This is actually based on a true story, and this is an original story for your reading this fine autumn evening. Now, while the narrator is first person, you should not assume the narrator is me. While I’ve documented some of my thoughts on narrators, I do occasionally try to write with different narrators just to hone the craft of writing, and this particular story seemed well-suited to a first person narrator. The names have been changed to protect the guilty and innocent alike. This makes for a long blog entry, but trust me the story is short (only seven pages on my word processor).
“Fool me Twice”
“What the hell?” I looked around the one-bedroom apartment with its sheer amount of junk spilling out of every corner and my second thought was the same as the first, only with more emphasis. “What the HELL?”
Allow me to pause in the narrative a moment for some exposition. It is said that weddings and funerals are fabulous crucibles of stress that reveal a person’s true character. I will add that a moving day can also serve this purpose, although moving days are so common that unless one is the middle of them, one doesn’t generally think of the stress involved as one might with a wedding or funeral. I have moved several times, both myself and others. Generally moving is a thankless and grueling task that relies on the generosity of your friends to help move your stuff for little more than pizza and beer. But, in theory, you’d do the same for them. In practice, however, this crucible can reveal the true character of your friends, and the results can be either enlightening or discouraging. Please understand I know that my own character is being revealed for your judgment.
I looked at the faces in the apartment. My friend Joe, who is normally a laid-back kind of guy, looked ready to put his fist through a wall. My friend Alton just looked tired. Marie and Oliver were obviously desperately seeking an escape route. I was surprised to see them there since their friendship with Rich and Genny had been somewhat strained the past several months. Rich, who shared the cockroach-infested firetrap with his girlfriend Genny, looked like a man who knew he was in over his head. As for Genny, there was no sign of her.
We had gathered to help Rich and Genny move out of the 450 square foot third-floor walk-up apartment to a new, and much nicer place, about a short dozen blocks away. They had just graduated college and were celebrating Rich’s new-found employment with a place that was not the aforementioned cockroach-infested firetrap. Said firetrap had a simple floor plan, as there wasn’t much space for a complicated floor plan. The front door opened into the living room. To the right was the bathroom and an oversized closet that was nearly the size of the bathroom. To the left was a kitchen so narrow that opening the refrigerator door blocked it completely, and next to that was the bedroom. That’s all there was to the place. Now, I also knew Genny was quite the pack-rat, especially of clothes and books. And I knew everything would have to be carted down the stairs, which slows down the process. The weather was good, however. I think two people could move all the stuff in such a place in a day by themselves, provided they were properly prepared. “Properly prepared” being the key phrase.
As I understood the plan, Rich and Genny started moving at 9 AM. Alton was scheduled to show up at 2 PM and Joe at 4 PM to accommodate their college schedules, and I was scheduled to show up at 6 PM to accommodate my college schedule. Marie and Oliver weren’t even in the plan. Quite frankly, I expected to arrive and find all that needed to be done was some cleaning. And yet, here it was, nine hours after Rich and Genny had supposedly started moving, four people helping including the unexpected help of Marie and Oliver, and the only sign of moving that I could discern was that the massive DIY entertainment center and bookshelf had been cleaned off and the couch was missing. Clothes, books, and papers filled the living room, bedroom, and oversized closet.
“WHAT the HELL?” I thought, sizing up the situation before me. It was obvious that Rich and Genny had done absolutely no packing. Now, I realize everyone operates a little differently, especially with such a complex task, but I thought everyone knew the basic principle of moving, that is, you have to pack your stuff. I took a breath and then took charge of the situation. “Rich, where are the boxes?”
“Right there,” he said, gesturing to a half-filled 3 foot by 3 foot box sitting in the middle of the living room.
“Where are the rest of the boxes? For the rest of your stuff?” I asked.
He sort of shrugged. “I only got one box. I figured since the new place was so close I’d just fill up one box, take it to the new place, unload it, and come back here and fill it up again.”
“You were going to move using a bucket brigade?” I asked incredulously.
“Well, yeah. I didn’t want to buy a bunch of boxes or get a truck for such a short trip.”
I took a deep breath and reassessed the situation. This explained why nothing was packed, anyway, although it didn’t make the task before me any easier. Clearly the bucket brigade method wasn’t going to work. That mess needed to be containerized. “Do you have garbage bags?”
“Garage bags? Like in the kitchen?” he asked, puzzled.
“Yes. Bring them here.”
He went into the filthy kitchen and brought me a box of standard sized 13 gallon garbage bags.
“Rich, Alton, move the furniture out of here. Marie, Oliver, load up that box with anything that will fit. Take some bags and start shoving clothes into them. Joe, you and me will tackle the bedroom.”
