House Hunting by Lee Foust

Red's Java House
Red’s Java House by Thomas Hawk. CC license.

The first thing you need to do is case the neighborhood, check out all of the streets in the area, walk around between the buildings—imagine yourself passing by these same sights every day. You have to be lucky too. You have to imagine yourself coming home to the apartment, wanting to go back, night after night, yours for better or worse. You don’t want to be driven out sooner than you feel like going. You have to be prepared for what it might do to you, how it might make you feel. You have to love it a little before so you don’t hate it later.

The place I was looking at that day was down South of Market, in the old industrial part of town—which is a kind of schizophrenic neighborhood, too, having little bits of the other parts of the city in it as well. I was walking around and under the freeway that skims above the cross streets—it’s too low down here to have any buildings sitting up beneath it—and then arches up to become the Bay Bridge further along, cutting through the even-numbered piers on this side of the Ferry Building. I was figuring out the topography of the neighborhood, its low warehouses and typical San Francisco-style three-floor Victorian flats, the old established wholesale businesses leaning up close to the sidewalks, jumped-up new factory outlets behind renovated Art Deco façades and minimalist parking lots, a few grimy liquor store/corner markets, and the occasional deli for the local employees to lunch at.

Of course the bars: the anonymous final resting places of derelict alcoholics on Fifth Street between the dirty magazine newsstands, the pawn shops, the window-barred liquor stores, and the boarded-up storefronts of failed businesses; the scattered gay and lesbian nightclubs fanning out toward the Mission District, hip and cliquey. There’s the disco-pounding Stud, nude-dancing Clementina’s, and the leather bikers’ enormous S.F. Eagle. The Eagle had a sign out that day, “Slave auction tonight!” These underground spots would pave the way for what was to become the club-going center of San Francisco in the late ‘80s, but on the day that I’m talking about there was only the silly discothèque with the swimming pool, the Oasis, and a brand-new, hip, post-punk art-school restaurant called the Billboard Café. Above all these nondescript warehouses poked the one edifice in the whole neighborhood that could challenge the freeway for height, the pink stucco church at Tenth and Howard. The shrine next to it—behind the low stone fence and the well-groomed lawn, with the Madonna and child nestled in a Plaster of Paris cave, also pink—always reminded me of the eighteenth hole in a miniature golf course.

I decided, that day, that I liked the South of Market and that I did want to live there. It’s one of the real parts of the city, a whole landscape that just happened over time and completely by accident. Other parts of San Francisco have been made, claimed, and then cultivated by one demographic or another, like the Haight-Ashbury by the Hippies or the Castro by the gay community, but nobody had ever cared enough about the South of Market or the Mission or even Downtown really to make them over completely.

I walked along, looking closely at everything and seriously considering the area for the first time, trying to imagine myself living there through the summer, the fall, and the rainy winter—I was wondering how it would change with San Francisco’s subtle seasons. In my baggy pants and thrift-store overcoat, walking in the fog past the old buildings, wet and gray, I remember the day like a scene from a ‘40s film noir. I probably looked a little like Sterling Hayden, all tall and loose as I am, or maybe, being alone and eyeing everything so suspiciously, I came off more determined, like a desperate Richard Widmark character. Inside myself, though, I was feeling cool and glib, like my hero, Robert Mitchum.

The wind was cold, and it made me walk faster after a while, although I knew that it would eventually blow the fog away—thinking about that was already cheering me up. I pushed my hands against the seams of my overcoat’s pockets and felt myself grinning excitedly as I found the street where the apartment needing a roommate lay in wait for me and I went around the corner. It was a beautiful and tragic back alley, quaint and decaying; it dead-ended underneath the freeway in a parking lot cul-de-sac, a wash of trash blown into a sagging cyclone fence bordering the uneven blacktop.

Anticipation grew as I counted down the numbered cross-streets along Folsom to the tiny alleyway where I would be meeting my prospective housemates. You know how it is when you’re house hunting—you guess it’s that building up ahead, the one with the great big windows, or the one across the street with the enormous stoop, Corinthian columns, and ornate woodwork dappled by the only shade tree on the block. You’re expectant or disappointed as the apartments vary from cramped modern cement jobs to well-painted Victorians with high ceilings and bay windows. I mean, style is important; it’s the mood that the place puts you in that counts most the first time you see a place. I pegged the site of my appointment, disappointingly, almost as soon as I rounded the corner. I knew its type: a sprawling turn-of-the-century affair, probably built in a hurry as earthquake relief housing in ‘06—more long than tall, a shitload of tiny units crammed inside. The building started at the dead end of the alley but stretched about a third of the way along the block toward Folsom. Somebody had painted it yellow.

