12 years (can’t remember exactly how long and don‘t especially care). One of life’s luxuries is being able to throw away what you want when you want. That’s hard to do when the garbage truck comes only once a week and its crew ignores big stuff.

Say you want to throw something big away at midnight. With a dumpster, it’s a breeze. Sick unto death of recycling no matter how good it is for the environment? Into the dumpster it goes (but please, not too often; recycling is good!). No limit on the amount that can be thrown (I’ve filled the dumpster at least three times in recent weeks). Set stuff beside the dumpster and most likely someone will drive or walk by and take it home (a dead lawn mower hauled up from Chariton last weekend lasted 30 minutes). You’re not even being wasteful. Our dumpster is patrolled by divers who slice open every bag and remove anything useful. It’s a win-win situation.

Affection for the dumpster does not mean that this has not been otherwise a good place to park myself and my stuff --- it has. As King Lemuel said, “Who can find a virtuous landlord? for his or her price is far above rubies” (Proverbs 31, sort of ). I’ve had one of those. The building is immaculately maintained. Anything goes wrong, it’s fixed immediately.

This also is an older building, dating from the 1960s or 1970s. That means it’s well built, the rooms are large and light and the closets, magnificent.

Some probably would find the view discouraging. Built when apartment buildings were constructed in town rather than in clumps in former cornfields at the edge, it was squeezed sideways onto a deep lot. That means neither front has a good view. The west front faces our parking area with the rear of First Christian Church beyond; the west front, the side of the house next door. So the focus in these apartments generally is in rather than out, blinds partially closed, and that’s not necessarily good.


Actually, I didn’t plan to stay here long. I moved from Thompson to Mason City for a variety of reasons, including the increasing impracticality of an 80 mile daily round trip, the departure to another job and city of a congenial friend and commuting partner who had made the treks pleasant and more practical, and late-night encounters with deer --- three of them.

I was thinking a house eventually, lawn and garden spot again. Once here, however, circumstances changed and I began to spend my free time on the road or elsewhere, mostly Chariton. It became obvious quickly that a pleasant and reasonably-priced apartment a block from the office was the best place for me to be during the Mason City work week, and here I am still --- for a few more days.

Some question the good sense of apartment dwellers, but there are advantages: Someone else pays the taxes (although you contribute indirectly) and puts on the new roof, someone else foots the bill when a major appliance or other vital component of the establishment bites the dust, someone else removes the snow and maintains the lawn, someone else worries --- you write the checks and get on with life.

The nature of the tenants has changed over the years. When I moved in, an apartment was hard to find in Mason City. That’s no longer the case. Most of the people who lived here then had been here a while. A lovely sister affiliated with the chaplaincy program at Mercy Hospital was senior tenant. The late and lamented Don, badly injured when he was hijacked and beaten in another small city, lived next door. It was a little like moving into a neighborhood and we all knew each other.

As the years passed, tenants have come and gone more quickly, rarely lasting more than a year nowadays. I’ve been here longer than anyone else.


There have been surprisingly few problems. For a couple of years, the family upstairs (with two children) included a husband challenged in the fidelity department. I learned a good deal about infidelity from those two. While so far as I know they were never physically violent to each other, at fairly regular intervals the yelling and door-slamming would begin (and this is a solid building, so the yelling was really loud) late at night, the verbal battle would move into the foyer and then onto the sidewalk as screamed accusations and denials continued. Finally, the husband would drive away, spinning tires in the gravel, but he always came home. They were nice people, but I wasn’t exactly sorry to see them leave.

For a brief period (a month at the most), an active little drop-in shop for those in the market for controlled substances apparently operated in the apartment across the hall; and some years later, we had a very short-lived methamphetamine lab --- or at least I think that was what it was (I’ve led a sheltered life in many respects). I can’t imagine what else that awful eye-watering, lung-busting stench could have been.

The aforementioned Don set his kitchen on fire once, but because Mason City has a very efficient fire department and this building has fire walls and fire doors, there was no damage beyond his apartment. That’s about as exciting as it got here during my tenure.