No one objected to my ordering them around. They all hopped to and I took the opportunity to talk to them outside of Rich’s earshot to figure out where Genny was and how everything had gone so wrong.
First I went over to Marie and Oliver, who were gamely trying to clean out the closet.
“So what happened? I thought you two were busy,” I said.
“We didn’t plan on coming,” Marie snapped. “But we were coming back from lunch around one and Rich happened to walk by. He asked if we’d come over and help. We didn’t want to, but we didn’t want to be rude either. Anyway, we figured they were probably close to done, right?”
“Right,” Oliver said wryly.
“Well, I’m pretty shocked the apartment is like this too. Where’s Genny?” I asked.
“We don’t know. She wasn’t here when we got here. We just tried to clean off that entertainment center thing and bookshelf,” he said.
“It’s not our stuff,” Marie said defensively. “We didn’t know what was supposed to go where and Rich wasn’t being a big help.”
That explained why the presence of the extra people hadn’t really sped up the process. With no boxes, there was no place to put anything unless they wanted to move one armful of clothes down the stairs at time. With no organization, they had no idea what papers could be thrown out, what needed to be kept, and what was ready to go to the car. I joined Joe in the bedroom.
“She’s not here,” he growled, angrily stuffing clothes in bags. “I asked Rich why she wasn’t here and he said she started to feel bad around eleven and just decided to stay in the new place and take it easy. I helped him move that box over there. She’s just sitting in a chair drinking soda with a blanket wrapped around her. It’s over 60 degrees outside and she’s in a blanket!”
Well, that explained a lot as well. Rich had been left to move on his own since eleven. Still, I was puzzled that more progress hadn’t been made between Rich and Genny for the two hours they worked together, or the other two Rich was on his own. When I got a minute to talk to Alton, I got that answer.
“So Genny isn’t helping us today?” I asked, as we carted some bags of clothes down to the car.
“You know how she gets,” he said with a sigh.
“But why aren’t they farther along? Didn’t they start at nine?”
“Well, yes, but apparently the new place requires carpeting over 90% of the floor and they don’t provide it.”
“Yeah, it is, but that’s the rule. So Rich bought a bunch of big throw rugs to cover the floor, which is fine. If he doesn’t want the carpet, it’ll be easy to get rid of when they move out. But instead of loading it in the car and driving over to the new place, he decided to carry the rugs over.”
“What, one at a time?” I asked.
“Well, Genny wasn’t going to help. You know how she says her arms are weak,” he said with a slight shake of his head.
“But why didn’t he load up a lot in the car? I mean, I know he’s got a hatchback, but he could put the passenger seat down,” I said.
“I don’t know. But he spent the morning walking over rugs. And he wrenched his back out.”
“Of course he did. Some of those things weigh 80 pounds! He’s not exactly in great shape either.”
“I know,” Alton said. “But it’s too late now. He didn’t really get to start moving until I got here around 2. Marie and Oliver were trying to load up that box, but they weren’t going very fast.”
“Well, they didn’t know what was supposed to go where. And they weren’t even going to be here, so I’m sure that didn’t make them move any faster.”
He nodded. “I wondered why they were here.”
“Well, since they are here, we’ll make this work out,” I said with a sigh. “I hope you and the others don’t mind me telling them what to do.”
Alton shrugged again. “Hey, everyone knows you moved a lot as a kid, probably more than the rest of us. And if it gets us done, well, I’m not going to get mad at you.”
Progress was starting to be made. The bags of clothes were being loaded into the car. Everyone seemed to be moving a little faster now that they had an assignment. Let it not be said I didn’t do my best. Sure, it probably wasn’t nice to throw Genny’s unsorted clothes into garbage bags but we really didn’t have a lot of options.
The final room was the kitchen. Kitchens are always tricky to pack because that’s where the food is, and items to eat the food. There are a couple of ways around this which include eating take-out for a week, or eating sandwiches off of paper plates. Rich and Genny had opted to do nothing. The dishes hadn’t even been washed. Of course, they didn’t have a dishwasher, and I imagine they often put off washing dishes for that reason. However, since they knew they were moving, they should have washed their dishes.
I pulled out the stash of plastic grocery bags out. “Alton, Joe, please load the food into these. The food came out of these, so this should work.”
They set to work cleaning out the refrigerator and cabinets.
