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 expressionless face. My very first thought was to not panic (stop being so paranoid Melissa, lighten up!) so reasoned I with myself for a few seconds: It is wintertime, Melissa. Back in Boston, you saw people on the streets wearing ski masks in January. My brain explained this to me as if I was reading an email from the rational right brain department. Then, my inner child kicked me in the gut and told my adrenal glands what do next. FUCKFUCKFUCKETYFUCK THAT GRIZZLY BEAR IS GOING TO EAT YOU RIGHT THE FUCK NOW! THE HOUSE IS ON FUCKING FIRE AND YOU MUST SAVE YOURSELF! YOU ARE ON FIRE! PREPARE TO FIGHT AND KILL OR BE KILLED MUTHAFUCKA!!! Before the mannequin in the shadows moved an inch I decided it was ok to look paranoid and crazy (if I was wrong about my gut telling me what to do) and I started running in the opposite direction as fast as I could screaming at the top of my lungs, "FIRE, FIRE! CALL NINE ONE ONE! HELP! FIRE!" (I was taught in a safety training class to say those words rather than just shout 'Help' as many people assume you're just playing around with friends and don't take it as a serious plea.) As I ran, I heard the footsteps chase close behind and in that moment of fear I also felt sad and angry to have to re-experience being the helpless victim again. The masked head caught up in front of me to block my path, so I pivoted to face a parked car, leaned my bodyweight over my purse and turned my back to him (or her?) and closed my eyes tightly screaming, "FUCK YOU MOTHERFUCKER! NO NO NO, YOU ARE NOT GETTING THIS! YOU ARE NOT TOUCHING ME! FIRE 911! HELP! FIRE NINE ONE ONE!" (note, closing your eyes hoping you wake up from a real-life nightmare isn't a great strategy when being attacked.) I don't know how long screaming with my back to him, but the mugger needed to get the job done so he politely tapped me on the shoulder to get me to open my eyes so he could show me the silver gun he was pointing at my ribs in his gloved hand. I looked at the gun, then at the expressionless face in the black mask. He wasn't much taller that me. My fight turned into defeat and I quickly ripped off my purse and threw it on the ground. He grabbed it and ran towards a large SUV that was waiting across the street. My fear turned into rage and I chased after him as he jumped into the car (the adrenal glands can't distinguish "fight or flight" and I realized afterwards how I'm lucky I am to not have been physically hurt.) I could see inside the car the just the silhouette of heads and the car's license plate was was missing so I couldn't get any information. I felt angry at myself that I did everything that I was taught to stay safe and the criminal still won. I imaged his disappointment when he opened my purse to find a granola bar, an apple, a wallet with eight dollars, an old cheap flip phone and my house keys. I was grateful that my new address wasn't on my ID, feeling irrationally terrified they would know where I lived and would come back to rob my apartment or worse. Finally, a man from one of the nearby apartment buildings came down to help a few minutes after they drove away. Maybe this was a common occurrence in the neighborhood? Maybe this is why my apartment and the rent was too good to be true? I thought. He lent me his phone to call the police and the building manager since I had no way of getting into my apartment. The cop who showed up looked bored when I tried to describe the incident ("I think he was around 5'6", wearing all black, black ski mask, small silver gun. He got into a dark looking SUV with no plates...") He wrote up the report, handed me a copy and told me to go file it the Oakland Police Department on Monday. I nodded along in a daze like I was watching the events unfold in one of my reoccurring nightmares. The kind stranger who came to help walked with me up and down the street as my body shook and teeth chattered as if I was freezing to death. I held on to my shoulders and rubbed them to get myself to calm down as we waited for the building manager. Then I called my bank to cancel my credit cards. The woman on the other end asked about my recent purchases before closing my card.
"Did you go to In And Out Burger in Vallejo this evening and make a purchase of twenty-one dollars and ninty-two cents?"
"No, that wasn't me."
