March 1, 2020

The Year of Shitting Dangerously


“Oh God, I think the toilet’s about to overflow.”

            “What?” I called from the kitchen around the corner. Then I heard a light splash of fecal water hitting the bathroom floor.

            “Yeah, it’s overflowing.”

            Thing is, neither Morgan nor I had used the toilet that night. It just happened spontaneously. The pipes belched a few times, then the bowl began to fill with liquid shit and toilet paper. Twenty minutes later, again without provocation, raw sewage began backing up out of the drain in the tub. What’s more, the balcony—a big selling point for that apartment—was under six inches of water even though it hadn’t rained in over a week. And of course our frantic calls to the landlord went unanswered.

            It was not the most auspicious start for a new life in a new apartment and new neighborhood. The movers had just crammed all our belongings into the new place earlier that afternoon, and the bad omens were quickly piling up. First night there and already we had other people’s shit all over the bathroom.

            In the weeks before we moved we knew we’d made too rash a decision in renting the Bensonhurst apartment. We had a limited amount of time to find a new place, and we were getting desperate. All the other places we’d looked at had been nightmares in one way or another, so when we looked at a place that seemed clean, had a working furnace, and a balcony to boot (even though it looked out over a dry cleaners), we figured it was good enough, so we took it. Only upon closer inspection later did we see what a mistake that had been. It was about one-third the size of the place in Bay Ridge, the building’s front door could not be locked (which may explain all the security cameras and floodlights), the apartment only featured a single closet, electrical outlets were few and far between, and now that we had a chance to look around more closely, we saw just how filthy everything was, with a thin layer of oily grime covering the floors, the counters and the walls. That was before we knew about the state of the plumbing.

            The move itself remains a blur to me now. The days beforehand had been a panicked rush of trying to get everything into boxes. For three months we’d held out hope some last minute miracle would allow us to stay in the home we loved, but it finally became obvious that wasn’t going to happen.

            The woman who had moved out of the first floor apartment the day before us had simply dumped everything that didn’t fit into her car inside the front gate, leaving a mountain of garbage behind. I remember that mountain of garbage, and wonder who ended up dragging it to the curb.

            The movers showed up at eight sharp Tuesday morning and began lugging boxes to the truck. Knowing they would never fit in the new place, I pointed out five or six large pieces of furniture, telling the movers they should just leave those on the curb. When they’d finished hauling everything to the truck, I went to the new place with them while Morgan stayed behind to keep an eye on the cats and clean up. When everything had been hauled into the new place, I went back to Bay Ridge, we loaded up the cats, and headed for our new apartment. Once there, it was clear that despite everything we had jettisoned before the move, we had way too much crap to fit into such a small space. Making matters even worse, we discovered all those pieces of furniture I had asked be left behind were there in the new place, meaning we’d have to figure out how to drag them outside ourselves. But that would have to wait, given they were blocked by walls of heavy boxes. Two hours later the toilet overflowed. Things were not looking good.

            Every apartment has its share of quirks. Lord knows the place in Bay Ridge had plenty. This new Bensonhurst place, though, was just plain cockeyed down the line.

            Okay, starting outside. It’s a four story brick building with a sporting goods store on the ground floor. I’ve never lived above a store before, but am relieved to know I can just pop downstairs and pick up a basketball or jockstrap whenever necessary. While in most cases around New York, the stairs leading to the front door are perpendicular to the street and the sidewalk, here the stairs—and it’s a long flight of stairs—run parallel to the sidewalk, stretching up the side of the building like a fire escape before a sharp left turn at the top. I kind of like that arrangement, as it makes it very easy to find the building. Instead of counting gates or coming up with some other trick to find the right door, all I need do is hug the brick facade of the sporting goods store until I hit that long flight of steps.

            Once through the front door that doesn’t lock, there’s another short flight of steps to our second floor apartment. The staircases and landings are a little grubby and dim, but that’s okay. We’ve been told there are three other apartments in the building, but though I’ve heard voices and footsteps, I’ve yet to run into any of the neighbors. That’s okay, too. It didn’t give off the vibe of a building where the neighbors came to learn each others names.

            After I step through our apartment door, I immediately get lost. Even after living here nearly two weeks I still have no fucking clue how the rooms are laid out. Things veer off at weird angles and I find myself standing in the middle of rooms with no idea how I got there. I just follow counters and walls until I hit a chair or a doorway, and ad-lib from there. Once we get rid of a few more boxes it might get a little easier, but I don’t know. I’d spent plenty of time in that place when it was completely empty, and couldn’t find my way around then, either.

