As soon as my parents removed my midnight curfew, I began staying out until 5 a.m on the weekends. Less than a month into my new found freedom, I woke up one morning to find the want ads in front of my bedroom door with various studio apartments circled in highlighter.
“We can’t live like this,” my mom told me.
And so, I began to hunt for my first apartment.
I learned quickly that ‘studio’ and ‘efficiency’ are usually code words for ‘shit hole.’ Many of the apartment buildings that I visited had long dark hallways that stunk of ground beef on one end and curry on the other. The apartments themselves had stained carpeting and small windows. None of them were for me.
Then I found the perfect home. It had high ceilings and wooden floors and was located about three miles from my school. The windows were tall and arched at the top, making this place the first one I’d found that had any character. Best of all, it was in my price range.
There was one flaw, however. This perfect home was located in West Allis: birthplace of Jeffery Dahmer and home to an enormous amount of white trash.
I had already known about ‘Stallis trash. One of my friends had dated a guy who lived near our high school. Some days I would join her to hang out with him and his friends. Most of these boys had given up on high school and spent their days smoking weed. They wore baggy pants and named the bats that they used to beat people. Though these men treated me like a princess, I never quite adapted to the vocabulary switch of ‘gonna’ to ‘finna.’ I knew from the first day that I saw them drink from a beer bong labeled ‘white’s only,’ that hanging out with white trash would only be a phase for me.
I did, however, own a car that was slowly turning to junk. My dad nicknamed me “Anna Lead Foot” and my brother called me the curb commando. Both names were appropriate. Since I’d gotten my license and bought myself a car, I’d gotten three speeding tickets and had lost countless hubcaps due to curbs that seemed to appear out of nowhere. One might think that it’s only possible to lose four hubcaps from one car, but I’d gotten into the habit of pulling over and snagging any abandoned hubcaps I saw shining from a boulevard. At any given time, I might have hubcaps that boasted Acura, Mazda, or Honda from below my teal Plymouth Acclaim.
I figured that my car, with its mismatched hubcaps, would make me one step closer to fitting in while living in ‘Stallis.
Before I signed my lease, my mom recommended that I find a better job. I had been working about 12 hours a week as a part of the dietary staff at a retirement home. I found an Albanian-owned pizza place a mile from my house-to-be. Most of the employees had a hard time using English, and every day was like walking through an international airport, what with the Spanish, Lithuanian and Albanian being spoken. I was an 18 year-old US citizen. Though I had no waitressing experience, they hired me on the spot.
And so, I quit playing school sports and entered the world of working to pay rent.
Moving in my now apartment was thrilling. Many relatives had extra furniture and appliances. I inherited mismatched dishes and silverware, bathroom towels, a couch and loveseat, a kitchen table and chairs, a TV stand, microwave, and toaster.
I cleaned my new apartment before moving my furniture in. While wiping out the inside of my fridge I discovered a single photo-booth picture of a family of three, and in the crisper drawer I found what appeared to be several severed fingers in a baggie, but was probably just flesh-colored baby carrots. Probably. The inside of the fridge door had crayon scribbling on it, and I tried to think happy thoughts as I washed off the red, blue and purple crayon wax.
I mopped the floor more proudly than I ever had before. There was a flaw in the bedroom floor where the boards had dented in. I would later learn that two girls had previously shared this apartment, and one of them had thrown a dumbbell during a fight. However, while I was moving in, I just ignored the dent as I had the creepy fridge. After mopping it clean I decided to cover it with my bed.
My brothers helped me move in my furniture and I began settling in. I had a home.
I was the last of three kids to move out, but it didn’t take long for my parents to adjust to an empty nest. Every time I stopped back home, I found more changes done to what had been my room. There was a wooden panel that ran around the middle of the walls. My parents ripped off the ugly stripped wallpaper that had covered the lower half of my room and repainted it white. Total improvement. The next time I was home, my mother had used more white paint to add clouds to the blue upper half of my room. Then, she added wiggly green lines rising up from the floorboards and reaching towards the mid-level wooden panel.
“Grass?” I asked my mom. “Really?”
“I like it!” she replied.
When my parents moved their computers and bookshelves in, along with a pot full of fake pink flowers, the home I’d grown up in suddenly became my parents’ house and was no longer mine.
I had to adjust to my new neighborhood.
My new home was in an apartment building that had only three units, and my apartment was over a law office that was never open. Beside the law office was a former beauty parlor, and above that was my neighbor, a petite female who I rarely saw.
