Bobby Calise remembers the time his old apartment transformed into a dirty jacuzzi of filth.
It was a Sunday morning in April 2007. The rain was coming down hard outside my basement apartment, the perfect excuse to sleep late. The backyard was already starting to look like a moat.
The fridge was empty except for beer, so my breakfast was a basket of Easter candy my mom had given me the week before.
I stepped down from my bed to walk to the bathroom, my only scheduled cardio for the day. The floor felt wet through my socks; I thought maybe I’d kicked over one of last night’s unfinished beer bottles, but the entire floor was a puddle. Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t a spill; the water was coming up through the floor boards.
My roommate, Mike, was an accountant at the tail end of a three-month stretch of 80-hour weeks. It was April 15, Tax Day, and his office had him come in on the last Sunday of the season to tie up any loose ends. He’d already been working every Saturday since mid-January, except for his one allowed “refresher Saturday,” when we hosted a Hoboken St. Patrick’s Day party. I could tell how excited he was for tax season to finally be over. As far as I’m concerned, April 16 may as well be Christmas Morning for an accountant.
I’d met Mike through Nikki, a close friend from high school; Nikki and Mike went to college together. Mike was looking for a new roommate at his place in Hoboken, New Jersey. He’d been unlucky with roommates so far.
When Mike first moved out of his parents’ place and into Hoboken, he’d rented an room in a two-bedroom apartment where another tenant, a woman, was already living. It was clear early on that he and his new roommate weren’t a match. Apparently, he had a bad habit of forgetting to close the kitchen cabinets sometimes, which she abhorred.
After a couple of months and one too many cabinetry calamities, she asked him to move out. So Mike packed up and left one day while she wasn’t home, but not before leaving every cabinet in the kitchen wide open. Take that!
Later, he realized he’d forgotten a couple of items and had to go back. This time she was home. I wasn’t there myself, but I’m sure that encounter wasn’t awkward at all.
I called Mike at work to warn him about the flood. “Listen dude, it’s coming down pretty hard out there and the apartment’s starting to flood. You might want to think about coming home soon.” “OK,” he said. “I’ll get out of here as soon as I can.”
That was around 1 pm. Mike wouldn’t get home until after 6.
For the next several hours, I monitored the water level, which is to say I watched it rise from my ankles to my shins to above my knees.
I called our management company’s emergency line several times. “The sump pump should be pumping the water out,” the voice on the other end calmly explained. “Just hang in there and let it do its job.” I begrudgingly accepted this answer–I’d never even heard the term “sump pump” before–until the storm outside eventually knocked out the electrical power, which meant the sump pump had quit on us for the night.
Mike was in good spirits when he got home from work, despite the circumstances. (After all, it was his Christmas Eve.) Even as our possessions were floating by us in two feet of water, he was making Waterworld jokes. Holding a flashlight up to his face–the living room had become near pitch black since the power had gone out–he said, “Bobby, look at my face. This is the worst moment of my life.” We both laughed at the absurdity of the situation, assuming the worst was over.
The plan was to pack our cars with as much of our stuff as we could fit and seek refuge on higher ground. For Mike that meant crashing at a friend’s place, a non-basement apartment in Hoboken. I was heading to my mom’s on Long Island for the night.
There was one problem with this plan: the defunct sump pump was situated directly underneath the floor just inside our front door. Because the water had gotten so high, the floor panel that covered the sump pump floated away, leaving a treacherous hole right where Mike and I needed to cross in order to make trips to and from our cars. It was only a matter of time before one of us fell in.
It was Mike…while he was carrying the tower from his computer.
When I heard Mike scream, first in surprise (Ahhh!) and then in pain (Owww!), I looked over and saw him only from the waist up. The rest of his six-foot-three frame was in the hole. He looked like he was sitting in a very dirty Jacuzzi.
Then Mike, who just minutes earlier had been cracking jokes, uncorked a stream of profanity so loud and vulgar it was almost comical–though I knew better than to laugh this time. Mike is the most easy-going guy I know, so I was a little scared to see him so riled. I waded over to help him out.
Even in the dark, we could both see he had a deep gash on his shin from the fall. I was worried that with all the filthy water washing over it, he was risking an infection. He shrugged it off and kept moving. The look on his face said, I’ll get a Band-Aid later. It’s time to get the f*ck outta here.
Mike’s calming influence when he’d first gotten home had been a boon to my own deteriorating mental state–I’d been alone, panicking, for the entire day, with nothing in my stomach except for a few Marshmallow Peeps. But now it was clear that he was starting to lose it, too.
Once my car was finally packed with so many garbage bags full of clothes that I could hardly shift from park into drive, I called my mom to tell her I was on my way. I was freezing from wearing the same wet clothes for seven hours straight. I drove the hour to my mom’s house hunched over the steering wheel like an old lady, barely able to see past the windshield, shivering through the full blast of the car’s heater.
I took the next day off from work to regroup, then went in on Tuesday in jeans. In my haste to abandon ship, I’d forgotten to pack a pair of khakis.
When I checked in with the management company, they assured me a service had come in to vacuum out all the water. I went back to the apartment later in the week after work to assess the damage for myself.
When I opened the door I was hit with the smell of damp garbage. (Even at its worst, the apartment never smelled this bad.) The white walls had a brown line about two-and-a-half feet high all around the apartment where the water had sat for days. Anything we couldn’t rescue—random socks, dishes, books—was strewn across the floor.
After just a week away, Mike and I decided to move back in but resolved to find a new place. Our goal was to pay about the same rent and maintain the same proximity to Hoboken’s main drag, Washington Street, and its transportation hub, the PATH station. The only upgrade we requested was something not quite so flood-prone.
But as we visited each real estate office and told them our desired rent, they all sneered. “Try Weehawken,” they said, dismissively, referring to a neighboring town not quite as close to Manhattan as Hoboken. “You’ll never find anything that cheap in Hoboken.”
“Well, we know there’s at least one place that cheap,” we would respond, “because we live there.” Then we’d explain the flooding issues. One woman actually said, “Well for that rent, I’d just stay there forever. Just put your stuff up on cinder blocks!”
In spite of all the “helpful” real estate agents we spoke to, we found a place just three blocks from the old apartment. The rent at the new place was a little higher than we were paying before, but it had something we couldn’t put a price on: it was on the second floor.
Mike and I have shared many inside jokes over the years about The Flood Apartment. Our “mascot,” a mouse that Mike named Darryl, no matter how many times the exterminator killed him. Our legendary St. Patty’s Day parties. Our upstairs neighbor who claimed he “couldn’t get laid because the floor is slanted.”
Last New Year’s Eve, we stopped outside the old place for a Champagne toast along with our significant others, a sort of tribute to the way we used to live, and how far we’d come. But the building wasn’t there anymore–it was an empty lot of rubble.
In February 2010, 128 Park Ave had burnt down. Apparently, the three-alarm blaze was started by a cigarette.
We went ahead and toasted the empty lot anyway, wondering if they’d ever rebuild it, and praying that Darryl(s) made it out OK.
—Photo Gavin Lynn/Flickr