Jim Lyle: “The Basement Apartment” and Other Pieces

Jim Lyle

1. Cultural Lemmings

Many have commented on the instinctive migration of the late ‘50s; we beatniks were cultural lemmings drawn to San Francisco from all over the United States. Somewhere around 1958 or ‘59, I counted 15 personal Kansas college friends and classmates living in Sausalito alone. There were ex-classmates teaching in Hayward State, San Mateo Jr. College, Menlo College, and Stanford. One of the major beat poets was from our stable, as was one of the early publishers of beat poetry. A nationally known producer of “dada” influenced film lived in San Francisco. One alumnus, a costume and set designer, eventually left with Actors Workshop when they moved to Lincoln Center. There were others in more ordinary jobs and pursuits living though-out the bay area. Please understand, these were not just people from the same college — we had been close, involved, and in some cases intimate, friends back in Kansas. Yet, all arrived in California more or less independently.

2. The Basement Apartment

Just east of Wesley Hospital (and nursing school), a meandering small stream draining from a nearby golf course, occasions an irregular patch-work city park. The house, a two story brick with a full basement, was sited on a slight rise facing the park from the north. The neighborhood was upwardly gentile, but was not an expensive high end development.

Gene, Jim, and Dave were tenants in the basement. The local college had no dormitories. The owner, like many others, provided rooms or apartments for students. The basement had been “improved” to contain a kitchen, living room, sleeping room, a furnace room/study hall, and an all purpose combination laundry, shower, water closet, hot water heater, and space heater area. The water closet and shower were combined in the extreme north-west corner by a wooden “stall”. The walls did not reach the floor, or the ceiling. Privacy and shower spray were handled by a fabric curtain. A bit primitive, but compared to some student accommodations, a luxury of space at fifteen dollars each per month. Enough so that the apartment was a message center, drop-in, meeting and trysting place for whole circle of friends.

The back door or the house opened on a small hall and, by stairs descending, served as entrance for the boys. At the foot of the stair run, a parallel passage lead to the kitchen and the furnace room beyond. A left turn from the stairs entered the living room, A right turn immediately encountered the apartment’s gas fired space heater at which point the laundry-bath-shower was to the right, and, beyond a heavy heat deflecting curtain, the sleeping area was to the left. Dave’s bed was straight ahead, Gene’s was at the far south wall, and Jim’s was at the immediate left. The shared sleeping area was dictated in part by space, but also served to allow maximum use of the rest of the apartment if someone was sleeping.

One cold winter mid-afternoon, when Jim, and a friend George, came to the apartment, they heard Gene, a vocal music major, singing while accompanied by the sound of his shower. The inspiration was immediate; after brief conference outside, Jim and George quietly entered and crept down the stairs. Gene was still singing.

In the kitchen, the pranksters drew a large pitcher of ice cold water each and began to stalk to the shower. Gene was still singing. They tiptoed past the old square sheet metal space heater; Gene had it on full blast for his winter time shower. He was still singing. They got to the shower stall; the singing continued. George held up his fist; then silently a finger … one. Then another … two, And then in proper cadence the next … three. Almost two gallons of ice water went over the top of the wooden partition.

Gene screamed and quite literally exploded out of the shower ripping the curtain off the rod. Not knowing how much water was left, he made a desperate lunge for the sleeping area. By now he was past his water slinging tormentors. Slipping, sliding, skating on the polished wet concrete floor, Gene was trying to retain his footing and continue his escape. As he approached the space heater, the fun took a sudden and frightening turn; Jim and George watched in horror as Gene’s legs deserted him. He was falling toward the red hot heater!

And then, a miracle … the combination of Gene’s momentum, the
rotation induced by his lost traction, and pure damned luck
caused him to land, soaking wet buttock to horizontal hot metal
stove top. With a glorious hiss and a cloud of steam marking his
trajectory, the water streaming down his back lubricated his now
graceful slide across the stove, through the heavy blanket curtain, and into Dave’s bed unharmed, unsinged, and slightly dryer.

And that, Students, is how R. E. Bales Ph.D. saved his ass. Someday, I’ll tell you about our plot to print “SHIT” on Dave’s forehead with Gentian Violet. But that’s another story.

© Jim Lyle, 12 February 1997

3. The Sure Failure

My first months in the Air Force, I lived on the second floor of the BOQ, the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters. This was good from a noise standpoint, but not from heat. Save the hospital, the Air Force buildings were not air-conditioned and summers in South Florida, even at the coast, can be miserable. One hundred degrees with a matching humidity percentage is not terribly uncommon. Not at all pleasant.

One hot Saturday afternoon I had to find relief. A quick assessment of available air-conditioned buildings offered bars, stores, the bowling alley, or a movie. I chose the double feature at the theater in downtown West Palm Beach.

The first picture came and went. Then, unexpectedly, the house lights came on. Noises came from behind stage curtains ruffled by activity. After about five minutes, the manager stepped through center curtain and announced we were to have a surprise musical show between features. He introduced, by name, a young singer described as “up and coming.” I had never heard of him, and wasn’t at all interested. But, I either had to listen, or track the manager down to demand a refund. That, and the heat outside, suggested I just sit there and take it.

The band started. The young singer, greased hair hanging in his face, started flailing his guitar and singing. His words were so mumbled and garbled that half the time I couldn’t understand the lyrics. His guitar playing was remarkable only in decibels, and I kept wishing he would pay more attention to the song, his guitar, and singing and less to his rather suggestive and lewd dance gyrations. I remember feeling rather sorry for the kid, I knew he would never make a living singing or as a musician. He was born a looser; a dead sure failure.

The act, mercifully, ended. The second feature came and went. It was now dark outside — and cooler.

Next day the local paper gave the singer a favorable review; I disagreed. That night a really good looking blonde stood me up on a dinner date. The day following, I found out she had stiffed me to accept an arranged date with the awful singer. I never did date her again. Years later I did see her one more time, all of her, as the centerfold in a pin-up magazine.

Her date on the other hand… well I never saw him again, at least in person. But in movies, in magazines, on billboards, and on TV, I saw a lot of him. Starting with and following the Concert in Hawaii I had to admit… Elvis, the sure failure, had learned to sing. He was up and coming.

© Jim Lyle October 2000


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