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Baylor Knobloch: Making a house a home

My apartment building’s superintendent is the most reliable man in my life right now. Paul is an employee of Mitrelis Enterprises, a business housed in the basement of our building. Our landlord, Andy Mitrelis, is an 88-year-old Greek man who owns eight properties in Rhode Island, a mix of residential and commercial buildings, along with a handful of restaurants, including Andreas and Paragon on Thayer Street. 

A crucial player behind the scenes of this aging real estate mogul’s business operations is Paul. With his thin frame and soft Syrian accent, he drives Mr. Mitrelis to the office every day and then comes and goes from the house as he tends to various odd jobs. His chief responsibility, as he happily explained to me, is to respond to all of the calls for repairs and maintenance at Mitrelis’s properties. In other words, he’s the super. The first time I experienced his excellent service was back in September, when we had a bit of an urgent problem that needed fixing.  

One of the many fun things about living in an old house is the equally old pipes. Moving into our apartment unit this past fall, we quickly learned that, with regular use, our toilet clogged, on average, once every two days. The first time this happened, I tried to plunge and flush the problem away before finally caving and texting Paul. He arrived within an hour, grinning widely, and explained to me that these pipes required a solution far larger than a plunger: the snake. A long, winding, metal contraption that extends down into the pipe, the snake reaches farther than a household plunger. The snake lives in the basement office, and only Paul knows how to use it. 

Paul suggested we throw our toilet paper away rather than flushing it, but we eventually settled on a happy medium: septic-safe toilet paper, the single-ply tissue that is minimally absorbent, the stuff that they stock the dorm hall bathrooms with here at Brown. In this way, we brought a memory of on-campus living into our off-campus life, square by scratchy square. 

If we painstakingly make sure that septic-safe toilet paper is the only paper product getting flushed down our toilet, it only clogs about once a month, which is luxuriously infrequent. And every four or five weeks, when the bowl’s water level rises, Paul dutifully arrives with a smile on his face and the snake in his hand. “We just want you to be happy,” he always says on his way out, the task quickly put behind him. The house’s rag-tag plumbing is almost kind of nice because it brings this father figure into our home, someone who is here to help us and make us feel safe, an adult who knows how to fix problems.   

We learned that Paul’s service is truly around the clock when, during a windstorm this winter, our power went out at around 2 a.m. When the lights zapped to black, my roommates and I huddled together in the dark living room, and, of course, I called Paul. He would know what to do. 

He picked up after a few rings, and my first question was whether or not I had woken him. “No,” he lied as he cleared his throat, patiently asking what was wrong. I explained the problem at hand, and in return, his first question was whether or not we had called National Grid. 

College sometimes feels like this experiment where a bunch of children are set loose and everyone just hopes for the best. So no, Paul, we hadn’t called National Grid. That thought hadn’t even crossed our minds. I politely thanked him for picking up the phone so late at night and said I would call the National Grid and text him with any updates. He wished me luck and said goodnight. 

Unlike Paul, National Grid was no help. I didn’t even get to speak with a real human. The recording let me know  service would be restored in the area within one to eight hours. So there was nothing to do but wait. 

Fearing we would be powerless indefinitely, my roommates and I began to worry that all the food in the fridge would go bad. The obvious solution was to eat it. 

Making my way through my third slice of American cheese, I shrieked when the lights flashed back on. I had sort of accepted that it wouldn’t happen anytime soon, so it came as a great shock when our little universe restored its balance so quickly. When the lights came on, we saw ourselves: three girls, sitting around the kitchen table, eating cheese and ice cream and deli meat with no abandon. I texted Paul the wonderful news. We all slept well that night.

College is strange for a number of reasons, one of them being that you move every year for four years, each time reconstructing a new sense of home. The tapestries and fairy lights get unboxed and re-hung, old and new roommates settle into each other’s daily routines. You carve out a particular route home from class until the motions become automatic, all in time for the year to end and you to pack it all up and move on. 

As my fourth and final year of college comes to a close and yet another phase of change barrels towards me, questions of home remain in the forefront of my mind. On top of this, there is the question of what will become of the large plot of land directly behind our house, stretching all the way up the block, where seven multi-family homes once stood. Brown bought the lots in July 2014 and razed the structures, making way for a temporary parking lot.

I can only imagine that the University would be interested in buying Mitrelis’s property as well, which would allow the University to eliminate the last hodge-podge, multi-family home on the block and incorporate the land into development plans for the proposed wellness dorm at 450 Brook Street, a project already slated to eventually replace the parking lot. 

Throughout my time as a news reporter and inquisitive student at Brown University, I have developed a complicated relationship with this school. Firstly, I have loved my time here and feel such a connection to my peers and teachers, and I understand why, as an institution, the University wants to expand. I wish that more people could experience the magic of this school. But this wish loses some of its clarity when I realize the cost of the school’s growth, when I run up against the questions of local displacement around which Brown so carefully tiptoes.

I do agree that more housing is needed for students living on campus, and the proposal to integrate health services into dormitory spaces is a progressive innovation. And space on College Hill, particularly around Thayer Street, is limited. It’s a reality that we all have to face. 

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder what happens to people like Paul as Mitrelis Enterprises continues shrinking. I hope that, if Brown decides to use the property for a health and wellness dorm, whoever lives in the space has a support system as loving as the one I experienced in this home. Ultimately, whatever becomes of this land, I will remember it as it is today: an ugly blue house with bad pipes and an excellent super, a home that made my time at college forever sweeter.



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