I was scraping by as a line cook in San Francisco in the mid-’80s when my landlord offered me the job of managing a 24-unit apartment building on Pine Street. It sounded like easy money: vacuum the hallways once a week, make sure the trash chutes emptied into the dumpsters, collect rent checks, and show empty apartments to prospective tenants. After deducting my salary from the rent, I’d owe $100 for my studio apartment.
Since I worked in a restaurant at night, I’d had little contact with my neighbors. This changed after I became the apartment manager. It was as if I suddenly acquired 23 roommates. Tony, who lived in the studio directly below me, was my least favorite.
At first I knew Tony only from the angry screeds he slipped under my door complaining that my eight-pound cat and I disturbed the peace night and day. I bought a carpet and tiptoed barefoot to muffle my existence. I took away my cat’s toys. The notes continued. He whacked the ceiling and cursed when I got home from work. According to Tony, I was so reckless that chunks of plaster rained down with every footstep I took. After becoming the building manager, I moved down the hall so I didn’t live directly above him. He continued his feud with the new tenant and the one after that.
Every month an exterminator came by in an attempt to control the cockroach population. It was my job to post the time and date of the visit and unlock the apartments. Tony was usually home and screamed from behind the closed door for us to go away.
Without protective gear, I stood in the hallway outside each unit while the exterminator worked his black magic. One of the tenants, a feminist artist, insisted that I stand in her living room so that the bug-man’s negative male energy wouldn’t desecrate her artwork, mostly garish paintings of female genitals. In a mask that completely covered his face, the exterminator squirted poison in the kitchen and around the windows while I stood in the artist’s Pepto-Bismol pink living room examining the paintings. After two poisonous viewings, I told my neighbor that she’d have to forgo the spraying if she wouldn’t allow an unaccompanied male in her gallery. She chose to live with the insects.
Another apartment that the bug man never entered was the cat lady’s unit. The cat lady was a grouchy older woman who looked as if she cut her hair with pruning shears. I suspected she had multiple disabilities — she scowled, mumbled to herself, and seldom made eye contact. Her gait was lopsided, and she became winded when she climbed the stairs to deliver the rent check. But not too winded to yell if I didn’t open my door, no matter what time of the day or night. The cat lady explained that she knew the check would blow away or that I’d deny its existence if she didn’t hand it directly to me. For the first six months I opened the door because it was easier than arguing with her. But when she decided one month to pay her rent at 6 a.m., I decided I’d had enough. She knocked. From my futon I told her to slide the check through the crack. She demanded to see me. She leaned on the doorbell. She yelled. It was only after Twitchy Tony bellowed out his bathroom window to “Shut the % up!” that the cat lady slid the check under the door.
A few months later the cat lady was in a traffic accident. Since she would be hospitalized for at least two weeks, her social worker requested that I call the Humane Society to pick up her cats. She didn’t have a friend to care for them. I couldn’t make the call. I imagined myself in her shoes — how awful to be a grouchy old woman with no friends, get injured, and then come home to a studio apartment alone. I promised to feed the animals until she recuperated.
A foul odor came from the general area of her unit, so I knew she wasn’t much of a housekeeper, but the smell that seeped under her door was nothing compared to the full force of the interior stink. When I unlocked the unit, I expected to find a rotting corpse. Over a dozen cats and kittens skittered behind the sparse, filthy furnishings and jumped through the partially opened ground-floor window. The walls and windowsills were brown where the animals had rubbed against them. Cat-food cans littered the kitchen counters and floor. Scrawny and flea bitten, the cats all bore a striking resemblance to each other. The odor inside the apartment was so repulsive that I could only take small doses without gagging. I opened every window to air the place out overnight before reentering to refill the litter boxes, vacuum, and take out the trash.
Shortly thereafter the cat lady limped home on crutches with her neck in a brace. I told her that she could keep two cats, but she’d have to find other homes for the rest. I expected a thank you for caring for her pets, but no gratitude was forthcoming. Forever after, the cat lady mumbled curses when she passed me on her crutches.
Occasionally I had to settle a dispute. A new tenant gained my sympathy when she confided that she’d moved to escape a homicidal boyfriend. She lost my sympathy when the homicidal boyfriend and his drum set moved in with her. The French woman who lived across the hall from them claimed the boyfriend was Rasputin. I had no idea who Rasputin was, but if he made direct eye contact without blinking, walked around barefoot, and had an overabundance of facial hair, then Rasputin was an excellent name for this nut job. The two neighbors performed musical duels, with Rasputin playing his drums and the French woman banging on her piano. On weekends it degenerated into beating on their shared wall with shoes. They lived on the same floor as Twitchy Tony, who sided with the piano player. He pronounced Rasputin to be insane.