The rental house I lived in when I moved to San Angelo in 1985 had these damn space heaters in it. Still had them, fifty years after the house itself should have been condemned. Only the ones in the bathroom and living room worked, and when I say worked I mean the gas could be turned on and lit, and there were enough heating elements in them to radiate heat out into the room. I don’t mean that they kept the house, much less the room they were in, warm.
When I moved into the place in the Spring of that year, my new roommate had been living there alone for quite some time. A recent divorcee, he was living in a bachelor’s paradise. The kitchen sink had a motorcycle engine in it. Under the engine was the rotting remains of a summer feast that he hadn’t bothered to clean up before taking the engine apart on top of it. The bathtub had the engine from his truck in it. He had been showering off with a garden hose outside, or going home to his parents house on lake Nasworthy to get cleaned up. Had been driving several miles out to their lake house on a pretty regular basis, before the motorcycle broke down and after the truck broke down. When the motorcycle quit working he was kind of stuck in a rut, until I showed up.
I slept on the floor in the bedroom, on a mattress we salvaged from somewhere. He had his bed in the former sitting room. It had its own front door that we never used. A second front door that let onto the front porch, the nice entrance to the nicest part of the house, the one that still had the best finishes in it for those long-gone guests of the poor people who had probably assembled the building out of the spare trash that they had cobbled together from another construction project somewhere in town.
How we got through that year is a mystery shrouded in clouds of Ganja smoke. What I can say is we made the place livable in pretty short order. We put the truck back together with twine and bailing wire, and he rebuilt the engine for his motorcycle, which let him go back to riding motocross in his spare time, and we managed to live there for most of the rest of that year until the freeze hit. when it got cold, the downside of the shabby and time-worn construction of the house showed itself.
The house was made of pasteboard. What’s that, you ask? Paper? Not paper no, but it might as well have been paper for all the good that it did. To assemble a pasteboard house you put up corner posts and frame the doors and windows. They are generally square houses with four rooms, one in each quadrant of the structure. As I mentioned, ours still had two front doors. One door for the sitting room that you invited your guests into, and the other door was for the living room, where the family spent their time, back in the 19o0’s when it was built. In the center of the structure, where the four interior walls would meet, you put the main structural post to hold up the peak of the roof, which slopes down to just about head height at the eaves. The roof was usually made of tin, and was definitely the most durable part of that house.
After you have your doors and windows framed up, you run lap siding from the corner posts to the door and window frames. There are no studs in the walls outside of the studs required to hold the windows and doors in place. The interior walls could be made of almost anything. Anything that would hold up to what came next. On the inside face of the exterior siding you then staple chicken wire or plaster lathe (if you could afford that) and then you plastered the chicken wire and the backside of the siding to make the inside face of the exterior wall of your house. You would then carefully plaster the interior walls so as to make them look like walls, too.
The resulting interior surface is markedly strange-looking, with accentuated bulges all around the doors and windows, where the only framing in the walls actually existed. You have now created your pasteboard house. It is paste applied directly to the boards that the rain runs off of on the outside of your house, and the interior walls are so thin as to make privacy largely a figment of your imagination.
There is no insulation value in the walls of a pasteboard house. The temperature outside the house is the temperature inside the house. Those little space heaters were like candles in the wind, the drafts through the cracks in the wall were that bad. We had to prop our feet up right in front of the fire to feel the heat at all. The less said about the intolerable heat in the Texas summers, the better. The swamp cooler had mosquitos living in it, just to add to the fun of the oppressive heat. But on those winter nights when it really got cold, it was impossible to get warm anywhere in that house.
The pipes froze, of course. Indoor plumbing was an afterthought, an addition that took up the space where a sleeping porch had been once upon a time. That room had the space heater that could keep the room warm, since it was the smallest room with the lowest ceiling. But the pipes froze routinely because there was no way to keep them warm. We could leave the water trickling over night, but that usually just meant we had icicles hanging from the faucets when we woke up.
The last few weeks we were there, the wooden floors started to bow up, which made sleeping or even walking on the floor an interesting dexterity test, especially when stoned. Clearly the exterior walls were not keeping the moisture out of the house, and the resulting swelling of the floorboards caused them to buckle in several places. We never could figure out how to get them to lay flat again once they started doing that. Which was too bad. The floors were about the nicest thing about the place before they started to buckle.
I caught pneumonia that winter in that rental house on Adams Street. I caught pneumonia and had to beg a space to stay at a friend’s house. A friend’s house that seemed like a palace in comparison to the rental we had on Adams. A palace with insulated walls and central heat and air. It even had indoor plumbing that wasn’t an afterthought tacked onto the back, a bathroom taking up what had been the best place to sleep in the house during the summer. Instead the bathroom was inside the house, like a bathroom should be.
That was my last experience with space heaters. I got lucky. I didn’t asphyxiate because the rooms were so drafty there was always enough oxygen to feed the gas fires and the living, breathing people, and I didn’t set myself on fire sleeping with my feet in the grate. Also? The friend I bummed some crash space off of was generous enough to let me keep living in that comparative palace that her parents had entrusted to her, let me keep living there until I found an apartment in a completely different part of town. An apartment that wouldn’t kill me. Which was a step up, for me.