One man's attempt at literacy

Tag Archives: Memoir

Oil. Black gold. Texas jitterbug juice. It seems like in today’s society, all of us are greatly effected in almost invisible ways by this sludge, whether it makes us yell at coworkers because, “The price of gas went up another 4 cents! It used to be cheaper than cola in my day! Grumble grumble gr!” or simply because we can’t live without imported mangoes year round. But for some of us, the effect isn’t just in the back of our heads; it is always palpable. One of these places where the entire landscape has been changed drastically because of recently accessible oil is in eastern Montana and western North Dakota.

Otherwise known as Murder Alley.

Murder Alley is a term my friend, Hannah, and I invented right before we were embarking on a road trip through the region. See, it turns out that when an oil boom starts, a lot of young men with few or no family ties go where the money is. This influx of young men means there will be a lack of women, children, and elderly permanent citizens who actually care about establishing a community. It’s basically like the cast of Animal House, only replace John Belushi with a disgruntled guy that works out all day and has no real incentive to be decent.

John Belushi in Animal House

Just replace those pencils with shanks and add some tattoos that say “Mama suxs” and you’ve got the ideal citizen of Murder Alley.

And thus we have the term Murder Alley (alternatively, you could call it Rape Lane, Arson Road, or Pushing-Old-Ladies-Down-Wells Boulevard).

As you could guess, my friend and I were super excited to go through there.

I was going to visit my then boyfriend in Fargo-Moorhead (Moorhead is the town in Minnesota that’s basically integrated into Fargo) — because long distance relations were in vogue back then, and I always stay trendy — and my friend was visiting family in Bismarck, so we both had great conviction when we embarked on this journey. We had a plan: we’d drive for nine or so hours, I’d drop her off, and then I’d complete the last two or three hours alone. Nothing could go wrong!

Unfortunately, apparently there was nothing good on cable that day, so God/Gaia/His Supreme Lord Spaghetti Monster decided it wouldn’t be that simple.

Five hours into the trip, we entered the outskirts of this aforementioned Murder Alley when my oil light mysteriously came on. My friend and I pulled over off the side of the road, which happened to be next to a dead end running perpendicular to the highway. Because we had left after work, it was already pitch black by then. Stars illuminated the sprawling plains eastern Montana and North Dakota are so famous for, a chill immediately hitting us as we exited the car. Hannah and I bundled up against the brisk Montana winter air and went out to check the oil level, but as I took out the dipstick Hannah whispered something.

“Greg,” Hannah quietly muttered next to me, warily looking behind us.

“Hrm?” I asked nonchalantly, focused on getting this done with as soon as possible.

Out of the corner of my sight I noticed her eyes wide as small cookies (which are, you know, wider than most eyes). “There’s a car there.”

I turned around, confused, when I saw it: forty feet from us, dimly illuminated by my headlights, was a dark car. No one stirred within it, no noise coming from the ghostly vehicle. In a time when you hear rumors of uncouth people feigning help only for their scraggly gang buddies to lunge out at potential helpers and steal their vehicles, seeing this deserted car off the side of the street seemed like an omen of doom — especially in a place we’d jokingly said would result in our untimely deaths. So Hannah and I did the only natural thing and pissed ourselves.

“Fuck shit!” I yelled as I put the dipstick back in and closed the hood, bolting back into the driver’s seat. Hannah was already in the passenger’s side, having deftly translated my exclamation of terror into its intended signal to flee.

We drove off back into the highway, catching our breath and trying to avoid cardiac arrest, when I noticed an acrid smell in the air.

“Do you smell that?” I asked my companion.

“Uhh, yeah,” she weakly said, her adrenaline beginning to pump again after it’s 4 second reprieve.

Before we could exchange anymore commentary, I noticed something else: ebony smoke, billowing forth from the front of my car. Quickly following this succession of terrible smell and terrible sight was a terrible sound, as my car’s engine imitated a dying hoard of kittens, a series of hissing mewls and grunts escaping its metal maw. The car stopped accelerating and I pulled off the side urgently, Hannah yelling a string of expletives rivaled only by Game of Thrones dialogue.

It was like this, only infinitely less climactic.

On account of the smoke, potential burning, and barely-avoided dismemberment, we forewent leaving our seats and checking the hood once more, opting instead to simply call a truck to take us to the nearest town (or maybe it’s more appropriate to call it a village), Glendive. Then we waited.

And waited.

