When I was living out of a backpack for months on end, I often pondered how strange it would be to eventually return to a “normal” life. Go to work in the morning. Sleep in the same bed every night. Wash my clothes whenever I want (oh the luxury!).
Turns out it is frighteningly easy to slip on the glove of normalcy. If fits comfortably and snugly, causing me to wonder now if that whole backpack / Mexico / broken foot / arctic / Europe thing was some long and particularly detailed dream.
So I became gainfully employed again, and no sooner had I done that than I re-acquired all the trappings of normalcy like a good little consumer. A car. An apartment. I just bought a broom today for cryin’ out loud.
However, while it is all quite comfortable and familiar, there are hazards to a new place. Take, for example, my deck.
It’s a large deck. It was really the selling point for me as I imagined warm, sunny spring days on it, a grill, some friends, a few beers, some music in the background; sounds about right.
Sadly, this is November in Portland. One would required heat lamps, parkas, and perhaps a bonfire built in the center of the deck to enjoy it properly. Also, the new job keeps me frantically busy, and with the shorter days, my opportunity to spend any quality time out on the deck has been limited. So I was hoping for a chance soon to spend some time relaxing out there, even if it’s a slight bit chilly.
Now, Wednesday mornings there is an exercise class at Nike that I’ve been eager to try out. So on Wednesday morning I rouse myself from my warm bed at 6:30, put on my running shorts and a tank top, figuring I’ll just throw a coat on as I leave, thus not have to change before the class. I pack my backpack with clothes for the day, ensuring all the stuff I need is in there (wallet, keys, phone, money, etc). Before running out the door I remember that I have to do one of those other mundane aspects of life: trim my toenails. Well, might as well do it out on the deck as I won’t have to worry about nail clippings.
It’s dark still, but I have small lights on the deck. It’s chilly, but refreshing actually, and the city is quiet and still. very peaceful. I remind myself that I must spend some time on the deck this weekend. Taking in one last breath and enjoying the view of my new home, I check my watch to see that I’m probably about five minutes late if I want to get to the class on time. Right: time to swing into action.
Now, when one’s mind is set on a course of action for the day and has a long list of things that will happen (workout, early phone conference, meetings, lunch, more meetings, and by the way: gotta find a new renter for the house back in Seattle), and suddenly you meet an unexpected roadblock, the mental traffic pileup isn’t sudden, but more like a slow-motion careening pile up of out-of-control vehicles, much like Portland drivers in snow.
So it was when I exited the deck, I found that the sliding door somehow locked itself behind me. My plans slowly ran into each other as I tugged and pulled in disbelief, eventually piling up in a messy heap as I looked around, unsure that this was actually happening.
My thinking went something like this:
“Really? I mean: REALLY??”
“It must just be stuck, it can’t have actually locked on me…”
“Welp, gonna be late for that class for sure now”
“wow. It’s kinda cold”
“Hmm, I have no way to call anyone.”
“I must look pretty stupid out here alone on my bare deck in my shorts and socks”
“Okay, so let’s assess: There’s no way off of my deck, nobody knows me here, and nobody in Portland is going to come visit me… I’m pretty much hosed.”
It’s at this point, about 5 minutes in, that it fully sinks in that I’m on my deck, it’s not quite 7am, and all I’ve got going for me is running shorts, a lightweight tank top, socks, and toenail clippers. This is not an ideal set of tools for basic survival.
- Wake up a neighbor, have them come let me in. This would involve hopping the barrier between decks, banging on windows, and looking like some very misguided burglar in the early morning.
- Climb down. I’m on the 2nd floor, it’s not impossible.
- Yell at someone passing by, get them to come in the building and let me into my own apartment.
Several problems with each of these scenarios: first off, I’m painfully, horribly, almost neurotically against inconveniencing others. I won’t go talk to strangers because I fear that I might bother them in some way. I arrange myself in groups to minimize the chance of me giving offense in some unknown or unexpected way. It’s pretty much always on my mind how I can NOT bother other people best. In this way I feel a great kinship with what I understand of British sensibilities. So waking up the neighbors is an option to be considered some point after I’ve developed hypothermia, but slightly before I use the toenail clippers to remove my leg and prep it for a meal to sustain me for the long haul.
So: option 2: the drop to the ground is a fair ways. I see a pole sticking out about six feet below the ledge of my deck, and I imagine that if I was able to get to that pole and hang from it, I would still fall around five feet. While that is entirely doable, I don’t know if the pole would support me (it’s currently supporting a fabric banner), and I’ve already broken my foot once this year, and am not eager to repeat that experience.
Okay then; option 3: However, the entire city is still asleep. There are no people walking by. There are no lights on in my building, or the building across the street, or anywhere that I can see. Even if I could find someone, it’s a security building so they wouldn’t be able to get in. Even if they DID get in, they couldn’t take the elevator to my apartment to let me in because it is key fob access only until 10am.
This realization sinks in: I could be here a long time. So I resume pulling and tugging at the door to see if I can jar it off it’s lock. No dice. However, I remember that I have one weapon with me:
The toe nail clippers.
Straightening the lever part I am able to insert it into the keyhole and begin to twist and jiggle, imagining I will be able to pick the lock like a ninja cat burglar. After all, I’ve read about “bump keys” to defeat standard lock tumbler mechanisms. Surely I can attain something like that here if I am diligent and determined enough?