The thieves also attempted several times to put gas in their (probably stolen) car but failed as they didn't know my billing address. It painted a picture of who these so-called criminals were. Some of them probably lived around Vallejo, a city thirty miles north of Oakland that also had a reputation for gangs and violence. They probably stole a car, made one of their friends wait on a dark street to mug an easy target for a quick ATM, then took a joyride back home to grab some late night dinner with their homies at their local burger joint.
They were kids. I tried to feel a little less rage telling myself they were probably just teens from a marginalized community, but I was done feeling anxious all the time in cities. It was time to plan my next move.
San Francisco, February 2010
The apartment building was a classic rundown Victorian that reeked of cigarettes and mold when you walked in the front hall. There were No Smoking signs posted on every floor but there was always a stench of smoke from the first floor apartment. The two old men that lived in that apartment looked like they moved to San Francisco as hippy teenagers in the Summer of Love and never left. You could smell the stench of fifty years of yellow tobacco tinged furniture wafting down the street when they left the windows open. There was rat poop around the garbage bin area. Stained brown carpet in the hallways going up the staircases and hot water spewing from the hallway radiators on each floor. My apartment was up five flights of stairs, a good workout carrying my bicycle up and down each day. The landlord was a thin, Japanese American man in his seventies who lived a few miles away in a neighborhood closer to the beach. He was generally angry, a little paranoid, didn't make much eye contact, complained about the city's property taxes and told me when I was signing the lease that he walked fourteen miles a day ("my friends who are younger than me are all dying but I will outlive them all of them!" he boasted.) I felt bad for him and suspected he had a traumatic upbringing (I always wondered if there was a connection to him or family members being part of the Japanese-American Internment Camps in the Bay Area.) He owned several apartment buildings around San Francisco worth millions of dollars but he drove an old beat up car that had so much garbage in it, he had to carve out just a little area for him to sit and could only see out a few feet directly in the front of the windshield. He also hoarded tons of crap that looked like he fished it from the dump and then emptied it into our building. Piles of old calendars, books, stuffed animal toys, rusted out bicycles, broken lamps, used clothes, tools, old open paint cans, solvents and used brushes. The junk was piled up in places as high as seven feet in the main level boiler room, a few feet away from the tank's gas flame. I was often in there secretly getting rid of the junk, but he would replace it the next week with even more stuff.
Even through all of these issues, I saw the landlord and the building as just a challenge to overcome. I was determined to be a City Girl, the price was right and it was all about location, location, location. I squinted and could see a diamond in the rough, so I decided to shine the turd into something that could sparkle. I knew there was potential to make some extra income having a relatively cheap two bedroom apartment in a prime area. I felt grateful that I could finally afford to live in a safe neighborhood next to one of the most iconic public parks in the country, museums, culture, close to public transportation and being smack in the middle of this glorious seven-by-seven mile square-- I could be at the beach or downtown in twenty minutes. I could see the potential and decided to take the apartment as it was the least expensive of all of them I had seen by far ($1650 for a three-and-a-half room apartment with a five-by-seven foot kitchen that only fit one person at a time.) On the bright side, it had classic vintage charm. Lots of natural light with windows on three sides. Views of the park, an original clawfoot tub with beautiful cobalt blue tiled floors, three walk-in closets, a built-in china cabinet (impractical but oh so charming) and original wood floors. The street was lined with English Sycamore trees and old-fashioned street lamps. When the lamps would light up in the foggy evenings it made the street look like an Impressionist painting set in Paris at the turn of the century. I could see the building though rose colored glasses.
