The Hovel on the Roof, Part II

An uninvited roommate

In Part 1 of this post, I wrote that in 1969, when I was 25, I had sworn never to pay a landlord more than $100/month (ignoring what I knew about inflation). Since then I had lived in a series of slum apartments and thrown myself into a life of radical activism, thinking I could go on this way forever—or at least through the turmoil of what many of us assumed was an upcoming revolution.

In 1969 the U.S. was still bombing and slaughtering millions in Indochina. Radicals in the Weather Underground, people my own age, were setting off bombs that destroyed property but also killed six of their own members.

At the same time that I committed myself to a life of voluntary poverty, I made a somewhat contradictory vow. If I survived the upheaval, if I actually lived to be forty, I’d put my finances in order for old age.

*          *          *

Shortly after I moved into my dilapidated penthouse on 25th Street I planted my first garden, on the roof outside my door: four rectangular boxes filled with good dirt and marijuana seeds. Fortunately the roof didn’t leak, so watering posed no problem for the tenants just below. The sun blessed those little seedlings all day long and soon they’d grown waist high. I looked forward to flower buds at the beginning of autumn, but one day when I came out to inspect, a helicopter was hovering overhead. It departed almost immediately, perhaps after taking photos. Even though I hadn’t seen a police logo on the copter, I was taking no chances. Harvest happened immediately.

Debra and I hung the plants behind her Murphy bed, upside down, in the space where there should have been a mattress. I don’t remember smoking the leaf after it had dried, but Debra made some gingerbread with it. Later she told me it was quite potent.

The building—542 25th Street—had been erected in 1918, and was pretty run-down sixty-two years later. I never saw cockroaches or mice in the penthouse, but they were all over the other floors. The neighborhood was rather dicey as well. I’d been keeping my tools in the trunk of the VW, as the penthouse consisted of a small bedroom, an even smaller kitchen area, and a toilet. In addition to the storage problem, carrying all that metal up and down four flights of stairs would’ve been a real pain. During that period someone who had noticed me doing repairs on the VW broke into the trunk and stole the tools.

A group of us, consisting of a number of lesbians and Dave downstairs, got together to discuss the infestation as well as the generally substandard living conditions. Somebody dubbed our group “Dave and the dykes.”  Debra collected dead roaches on strips of Scotch tape. Other tenants trapped mice and saved the corpses. A committee then took the exterminated vermin to the gated community where the landlord lived and deposited them at his door.

I also suggested a rent strike, but most of the others were reluctant, for fear of being evicted. The truth was that I didn’t know how to organize one and didn’t have the attention for it anyway. I was spending most of my time in Ruth’s graduate student apartment in Albany, having become an instant parent to her three small children. I couldn’t help falling in love with the kids as well as with their mother, and it was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting.

Once she had completed her PhD, Ruth planned to return to Israel. If I wanted to keep this family I would have to follow her. But what skills did I have, or what skills could I develop, to make a living over there? I visited the Israeli consulate in San Francisco. The official who dealt with would-be immigrants looked—well, not quite disgusted but certainly discouraging—at the mention of auto mechanics. I got the picture. A woman was expected to serve in the army, where she could learn—as Ruth had done—to shoot an Uzi and even train new recruits to do the same. That was considered a matter of national survival. Fixing cars, on the other hand, was a man’s job. But when I mentioned teaching English the official’s frown became a warm smile.

In Israel I’d be a new immigrant, with only a smattering of Hebrew. A lesbian, with no relatives there, and no connections other than Ruth to smooth my way. Still, I applied and was accepted to San Francisco State University, which offered a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language. Requirements included class work in related subjects, such as linguistics, and actual experience teaching foreign students at the American Language Institute.

Before I could complete the program, Ruth finished hers. Our relationship, by then, had gone downhill for multiple reasons, and she broke up with me and took the kids to Israel. I’ll tell that story some other time. I was single for the next two years.

And then I turned forty. The financial clock was ticking.

I met Winona that same year. We’d both come out of relationships that broke our hearts, and we settled for each other. She worked as a programmer in the corporate world. I’d just acquired some decent job skills. Winona is another complicated story, but what’s significant here is that she got me out of that wretched penthouse. I’m not exactly sure how this happened—perhaps I was stoned, perhaps burning candles for some reason—but my tie-dyed window curtains caught fire. Though I extinguished the flames quickly enough, the incident shook me. I’d always been aware that the building was a firetrap but managed to pretend I was immune from such a disaster. It couldn’t happen to me. Now it almost had.

Winona’s tax accountant had advised her that she needed to own a home rather than continue as a renter. She had, as I remember, around $20,000 in savings. She proposed that she would be the homeowner and I would pay rent. I said no—if I was going to live with her, it would not be as a tenant. I borrowed $2,000 from my father for my share of the down payment. We bought a place in north Oakland, and I left the hovel on the roof behind.

