Several years ago, in New Orleans, a friend and I helped to jump-start a stranded pink Cadillac. Afterward, the grateful owner - a rockabilly hipster with a slicked-back pompadour and aviation shades - told us to come visit him at his bar. "I'm Dungeon people," he said, chewing on a wooden toothpick.
The Dungeon turned out to be the perfect namesake - the bar was dark and narrow in parts, with sweaty brick walls and furtive patrons. Over tumblers of courtesy bourbon, our new friend told us that, although above ground, his bar was really for "basement types." Basement types, he said, "lived below the waterline."
At the time, I assumed that the man was talking about underground culture or some other cool scene of which I was oblivious, so I just nodded and kept drinking. But his words stayed with me, and over the years they've taken on a more existential - if literal - cast. Because now I think he was just talking about basements - the kind found under homes - and what it means to dwell in them.
Basement apartments - at least the ones in Toronto - do not have good reputations, despite attempts on the part of homeowners to sales-pitch their "spacious three-and-a-half" conversion units. Spacious maybe, but not vertically - many are subterranean versions of the LesterCorp offices from the film Being John Malkovich, with ceilings so low the spaces only half-qualify as their own floor. You hunch your head like a troll and in the dark listen to obscure noises banging from above (not a bad analogy for how primitive man must have related to the gods). The air is damp. One friend spent two months in a basement apartment before succumbing to "toxic mould." He said he felt as though "some weird alien spore" was taking over his body and mind.
Something does take over your mind when you live in a basement. If the effect of grand open spaces - St. James Cathedral on Church Street, Santiago Calatrava's Brookfield Place - is to make you feel open and expansive, then basements have the opposite effect: They turn you inward, to the private meditations of poor grad students and recently divorced dads. This doesn't have to be oppressive. Basements are also intimate places, perfect for beds, and sleep, and protected confessions between lovers. I know a spiritual adviser who meets clients in her basement apartment. Something about the closeness of the atmosphere must provoke just the right combination of communion and introspection.
When I lived in a basement at the edge of Forest Hill, I stopped taking my cues from the external world - from people, or sunlight. Instead, I would lie in the windowless dark and let my biological clock drift. I would emerge blinking in the early afternoon, surrounded by mansions. I felt like a bum. My friend Scott thinks landlords treat you differently if you live underground - "they don't believe you should be afforded the same consideration as people who have enough self-respect to insist upon living above ground," he told me, "like you are basically a homeless person who accidentally ended up in their cellar."
Basements are excellent for narrative immersion - for reading, for TV watching, even for writing. American author Jon Krakauer, for example, works in a nine-by-nine-foot basement cubicle, with no windows to distract him from his inward diorama.
All of these things suggest living below the waterline means nurturing internal cues. It's the domain of dreams, the unconscious.
Of course, I might be exaggerating. Perhaps I'm out of touch - it's true I'm writing this in an office filled with sunlight. But my bedroom, at least, is another matter. It's dark and sheltered from the sun. The drapes are thick, the temperature kept cool. I've done everything I can to make it feel like a basement. What can I say? In some ways, even above ground, I'm still Dungeon people.
Jeff Warren is the author of The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness.
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