Golden Hill alley
You should come home. Rod died.
I got the text from my roommate on a Sunday night. “Oh, Rod,” I sighed. It was sudden news, and I wanted to be surprised. But I couldn’t be. My landlord had not taken care of his health and seemed much older than his 64 years. I didn’t know what exactly would have killed him, but I didn’t expect there’d be any great mystery about it. Who will tell his family? I wondered instead. What will happen to his house?
I found Rod’s house while searching for an apartment in Golden Hill. I had just viewed a cramped one-bedroom around the corner. It was going for $1150 a month — no storage — but there was already a line of people waiting to apply for it when I got there. I gave up and decided to cruise the neighborhood on the off chance people still put up rental signs instead of posting ads on Craigslist.
Rod never owned a computer, and probably never even had an email account. Other than a TV and flip phone, the most advanced tech in his home was a VHS player. His sign was a hand-scribbled “For Rent” and phone number on a scrap of paper, tough to spot in a second-story window on a low-traffic street. I parked in front and called.
“I’m showing it in five minutes!” a startled voice answered. “I’ll meet you there!”
Junkyard across the street
Built into a hill, the stucco house was actually one story that sat ten feet above the street. It bordered the alley on a short block that never got the memo Golden Hill had gentrified. The sidewalk was littered with fast-food cups, cigarette butts, and worse. Across the street, a neighbor had walled in his property with cinderblocks and made a de facto junkyard, jammed with old car parts and broken furniture, guarded by a snarling and unhappy dog.
A young Latina walked up and waited next to me. She’d been the first to call about the rental and edged around me so she’d be closer to the house when the owner arrived. She wanted dibs.
A cranky-looking older man emerged from the alley and shuffled toward us, waving a huge ring of keys to let us know he was our guy. He wore a grungy pair of Dickies and a slack polo shirt that draped over slumping shoulders and belly.
Rod looked like Lenny from Laverne & Shirley after a few decades of hard living. He might have been close to six feet once but had hunched enough with age that I could see the top of his head. His unnaturally blond hair was greased back with pomade. A clump of it bristled in the back like he’d been asleep when I called.
“Here for the house!” Rod said as though it had just dawned on him. “It’s almost ready. You’re the first ones!” A heavy brow accentuated his natural scowl, but as we climbed the stairs to the front door, he paused and flashed a car-salesman smile, adding a twinkle to his blue eyes. “Yeah,” he continued as he let us inside. His voice was drawling and thick, with points of emphasis as though everything he said was the punchline of an aging standup comic. “It’s older than me, this place!”
Rod’s house was a spacious, hundred-year-old Craftsman two-bedroom. There was a dedicated dining room and polished redwood beams. It had built-in fixtures, a working fireplace, sun porch, and attic. It came with a small yard. It had endless character. And like its owner, it had been slowly falling apart for decades.
Two windows in the living room were boarded over. Interior shutters hung in splinters from broken hinges. This had been one of the first homes in the neighborhood, and it had been built with care. But in the 35 years Rod owned the place, it saw few repairs, none by a professional.
Doorknobs were missing from creaking doors that didn’t shut properly. Muck-stained hardwood floors were worn to raw wood in places, and many of the kitchen’s appalling plastic floor tiles had been ripped up.
“My last tenants were here 20 years,” Rod rationalized. “I’m going to fix it up, you’ll see!” I opened the back door to find a shattered set of wooden stairs descending from the doorway, creating a deep, jagged-edged pit at the corner of the house.
“That just goes to my back door,” he said with a chuckle. I laughed politely, but he wasn’t joking.
Rod lived downstairs, in a half-basement granny flat. Its front door was street level, facing the alley, but inside half the studio cut into the hill, like a cave. Rod called that cramped little space home for most of his 64 years.
“Is it just you?”
He’d asked me, but the young woman answered first. “Me and my sister,” she said. “She couldn’t come today because she’s working, but she can come in two days if you need her to...”
Rod ignored her and looked at me. “It’s a good place for a young man…” he said.