“Marie, Oliver, use these to wrap plates and glasses,” I said, handing them more grocery bags. I wondered if in the years of shopping trips they’d ever thrown any bags out. Still, the stockpile was a benefit in this case since they hadn’t thought to stock up on newspaper to wrap up their dishes. “I guess since we don’t have any boxes, put the cups and plates in the pots to protect them and load that up in the box. The plastic stuff can just be tossed on the top. But don’t make it too heavy. That box is way to big for just dishes.”
They set to work on this task. Rich was taking care of some odds and ends in the bathroom, which no one wanted any part of. And what did I do? I washed their dirty dishes. There were a lot of dirty dishes.
The last box was loaded up around 10:30. I stayed to help Rich with the final cleaning, although I doubted he was going to get his deposit back. The place was pretty run-down to begin with, but it was clear that two years of their occupancy hadn’t improved matters. Finally around 11 we were all over at the new place. And yes, Genny was just sitting in a chair in the living room wrapped in a blanket.
“So, who wants pizza?” Alton asked, looking meaningfully at Rich.
Rich, notably, said nothing.
“Oh, no thanks. It’s late and we should be going,” Marie said, taking Oliver’s hand and both made a hasty exit before anyone else could object. I couldn’t blame them. But I was hungry, and apparently Joe and Alton were as well. And at least for my part, I wanted the pizza I was promised. I found out later despite Alton reminding Rich and Genny they had promised us dinner, the most Rich would do was drive Alton to the pizza place. Alton paid for the pizza. Not Rich. Not Genny. Alton did that in an effort to soothe the bad feelings stirred up by the whole affair. I didn’t get home until after midnight.
So, in theory, Rich’s moving day was 20 hours long. I showed up the latest and I still helped for five hours. It took six people a total of 61 man-hours to move two people out of a one-bedroom apartment. I worried for the fate of the new apartment. It was probably closer to 650 square feet. The front door opened into a very large living room. At the far side was a kitchen with an eat-in booth. Next to that was the bathroom, and next to that was a bedroom. With Genny being the pack-rat she was, what would the place look like the next time they wanted to move?
So what did I learn from this experience? I learned Rich and Genny were largely clueless about the most basic logistics of moving. I learned that Genny couldn’t be counted on in a tough situation. I learned that Marie and Oliver’s friendship with Rich and Genny went from strained to non-existent. I learned that Joe’s friendship with Rich and Genny was strained after that. Rich and Genny took advantage of our generosity. Rich and Genny took advantage of Alton’s generosity in paying for the one thing they said they would do in return for the help they received. Honestly, only Alton’s friendship with them emerged unscathed. Shame on Rich and Genny for their behavior.
Fast forward a few years later. Now married, Rich and Genny bought their first house on the other side of town. They wanted help moving and they asked their friends who were still in town and still their friends. This was a shorter list than a few years prior, although not entirely due to their behavior. Several people moved away as they finished their college careers. Then again, Marie and Oliver, who were still in the same town, had pretty much not spoken to Rich and Genny since the first move. I was not a complete sucker. As I had more interaction with Rich than Genny, I told Rich point-blank that he and Genny needed to pack or I was not going to help them. I asked Rich often as moving day approached if they had packed yet. I might have been a bit rude and actually nagged him about packing. Unlike Genny, Rich seemed to understand a whole lot of people had been ticked off by the last moving day debacle. He assured me that packing was occurring. In fact, an old friend from his home town had recently moved to the city and was staying with them until he could find a house. His friend, Roy, had agreed to help them pack. Personally, I don’t think a houseguest should have to do that, but perhaps Roy felt obligated since Rich was letting him crash at the apartment for free. It’s also worth noting that Roy had been in a bad car accident ten years prior and had messed up his back and shoulders and therefore couldn’t move heavy loads.
Here was Rich’s master plan. He had actually rented a truck and bought some boxes. He estimated that two trips should take care of all their stuff. The new house was a 45 minute drive from the old house. The moving crew was scheduled to arrive at 1 PM. There were two important deadlines to keep in mind. The truck was due back by 9 PM, or Rich would have to pay for another day. But more importantly, the lease was up at midnight, so the keys had to be in the drop box or else Rich would be charged rent and other penalties for another day.
The moving crew this time consisted of me, Alton, Rich’s friend Roy, our friend Jay, our friend Jerry, and Jerry’s brand new girlfriend Ami who was clearly very sweet (or Jerry was pretty clueless if he asked his new girlfriend to help his friends move, but that’s not the point). Genny was sitting out on the entire event. She was going to take down wallpaper in the new house. Now, I will say I’ve fought with wallpaper before and I understand that’s a time-consuming task. “Surely,” I thought to myself, “Genny feels that this is something that must be done immediately and not just an excuse for her to get out of helping her own husband and all her friends move all her stuff again. Surely that’s the case.” I tried to be charitable, but I had doubts. I also questioned the wisdom of removing wallpaper instead of ensuring all of her stuff was out of that apartment before the lease was up. Yes, there were seven of us total to move that apartment, but the more the merrier, as they say.
