Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Your Neighborhood Librarian Has a Monkey on her Back

Oh my god. Here's a saga. The worst kind of saga, really, because a good saga, a really good kind of saga would have some heroes, swords, boats... or maybe it would be a family saga, with adultery and illegitimate children, sweeping landscapes, sunsets, horseback riding, estates handed down.

There would be Kim Cattrall with brown hair (still on her back though I see) and Don Johnson in a ponytail wig. OMG that's who Coach Taylor looks like! Don Johnson! Wow.

But this isn't that kind of saga. No, this story I am sad to say is not the kind of John Jakes melodrama that happens to Randolph Mantooth and Delta Burke, nope. It is instead the kind of saga that happens to you and me, the saga about something that needs to happen but that just... doesn't happen. Something that needs to get done that just... somehow cannot become done.

A thing that is like that square wheel on the wheelbarrow, the worst wheelbarrow ever manufactured - who makes a wheelbarrow with a square wheel I ask you? You push it and push it and it is just never going to roll. It is a story of Fuck You I am Going to Place a Bomb Under You and You Will Move THEN Won't You You Piece of Shit.

Like that.

It's about an old sofabed. Not about Vikings or Forsytes, no, not about bastard children or kidnapped ranis. This is about a bastard couch. One that won't go away.

Your Neighborhood Librarian Gets on the Couch

All right so my old couch, we had that couch a long time. Since... about since Bob moved in with me. I'm going to go ahead and say 1997. He might not. Before that, I had a blue velvet couch, synthetic blue velveteen flocked with tiny fleurs-de-lis, that I'd inherited from my ex-boss at a company that published medical textbooks.

It was pretty awful. That couch was... I was almost proud of that couch being so awful. I was happy that I was the kind of person who had a hand-me-down couch from her ex boss who clearly had NO TASTE. But it was a couch and you could sit on it. You could even sleep on it, as many many friends would attest if they were still my friends. Different story.

Eventually I hated it too much though, and I went into Jennifer Convertibles in New York City and bought a floor sample sofabed in an extremely unpleasant brown and brown brocade. Brown and brown with maybe a little weak green. It had a sheen to it, that brocade. Unpleasant.

Baby, husband, cat. 2001, Brooklyn.

But we had the couch. Very deep couch, I'll say that. Comfortable to sit on. In a small apartment you live your life on the couch. We ate our meals sitting on that couch, watched Buffy. The first pictures of our baby were on that couch, our old baby that is. That means that we watched New York One in September of 2001 on that couch too. But let's focus on the baby.

And then we moved to Baltimore, brought the couch with us. Bought a house, had another baby. Bob's mom came for a visit and we wanted her to have a little more support when she sat, so I found out how to re-stuff the cushions, I bought batting and did that whole little project, plumped them back up real firm. Couple of years later I did it again because - oh I'm telling you, I'm never going to buy a couch with down cushions again. Down smushes.

Soon enough, though, the upholstery of the couch started to get really frayed. That brocade wasn't as durable as one would have thought, given how ugly it was. I mean that.

[Here I whistle Rhapsody in Blue for a while. I recorded this story driving to A.C. Moore to buy a giant block of wax because I was going to make wax hands for our school's Film Club's 90 Second Newbery Award Film Festival entry, Dead End in Norvelt. One of the main characters dips her hands in molten wax to loosen up her arthritic joints and this causes the protagonist to faint, which is a scene we cannot not film, but there's no way I'm directing a fourth grader to stick her hands in hot wax. So I'm doing it myself. Coating a pair of work gloves in wax so that the kid can put them on and pretend to have just boiled her hands in wax. I think my interlude of whistling Gershwin might have been me reckoning whether this was, in the words of the Bard, a Good Idea? Or not.]

So I went to a... you know, I used to research the crap out of stuff. When I think of the trouble I used to go to... anyway I found this warehouse that sold remaindered upholstery material, and I went there with my mom and looked at all their huge bolts of fabric and jeez louise upholstery fabric is so awful, isn't it? Oh my god it's terrible. None of it is any good. That brown-on-brown brocade, we learned, after looking at fourteen hundred bolts of ugly fabric, that brown brocade was pretty darn nice.

Anyway, I picked out a fabric. It had frogs on it. Yep. And we had a slipcover made. And because this is waaaay beyond any kind of expertise of mine, we asked the guys at the fabric place to recommend someone who could do this, and so this awesome little tiny old Portuguese guy with the biggest shears you have ever seen in your whole entire life came to our house and measured the crap out of the couch, every little nook and cranny, and with his huuuge shears, I mean the kind of shears that could snip the head off a baby, cut up the pieces of fabric and took them away with him.

And then for almost as much as we paid for the couch in the first place, we had a very durable custom slipcover with a pattern of frogs on it. Very nice. Very happy with that slipcover. And we had that couch, sitting under its slipcover of frogs, for many years.

In fact, that couch is kind of central to the identity of another project I am involved with. The key image of that project is always the kids and me or their friends or relatives sitting on that couch reading.

