What Sam Wrote: A winning essay

I don’t think many of my current friends know that I won my couch in an essay contest.

Back in 2003, a guy named Dan Ho started a national magazine called Rescue. As in “rescue me from all those publications whose entire purpose is to insist that I buy the biggest! grandest! usury-friendliest! things to fill my life.” He was more about repurposing what you had — or helping readers realize that they would lead perfectly happy lives despite all the things they didn’t have. (Click here to read a profile that ran in the New York Times.)

What I didn’t have, any more, was a couch. So seemed like destiny that one of the issues of Rescue announced a series of contests called “I don’t need a makeover, I just need a couch” that invited readers to write an essay about why, exactly, they deserved a free couch. The first profiled winner had basically nominated herself for sainthood based on her life of abstention and self-denial, so I — being a guy who had like 50 pairs of shoes back then — decided I was screwed on that front. But Funny Michael urged me to enter, since I had handed off my couch to the co-worker who sat next to me and had just moved out onto his own.

So I wrote in — and somehow I won. I got to pick out the style, the fabric, the pillows and everything from the offerings made by Rowe, so I went to Norwood Furniture in Gilbert and figured out my order there.

When I showed my Tribune co-workers my choices, they were aghast: “You should always buy a couch in a solid,” they said, “and use the pillows to bring in pattern!” But I told them that the only chairs I would probably ever end up buying would be dark brown leather, which with a solid sofa would add up to too much boring in one room.

I long ago lost the only copy of Rescue — for some reason I thought Funny Michael had it on loan, but I never bothered to ask for it back and even if he did have it back then, it’s unlikely that it’s still around. The magazine itself didn’t last too long, either, so I was even luckier that I jumped in and entered when I did.

When I was cleaning off my old Dell desktop computer in preparation of handing it off to my mom, I found the word document of my submitted essay. Warning: uncharacteristically high levels of personal reflection ahead! (P.S.: The person with the $3,000 sectional was, of course, Mr. Brooks.)

I’d be lying if I said I needed a new couch, like I need oxygen or water or affection. After all, I’ve lived without one for about a year now, and my life continues to be filled with the things that really matter, like friendship, a job that nurtures my talents and large spates of uninterrupted happiness. But if I won a new couch, it could provide me with 15 years of memories like the one I gave away.

I’m not sure when it was first built, but it had been well used by the time my father bought it for $50 at a garage sale in 1988, when I was a college freshman moving into my first apartment, 350 miles from home.

“It’s Scotchgarded,” the owner said, in a tone others would have used if they were telling us it was made of gold. But, in truth, that really was sort of a selling point: When I put my hands on the cushions they felt weird – not sticky, definitely less than tacky, but still not touch-friendly. The idea that it was a protective coating and not years of accumulated grime was a comfort. But just to be safe, for years I covered it with a denim quilt my mom made. (The quilt, heavy like the apron they put on you at the dentist’s office during X-rays, is known as “the blanket of lead.”)

The couch was so light even skinny-armed English majors like me could hoist up one end to vacuum underneath. Unfortunately, it was as ugly as it was weightless, decked out in every color popular in 1970s appliances – harvest gold, avocado, cinnabar and almond.  What it lacked in looks, though, it made up for in comfort, especially at nap time: It was 10 feet long, enough to stretch out on, and the springs had exhausted just enough to let you sink deep into it.

For friends who were sick or under the weather, the couch became the ultimate destination: Many people spent an afternoon wrapped cocoon-style in the blanket of lead, watching movies, while around the corner in the kitchen I worked on adding parsley or noodles to the homemade chicken soup burbling on the stove. And then we’d watch foreign movies: My favorites are about how cooking can be a not-so-covert act of affection, so long after they’d fallen asleep I’d revel in “The Scent of Green Papaya,” “Like Water for Chocolate” or “Babette’s Feast.”

This is how it became known as “the hangover couch.” (My friends may have been suffering, but a decided minority had contracted actual illnesses.)

It was the furniture equivalent of comfort food for years: Five in Montana, then five in Colorado, where a new set of friends in their mid- to late 20s learned the simple joy of waking up on a soft, spongy couch. Even though I had a guest room by then, most people preferred the hangover couch – and I couldn’t blame them. On nights when insecurities and doubts loomed large in the night, I’d go downstairs and sleep on it myself, as if my troubles would be unable to find me because I had moved a couple hundred feet.

