Mar 2, 2009

The landlord arrives to plug up the air vents, which stream cigarette smoke from the downstairs tenant like stacks on the Lusitania. Afterward, the landlord wants a word: the word is he wants to raise the rent. After all, it's been a year and a half. I ask him if that's such a good idea, under the circumstances, with rents going down in many parts of the city. I also tell him that my wife is already looking for a new place and that if we move he will sorely miss the tremendous subsidy we've been putting into the backyard garden. "Well, you're getting something out of it," he says. Of course, I say, but the long term benefit is to you. No?"

He agrees. And we both pause to mark an agreement. I don't mention that I am keeping his secret, which is that he rents a small room off the garage illegally.

He moves into the kitchen. I invite him to sit down, have some tea. He sits down. Water will do.

We've talked two or three times before. We have hardly any relationship. Out of nowhere he unearths a piece of his life story. He is second generation Chinese. He has spent 30 years in real estate. He knows all the tricks in selling houses. He should have made more money over the years but for one reason or another he hasn't. He is defensive about appearing rich, and insists that even by the new Obama guidelines he is not rich. He concedes he makes more than $250,000 a year (from his many properties) but he owes more than $250,000 in expenses. The new stimulus will only cover properties up to $350,000; but in San Francisco, a special dispensation allows the limit to go up to $417,000. But what property could you find for that amount in San Francisco. So you see, he tells me, I am not a rich man. I'm just like you. He elaborates, he draws a portrait of a man who is anything but what he seems.

"You know about my wife, right?" he asks.

I don't.

He goes on to tell her story, how for years she has been fighting a brain tumor and thank god for the moment it's in remission. But you can't imagine, he says.

I can't.

The rain is coming down; the whole word seems like it's coming down. "You know," he says. "Sometimes lately I even consider...."

He doesn't finish. What is it you consider, I say.

"Suicide.... Suicide. Oh of course I would never do it. Absolutely no way But this is where I am. Even that thought. You see. That's how bad it is."

He stands up abruptly. We shake hands. He leaves. Ten minutes later he returns, to say that he recently received a ticket because we had left the garbage cans in plain view. What do you mean, I ask. I look down the street. By every house you can see the blue, black and green plastic cans. No, he says they are finally pressing an old city ordinance. All cans must be out of view.

And so this is what the city has come to. And what of the landlord. He wants to kill himself, he wants to raise the rent, he wants the garbage cans out of sight. His wife has a brain tumor. In which order should these things be listed to suggest who this man really is....

Later in the evening I receive a note from a good friend. "Right now I am depleting my already depressed "retirement accounts" -- by summer I will probably be homeless. Just to make sure you understand how serious the situation has become." He goes on to talk about how precarious his job is, how he's become a moth on his boss's palm and his boss has no interest in moths.

"To tell you the honest truth, if I lose that outlet, I'll become suicidal."

Suicide thoughts are on the wind. They're blowing every which way. And here we are, not even at the hard part yet.

1 comment:

Anjuli said...

I have yet to understand how you can write so beautifully about such a sad situation. You indeed have a gift.

Hopelessness is contagious- just as hope is also like a virus- at these times, Hopelessness wants to conquer. So many losing so much- and yet there is still each other- if only we can find hope in that.