*          *          *

So what happened to 542 25th Street? Our slumlord sold it. Today some realty corporation owns it, along with a few other properties in the neighborhood, which has thoroughly gentrified. The building is now a little gated community. The apartments have been completely renovated, with granite counters, microwaves, and other spanking new appliances in every kitchen, and an onsite fitness center and laundry room. A studio rents for $1700/month, a one-bedroom for $2900. Zillow values the building at over $14 million.

11 Responses to The Hovel on the Roof, Part II

  1. Marc Schnapp January 21, 2023 at 9:09 pm #

    I bet my silence has been interpreted as disinterest or even disregard. Neither is true. But now I’m profoundly troubled by what I’ve read. Or more accurately what I have not read. Was this W. 25th Street? Or E. 25th Street?

  2. Martha Shelley January 21, 2023 at 9:39 pm #

    Neither east nor west. The building is in Oakland CA and it’s just plain 25th Street. What about the story troubles you?

  3. Marc Schnapp January 21, 2023 at 11:05 pm #

    Nothing was troubling me.

    My attempt at humor fell flat. I was poking fun at myself for not engaging with some of your more serious pieces you’ve posted. And to top it all off, I lost the thread and was still back in your Manhattan phase. Hence the East / West thing.

    I shouldn’t read before bedtime.

  4. Martha Shelley January 21, 2023 at 11:11 pm #

    You had me confused, and it’s my bedtime now. Sleep well, my friend!

  5. Connie O Byrne January 22, 2023 at 7:34 am #

    your stories are always a mix of laughter and head shaking reactions on my part, but also stir memories of my own adventures back in my relative youth. There’s only one big difference that kept me from being in the same situations…I hadn’t rebelled, but had lived life trying to meet the expectations of my family and society. I finished college, taught school, got married, had kids, divorced, remarried, divorced again, but always had a job and a roof over our heads. Now at the ripe old age of 76, I envy you and your adventures. It took guts for sure.
    Carry on and keep sharing.

    • Martha Shelley January 22, 2023 at 10:58 am #

      Was it guts or insanity? But not having children to support made it possible for me to have those adventures.

      • Connie O Byrne January 22, 2023 at 1:32 pm #

        could be both…all I know is I envy you the freedom you had to do it. I’ve often thought, and sometimes said, that if I hadn’t been so conventional in how I lived my life I hoped I would have gone to Woodstock! The old saying about you don’t know what you don’t know is so true. I was already married, with a baby growing inside me, when I saw Alice’s Restaurant at the base movie theater…my first hint at a world I didn’t know existed. Not all was lost during those first years of marriage to an Army Captain living in Hawaii. I met cool people through the small school where I taught… hippies one and all. And several years later (post-military, but still married), I learned how to spin and weave, took horseback riding lessons while very pregnant, met the first openly lesbian couple ever and read the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves…and the chapter titled “In Amerika,,,they call us Dykes”!!! It may have taken me many years to get this far, but I’m more openly radical, openly a dyke (name it, claim it per the strong women I met at my first NOW national convention after starting a local chapter), crazy silly grandma than I probably would have been by a different route. Still, I do envy you your adventures… do keep sharing them so I can eagerly read them

        • Marc Schnapp January 22, 2023 at 2:43 pm #

          We all get to speculate about the road not taken. And to romanticize what that path might have taken us to. But even your brief narrative describes a very broad arc of experience and it hints at many valuable life lessons. That’s coming from someone who DID go to Woodstock and came out in the Stonewall era. We may all have traveled different paths but maybe that means we can share what we’ve all discovered along the way.

          • Connie O Byrne January 22, 2023 at 2:59 pm #

            you are so right. as often as I’ve said about not coming out until I was 37 in 1983, what I did go through over the years made me who I am today. The loss of my daughter 22 years ago and raising my granddaughter took me down very different roads than if that hadn’t happened. I’m much less likely to assume there will always be tomorrow and cherish the today in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. We grow because of our experiences and, while my daughter’s death was life-shattering, it also taught me so very much. We grow from hard stuff or we become stagnant. I’m happy with who I am, much moreso than I ever would have thought all those years ago. and thanks Marc for that reminder

  6. Antonella January 22, 2023 at 11:38 am #

    Martha, this story covers a 15 year span, from ages 25 to 40. Did you live in the penthouse for 15 years?? And were you still subletting the ground floor apartment?
    Did you keep in touch with Ruth and her kids? Why couldn’t you go to Israel anyway, as an ESL teacher?

    • Martha Shelley January 22, 2023 at 12:03 pm #

      Perhaps I wasn’t clear. I moved into a slum apartment in the spring of 1969, when I was 25. That was in NYC. After living in a series of low rent places in NYC and in California, I moved to the 25th Street building late in 1979. Early in 1980 I became involved with Ruth, and later that year moved to the penthouse. I left 25th Street in the fall of 1984.

      I do keep in touch with Ruth and the kids. But I decided that I didn’t want to be a teacher because it would leave me no time or mental energy to do my own writing. And soon after Ruth returned to Israel, she got involved with another woman, so I didn’t visit until I was involved with someone else. It would have been too painful go before. Long story, more blog posts to come.

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