We looked at some apartments near Alamo Square, but the application process just smelled like a racket. Like, it ought to be illegal. There were eleven other people with Steph and I, all traipsing through a couple of one-bedroom apartments in one building. After seeing the apartments, if you were interested in renting one of them, you had to pay a $50 fee for a credit check, to even be considered. Of the eleven people on our tour of those apartments, six stayed afterwards and paid for that credit check, including Steph and I.
Even without taking $50 from everyone who’s interested, the credit check seemed like a waste of money. There's no way someone with my craptastic job and severely-blemished credit report could score that apartment, so Steph filled out everything in her name. I tried to be supportive and positive, but it seemed hopeless even with Steph filling out the applications. How could someone with no income and no local references land an apartment in San Francisco, where rents were already impossibly pricey, and landlords had their pick of a dozen applicants for every apartment?
And indeed, we never heard back about that apartment, or any of several other apartments we'd walked through, and paid to have a credit check done. They didn't want us in Hayes Valley, or Potrero Hill, or Bernal Heights. They wanted our money, but they didn't want us. And we weren't made of fifty-dollar bills, so our cash reserves were dwindling. It would've been easy to grow discouraged. Steph's job-hunt was leading nowhere, and the apartment-hunt seemed even more futile.
A few days later, while I was getting ready for work, Steph mentioned that she had a bead on an apartment, and she was going to go look at it that day. I responded with words of encouragement, but I’ll admit now what I didn't admit then — I had doubts.
Early that afternoon, the phone rang at my desk at work, and it was Stephanie. "We have an apartment," she said. "It’s expensive, and the kitchen is across the hall, but they’re motivated to get it leased. I want to write a check and sign the contract, but only if you’re OK with it."
"The kitchen is across the hall? You mean, it’s a place with a shared kitchen?"
"No, the kitchen is all ours, no sharing, but it’s across the hall from the apartment."
"Um, I really don’t understand. Do you want me to come look at the place?"
"You can see it when we have the key, but Doug, to get this apartment, I need to sign the lease now. Meaning, as soon as I hang up the phone. I’ll only sign the lease if it’s OK with you, so – is it OK with you?"
"Steph, I love you, and I trust you. If you think it’s a good place at a good price, sign on the dotted line."
"I love you, too. I’m writing a check and signing a lease."
She clicked off, and I sat there, dumbfounded. I didn't understand how she'd done it, but it was done. New in town and unemployed, she'd signed a lease for an apartment. Not a rez hotel room, like the places I'd been calling 'home', but a genuine apartment — and a pretty good apartment, in a nice neighborhood, with a city park literally across the street. It was in what's called the Duboce Triangle, with Haight Street, the Castro, and a Safeway supermarket all within a few blocks. The N Judah streetcar, with quick service downtown or to the ocean, ran right outside our window.
The apartment was in a 19th-century building, three stories tall. It had probably been built as a one-family mansion, but sliced into apartments long ago. Architecturally, it had some character. The steps up from the street were marble, or faux marble, with Greek-style pillars and a swirly, wrought-iron handrail. The laundry room in the basement was downright ornate, with wood-paneled walls and a brick fireplace.
Our room had a large bay window, cut at a 45-degree angle between the north and east walls, and a smaller, colorful stained-glass window — which was beautiful, but we always wondered why an apartment would have a small stained-glass window. The room itself was smallish and uncarpeted, but with an old-fashioned radiator that kept the room snug and warm. The shower and toilet were small, too, but adequate — how much room do you need, to take a shower or a poop?
The obvious problem was the kitchen. As Stephanie had said, it was across the hall — the common hall, shared by everyone in the building. Coming up the steps from the street, you needed a key to get into the building, and then, from the front hallway, the first door on the left was our apartment, and the first door on the right was our kitcen.
The set-up certainly presented problems. You couldn't cook in your pajamas, or open the refrigerator or even make toast in your underwear or naked. Crossing the hallway meant you were (briefly) out in public, so you kinda had to be dressed. Furthermore, bringing food from the kitchen into the apartment required opening both doors before carrying the pot of whatever you'd cooked, and then closing and locking both doors behind you. Sometimes it involved waiting, holding a hot pan or tray while neighbors maneuvered the hallway carrying a bicycle or a kid. At least once I ruined dinner by trying to turn one of the doorknobs while carrying food, and I'm not certain but I think it happened once to Stephanie, too. Spaghetti and meatballs should not be served on the floor, and mopping up supper is not fun. So yeah, that kitchen was a hassle.
Then again, that kitchen was the reason we were moving in. The real estate agent had told Stephanie that, because of its awkward configuration, the apartment was very difficult to rent. He said he'd already shown it dozens of times, and it had been empty for months, because most prospective tenants balked at the disconnected kitchen. He was tired of showing that apartment over and over again, and he told Steph that if she wanted it and her credit wasn't abysmal, she could have it. "Just sign here," he said, and she had signed.
The rent, though, was another problem. It was $1,600 per month. From everything I've heard, rents in San Francisco are now exponentially more insane than they were then, so maybe $1,600 sounds like a bargain, but for us it was a potential budget-buster, especially while Stephanie was unemployed. It was more than a thousand dollars higher than the rent for our rez hotel room, every month. And outside of the San Francisco solar system (and maybe New York or Tokyo) $1,600 still seems like a crazy price for a one-room apartment. I'm writing this twenty-plus years later, and the rent for our two-bedroom apartment in Madison is still less than half what we paid for that studio in San Francisco.
The apartment and the neighborhood seemed very comfortable, though, and the kitchen and the rent felt like trivial problems, at least that night and at least to me. I invited Stephanie out to dinner to celebrate our new digs, but she declined.
"We really can't afford to have dinner out. I'll just cook something."
"You don't think we deserve a celebration?"
"We deserve a celebration, we just can't afford one. Seriously, Doug, we were poor yesterday. Today we're just as poor but the rent has gone way, way up. And I still don't have a job."
"You'll have a job soon, love."
"I'd better, because as long as I'm unemployed, the apartment isn't a solution. It's just another problem."
"You're good at solving problems, Steph. We'll be OK."
"I'll never find a job," she said. "We'll be living in residential hotels all our lives. Or in a cardboard box. I'll end up on unemployment and welfare, cooking us dinner with food stamps. I'll end up begging."
She wasn't kidding, she was worrying. Stephanie was a worrier, by nature. She always saw things realistically, and when a problem presented itself, Steph wanted to have a workable plan of action, plus two good back-up plans, just in case. I tried to say optimistic things, but the worries that day were bigger than any words I could come up with. In our situation, locked into a rent that we couldn't afford, she was right to be worried.
Instead of dinner out, she made us beans and rice. Within a few days we said adieu to the Wallaby Hotel, and made ourselves at home in our new apartment on Duboce Avenue. And before we were finished unpacking, Stephanie found a job, and a pretty good job at that.