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My Year in the Coal Bin

October 29, 2011

Most of my college years were spent in a dormitory. I don’t at all regret this, for it is there that I met some of my lifelong friends, and there that I had some strange and interesting experiences. However, my last year of college found me living in a converted coal bin in the basement of a tenement building in Newark. My run of strange and interesting experiences was destined to continue.

My girlfriend (who was my eventual wife) lived in this building her freshman year. It was owned by an old Polish woman named Mrs. Jasinski who lived in the front rooms on the second floor of the old-style railroad apartment. My girlfriend and her roommate rented a small room in the back, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with their rather intrusive landlady.

It was at this place where I first met my future wife’s parents. I had planned on stopping over for a quick visit before they arrived one Sunday afternoon. I was riding a friend’s motorcycle, a customized black 350 CC monster with no baffles in the muffler — not legal, but mighty loud. At the time I had long hair and a Fu Manchu moustache. I roared up the driveway to the back of the building to suddenly encounter my future in-laws who had arrived early, mouths agape at the sight of the guy their precious little girl was seeing. I can only imagine the conversation in that car on the way home.

The two girls were not thrilled rooming there, as it proved not to be the most convenient of arrangements. Sharing a kitchen and bathroom with Mrs. Jasinski caused all manner of conflict because of her various idiosyncratic rules and regulations. She also had a habit of rummaging through their belongings while they were home for the weekends. They moved out after one year.

I moved in the next, but several floors below. Why, one may wonder, would anyone want to live in a converted coal bin in a tenement basement? A fair question, to be sure. It was not for the drably painted cinder block walls and exposed pipes. It was not for the absence of a bathroom, nor for the tiny windows or bare light bulbs which contributed to the cave-like ambiance. It was certainly not for the noise from the apartment upstairs.

It was for the rent. Fifty dollars a month. That’s $12.50 a week. For a college senior in 1969 who was down to the end of his bank account, that was reason enough.

Home Sweet Coal Bin

Living there did have its perks. I had gotten to know Mrs. Jasinski during my visits with my girlfriend (which she would carefully monitor) the previous year. She kind of took a shining to younger men. I was student teaching at the time at an all girls Catholic high school nearby in Irvington and would often come home late from some activity or other. I would find waiting for me on the floor outside my coal bin door a wax paper covered plate. In it would be Mrs. Jasinski’s homemade golumpkis or pirogues covered with congealed fat.

My nickname back then was Muskie (given to me freshman year in the dorm because of my supposed resemblance to a cartoon character from Deputy Dog). When I would go upstairs to Mrs. Jasinski’s apartment to use the bathroom before bed (remember, no facilities in the coal bin), she would say to me in her drawn-out gravely voice (imagine an 85 year old Polish Kathleen Turner speaking), “Ooohh, Muuusskiee, you like the perooogiiis?”

Part way through the year, my great friend Rob, who went to Montclair State, moved in with me. On the down side, the jail-cell sized room didn’t leave much space to maneuver. But Rob was good company, and it did now make the split rent only $25.

Mrs. Jasinski really took a shining to Rob. I can still hear her crooning every time she’d see us; “Ooohh, Rrroooobbb, you come take a shower tonight, yeeesss?” Rob milked this for all it was worth. He was angling for a further reduction in rent, but it usually meant more cold greasy Polish food left at our door. But I’m convinced it was this relationship that one night saved our hides.

The family above us could be quite noisy. I usually ignored it, but one night it bothered Rob to the point of action. He turned up the stereo (I think it was Janis Joplin). Now, the fellow upstairs looked pretty much like Tony Soprano (and he may very well have been in the same business), so I urged Rob to forget it, but he was hell-bent on his mission. The noise upstairs increased. Rob escalated the situation by cranking up the music full blast, resulting in loud pounding coming from above. Rob then had the bright idea to make use of our tactical advantage of being in the basement, and he flipped off the circuit breakers to the offending party’s apartment. Thankfully Rob had the foresight to lock the door to the basement first, for the thunderous hollering and pounding testified to the fury we would have had to endure. Mrs. Jasinski got down there in record time (she was not a slim woman) to mollify the brute. They moved out shortly thereafter, and I have to believe it was because of the intercession of our amorous protector.

When graduation time arrived, Rob and I packed up our meager belongings, loaded up his old Buick, and prepared to head out. Mrs. Jasinski seemed genuinely sad to see us go. I don’t know if the coal bin was ever rented out again; it probably wasn’t legal in the first place. However, of all the varied places I would end up living in my life, none could ever match the weird homeyness of my year in the coal bin.

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