By seven I have surrendered those fantasies. The rising sun has lit the city up, and I realize that I’m not just kinda chilly, but actually trending towards “rather cold, indeed”.
And now I begin pacing. None of the three options seem to be particularly palatable. To explain how adverse I am to bothering other people, I continue to evaluate the “hang from the ledge, drop to the ground, break my foot” option as my most likely course of action.
However, after ten minutes or so of pacing, I finally use logic and self-preservation to squash those thoughts, cross the barrier to my neighbor’s deck (simmering in guilt, knowing that someone is watching and thinking “what is that fool doing?”), and go to knock on their glass door.
And I stand there, hand raised to knock, frozen like I’m on a pedestal in the Louvre.
I just can’t bring myself to do it. Logically I realize that were situations reversed, I would initially be alarmed at someone on my deck, but quickly get over it and we would have a good laugh at the situation. However, my inner Brit is having none of this tomfoolery: it’s embarrassing, inelegant, and just downright improper. After trying a couple of times, I give up, cross the barrier again back to my own deck, and resume pacing. I look over the ledge, and every now and then I see a person pass by, usually with headphones on, oblivious to the world. Once I wave feebly, uttering a meek “er… excuse me…”, but the man passes by without noticing.
It comes to be about 7:30. I’ve been out here for about 45 minutes by now, and now I’m certainly cold, and increasingly desperate. My pacing has proven to be a completely unhelpful fourth option. I have no recourse, I MUST wake the neighbor. Why aren’t they up already? Don’t they have jobs or lives or something?
On pondering this, the light turns on in a third floor apartment, and through a narrow slit in the blinds of the bedroom, I can see someone moving around. I attempt to make eye contact, but then realize that it’s a woman moving around in there. In her bedroom. And here I am, staring up and in. Of course she will think I’m a pervert. Worse, she’ll recognize me in the halls for the rest of our lives, point me out to fellow residents. I’ll be forever branded the peeper in 203.
While pondering this, her light goes out. So I am once again alone on the deck. Now the worse thought strikes me: what if I wait so long that everyone leaves for work? Then I may be stuck on this deck indefinitely.
This finally pushes me to action. Resolutely I climb the barrier again. I approach the glass door, and, leaving no room for thoughts or second guessing, I pound loudly on the glass, then I stand back and stew in embarrassment. While waiting, I rehearse what I will say, how I will smile apologetically, hands up to show I mean no harm. I imagine we’ll all have a good laugh over this, and when I see my neighbor in the hall in the coming months, we’ll now have a little special bond over this singularly stupid occasion.
The lights don’t come on.
I bang on the door again, this time more forcefully.
Nothing. Bang! Bang! Bang! Now I’m imagining my neighbor is a complete deadbeat, do-nothing, lackadaisical lay-about. I’m getting angry and him or her; why kind of reject is not in their apartment at almost eight in the morning? Or so deep in sleep that even an accidental frozen burglar can’t rouse them?
Eventually I give up. Stepping into the sunlight I can at least get a little bit of warmth where it hits my skin directly. It is now after eight, meaning I’ve been stuck on my deck for nearly an hour and a half. I wonder if I will be here for another hour. Or two. Or more.
This is shouted at me from a fair distance. I look across the street, to the building opposite mine, and far up to the top floor. Three people are on a balcony, coffee cups in hand. They are staring at me. One waves:
“NICE SETUP YOU’VE GOT THERE!”
My heart leaps. At last! Fellow humans I can communicate with! So what is the first thing out of my mouth? A call for help? A plea to rescue me from my predicament?
No, I feebly explain that it’s not my deck, that I’m trespassing, and I guess that they can see my embarrassment even from their distance. What is wrong with me?
Regardless, eventually I explain why I’m on the wrong deck, that my actual deck is the empty one over there, that I have somehow locked myself out, and would they please come down from their lofty height and lend a brother a hand.
I’m not sure all this translates well over the distance as I see them hoisting their coffee cups at me cheerfully, then they are pointing out over the bridge, probably commenting amiably to each other about the color of the sunrise, the reflections on the water, the painted clouds, etcetera.
I begin to despise them.
I hurdle back over to my deck and feebly tug at the door some more, hoping the visual display of my helplessness will drive the point home for them: I’m stuck, in shorts and socks, and may become an icicle in front of their very eyes. However, they continue to chat amongst themselves.
I give up and look out on the street. People at work will be wondering if I’m not in by nine. But what can they do? They could send email, or call me, but both of those devices are behind that damnable glass door.
“So, you are stuck, huh?” The girl from the other building yells up at me from the road. She has come down from her building, and now looks up at me, coffee cup in hand. “I was just finishing my cigarette up there.”
On the one hand: really? A cigarette while a fellow human freezes across from you?
On the other hand: thank god.
She disappears around the front of my building for a few minutes, then reappears, saying “okay, help is on the way” before strolling back across to her building. Minutes later a custodian appears at my door and I am back in my apartment, happily, gratefully, warmly.
So, a few observations:
- I will never, EVER, close that door behind me again. Ever.
- I will never be without my cell phone again. If I could implant it in my arm, I would.
- I must be careful what I wish for, as a desire to spend some time on my deck does not specify the manner in which said time will be spent. Lesson learned.
Not the most ideal way to start a Wednesday morning. However, all told I was very appreciative of every moment that day when I could move around as I wished, fully clothed, with easy access to heat, water and food.