“Just me for now,” I said. “But I might need a roommate. What’s the rent?”
He glanced at me sideways and scratched his grinning jaw. Like he was getting away with something, he said, “How about…$1200?”
I looked at the cottage-cheese ceilings, the peeling paint, the eccentric downstairs neighbor who clearly wanted to be friends. It didn’t matter. This was a dog-friendly two-bedroom cheaper than anything north of the 94. I handed him a generic rental application I’d already filled out and showed him a checkbook. “I’ll take it.”
“Ahhhh,” Rod scanned the paperwork and nodded, making it clear he was impressed. He turned to the girl abruptly. “Do you have one of these?” he asked, holding out my application like exhibit A in her cross-examination. “This is the application of a good tenant!”
She fidgeted as she tried to think of a good response. “I had to get a new bank and I don’t have the new address yet,” she said, covering her face with her hand. “I can get it to you, but not until after work tomorrow…”
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“This is the kind of tenant everybody wants!” he reiterated, pointing at me.
I hadn’t realized til then the young woman was trans. I wondered if Rod had. “You should have an application ready,” he admonished, “if you want to get a house like this!” He puffed his chest and gave me what passed for a conspiring glance. “It’s got good bones,” he said fondly.
He called me before I got home to offer me a month-to-month lease on a $600 deposit. “But we’ll split the water bill!” he quickly added, “We better say $1250.” I agreed.
Daycare and razorblades
“You were the much-better choice to move in,” he insisted again. “That other —” he started to say, but settled on, “I bet she didn’t even have a sister!”
I said goodbye and hung up. I don’t know if he would have rented to her if I hadn’t been there, but he might have been nicer about it. Wracked with liberal guilt, I pulled over into a grocery-store parking lot and signed up for an ACLU membership.
Rod did try to fix the place up before I moved in. But he only left it more a mess. Instead of wood stain, he patched up the worn spots on the floor with mustard-brown paint. The missing kitchen tiles had been replaced with unmatching panels, which he’d hammered in with a combination of bent nails, brads, and thumb tacks.
I spent long hours scrubbing but couldn’t get anything very clean. I hired professionals who estimated it would take multiple visits to make the place habitable. Whoever had been living there, they figured, hadn’t cleaned the house in ten years at least.
That could have been anyone. Each week the mailbox filled up with envelopes addressed to 11 different names — male and female, Anglo and Latino, sometimes a greeting card, sometimes a bill. The post office had no forwarding addresses and refused to stop delivering the dead letters.
The day my roommate moved in, my dog sliced open her paw on a razorblade half-buried in the yard. When I asked Rod about it, he blamed the couple who’d lived there before me, who had run an unlicensed day-care out of the house for more than ten years.
“I was always at work!” he said, explaining how they could have done this so long without him noticing. “I never saw any kids! I would have stopped that —” he raised a finger to let me know he was serious. “Hey, you can do whatever you want up here — have parties, I don’t care. Just don’t have a baby or I’ll never get any sleep!”
I didn’t ask how he connected running a daycare with loose razorblades in the yard.
Decades of inertia
“You should marry your girlfriend,” Rod teased. “She told me to tell you.” He chuckled to himself.
He was sitting in my living room, breathing heavily after a 12-hour shift driving his taxi, which he did six days a week. Getting to know Rod was tough. When he ran out of jokes on one subject, he’d non sequitur into another.
“That Obama!” he said archly. “He’s gonna mess everything up!” Rod listened to a lot of AM radio in his cab and regularly got indignant about what he heard. “He wants to let gays get married now! It’s not right!”
“I’m okay with it,” I told him, trying not to get preachy. “Anyone lucky enough to find someone they want to spend the rest of their life with should have the opportunity.”
He seemed bewildered by my comment0 but just grinned sheepishly and shrugged.
“Did you see that chandelier?” he asked, pointing out a dingy ceramic light fixture in the dining room. “That’s antique!” he insisted. “If you break anything in this house, make sure it’s not that! It’s 80 years old!”
“It’s a great old house,” I reassured him.