I decided to put my own time and money into making my apartment really long-term livable, as if it was my very own and eventually it would pay off. The landlord made it clear he didn't like me and in each year that passed the more he would harass me to try and get me to move out. Under rent control laws, he couldn't raise the rent more than two percent a year and rents were starting to skyrocket in the years after I moved in. So the landlord retaliated by letting the building crumble as a way of pressuring renters to move out (whenever I put in a request to have anything fixed, his response to me and anyone else in the building was to simply move out.) I dug in my heels in and spent over five thiusand dollars of my own money and many grueling hours of my time completely renovating the kitchen and bathroom to make it functional. I even upgraded safety items the landlord should have been taking care of like modern carbon monoxide detectors and proper locks on the front door that couldn't be opened with a paper clip. My actions weren't part of my lease terms, but if my landlord and I were both committing wrongs I justified I could make it right as a win-win for everyone. Everything in the building was neglected and dangerous and I was helping every tenant in the building to be a little safer. I got fire extinguishers installed on each floor after contacting the San Francisco fire and building inspectors (I reached out to them the week after the horrifying Ghost Ship fire that killed thirty-six people at a warehouse party in Oakland. The list of citations were posted on the front door of the building, including cleaning out the garbage pilling up in the boiler room.) He really hated me after that and would post threatening hand-scribbled notes on my door.
My photography business had been waning for many years and I was lonely working in the house all the time, so I got a part time job to have some mental stability. It got me on my bike a few days a week, flying down Fulton Street past the Painted Lady houses at full speed with all the other morning commuters to my $12 an hour sales job in SOMA. It was pretty mindless work and I got to hang out with kids fresh out of college figuring out what to do with their lives. I always had a roommate to try to save money and not feel so isolated, but they would always leave after a few months to finish school or move in with their boyfriends. I started a side hustle doing short-term rentals on Airbnb and Craigslist to make extra money between roommates and I did very well since the guests were really there to explore the area and were there for only a few days, they didn't spend much time in the apartment-- which often lacked heat and often fuses blew out a lot-- but I still managed to get good reviews because of the location and my hospitality. I created another side hustle in 2014, a job that would net me more income than what I made at the height of my photography career. I spent a year researching all the successful and hot "influencers". Studied their branding and marketing. Bought some cheap lingerie, a few proper dresses and sexy heels. Had my first professional photo shoot session (where I got creative in front of the camera.) Read a book on how to screen potential clients, avoid time wasters, serial killers and cops. Created my name, a persona and a website and --BOOM-- I was birthed into the demimonde and “Joy”, an escort, was born. I branded myself as a professional GFE (Girlfriend Experience) focused on dinner/lunch dates or overnights, and for couples seeking their first-time "unicorn" experience (being in my forties and having a professional sex educator background attracted a lot of middle-aged couples who wanted to cross menage a trois off their bucket list of sexual adventures.)
In spring of 2015, I had been working as an escort for almost two years and I kept it on the down low from my most of my family and friends. I never saw clients in my home so it was easier to keep my anonymity-- I either met with them at their hotel if they were visiting or I booked my own. If I was doing an overnight I made sure to hide my luggage tags and store my ID and credit cards in the safe. In my advertising and marketing photos I obscured my face. I tried to be as authentic as I could be to attract the right clients but also maintain discretion. Meanwhile, I'm juggling all my other gigs to make money. I'm still a freelance photographer getting occasional paid work as well as a professional photo retoucher (shifting my skillset to now shoot selfies and retouch scantily clad photos of me.) I hustled as an Airbnb host and pimped out the second bedroom in the apartment. Market rents had gone up considerably in the five years I had lived there so I was making money from the difference of rent to I paid to the landlord and what I charged subletters. I justified it as the bedroom was furnished, I spent the time and money fixing it up, I included all the utilities and I was essentially the live-in maid to clean the common areas. The people who could easily afford market rents were young, fresh-hired guys working at startups as software engineers so it wasn't surprising when I leased the extra room to a twenty year-old who worked at a well-known billion dollar company in town. Like many tech workers in the Bay Area, he had just moved from India to take the job and had moved directly from his parents' house. He had never lived with anyone but his family before moving in with me. He seemed a little awkward and stared at me in a creepy way when I interviewed him for the sublet, but I figured this a very new experience strange for him. After he moved in, I showed him around the neighborhood and we chatted at our local cafe to break the ice. I could’t tell if he was shy or maybe on the autism spectrum as he didn't say much when I tried to engage.
