For much of the year that my wife and I lived in a newly-built high rise apartment building just across the river from Washington, DC, I had one enduring fantasy. First, I’d leave our apartment, holding in one hand a gallon bottle of water, and in the other the miniature hammer and tiny, plastic-handled screwdrivers that came as part of our move-in day welcome packet, which said Lincoln Towers: Urban Luxury At Its Finest right across the front. Then I’d walk down the mauve and flax-colored carpet of my hallway, ride down the mirror-walled elevator, turn the corner at the state-of-the-art fitness center, past the private Internet café, to the large, wall-mounted speaker by the conference room—the one that played, almost every time I left the place, the Counting Crows’ “The Rain King,” so that it echoed throughout the sterile, marbled acoustics of our chandeliered, oval-shaped lobby. Then, using the tools, I’d peel away the speaker’s face. And right at the song’s intolerable climax, the exact moment the singer howled “she’s been lyin’, and I—BEEN—DRINK—INNNN,” I’d pour the whole gallon of water on to the speaker’s guts, which I imagined would short the wires with a brilliant smolder: lovely little pops and fizzles, electric char painted like shadows all over the placid, cream-colored wall. Then I’d stand in front of what I’d done with a relieved grin, and wait for whatever blue-blazered security guard to come and politely ask me to grab everything I owned and leave the premises at once. Forever.
Never have my wife and I felt in such disarray, so close to utter, nameless meltdown than when we lived in Lincoln Towers. We moved there after a half-decade in an ancient, claustrophobic, and expensive one-bedroom in Brooklyn, where we named each mouse after our favorite Pittsburgh Steelers, covered our drafty window fixtures in huge sheets of clear plastic each winter, and re-arranged our furniture around the long strips of hardwood that warped and erupted in humps over the hot water pipes beneath the floor. But after five years of exhausting ourselves in unfit jobs only to barely pay for an apartment the size of a walk-in closet, we began to feel, like many in our position, that New York was little more than a money-sucking playground for latent adolescents. Our late twenties gave way to the oncoming accountability of our thirties, and the flip-flop between unrewarding grind work and careless Lower East Side weekends seemed indicative of some unfulfilled, deeper responsibility to ourselves.
So we looked for somewhere more professionally suitable, and DC seemed just as good a place as any. She took a promising job at a non-profit on K Street, I enrolled in graduate school, and on a quick weekend trip in July we haphazardly signed a year-long lease to reside in what the in-house broker referred to only as “Floor Plan 2-C”: a wall-to-wall, beige-on-beige, 400-square foot one-bedroom in a twenty-two floor building. One among the many that smear themselves along the metro-accessible chunk of Virginia, just across the Potomac from Georgetown, where since the late eighties a population swell has led to an unstoppable landscape of micro-cities that cater to the fiduciary types that clog up the beltway on their way in and out of the nation’s capital.
But our years living in the myopic haze of New York City had prepared us badly for the realities of what this move meant. Maybe we just wanted to make the change quick, like tearing off a bandage, or perhaps we were too enchanted by the amenities, which not only our years in squalor but also our impending, big-A adulthood had tricked us into thinking we wanted: personal washer/dryer, a short walk to the metro, toilets that flushed, doors that closed all the way shut. Or to sum it up in the words of the building’s glossy brochure: “urban living at its finest” in “a location that’s exactly right, exactly where you want to be.
Anyone who’s lived honestly amongst the brutal imposition of a “developing area” can probably recite the biggest knocks on “luxury” living: it’s impersonal and disconnected, a pod-like existence built for futuristic efficiency, insulated from any true sense of community, etc., and of course we felt all of that from moment one.
We never had to leave our complex. It was directly across the street from both a shopping mall and an upscale grocery store, but if we didn’t want to walk that far, our building had its own convenience store, video rental place, dry cleaner, barber, film developer, and so on. So if you wanted a daily life devoid of human interaction, you got it. The building housed hundreds of tenants that ranged from just-graduated twenty-somethings to those in the thick of mobile, corporate careers, but we never had one conversation with any of them. No one held doors for anyone, or waved hello as they passed in the hallway. Each elevator ride was like an inverted mass staring contest, where chunks of people—who spent each night sleeping just a wall’s width apart—searched hard for anything to look at that wasn’t one another. A few weeks in, I stopped asking, “Can you push twelve, please?” and instead took great pleasure in upsetting the tight, constricted air as I reached sloppily across the stiff bodies, all armored with iPods and braced like stubborn hostages. Each time I’d let out a loud, fake cough, then slap my floor’s button with the same hand I’d used to cover my mouth.
But there’s something far more sinister and subversive about these places than just compartmentalization. An ominous, dreamlike, displaced aura haunts the air of luxury living establishments. You feel it everywhere: the robotic, woman-like digital voice that chimes Please Enter as you swipe your “controlled access entry” device past the sensor pad at the front door; the random, building-wide memos about parking passes slid under your door at all hours by people whose footsteps, because the halls are blanketed in carpet, you never hear. Several times a month the maintenance crew did routine checks of the fire alarm system, which they announced hourly over intercoms that broadcasted into our living rooms like a prison warden, or a middle school principal. The hotel-style light fixtures in the rose-colored, Kubrickian corridors that led to our apartment prompted more than one visiting friend to hook their index fingers at me and croak, “Red-rum.”
