Down & Out On Craigslist
Faded stereotypes unpacked their egos and painted the walls with personality. Overgrown toddlers laid down their bongs to price rooms at $420 a month. Peace and love burnouts crafted treatises on ecological superiority banning people who don’t recycle toilet paper. These unpaid extras from a failed reality series had me over a barrel. I needed a new place to call home. They had open rooms. Normal people had nice houses and the budgets to match– it was the grubby little hovels for me. I trolled through Craigslist seeking character over caricature.
Should be a cakewalk. Weed out the whackjobs, write a polite inquiry, show up on time. Don’t reek of cigarettes. Try not to need the bathroom. Watch the language. I’ve interviewed directors of UN programs and engineers from multinational corporations. I’ve argued my way past security in foreign languages and conned indigent photographers into donating images for my articles. I can convince a couple of nice, reasonable people that I would make a nice, reasonable roommate.
We are POLYAMOROUS QUEERS. We live in a POLYAMOROUS QUEER household. Seeking a fifth roommate to join our POLYAMOROUS QUEER household. Must be POLYAMOROUS QUEER friendly. Not sure what a POLYAMOROUS QUEER is? We are experts at being POLYAMOROUS QUEERS and will tell you.
Poor Little Boy Lost, tossed to the wolves while thinking he’s in a petting zoo. House hunting isn’t like conducting an interview, it’s not even like applying for a job. The process may seem similar: shake hands, answer questions, ask questions, glorify your experience. Emotionally it’s a series of blind dates with a shotgun wedding chaser. No one wants to dance. No one’s courting me because I’m cute or cool or funny or nice. We were all thrown into the world’s most depressing mixer by desperation, eyes fixed on the calendar.
At first I felt in complete control. Cheap rent? Check. Big room? Check. Decent part of town? Check. I chose to write them. I chose to make an appointment. I held the cards. But the rules of the game changed as soon as I was in someone else’s space. Chase the frog from my throat and keep the butterflies from flying out all over the carpet. Don’t fidget, make eye contact but not too much, act interested but not desperate. Stay loose, stay comfortable, not too comfortable, no shoes on the coffee table. Compliment the garden, compliment the house, compliment the furniture, go home, write a thank-you note, mention their dog.
One date a day. Two dates a day. Three dates a day.
Not a good place for kids. We throw a lot of sexy parties. Punk rockers welcome!
Dates at weird times of the day in weird parts of town. Unlike me people have real jobs to go to. Appointments get crammed in after work or given short chunks of time on a Saturday. Life became a series of twenty-minute whirlwinds that left me back outside and still spinning. Hello, here’s the room, here’s the kitchen, here’s the bathroom, utilities cost this much, here’s very little personal information about me, thanks for stopping by. Trying to divine the slumbering pathologies in a stranger while weaving through tight corridors is something of a challenge. This is a nice room, that must be the toaster over you mentioned, what’s the puppy’s name, does the unnamed girl living in the attic want to meet me, does this ceiling fan work, god I’m sorry about the chain.
None of these people are my destined life-long companions. Yeah, she’s got a tattoo on the side of her skull, yeah his record collection, yeah they’re solar power advocates, everyone is afflicted with quirks bound to drive me crazy. I’d send off my thank-you note, but then I was right back on Craigslist looking to see what new prospects had been posted. Until rejection came.
Perfection has just walked out the door and everyone at the other tables is staring at me and whispering. So what if their jokes were kinda lame? So what if they were a little stiff? So what if they preach the gospel of quilting like rapturous Jesus-freaks? So what if the room gets no sunlight, stinks of molding apricots and the walls a sneeze from collapse? We could have made it work. We could have been happy. If only they’d given me a chance.
The nagging anxieties and horrible truths which sometimes keep me awake became a chronic condition. Darkness grew three shades deeper and the sound of windswept leaves became a roar. Most people my age are married and having kids. I don’t even have a girlfriend. I don’t even like anyone. I’m never going to have another girlfriend. Not that I can really call my old girlfriends girlfriends since they never wanted to be with me in the first place. I’ve never had a girlfriend and now I’m going to be homeless.
I started listening to the radio at low volume, just loud enough to hear if I concentrated. One hour a night. Two hours a night. Three hours a night.
We are a couple, and since the place is a little cozy, we are looking for someone who stays elsewhere on occasions.
One week into the hunt I realized that I’d been wearing my most ragged pair of jeans. Tear in the knee, hasty patch job on the ass, real crowd pleaser. Normally I don’t even notice. If someone gives me shit about my clothes I tell them to get fucked. What, I should prop up this consumer economy by buying new jeans? Make a little cash for the ad firms and executives? Don’t you realize how many resources go into the garnet industry? You ever think about all the water and fertilizer they use for the cotton fields, the gasoline for the combines and trucks, the electricity to power the factories? Ball bearings and grease to keep everything running? I grew up next to fucking sweatshops motherfucker. Normally, but I’ve lost control of my life. I get thirty minutes to convince people subjected by fate to a parade of sociopaths that I should have access to their underwear drawer.
