The opening pages of this chapter were written in response to a writing prompt from Sarah White’s UW mini-course “Start Writing Your Memoir.” This is unedited first draft copy. -Chris
I’m trying something different here. Chris is a long-form writer. One of the longest-form writers I know; he can take 5000 words to get around to the story he wants to tell–and 4900 of them will have you on the edge of your chair or splitting your sides laughing. He’s nearing completion on a memoir about his Peace Corps experience in Latvia… 100,000 words of it. I’m presenting the first 800 words of this excerpt from Chapter XXVI in this post, with the rest of the excerpt on a linked page. -Sarah
One of the surest ways to pinpoint where you are in the world order is to examine your water acquisition system and how familiar you are with it.
Does your water spring, 99.999% pure, eternal and eager, from a brushed-nickel, swan’s neck tap in an immaculate kitchen? Is it heated or cooled to your exact specifications? Well, I say, “congratulations!” Not only do you express yourself in an oddly pre-meditated fashion for a person answering a simple question, but you also seem to have fetched up in the first world–a good draw, all things considered; check out TGIFridays, it’s pretty solid for a chain place.
Now lets look at your relationship to this water source. Do you carelessly jam a mug under the tap to make yourself some Peaches n’ Cream instant oatmeal on your way to karate class and soccer practice before flute lessons? I’d say you’re pretty close to home. If, on the other hand, your first reaction to the discovery of an eternal source of safe, pre-heated or cooled water was to camp near it to make sure it didn’t vanish during the night, I’d say, “welcome!” For I judge you to be a visitor from the third world.
In a broad strokes fashion, a person’s relationship to his water says a lot about not only him, but the people he comes from. People who share water, or at least water with the same features, are probably members of the same or similar tribes. My tribe, as I’ve said, hailed from two small islands off the Eastern Coast of North America. One of these Islands we called the “Long Island,” and the other we called “Manhattan.”
Humans from the islands “Long” and “Manhattan” were accustomed to having easy access to water all year. Although our water took a while to heat up, hot water was not a novelty to us, and the only complication we experienced in bathing was when someone in the same building flushed his toilet, thereby ratcheting up the heat about 300 degrees in .4 seconds and causing us to come crashing through our shower curtains like a football team breaking the homecoming banner. My tribesmen were always a little surprised and fearful when we encountered one of those spigots that could produce water that was actually boiling—where did the heat come from?—but we did our best to disguise our awe behind comments about the MET or a particularly cheeky zinfandel.
When I was adopted, or rather, when I managed to insinuate myself into the tribe of Latvians, water became a more complex concern. In fact, the procurement, cleansing and preparation of water was pretty much a full-time job for me. If I wanted to drink, cook, or attempt any other wild water-based diversion, my water had to be boiled and usually cooled beforehand.
The water from my taps emerged the color of strong tea. It had so much mud, rust and other crap in it that it would stain everything it came into contact with. The sinks, tubs and toilets in my new apartment were all stained an indelible, rusty reddish black, and when you took a bath, unless you toweled off extremely carefully, you’d end up with a brick-colored residue clinging to your skin—kind of an unavoidable, unhealthy form of sunless tanning.
If you drew a glass of tap water and left it on a table, within 15 minutes the heavy metals would start to sink, leaving the clear water hovering above an undulating, whiskey-colored disc at the bottom of the glass. (I always tried to think of this water as half clean, rather than half filthy.) One could accelerate this separation process, as well as doing in any unwanted microbes, by boiling the water, so I boiled water almost all the time. The first thing I bought for my new apartment was a giant pot, and the first thing I did upon waking up or walking in the door was to start the pot boiling.
My apartment building only had hot water on weekends most of the year. During the warmest summer months, there was no hot water at all, but we made up for this by having unfettered hot water access during the coldest months of winter. (During these periods, when the hot water flowed freely, I would frequently sit in the bath for hours at a time because it was the warmest place in the house. I called this “A Hot Water Party” and it was a legitimate example of one of those “little things” people are always telling you to enjoy.)