It was three flights down and into the basement. The big tank sat there full of kerosene. I went down every morning, filled the five-gallon can, and carried it back to our third-floor apartment. During January, I wondered if my girlfriend liked having me around so she did not have to make that morning pilgrimage before going to work. Our third-floor apartment in the Back Cove had two sources of heat; a kerosene heater in the kitchen stove and a large space heater in the living room. But, of course, you took your chances using the space heater. If there was a single verity about that apartment, it was cold.
I remember the first time I visited my girlfriend at the apartment. I looked down at the floor and realized that the grey-painted floor was a deck- individual wide pine planks with oakum driven between the seams with a caulking iron. There even seemed to be a slight camber ( rounded curvature) to the deck. Walking around the apartment was like being on the deck of a ship. Some retired ships carpenter had installed the floor and put it in just the best way he knew how. It was like the old shipboard saying, “the devil to pay, and there’s not hot tar!” The original was a deck seam on a wooden sailing vessel that needed caulking, and the hot tar was added to seal the seam further. The housewife had put her foot down regarding the tar. But there was a very neatly caulked deck underfoot.
So the tiny apartment was cold but tightly sealed against the blows that came in over the cove. If you got brave, you started up the space heater and basked in the warmth, all the while hoping that the damned thing did not explode. I’d take out the guitar; we’d make some hot toddies, and between the songs and alcohol, spend an evening.
Good Lord, be careful taking a bath. The heater had enough water for one warm tub, and the heat in the narrow bathroom was an ancient radiant element perched precariously by the window. Suppose that heater fell the wrong way? You were done for. Most of its effect was to add a certain “ambiance” to the room; the amount of heat it added was pitiful. There were no leisurely hot soaks in that tub. One grabbed a towel and hurried out to the relative warmth of the kitchen.
I drove by the old place on George Street about five years ago. A dumpster was parked alongside the building. And I was confident I could see some old gray flooring perched on broken wallboard and plaster. Workers were busy putting in new windows and insulation. I couldn’t imagine the residents struggling with the antique space heater. So there wasn’t much to mourn about the old place getting renovated. But that perfectly laid and caulked deck was gone and replaced by vinyl plank flooring. Somehow that seemed to be a shame to me.