Recently I caught a cab from downtown to my apartment building in Hayes Valley. I was in a pretty decent mood: Any day that you can actually hail a cab to your destination within five minutes in San Francisco, as if it were a functioning urban center, is a pretty good day.
We pulled up at my place on Fell Street, a 50-unit building that's nearly a century old, with a heavy iron-gate door and a Spanish-style lobby. As I dug around for the fare, the cabbie muttered, "Ugliest building in San Francisco." I didn't know what else to do but laugh. Gee mister, do you spread that sunshine for all of your fares, or just lucky me?
Yes, my cab driver was a turd, but I'm not exactly going to wave a flag in front of my residence, either. Like most middle-class people who live in urban apartment buildings, my presence here is more by necessity than by choice. My apartment is centrally located, has a nice renovated kitchen, and -- most important -- I can afford the rent. The fact that it has a closet for a bedroom, a constant stream of traffic noise from the street, and the occasional bug -- I tolerate these things, because I have to.
The first apartment I saw on my hunt in July was a garden apartment in Potrero Hill. It was literally someone's basement, but it was above ground and had a gorgeous little yard with views -- and it was cheap. I got there five minutes before the open house started. Withing five minutes of the door opening, there were two applications on the place. That's when I realized you don't screw around with the rental market here. You put on your New Yorker hat and hit the pavement.
My building's manager, S., answered the phone when I responded to the ad for my current place. "Ugh! You're the 80th call I've had in the last hour, since the ad went up," she said, exasperated but friendly. I made an appointment to see the place in two hours.
S. took me up in the old-school elevator, which has an accordion gate and sounds like Frankenstein jolting to life whenever a button is pressed. (Little did I know at the time that the elevator is audible from my apartment every single time it is called.)
After a glance at the apartment, I asked for an application. S. gave me one and informed me that I was the third person to apply. "One thing to know if you are putting in an application," she said, "Is that the owner is obsessed with credit. If you don't have a good credit report, don't bother." I told her her my credit was excellent.
Soon after my credit assurances, her chumminess increased exponentially. "Well, of the two people who are in line before you, one of them makes great money, but he doesn't have any credit rating," she confided. "The other one is Indian, and you know, we don't like that!"
I stared blankly, not sure what I was hearing. She talked through the pause. "You know -- because they outsource all the jobs! That's not good for the economy!" I kept on staring and let her continue on. Her racism was as nonsensical as it was stunning.
At another point she waved at the brand-new hood over the stove in my kitchen. "I wish I had one of these," she said. "The tenants before me were Latinas [sic] and there was grease all over the wall behind the oven!"
She talked blithely throughout my visit, continuing to drop disparaging comments on the previous two applicants. One of them was in the gaming industry in Silicon Valley. "You know, those jobs come and go," she said dismissively.
Later, as she glanced over my application, she caught sight of my surname. "Nunez! Look at you!" she said, simply. Look at you, fooling me with your Caucasian looks and greasy Latina surname!
By the time I left, she was practically promising me the apartment, kissing me on the cheek when we parted, every other word "sugar" or "sweetheart." I don't know why she liked me -- I had a "foreign" name, after all -- but she did, and I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't once do anything to put that in jeopardy. Who was I to question her theories about Indians and Latinas? I needed a place to live.
Ironically, her prejudices may have worked against her in the end. "I want you to have this apartment," she told me, "because we are a family here. We want people who are going to live here, who are here to stay for awhile." I wasn't sure what led her to think I was any less transient than the two dudes who preceded me -- I am willing to bet that they will stay in the area longer than I will. The lease, friends, is month-to-month; and tonight, I made myself a big, stinky curry.