what we lose when the rent is too damn high

Each evening, a scrappy woof bounded down the stairs toward me as I climbed my way heavenward and home. The solid wooden door of the place adjacent to my one-bedroom was usually open, leaving a thin screened-in barrier between inner glow and darkening night.

I’d press my face up against the mesh like a 10-year-old and whisper, “Hi, Pele-man-dog!” At this cheeky intrusion, the barking would crescendo, urgent and crisp, followed rapidly by an insistent, “Pele! What is up? Shush!” and then the comforting outline of one of my beloved neighbors. “Oh, hi!,” she’d say, unlatching the door and unleashing the beast who would wriggle all 80 pounds of himself playfully toward me, expecting to be adored and fawned over. Fur meeting hand, toothy canine smile, happy chatter veering toward the serious, all colliding on our quadplex porch in the twilight, was often, in so many ways, the best part of my day.

My neighbors and their pup lived in that place for about four years. The two ladies were both healers, one a Naturopathic Doctor, the other a student of Chiropractic Medicine. They tended chubby succulents and other drought-tolerant flora, which spilled over the porch railings and curled down the stairs. Both usually worked from home, although they were out at house calls or anatomy class or yoga for some portion of the day. They anchored our apartment building, creating their own schedules, making healthy mischief, cooking mountains of vegetables, embodying a sort of scientific-earth-child balance. They adopted me, serving up red wine, chocolate, kale and stories of wilderness guiding or college debauchery, letting me steal Pele for afternoon spooning sessions on the couch, holding me through break-ups and health challenges.

I thirstily soaked in all this magic — that is, when I was around. Which was rarely. I claimed the apartment adjacent to theirs two years ago, as an early employee at a cleantech start-up in San Francisco, ready to have my own apartment even if my bohemian, social justice organizer past-self balked at the price tag and all the socioeconomic and soulful sins it implied.

When I first moved in, I was traveling all the time for my job. I worked long hours. I thawed frozen burritos at night and crashed into bed. My mother had started wondering if she’d ever hear from me again.

Gradually, though, the warmth and space next door started to creep into my tired bones. The wholehearted living example set by my generous, available non-tech neighbor-friends thawed some parts of me that had frozen in my years of sprinting toward IPO (while saving the world, no less!) on the glittery glacial plane of Silicon Valley. I had been anticipating leaving my breakneck-paced company for about a year, proud of and grateful for my work with them but ready to find succulence in occasional slowness and an option to move closer to family (or at least talk to my Mom regularly again). The two ladies who lived beside me, I realize now, nurtured and emboldened the urge to cultivate more parts of my life and pursue balance.

I ended up resigning from my sexy-thrilling but exhausting job six months after I moved into the new apartment. I took a position that would propel me to New York more often to see brothers and parents and grant me saner hours and work-from-home Fridays (Pele snuggles while you type on your laptop FTW!). There have been some additional twists and turns, but through all the meandering of my recent professional and personal lives, it feels as if I really am coming home again, even if in fits and starts. To a place where there is deep intake of breath, time enough for loping conversations, the plants are well cared for and you need to be on your doorstep at 5p to unlock the deadbolt and walk the exuberant dog.

Pele and his mamas moved away a few weeks ago. The overheated housing madness of the Bay combined with what they diagnosed as “severe nature deprivation” sent them enthusiastically packing to Colorado. A steady stream of friends stopped by to wish them well, bringing cuttings of small trees that would fare well in the mountains, handwritten cards, group grinning photos, canine pals for one last romp.

The ladies set scarves, hats, shoes, planters, furniture, other odds ‘n ends out on the sidewalk, an ongoing quirky street installation of flannel, wool, and wood. These things slowly scattered to nearby homes and lives, inspected and snatched up off the concrete. I claimed more than one cast-off item myself, to add to the hodge-podge of second-hand wall hangings and furniture that (charmingly?) populate my place.

The night before they drove away in their stuffed-to-the-gills U-haul, we all piled on the floor atop a siren blue gym mat and loosely knitted blankets, drinking lukewarm Chardonnay, laughing at times and sampling random supplements they had in their natural healing apothecary. I tried hard to keep from crying.

The next morning, I hugged my neighbor-friends hard, attempted to convey — while keeping my shit together — how much they’d gently, subtly influenced my life by sparkly example. I held Pele tight, professing my undying, unbridled eternal love for him and his thick skull and stinky breath. We all promised to talk, write, send smoke signals, show up in the middle of the night unannounced with a handle of fine whiskey, etc. over the miles and years. I know we will.

Now, it should come as no surprise that, once vacated, their apartment rented at 58% more than it did during the years they lived there. That means, frankly, at today’s prices, I can’t afford the place I moved into just two years ago if I were to, for the sake of argument, move out, break my lease, and move right back in. This is not an uncommon experience, of course, and my lot — graduate-level educated, white lady from an upper middle class family — is a far cry better than the ‘baynomics’ plight of many. I know I am also part of the problem, shouldn’t hate the players, only hate the game, and other truisms that admittedly hold some water.

But, damn.

How does anyone feel at ease in a place where the rents shift obscenely right under your feet? And, here’s my real worry: My new neighbor is home even less than I was in the height of my professional tech-thrall. The lights are always off. I hear he works at Uber. Perhaps it’s my turn, then, to provide the ajar door, the irreverence, the healing from overwork? I just hope we all have enough moxy and marvelousness and damn-the-man left to play with to keep the spirit of unruly, unscripted connection and impromptu community alive here in this gilded metropolis. Where, my oh my, the rent is way too goddamn high.


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