Illustration by Todd Brizzi

But eventually, like everything, the couch had to die. The couch got to the point where if your head accidentally clonked back against the back, it was like hitting a railing, because all of the padding was gone from the arms and from the back. And short of taking it all apart and repadding it, there was no way to resurrect it. And it was a sofabed and we didn't need a sofabed anymore. And the slipcover was getting bald and faded and shiny too.

So the kids and I went to a furniture store - hate furniture stores, oh my god I always end up feeling so ripped off. And just... picked out a couch. Like, it kind of took us less than 45 minutes, we walked around and sat on a hundred couches and went like, "Yeah. This one, fine." I mean, it's kind of funny. It took me four years to decide that the green I wanted for the living room walls was the right green, and longer than that to find just the right coffee table, but couch? I was like, 'arms and a back, check; seat, check; not made out of chipboard, SOLD.'

Of course the floor model had a price on it, $728, and we sat down and we looked at all the fabric samples and the books and compared the bla and the bla, and the guy came back and he was like, "$1900."

And I'm like "What the...? How does that happen? Okay you're going to try to charge me a hundred dollars for delivery, but where does the rest of this come from? I am not actually asking you to cover this thing in woven platinum strands, you know. What is that floor model upholstered in? What do you want to to tell me? That that's not actually upholstered, you just kind of wrapped it up in plastic bags? from the Safeway? Because whatever that sample couch is upholstered in, that's what I want. Itchy brown synthetic tweed? Sounds beautiful. We will just not sit on it when we're wearing shorts. I can do that. Because I wanted to pay $728 for a couch and not NINETEEN HUNDRED."

I mean that's bullshit. I would have gone to Design Within fucking Reach if I'd wanted to pay two grand for a couch. Although. I wouldn't. Because at DWR, of course, the most deceptively named company on the planet, none of that stuff is within reach. And then even if you close your eyes and pretend you're like Courtney Cox or some such, the kind of person who buys such things, and you buy a lovely modern armchair, the nicest piece of furniture in the house, then you're going to get two cats for Christmas and they are going to see that gorgeous red bouclĂ© fabric and decide it is just the most delicious thing to sink their claws in ever, even when you put the double sided tape up on the chair and put the scratching post right next to it and have squirt bottles of water always at hand to aim at them when they do it.

And then you're going to have to close your eyes every time you pass through that corner of the living room so that you don't see the little cat-claw pulls in the red bouclĂ©, and with your eyes closed you can't help stepping on LEGO OW OW OW OW and you end up yelling at the kids when it's really your own damn fault for buying nice furniture. It's not worth having nice things.

Ahem. That red chair is very pretty but it's not worth having nice things.

And of course what's on the floor model is "a discontinued fabric." Yeesh. Furniture salesmen. Liars! FURNITURE SALESMEN ERGO IKEA. There's a logical construct for you. Cause and motherfuckin' effect.

Well we end up ordering the couch. In grey. A plain dark grey that I didn't think we'd live to regret too badly.

The new couch, 2011.

Of course, back then we only had the one cat. And that was the cat who ran and hid under our bed the day we brought the first baby home from the hospital and who hasn't really come out since. Her and her late sister both. Really. Of the seventy-five thousand photographs I've taken since the first child was born, there was never a single frame that captured both a conscious cat and a conscious child. That picture above? Kitty crept out after the baby fell asleep so that she could curl up and sleep near her man. She is very attached to Bob. She's a very vocal cat, at night she stalks around the upstairs going "Bob! Hey Bob! Where are ya? Why are all the lights out?" Not very smart. And god when he's out of town she's really confused. "Bob! Bob! Bob! Bob? You down here? Bob? This shoe smells like you! Is that you Bob? No that's a shoe. Bob! Hey!"

And it is not like there is any basis for the skittishness exhibited by herself and her late sister. Nothing Has Ever Happened to this cat. Or her late sister. And it's hard to believe either of them have or had the imagination to think up horrors that small boys might inflict on helpless cats.

And in fact, now that we have new cats, our boys are cuddly and gentle and playful with them. So there, you old bitch. But the new cats do shed on the new couch. Oh well.

The night before the new couch was delivered, which I wasn't there for, I don't know how I was not there for that but I wasn't and that was pretty neat, the night before it came we hauled the old couch out to the porch.

And then immediately after it came, I took off all the back cushions and lined them up on the futon in the basement to make a kind of giant couch for where we watch movies, and I put a whole ton of throw pillows  - oh my god this is the whole other reason we got a new couch I forgot about this part!


My kids' school for a while there got head lice on like a CONTINUOUS BASIS. Once a month the letter would come home from school, some kid had lice and we'd have to scan scalps. All clear though, for years. But last spring I guess it was it was just our turn. Oy. Shaved the kids' heads, suffocated all the pillows and comforters, washed the bedding. And among the things I put in those giant Ziploc bags that they might as well just call the Die Lice Die bags were the cushions from the back of the sofa.

