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hard to be a bon vivant when your friends call you Scratchy.
By David Perrelli
All of my
friends were moving off campus, so I figured I should do the same.
I was getting tired of dorms anyway, and Id always nurtured dreams of
hosting lavish partiesthe kind that needed space and a kitchen.
was a bleak business. I was conducted by real-estate agents through a
disheartening array of dingy basement dives and cramped garrets. Nothing
seemed to fit. I wasnt quite sure what I was looking for, but I knew
that I would recognize it when I found it. On my list, there was one last
place to view. I wasnt expecting much, really; it wasnt being offered
through any of the local real-estate companies, and it was a little far
from campus. Walking there took me through unfamiliar parts of West Philly.
When I finally found the house, Sal, the landlords agenta portly, balding
man who smoked Parliament Liteswas waiting for me on the porch. He unlocked
the door and led me inside. The house was vacant and smelled of neglect.
On the ground floor were a spacious living room with a stained-glass bay
window, a large dining room and a larger kitchen. There were two staircases;
the back one, which was more like a ladder, had been for servants, presumably.
Upstairs were two bedrooms and, towards the front of the house behind
a pair of French doors, a room so large it looked like a place to play
squash. The floors were oak. In the bathroom, I noticed tiles covered
with pouty cherubs holding boisterous butterflies on leashes. There were
three working fireplaces, bullseye moldings and a basement with a washer
and dryer. The refrigerator even had those little spigot things in the
door for cold water and crushed ice. The rent Sal quoted was less than
what it cost to live on campus in a space the size of the hall closet,
and it included all the utilities. I couldnt sign the lease fast enough.
The fun began
in earnest after that. I logged onto e-Bay and bought a grand piano somebody
in California was selling cheap. My aunt and uncle donated a set of worn,
though elegant, Italian leather furniture theyd acquired in the eighties.
I went to Crate & Barrel and selected two sets of dishesone for everyday
use, and one for entertaining. I afterwards picked up, second-hand, an
oval dining table. It was fruitwood and could be opened to seat 15. My
grandmother had just moved out of her house and into a nursing home; I
inherited a sleek, Art-Deco sideboard; miscellaneous kitchen items; a
collection of jazz LPs; and a Bang & Olufsen turntable. I went to
Home Depot, where I bought 17 gallons of paint and eight potted orchids.
After all that, I spent a month setting up, and everything looked pretty
good when I was finished. The overall effect was minimalist chic. I painted
the dining room a pale mint. I was striving for an 18th-century Scandinavian
look, I told friends. For my bedroom I selected a brooding mocha, and
for the front room, which Id turned into a library, a sophisticated shade
of slate. The piano arrived. I supervised the movers as they placed it
in the living room near the bay window. Its a Blüthner, I would
tell my guests. Liszt and Brahms both had one. Look at the sympathetic
Early in the
semester, I held a housewarming party. I wore a tuxedo and served boeuf
à la mode while Marlene Dietrich oozed from the turntable. Aside
from a few tipsy friends inadvertently hurling themselves down the precipitous
back staircase, the evening was a rollicking success and everybody agreed
that Id thrown together a pretty respectable pad. I was pleased with
I paid for my hubris.
Fleas are amazing
little creatures. They can jump eight feet at once in less than a second.
They can reproduce rapidly at room temperature (one female can spawn over
4,000 new fleas in one month), making your home a perfect all-season environment.
They can hide deep within the confines of upholstery, carpeting and bedding,
making their elimination extremely difficult. The flea life cycle consists
of five stages: Egg, larva, pupa, adult, eggand eggs can lie dormant
for up to 90 days. Most common is the cat flea, which can carry typhus,
tapeworms, even bubonic plague.
Mine were cat
fleas, I later learned. Although the cat was conspicuously absent from
the equation, they seemed quite content to make do with me. I counted
25 red bumps on my legs. I showered, dressed and went to class, wondering
what to do. People eyed me suspiciously because I kept scratching myself,
and I began to wonder if the fleas might not have crept into my clothing
to feed off me at their leisure as I went about my business. When I got
home that evening, the true absurdity of the situation hit me: How could
I have fleas? Where were they living? Where do fleas live in a minimalist
decor? I didnt even own an area rug. As far as I could gather, their
favorite haunts included the lime-green Danish Modern sofa in my dressing
room and my bed. I decided to take action. In the basement, I found a
can of something broadly entitled home pest control. With it, I misted
the floors, hoping for an easy solution to my predicament, and went to
bed. When I woke up, there were twice as many bites on my legs, and new
ones on my arms, chest and hands. Now I began to worry. You have to get
flea bombs, my mother told me over the telephone, when I called her,
desperate. That will take care of them.
