Sunday, October 26, 2008
  Real-life horror tale #2

At this time last year I told the real-life horror story of how I became trapped in an unusual freak accident when one of my college instructors thought it would be fun to start pushing me out a second-story window.

Now Halloween is almost here, so time for another real-life horror story…

When I lived in Cambridge during the 1970s, I learned that comic art dealer Jerry Weist and his girlfriend Cathy were not happy with their living situation near Harvard Square. It was a small room in an apartment they had to share with a group of rowdy students. I told them that there might be a place in the building where I was living just off Massachusetts Avenue.

I explained that my landlady was on the first floor, I was on the second floor, and that perhaps the landlady could clear out her storeroom on the third floor. If so, then they could rent that space from her and pay me monthly for the use of my kitchen and bathroom. Jerry and Cathy came over, met the landlady, and surprisingly, everyone involved came to an immediate agreement with no problems.

I then realized the kitchen oven would have to be repaired. I never used it because the oven flame would somehow extinguish itself after a few minutes, yet gas would continue to spew forth. I called a repair service, and someone came over to fix it. When he left, I gave the repair bill to the landlady. A few days later, Jerry and Cathy moved in, and the living arrangement seemed to work to everyone’s mutual satisfaction.

One day, Cathy experienced a close call; she had been drinking beer and eating potato chips when she discovered a portion of a razor-sharp cutting blade in the bag of potato chips. I told her about a lawyer I knew, and even though she had never put the metal in her mouth, the lawyer succeeded in getting the Borden company to send a check.

Cathy was not happy with her job and missed her friends in the Midwest. She announced she was leaving, and a week later, she moved back to Kansas. Jerry continued to live in the upstairs room and suggested that with Cathy gone, he should now pay me less rent for the kitchen and bathroom. I was surprised by this, said no to the idea, and he continued to pay the same amount.

The headphones for my stereo had an extremely long wire. I came back to the apartment one afternoon and noticed that Jerry was obviously listening to my stereo, since the wire ran all the way into the hallway and up the staircase to the third floor. Instead of complaining about this, I went to lie down because I suddenly felt quite sleepy.

The next thing I knew, I was being awakened by Jerry, who was shaking me and saying loudly, “Gas… gas!” Obviously, the repairman had done nothing to fix the oven; it was still a lethal instrument. Jerry had been cooking something and then had gone upstairs, unaware that the entire second floor was filling with gas from the defective oven. By the time he came down the stairs to check on his food, I had already passed out, and my bedroom had become a death chamber.

While he went around opening windows, I managed to stagger down the stairs and out the front door, nearly collapsing on the sidewalk where I stood inhaling fresh air until my head cleared. Whenever I recall this incident, I ponder the alternative endings. One, of course, being the possibility that Jerry never saw me in the bedroom and thus I was never awakened. The other is like the final scene of Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun when Maria (Hanna Schygulla) returns home, lights a match and her entire house explodes.

What are the odds of getting gassed twice? Some years later, I was in New York working at DC Comics and living in Queens. I had been told that the previous tenant had a job with the Brooklyn gas company. Perhaps that explained why the apartment had no stove when I moved in; he had simply disconnected the gas and taken the stove when he left. One day the elderly landlord's son came by to notify me of a rent increase. I countered with the suggestion that he supply a stove. He agreed, and soon a brand new stove was installed. It worked perfectly. Then I noticed an oddity: no matter how much gas I used, no bills arrived. It was somewhat reminiscent of that 1941 William Saroyan play, The Beautiful People, about an entire family living on monthly pension checks mistakenly addressed to a dead man.

Months passed with no gas bills. One day, after noticing a gas truck parked in front, I opened my door and heard the gas man talking to the family on the floor above as he turned on their gas. He finished the job, walked past my door on the way down and in less than a minute I became aware that gas was pouring into my room, obviously triggered by whatever pipes he had opened for the floor above. Was it so much gas that it could be ignited by the pilot light on the stove? I had to get it fixed before he drove away. I ran down the stairs, out the front door, across the sidewalk, slammed into the side of his truck and explained in a rush what was happening. He stared at me in disbelief and then wordlessly studied his paperwork as I kept babbling. Then he slowly got out of the truck and went upstairs. When he made some adjustments, the flow of gas ceased. After calling into his headquarters, he turned and scowled at me, a look suggesting that I was somehow responsible, and said, "Okay, buddy, that's it. This won't be retroactive, but from now on, you're going to be billed. Got that, pal?"

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That was a great narration. I like memory essays like this.
Bhob, I saw you a lot when you lived in Cambridge, and I remember Jerry living upstairs from you, but I don't think you ever told me about being gassed. An amazing narrow escape.

The closest I ever came to being gassed was when, at 19, I briefly moved to Columbus, Ohio, to be near a young woman I had fallen for. I rented a room at the edge of the university (OSU). On my first afternoon in the room, I turned on the space heater and fell on the bed to take a nap. I woke up about an hour later to find the room filled with smoke from what was obviously a faulty heater. I quickly opened the door and ran to the street. Again, what if...
Another possibility of the Queens incident: What if I had not even been there to report the gas leak one minute after it began? What then?
Living in a liberal town is a real life horror story.
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