It’s Monday, February 11 as I write this. It’s a little after 4 pm PT. I’m on the plane back to Philly after spending the weekend in San Francisco looking for a place to live for when I move here on March 2.
My flight on Friday arrived on time around noon PT. I rushed to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train to head to South Berkeley for my 3 pm appointment to view a one-bedroom pad. Took about an hour to get there; there was a Timed Transfer where I had to switch trains, which worked out smoothly — no standing on the platform waiting…waiting…waiting.
The place I was scheduled to see was on Ashby Ave., about two blocks from the BART Ashby stop. One of the my SF supervisors said to get a residence that is close to a BART station, since my shift will end at 11 pm and there’s a BART station under the building I’ll be working in. So during the past week as a scoured through Craigslist postings, I tried to stay with places within a half-mile of BART stations.
Anyway, I got there a little before 1:30. A block away was a Greek restaurant staffed by Hispanics. I was starving (no meals on the Virgin America flight), so I inhaled the gyro I ordered. Drowned it with a can of Pepsi I bought two storefronts away at a corner convenience store.
Then I cruised around the neighborhood to get a better feel for it. I also talked with a few people on the street. South Berkeley is on the edge of North Oakland. Looked like the ‘hood is half-white, half-colour, with the vibe being lower middle class — didn’t seem like a high-crime area.
Around 2:20 I stood outside the building that housed my potential future living space. It was a yellow-and-white, wood casa with what looked like four apartments. I passed the time by reading Louise Wener’s memior. Eventually, an Asian college student, with a few grey hairs, popped out of one of the first-floor units. I told him I was waiting for the landlord, Sylvia. He was soft-spoken, so I didn’t catch everything he said, but he didn’t recommend living there. I asked why; all he did was shrug.
Sylvia never showed. I did leave her a voicemail that if she was around Saturday I could swing by, but mentally I put the place at the bottom of my list because she was a no-show and what the Asian tenant said.
Before hopping back on BART, I walked about a half-mile to another place on my list. It was on Julia Street, around the corner from Malcolm X Elementary School. The 1904 Victorian house the studio looked good, though I was a little trepidatious about Julia St. Across the street, at the end of the block, there was an utilitarian apartment complex: two floors, dung-coloured. It looked low-income, like the type I’ve seen in Los Angeles in movies where drug addicts or career criminals temporarily reside.
I was glad to check into my room at Hotel Bijou, two blocks from the Powell BART station in SF. All afternoon I had been lugging around my carry-on luggage, and that was getting real old.
Hotel Bijou advertised that it’s in the Union Square neighborhood. That’s a little misleading because it’s right on the edge of the Tenderloin, SF’s most crime-ridden neighborhood.
Like most hotels, my key was a card. It took a while for the gay guy at the front desk to fix it. Both of my key cards came in a paper sleeve with the following GUEST SAFETY TIPS:
- ALWAYS USE DEADBOLT
- SECURE VALUABLES
- REPORT SUSPICIOUS PERSONS OR ACTS
- NEVER OPEN DOOR PRIOR TO VERIFYING ID.
I wasn’t worried because my room was on the third floor.
The free wireless wasn’t that great. Took forever to peruse Craigslist for any late-addition postings.
Around 8 pm I headed across the street to an Indian/Pakistan joint for some takeout chicken curry, white rice and that garlic bread (forget what it’s called) that looks like a pizza without cheese and tomato sauce. Oh, and I got a serving of Indian lemonade. The meal was a mistake. It didn’t give me any energy because I fell asleep almost right away. I’d been up since 5 am ET and it was now 10 pm PT.
Saturday I got up at seven for a $7 continental breakfast in the hotel. Ate three pancakes and drank a glass of orange juice. The former was a real treat, since I haven’t had it in probably five years.
Around 9:30 I was back in South Berkeley, a 20-25 minute BART ride from my hotel. There was a 10 am open house for a cottage on Ashby Ave., a few blocks from the place I was supposed to see Friday (I never did hear from Sylvia). It was on my list because of its low rent: $900. One plus for it was the Whole Foods a block away, but the nearest gym was over a mile away.