Once there had been four open-air stairwells, two doors to a floor, two floors to the building, old Western movie boarding-house style, but the stairs had been too secretive, dark, and inviting for this secluded back alley, so the landlord had put protective cage-like black metal gates over their entrances at street level. A panel of buzzers hung by each gate; one of them corresponded to the address I had in my hand.

I stopped and looked quickly around and decided that this wasn’t such a bad block. I liked the randomness of everything in the SOMA, as it was only beginning to be called in those days, the neighborhood’s openness. Garbage isn’t as conspicuous in its wider, more commercial avenues as it is in the narrower, tree-lined streets in North Beach or up on Russian Hill. And the alleyways that crisscrossed the area were quiet and cool; they didn’t scare me like the noisy Tenderloin sometimes did, with all of the frenetic resentment and opportunity-seeking stares of the malingering, self-proclaimed con-men, drunks, and whores. Anyway, the grime in the air is the same all over the city, even if the black dust maybe settles a little thicker on these derelict back alleys that probably never get cleaned. At least there’s a place for the drunks to piss: in the parking lot down at the end of the street, instead of their having to do it in your doorway. It was ugly down at this alley’s end—sterile, cemented, and blacktopped, looped around by that defeated fence and some tangled-up barbed wire, nothing growing in the shadow of the freeway. You almost couldn’t hear the traffic up above, even though you were right underneath it.

SOMA was, at that time, according to the hippest intelligentsia, the up-and-coming part of town. There were already a few artists’ lofts, renegade after-hours clubs and the Billboard Café, and more cool stuff would probably follow. Things were going to be happening here, and if I could get in on the scene right as it was about to explode… Also, it’s the last part of the city to get the fog.

I didn’t hear anything when I pushed the buzzer—once white, now smudged with greasy black newsprint fingerprints—so I knew right away that the apartment was up on the second floor. I felt bad about the interview being on a day like this; the lumpy summer clouds, remnants of the nighttime marine layer that caresses the city with the darkness, were still loping by just overhead, pressing down on the squat buildings. I watched the gray globs moving inland, away from the city towards the bay, and knew that I liked places a lot less when I saw them on overcast days. But, then again, I’d seen some pretty ugly places look at least cheerful because of a sunny day, so I suppose it all evens out in some weird, unfair way. This place was starting to feel bad now, but I was determined to give it a fair shake.

There were so many things to be considered then, and it was hard to make a lot of firm decisions about the future. I was afraid of doing something wrong because it seemed suddenly to matter more if I did. It was like a test of myself somehow, of what I could do alone.

I heard the upstairs door open, the sound of scampering feet coming down, then a face blinked into view and looked out at me from the shadowy stairwell behind the bars. It was Christ, a typical hippie look: blue eyes against dark skin in a bony face with a beard of sorts. “Twenty-three A?” he asked, with a Latinate “Ah” sound for the letter A. I nodded, and he said, “Follow me,” motioning with a single finger, turning his slightly stooped back on me to remount the stairs, his skinny arms dragging him along the handrails. I followed, his leather flip-flops slapping in my face as we climbed.

The roommate referral service had advertised my prospective housemates as Enrique and Miguel, and I was already having visions of sharing a South of Market loft with a young Picasso and Juan Gris, of pitchers of sangria and intense aesthetic conversations lasting ‘til dawn, presided over by dark and passionate canvases leaned up against the walls. Instead the film was in color now, unpredictable as a Godard or a Fellini, crazy and mannered, from the early ‘60s but definitely pre-Beatles—without irony.

The apartment was a cramped mess. Some loud and completely uninspired hillbilly rock-and-roll or Claptonesque dreck came from a department store stereo on the floor of what passed for a living room—really just a wider section of the hall. Other than the stereo, the room held only an imitation leather recliner and a knee-high stack of old Playboy and Penthouse magazines.