For some time, Mercy Medical Center leased two of the apartments as temporary homes for Des Moines University (an osteopathic medical school) students working as interns. Most were quiet and worked long hard hours. A few were brats --- enough so to cause you to wonder about the future of medicine.


Mormon missionaries --- a succession of young men adding up to four at all times, mostly from the West and sometimes pretty homesick --- occupied one of the apartments of a few years. They were wonderful neighbors and fun to have around.

They also offered quite bit of food for thought. Two of the missionaries stopped by once formally to inquire about my interest in the LDS approach to faith and life. Although I am not Mormon I speak Mormon, so we had a good talk. And that was that.

But those nice young men were the only people other than the nun who was here when I arrived who expressed any interest at all in the spiritual welfare of the occupants of this building.

I always thought that was odd, considering the fact we’re jammed up against the ass end of First Christian, a diminishing congregation in a big building where I sure the bills accelerate as the collection-plate total declines. First Christian has never shown the slightest interest in any of us, and apparently no one else in the neighborhood either. I wonder if they’d be alarmed if someone from the hood dropped in for a service.

That church got on my nerves, too, because it was the only property in a neighborhood where many handicapped people, elderly people and poor people live where the sidewalks never were cleared in winter. Everyone else managed.

Congregations sometimes wring their hands about declining membership and continuing LDS growth. Here are two ideas: Shovel your sidewalks and knock on doors.


This is a mixed neighborhood on the fringe of what’s left of downtown Mason City (big chunks of of it cleared many years ago to make way for a mall and parking lots) --- some nicely maintained single-family homes, some nice apartment buildings like this one, others not so nice, some smaller single-family homes. The North Iowa Transition Center is nearby and owns apartments in the neighborhood. That agency specializes in supervised independent living arrangements for folks with difficulties --- mental illness, dependency issues, etc. --- so there have been others besides me who walk around talking to themselves some days.

The late Cleo lived in the building just south of us for a while. Mentally challenged and with a huge drinking problem, Cleo usually rode a bike, swearing loudly, making obscene gestures. We were used to him and forgot most of the time to find that offensive. Also prone to setting fires accidentally, he eventually died in a house fire.

Another guy rode his bike around town a lot dressed in a clown costume and full makeup, falling off occasionally because he was prone to seizures. When the scanner call came through, “Man down in clown suit,” we knew it was Donnie.

There have been people in this neighborhood so badly handicapped they could barely wobble --- the lovely woman with what I suspect is multiple sclerosis pushing her own grocery cart for support to and from Fareway, the youngish guy confined to a wheelchair, also headed to and from Fareway, flanked by two young children ready to push if he got hung up. The youngish woman, nicely dressed and dignified so long as she remembered to take her medicine; frazzled and incoherent when she didn’t. Such courage --- just to keep moving.

Live here for a while and pay attention and you soon learn that your own problems, which you sometimes imagine are big ones, pale by comparison.


I’ve always felt safe here, walking the block home from the office between 11 p.m. and midnight for years. Only called the cops once --- when I encountered a young drugged-up guy who had been wandering the neighborhood for a few days trying to kick in First Christian’s basement windows.

I’m not sentimental about this place, nor will I miss it or anyone who lives here now. But it’s been good shelter, refuge from a few storms and a good observation post.

I’ve been here long enough, however, and am anxious to get home before dark from now on.


Ed Abbey said...

An excellent post. We recently started renting an apartment in Des Moines for my wife to use during her residency. When we discussed doing so, I thought a lot about you and your commute from Chariton to Mason City and thought that we will have it easy commuting back and forth between Des Moines and Fairfield.

Frank D. Myers said...

I've usually enjoyed the driving --- given a few more skills (like backing up, never a strong point) I think I'd have made a good OTR trucker. The deer, however, I've minded more and more as the population grew; another good reason to be home before dark. Travel mercies for Mrs. Abbey. Every time I make the trek I'm amazed at how much easier it is now to get from Des Moines to S.E. Iowa.