What Lurks in West Philly

Dust, catchment conflict and working from home

If you’ve been paying attention to University City politics these days—and I know you have because it’s been such a slow news month—you’re familiar with the catchment issue. But in case you’ve been caught in the tractor beam of Michele Bachmann’s gaze, I’ll sum it up: There’s an elementary school run by Penn and lots of people want to live nearby so their kids can go there. Consequently, houses in the catchment sell for double what an equivalent house outside the catchment costs. You know, your regular Penntrification stuff.

None of this should have anything to do with me, since I’m childless and not a homeowner (two things that seem like gifts now that we’re in a recession). But the catchment mishegas has driven up rental prices, even in my neighborhood, which is just outside the catchment. If I want to remain in the neighborhood I’ve come to love-hate, then my boyfriend and I, our dog and our three sugar gliders will have to stay in our two-bedroom apartment, where we’ve lived for six years. And until a couple weeks ago, that was fine.

Then we got word: He’ll be working from home. And I work from home. Thus (I believe I’m doing the math right here) we’ll both be working from home. At the same time.

This presents some interesting challenges along the Mars-Venus spectrum, though not in the way you might think. He and I have very different domestic styles, which is to say he’s tidy, organized and attentive to his surroundings, and I’m not.

When I take off my clothes at the end of the day, I seem to imagine the clothes, which are dropped on the floor, will be borne away by teensy closet fairies who’ll take them into their adorable little fairy-claws and make them disappear. I imagine a separate group of fairies (hardier ones) will clear my dinner plates. The general labor fairies (unionized) will put the toothpaste cap back on, pick up a tissue after I’ve blown my nose, throw away a magazine I’ve left for dead and otherwise attend to the million little messes that my brain doesn’t process.

It’s a defense mechanism, being so mess-blind. Once I see a mess, I can’t stop seeing it. If I dust, I start thinking that I need to use a different kind of cleaning product for each object (you can’t use Pledge on a TV set, for god’s sake—the dust fairies would never approve). This then leads to an array of different cleaners and separate cloths and a laborious dust-scouring process that goes on for hours. I spend the rest of the night struggling to fall asleep because I know the truth: There Will Be Dust. You never get it all.

It’s the same with vacuuming. Once I start, I simply can’t stop until I get every lint fragment disposed of—and that includes the lint fragments on the vacuum brush itself. Then there’s the guilt. It’s bad enough to know there’s all this dirt in the vacuum canister that’s just sitting there in our closet, night after night, malevolently being … dirty. To be involved in contributing to its mass is like pouring fertilizer on a Body Snatchers pod.

The other day, I noticed mess and I spiraled down. I was shaking out the tablecloth, and I noticed that the grooves in the wooden table weren’t the same color. It wasn’t dirt in the grooves. It was more an accretion of what I call time chips. I thought, “Either all the grooves should be filled or none of the grooves should be filled.” So I went and got tools (a.k.a. toothpicks). I was working on it for about 15 minutes, and then noticed my dog staring at me intently, her eyes bugging out. “You forget to close the cabinet when you take a dish out but you’re spending half a day digging ‘time chips’ from the table grooves?” Sometimes she thinks-says things that are extremely perceptive.

As it is now, Vince has managed to mostly avoid this incoherent human being who begins to walk into one room to do something and then forgets, within the space of 10 paces, what she’s going to do. Often it’s something simple, like taking my phone and plugging it in. I’ll space out and pull out art supplies instead. Then I’m surprised when my phone battery runs out. Wait, didn’t I plug it in? Oh, that’s right, I didn’t. I built a ship in a bottle.

I call this behavior multitasking. Vince doesn’t call it anything yet because I try to sit in one place in the evenings. What he’ll soon call it, though, is “Screw the neighborhood, we have to get a three-bedroom place, or I’m going to kill her.” A different kind of catchment conundrum, to be sure, but it’s coming soon.