Well, in this case the more appropriate old saying would have been, “Misery loves company.” Roy was already at the apartment with Rich and the other five of us showed up at 1 PM as planned to help them load up the truck. I’ll admit; I was a little worried to begin with. I was not assured by Rich’s packing updates. It had taken 61 man-hours to move the last time. We had an eight-hour window which was cut short by the driving time for two trips. That reduced the practical moving time to a five-hour window. With seven people, that was only 35 man-hours. But Rich had assured me the packing was done. Then I walked into the apartment.
“What the HELL?” I thought.
Rich and Genny didn’t have a lot in the way of furniture. They had acquired a new couch and chair that were tucked into the far right corner with slight space between them. But the far left side of the living had a desk. Or least, there was probably a desk at the origin of the tidal wave of papers that spilled across half the long living room. No work had been done in the kitchen at all and there were still dirty dishes in the sink (still no dishwasher). The boxes Rich had purchased were filled with Genny’s clothes and books and there weren’t enough. I didn’t even venture into the bathroom.
I looked at the faces of my friends. Jay, at least, had heard the epic saga of the first moving day, and Alton of course was there. Jerry and Ami were just aghast. “Can we talk a minute?” I asked.
Rich and Roy were loading up a box in the bedroom, but that didn’t mean they weren’t paying attention. Still, they left us alone as we huddled.
“Rich said he packed!” I snapped.
“Well, he’s got a different idea of packing,” Jay said mildly.
“I told him that I wasn’t going to do this again! I told him I wasn’t going to pack his stuff!” I was really mad.
“But Rich doesn’t have the money to pay the landlord if he doesn’t get out tonight,” Alton said. “Besides, Roy will have to work that much harder and he’s not in the shape to move anything.”
I looked around at everyone else, and realized that although they were angry, they were willing to err on the side of compassion. I sighed to myself. “Alright. We’ll do this, I guess.”
We broke up the huddle. Jay and I would start getting rid of papers while the others helped load up the furniture, which was going first.
“Just shove everything into bags,” I said to Jay in a low voice, outside of Rich’s earshot. “We have no time to sort through this and figure out what’s important and what’s not.”
“I agree,” he said, and started on the mess of papers that covered the two couches.
I tackled the desk. Genny, having graduated college, was working part-time on a graduate degree in the liberal arts. As she did not work, cash was a little tight so she didn’t have a laptop to take with her to classes. She wrote down all her assignments on actual paper. That’s why the desk was so covered. When she sat down to watch TV, she just brought paper with her, which is why the couches were so covered. There were also various pieces of mail mixed in. I hoped she had entered in everything she needed on the computer and that the bills had been separated from the flood of mail because it all went into the trash bags.
The others got the truck loaded up and headed out on the first trip. Jay and I were still throwing away trash. Silence descended as we waited for everyone to come back and continued to throw away trash.
Suddenly Jay burst out laughing. “I’ve found it. You need to come see this.”
Puzzled, I paused in my cleaning and walked over to Jay. He was pointing down into the clear space in the corner where the couch and chair touched.
“It lost. I found it,” he said, and started to laugh that much harder.
I looked down. Hidden by the furniture and long forgotten, a Dustbuster sat on the floor, completely covered in dust. I also burst out laughing. Clearly one of the main elements of the universe is irony. After a few minutes mocking our own situation, we returned to our work. We were not done throwing away trash until the moving crew had returned.
“I can’t believe they did this again,” I growled to Alton during a water break.
“At least you weren’t in the bedroom.”
“Well, let’s just say now I know what method of birth control Rich and Genny use and can hazard a guess at how often they have to use it.”
I worked out what his diplomatic reply actually meant and then put my head in my hands. “They couldn’t even clean up the wrappers?”
“Rich said he did, before got here. I guess he didn’t bother to look under the bed,” Alton said wryly.
“How much is left?” I sighed, thinking, “If that’s the condition of the bedroom, I really glad I’m staying the hell out of the bathroom again.”
“Everything else. But most of it is packed, more or less.”
“Which leaves the kitchen. Again.” I entered the kitchen and looked around critically. It was getting late in the day to wash most of their dishes.
Ami walked into the kitchen behind me. “Um, so what can I do?”
I pulled out the stash of grocery bags. “Start loading the food up into these. I’ll pack the dishes.”
