The great waltz on Packard Street

Saturday, September 26, 2020 - 9:39am

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

 A “Do Not Disturb – in therapy” sign made from college-ruled paper hangs politely on my housemate’s door. A color-coordinated chore chart occupies the dry erase board that hugs the side of our fridge. On it, small, pink “Gs,” marked for every four days, tell me when it’s my turn to do the dishes. Resting on our kitchen island is a cork board, and pinned in the center lies a painfully precise weekly class schedule made from Sharpie and notebook paper. In the bottom left corner of the schedule, there’s a color key signifying that all my classes are written in red, followed by either an “s” for synchronous, or “a” for asynchronous. 

This is the daily scene of my little college apartment on Packard Street — a makeup arranged by the presence of a pandemic.

We’ve entered back-to-school season: COVID-19 edition. A corona-riddled campus means that my similarly hyper-organized housemates and I are doing everything we can to gain some sense of control despite the uncontrollable nature of the virus. But instead of stockpiling toilet paper and hand sanitizers, we’re gearing up with Post-its, weekly planners and other pieces of a stationary arsenal. We even have a secret weapon: A 12-page collaborative Google Doc detailing every conflict resolution, hosting and privacy policy we might need to live harmoniously with COVID-19 as our dreaded fifth prospective housemate.

That’s not to say the road to securing our apartment lease on Packard and gaining this pseudo-control felt nearly as organized. It was quite the opposite. True to the nature of these past pandemic-stricken months, our initial apartment application period was defined by a sense of disorder and haste. 

It began the first week of August. A recent complication with financial aid meant that I was scrambling to secure my status as an aid-receiving University student, so housing was the furthest thing from my mind. During that period, the tethered strings that precariously kept me tied to the University included a housing contract in East Quad Residence Hall, a severely unattractive financial aid offer and about $50 worth of Blue Bucks left on my MCard from freshman year. 

But on that August afternoon, my friend had a proposition for me: Let’s go in on an apartment in Ann Arbor. It would minimize both the financial and COVID-related risks of mid-pandemic dorm life. So, before I had even remedied my financial aid situation and three weeks before fall semester, I applied for an apartment in a house I had never seen on a street I paid no attention to freshman year — a three-bedroom beaut nestled on the second floor of a yellow rental, right by central campus. 

After a few days, our application was approved, we canceled our East Quad housing contracts and signed a twelve-month lease. Thankfully, my financial aid troubles were finally sorted out. I was officially a University student and an Ann Arbor resident.

Much like the apartment search itself, our move-in experience was scattered and dysfunctional. While the old house on Packard Street was undoubtedly marked by charm and age, it consequently was left with a list of maintenance issues as well. Our first walk-through of the apartment was nothing but a survey of broken outlets, botched drawers and blinds, faulty overhead light fixtures, and a generous collection of abandoned furniture and toiletries gifted to us by the previous tenants.

Making the battered and malfunctioning apartment into both a home and learning space would be a project — and an enduring one at that. But as decrepit as our little space on Packard Street was, it felt like paradise after five months quarantined in our respective childhood homes.

Like most other accounts of that surreal, hazy time will tell you, returning to my hometown in Indiana mid-March truly felt like I had regressed to a former self. Just like in high school, my weeknights were spent watching sunsets over cornfields and making ravenous pilgrimages to our neighborhood Kroger for late night snacks. Zoom calls with college friends and waiting in drive-thru lines became notable events.

Existing between the baby blue walls of my childhood bedroom, I would engage in a type of solo dance. Within the limits of a rickety white vanity I had flipped into a kind of writing desk, I worked to overcome the inherently stagnant nature of a work environment mid-pandemic and lined up enough Zoom calls and virtual interviews to mimic my usual, booked-and-busy day on campus. I would even hang the occasional “Do Not Disturb – interview at 12:30” sign on my bedroom door, attempting to draw some sort of boundary between my work space and the rest of the house. At that desk, all scratched up and smudged with makeup, covered with battle scars from my high school years, I could at least pretend like I was back on campus, with all my notebooks splayed out on a beautiful oak table like the ones found in the Law Library. I could at least individually carry the weight of that performance, that dance. 

But in the 1,000-square-foot Packard Street apartment, tucked away in a shaded street by central campus, I’ve joined a group dance — a meticulously choreographed waltz around countertops and workspaces. I do interviews in the living room, with my small-bladdered roommate buzzing in and out of the bathroom behind me. Most mornings, you can hear Residential College language discussion sections overlapping in real time, with the faint sound of Chinese through one bedroom door, Russian through the other and Spanish through mine. On afternoons where virtual therapy sessions overlap, my Spotify plays softly on the living room TV, attempting to drown out the sounds of my housemates’ private appointments. 

And I don’t know what’s more challenging: The required clutch onto independence that living in my childhood bedroom demanded or the desperate pursuit of privacy that is unavoidable when living with three housemates. 

This semester’s hybrid learning format has only reinforced an issue that most college students have been dealing with for years — the quintessential, sock-on-the-door, “do not disturb” phenomenon; finding privacy in a communal living space. 

Last year, I was fortunate enough to work around this issue quite seamlessly. As a Residential College student, I was required to submit my housing contract to East Quad with zero roommate preference; I went random. So, the most I knew about my roommate once move-in day came around was her name and her Instagram handle, and it just about stayed that way through the rest of the year. She was a club gymnast, and I kept busy with work-study jobs and extracurricular responsibilities, so we rarely found ourselves cohabiting our dorm during the day. Our space was nothing more than a place to crash at night. 

But thanks to a series of unfortunate, COVID-related events, this year looks much different. With most of my classes, meetings and work being conducted virtually, my space is a lot more than just a place to crash. I study, interview, give presentations, rest, eat and sleep all in the confines of our little yellow house. 

And fortunately, I’m living with the type of students that have embraced the challenge of the waltz, but I can’t help but think about those who aren’t as lucky, who might be living with the types of students that conflate a COVID-cautious semester with an “off” semester. Or others, who rushed into a lease right before the semester started, only to find that their housemates offer terrible organizational skills, tripping over the steps and leaving the waltz a mess.

Though I’ve traded in the flawlessly-performed solo routine from home for a flimsily thrown-together group waltz, I’m still moving all the same. I feel fortunate and grateful to be able to be back in Ann Arbor, on a track that doesn’t feel so regressive as my living situation at home felt. 

Whether or not the waltz will endure, or if the chore charts and schedules will stay updated and color-coordinated, I do not know. But, if the past six months of ever-evolving living situations have taught me anything, it’s that there’s peace in staying in the now, and dancing in the present.


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