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.