Exile in Rental Land

Surviving the hunt for San Francisco housing

I am a lackey.
I am a sycophantic slaverer willing to say anything, promise anything, be anything to curry favor, the latter two words sounding like a rich, spicy stew, but the reality being a diet of longing and angst, not unlike the search for a lover. But I am even more desperate than the loveless. I am a woman in search of an apartment.

I remember this feeling, this descent into acting. While I was working for the Chronicle as a Cal undergrad in the '70s, I infiltrated rush week to investigate racism in sororities, and toured endless, haughty mansions with endless posters of kittens on the walls. No explicit racism was needed; this was Exile in White Girl Land, it was clear who belonged and who didn't: the pretty faces in pastel bedrooms didn't have to say a word.

But at least with the Greeks, I gained entry. I smiled to the point of facial tics; I shaved my legs, changed clothes three times a day, donned flowery cotton skirts and nylons dug up from a cocktail-waitressing past. I listened attentively during the sorority "parties," brief, sadomasochistic exercises in sucking up. And, somehow, I was invited to join every house, a feat that delighted me more than I admitted, my need to be accepted competing with my nausea and winning.

How is it possible that more than a decade later I'm discovering that it was easier to con my way into Kappa Kappa Gamma than to find a home I actually crave?

Maybe it's the birds.
At least, my two parakeets were my first indication upon arriving from Montana, shards of a freak May snow clinging to my bumper, that life in the big city could be rough enough to verge on the stupid.

"No pets," my apartment manager told me as I bled rain onto the lobby floor of the modern North Beach month-to-monther I'd settled for in order to buy time for my search. I was bedraggled, red-eyed, crazed from having spent the past 22 hours behind the wheel, stopping only in places like Wells, Nevada, where you can pick up a handy guide to whorehouses next to the bubble gum at the convenience store. I carried the cage in one hand. The birds gave a miserable peep.

"Do birds count?" I asked her. "I didn't think they really even qualified as animals."

The manager snorted. "We don't even allow fish," she told me proudly.
I farmed the budgies out to kind friends. For the next week, I worked full time at finding a place for three.

I smelled so many gas fumes in one $1,500-a-month Noe Valley two-bedroom that I feared, briefly, that someone would light a cigarette and put an end to all 12 of us prospective tenants milling around filling out applications. But, of course, no one would smoke during an apartment tour -- smokers are considered scum.

I saw a $1,495 Noe Valley two-bedroom with Howard Johnson's carpeting and the type of flocking on the walls that hurts if you touch it and a bedroom dark enough to host a bat convention. "You can park in the driveway if your car fits," cried the host, pointing to a space that couldn't hold a Fiat 850.

I saw a Castro place that seemed almost right.
"Do you have a bicycle?" asked the elderly owner, a man with a lilting accent -- French, Italian? -- who wore an ascot and a fine gray suit over a slim frame. I imagined he was going to tell me that bike riding kept him youthful.

"I have two," I offered.
"Oh, no," he said in horror, eyebrows arched toward the finely fluted light fixtures above his head. "No bicycles allowed," the man said. "Perhaps you could rent a garage for them?"

He had once been sued, the man went on, by a girl who carried her bicycle down the stairs from this very unit. She had tripped and got an oww-y. "Her boyfriend was a lawyer," the landlord confided. "He wanted to play the big man, you know? So now, no more bicycles!"

It was at this point that I began to lie. "I'm petless," I declared to the next 10 property lords. "Would you like a deposit?" I offered. "What can I do to be number one?" I asked, absurdly.

I shook hands with one man's lover and sweet-talked his dog; I considered paying an apartment search firm half of a first month's rent in order to let them do the seeking; I was smitten with a gorgeous flat near Glen Park and wrote the owner a love note about it, clearly stepping over the edge of appropriateness into the vast valley of excess. The owner picked someone else.

"Maybe you're too anxious," my friends told me. "Maybe you should sit back a little and let them come to you."

This is what they told me when I had crushes on guys. This is what I heard when I was interviewing for a job. The quandary, in a sense, is the same: presenting the best face, an essentially false one, to lure someone into choosing you. Later, the honeymoon passes, and despite your best efforts, you become human. You are discovered to own parakeets.

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