We waited in my car for three hours, and it was quite apparent that, with my car’s engine going super nova, that we wouldn’t reach North Dakota anytime soon, much less our destinations past Murder Alley. So when the truck came, with a jovial, stereotypically small town driver,  we had him take us to a hotel that still used faxes as their primary form of electronic communications. We restlessly fell asleep, ready to spring awake and defend ourselves from rapscallions at any moment.

The next morning we waited as Hannah’s father came for us, and Murder Alley was almost behind us by midday. But when we finally got to Bismarck, I looked for another way to Fargo, only to discover the buses between Bismarck and Fargo were cancelled due to one of the blizzards so common in the area.

It seemed like I was doomed to fail, and my entire trip had been in vain. In fact, not only had I inadvertently blown up my mom’s car’s engine, but I was now almost-certainly stranded in Bismarck as the sixth wheel in my friend’s family get together. There remained one chance at salvation, though: two friends who lived in Fargo-Moorhead. I pleaded with them, begged them, to come and bring me back to Fargo, despite the danger. Ah yes, infatuation truly makes people super smart and selfless.

Space Aliens was a brief respite before impending doom.

They acquiesced, persuaded by my pitiful cries and offer to buy them dinner at a North Dakota staple, Space Aliens — basically Pizza Palace from Toy Story. After dinner, we set off into the raging blizzard, and I look back thankfully that I was blinded by love’s rosy shades, ’cause otherwise I would’ve been blind with pure terror.

If you desperately need to make a bowel movement, I suggest you drive through a blizzard in North Dakota. There are few times of extended horror that match driving in a North Dakota blizzard, where spectral semis appear next to you as you glide down the highway, only becoming visible as you get so close you could reach out and touch them. The flat plains of North Dakota turn into a never ending, time-sucking vortex during a storm, where the road seems to continue on and on forever. There are no turns, no stops, just a line that, after hours of silent snowfall, seems to extend infinitely.

We managed to arrive in Fargo safely, and I was dropped off in front of my boyfriend’s door. There was a moment of tired ecstasy; despite the blizzard, and the car engine melting, and the ever present danger of being taken prisoner by maligned miners, I had gotten to where I needed to. Soon I would be in the arms of my love. I had escaped Murder Alley!

He broke up with me as soon as I saw him.


I walked down the street in Clinton Hill, my hopes low. My stomach gurgled familiarly, demanding ice cream in penance for putting my psyche through such torture. The light was fading as the sun set, twilight silence engulfing the neighborhood where neither man nor beast seemed to be awake. I studied the buildings and the streets with attentive disinterest, the same way you might look at that thousand dollar dessert in Manhattan, knowing it was probably delicious but that you would never taste it unless you seduced a rich widow. And in the back of my mind, I remembered being in this same position one year ago.

I strolled across the south side of Prospect Park, enjoying the view of autumnal leaves cascading around me. I was on my way to Sunset Terrace to view a three bedroom. The meeting was in a half hour, so I might arrive a bit early, but I knew it’d offer me the perfect opportunity to surround what was, I hoped, to be my future neighborhood.

I casually took my phone from my pocket, completing another neurotic check to make sure I had the right address and time. As I searched for the email, a new one from the very man I was about to meet loaded. Confused, I opened it hastily.

The message was brief: “Hey Greg, we found someone to fill the room. Good luck!”

Well, crap. I turned around.

As I turned the corned I quickly saw the building I was heading towards. A young man in his 20’s was adjusting the blinds as I peered up, and our eyes met for a moment. He waved like he knew me as more than someone answering a Craigslist ad, and I waved gingerly back, knowing if I let myself feel any form of enthusiasm my hopes and dreams will be as crushed as when I discovered Santa was a farce.

Moving to the door, I pressed the buzzer. I bit my lower lip in nervousness like a teenage girl who had been asked to prom by the most popular boy in school but suspected it was just a ruse to get covered in pigs’ blood.

A few moments later, the door opened to the the same friendly man from before. “Hey, Greg? Nice to meet you.”

As I walked up the stairs to the house in Astoria, I began dialing the number I was given. As it rang a girl went to the window and looked at me briefly, before turning around. Through the glass I could hear a muffled, “Shit! He’s here already!” Then she fled from my view as I stood, baffled.

I waited five minutes in the dark, confused by what had happened, a constant inner monologue about whether I should leave or not. As I began walking down the stairs in bafflement, the door opened. The same girl I had seen earlier greeted me. “Oh, hi, Greg? I’m sorry, I just noticed your call, my phone was off…” 

Sure, tootsie.

