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Catching the Beret
By Mike McGinty
"Um," Toby began in his trademark halting way. He and Amy, my married roommates and good friends, had summoned me into the living room of our Russian Hill flat one quiet night this past February. I had a feeling the news wasn't good.
"Amy and I have found a loft space in Oakland."
I looked at him as if he were my father and had just told me I was adopted.
"It even has a darkroom," Amy chimed in. "Toby can do all his photography right there. It's just so convenient."
A darkroom, huh? Perfect for curling up on the floor in the fetal position, moaning uncontrollably. Maybe I should look for a darkroom.
Basically, I saw two options. Number one: Stay put and open my door to two complete strangers who could pay their respective thirds of the gargantuan rent (though I didn't relish the thought of sharing a bathroom with someone I hardly knew--that's what malls are for). That left option two: Strike out on my own and pray that I'd find something decent.
"Apartment hunting." A phrase certain to instill panic and dread into the heart of any San Franciscan. Yet here I was, not even a Bay Area resident for a year, facing the Big Test. Could I make it after all?
Moving here from Atlanta had been easy. I simply took the spare bedroom in Toby and Amy's place. I've been turning the world on with my smile ever since. Give me a nothing day and stand back while I suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.
But this was different. I needed affordable housing in the city and I had heard all the horror stories. Lots of people drop that damn beret when it comes falling back to earth. I didn't want to be one of them.
I had six weeks. Surely I could find something in six weeks. A nice guy or girl with a clean place who needed a wonderful roommate like me. Or maybe a fabulous flat to call my very own. I hadn't had that in several years. I began to mentally page through the latest Pottery Barn catalog, trying to recall the floor lamp selection. Not too shabby, if I remember correctly. See? I told myself. There's always a silver lining. Or a frosted white glass one with a pewter-finished base.
I began my quest by answering a roommate ad that sounded promising. It read, "Courteous, kind professional looking for same in mature roommate."
What met me at the door was a prudish young woman named June. I wasn't three steps into the place when June began rattling off her requirements: a quiet roommate who didn't play the stereo, wouldn't complain about not getting to park in the garage or not getting to ever use the driveway, never had friends over, always cleaned dishes right after using them, kept the back stairs clear of clutter at all times, didn't mind getting the bedroom by the drafty front door, and who could move in right away. Yeah. That sounds good. Where do I sign?
Then there was the actress-slash-fashion designer. She was very sweet and bubbly and loved to cook, a big plus for me because I don't. She also loved to give dinner parties. In fact, as I was leaving after viewing the place, one of her friends arrived for a dinner party that very night. She introduced me while the two of them did a lot of giggling, hair flipping, and tooth flashing. I quickly excused myself as I had already seen several Revlon commercials and felt no desire to live in one.
Next, I answered an ad placed by a 26-year-old gay male in search of another gay male to rent a room in his new house. It sounded up my alley, so I called. Turns out this guy, whose name I could not pronounce even after I asked him to repeat it three times, moved to America from Taiwan just two years ago. He recently got his green card, and to celebrate he bought a house. I probably would have bought a bottle of champagne, but he bought a house. A brand new one. In the city. With three bedrooms and two bathrooms and a garage and I already hated him so how could I ever hope to live peacefully with him?
I thought I might have better luck with a broker, so I dropped into an office. Lori was extremely helpful. Gorgeous, smart, and on the move, she already had two places to show me.
First stop: a total dive behind the U.S. Mint in an iffy neighborhood with no parking. The unit itself had old, worn, blue-green carpet and an ugly, yellow kitchen. On the plus side, it also had incredible moldings along the high ceilings and the walls of the front hall (which conveniently doubled as the living room). Unfortunately, there was also plenty of mold on every horizontal surface in the kitchen. Still hopeful it might work, I gave it the Julie Andrews test by stretching my arms out and spinning to see if I hit anything. My knuckles still throb.
The next place was a perfect setup: pristine hardwood floors, tons of storage space, room for my desk, good parking, next to the park, cool shops, and trendy restaurants. I hemmed. I hawed. I lost out to a ruthless bastard who actually knew a good deal when he saw one and rented it out from under me. That hurt.
With the clock ticking, I answered an ad for a quote-charming-unquote studio in a gorgeous old building right on the cablecar line. I followed the directions on the hand-lettered sign flapping in the wind above the mailboxes and buzzed the manager. A tinny voice answered.
I leaned into the box. "I'm here about the junior one-bedroom apartment," I yelled over the street noise.
"Ven you vant to come see?"
Evidently, she had her intercom button confused with her telephone.
"Well, how 'bout now?" I said.
"Yez, you come now. Number 205." The door buzzed loudly and I walked through it, up the stairs to 205. A very short, frail-looking elderly woman in a paisley vest and maroon polyester slacks greeted me at the door, through which wafted the smell of toasted tuna fish sandwiches. She was chewing.
"I'll be right back," she said to someone inside whom I couldn't see. Or maybe it was a few dozen cats.
She brought me up one floor of comfortingly creaky stairs, down a clean, red-carpeted hallway, to a door marked 307. She led the way through, gesturing with her hand to a garish, bright-yellow electric stove, a yellow oven, and a dingy, off-white refrigerator as she walked to the center of the tiny room.
"Deez eez your beauteeful keetchen," she announced with hands by her sides, as if the apartment were already mine and the fact that it was beautiful was not in question. She sounded like one of those Disney tour guides who just can't seem to remember that even though it's their 500,000th time through the Haunted Mansion, it's only your second. I wondered what kind of property owner would think that a tired, feeble, bored, 86-year-old woman was the ideal person to make an empty apartment come alive for prospective tenants.
I looked around (which, given the space of approximately 11 square feet, didn't take long). I looked back at my guide and blinked. She then walked past me to the other side of the room and gestured into a doorway. I followed, poking my head into a clean, but tiny space.
"Deez eez your beauteeful bedroom," she announced, with the exact same inflection as her first proclamation.
Like hell it is, I thought. In my world, we have dressers. This is more like my beauteeful closet.
A week later, I saw a two-level loft on the 12th floor of a beautiful building. New carpets. Mini-blinds. Tons of space. Sun. Fitness center. Heated pool. Sauna. Jacuzzi. Tenderloin.
Just as I was ready to give up and move to the 510, I saw an ad for a one-bedroom apartment, with parking, in Noe Valley. It sounded too good to be true. Great location, top floor, good rent. I showed up 30 minutes early for the open house so I would be first in line. This time, I acted immediately, submitting an application right then and there. I even went back for the second showing the next morning, first again, just to reiterate my desire. The landlord called me the next day and offered me the place.
My beret and I move in next week.
Mike McGinty is a copywriter at Cornyn + Partners, an advertising agency in San Francisco. If you're not a landlord, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Noe Valley Voice invites you to express your fervent opinions on issues affecting the neighborhood. Mail manuscripts, which should be no more than 1,000 words, to the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez St., San Francisco, CA 94114. Or e-mail jaxvoice @ aol.com. Include your name, address, and phone number, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you'd like your manuscript returned. Thank you.