“People always want to buy it,” he said, lifting his chin proudly.
“You could probably get a lot of money for it these days.”
He considered this for a moment, then put the idea out of his head. “Naw, it’s got good bones,” he told me for the 20th time. “They don’t build houses with redwood anymore because it’s too expensive now. But termites won’t eat it!” He raised that finger again: “Don’t worry, we will never need an exterminator as long as you live here.”
He meant to be endearing, but his face was red from the afternoon heat, and sweat gleamed on his forehead as he got up to leave. “Never get married,” he said. “I hated being married.” After he left, the sofa smelled like damp clay and stale sweat for a couple hours.
Rod told me he’d come to San Diego with the Navy, his wife, and two sons remaining in Florida — her choice, which he didn’t regret. When he got out of the service he’d spent a few months living at the Lafayette before buying the house from his uncle, the doctor. “The Lafayette was different in those days,” he said without elaborating.
“How about your sons?” I asked one afternoon while we worked in the yard. “Are you in touch?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, beaming. “The older one joined the Navy. But I talk to the second one all the time. I tell him he should join the Navy, too!”
“Did you like being in the Navy?” I asked.
“Oh, har-har,” he laughed. “Did I like being in the Navy!”
We were removing the wood fence that split the small yard in two. Rod was eager to make a bigger, shared yard, if I was willing to help do the work.
“More room for the dog,” he’d nudged. “You’ll see.” We were bonding.
We hammered out the planks and rails easily enough, but the center post was anchored in concrete. We rocked the post back and forth to unearth it but couldn’t lift it out without reinforcements.
We cleared out the rotting wood and stashed it behind the garage because Rod thought it might come in handy one day. We then took a break and surveyed the long-neglected yard on the other side of Rod’s fence. Broken yard furniture was strewn about, tangled in overgrown bushes and weeds that had shot up more than three feet high.
“I have a weed whacker!” Rod announced brightly. He led me around to his garage, and opened its rickety door. A broken-down pickup truck was parked inside, the space around it packed to the rafters with boxes, yard tools, broken bicycles, and a 12-foot radio antenna.
Like the house, like the yard, the garage had declined into dysfunction and chaos and bloat. And Rod right along with them. They had aged together and now suffered the same debilitating neglect. For a while there, I thought I could help him turn things around. But there were decades of inertia at work, propelling him on a path that could only end in lonely demise.
While I sorted out the yard-tool situation, Rod returned to the yard. I found him there a few minutes later, cursing and leaning off an injured foot.
He’d tried to dig out the concrete anchor by himself, landing it on his toe. “I’m done,” he groused and hobbled home. I turned on the whacker and battled the weeds alone, hoping I wouldn’t find something dead behind them.
It’s time to die
I didn’t see Rod for several weeks after that. But I could hear him outside some days, chatting with other neighbors. Most often it was Mrs. Rocio.
She’d lived in her house across the alley nearly six decades, raised ten kids, and remarried late in life after burying her first husband. To my knowledge she was the only woman Rod regularly spoke to, and she’d known him as long as anybody in town. Long enough that their conversations followed certain cherished routines.
“Mrs. Rocio!” he’d sing from the alley like a street vendor. “Mrs. Rocio!”
She’d come to her kitchen window. “What’s the matter with your Chargers?” he’d ask with a deep-throated “har-har-har.” They’d argue about football, then segue into bemoaning current events, whether a crime that had occurred in the neighborhood or one continuing to occur in the nation’s capital.
During one of these afternoons I learned Rod’s foot injury had gotten worse. I overheard him groan loudly as he ambled into the alley. Mrs. Rocio heard it, too.
“Is your foot still causing you grief?” she asked him. “Did you go to the doctor yet?”
“Oh, the doctor’s no good!” he wailed. “I just need sleep!” This wasn’t the jovial Rod who wanted to be my buddy, but the bitter, depressed recluse grown too accustomed to suffering.
“Go to the doctor, Rod!” she insisted.
“Bah! I’m just ready to die already,” he moaned in response. “It’s time to die.”
