The entire apartment, not includng the bathroom, measured a palatial 6′ x 9′. That’s 54 sq ft of living, eating, working, sleeping, storage space. Many flat-screen TVs these days are bigger than that.
With so little room, I couldn’t even put an actual bed in there. If I did, the entire apartment would have been my bed. To save space, I slept on a futon that I folded up in the morning before heading off to work. Not the most comfortable thing around, it had a metal frame with bars that dug into my back after just a few short months of use.
To say that apartment was tiny would be putting it mildly.
I had just moved to the Bay Area after graduating from college in Washington, DC. Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. All I knew was that I wanted to be in San Francisco doing something creative. At the time, advertising was the only field that I had any real world experience in, so I decided to look for a job as a copywriter. Doing my research, I listed every advertising agency in the city before packing my bags and moving out west. I figured I’d get my ass there first, send my demo reel to the 40+ agencies on my list, and pray that at least one of them would bite. That was the plan.
In an act of tough love that I would later appreciate, my dad made it clear that he wasn’t going to support me while I was there. I needed to support myself so I took a minimum wage job at Stacey’s Bookstore in the financial district while waiting for an agency callback. Commuting to and from my sister’s place in Palo Alto was proving to be a pain so I needed to find a place in the city as quickly as possible. With the salary I was making though, I couldn’t afford anything nice. I had to make do with whatever apartment I could find, hence my 6′ x 9′ walk-in closet.
Back then in the late 90s, there were basically just two bad neighborhoods in the city. The Tenderloin district was one, and that stretch of 6th street between Market and Harrison was the other. My apartment was a block away from the latter, on 7th and Harrison.
I don’t remember his name, but my landlord was a real character man. He was black, and he drove a slick, sky blue Cadillac Fleetwood with a white convertible top. He had a handicapped tag hanging from his rear view mirror despite being in perfectly good health, as far as I could tell. Always smiling, always chatting it up whenever I passed him on the stairwell, I’d never forgotten what a jovial person he was.
That and the fact that he was also a crack dealer.
Though he never divulged that information to me personally (my neighbor told me), I did have my suspicions that he wasn’t just a landlord. The first time he showed me the apartment, he explained that the stovetop was working fine but the refrigerator was busted. Getting down on one knee to show me the moldy interior of my crippled refrigerator, his words went something like this:
“Oh you know, this refrigerator, it don’t work no more…but you can grow some plants in here if you want.” He winked and elbowed me lightly.
Good to know, I thought to myself. What did I expect for just USD 450 a month right? You get what you pay for.
“And there’s a problem with your mailbox too” he added. “The lock’s broke. I haven’t changed it yet, but don’t worry. I’ll take care o’ you.”
I didn’t really know what that meant at the time — “…don’t worry. I’ll take care o’ you.” — but I didn’t pay much attention to it. I was just happy to finally have a place in the city to call my own.
Though I was technically living alone, it’s important to note that I did have many roommates. Several dozen in fact. After living there for a few days, I discovered that the place was crawling with roaches.
I normally hate cockroaches but I didn’t really mind those guys. They were an almost pleasant shade of caramel brown and were never bigger than my thumbnail. In fact, I got so used to them after a while that I started giving them names.
“Oh hello there Paco”, I would say, before flicking him off my arm.
I didn’t realize how bad the infestation was until I let my friend Richard borrow my laptop. Picking it up in the morning, he called me later that night, his voice in near hysterics:
(In a British accent:) “JB man, four or five roaches have crawled out of your laptop. Oh my god, there’s another one! Kill it, kill it Kathleen!” Kathleen was his girlfriend.
As amusing as a roach-infested laptop or a crack dealer landlord may be, neither one of those events was the most remarkable thing I remember from that apartment. My neighbors proved to be far more unforgettable.
One night, when I was sleeping, I was woken up by the blood-curdling sound of a woman wailing. My apartment was on the second floor next to the stairwell, so I could easily hear people going in and out of the building. She ran down the stairs screaming the whole way. Looking out my window, I found her barefoot in a nightgown, crying and howling while lying face down in the middle of the street. Luckily, two passersby stopped to help. Asking her what was wrong, she said:
“That motherfucker! He just got out of jail and he gave me two black eyes and broke my nose again!”
Unconsolable at first, she screamed and sobbed like that before finally calming down and going back into the building. With nowhere else to go at that time of night, I heard her climb up the stairwell and into the motherfucker’s arms just a few doors away from mine.
I double checked my locks before going back to sleep that night.
It’s funny. A few of my friends had been to that apartment, including my dad, and they all registered the same appalled expression the first time they saw the place. Shocked and speechless every time, it was like: “Is this the closet? Where’s the rest of the apartment?”
Of course, none of it ever surprised me. I did live in a roach-infested shoebox in one of San Francisco’s most unsavory neighborhoods. I had a crack dealer for a landlord and a criminal wife beater living next door. The short time I was there, I was mugged twice at knifepoint by the same guy, an interesting story which I’ll leave for another time.
But in spite of it all, I adored that place.
It was my place. My first apartment. The very first place that I could actually call my own. As shitty and unsavory as it was at times, I think back on that apartment with nothing but fondness and pride. Living there taught me a lot about myself. I learned that I wasn’t too good for anything. I learned that I could do whatever I needed to do to pursue a dream. For the first time ever, I felt like I was finally making my own decisions and taking responsibility for my life.
In short, I was growing up.
And let’s not forget, I was in San Francisco man. The best city on earth and the only place I wanted to be. Living there taught me that a few roaches didn’t mean shit when you were happy.
Coming home from work one day, I remember taking off my jacket and seeing something from the corner of my eye that made me do a double take. It was the week’s mail, neatly piled on top of my busted refrigerator/greenhouse. In that instant, my landlord’s words came rushing back to me.
“…don’t worry. I’ll take care o’ you.”
Without telling me, he had let himself in to my apartment during the day to drop off my mail. Taken aback but still with a smile on my face, it was only then that I realized what he meant.
JB and Renée are the Traveleaters behind Will Fly for Food, a travel blog for the gastronomically inclined. They enjoy experiencing food from different cultures so they’ve made it their mission to try every country’s national dish. Read more about them and their National Dish Quest here.