There’s a vacant meter, so I take it, because there’s two potential rentals on this block. The first one, upstairs from the produce warehouse, is closed: office hours are mornings, it says on the glass door through which I can see mysterious worn steps disappearing up into the dark. So I don’t have to wonder, for now, if there’d be a big fat rat with, say, a corncob, sitting on my pillow some night when I came home loaded. And they have families, the rats do, you know — they’re not loners, like certain members of a certain species we won’t name.
I go across the street and query a middle-aged Latino in a baseball hat, with longish hair and facial shrubbery. He’s presiding over the manager’s office. I ask if there are separate baths in these units, or some such, and he says, no, we all share the bathroom. He seems somewhat uncomfortable. I’m supposed to be the kind of guy he takes orders from, not the guy who’s trying to figure out how to survive on his turf. I’m too white, too old, too well dressed and groomed to belong here — a narc, perhaps. Just as I wheel and hit the front door, yet another rough-looking guy in yet another baseball cap (do they all share the same one, tossing it behind my back?) confronts me: he’s a lean Caucasian, 40s, I guess, strong, and no habitué of barber shops. His mouth is full of something white and sort of gooey/foamy; it’s all around the outside of his mouth too, and he’s chewing to beat the band. He tries to either sell me something or get me to sign something. He’s gesticulating with a bunch of forms, or else coupons; since I can’t tell what the hell he’s saying, I just say no and keep moving. I ponder how many weird denizens of the long dingy hall I’ve just fled — possible future bath-mates — are lurking behind the doors of their fucked-up rooms, waiting to lay their bizarre trips on me. It occurs to me that the exposed overstuffed files in crates on the floor in the manager’s office are the rap sheets or asylum records of the residents.
I figure that my luck’s gotta change, so I go to check out rooms billed as “nice, on the edge of downtown,” with the genteel street coordinates of Park and Ash. First I go to the best 7-Eleven I’ve seen, what with its large exterior smoked-glass windows, well-stocked inventory, good counter space, and friendly, helpful clerks who make plenty of parking change on request. The façade on my target hotel looks quite decent, too. Maybe there’ll be a slightly different group who is attracted to neater-looking environs. But as I approach the Family Health Center next door to my new building, intending to explore, I realize that I’m getting more of the same: several crushed-by-life, stout, masculinized white chicks, who probably are at least ten years younger than they look, are discussing their appointment times as they suck on cancer sticks. They have ponytails, drab, washed-out garb, and gravelly, unshy voices as they holler at each other across the sidewalk. I’m reminded of how the passive attitudes of more middle-class sorts’ toward health care provoked me to suggest we change the name of our country to “Fix It Doc,” with the national anthem switched to “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones.
In a kind of daze of denial, I flop my fish-out-of-water carcass up the stairs to the front office of “nice.” A busy but friendly in a matter-of-fact way, 30ish Latina says that there’s only one rental available, at $585 a month, the midrange unit between the $535 and $635 price points. I ask her if they take Section 8, and she says yes. I quickly calculate a net cost to me of $400, as if what I learned in college is going to do me any good around here. She tells me that I need to leave my ID with her in exchange for the room key. I haven’t seen an actual room yet anywhere, I’m trying to be thorough in my search, so I do the swap. She tells me that if this room looks small, the cheaper one is even smaller than that. She knows me. I fumble with the security-door key, and the desk lady tells me how to use it.
I have almost instant regrets as I check out some of the dudes hanging around the lobby and using the elevator that’s on the other side of the security door. Everyone seems as if they just got out of jail, or knows someone like that. They’re comfortable in their environment. We try not to show surprise at each other: the dude from another world — the one with hope — and the one without, being in each other’s faces. I feel about as welcome as a rabbi in Fallujah. And today’s a good day, one of the first summery days in ages, so people should be in a good mood, right? Some are, but for too many, their permanent weather forecast is dark and stormy, and they bring it on. There are two kinds of people here: scary ones, who look as if they could do major damage; and the rest, possibly scarier, because their fatalistic demeanor seems to say, “Go ahead, beat my face in, you can’t make it look worse, and maybe you’ll even improve it.” These people never had a chance: they’ve been kicked around ever since they could walk — maybe even before that.
I go back again to the desk, ask if there’s stairs I can use to get to my third-floor objective. She says yes; when I ask if it’s in the vicinity of the rooms, starting at #102, that I glanced at in the hallway past the elevator, she says “nonono” and gives me other directions. The stairs turn out to start by room #102. Cultural miscommunication, another omen. For the second time, I pass a tiny alcove, barren of furniture except for a shelf/desk jutting out from the wall and a folding chair. As before, the slender young Latina is sitting on the folding chair conversing on a laptop, relaxed and oblivious to me and all the marginal characters milling about. Cramped space, a portent.