The third unit was a ground level apartment, and twice as big as my own. I had met Sherry on the day that I started moving boxes in. She had popped her head out of her front door as I passed by. “I was wondering when they’d rent that place!” She said. “Haiii. I’m Sherry.”
She wore sweatpants and a hoodie. She had round glasses and long unwashed blond hair. My mom and I paused, boxes in our arms, and introduced ourselves. She chattered on for a bit, and then, cued by our shifting and the readjustment of the boxes we held, she said, “Well I’m not doing anything right now. Need some help?”
She helped us unload boxes from my car and carry them up the stairs and into my apartment. And then she lingered, something I would become familiar with her doing.
I realized pretty quickly that Sherry could hear when I parked my car in my spot beside her kitchen windows. She frequently opened her front door to talk before I could slip up the stairway and into the safety of my own apartment.
“I thought I heard you coming in,” she’d say excitedly. “I was just coming out for a smoke.” She frequently used cigarettes as an excuse for going outside, yet her apartment was hot and stuffy and reeked of stale smoke.
Sherry had a Mexican husband who I never saw. “His name is Lucky,” she told me. “When I met him, I asked why he was named Lucky, and he said, ‘I’m in my fifties and I can get women in their twenties. That’s why.’ And he was right, cuz here we are, married with a kid, and I’m only twenty-two!”
Lucky and Sherry’s son had light brown skin and dark brown hair that was cut short, except for the rat’s tail that ran about four inches down his back. He seemed to be about two or three years old, but he hadn’t yet learned to speak. He’d stomp around in his diaper (the only outfit I ever saw him in) and bare feet, squealing at his mother who would chain smoke and ignore him.
My apartment building was located beside a pawn shop and across the street from a gas station. One day I heard a man yelling from the pawn shop lot as I climbed out of my car. “What?” I asked, walking slightly in his direction.
The man was leaning out of the window of his two-toned Lincoln and looking back at me. I could see a child’s car seat strapped into the back of his car. “You married?” He asked.
I let out a small laugh and shook my head.
“You got a man?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Oh. Can I be yo frien’ then? I like being frien’s with pretty ladies.”
“Um, I have a lot of friends already. Thanks.” I walked away from him and towards the apartment door where Sherry was waiting for me.
“I’m pregnant again,” she told me as a greeting.
She flipped her greasy hair over her shoulder and lit up a cigarette. Her son pushed against the back of her legs and grumbled. Sherry stepped aside and let her diaper-clad offspring step out onto the gravel.
I wanted to ask Sherry why she was smoking if she knew she was pregnant, but instead I pointed at her son and said, “Oh, did you paint his toenails?”
“Yeah. He likes it. He watches me do my nails and so sometimes I paint his too. A lot of people don’t like it cuz they think it’ll make him turn out gay. I think that’s stupid though. He ain’t gonna be gay just cuz I paint his nails red.”
I stood beside her, wondering when it would be okay to excuse myself and leave. Just then, a petite girl walked from the sidewalk to the door where we stood. She smiled, quietly said hi as she passed us, and went up the stairs to her apartment.
As she walked by, Sherry had straightened up and casually moved her cigarette-holding hand behind her back. After my neighbor disappeared, Sherry slumped back against her doorway and took a deep drag. “She’s amazing.”
“I’ve never really talked to her.”
“Her name is Jennifer, and she is a-maay-zing.”
“Um, yeah. She seems nice.”
“She’s so small and her boobs are so big. They’re real too.” Sherry paused and I stopped trying to fill the silence. “Ya know, before I was with Lucky, I had a little thing for girls.” She smiled at me, big enough that I could see the silver in her molars.
Though I almost never saw Jennifer, I did see her boyfriend a lot. She apparently didn’t like smoke, and her boyfriend was a total pothead. He’d hang out on the landing between our apartments getting his weed fix. Often times when I came home I couldn’t see the top of the staircase through the haze of smoke. I’d go upstairs and find him beside my door, offering me a puff of his blunt.
After spending about four months falling asleep to the sound of Jennifer and her boyfriend having loud sex, the two of them broke up. She showed up late one night banging at my door repeatedly with her petite fist.
“I’m so sorry to bother you. Mikey and I broke up, and he wants to stop over to pick up some things. I’m afraid that if I let him in, he’ll take my TV or computer or something. All he has here is, like, his scale and a few t-shirts. I was wondering if you could lock my apartment while I run this out to him, and then just let me in after.”
