Monday, December 31, 2012

Ecology's Ecology

“I don’t know if I can afford this,” I think to myself looking up at the night sky out here in Fremont California. Lately, the night has been clear and cold, the sort of weather that looks beautiful but lends itself to the kind of thinking that is accompanied with lots of sighs. Either, you’re bundled up but still feeling the cold creep in and thinking of someone who could be with you, someone who’s absence is all the more profoundly felt in the presence of the cold, or you’re bundled up looking out over the horizon, thinking of a place less dark than this one where it never seemed to get this cold. Either way, you’re thinking about what you don’t have. Because I’m back where I want to be and with someone I love, my thoughts about what I don’t have drift to the most ordinary and boring topic. It almost makes me wish that I were alone on the other side of the world again, sighing much more profoundly. I try to chase the thoughts away, but nothing will come in their place. “1,400 dollars, how was it that I thought we’d be able to afford that?” I think to myself. The night is so clear, I can practically hear myself muttering it. I thought we could afford that because it was the going price for apartments around here. In San Francisco, nothing is under 1,000 dollars and if it’s not a couple of hundred dollars over a thousand it’s not going to be any good—the thousand dollar studio I went to see in someone’s garage in Daly City can attest to that. The reason the problem is so disconcerting to me is that it’s not one I’ve ever anticipated having. Since the day I moved out of my parents’ and rented out a place in Chicago my all-consuming thought has always been “I don’t need all of this,” and the next time I’d move I’d try to find something starker, cheaper. Depending on who I lived with the level of amenities went up and down slightly. Living with my friend Mikey in the Tenderloin, we went through unhealthy periods of almost conspicuously lacking soap. When I came back from the Peace Corps and lived in a flop-house type of place in Eureka I didn’t have anything, and the few things I did own I had to take with me when I left for fear that someone would steal them. And living in a hostel in the Once
district of Buenos Aires, I kept two plastic bags, one with my toiletries and the other had my food and cooking supplies. The change from the mendicant’s life was very subtle and came from two very reasonable desires. The first came after living away from my friends and family for so long. Having no one familiar to share an apartment with, I often had to find people, college students, meth addicts, willing to pay a share of the rent. After meeting Gina and moving in with her, I realized how much I’d missed sharing my room and my house with someone I genuinely wanted to be there, not just someone I had to put up with. The other change came after the second time I’d lived in an apartment from which the sole view was a brick wall. Anyone who’s ever had to live with such an unsightly obstruction more than once will understand. Considering these two factors, when I began my apartment search, I found that I didn’t want to share the apartment with anyone and that I wanted to have at least a little natural light in there so on Sunday morning I could stay in and have my coffee and not feel like shooting myself. These two specifications, as you can imagine, drove the cost of living up significantly. Even with the price being what it is, I was still unable to find anything that I’d really call habitable. A lot of the cheaper studios are usually in-law units, almost all of which are in direct violation of my rule about sharing the apartment with someone, not to mention certain building codes. I still consider it sharing, when you live in trailer in someone’s driveway or in someone’s basement that you have to walk through their living room to get to. Besides, as you can imagine, these places almost universally, had no view, no light and windows that were so tiny or close to walls they may as well have been painted over. After looking for a few days, I expanded the price range on the search. Suddenly, I seemed to have a few more options, but I still wasn’t seeing anything that looked very good. I decided to go and check out everything that wasn’t an in-law unit anyway. One place is out in the Richmond with its endless rows of houses and torrential leaden skies and notable obscurity. There is no picture for the rental. Just a sentence or two, written in hurried capitals. “APARTMENT FOR RENT. 1,400. STUDIO. CALL FROM 9-5 TO VIEW.” I’m not very enticed by the ad, and on the way over I’m starting to wonder why I crossed town to see this place that’s not going to be worth my while. My fears are confirmed when I step up to the address I had been given that morning. For the last twenty blocks or so, all the houses had been in a straight row. Nothing tucked away in the back or half-sunken into the ground. I am now standing in front of a gate and way back behind it there’s a little building, almost hunkered down in the shadows of the larger homes on either side of it. It’s going to be another closet with a sunless view of the underside of some much more affluent person’s porch. Seeing no one around I go through the gate and head toward the building, I’m thinking to myself, maybe I can just take a quick glance and get the hell out of here to not waste any more of my time. I see that, once I’m inside, the building has a certain antiquated charm. It only looks small compared to all the new houses around it, which they build too large anyway. The interior reminds me of an old house that someone has taken good care of in the Midwest. There’s more light in the building than you’d expect. The landlord meets me as I’m coming back down the stairs. “Oh, y’ found it already, did y’?” His brogue is pretty thick and his bright red face is welcoming. “T’will y’ see the unit?” I’m hoping he’s going to lead the way upstairs but he reaches behind me and unlocks the door that I’m standing in front of. “First floor in the back,” I think to myself, “there’s no way there’s any light back there.” He opens the door, the place is being painted, that’s the first thing I notice, but almost immediately after, the window, the huge bay window and the little patio area behind it. “Would we get to use that?” I ask pointing to the patio outside the window. “I can’t see who else ‘t be using ‘t,” the landlord replies quite matter-of-factly. A patio of our own, a large window, it’s more than I’d even expected. I fill out the application right there. A few days pass in anticipation as to whether my credit scores will be good enough and when I’d almost given up the idea of living in such a nice place, the landlord calls me and Gina and I go over to sign the lease. Before we’ve even moved in, in fact, almost right after I’d signed the year-long lease, I began to wonder how this was going to work financially. I finish my cigarette out in the cold and open the door to head back inside. With the screen door in my hand I pause before opening the main door. The great thing about going out into the cold is being able to return to a warm house. As long as you can do that you can dispel any gloomy thoughts. I linger in the doorway a second longer, watching the bright and cold stars and thinking about how nice it’ll be to have my own place to watch them from. I just might have to pick up a few more hours a week to be able to afford the vantage

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