The Call is Coming From Inside the House
I moved into my San Francisco rent controlled apartment in 2010. I know, just saying those words in 2021 about the one of the most expensive cities in the world feels like I'm bragging about how I got a marriage proposal with a huge diamond ring sparkling with bay windows, sunset views and best of all-- it came from a wealthy suitor with no prenup. 'Til death does one part with a rent-controlled apartment or until the landlord fights you in housing court for a divorce (which did happen years later.) I snatched up the suitor at the perfect time. The economy was just starting to crawl back after the 2008 recession and many apartments around the city had desperate looking For Rent signs pleading for applications, First month free rent! Students welcome! Pets ok! I loved exploring the different neighborhoods and I would ride my bike around the touristy Embarcadero, take pictures of the colorful murals in the alleys of The Mission and settle into the Castro Theater for queer-themed drag shows and classic movies. The western part of the city was on the other side of a steep hill that geographically divided it, where the old-school 1960's era San Francisco lived. Even though there was a trolley line that burrowed through a tunnel to get to the other side, bicycles were not allowed on the cars. I didn't like to drive in the city and I always had my bike with me when I went exploring, so getting to the other side became my solo Soul Cycle class. I would ride up the big bad hill as the east bound wind gusts pushed against me, taking the route known to cyclists as "The Wiggle" that made the incline a little less brutal. Once I you arrived at the top, it felt like you arrived in a new town in another state. The hills keep the temperatures in the summer as much as twenty-five degrees cooler and foggier than the rest of the city and the East Bay.
As I huffed and puffed, my bike would gravitate me to Golden Gate park. I loved being in nature while also being surrounded by history, beautiful architecture and culture. I would go see the new art exhibits at the De Young museum. Walk next door and marvel at Claude, the albino alligator at the Museum of Science. Breathe deeply the scent of hundreds of orchids at the Conservatory of Flowers. In the autumn I'd attend huge music festivals held in the parks open field. Smelling the Eucalyptus trees dripping with fog, I would ride towards the sunset as fast as I could and when I passed the giant windmill the wide blue-gray Pacific appeared in front of me, like credits rolling out when a movie finishes and you know it's time to leave and go home. By then I was usually exhausted and freezing. I would find a warm cafe and get a cup of soup or Chai tea (the beach always felt like a giant air conditioner and wind machine on high.) It was the perfect spot to escape to when it would get to be over 100 degrees in the East Bay.
I had a Goldilocks "ah ha, this is just right" feeling I when I strolled around the Inner Sunset and Cole Valley neighborhoods, just south of the Panhandle connected to Golden Gate park. It was urban but so much green and open space. The streets were mostly Victorian-era three and four story buildings. There were a few ugly 1970's boxy buildings with plastic stone facades and security gated parking garages that stood out amongst the curvy colorful Victorians, the stately Tudor and Craftsman style single-family homes and the cozy mom-and-pop shops. It was like a quiet little town within a big city. Haight Street was the main drag and a big tourist spot but it was still fascinating to look at historic photos on that very street of Janis Joplin, band members from The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Allen Ginsberg and all the hippy kids (our parents on drugs!) in the summer of '67, the "Summer of Love". When the cold winds would whip through my body in the summer as I walked through Golden Gate Park, I would imagine the thousands of young people from all over the world who came to San Francisco to tune in, tune out and find themselves. I imagine them laughing with me that they also didn't expect to need a winter coat in July but they were so grateful to be in this magical town shrouded in fog, the sound of acoustic guitars playing in the distance, warmly wrapped in a blanket under the pungent Eucalyptus trees and watching the yellow poppy flowers blow in the wind.
I had moved to the Bay Area from Boston, partially to escape the brutal east coast winters. Also, I left my then-fiancee as I also needed to tune out, tune in and find out who I really was. After moving a few times trying on a few Bay Area cities to live in, something was just not right each of them, but I told myself I couldn't afford to live in The City. I was determined to not give up and move back to the Northeast or go back to the ex. Before moving to the big city I lived in Burlingame, or Boringame as I called it, a wealthy suburb south of the airport. I didn't own a two million dollar beige house in the hills or push a stroller with fashionably dressed kids in tow and chat with other well-heeled moms about private schools while sipping lattes at Peet's Coffee. I always felt like an outsider. Still, the downtown area was always a nice walk and had a sweet village feel, and it felt very safe. Safe, boring and beige. I fled to Boringame after leaving Emeryville and Oakland. There was a lot that I loved about the East Bay-- mostly flat and wide streets for biking, public transportation to the City was close by and convenient, the weather was generally warmer and more pleasant than San Francisco. There were more houses with yards and gardens. I liked that it was more of town feel but had a thriving art scene and many artist friends from the Burning Man community could afford to lease large studios to create their work. It was racially diverse; many of my friends and a few cousins lived there and the rent was (at the time) half of what you would pay for in San Francisco. But after years of witnessing violence and crime, feeling anxious when I walked alone anywhere I was ready to trade East Bay's artsy community for safe, quiet and lonely Boringame. On the bright side I would tell myself, it was only a ten minute cab ride to the airport as I went back to the east coast every few months to see my friends and to work (I was a freelance photographer and most of my well-paid shoots were in Florida and New England.)