My guide showed me to the soon-to-be-empty bedroom, which was way too small for my stuff and had only a single dirty little window high up in one corner, letting onto an internal air shaft (or, as we usually call them on the West Coast, a light well). Then I followed Jesus back into the kitchen at the dead end of the hall and there he picked up where my buzzing of the doorbell had interrupted him, making soup using a Styrofoam Cup O’ Noodles mix as a base.

I sat down at the table where he was working, chopping and mixing various ingredients. Behind my guide’s silhouette, two enormous and frail-looking windows let in the flat gray light that came from the still solidly cloud-covered sky. The view was vast: a sharp, silvery, bran’ spankin’ new warehouse and a vacant lot filled with tall reeds and cattails. I found out later that this shadowy space between the buildings was the easiest and most frequented spot for shooting heroin South of Market, that it was San Francisco’s own Needle Park.

“I am from Italy,” Jesus told me. “I am the one moving out, moving up to Oregon.” We had passed one of the roommates in the hallway, as he’d come out of the shower, and I’d introduced myself. This was the Enrique of the apartment’s listing. While the towel-covered figure went off to his room to get dressed, the Italian told me that it was Enrique who ran the household and shared the front room with his brother Miguel.

Now we began chatting about working and living in the country versus the city, Jesus having much trouble finding the English for what eventually came out as, “I don’t see how you can live all the time in the city. Is crazy, crazy.” I asked him where he’d grown up, and he’d told me in a “small village,” as he chopped up much garlic and onions for his soup. “Real Italian soup,” he grinned, enjoying grinning. “You like garlic?”

“Mmm, very much.”

“It is, you know,” he shook his knife at me, “the oldest antibiotic. Antibiotic—but natural. If you get a, a cut, on your arm,” he held out his arm, nodding and gesturing toward it with the knife, “and you rub garlic or onion on it, it will stop the infection. I learn that in India.”

“What were you doing in India? Working? Or just traveling?”

“Working? No. Is impossible to work there. Well, possible,” (grin), “but… I do some business, mostly I was there for travel.”

He chopped his garlic and onions leaning over, his spine curling under his tank top in all his deliberate concentration. I marveled at his Summer of Love outfit: the sandals and tank top, bell-bottomed pants that hung too low, a little wooden cross on a loose string of beads dangling in front of us, off of his neck. There was a patch of colored cloth holding the cross to its string of beads.

“Are you from the city?” he asked me, having apparently adopted the local habit of calling San Francisco simply “the city.”

“No, not originally. I grew up out in the suburbs, but I’ve lived here for about two years now. Why are you leaving? You’re going up to Oregon, you said?”

“Oh, well, I was before in Mexico, and before that in Guatemala.”

“Did you work there?”

“Yes, a little, but the Mexicans work for very little, so I came here,” he chuckled, “for the American green.” He rubbed two fingers together with the grin still grinning and the blue eyes now widening out of the dark, bearded cheeks below the curly black halo of his hair. “Green American money.” And we snickered together.

“I know what you mean.” I still had punk-rock slogans on my T-shirts, but I’d been unfaithful lately I knew. Things were changing; I was getting older. It was gray, slow, and airy in that back room: a long Sven Nykvist tracking shot from a Bergman or later Tarkovsky film, a typically symmetrical Antonioni long shot depicting the alienated decadent face to face with the humble country peasant, the busy worker standing and the idle artiste sitting across the table watching him work. If I’d thought about it, I guess I would have felt a little bit embarrassed. Still, we lived in the same shit neighborhoods in the same town and worked the same shit jobs to survive, so what was there to feel guilty about?

Enrique came in then, his hair still wet, perfumed, and all dressed up to go out. “So, did you show him the room and everything?”

“Uh-huh,” the Italian and I nodded together.

“Yeah,” I began, trying to be polite. “I think the room is too small for all of my stuff.”

Only the night before I had been up in Pacific Heights, San Francisco’s swankiest neighborhood, charming two guys with the same politeness, and I would have that place (for the same rent as this one!) unless the third guy who lived there, who I hadn’t yet met, decided for sure he’d rather have a woman move in. But Pacific Heights—although lovely with its wide residential streets, trees, Victorian mansions, and views out over Cow Hollow and the Marina—was a little like moving back to the suburbs.

