The eternal joke among American college students is that they are always strapped for cash. Between food, housing, ever-rising tuition costs, and the specter of student loans to repay, the dark humor will ring true with most students pursuing a higher education, myself included.

So, during my senior year at the University of Texas at Austin, I decided to find a place to live that wasn’t an expensive on-campus dormitory.

The search went badly for months. No real estate agents catered to my paltry budget; one even tried to involve me in a questionable “phantom lessee” deal. I was desperate when my boyfriend came up with the solution.

He’d moved from the on-campus dorms to a private dorm the previous year. He could attest that the place was comfortable, quiet and incredibly cheap. I’d considered that dorm to be the absolute last resort. But several months and one potential real estate scam later, it seemed like a more attractive prospect.

Initially, I thought the place was a dump. I’d been there when my boyfriend toured the place, and my impression was of a shabby building with a different funny smell for every level. But despite my misgivings, it was as close to campus as I could hope for, and I would be close to my boyfriend.

I walked into the building on move-in day to be told that I couldn’t open the balcony door that took up a whole wall because it was against the rules to leave the door open. I thought that was a foolish rule at first, because why bother to put an 8-foot-tall glass door on a wall if it’s not meant to let in a relaxing breeze. However, when someone else on the floor left their door open and sucked all of the air conditioning from the other rooms, I understood.

My room was painted a sickening shade of stained amoxicillin-pink. Even the painted cinderblock wall that lined the balcony was this color. I’d thought my boyfriend’s room was poorly decorated, but his shade of hospital gray seemed downright soothing by comparison. His was cleaner, though that was only after he’d been living there for months with an army of sprays and paper towels.

Speaking of cleaning, the laundry room was in the basement. It was so spooky that I refused to go down there without either my roommate or my boyfriend. The only way into and out of it was an elevator, though there was supposedly a door to the outside past a poorly-lit hallway. I had seen enough horror movies to fear for my life every time I had to do the laundry.

The ground floor was the worst. The kitchen was rarely cleaned, and bugs crawled out of every crevice whenever someone tried to cook something. The best I ever managed was spaghetti, and that was while waving off clouds of gnats. Meanwhile, the manager’s office was so packed with hoarded paper and boxes that anyone coming in to complain about the cleanliness of any other place in the building suddenly felt very foolish.

For all my complaining, I will admit that my fellow residents were almost all kind, friendly and welcoming. Few of them liked the building any better than I did, and we did our best to make it livable. I don’t regret living there, either.

If I could live there, I can live just about anywhere.

Herald correspondent Rachel Kaser lives in Killeen.

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