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The joys of off-campus housing

Around 1965, just after Tech built South Hall, students were required to live in the dorms---unless, of course, you did something monumentally evil, like shredding someone's door in West Hall with a half-stick. (No one was in the room at the time, fortunately.)

I didn't really mind dormitory life at first. South Hall was alive with wonderful, strange, new music. People from all over the country brought their regional favorites to supplement the ubiquitous Beatles, Doors, and Stones. After growing up in Hobbs, starved for musical variety, the dorm was great---a continuous smorgasbord.

The stereo wars went on day and night, and people spent a lot of time, money, and energy building up their sound systems. There was always a lot of wrangling about what album to put on. In my room, we made it into a game. We had a house rule: anyone can veto any musical selection at any time. If someone complained about something you were playing, you had to take it off and then try to find something that was so compelling that no one could possibly complain about it.

People who played this game worked hard to build a collection of killer albums so they would always have a few trump cards to play when guests were getting picky. I've noticed that most of these killer albums (like Jimi Hendrix, for example) are still in print, and a lot of them have been reissued on CD. Most of the ones that people complained about (like Ultimate Spinach) are forgotten now.

A lot of people in my age group claim that the music of the late Sixties is better than modern music. It's hard for me to evaluate this, though. I love that music a lot, but it's hard to be sure why. Was it really great, deathless music, or do I love it because it brings back pleasant memories of things we were doing when that music was on? Also, I think every period has great music, but as you go further back in history, you don't see all the crap from that era that everyone has forgotten. Nobody remembers Ultimate Spinach anymore. This makes the classic music of every era look better.

When I lived in South 205, unless everyone was dead or gone, there was always music on. We got four night-owls together in our suite and moved all the beds into 207 and all the desks into 205. That way, we could keep whatever hours we wanted. The back room was always quiet and dark except for major parties, when we would slave the back-room stereo to the front room's using a cable that went through the wall.

With four peoples' random hours, our room was usually busy day and night. In those days the canteen was open around the clock, and there were always some folks awake in the small hours. It seems to me that there are fewer night-owls nowadays.

Somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to sleep through the stereo wars, like when the front room was playing "Led Zeppelin II" at 110 db so they wouldn't have to listen to the clowns playing Ultimate Spinach on the other side. So I had to move off campus just to get a decent night's sleep. I was also looking forward to getting away from cafeteria food and cooking for myself. Also, by this time Tech was also encouraging upper-division students to move off campus because they were short of rooms.

Two friends of mine were looking for a third roommate in a three-bedroom house that rented for $90. This was a lot of money back then. (After a couple of years living there and paying $30 a month, I was really incensed when I moved to the Bay Area and a cheap one-bedroom apartment cost $150---a fivefold increase in rent! Of course, that same Santa Clara apartment is a "condominium" now and sells for $300K.)

It's hard to believe that a $30 rent could be a bad deal, even at 1969 prices, but this house was a bad deal. Our cheerful, wacky landlord was an older gentlemen I'll call "Slummie Lord." He lived in Albuquerque and tended to show up sporadically on weekends. Slummie had a whole row of low-grade properties that were so wretched that only students would live there. He had originally built them where the bypass is now, so that when the bypass went through he could collect on the condemnation, move the houses, and rent them again.

In our house, we always smelled gas in the winter, and we had a lot of headaches. We suspected that the gas heaters were not working right. In theory, the vent pipe for a gas heater should be double-walled and both sections should go well above the roof. This heater vent was double-walled, but one day we took a closer look and found that the outer wall stopped at the ceiling, and the inner wall was half-rotted, so running the heater pumped a lot of carbon monoxide into the ceiling.

Slummie was a stupid, rude man. When two women lived in the house next door, one of them came out of her bedroom one Saturday morning to go the bathroom and found him sitting on the can, with the door open. He didn't even bother knocking, just let himself in and made himself at home. He didn't even understand why she was ready to kill him.

Another morning he knocked and the door was answered by a very well-built woman who was wearing only a man's shirt, unbuttoned. He was standing on the ground and she was at the top of the steps. She snapped, "What the hell do you want?" Poor Slummie's jaw dropped so fast he almost broke his mouth. He stammered, "I'll be back later," and fled.

At the other end of our little six-house student ghetto was a very popular house where three of my friends lived. Their girlfriends were there most of the time too. One morning after a dance, when the members of the band had crashed on the floor the previous night, Slummie showed up, observed the vast pile of bodies, and remarked, "How many people live here, anyway?"

This was a fun house. They had an excellent sound system and a fabulous record collection. The policy was that whoever was closest to the stereo when a record ran out had to pick another album to put on. Whenever a record was about to run out, you could see the residents starting to edge away from the turntable so they could stick one of their guests with the duty.

When the famous Socorro bon vivant Larry Boucher started selling waterbeds at the low price of $60, pretty soon everyone had one. I was skeptical about them at first, but then I noticed that all my lower back problems went away when I slept on one. (I still prefer waterbeds.) I was worried about their ruggedness, so when the first one was set up, I stood in the living room, shouted "gangway!" and took a running jump onto the middle. The waterbed held up just fine, but in retrospect, I'm kind of amazed that the floor itself survived; I was pretty heavy even then.

All three of the people in this particular house bought king-size waterbeds. A filled king-size waterbed weighs about a ton, and all three waterbeds wound up along one outside wall. One of the residents was wondering how the building was holding up, so they went and looked, and noticed that the plaster on the outside wall was buckling and in some places was several inches away from the wall. They looked underneath the house and were shocked to find that there was no foundation on that side; the nearest support was twelve feet inside the wall.

Fortunately, they moved out not long after that. They pumped all the water out the window. One of the beds was full of water dyed red with food coloring, and the hose spewing red fluid looked a little strange to Slummie. He asked what was going on. "We're emptying our waterbeds." He walked about ten feet, stopped, and looked back. "What's a waterbed?"

Slummie's places were never known for their solid foundations. Our place didn't have a real foundation, just piles of cinder blocks holding up the joists. The gas line came out of the ground and ran along, propped up on scattered piles of broken cinder blocks, up to the place where it went into the house. If the house had shifted on the flimsy foundation, the gas line would probably have ruptured.

During the Great Cold Snap of January, 1971, when the high temperature for the week was ten below, we had the only running water in the neighborhood, because our toilet had a steady leak that kept the pipes open. At the end of the week, I looked into the crawl space under the bathroom and found that a solid column of ice had grown around our leak, about twelve feet in diameter. That was probably the only time the house was on a solid foundation.

Even when it wasn't twenty below, our house was always cold. At one point we pulled off a sheet of paneling in the living room to do some modifications to the wiring and found that there was no insulation in the walls---nothing between the paneling and the outer wall. Next time Slummie was in town, we took him to task about this. His reply was a masterpiece of slumlord logic.

"Well, this friend of mine, he had him a house over across town, and he put his insulation in the walls instead of the ceiling. Place was always colder than hell. I did some research and found out that 90% of your heat loss is through the roof, so when I built this place, I put the insulation in the roof, and you ought to thank me for it!"

Some years after I moved away, one of the old crowd saw an article in "Parade" magazine about Slummie. There was a picture of him under someone's kitchen sink, brandishing a pipe wrench. It seems he was involved in a program to help senior citizens keep busy by helping out on home repair. I found this concept fairly mind-boggling, but then came the capper: they mentioned that before Slummie was retired, he had been a federal dam inspector.

Gives you a lot of confidence, doesn't it?

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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2000/11/05 20:11:16