The smell of fresh paint always takes me back to my first apartment in Washington, D.C., a three-room efficiency in a squat brick building that hissed like a radiator after a summer rainstorm.
Somehow, I’d convinced my parents that living off campus would be cheaper my junior year. Maybe it was. But it was my yearning for a solo shot, a chance to prove my growing independence from them in a way I didn’t feel was possible living in the dorm, that propelled me into that second story walk-up, where the smell of pizza wafted in from the tavern next door and unneutered tom cats yowled and pissed in the alley at night.
Three rooms—a large living space, which doubled as sleeping quarters when the sofa bed was pulled out, a small, bright kitchen with built-in island cupboards, and a 1940’s pink and black tiled bath—were all I had, but after sharing a 10×15 dorm room, they were more than enough.
My first project was to spruce up the kitchen. Those lovely built-in cupboards with glass-paneled doors, where a lonely war bride might have displayed her heirlooms, now lay under multiple layers of grime and cheap white paint. Over the years, through age and neglect, they’d become the furniture equivalent of Miss Havisham’s wedding gown.
I sanded those cupboards for hours without a mask, taking in the pungent smell of old paint (along with any number of carcinogens) until I hit bare wood – oak, I think – which released, like a cracked geode, the treasure hiding inside. Thirty years gone in one last swipe.
Somewhere in the heady smell of chemical stripper, new paint and fresh wood, I found my vintage counterpart. Betty stood where I’m standing, I’m sure, in her checkered pinafore apron with shoulder ruffles, smoothing stray hairs that had fallen from her Victory Rolls, worn in solidarity with her fighter pilot husband’s whirling maneuvers. She flipped through ration books at a table like mine and planned meals from a Betty Crocker cookbook. Fantasy bridged reality when I bought my own Betty Crocker cookbook, a 1970’s edition for women on the verge of great change. That January in 1973, as liberated women throughout the country cheered the victory of Roe over Wade, I planned elaborate dinners and hung cheerful blue plaid wallpaper that reeked of Barbie dolls, thinking about a future that might be more.
My mother was an excellent cook, so I knew how good meals were created. But thumbing through that three-ring cookbook, I felt like a magician. Put this with that, mix, bake and – presto! – dinner. I embarked on my culinary journey page by page, making everything from yeasty bread and rolls to beef stroganoff and turkey tetrazzini. All this with no dishwasher, no disposal, no microwave. Dishes piled up on the built-in drainboard of the large porcelain sink, and the roaches that were an integral part of DC apartment living had a ball. None of it mattered. I was fearless.
Kitchen done, I unleashed my inner designer on the living room. Hardwood floors and solid-core doors made for good bones. Radiators hid behind decorative pierced metal screens. Double-hung windows with original cotton sash cord were solid and actually worked. The place had some interesting features, and I wanted to do it justice.
But instead of playing up the vintage charm, I decided on a more eclectic approach. My generous grandmother had offered to pay for an area rug, so I splurged at the high-end Swedish furniture store and chose a contemporary hairy one that was hard to clean, but boy did it anchor the room. A few more carefully chosen pieces, and my little efficiency looked like The Biltmore.
Don’t ask when I had time to study. Somehow I squeaked through my junior year and suddenly it was summer. I’d decided to stay and work a hostess job at Wolffie’s, one of the city’s popular steakhouses. It wasn’t long before my manager decided it was really waitresses he wanted, so I was involuntarily reassigned. I’d been the Perle Mesta of hostesses, but I was a terrible waitress, dropping trays, griping when I didn’t find a tip after serving a large party (they’d put it on Amex), forgetting who had the vinaigrette.
The best part of my day was coming back to my three rooms on Macomb Street, but not before stopping by the Zebra Room on the corner for an iced mug of Rolling Rock. I savored each swallow of that mellow lager in the days before IPA’s and forgot the noisy kitchen where I’d just watched a bead of sweat hang precariously off the tip of the chef’s outsized red nose. That sort of thing was probably going on in the Zebra Room kitchen, too, but hey, I was Mary Tyler Moore drinking beer after work in the big city. Who cared!
