When the world's leaders gave us permission to drive, my friends and I would go to Portsmouth and experience the freedom of wandering its brick sidewalks and side streets, Bullmoose and Breaking New Grounds. I'd muse of being homeless and living in Precott Park; or which Queers CD would I buy this week? Once a friend and I passed a streetside apartment with an open door, the dude inside on his computer. Anyone could have just walked in. One daring friend of mine did just that. The dude was cool and had a nice chat with us. That moment stuck with me and years later I found myself renting a very similar place, just around the corner.
I almost moved into an apartment in an all-black colonial house. But instead I went downtown, on Market Street. With a front door that wacked passersby everytime I stepped out. It was back when you could live in Portsmouth for less than six hundred a month. I even had a water view, though sometimes it was over car bumpers, through backseat windows. And someone painted a shark on a brick building. I had to peek past that, too.
I wasn't very far from the salt piles. Large ships would dock there for days at a time, with non-alphabet writing on the side. The ships would hum and groan and splash all night long. It was pretty cool.
At the stroke of midnight the night before move-in day, my brother and I slipped in to have a final looky-loo before I'd lug in my mattress and book collection and beer boxes full of rice, beans, condiments, and alcohol bottles. The kid is tall and he had to crouch into the basement studio, which was crammed into the space between the big house above and the hill it sat on. There were a lot of floors up there, crushing the ceiling down on me. I was able to touch the ceiling with my forehead if I pushed up with my toes.
The place was the basement. White walls, white ceiling, white floors, flourished with dirt, dust, and cobwebs. Home sweet home.
Through the front door off the brick sidewalk was a little area I called the foyer, complete with a bench covering a steam radiator to the right. The bathroom had a shower head that was the cheap weird model you find in cabins and it hit my chest at best. But I could detach it and lift it above my head – as long as I crouched first. There was a closet, with three stairs and a locked door that led to some mystical place upstairs. I used the shelves in here for my books and beer collection. The main living area was on the street side, the kitchen nook to the back. The only light in the entire place hung in the kitchen by a wire. The fridge was the size of a jelly cabinet. There was a counter screwed into the wall and a few stools made it a cozy little nook. The living space had another bench hiding a radiator and two basement windows just high enough to keep the room private from the inside, as long as I didn't walk around my kitchen naked. The mattress went right under the window. I never once thought to hang curtains while I lived there. Finally, there was another closet, which I didn't go in much. That was where the creepy-crawlies lived.
About twenty hours after my brother and I head-bopped the ceiling in the dark, I had my twin-size set up and my tv plugged into the mysterious cable wire dangling from the wall. I turned it on and saw all the people cheering in front of the white house. Osama bin Laden had been tossed into the ocean, I guess. Living so close to the brackish Piscataqua, I hoped he wouldn't wash up on the shores of Ceres Street.
I could walk to my job at a gas station on Islington, where I'd read big books and listen to classical music on the muzak or Red Sox games on the crackly radio. Well-dressed dads or charming liberal grannies would tell me how nice I was and if only I could meet their daughters, etc. Well, it just didn't happen. I'd pour a Big A into a coffee cup and walk home through the bustling Market Square – or cut down Deer Street and skip the riffraff – though once I had to walk past Sarah Palin's campaign bus.
Once the free cable stopped coming, I'd drink my Big A's in the foyer, where I had moved the TV. I liked to rent VHS tapes from the library. Stacey Keach playing the manly writer, then eating a rifle. Michelle Trachenberg looking through people's windows and taking notes, childhood crushes on fire. As the night came out and the bar crowds began to press up against the door, I'd feign interest in a book or play my acoustic guitar – but really I'd just people-watch. With the front door open, the foyer was opened right up to the street.