January 2007, North Oakland
The apartment building was a magnificent golden yellow with a coppery green trim color in a Deco styled trim. It sat behind a tall iron gate and reminded me of a palace perched on steep hill overlooking Broadway. My apartment was on the top floor corner with long windows on two sides that faced west and you could see part of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline on clear days. There was newly polished wood floors that opened into a dining area and kitchen, with the original post-World War II era, liver-pink aluminum cabinets in perfect condition. As far as I could tell It was the only unit in the building with two levels (the outside of the building looked like a castle with a corner area jutting out from the roof like an afterthought when they designed it.) There was a spiral staircase going to the second level and I had the master bedroom with a walk-in closet. The bedroom next to it had a huge skylight and I use that room as my office. I couldn't believe my luck finding this place! It was listed online as a three bedroom near Rockridge (fancy pants neighborhood) for $1400 and even allowed pets, but there were no photos so I imagined it to be a moldy basement filled with roaches facing the screeching BART station with neighbors directly above who were in a metal band and practiced at 2am. I needed to see it out of curiosity and my hopes were rock bottom. When the manager gave me a tour, I walked up the stairs and gasped when we entered the apartment. I was so excited, I immediately handed him my application and a check for first month's rent and security deposit. I found my forever home to put down roots! The rare Deco gem was all mine. I couldn't believe a place like this was so cheap and perfect after viewing so many apartments.
I spent the week painting all the rooms unique colors, buying common area furniture at thrift stores and I posted an ad seeking a roommate for the third bedroom on the main level. I took a stroll Saturday evening exploring my new neighborhood and marveling at the historic architecture. I walked around Piedmont Avenue, a cute village-like street with little shops. I bought an ice cream at Fenton's Creamery which still looks straight out of the 1950’s-- the extra friendly servers wearing paper hats, the malt shop sodas and parents with their happy children skipping down the street. I caught the seven pm show of an arthouse film playing at the independent movie theater on the corner, it's neon signage fit perfectly with the ice cream shop like it was a movie set. Everything felt adorable, sweet and welcoming and I was starting to fall in love with my new neighborhood. After the movie, I meandered the six block walk home. It was early January and the weather still made me feel like a lucky tourist on a very long vacation. I giggled to myself I as breathed in the scent of night blooming Jasmine flowers and embraced the spring-like temperatures after moving from Boston a year earlier. I loved exploring the outdoors on foot in the winter without bundling up in five layers and running to get inside as fast as possible.
I stopped a few times to peek in the closed shop windows as I walked home, but I also remained acutely aware of my surroundings. I always did. I didn't wear earbuds or headphones to distract myself. I kept my purse close around my body, I had pepper spray on my keychain and walked in the middle of the street. I knew Oakland had a reputation for crime, I heard many stories but I had only seen hints of it firsthand. I would see the fresh broken glass next to smashed car windows here and there, but I didn't own a car so it didn't make me worry too much. I am hyper vigilant when I walk in an unfamiliar city for a good reason. I was mugged and assaulted in the streets of New York City when I was ten and eleven years old. The first time was a few weeks after after we moved from the quiet suburbs of Long Island to New York City's East Village neighborhood. My mother, a single parent, was pretty absent and I was raising myself as an only child with few resources. The childhood trauma stayed with me as an adult, a reminder to never let my guard down. This is why feeling safe in my home, my neighborhood and community is so important to me.
As I turned the corner on to my narrow, quiet street with large pines rustling in the wind, it was very dark as the nearest street lamp was on the opposite end of the block. I could make out a back lit man walking with his dog coming towards me and I actually felt a sense of relief to not be all alone on the street in this new and unfamiliar area. I have friendly neighbors, I have community, I am safe here, I assured myself.
A few minutes after we passed each other, I saw something strange in the shadows, between the parked cars on the other side of the street that made me stop in my tracks. I saw someone in the shadows wearing a dark ski mask who stayed perfectly still like a mannequin, the head facing straight at me with dark dead eyes and an