Over the years, the Zebra Room would become a DC institution, home to politicians, artists, writers, and intellectuals. But in the early 1970’s, it was a dimly lit, smoke-choked dive frequented by college students, professors and working folk like me, nursing a beer for hours or devouring a half price pizza so large it forced elbows off the sticky place mats. Waitresses with high hair who knew what they were doing zipped like baseballs from table to kitchen and back. (I always made sure to leave a large tip in cash on the table.) The zebra theme was played out in black and white striped wallpaper and zebra knickknacks over the bar. A hammerhead shark on one of the walls broke with the theme. It hung in tribute to the owner’s son who caught it and was later killed in a Beltway accident.
I rarely drank my beers inside, choosing instead to watch the Macomb Street parade from one of the Zebra Room’s rickety patio chairs. But one time, engaged in a lively conversation with a friend in one of the restaurant’s red vinyl booths, a customer who had been sitting nearby came over and handed me a drawing he had just sketched. I was surprised to see myself rendered in graphite, talking wildly with my hands, and looking exactly how I felt at the time – energized, hopeful and happy.
One day, after releasing my inner outlaw and downing two mugs of beer at the Zebra Room, I came home early to find my landlord easing out of my apartment with two strangers in tow. Did I see that right? Was I at the wrong apartment? Were two beers all it took to induce hallucinations?
“Well, helloo there, Miss, didn’t expect you home so early.”
Ross Grammer, a middle-aged man with a southern drawl, stood within handshake distance, close enough for me to smell his lemony aftershave, but he couldn’t bring himself to look me in the eye. Thick in the middle and narrow on top, he reminded me of a frayed lampshade. Something that had served nobly for years but now needed replacement. I’d always thought favorably of him because he rented to blacks in the early 1970’s. I wanted to think he was enlightened by personal belief instead of federal law, but I wasn’t naïve about that. Like most men of his generation, he was clearly endowed with the perks of white male privilege and, as I was about to find out, a loose regard for personal boundaries.
I watched as he hastily locked my door. “You’ve done such a nice job with the place—just wanted to show the folks what can be done with a little paint and polish. Don’t mind, do you?”
I was flabbergasted. He’d been using my little efficiency like a model home to attract potential renters! I couldn’t believe it. What a violation of trust. What disrespect. I wanted to scream, but my mouth, locked behind clenched teeth, wouldn’t move. Where was Mary Tyler Moore when I needed her?
I’d like to say I tore into him, but it was Betty, not Mary, who finally spoke. “I’m flattered you like my apartment, Mr. Grammer, but please don’t go in there again without my permission.”
“Oh, no, no, Miss. It was a mistake. Never again.”
And with that, my shameless landlord and the two strangers marched single-file down the long dark hall, through the contrasting fragrances of roast chicken, deep-fried fish, and garlicky spaghetti sauce emanating from my neighbors’ apartments. I heard the street door slam just as I was opening my own.
Everything inside looked fine, nothing disturbed. Still, as I put together the ingredients for chicken noodle soup, hoping to relax into its buttery aroma, I felt violated. Grammer had a key. He knew when I came home. He could come in any minute. Maybe it was time to find a new apartment.
By spring 1974, as Watergate was crashing all around us, I was in another brick building, a mirthless high-rise off Wisconsin Avenue. Instead of walking up a flight of stairs, I descended to a basement flat with all the modern conveniences and none of the charm. It was nothing like my old place, except for an alley I could see if I craned my neck and looked up at the tiny window where sunlight made an appearance only a short time each day.
By that time, I had a yowling cat of my own, a female brown tabby with a raccoon tail, who came and went as she pleased through the bars of that high-set window. She prowled the alley, and who knows where else, because she’d been a stray, an independent-minded girl set in her ways. I watched her slink, belly low, and dart from one side of the alley to the other, weaving between smashed trash cans and padlocked bicycles, head up, ready for anything. I didn’t like letting her loose like that, but I knew I couldn’t hold her back. All I could do was study her grace and admire her sure-footedness in an unsteady world.
—-About the Author—
Michele Rappoport is a writer and artist who splits her time between Arizona and a hill on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies. Her writing has appeared in various literary journals, including Delmarva Review, High Desert Journal, Boston Literary Magazine, The Centifictionist, and Art in the Time of Covid-19, an anthology of pandemic writing and art. She is also a certified small animal massage therapist who teaches classes at animal shelters.