On doing things you cannot do.

Monday, September 17, 2018

My first job out of college was in book publishing, as a direct mail assistant in the marketing department of Princeton University Press. In fall 1989, I moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where I had never been prior to driving down for my job interview, and where I knew no one.

I interviewed in August, and got the job, and then my mom and I drove down to find a place for me to live. It turned out that housing in Princeton was hard to come by, and very expensive. I had no idea how bad this situation was when I accepted the job offer. (Sometimes I wonder if I would have taken the job had known this.) But I got lucky and found a place I liked that I could afford, subletting for $400 a month ($800 in 2018 dollars) a very small room in a very old house from an interesting person who worked as a corporate chef and caterer. The house was so old it had a name — it was the Bernardus Van Zandt house, and when friends came to visit for the first time they thought they were at the wrong address.

I moved to Princeton over Labor Day weekend, which gave me plenty of time to get settled, because I didn’t start work until Tuesday. However it turned out that I didn’t need plenty of time, because I had not very much stuff, so it took me less than a day to move everything from my little car into my little room, and to get it all set up the way I wanted. To put up my bookshelves and put together my stereo and get my books and music organized the way I liked, and put my clothes away in the built-in wardrobe and dresser that were in the room.

My housemate was there for a bit after I got there, she welcomed me and told me where the nearest grocery store was, but then she went away (as it turned out she often did), leaving me in a place where I knew not a single person, and had not a single thing I needed to do before I went to work on Tuesday.

As noted, this was September 1989, pre-Internet, and I was never a huge television watcher, but at that point in my life watching television was still a standard default activity. I had noted a large television in the dining room when I made my initial visit, so I didn’t bring a TV with me. So after I’d finished setting up everything in my little room I went downstairs to kill some time by watch some television only to discover that the TV wasn’t actually a working TV, it didn’t get any reception. (Later I learned that it had been set up to watch videos, but I don’t think I ever got that part to work either.)

So there I was in this house, by myself, with no TV, and nothing to do. And I wasn’t going to be making hardly any money, so I was completely focused on not spending money. And I didn’t know where anything was anyway.


I remember deciding to go out and get things for my room, I needed some more shelving, so I did that. That took a couple of hours. Okay, only two more days before I needed to go to work.

On Sunday or Monday I decided that I could go to the mall and just look at stuff. I remember being at Sears, in the TV section with the US Open tennis tournament on. That was so nice! To stand there and watch TV. I wondered how long I could hang out in the TV section of Sears watching tennis, I wanted to stay all day. But that didn’t seem like a good idea, and also it seemed sad and pathetic. Watching TV at Sears because you have no TV and no money and no friends and nowhere to go. Welcome to the rest of your life.

I clearly remember that moment at Sears as the point when I realized that I may not have thought this through quite as much as I should have, that I had no idea what I was actually getting myself into, moving to a place where I knew no one. I guess I had been thinking it would be like college. For college I went somewhere I’d never been before and where I didn’t know anyone and that turned out fine. But that was completely different. At college you are surrounded by people who also have not been there before and do not know anyone, and the whole environment is structured to get you all to meet each other. Regular life is not like that. At all.

I didn’t end up staying at Sears all day. I went back to the house and figured out how to occupy myself until Tuesday. I listened to music and read and wrote letters to my friends telling them about the Bernardus Van Zandt house, and how to get in touch with me. I bought groceries and fixed meals for myself. Then I went to work on Tuesday and met people there and things started to feel more normal.

All of which is background to this story. The background is that I was living in a big house where I was by myself most of the time, I had no friends near by, and I had limited resources.

Because my room was small, and because it wasn’t exactly a full-on house share, it was more like “and this is your room” situation, I had decided I should get a futon as a bed, which would give me both a bed for sleeping and a place to hang out and read or visit with friends (assuming I might someday have friends). I bought the futon mattress in Buffalo before leaving, packed it in my little car with the rest of my possessions and brought it down with me, and slept on that on the floor for the first few days. But it wasn’t completely comfortable, and I seem to recall there being fleas, which was not ideal to be sleeping on the floor (and which I recall my hybrid housemate/landlady being embarrassed about, figuring they must be from her dog, Daisy.)

In the center of town was a store that sold futon frames, and I think my mom had offered to pay for the frame for me. (It is possible I was buying that myself out of money I had saved, but I am reasonably certain that if I had to buy it myself I would have just slept on the floor, so I’m going to go with the parents-buying-me-a-bed theory.) So I went to the store and picked out what I wanted — a nice, substantial, solid wood frame that folded flat for a bed and up for a sofa — ordered it, and then went and picked it up when they told me it was ready.

