Exile in Rental Land

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.

But in love and job interviews, there are at least some rules and rituals that most of us get schooled in from very tender ages. We know a bit of what is expected. If we're stumped, we can buy a self-help book.

For the weary would-be tenant, there is no such succor. I've spent hours oohing and aahing during tours of real estate, hiding my thoughts (What a dump!), promising vast sums of money and explaining that my student loans aren't really that large, that my job really does exist. Really!

But in a flash, I understand that the search for a San Francisco home is a courting process in a strange bird society, a place with 50 suitors to every nest.

In fact, those are the official odds — a 2 percent vacancy rate — for an affordable two-bedroom apartment, according to the San Francisco Tenants' Union. The average price of such a unit is about $1,200 a month, says Tenants' Union office manager Ted Gullicksen. Washington, D.C., Boston and Honolulu contend for the title of “toughest rental market,” Gullicksen adds, but often, San Francisco is tops.

And so the would-be renters spar for a place, ready to flash their Social Security numbers, checking account numbers, savings account numbers, ready to snap a twenty for every application whether or not they're rejected (at least during rush week you don't pay to get kicked), ready to promise throw rugs for every room, no music after 9 p.m., no overnight guests, no paintings on the walls or plants on the windowsills, no water beds — hell, no furniture. Just give us little mats to lie on like you get in kindergarten for nap time, and we'll be happy.

Birds, at least, have a better system. Woodcocks wander in strange circles, fly squawking into the air, flutter down like leaves and, bingo, a female struts by. But the apartment dance requires shuffling with no guaranteed rewards.

I smile and fluff and wear black to see one flat, but this landlord might like grimacing people in red. I call another owner four times in a day to find out when he's going to show the goddamned property — this guy might like mutes.

When rituals are not known, when the rules shapeshift at will, the result is insanity.

I begin to fill out applications with wanton disregard for taste. I just want someone to take me. Surviving without parking, closets, space for a kitchen table — even living with pink carpeting is acceptable, I decide.

And finally, I realize that I'm whining. I can still afford to live somewhere, while so many thousands cannot; they can't scrape together two months' rent and a security deposit, sometimes a sum of more than $3,000. I'm not battling the other forces of discrimination — the biases that blacklist students, blacks, Hispanics, gays, Asians, people who society keeps at bay with the same silent force fields so thick in the sorority parlors. I have no idea how cold it can really be, when the dance turns ugly.

Last week, that perspective sunk in. I had no right to complain. I resorted to honesty.

“What do you think about parakeets?” I asked a landlord, tentatively.
He was a quiet man who seemed to see my fondness for the place where we stood, an old-fashioned flat with a small, oddly shaped sun room.

“Geez, I don't see what harm birds could do,” the man said. When I handed him my check, he held out his hand for me to shake. I reached for it as you might for a branch in a swollen river, the waters carrying you away.

“Just as long as they stay in the cage,” the man smiled.
“They will,” I told him.
“I believe you,” he said.

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