Rod didn’t die, not then. But he did lose a toe. When he’d gone to the doctor at last he’d come back with an amputation date.
“It’s the diabetes,” he confided. “They told me it would happen. Told me to quit smoking. It just gets worse, everything they tell me!” He needed a ride to the hospital, and I promised to help.
When the day arrived, I knocked and he emerged using a crumpled paper grocery sack as an overnight bag. He directed me as I drove, clearly unused to being the passenger and eager to share his best cab-driver route to Hillcrest. “It’s faster! You’ll see!”
I let him out at the hospital door and offered to help him check in once I’d parked. “No, no, it’s just paperwork,” he insisted, then brightly pointed out, “They’ll give me some good painkillers!” He chuckled as he stepped out of the car. I waved pathetically and watched him limp painfully toward the registration desk.
After the surgery, Rod’s spirits picked up considerably. A doctor made him a shoe insert to help him adjust to walking without a big toe, and once he got the hang of it there was even some jauntiness to his gait.
He told me he’d decided to apply for a reverse mortgage. “They’ll give me money for the house and let me keep living here!” Between the money from the bank, and my rent, he could retire, maybe get a dog. “Your rent will never go up!” he promised.“You can stay as long as you want! You’ll see!”
Rod seemed to be getting his life together at last. He was getting his truck fixed. “Make sure the driveway is clear tomorrow morning at 5 a.m.,” he told me one Sunday night. “My mechanic friend is going to fix it before work, but he has to drive up from Tijuana. I told him if he can get it running, he can buy it for $500!”
He announced a spring-cleaning of his little flat. He cleared some decades-old appliances out to the curb. “Somebody will take them,” he declared, “They’re still good!”
Sometime that same week my roommate returned home from walking his dog and dropped a baggy of dog poop in Rod’s garbage can, which was at the curb awaiting pick-up. He said when he lifted the lid the can was filled to the top with dozens of video cases, most of them gay porn.
Plumbing was a constant issue in that house, and Rod refused to pay a professional to fix it. Only when I pointed out the broken pipes outside the shower were draining onto the neighbor’s fence did he hire a guy from the neighborhood who freelanced as a handyman. Rod called him a raging drunk, but he worked cheap, so Rod hired him often for odd jobs and seemed to relish hanging around to bicker with the man while he worked.
That contentious friendship ended after Rod asked the handyman to paint the outside of the house in preparation for his reverse-mortgage application. When all the paint Rod had bought for the job was stolen out of his unlocked garage, he accused the handyman of taking it. (The guy called me a couple of times after Rod died to insist he hadn’t.)
I got home one day to find a man I’d never seen painting the home’s exterior. He was a slender guy in his early 40s, wearing clothes too tight to paint in, and though he had delicate hands and features, seemed kind of weatherbeaten. He also flirted with me relentlessly, mostly out of boredom, it seemed.
Rod showed up wagging his finger. “You better get back to work, I’m paying you good money!” he nagged.
“You’re not paying me enough to boss me around, Rod,” the guy said.
“Ohhh,” Rod grinned, winking at me. “You won’t even get that if you don’t paint under the eaves.” He laughed.
“Don’t sass me, Rod,” the guy snapped. “You know I’m going to charge you extra!”
Rod split the cost of leasing his cab with another driver who would use it at night. Rod got home around 5 p.m., parked it on the street, and went to bed. The night driver picked it up, then returned it by 5 a.m., when Rod would find it and begin his workday.
But he’d already have been awake for hours. My bedroom was directly above Rod’s flat, and whenever one of the junkyard neighbor’s car alarms woke me at 3 a.m., I could hear Rod up and about below. He’d have what sounded like long phone conversations, or he’d watch really loud television, usually something with lots of gunshots and explosions.
But most often it was a strange, disconcerting music. It was really a sequence of droning, repeating sounds. The tempo never changed, and it played on a constant, tuneless loop. Sometimes I thought it was some awful alarm clock that wasn’t rousing him. But occasionally I thought I heard snippets of conversation and other voices, as though Rod was entertaining a guest at 3:30 a.m.