I owned this strange, small arcade machine called Leprechaun. The screen was wonky and the game was unplayable, but it made for a ridiculous nightlight. The flashy arcade colors and sounds would set an ambience that gave my apartment a public feel, as if I ran a hip little bar that anyone could waltz right into and grab a chair. One night, in a flash, there was a tiny attractive girl in the screen door, gasping, “Is that a Pac-Man machine?!” Because I didn't know how to pick up chicks, I stuttered, “Uh, no it's a game called Leprechaun.” She said something like “Oh, cool.” – more drunk than intrigued – and before I could even get so much as eye contact, her friend whisked her away toward town.
One night, much later, when even the last callers had gone home, I was in the kitchen and I heard a drunk fella knocking on my screen door. He was yelling, “Hey, are you open? Can I use your toilet?” I politely directed him down the street. Sorry man, this is an apartment, I told him. He slurred a friendly apology and wandered off down toward the salt piles. Sometimes I wish I let him use the toilet.
I had my drunk moments, too. Flipped over my bike once on Woodbury after drinking most of a bottle of Old Crow at a friend's party. I was fine. I finished that thing when I got home.
I wandered down the street for a late night walk and came back to my front door locked, though I didn't even close the door all the way. I spent about ten minutes in an inebriated paranoia that one of the homeless people in town had barricaded himself in for a shit, shower, shave, and a good night's sleep. I peered into the two basement windows, cautious that no cops would drive by at ten mph and shine a spotlight on me as I broke into my own place. One of the windows was propped open, only a screen and a tabletop fan to knock out of the way. I wormed into the window, and fell onto the floor, grabbed the first blunt object I could find and checked every corner of the place. No intruders, but the door was half-locked and it had barely crept shut.
I never closed that door. I discovered Southern Comfort, which when sipped slowly over an entire evening, would put me in an adventurous mood by midnight. I'd go out for aimless walks, particularly into the shadows of Ceres Street and along the water down Bow Street and back up to Market Square. One brave night, I hopped some fence near a restaurant and found myself on a dock with the sleeping river just inches away. It was a peaceful place and I had a tiny piece of Portsmouth to myself. This was before the slick yachts pulled in, before the new bridge was up, when things still looked old and seaweedy, when Robert Dunn's poem hung from the fence down by the rocks, We're just going out. Do you want / Anything from the ocean?
Then I'd wander back up the hill, through the gardens, towards the lonely kitchen light, calling me home to my open door.
I had these cool vintage Christmas lights, salvage from some attic somewhere, the big ugly bulbs with cracked plastic and frayed wires. Over the winter, I left them in the windows, contributing to the far side of Market Street's loneliness, as foggy-breathed drinkers ice-skated home. For some reason, I decided not to drink that night. Now and then, I felt this need to just be a normal human. So I lied in my bed with no pants on and read a book. “Hey, hello!” I heard banging on my window. A girl's voice. I peeked out and saw two beautiful girls through the frosty glass, smiling and waving at me. “Hey, how's it going? We love your lights!” Guess what I said: “Stop looking in my house!” They wandered off and a “who knows” became a nada.
Market Square in a blizzard was the most peaceful moment I remember. Not a soul but me. Soft lights, deep snow, the slight hill of Congress Street. I trudged up it.
A good beer for coffee-cupping around Portsmouth on cold nights was Smuttynose Star Island Single. There were always odd bottles in the back of the store that no one wanted and they were old so I'd do my part and drop five quarters into the register and sip that slurpy summer all the way home. I knew some kids who'd pour Colt 45 into Slurpee cups and stay out until their parents were asleep so they could slip into bed without smelling like bums. I gave them cigarettes, too. I don't know where they got their weed.
At some point in time, that old bridge that gave Kittery a reason to exist was condemned and shut down. One night I went outside and watched a little tugboat lugging some large piece of what I can only imagine was the future bridge across the Piscataqua. I felt a presence and looked up behind me at the house and saw the dude who lived above me watching through his window. He waved at me and we had a nice moment of neighborliness.
I ducked back into my basement and left the tugboat to do what tugboats do.