I was about five minutes late for the open house because I messed up on the address (transposed the first two numbers in the the four-number address). Some girl in her 20s was talking to the landlord about it. He gave it to her. Even if I had gotten there first, I wouldn’t have taken it. The cottage was basically a fiberglass toolshed he picked up at Lowe’s and plopped in his backyard garden. It was — all total — no more than 100 square feet. The left side consisted of a teeny-tiny kitchen and slender shower stall. I didn’t see a bathroom. The Craigslist posting did have pictures but I thought there was more to it. To paraphrase the beginning of Bosom Buddies, “Now I saw why it was so cheap.”
No worries, I hopped on BART for Downtown Berkeley, the next BART stop on the line, which only takes about five minutes. The next open house on my agenda started at 1 pm. I was determined to show up early in case this cottage was top-notch. Didn’t want to get pushed aside by some chubby, pimply hipster.
As soon as I got up to street level, I fell in love with Downtown Berkeley. Since it’s a college town, there’s plenty of retail, though nothing really high-end. Lots of cafes, a couple bike shops, and a McDonald’s at a main intersection. I loved the whole vibe. Felt like a hybrid of Princeton, NJ and a classy shore town like Sea Isle, NJ.
At 12:55 I crept up the driveway to the cottage in the back. There was a young couple already there. Damn!
The landlord showed us into the place. I glanced around. Everything looked like the Craigslist posting. It was a 200-square-foot, skylit cottage, which included the petite kitchen area. In the back was a shower and toilet separated by a wall. I told the landlord I would take it. He had me fill out a half-page application. I told him I was only in town until Monday afternoon. He said he goes through all the applications, then makes a decision. I tried to be earnest without being too overwhelming, though I may have overdid it with my parting words, “I’ll keep my cell phone on!”
It was now about 1:10. The open house in South Berkeley on Julia Street was from 1 to 2. If I booked it, I might be able to make it, because I needed a backup — I was going to have a lot of competition with the Downtown Berkeley cottage.
I actually made it to the S. Berkeley open house around 1:30. The studio was around back. The seven pictures on the Craigslist post were representative. It was about 200-square-feet with the kitchen to the right (nice black/white marble counter). In the back was the bathroom with a tub, no shower.
I told the landlord my situation and he gave me the five-page application.
Back at the hotel, the crazies from the Tenderlion district were out and about even though it was still daylight. No stream of winos lying against the one side of the hotel, like last night, but there was this skinhead kicking the air chest-level. One of his kicks landed on an iron utility pole. He stopped kicking to peel a sticker off the pole his foot had landed on. He then went around the corner, kicking again. I ain’t gonna lie to you. He really scared me. I jaywalked as soon as he had hit that pole.
In my room, I filled out the application for the South Berkeley studio. I really wanted the Downtown Berkeley cottage but needed a Plan B.
After having the front desk fax the application, I cruised Craigslist for any new postings. Then I worked on dinner.
I was in the mood for chicken parmigiana. If I walked in the opposite direction of the Tenderloin, I was in Union Square and the posh City Centre. None of the expensive eats had chicken parmigiana, and I didn’t feel like doing takeout from a pizzeria.
Thanks to my smartphone, I found a place that I believe was in the Mission District. It was a chintzy Italian place with cliched Italian celebrities on the walls. Their chicken parmigiana wasn’t the best I’ve ever had but it was good enough and a nice price was $13 (came with a mound of spaghetti). I washed it all down with a mix of iced tea and lemonade.
For the rest of the night I caught up on some newspaper reading. Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep well. Too worried about my SF living situation. I probably wasn’t going to get the Downtown Berkeley cottage, and the S. Berkeley studio was probably a shoe-in but it wasn’t the best neighborhood. If I had a normal 9-to-5 gig, I wouldn’t worry, but I would be getting off work at 11 pm — in a neighborhood like that, it’s safe during the day, but the freaks, peeps and thieves come out at night.
Sunday morning I did the continental breakfast again, this time eggos and OJ. There was an open house on my schedule that started at 10 am.