I met a few of Rod’s night-drivers over the years. One chain-smoking fellow reminded me of a vaudevillian character, with an old Brooklyn accent and a jowly toothless grin. He once told me Rod had been the host of a popular radio show, then wheezed and coughed with laughter when I fell for his joke. Really, Rod used to run dispatch for their cab company.
Another friendly and chatty guy, always a big smile on his face and a funny story to tell about a fare he’d picked up. When I stopped seeing him around in the evening, Rod told me he’d gone to jail for taking $500 to let a jumper out of the cab in the middle of the Coronado bridge.
Following that there were several guys of varying ages and ethnicities. A couple of young African immigrants were very polite but shy around me. A gregarious middle-aged Afghan wanted me to write his life story.
I’d never previously met the night-driver who called the police when Rod died, but he seemed pretty shaken up about it when I got home that night. A younger Middle-Eastern man, he told me Rod had been an exceptionally good friend to him, and they would speak on the phone several times a week so Rod could give him advice.
He said Rod hadn’t answered calls for several days, and there was no evidence he’d been driving the cab they shared. After he’d knocked one Sunday night and heard Rod’s phone ringing inside, unanswered, he summoned police who entered the apartment and found the body.
I’d last seen Rod out front a few nights prior. He told me he’d run out of money for the month and asked if I could pay rent a little early. This wasn’t uncommon. As far as I could tell, Rod’s expenses amounted to his cab lease, a small mortgage, and season tickets to Aztec football games. But he was always out of money. I said I would leave a check in his mailbox so he could deposit it first thing. He looked grateful, but tired, and said he needed sleep.
As tenant, I was the closest thing Rod had to an emergency contact, so the police officers entrusted me with the key to his place until someone from the county got in touch. One asked if I wanted to see the body before the coroner took it away. I told him it would depress me too much, but he proceeded to tell me about it anyway. Rod had collapsed near his front door, he said, face-down, hand reaching toward the knob as though he were grasping for help when he died.
A week or two later, a county administrator called to be let in to Rod’s place. We met outside his door and she explained this would be a preliminary check. She’d return with a full clean-up team later to throw away perishable items and catalog his possessions — standard procedure for people who live and die alone, she said. For now she hoped to find records that could help track down any remaining family.
“He told me the Navy brought him here,” I volunteered. “And he had an ex-wife and two sons.” I noticed Mrs. Rocio standing in her window and called her down.
“Just one son,” she corrected me. “They never spoke.” According to Mrs. Rocio, Rod’s ex-wife was a crazy lady who filled her son’s head with vile stories, so Rod was estranged from both of them. “He was a very, very lonely man,” she said somberly.
I let the administrator into his place and followed her in. I’d never crossed the threshold before and could only stand in the doorway experiencing a dreadful sense of awe.
It was a couple hundred square feet, as filthy as the house had been when I moved in. A refrigerator defined one small corner as the kitchen, though it only had enough counter space for a sink, microwave, and hot plate. The bathroom was even smaller and didn’t appear to have a working shower.
Most of the walls were covered with shelves of VHS tapes, topped by stacks of more tapes reaching toward the ceiling. Hundreds, maybe a thousand. Some were familiar old movies and TV shows. I noticed the entire series of Sex and the City. There was also Queer as Folk, The L Word, and pretty much every title in the gay-cinema canon. Some tapes had blank labels with porn titles written in a shaky hand. The only furniture in the room was a trio of soiled easy-chairs pointed toward the TV and a pair of large coffee tables. I didn’t see a bed.
A card table near the door was buried under business envelopes and junk mail — a huge pile more than a foot high. On top of the envelopes sat a loose wad of cash, mostly small bills. Probably to make change for cab fares.
“What was the cause of death?” I asked the administrator.
“I’ll tell you when the coroner’s report comes back.”
She looked through file cabinets, collecting any paperwork that looked important. On our way out, she stopped at the mailbox and pulled out a stack of envelopes. She started flipping through them in front of me, tearing some open and scanning the contents while I watched. My rent check was there.