So for a month we just used throw pillows on the sofa, and I got to like it. I don't care for the cushions anymore. Pillows are more colorful, more arrangeable. I am pro throw pillow.

Shaved heads, no cushions, 2011


Old couch is sitting out on the porch, and we have a covered porch, it's going to be ok. I figure we'll call for a bulk trash pickup from the city, Baltimore does free bulk trash pickup, they come around once a month and you have to call ahead of time to get on their list but it's a terrific service of this city. In our neighborhood it's the second Friday.

Meanwhile, our annual block party came up, and we carried the couch out to the street and set it up next to the pig roaster. It was cool, it was like having a living room in the middle of the street. At the end of the day, though, after the sun went down, it started to rain. And bless our neighbors and friends, eeeeeverybody pitched in and hauled everything double-quick out of the rain. Most stuff ended up on the closest porch to the party, at an empty house on our block.

I didn't even notice until the next day. The next day, I walked across our own porch and I was like, "Where the hell's the couch?" I had to sort of prowl up and down the street until I saw it under cover on that porch. So I thought, "What difference does it make?" and just figured we'd leave it there until bulk trash day, and call for the pickup from in front of the empty house. The thing is a goddamn brick, by the way. You try to lift one end and it's at least five times as heavy as you expect it ought to be. The lady who owns the place is not trying to sell the house, her renters have moved out, the porch is deep and the thing isn't going to rot in the next couple of weeks, so ehh, I left it there.

Could you call that illegal dumping? Yes you probably could.


End of January we went on a little vacation, a little burn up some frequent flyer points trip. And as we pulled out of the driveway pre-dawn to go to the airport, what should I see but my couch sitting out in front of my neighbor's house. Sitting there. Like a massive grumbling wino. Three weeks before the bulk trash pickup date.

"What now is this?" I griped. "How did that get out there?"

So apparently it's out there the whole time we're on vacation, and a thread starts on the neighborhood listserv about the hobo looking couch on the curb, and my non-neighbor the absentee homeowner, who is still on the listserv even though she's been gone a while now, replies saying that friends of hers pulled the thing off her porch and she has scheduled a bulk trash pickup.

Ok. FINE. She couldn't have known I was going to call it in and have it hauled away. But of course we - we who live here - don't want to leave the damn thing on the street for three weeks, so when we got back from vacation my husband and I carried it back down the street and onto our porch. Only fair. Our couch. Our porch.

And so the night before the bulk trash pickup, we moved the goddamn thing, actually Bob did all by himself, moved it back down off our porch and up three houses to in front of her house. Because you do not, you know, you do not want to mess with Baltimore's municipal sanitation guys who are doing your bulk trash pickup. If you tell them a thing is going to be in a place at a time, you do not have it be somewhere else. Respect the process.

So bulk trash day comes. Bulk trash day goes. The couch stays. Of course.

I call Baltimore's 3-1-1 Center - Your Call to City Hall - and I have got to say this for Baltimore, there's a whole lot of crap in this city that is broken, that does not work, that possibly may never work again, but that 3-1-1 system is fuckin' fabulous.

a fictional portrayal of CitiStat
We're a bit famous for it actually. Among city planners. Shut up. City planners have celebs just like everybody else. Back when my husband worked for the city, Baltimore City hosted some kind of international symposium of city planners. They were here to see CitiStat and to learn about 3-1-1, and they had meetings and demos and took a tour.

Bob remembers a couple of the British planners being like, "Goodness, these marvelous computer thingies of yours are quite whizzy and it seems it's just a doddle to report an injured hosepipe or what have you, and it's lovely that the caller immediately gets an electronic mail confirming his or her conversation with your switchboard Susie, but, er, have any of you noticed your streets lately?"

Apparently, potholes in Britain aren't anything like the axle-breakers we have around here and they thought maybe one less ORACLE programmer and one more asphalt truck might be a more strategic deployment of city funds.

What the hell do they know. 3-1-1 is my fucking hero. The woman that I speak to says, "No, I don't see that there has been a bulk trash pickup scheduled for any address on your street in, let me look, THE PAST YEAR." So you know, I assume that my non-neighbor just didn't do it right. Or she dreamed she did it. GOD.

So I scheduled a bulk trash pickup for - you know, I said this saga was boring, did I not? I absolutely did. If you're still reading now, there's got to be something wrong with you. Because, because I don't even have an ending for this story! This is such a terrible saga that the answer is that the couch is back on my porch, where it will stay until sometime in March, at which time we will schlep it back out to the front sidewalk again, and possibly herniate ourselves doing it.

And if somebody gets a hernia? That would be like the most exciting thing that has happened in this story. Right? It's terrible. Terrible! Maybe a raccoon will nest in the couch while it is on our porch. Maybe we'll come out of the house one morning and there will be a junkie sleeping on it. That would be a story.

This? This is not a story. This is Your Neighborhood Librarian. Getting Shit Done. And I love you.

2012. The End.