I had a Mazda 323, which is a small car, but it had a very deep trunk and the back seat folded down, and I am a small person so I can push the driver’s seat all the way to the front and you would be amazed at how much you could fit in that car when it was configured that way. That was a good car.

So I go pick up the futon frame and it is in a very large, rectangular box, with some of that plastic strapping on the outside so you could move it and carry it. They load it into my car for me, it fits and everything, and I drive up the Great Road to my house.

It is quite heavy, but I am able to get the box out of the car by myself without too much trouble, and I can heave it along the driveway, then slide it up the outside stairs to the porch landing, then over the door threshold and through the front door into the front hallway.

The house had a very wide entrance hallway, almost like a room; it was probably ten feet across and stretched completely from the front to the back of the house. It had two openings to the living room on the right and an opening to the dining room on the left. My housemate had an old Sigmund Freud style couch in the back, across from a telephone table. The stairs were at the back of the hallway, across from the Sigmund Freud couch, behind the telephone table and an old steam radiator, running up toward the front door.

The stairs went up along the wall then hit a landing and took a ninety-degree turn to the left (when you were going up the stairs). It was maybe six or seven steps to the landing then an equal number of steps after the landing. Both the hallway and the stairs were carpeted with a worn, low-pile carpet.

So I’m able to slide the box from the front door through the hallway to the stairs, and turn it onto the stairs and slide it up the stairs, but when I hit the landing I realize I need to get this very heavy, very wide box to make a ninety-degree turn in order to get it all the way to the top. My housemate is gone for the next few days so I am doing this by myself, because (a) I see no problem with doing this myself, (b) even if I did see a problem with doing it myself, I do not have anyone I can easily call to come help me, and (c) I am ready to stop sleeping on the floor.

So despite this slight complication with the landing, I decide to forge ahead with this plan of getting the very heavy futon frame into my upstairs bedroom by myself.

I try to maneuver the box and figure out how to get it to make a turn on the landing but the approach I take is obviously not the right approach because I get the box stuck on the landing. It is on its flat side, but there’s not enough room to flip it, and also it is too heavy. And I end up kind of stuck on top of it. Hm. But I keep working to try to figure it out and in the process of maneuvering to get myself underneath it or to somehow get some leverage so I can turn it and get it the rest of the way up the stairs, I manage to get myself not just kind of stuck but really actually stuck.

Like really stuck.

Like stuck like I am like holy shit I am by myself in this 200+ year-old house that sits on 100+ acres in the middle of central New Jersey on a stair landing trapped behind a box filled with a solid wood futon frame that I cannot move. I can’t move the box, and I can’t move myself out from behind the box. And I am by myself.

Did I mention that I was by myself?

This is nearly a decade before most normal people had cell phones, and even if cell phones had existed at that point, I probably would not have had one with me. (In fact if I were doing this today, I probably would not have a cell phone with me.)

So my housemate is gone for three days. I am trapped on a stair landing behind a really big, really heavy box. I have no access to a phone. I cannot get myself out from behind the box and I cannot move the box. (Turn push urrggh push urrggh. URRRGGHHH. Nope. I cannot move the box.)

Well sh*t.

What are my options?

Option 1: I can remain trapped behind the box and wait until my housemate returns to free me.

Option 2: I can remain trapped behind the box and wait until someone (work? my mom?) realizes I haven’t been heard from in quite some time and calls the authorities to figure out what has happened to me.

Options 3: I can somehow figure out how to move this box which is too heavy for me to move.

Option one feels tedious and extremely embarrassing. Option two feels significantly more embarrassing, and at least as tedious. Neither of these is an acceptable option.

I have to go with option three.

So I take a deep breath and dig down deep inside to summon my inner superwoman — like you hear about on the news when a child is trapped under a car and the kid’s mom or some average joe bystander lifts the car to free the child — and I manage to push the box up AARRGGHHH, get out from behind it, and turn it so it is going in the right direction.


Pant, pant, pant.

Then I slide it the rest of the way up the stairs.

I get myself to the top of the stairs. I turn the box and slide it into my room. I take the futon frame out of the box and set up my bed.

All’s well that ends well.

And I suppose the lesson I should have learned from this episode was that I shouldn’t try to do everything by myself. But the lesson I actually learned was that you might end up in situation where you are sure you can’t do something but then it turns out you can.

So, as far as I am concerned, here is the point of this story:

Sometimes things are hard. Some day you might find yourself alone, trapped on a stair landing behind a really heavy box that you cannot move. Except you can. Because you have to.

You might choose to take something different from that story. But that’s what I’m going to go with.

Especially right now.