It’s the forced precision of these places, the strive for complete, militant accommodation—to provide “a location that’s exactly right, exactly where you want to be”—that disrupts your personal ease, and unearths a sense of dread that can unravel even your most solitary moments.
My wife’s always been a notoriously deep sleeper. When we lived in Brooklyn, I often lay next to her, astounded as she snoozed through the late night tremors of the 6 Train rumbling below our apartment floor, or the morning calamity as our neighbors tried desperately to peel their screaming children off of the stairwell in front of our doorway. But the enveloping, dull silence, sterile walls, and vacuum-insulated windows of our place in Lincoln Towers kept her on constant, subconscious alert. Many nights I would stay up well past her, and open the bedroom door to go to sleep after working on some class project. And each time, even though I made no sound—or maybe because I made no sound—she’d snap awake, sit straight up in bed with a nightmare gasp, her eyes locked in some profoundly weird and unsettling gaze, and yell out to my silhouette as if it were an intruder or something worse: What are you doing here?
What undid me was the Counting Crows. But it could have been any of the dated, innocuous, interchangeable bands that they piped over the lobby speakers. Each selection was an attempt to appeal to the young-adult tenants at Lincoln Towers, any of which could have easily been included on the soundtrack of my worst possible memories from high school: Spin Doctors, 10,000 Maniacs, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Melissa Etheridge. But the “The Rain King” stands out. When I’d hear it, walking through the lobby to board the DC metro to campus for some graduate seminar, it triggered a mental tailspin that left me questioning every choice I’d made in my life to that point. I’d catch myself mouthing the lyrics, and think: “Wait: why do I know these lyrics? I hate this song. I’ve hated it since it came out in 1994. And I hated 1994. I had no clue what I was doing. I felt out of place, I had no driver’s license, no control over anything—” and it only took about twenty seconds, but it was just enough time to convince myself—as I left to ride the train to what was, essentially, college—that in the decade-plus since “The Rain King” came out, I’d made almost no progress.
Months in, luxury living had beaten us into submission. The nights of guarded sleep and nightmare gasps drained my wife’s vigor. She had little more than the energy to slog to work, then back to the vacuum-packed, beige-on-beige holding cell each day, where she’d sit lifeless on the couch next to me as I coldly flipped through the channels on our TV, depressed, singing decade-old, terrible lyrics to myself and wondering what in the hell I’d done with my life. We never left the apartment. We lost our color. We gained weight. And we didn’t use the Internet café, or the gym, or any of the other amenities that were supposed to add up to “a location that’s exactly right, exactly where you want to be.”
Moving into our thirties, we were in a landmark transition, still figuring things out, searching for the right foothold into the lives we envisioned for ourselves, and there was nothing exact about it. Luxury is, above all, an earned thing, meant for the chunk of the population who has put in their time, and can reap the rewards from it properly: luxury cars, luxury cruise liners, luxury resorts, and of course “urban luxury at its finest.” Maybe the reason we felt so disconnected—so diffused, so false, so tentative—not only about Lincoln Towers, but also about ourselves, was because we were surrounded by relentless accommodation that we didn’t earn. And we knew it. We were a symphony of floor creaks and leaky pipes; a couple still discovering how to shore up our many frayed edges, living in a place that prided itself on the opposite. We needed a home that complimented what we were, and instead, we lived in a massive, pristine monument to the very thing we weren’t.
So when my wife got another job that required us to move into what the natives call “DC proper,” we searched hard, and found a 450-square foot apartment in a small building on a modest block in Capitol Hill. It has twelve tenants, and the stink of the garbage cans in the alleyway below our windows sometimes engulfs the place during dinnertime. Our hardwood floors are so creaky that when we walk, the bike messenger in the apartment below us actually pounds on her ceiling with a broom. We have an eighty-year old neighbor who safeguards any packages we’re not home to receive, whether we want him to or not. A family of mice scuttles around the trash can below our sink, and armies of bugs take refuge from the swampy, DC air in front of the light electric glow of the television in our living room.
Late the other night, as I sat alone on my couch working, I looked up to see what I’m now convinced was a mutant species of insect, menacing hybrid of a grasshopper and a black widow spider. I don’t know what it was or how it got in, but it was unafraid to hold court for several long, very weird seconds at the center of the room. The thing was so huge it might have had a beard. I lunged for it, but it hopped from one end of the room to the other, never resting in one place. I couldn’t get ahead of it. So I ran to the kitchen and pilfered the cabinets for a weapon, and after about fifteen minutes knocking around my living room, I finally cornered it by the end table and trapped it into a small water glass. In triumph, I rushed to the bedroom and boldly swung open the door to show the monster to my wife, but by that time it was too late. She was long gone. The symphony had already pulled her away into a deep, deep sleep.