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Commentary: Wish I hadn't gone there

Many of us have gotten creative during this economic downturn. People who can't sell their house search the Internet for someone to trade properties with. The New York Times carried a story about caretakers who live in people's vacation homes off season or in the palatial digs of those who travel extensively. The story reminded me of my own long-ago financial crisis. Newly married and in college, my husband and I learned we were expecting. To cut expenses, we asked the owner of our complex if he had a caretaking job at one of his other campus buildings. Something with two bedrooms. The only available job was at his two-building property on University Avenue, but the empty unit was a one-bedroom. He assured us something larger would open up before our baby arrived. We barely looked at the place because we knew our stay would be short-lived but the night we moved in, the cracked black linoleum with pink swirls that covered every inch of the floor made me cry.

I cried about the messy, rowdy students who lived in the building, too. Three, four and often more lived together and I don't know when they studied. Every weekend was a beer bash. They thought they were smart to invite us but we never went. We didn't have to. We heard every song and fight. Many nights, we were awakened by someone who'd had too much to drink and wanted help finding out whose car was blocking theirs. Sometimes, the parties moved outside for all of Minneapolis to hear. Winter came, temperatures dropped and there were fewer parties but no one moved so we could have a larger place. Meanwhile, we cleaned up after slobs -- scrubbing floors, washing windows and walls. We collected rent and empty cans left wherever anyone pleased.

I'll never forget the afternoon a student in our building told us he was worried about the professor who lived down the hall. He hadn't seen him for awhile and smelled something as he walked past his door. Like a dead body, he said. We called the owner of the building who tried to reach the teacher by phone. No luck. He instructed us to knock loudly on the door a few times. If no one answered, use the master key and enter the unit slowly, calling out the man's name. Like private eyes, flashlight in hand, we were on the case that night. We knocked, opened the door, and were greeted by a shoulder-high maze of yellowed newspapers. We maneuvered to the bedroom and then, the kitchen. My heart pounded so hard I could have awakened the dead but no one -- dead or alive -- was there. The half-opened refrigerator was full of green and black fuzzy food.

"I'm going to throw up," I yelled to my husband. "Get me out of here." We wound our way back through the newspapers, locked the door behind us, and ran to our apartment. Had we checked the bathroom? We couldn't remember but were afraid to return. A few days later, I heard a noise in the hall and looked through my peephole. I watched the prof unlock his door, pick up grocery bags, and go inside. I was dying to ask if he'd piled up all those newspapers so he wouldn't have to look at the ugly black and pink linoleum but whenever I saw him, I didn't dare look him in the eye. I already knew too much.