            As far as cockeyed goes, no single room here tops the bathroom, and it has nothing to do with the plumbing. The toilet may not be in the middle of the kitchen the way it was for so many friends living in Alphabet City back in the Eighties, but still. The door, for one thing, opens outward into the hall. Who the hell hangs a bathroom door to open out, especially when it’s adjacent to the apartment’s front door? The bathroom itself is all pink, which I didn’t know until Morgan pointed it out. Toilet, sink, tub, tiles, walls, all pink. I find that a little disturbing. Then the toothbrush holder and soap dish were both mounted on the wall over the sink about half an inch above the hot and cold handles, meaning you need to wriggle your fingers around and under them just to turn on the water. The shelves in the medicine cabinet are so narrow and so close together it’s impossible to keep a pill bottle in there without laying it on its side, which of course means it just rolls out every time you open the door. The toilet paper spindle is positioned above and behind my right shoulder as I’m sitting on the crapper, requiring a few contortionist moves every time I want to wipe my ass. And while in most cases the shower head would be arranged at one end of the tub or the other, here it emerges straight out of the middle of the wall, aimed across the bathroom at the opposite wall.

            Although when we first looked at it I assumed the apartment had hardwood floors, after a few days I started to notice that, unlike the Bay Ridge apartment, the floors never squeaked, there were no treacherous soft spots, and I’d yet to end up with a sliver in my foot. Only then did I bend down and actually feel the floors. They weren’t hardwood. In fact they weren’t wood at all, but a kind of wood-colored space age polymer—the same plastic fake wood used to replace the planks on the Coney Island Boardwalk a decade or two back. The same kind of plastic fake wood, Morgan noted, that emits a carcinogenic gas when it gets too warm.

            Instead of a backyard filled with trees and flowers and unexpected wildlife, the windows in the new place were half blocked by security gates, and boasted a view of a fire escape and a couple of blank-faced commercial buildings. There were no trees in sight, and certainly no unexpected wildlife.

            The kitchen was mostly fine, lots of counter, cabinet and drawer space, even if all the drawers were only an inch deep, severely limiting what could be stored in them. A few pieces of paper, maybe, or placemats if we owned any placemats. The refrigerator and stove were installed directly across from one another, meaning it was impossible to open the fridge door and oven door at the same time. It also looked like someone had physically attacked the fridge at some point, leaving several mighty dents in the door after leveling a few kicks at the offending appliance.

            The balcony, despite being underwater, was another nice touch, but when we first saw it (when it wasn’t flooded), we asked the landlord if he might have someone drag out all the junk left behind by the previous tenant before we moved in. There were some jagged panes of glass, a pile of sodden boards, a filthy and battered grill, some broken furniture, random construction debris wrapped in a tarp and, most notably, two electric kid’s bikes chained to the railing. As of this writing, they’re all still out there. Those locked up toys combined with the dented fridge, we thought, might provide a few clues to what we soon came to call The Dead Baby Closet.

            I mentioned above the apartment featured only a single closet. It was a relatively large walk-in closet, though it turns out not one big enough to hold all our clothes. But that doesn’t matter. First time we saw it during our initial visit there, we knew it was a sign of something creepy and sinister.

            It was the only place in the apartment that featured carpeting. There was no light in there. And when we stepped inside, we found that against the far wall there sat a metal folding chair. A metal folding chair in a far corner of a walk in closet? Our initial guess was the closet had been used as a time out room, likely for the kid to whom the bikes belonged, a place to punish him after he attacked the fridge. But that was the most innocent of our guesses. Was the carpeting used to muffle the screams? We knew nothing about the previous tenants. Had they kept one of their kids in that closet for months, maybe years at a time? After we moved in, we noted it was always twenty degrees colder in that closet than it was in the rest of the apartment. The cats were both fascinated and terrified of that space, growling at it when the door was closed, darting in whenever it was open, then running out again, eyes wide with panic. So were we now going to have to deal with the ghosts of the children who had been tortured and killed in there before we moved in? Was the plumbing nightmare merely the first overt evidence of the coming Amityville Horror scenario?

            Well, whatever.

            The landlord got back to us the next morning about the plumbing, and two plumbers showed up about an hour later. By that afternoon, all the problems seemed to be resolved. Even the balcony had been drained. But the next morning about twenty minutes after I got out of the shower, we heard a great belch deep in the pipes, and the toilet erupted again, though this time it didn’t overflow. This began happening every two or three days. We mentioned it to the landlord, who didn’t seem all that concerned. Something gave us the sinking feeling this might well be one of those things we’d just have to live with for a year. Thank god we’d only signed a one-year lease. At least randomly erupting toilets were better than going weeks without heat in the middle of winter the way we had at the old place.

            “We’ve gone from shabby to seedy,” Morgan noted on our second or third day here. It was about as perfect a description of our new environment as I could imagine. But you know, I can’t say as I mind much.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.