Today’s post will be the first in a sporadic series of short anecdotes detailing some of the myriad clueless and/or humiliating things I’ve done over the years. If you are a family member or friend who goes back a long time with me, you’ve probably heard these stories ad nauseam, so just hit the delete key and go on with your life.
The incident in question happened on May 19, 1985. I know the exact date because I kept a diary every day of my life from 1970 to 1987. I filled every blank line in those diaries with two lines of printing so microscopic that only eagles can read it without a magnifying glass. So we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of words that I set down during that period. Anyone with questions about events that occurred during that time frame, or even about what they said to me during those years, should feel free to ask me for a full recounting.
I had just moved into a one-bedroom apartment on Lake Street in San Francisco. My housemate Keith and I had been essentially kicked out of our flat on Pine Street by unscrupulous new landlords who falsely claimed they were moving into the building (which enabled them to skirt the rent-control laws) and then immediately doubled our rent. We couldn’t afford the astronomical monthly increase, so we were forced to leave.
In retrospect, it was a great move. I had just spent the bleakest period of my life in a place that was as dark, cold, and dank as my emotional state. It was the bottom flat of a three-flat Victorian. At high noon, it was pitch black. On a sunny day, we could see our breath indoors. And it was so damp inside that we actually had – I kid you not – mushrooms growing out of our bathroom tiles.
The place I found on Lake Street looked like the absolute blight of the block from the outside. Amidst the beautiful houses that line that street, my building looked like an aging pinkish ill-proportioned flat-nosed trapezoid or rhombus or one of those odd shapes we all learned about in geometry class. I’ll include a picture and maybe someone can tell me what on earth it is and why anyone would ever have built the thing.
Inside, however, it was actually quite darling. The rooms were big, bright, and airy; the kitchen was both vintage-cute and functional; and it felt like a brand-new start. Indeed, that place represented the first light of day to me. I wish I could have told my younger self, and could impress upon every young person today, that things that threaten to rip you in pieces – that make you feel like you’re going to “walk down the street and fly apart,” as my friend Ellen used to say – will usually align your compass towards a better direction. The thing that binds you involuntarily will ultimately free you. It just might take awhile.
The only flaw in my delightful new apartment was that one of the living room windows was stuck open. The window was an old-fashioned crank-style, and although I struggled mightily to close it, it would not even begin to budge. And it was frigid in that apartment. People who have never lived in San Francisco may be unaware that a “warm San Francisco night” is a rarity. (I don’t know what Eric Burdon was ingesting when he wrote that song.) Summer days in SF can be foggy, drizzly, and even bone-chilling, and the nights can be worse. I was freezing in that place, and unfortunately the heating system did nothing to counteract the temperature. The apartment had baseboard radiator heaters that were controlled by building management on a timer. They came on for only a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening, and although that ordinarily was okay, the bitter wind coming in off the Bay and right through my open window almost killed me.
I made a couple of phone calls to the realty company handling my apartment, but those calls were not returned. My blood was starting to boil (as much as it could, in that refrigerator of an apartment), and on the evening of May 19 I was heading out the door, fleeing the apartment to have dinner at Ellen’s house. I was looking forward to being in a toasty home and eating a warm meal and just, for God’s sakes, warming up!
Well, as I descended the stairs I saw an open apartment door, with a man in the usually-deserted hallway collecting money from the tenant inside. And his accent exactly matched the indeterminate accent that I heard the building manager speak when I had initially rented the place. Oh, hallelujah, it was the landlord!
“Excuse me, are you the landlord?” I interrupted him. He gave me a quizzical nod. “Well, my window won’t close, and I thought maybe you could come up and look at it. I’m Paula, the new tenant in #7. Please just come and look at the window, OK?” I don’t believe I sounded angry or threatening; I was just pleading plaintively, like a character in Les Misérables.
It worked. He dutifully followed me up to my apartment, and I showed him the window, recounting in strict detail my unreturned phone calls and the efforts I had made to close that (*&^%$! window. He tried his own hand at forcing it shut, but it would not yield. “It looks like the hinge is rusty and won’t bend,” he said. “I think that what you need to do is get a can of WD40 and see if that works to clean it.”
Well, that annoyed me. Typical landlord, I thought. Too miserly to call in a real repair person to do the job right or, heaven forbid, replace the hinge.
“All right, I’ll clean it,” I said, with some irritation, “but if it still doesn’t work, you’re going to hear from me again, be-lieve-you-me.” I made an internal vow to be assertive, for once in my life, and not let him get away with shirking his responsibility.
“OK,” he said. I glared at him.
“I’d like to help you, lady,” he continued, backing slowly out the door, “but I have three more pizzas to deliver.”