“Who’s Jon P. Lubanov?” she asked me, holding up a water bill from the city. I’d never heard of any Jon P. Lubanov, but apparently the city had been selling him water at our address for decades.
She opened a thick envelope containing Rod’s unsigned reverse-mortgage paperwork. “I guess there are no privacy issues at this point?”
Without looking up she told me she would be digging into Rod’s personal history using databases most of the public didn’t have access to or even know about. Then she looked me straight in the eye and told me a simple truth I almost took as a warning: “There’s no privacy when you’re dead.”
Life went on around the house after Rod’s death. Fewer junk-food wrappers and empty fast-food cups littered the sidewalk. I hired a real plumber to fix the pipes and squeezed some of Rod’s junk from the yard into the garage.
Weeks went by before I heard from the administrator again. She wanted to know if I’d heard anything suspicious out of Rod’s apartment. Apparently, when she showed up with the cleaning team, they found the back door forced open, a couple of things out of place.
That back door wasn’t visible from the street, nor from any neighboring property. It was tucked so deeply into the back corner of the house that even my roommate never noticed it during the two years we shared the house. Whoever had broken in knew where to find it and where to find whatever he was after. The entire wad of loose cash was left behind, still sitting on that pile of junk mail.
The administrator told me her database searches had been a bust. The Navy had no record of Rod — if he’d served, it hadn’t been under the name Rod Salter. She likewise found no evidence of a marriage license, nor any children. No living relatives. No will. Not much of a history at all.
Outside the IRS and the cab company, the only documentation she could find on Rod Salter was that he’d been born in Michigan, bought a house in Golden Hill at the age of 29, and died there 35 years later.
Rod spent the entire stretch of his homeownership living in that tiny room, lying about who he was — to what extent I’ll never know. He could have been anyone in his previous life — a villain, a felon, a man in hiding. His real name may not have been Rod Salter. Perhaps he was really Jon P. Lubanov.
The first time I met Mrs. Rocio, Rod was showing me where to find the fuse box in case the circuit breaker tripped, which happened often. He’d lost the key to the padlock securing its door years earlier, he said. So rather than unlock the small door, he used a flathead screwdriver to unscrew its hinges. Once he’d flipped the circuit-breaker switch, he screwed the hinges back in.
We shared a good laugh about his funky workaround, bringing Mrs. Rocio to her window. “This is my new tenant!” Rod announced with pride.
“In the big house?” she asked. “I thought you were finally moving up there.”
He thought about this for a wistful moment, then shrugged it off with his sly grin. “Nah, it’s too much space. What do I need it for?” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Ian’s young. He’s gonna get married maybe. He can have a good life in that house!”
He nodded, convincing himself it was all true.
The last night I saw him, he’d spoken again about the reverse mortgage. “Any day now,” he’d told me. “Real close! No more cab!” He’d have everything he’d need, he said, and never have to move, and would die happy in his little apartment.
I can’t imagine the 29-year-old Rod who bought that house. The man I knew was far too aged and broken down. I can’t picture a youthful, optimistic version. He must have had plans for it, for himself. Plans that went beyond dying there 35 years later, in soiled surroundings, with no one to notice for days.
About two months after Rod’s death, I answered a knock at the door to find a slight elderly Mexican man. He very politely asked me if I knew how to reach Rod. “His phone stopped working, and I have to fix his truck.” It was his mechanic friend, up from Tijuana.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “Rod died in his apartment.”
“Died?” The mechanic’s eyes misted up. “Oh,” he said gently, bowing his head. We stood silently remembering the departed for a minute before the mechanic spoke again with a choked-up voice. “He was my friend.” It was, perhaps, Rod’s most heartfelt eulogy.
The last I heard from the administrator, she told me Rod’s body had been cremated without ceremony. She’d finally received the coroner’s report but would not tell me what it said or even a hint what mysterious circumstance had suddenly made his death a secret. “Does that mean in certain cases there is privacy when you’re dead?” I asked.
She didn’t laugh.