She wrinkled her nose. “They’re dirty. They didn’t even wash their dishes?”
“Nope. They didn’t last time either. And I’m not washing them again. I know it’s not nice, but I’m going to pack their dishes dirty.”
Ami shrugged and started to unload the cabinets. “Hey, that’s their problem. If Jerry hadn’t asked me to stay, we would have left. But he said that Rich and Genny have been his friends since college, so I decided to help. But I wouldn’t wash their dishes either.”
I felt a little better. “Right. We agreed to move their stuff, not pack it.”
So Ami bagged all their food and I packed up their dishes. I did mark on the boxes, “dirty dishes.” Typically people unpack their dishes first on account of needing them to eat of off them, but given the obvious laziness on their part, I wasn’t going to bet on that. At least Rich and Genny would get fair warning. This time I helped load up the truck.
“Hi,” Roy said, walking up to me.
“Would you like to ride over with me in the truck?”
I barely knew Roy.
“Go on,” Alton said. “You should get to know him since he’s going to be around for a while.”
“Sure, why not?” So I rode with Roy, who got stuck with the task of driving the moving truck even though it was Rich’s move. It turned out to be a good thing. Roy was pretty funny and managed to distract me from how angry I was. I felt a lot better by the time we got to Rich and Genny’s house.
When it came time to unload the truck, I stayed in the truck and handed off items to the others. I didn’t really want to go into the house and face Rich or Genny. The boxes marked “dirty dishes” made me angry all over again.
But finally the truck was unloaded and it was time to figure out who was going to drop it off. Jerry and Ami made a very hasty exit and I could only hope Jerry was going to treat her to a nice dinner. I went inside and found Rich.
“These boxes have dirty dishes,” I said, pointing to the marked boxes. “You’ll need to unpack these first so you can wash them.”
He nodded and responded that he understood, but I wasn’t so sure.
Genny came down stairs to say hello to everyone. I noticed that she had a box of french fries with her and I wondered if an offer of dinner was still forthcoming. Then she started to complain about how hard it was trying to take down wallpaper.
“She’s taken down about three square feet,” Alton muttered.
I was startled. Genny had spent eight to ten hours and only removed three square feet? How in the world had that happened?
As though in reply to my thoughts, Genny said, “And the wallpaper remover stuff started to make me feel sick, so I had to just stop for a while and get some air. I really wanted to get more done today, but I just couldn’t.”
I was ready to give her a piece of my mind and a very angry piece at that.
“So, how about dinner?” Roy interrupted, as though sensing the impeding tirade.
Rich and Genny made a vague offer for dinner without much enthusiasm or sincerity.
“Let’s just go take the truck back,” I said.
Jay had reached his limit and just decided to leave. Roy was going to drive the truck and asked me to ride with him again. Alton offered to trail us with the car so he could drop Roy back off at Rich and Genny’s and give me a ride home as well.
But I couldn’t leave without saying something. I didn’t want to start a fight or anything, but I felt they needed to know that they had taken advantage of the kindness of their friends and that it was not acceptable. “Never again,” I said to both of them as I prepared to leave.
“What?” Genny said, obviously baffled by my anger. Rich seemed less surprised.
“I will never do this again,” I snapped, nearly shouting. Then I turned around and walked away.
Roy tried to cheer me up on the way back to the truck rental. Alton offered to take us both to dinner since it was obvious even if Rich and Genny were sincere in their offer for dinner I wasn’t about to accept.
I remained friends with Rich and Genny for a little while after that, although our friendship was significantly strained. I had to move within a few years and Rich offered to help, and so brought Genny along. She was pregnant at the time, but offered to at least hold open doors. Then she had the nerve to make snippy remarks to Marie (yes, the same Marie from the first move) about how she would have been so much more organized. Marie was apparently left at a loss for words, which is very unusual for her. Worse still, Genny somehow assumed my anger at the whole moving debacle was the result of Roy! Roy was the person who calmed me down. But Genny didn’t much like Roy, so it was easier to blame him than acknowledge her own astounding self-centeredness, even though I am certain all the packing that occurred was either done by Roy directly or at Roy’s direction.
So what did I learn? Rich and Genny didn’t learn from past experiences very well. They didn’t learn how to prepare for a move and in the larger sense they didn’t learn to not take advantage of the generosity of others. I learned people will err on the side of compassion. I learned that’s not always the right choice. To this day, I’m not sure Rich and Genny fully understand the consequences of their actions. And I learned the truth of the old adage. I was fooled twice, so shame on me. But hopefully I’ve also learned not to be taken advantage of, and how to choose my friends more carefully.