So I went to
CVS and bought a bunch. Careful to cover the orchids and the bowl of decorative
fruit on the dining room table, I placed one in each room, broke the tabs,
and fled, holding my breath, as the house filled with noxious gas. Back
on campus, I sat in the library, gleefully assuring myself that this time,
Id really dropped the big one on my irritating little friends, and wondered
how long it would take for my bites to clear up. I waited an hour beyond
the recommended time for reoccupation of treated premises, and went home
with as much confidence as I dared. I uncovered the fruit and the orchids,
made myself an espresso, and sat down in the living room. I felt a slight
stinging sensation, and looked down just in time to see a black speck
propel itself from my hand to the far side of the room. I did not finish
my espresso, but instead left the house again to walk the streets and
to plan the next stage of my campaign.
took me back to CVS. This time, it was to buy an assortment of soothing
salves and ointments. Im sure I did not cut a glamorous figure in the
checkout line, laden with calamine lotion and tubes of cortisone. A pretty,
young woman eyed me with distaste as I bashfully placed my purchases on
the counter. Back home, I washed my bedclothes for the second time in
as many days, and called my mother to report that the bombs had failed.
Buy some more and try again, she said. By then, CVS had closed, so I
made my bed and went to sleep, hoping for the best. I awoke the next morning
to a familiar sight.
Now I really
started to worry. I called the landlord; he refused to pay for an exterminator.
So I bought the additional bombs my mother had suggested, but this too
failed to check the invaders relentless advance. They were everywhere,
in every room. Theyd even found their way into the basement. There was
nowhere to run. The score was fleas 3, David 0. This arrangement lasted
for about another week. I kept buying flea bombs, and the fleas kept refusing
to die. My friends started calling me Scratchy. I fell behind in
my course work. The mocha sheets Id selected to match my bedroom walls
were becoming worn and faded from daily washing. I couldnt even entertain,
fearing the wrath of my friends should the epidemic spread to their houses
On one of the
records Id looted from my grandmother, Billie Holliday sings a song called
Good Morning, Heartache. I could kind of identify with it: Good morning,
fleas, thought we said goodbye last night; good morning, fleas, here we
go again; good morning, fleas, sit down. I told my mother that the bombs
just werent working. I dont see how thats possible, she said.
These were days
of darkness and torment for me. Although I seldom saw them, the fleas
became an obsession. They were always in my mind. I would sit, counting
the bites on my body, and calculate how many new fleas my blood would
bring into the world, and how many times their descendents would bite
me, and their descendents descendents. I wondered how I would ever be
rid of them. What if, when I moved, they managed to conceal themselves
in my belongings? They would move with me. They would infest my new home,
and the next and the next, nipping at my legs and drinking my blood for
the rest of my miserable life. All it would take was one. Just one nimble
bug, the size of a period. I imagined myself driven mad eventually, pushed
over the edge, gibbering like a maniac as I scattered gasoline throughout
the house and set it ablaze.
One night I woke
up. I couldnt go back to sleep for the unbearable itching, so I went
downstairs and made myself a cup of tea, which I sat drinking at the kitchen
table. I looked at the clock on the microwave. It was after four. As I
sat there, I wondered where it had all gone so terribly wrong. How could
I have landed myself in such a mess? Fortune, for whatever reason, had
decided to smite my attempt at gracious living, but, worse, it had done
so in such a humiliating and ridiculous way. And then it suddenly occurred
to me that Id transformed myself, at age 21, into a bourgeois idiot.
I was living my life out of order. I owned things I should not, like egg
cups and martini picks. College wasnt supposed to be like that. It wasnt
supposed to be black-tie parties and fruitwood tables and mocha walls.
I longed for my efficient little dorm room, tomato soup on a hotplate,
a campus around me, and most of all, an absence of bloodsucking vermin.
The tea got cold, and I went back to bed with a heavy heart.
triumphed over the fleas, but I will not bore you with the process. It
required professional intervention. On repeated occasions. The little
wretches are a memory now, and the bites have healed pretty well. Despite
the fact that my house has been sprayed with enough pesticide to kill
every bug in town, I seem reasonably healthy, and have become my old self
once again. With one possible exception: As this year draws to a close,
Ill be moving out of my apartment. And when I do, I will leave a humbler
man. And I think, in the future, that I will always regard the verb to
host with a bitter irony.
is a senior English major from Guilford, Connecticut.
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Gazette Last modified 3/6/01