It was a compact living space that we enjoyed living in long before the current national obsession with Tiny Nation and smaller-than-usual living spaces. The entire apartment could fit inside the master bedroom suite in our current home, but the lack of square footage was not a matter of repurposed storage space or a mis-read blueprint.
It was married student housing
In 1977 finding married student housing in Provo, UT was a process akin to being trapped in a giant sliding-tile game where the player must slide one piece aside to move a second piece out of the way of a third piece you wanted to move in the first place. Every semester couples would pack up and move, shuffling around in a never-ending quest to find the biggest/nicest/cheapest/closest-to-campus place to live.
There definitely was a home-court advantage for locals or early arrivals in getting the best pick of the lot. We definitely did not fall into that category; after Lori and I got married the previous April we spent the following summer flying and driving all over the country as I toggled back and forth between working as an oilfield roustabout in Alaska and military training at FT Lewis (WA) while Lori worked in a salmon cannery. We should have been just plain out of luck as we rattled and rolled into town just a week before classes were to begin. We’d spent two weeks driving down the ALCAN in a battered old Ford pick-up truck with an equally battered plywood camper on the back that served as bedroom, dining room and kitchen as we did our best to economize. Fortunately, we followed an old roommate and his wife into a place that they left behind when they replaced another couple leaving a slightly-larger apartment upon graduation.
CLICK-CLICK-CLICK. The tiles kept moving around the grid.
The place was on the second floor of a three-level brick apartment building the tenants called “The Red Uglies”, a tag that seemed unique until I learned that there were at least three other “Red Uglies” within a mile radius. The floor plan was a basic rectangle with a hall offset to the left and running down the long axis; on the left was a full-length closet, inset cabinets and bathroom. On the right side of the hall was first the door into the bedroom, then the arched entry into the living room and finally a tiny kitchen capping the end of the hall. It was advertised as “furnished” but we found that to be more of a suggestion than a fact and were very happy to supplement the décor with the king-size water bed, door-desk, cinder-block book shelves and marginally functional B&W television set.
Rent included the use of a detached garage behind and to the right of the building which we used mostly to store household goods we were securing for friends from back home who had to take a semester-break. We also were also assigned one of a dozen parking spaces set at an angle just off the street in front of the building, a space that ended up a semi-permanent home for our pick-up when an acquaintance over-drove it into inoperability during a marathon moving session three weeks into the fall semester1.
Our fellow occupants held mixed attitudes towards the building but in general people were dissatisfied with the place. With a nickname like ‘the Red Uglies” it would be safe to assume the building wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing edifice in town, but I loved the place. It was well-built, solid and managed to stay cool during the hot days and warm during the cold ones. I personally took to the place because it looked and felt amazingly like buildings I’d been in and around during my two-year bicycle penance in New England…and with our ongoing transportation problems we were blessed with a location within easy walking/biking distance from campus, shopping, church and the frame shop where Lori worked.
Mostly I liked it because it was the location of our first attempt at setting up a home and housekeeping as a married couple. Up until then life together had been an extended date where we slept together afterward, but when we moved into the red-Uglies we suddenly felt grown up with a grown-up routine: Each weekday I’d go to school/work while Lori went to work at the frame shop. Thursday nights we’d watch “Lou Grant” and for every Sunday dinner we’d have a small roast cooked in the crock pot along with a salad and fruit cocktail mixed in with Jell-O for desert.
We were both very happy with the apartment until early in the spring of 1978 when one of Lori’s relatives came to stay for a week. It’s always a nice thing to be reunited with family but as Benjamin Franklin wisely observed: “Houseguests are like fish – after three days they both begin to smell.” Boredom set in with our guest and soon she started filling the day with observations on various shortcomings in our little home. I am sure she thought she was helping with her corrective suggestions but the negativity began take a toll and after seven days of “this room seems awfully small”, “don’t you think you have too many books for someone as young as you are” and “are you sure you want this picture hung at this particular place on the wall?” ” we were glad to wave goodbye as our visitor left for home.
Unfortunately, her the attitude decided to stay a little longer and after enduring the negative comments for a week Lori’s perspective on the apartment had changed. What had once been a snug little home was now a cramped and unattractive hovel and she started to echo some of the negative comments our guest had so freely shared with us the week before. On the other hand, I was still happy with the place – after some of the (literal) holes I’d lived in during my life I would have been happy living in a tent, a Quonset hut or plywood shell with the insulation still uncovered.
It wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last time that our divergent backgrounds complicated our relationship, but this was something that went way past cultural differences between growing up in Alaska and growing up in Alabama2. I knew the future we were facing as creative types would involve a lot of uncertainty and that any trend towards house-envy had to be quickly weeded out, so I spent a sleepless night trying to come up with a solution It was only when I woke up, sat on the bed and looked out the window at our old truck with the battered camper – the one that had been our home the previous August – that I came up with a solution.
It wasn’t long before I was able to apply it – in fact it was later than same day. There had been some conflict at the frame shop and Lori came home in a bad mood. As she flopped down on the couch she looked around the room, then started to complain about the small size of our apartment, tears welling up in her eyes as the frustration took over. “It’s so embarrassing to live in this tiny apartment. I hate to have anyone over to visit – we hardly have any room!”
I said: “What are you talking about? We have a huge home!”
Lori looked at me blankly
I went on: “We have a living room”
Lori sniffed, wiped away her tears and nodded
“We have a studio” pointing to the door/drawing table in one corner
A curious look came over her face
I stepped over to the bookshelf: “We have a library”
Hint of a smile
“We have a home theater” (pointing to the television set)
I continued: “We have a music room” patting the dust cover on our stereo turntable
“We have a-
She broke in, pointed to our hide-a-bed couch and announced: “A GUEST BEDROOM!”Just a slight change of perspective changed our cramped little red-ugly apartment into a mansion for the remaining six weeks of the semester – and to be honest we would have lived there the next year had we not needed something large enough for the two of us AND the baby boy soon to join our family. We went on after that first year to live in a dozen other homes in various parts of the country, all of them much larger than that first small apartment. We loved some of those homes – and some we hated, but none of them ever seems quite as precious to us as that little apartment that was our first home.
1) City ordinances forbade leaving a vehicle in the same spot for more than thirty days. We wouldn’t have enough money to repair our truck until our tax refund arrived in the spring so every 29th evening we’d push the truck into a different parking spot.
2) The burning regional question was whether the last phrase in the ABC song was “tell me what you think of me” or “Won’t you come and play with me”!