She showed me the room, her words slurred and her footing wobbly, as three of her friends stood awkwardly in the kitchen, their voices a whisper as if they were afraid I was keeping track of what they were saying. As she took me back down the stairs into the living room she turned to me briefly and sputtered, “Okay, I have a confession; I’m a little wasted.”

Well, no duh.

“That’s fine,” I simply said. She stammered a bit more and introduced me to her friends who were also sloshed, and I feigned interest while mostly questioning my ability to get into these situations.

She turns to me and starts talking about the other guy who would be living there, and I feign interest as I prefer to actually meet someone. In her drunken stupor she insists on showing me his room even though he’s gone, and I appease her, fearing the wrath of a drunken event planner scorned.

She knocks on her roommate’s door briefly before opening the door. “Oops,” she happily stutters, a hiccup almost escaping her lips. She quickly closes the door of the other man who lives there and turns to me once more. “They’re in there.” I can only imagine what she saw.

At that point, I politely flee. A day later she offered me the place, but I decide I’d rather not live with the woman who seems to regularly get drunk on Tuesday and the guy who I first encountered when I almost walked in on him and his girlfriend.

“This is Phoebe, the other roommate,” the man explains as we enter the apartment on the second door, gesturing to a woman in her late 20’s eating a huge sandwich. She waves to me, her mouth full of meat and cheese.

The man, Josh, shows me my room, the bathroom, the living room, before we sit down with Phoebe. Everything is gorgeous, and, with the exception of my room being a bit small and lacking windows, it’s perfect. So perfect that I knew that, in the shadows, there must be something sinister lurking. There always is.

I sat in the apartment in Carroll Gardens, my legs going numb. The man on the couch with me continued talking, changing subjects like a stereotypical teenage girl debating what to wear. Four others stood in the room, too, listening to him talk, barely saying a word as they couldn’t keep up with his word diarrhea. Half of what he said wasn’t about the apartment or himself at all, but rather things like the pros and cons of Trader Joe’s or the effects of Celiac Disease.

As we were leaving, he somberly said, “What I’m looking for in a roommate is someone who is clean, nice, and, mostly, someone who can put up with my shit.” I turned without saying a word, knowing that I had no desire to handle anyone else’s shit.

Phoebe, Josh and I talked for 20 minutes — which might be about as much bonding as I did with my previous roommate after 3 months. Despite my gloomy nature at this process and the impending sense of doom I generally felt, I was actually hopeful.

We parted ways, both sides making it clear that we were interested in — to use as sterile of terms possible — interested in proceeding with this venture. I walked out the door, my heart uplifted at the prospect of living with sane people in a neighborhood I liked and an apartment that wasn’t haunted. I would hear back from them that night, they had said.

I waited for an email from the man in Prospect Heights, and when I opened it I was a little despondent; he said everyone he had shown had loved the apartment and a bidding war had erupted. But then, the silver lining; he had liked me more than any of them and would be happy to have me be his roommate if I would simply pay him $300 more per month than he had originally said I would.

I tensed, my reptilian brain slithering about, debating what to do. “$300 is a lot of money! … But it’s in Prospect Heights. But $300 is a lot of money! But he seemed cool. But $300 is a lot and this is probably me being a sucker. BUT I LIKE THE APARTMENT!”

In the end, I took the apartment, and my hunch that I had been a sucker was consistently reaffirmed. But that was coming to an end.

The email arrived 3 hours and 20 minutes after I had left. As it loaded my brain was in turmoil, a mix of fear, hope, hunger, anger, happiness, and zestiness clouding my thoughts.

The email started nicely enough, saying the pair had enjoyed meeting me and would like to have me as their new roommate but — at that word my stomach always lurches — their current roommate had decided to stay.

My head did a free fall onto the desk, my brain turning into a puddle of mush and seeping out of my ears, pooling into a formless mass in front of my face. After so many terrible run-ins I thought I had finally found freedom, only to be gunned down all the same.

And that’s why looking for an apartment makes me want ice cream.


(That sounds like a good movie title, right? The tagline I’m thinking for it when I sell my idea is, “This year, Halloween comes one day late.”)

On Thursday I moved into my new place, and I must say I have a bit of skepticism about this decision. The neighborhood is fine; a bit dirty, a bit crowded, a bit dark at night, but it’s New York. The apartment itself is very nice, and my room is so large I could play Twister in it without moving the bed — now I just need to find Twister buddies!

No, my anxiety comes from the building. See, there’s this little problem called

THE BUILDING IS FREAKING HAUNTED!!! Continue reading