The open house was in North Berkeley, about 5 minutes from Downtown Berkeley. Per usual, I showed up super-early to scope out the neighborhood. N. Berkeley is a quiet residential area, filled with respectable California homes. At least that’s what I saw in my 10-minute walk from the BART station.
I gotta admit, the apartment complex looked really out of character in that neighborhood. You have all these family homes, then on the corner a grey four-unit complex with the apartment up a set of steps (I think garages were on the bottom).
Around 9:30, I stood on a corner and thought that if this place in N. Berkeley will take an immediate offer, I may have to take it. Last thing I wanted to do was head back to Philly empty-handed. I didn’t want to fly out here March 2nd and stay in a hotel until I sublet a place then hunt for a permanent residence; some sublets charged as much as $100 a day. Thats $3K a month!!!
Fortunately, as I was standing on that quiet N. Berkeley street corner, my phone rang showing a restricted number. It was the Downtown Berkeley landlord. Out of 12 applications, he narrowed it down to three. I was at the top of that list. Could I meet him at 1 pm to sign the lease? Damn straight I could! Though he did want a cashier’s cheque for the deposit and a post-dated cheque for the first month’s rent.
I hopped on the next BART to take me back to my hotel. I was afraid I was going to have to take the money out of the ATM, since my bank wasn’t open on Sundays. But the lady at the front desk let me know the Post Office opened at 11. It was a few blocks away, and oddly enough in the basement of Macy’s. I asked for a cashier’s check and they gave me a money order, well, actually two, since there’s a $1,000 limit.
Around noon I back in Berkeley. Signed the lease, handed over the money orders and paid the first month’s rent. It’s $1,195 a month, which includes utilities (except Internet). I love the location: the gym and a laundromat are both only a few blocks away, and it’s a 10-minute walk to BART — such a safe neighborhood, I doubt I’ll get jumped coming home from work at midnight.
I did have to pay rent for the last half of February. My mom and sister Diane didn’t like that, but I had told the landlord I would pay it when he mentioned it on Saturday. Obviously, I would’ve preferred to keep that $597.50, but his Craigslist ad did mention that it was available for immediate move-in. It’s possible that if I said I wouldn’t pay before March 1, I could’ve been last out of the final three, or not even considered. I didn’t want to take that risk. It was my first choice, and I was on a time crunch. Plus Downtown Berkeley is so beautiful! And I’m only 20 minutes from SF!!!
I got back to the hotel around 2:30. For lunch, I did a repeat of yesterday and went to this little corner sandwich shop. Saturday I had a turkey sandwich, today I had a ham sandwich. Probably should’ve had a salad, but their sandwiches are awesome: toasted, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, thinly-sliced cucumbers.
After lunch I finally replied to the S. Berkeley landlord. He had emailed me after I got the phone call from my soon-to-be new landlord. I didn’t want to reply to the S. Berkeley landlord until I signed all the paperwork. The S. Berkeley cat said he hadn’t made a decision yet on who to offer the studio to, plus he promised to show it to a few people next weekend. I was actually a little surprised by his email. I got the impression he was looking to fill it quickly. Jeez, talk about totally misreading someone. No matter, I now had a place, though he did say I made the short list. Can’t help thinking that I said something that might have turned him off. Maybe a 42-year-old moving across the country unnerved him. It’s not standard, I’ll give you that. Oh, well. . . .
In the late afternoon I ducked into one of the two convenience stores on the block. There was a dude in there with a piece of brown beer-case hanging around his neck. It said: “Why lie? I need beer.” That made me smirk. Almost as good as the beggar I saw when I got off the BART on Friday on my way to the hotel. His sign said: “Will take verbal abuse for change.” I was tempted to give him two bucks for creativity.
For dinner I walked around the posh area near my hotel until I found a hi-brow place. I was in the mood for a seafood broiled combo, but their crabcakes looked good enough. Two were over $30, so I just got one along with garlic mashed potatoes and a big bushel of broccoli. The whole meal with tip was $37, but it was worth every bit.
I fell asleep around 10:15 pm and slept pretty well until 7 am. It’s good to head back to Philly with my mission accomplished.