“Sure, no problem.” I locked my own door and followed her into her apartment, which was the exact opposite layout of mine and decorated in purple.
I stood quietly inside, pressing my ear against the wood and trying to listen for a fight. After a few minutes someone rapped on the door. “It’s just me,” Jennifer said. “Thanks.”
I walked back into my home, locking the door behind me.
When spring arrived, so did a lot of rain. The parking lot behind the pawn shop dented down, and the rain collected quickly in this tiny pavement valley. Whenever I left my home, this ginormous puddle was the first thing I saw.
One day, there were three boys standing in the parking lot. They were clearly brothers, and each of them had a matching blonde mullet. They were sharing two fishing poles and standing patiently around the puddle, which suddenly seemed quite small.
Soon after that, I met the father of the boys. The boys had obviously learned how to style their hair from their dad. He owned the small house beside my apartment, but he didn’t see home ownership as living the American dream.
“Do you have any idea how much I pay in taxes to own this piece-uh shit?” He asked me. I shook my head. “It’s a fucking fortune. The goddamned government can fuck themselves. Me, I wanna live in a trailer. THAT, is freedom. THAT, is the way to live. Just drive away whenever you wanna move.”
He continued talking and I partially listened. His wife wandered outside to do some gardening in tiny jean shorts and a bikini top. Her husband didn’t even glance at her as she bent away from us and dug into the dirt, but I couldn’t help but stare. She did not look like the mother of three, or like the kind of woman who would marry a man who wore a stained wife beater and drank can after can of PBR.
Around the same time I met some of Sherry’s friends. I had driven home from working a Saturday brunch shift and found a grill surrounded by a group of men. Sherry was the only woman, and she looked truly happy for the first time since I’d met her. It occurred to me just then that she was lonely.
As she trotted out to my car, she had the glow that many pregnant women get, but I wondered if it was from the baby inside her or the friends beside her home. She also had a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. “These are my friends! Sorry we took your spot. Can you park somewhere else for now? Then you can join us if you like.”
I drove around the block and found parking on the street. When I came back, several of the men inched their way towards me to investigate.
I talked to Sherry’s friend John for a while before going in to change my clothes. He had a tarantula tattooed on his neck, and I had recently gotten my “I’m 18” tattoo, so we had something to talk about. I wanted to get more tattoos, but I was on a tight budget. There were days when I could only afford to buy food for my cat or myself, but not both, and my cat always won. So forking over $70 or more for ink was unrealistic.
“I know a guy who does tattoos,” John said. “He used to work in a shop, but he said the owners ripped him off and he had to pay rent there. So now he just orders ink and needles directly and does tattoos out of his home.”
I was tempted. “Is it expensive?”
“Nope. It’s much cheaper than normal shops and he’s still making good money for himself.”
I was in.
About a week later I picked John up from his job at Goodwill. He directed me to drive deeper and deeper into ‘Stallis. The tattoo artist’s home was protected by a rusty chain link fence. Before we even entered I could hear static base and rap blasting out from a well-used stereo, and I recognized the band as Insane Clown Posse.
The kitchen had a table that took up most of the room. Though John had set up an appointment for me, a skinny Asian man was in the process of getting a back piece done. John offered me a seat, and I watched the ink on his back forming into a dragon before my eyes. Every time the Asian looked up from his chair I could see the tears in his eyes. I was always embarrassed to have caught him, and we’d both look away quickly.
The tattooist never introduced himself or asked for my name, but he talked and laughed frequently. After he finished outlining the dragon, he took a short break. I watched him walk to his fridge and grab a can of beer. I felt oddly calm as I watched him sipping his beer before jabbing a needle into my back. Perhaps I had adjusted to this city.
He saw me looking at him, and he twisted the can so I could see the label. “It’s nonalcoholic. I can’t have beer anymore. Not since the stroke I had last year.” He smiled and raised the can to his mouth. Only now did I notice that his hand was shaking. “Stroke. Crazy thing to have at 25. Well, ready for that tattoo?”
I’d like to say that I walked out and found a proper tattoo shop to get my new ink, but I knew I’d never be able to get a $20 tattoo anywhere else. So I let the shaking man design a rose and then tattoo it on my shoulder blade. It turned out pretty, even if the lines were a bit uneven.
About a month after I received my new ink, I moved to the east side of Milwaukee to start college. I drove my car, filled with boxes towards the dorms. I left behind several hubcaps, reflecting sunlight from the boulevards along with the litter of PBR cans.