A few weeks after he moved in, I was in my room one evening checking my escort work email account and a message suddenly popped up in my inbox. He said his name was Peter Smith, a Wall Street banker who lived in Manhattan and was interested in setting up a date when he would be visiting next week. On my website, all inquiries were sent through a booking form which had an IP address tracker in the software. I always did a quick address lookup before I screened a client to see where they were from. I checked the IP address to see if he was being honest about where he claimed to live, but the message showed an address in San Francisco as it popped up on my map. Maybe he’s in town now for a conference or something? But the map didn’t show the downtown area where all the tourists stay, it actually showed my neighborhood next to the park. Maybe he lied about being from New York and he’s actually a local. But what a coincidence that he lives nearby or he might be writing from a wifi cafe in my neighborhood. I was curious about the IP address, so I put it into Google. Then I stared at my screen. My chest tightened, my face hot and flushed. I put my hand over my mouth to muffle my scream so I wouldn't be heard through the wall that separated our rooms.
The IP address was mine.
THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE. GET OUT! The primal fear called out to me as if I was being chased in the streets again but this time it was my own home and it was a sneak attack. I slammed my laptop shut and threw it in my bag, grabbed my jacket, locked my bedroom door and ran down the five flight of the stairs into the street with my heart pounding. My new subletter had sent the email. He discovered my secret world by spying on my internet data. Sitting eight feet away from me from at his computer, only a thin wall separating our bedrooms.
I ran to the cafe that had a solitary bathroom way in the back so I could let out a good loud bawl. I called a friend, eventually calming down and headed back to the apartment that evening, listening at the door to see if he was home as I quietly unlocked it and tiptoed into the kitchen, taking food into my room and locking my bedroom door. I lived in fear in my own house. It never entered my mind that a roommate would break into our shared internet connection to spy on me, but I never had a roommate who was a young tech bro who got off on coding, hacking and peepholes. The next day, I got another similar inquiry email and it was also from my IP address. And another the next day. We were both in the apartment at the time, me in my bedroom with the door locked and he was in his room only a few feet away from me, probably listening at the wall to hear if I was on my computer and jerking off. It made me shudder.
I ignored the emails and hoped he would just go away. I wasn't going to confront him about it but I decided it was the perfect time to serve him his official thirty day notice to vacate. He was a month-to-month tenant at-will and had been living in the apartment for almost a month. He told me when he moved in that his stay would be temporary as he was looking to lease his own apartment and was actively searching. I mailed him the legal notice to his work address as I was terrified of confronting him in person. A few days after I mailed it, I received a certified letter from him stating he would not be moving out. That day, we ran into each other in the living room when I wasn’t expecting him to be home and he told me refused to vacate next month as it wasn't a good time as he was busy with work. In the same breath, he started critiquing my cleaning of the bathroom and kitchen as it wasn't good enough for him. I told him through clenched teeth that I was sorry but reminded him that he was a tenant at-will subletter and I was giving him over thirty days notice to vacate which was stipulated in our agreement. As he protested, he then threatened to tell the landlord I was making money on the side charging more for rent. I started to come unglued at that point and screamed as I marched towards him to get him out the front door and into the hallway. He took out his phone to video record me as he walked backwards down the staircase, presumably as a threat to send it to my landlord, but I knew it was for him to watch and jerk off to later. I never let on that I knew he spied on me or that he knew my alias and secret profession. I never acknowledged he had the power to doxx and destroy my world.
