I have spent most of the past three weeks underground.
Fortunately, that is not because I am a sick man (at least not from the coronavirus), or a spiteful man (well, most of the time), or an unattractive man (no comment). These are the three attributes the twisted first-person narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground gives himself in its opening lines.
Yet these remain notes from underground. In early March, fearing the worst of New York’s then-nascent coronavirus outbreak, I left the city and returned to my childhood home in a southwest-Ohio suburb. My parents lovingly welcomed me back for as long as I would need to stay. There was just one catch. Many years ago, they gave my childhood bed away, leaving my bedroom a repository of my past’s accumulated detritus. (Stay away, Marie Kondo.) And though there were other bedrooms for me to use in this long-empty nest, I opted for the dark, quiet, basement guest room on my first night back. And you know what? I kinda liked it. I have mostly remained in the basement since.
Still, there is something weird about moving into my parents’ basement. True, I have slept there before, on prior visits home. But I had never done so indefinitely. I had avoided that ignominious post-collegiate fate of open-ended basement-dwelling, perhaps more feared by the parents of young people than by young people themselves. Not all of my peers have; in 2016, more than a quarter of recent college graduates lived with their parents, according to MarketWatch.
Statistics don’t show how many of those recent grads ended up specifically in the basement. Or why basements, instead of some other room, seem to define the stereotype of the economically distressed — or unmotivated — post-collegiate. I suspect video games have something to do with it. The basement, after all, is where most kids did their gaming before they left the house. And when some of those kids, for whatever reason, fail to launch, that is one way they will pass the time. In National Affairs, demographer Nicholas Eberstadt estimated that the average unemployed prime-working-age male spends almost 2,000 hours a year “watching and playing on screens.” It’s much easier to get away with that somewhere your parents aren’t as bothered by it.
Not that I’m speaking from experience. At least, not right now. (Though my miraculously still-functioning PlayStation 2 provides its own temptations.) For despite having become one of those post-graduate basement-dwellers, I am fortunate in this time of coronavirus shutdowns to remain functionally employed, in a job I can perform remotely, and without even leaving the house (as Ohio currently doesn’t allow for much of that). I even have an apartment in New York for which I am still paying rent; my parents have been kind enough to exempt me from owing them any such payments. And so instead of echoing with the cries of digital triumphs and pwned noobs, my parents’ basement hosts the quieter and more respectable sounds of morning Zoom calls and keyboard typing.
All this time spent in the basement has made me notice some things about the place I hadn’t before. It’s pretty cold, though fortunately not reaching the icy frigidity of the depths of Dante’s famous basement. Indeed, it’s far from hellish. The more time I spend in it, the more I appreciate a rather remarkable and amusing fact: I have more space in this basement than I do in my New York apartment. If I could add a kitchen to the bathroom, bedroom, and large common area, and then magically transport my basement somewhere into New York, I would gladly inhabit it as an apartment. Though I’m not sure I could afford it.
It’s not a perfect place, however. There isn’t much natural light; all I get comes through a back door at the bottom of steps that lead into the backyard. And though the guest bedroom can exist in a state of dark quiescence approaching that of an isolation chamber, the rest of the basement shares with some New York apartments the unfortunate tendency of sound bleed-through. During my workday, the footsteps of those above occasionally remind me of my subterranean status. And there will always be something a bit undignified about hearing that basement door open and then a parent yelling something down. Not even mounting the stairs to fulfill whatever tasks I cannot down there eliminates the subordinating process of descending them to return to my lair once more.
But at a time when millions are unemployed, when many of the millions who remain employed must risk exposure to a disease that has killed thousands worldwide and immiserated even those who’ve survived it, and when half the world can barely leave their homes, I have nothing but gratitude for my basement, and for the parents who have let me live in it. Considering all this, I feel I have even less in common with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. In fact, I feel not like a man at all, but like Bilbo Baggins, the diminutive eponymous protagonist of J. R .R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. He, too, lived in a basement: “a hole in the ground,” as Tolkien puts it. But “not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
I just hope I don’t get too comfortable . . .