When the cushion seams split, I cinched them back up even tighter with coatbutton thread, causing the burlap-style weave to pucker. When the thread became more visible than the original materials, I flipped the cushions. Slipcovers were never an option; the cost of covering a 10-foot-long couch was incredible. (Plus, I still had the blanket of lead.)

By the time I entered my 30s, I’d moved again and it seemed like everyone around me was buying brand-new houses with brand-new furniture. But to me their living rooms were as soulless as they were spotless; I felt smug when men and women with $3,000 sectionals woke up Saturday morning on my $50 couch and said, “Promise me you’ll never get rid of this.”

Nonetheless, insecurity began to plague me. You’re a grown-up, I’d think, so why don’t you have a grown-up couch – a nice one, one you bought yourself, one that you don’t feel compelled to defend with “It’s really comfortable, I swear”?

I cried because I had no shoes, and then I met a man who had no feet. Actually, he sat next to me at work; his roommate had just gotten engaged, which gave him a month to find and furnish a solo apartment. He had a bed and a ton of books, but the living room was empty except for a TV cabinet.

It was the perfect solution: My couch would get a new home, and the resultant gaping hole in my living room would inspire me to save money for a new couch. In this I was inspired by my first boyfriend, who when I met him had nothing in his living room except for two floor pillows.

“If I can’t have exactly what I want, I don’t want anything,” he said. So we propped ourselves against the wall to watch DVDs and eat dinner, until one day a moving van delivered a condo’s worth of furniture that a decorator had selected to fit the floor plan.

(I had forgotten the downside: After that, we sat separately in very stylish black leather chairs instead of curling up together on the floor. We ate our meals on attractive plates at opposite ends of a dining table. And then we broke up, not quite sure how we had become such different people.)

No matter, because my plan didn’t work anyway. The hangover couch had always had an inferior sibling, a handoff foam settee the color of long-chewed bubble gum. I just rearranged my living room and the settee, now covered with a tapestry that belonged to my grandmother, became my new couch.

When friends first stop by, the reaction is always the same: “You got rid of the hangover couch?” In a tone like I’ve ditched my grandmother on the side of the road. And then: “So where’s the new couch?” Nobody wants to settee their assay on this new pretender – myself included, because the foam is kind of collapse-prone and I’m always bonking my head against the wall when I sit down.

But there’s always been something I wanted more than a new couch: Airline tickets home one summer, to paint my parents’ walls. The next year, I used a friend’s airline “buddy pass” to visit Hawaii for the first time, where we cavorted in the ocean several times a day and drank outrageously colored drinks at beachfront bars. Road trips to Palm Springs, Laguna Beach or San Diego. My computer makes working from home not just easier, but possible.

I’m an expert at making do – the “work station” that computer sits on actually is a drop-leaf microwave cart  I found at my apartment complex Dumpster. Problem is, I suspect I might be a little too good at making do, and I won’t end up with a truly new couch unless one falls in my lap.  How often does something like that happen?  But if it doesn’t, there’s one fewer piece of furniture to make memories with (or on).

Now, that couch sits in our “library,” while Mr. Brooks’ aforementioned $3K sectional occupies the prime real estate in the living room. But every once in a while I’ll go in and sit on My Couch while I read. It’s always a nice reminder of what can be done when you put your words to paper — or pixels — and try.

WHAT SAM WORE: 5-15-12
The shirt: Round-collar dress shirt, on clearance at jcrew.com.
The pants: Jeans by 7 for All Mankind, from Nordstrom in Chandler.
The shoes: Loafers by Rush Gordon Rush, from Nordstrom in Scottsdale.

4 responses to “What Sam Wrote: A winning essay

  1. amazing, sam. just amazing. and, if i remember right, i once passed out on the 10 foot couch. what a privilege!

  2. Great story, Sam. The only thing missing? Photos of the hangover couch. I suspect it might have resembled Grandma Faught’s old, extraordinarily long sofa that went through four generations of people crashing on it for the night.

  3. I read this story with anticipation and I wont rest (on our turquoise leather sagging 8 foot long couch) til lyou provide this pic.

  4. Sam Mittelsteadt


    So, I have but a single photo of the hangover couch, and it is from my sophomore year in college when my friends K and S thought it would be funny to walk through my apartment complex dressed like prostitutes and ring my doorbell. (I suspect they were already dressed that way for fun, and only later decided to drive to my apartment.) You can see the underside of the blanket of lead, which was a sheet printed with lines of zoo animals — I was just a kid when my mom made it for me! — and for the photo, to really ramp up the trashy factor of the way my friends were dressed, we threw down some zebra print fabric, too. (It wasn’t a regular staple of the room.)

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