Enrique smirked at me and said, “I thought so. Didn’t you read, on the sheet, it said that the room was small?” He kept on smiling, speaking toward the wall, as if I’d already gone but, even absent, could still hear his insinuation that I probably thought I was too good for their apartment. I didn’t remember their listing saying anything about the size of the room, but I’d looked at like a thousand listings that day.

“Yeah, I did,” I stood up, “but I’ve lived in places where I could keep some of my stuff in the living room or something, and I thought it was worth a look.” I was only just beginning to realize how easy it’d been to talk to and charm the guys in Pacific Heights the night before and how boring and stupid it would be living up there with them. But here I was kinda lost.

Enrique’s smirk broadened into a grin when I put out my hand to shake. He ignored the gesture, turning away, but that was fine ‘cause I really didn’t want to shake his hand—only I didn’t know what else to do. “I didn’t want to run off without saying anything, so I waited ‘til you got out of the shower to tell you in person.” As we spoke, the Italian sang along with the record that was still blasting in the living room, adopting a kind of Southern accent in imitation of the rock band’s undistinguished singer. I only became conscious then that we’d been shouting the whole time and ignoring the din.

Finally I got to the door, Enrique still smiling, insulting me without insulting me, not saying anything anymore, and the Italian winking at me as I fled. I threw a smile in his direction, went down the hall, out, and back up the alley to the corner of Folsom. It hadn’t warmed up much yet, but you could feel the sun coming. I could even see a little patch of sky out over the bay where the fog had already been blown away, so I walked off toward where the clouds were breaking apart, up Folsom Street, in the direction of the bay and the South of Market piers. I didn’t have any more appointments that day, and I wanted to think about all of the places that I’d looked at so far. There was one apartment in North Beach where I’d been interviewed that I wanted badly, and there was always the place in Pacific Heights, I guess. Odd that it was so affordable.

As I came over the crest of Rincon Hill, the fog started breaking up right over my head, moving fast in the breeze, and the sun came out and lit up the street around me at last. I stopped, took off my overcoat, and tilted my face up toward the underbelly of the Bay Bridge to feel the heat of the sunlight. From so close beneath it, the bridge loomed, huge and plastic looking, unreal, casting its long shadow the other way, toward the Financial District. I looked down the hill at the piers and saw that two of them, the ones just to the right of the bridge, had been leveled. I’d seen it on the news a few weeks before, but hadn’t been in this part of town since then and had completely forgotten there had been a fire. Two long docks of black debris poked out into the greenish water, part of a steel infrastructure still leaning—black lines like a silhouette—on the cement foundations.

Next to the site of the disaster, just off of Third Street, a tacky-looking bar and grill called the Boondocks perched on the corner end of the burnt-out pier with what must be a great view of the blackened rubble out of its bayside windows. So I walked down the hill to the water’s edge, went into the Boondocks, asked for a beer, and sat in a booth in the back by the windows to look out at the devastated piers and the almost fluorescent green water warming in the sun. The waves were only the tiniest little lines coming in absolutely evenly and then breaking apart against the pylons underneath the bar somewhere.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” the waitress asked, coming close enough for me to see that she was older than I had thought—watching her come in earlier, talking and joking with the regulars up at the bar—but she did a good job of hiding it by smiling a lot and chatting happily all the time and using a lot of makeup.

“Yeah, it was cold when I was out there, and then it got sunny as soon as I came in here.” We were both looking out the windows at what was left of the piers. “That’s something.”

“Sure is,” she said. “Did you see that little place right on the edge of it?” About ten feet from the black pavement and charred piles of debris sat an old, drooping little diner called Red’s Java House.

“Yeah, he must have been sweating. Well, I guess you people probably were too.”

“Oh, I didn’t work here then. But they said that it got hot.” She reached out, pressing her palm flat against the glass of the window in front of me. “That if you touched the window, it could burn you.”

Lee Foust
Lee Foust hails from the San Francisco Bay Area but has lived for many years in Florence, Italy. There he writes, performs his compositions, and teaches literature and creative writing to US students studying abroad. Lee is the author of Sojourner, a collection of stories, verse, and prose poems. House Hunting is part of the forthcoming collection Poison and Antidote, nine inter-connected stories of the San Francisco art scene during the Reagan years.

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