Since he refused to leave and he knew I couldn't anything about it, I knew it was me that had to leave and find a temporary place to stay until he was gone. I told him I would be finding a subletter for my room until he vacated (ironically, the subletter I found for my bedroom was also a software engineer with the same initials and surname as the stalker subletter.) I was lucky to find a place quickly for a few weeks in South Berkeley. The place was a shack-- literally a garden shack behind the main house, but it was so quiet and such a relief to have privacy again in my own little house. The shack had a tiny bed on a squeaky bedspring, a little pull out writing desk, two shelves and one window that looked out into garden of wild flowers. It reminded me of Henry David Thoreau’s replica cabin at Walden Pond, but this one at least had a composting toilet and a sink. The shower was located in another shared shack, and I had to walk to the the main house to do laundry or use the kitchen, where several people of all ages lived in a commune-like setting. Complete with a chore chart, big jars of dried lentils and cook books from the 70s. It was very Berkeley. It was the perfect catalyst to get me moving again and find home.
I had been contemplating moving to Portland, Oregon ever since I visited my cousin in 2014 and fell in love with the area. Like a hot romance that soured over the years, I was done with the Bay Area and this incident was the last straw that prompted me to break up the relationship and move out. Both of my subletters gave their notices to vacate the apartment a few months later and I found new renters quickly (But Melissa, didn't you leave for Portland to find your new home? Yes, but I also left all my furniture, my regular clients that I continued to see, as well as my heart in San Francisco.) I wasn’t going to give up a rent controlled apartment that I poured time and money into, duh. San Francisco was kind of the like the attractive asshole ex-boyfriend that I hated but we had a lot of passionate sex as well. I would come back into his arms for a tryst about once a month but I had a much more stable and relaxed relationship with Mr Portland.
After ten years of moving all over the Bay that ended abruptly with the stalking incident, I was ecstatic to get the hell out of Dodge and fly 600 miles north. The weather was just right-- no more freezing winds in July. Seasons that change, minus the snow (most of the time). And rain, rain, all the rain you can handle in the winters and spring. More pine trees, more green year round and a city that feels like a slower-paced town with a bunch of little neighborhoods surrounding it. Strangers say friendly hellos on the street and make eye contact. I still ride my bicycle everywhere and found my tribe of urban cyclists. I bought a ninety year-old house that I've been renovating and fixing for years and may never be finished, but it's all mine. I am finally home. I did eventually lose my rent controlled apartment in a battle with the landlord, but I actually felt a huge sense of relief leaving it all behind when I left. The intimidating messages he would tape to my door, the panicked emails from my subletters who complained and wanted out of their sublease agreements early, the broken down haunted building that was always on the verge of catching fire or being condemned. The sublet stalker who finally vacated the apartment, I was the most relieved to never have to think about him again.
Until two years later, when he contacted me again.
This time, he gave me his real name and information on my booking form saying he wanted to book a date (and even reminded me he was my former roommate in case I had forgotten who he was.) Then, he sent the same message to my photography business (legal name) account. He showed me his upper hand without having to spell it out but I heard it loud and clear: I have now linked your legal name, connected your family's name, which may be linked to a regular employer, your photography business, a landlord, your banking institutions, which is now one key stroke away from knowing all about your criminalized, stigmatized underworld. I have the power to link it all over the internet and destroy you if don't respond to me and do what I say.
I was traumatized all over again but I did not respond. He tried to follow my sexworker Twitter account under his real name and I blocked him. I haven't heard from him again, but I'm guessing he probably still lurks in the shadows and follows me under a fake name. It feels vulnerable to be writing about a stalker who may be reading about themselves and giving them fuel to come back to life, but I wrote this story to free myself and let other women know they are not alone. I am planning on coming out in 2022 under my "real" name and unpacking a life that's been compartmentalized and bottled up for the last decade -- my life as a former and current sex worker, my activism, my partner, my relatives, my community will be formally introduced and integrated into one life. I'm ready to step out of the shadows and take back the narrative of my story. No one will have the power to uncover me if I'm already standing in the light shining brightly. I am safe, I am loved, I have my community, my roots are deep and I have found home.
You can huff and puff but you can't blow my house down.