Changing pants didn’t help. Polite e-mails filled my in-box: Sorry but we’ve offered the room to someone else. It was very nice to meet you, good luck with your search.
Shucks, sorry I’m so subhuman and that I fill you with disgust. Time and time again my persona, my very essence, every stray atom that defines my being was examined, discussed and dismissed by a variety of humanity. I could slit my wrists… or begin to reject people before they could reject me.
We are vegan, sober, and serious about creating an anti-oppressive/anti-authoritarian dynamic in our home.
Wreckers had dragged a couple trailers onto a lot, joined them at an angle and given them an overgrown lawn to call their very own. The long hair who answered my knocking was so surprised to find me standing there that he let a cat bolt for freedom. If he’d remembered our one o’clock appointment he probably would have changed out of sweats, or at the very least given his suspiciously young-looking girlfriend a head’s up to spare her scurrying from sight clutching a tattered flannel robe to her chest.
Welcome to our dingy shag carpet with velvet furniture and psychedelic posters. This is the blown glass ashtray where we keep our roaches. Inside the converted garage is my suspiciously young-looking girlfriend, my loft and my silkscreening equipment for making psychedelic posters. I work from home. Down this naked hallway is the dark and cramped room for rent. The absent clove-smoking girl who lives in here won’t mind if you go inside, feel the vibe, look at her goth drawings and imagine hanging yourself in the closet. Oh, hey, here’s a roommate in the kitchen making ramen for breakfast. He’s self-employed too. Cleans houses freelance.
Talk of music festivals and backyard astronomy faded while I stared at the dishwasher. A six-year-old had found a box of crayons and written a sign: Please Don’t Use. The paper was yellow with age.
Rent was very cheap. The house was a shithole by design but not messy. Not one of these burnouts had it together enough to cause any problems, but there was no fucking way I was going to live here. Even the goth girl knew enough to move out.
I wish I could live alone but the only places I can afford are these downtown economy studios where the floor shares a bathroom. That’s not different from roommates, except that it is. I’d have to get flip flops. Not that I have a good paper trail for landlords to look at. I’m freelance, there’s no paystubs. I’ve never had a credit card. I don’t even have an ID in this state. Oh god, I’m thirty-two and I can’t even get my own place to live. I don’t have any money. I don’t even know how to fill out a lease application.
Dawn broke while I sat nursing another vodka and cigarette, begging to fall asleep before the birds began to sing.
Looking for someone to share my apartment with me and my two-year-old daughter. I won’t be around much because I stay at my boyfriend’s a lot. I’m twenty-three. I smoke.
The calendar was giving me menacing looks. My nerves were shot and my vices ineffective. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sit still long enough to get any work done. But I still had to dance the dance. I forgot the girl’s name the moment she opened the door and I followed her through the apartment asking if the doors came off the hinges easily and can I see the basement please? Is this the person who goes to school for urban design or the one that paints portraits of cats? Shit, what’s the damn cat’s name?
People sat me down in sparsely decorated living rooms and around cluttered dining room tables. Words caught in my throat, then suddenly burst out as incoherent nonsense. Five minutes of babbling left out pertinent details about me and left no room for questions about utilities or landlords. Someone asked me what my ideal living situation would be and I rattled off a list of everything I wanted to avoid. My jokes fell flat. Basic facts slipped my mind. I can’t believe people would even answer the door when I came calling with my sunken eyes and sallow skin. I looked and was acting like a maniac.
Inviting strangers from the internet over is insane. Walking into the homes of strangers you’ve met on the internet is more insane. Every door hides a potential lunatic, paranoid junkie or angry drunk. I have extensive experience dealing with psychos and dangerous situations but the thought that ever opening door could be an invitation to death came late. I was walking past Sunday mass while a full band and choir hurtled heavenly music through open stained glass windows. Something began to bother me. Down the street was a ruined bungalow all peeling paint and dying grass and encrusted windows. Someone lives in this nightmare. Someone will die in this nightmare.
Not my destination, not today. Just the hammering home of the realization that every door could lead to some fucked up shit. My destination was the towering faded-blue corner house with junked appliances and an abandoned baby stroller on the porch. I knocked. I knocked again. I checked the address. I peered through windows at empty shelves and stacked boxes and dust. Called the number and no one answered. Left a message which was never returned.
This is not a place to live. The owner will try kick you out illegally. Deficates and urinates on the toilet seat and doesn’t clean up, makes others do it. The property has thieves, will steal anything (including food). When you speak up for what’s wrong he will threaten you and run his mouth. Stay away from tis property unless you want nothing but problems.
The interior design industry suffered when the economy tanked so the Hungarian woman was renting out rooms. I spent an hour on the phone talking about European cities and moving to different countries, global politics and the capricious nature of fate. She asked what my sign was and told me it fit my personality. Can you come over tonight? But I couldn’t, I was about to leave to check out a different house. She promised to call me the next day to arrange a showing of the room and I took off for my appointment.
Doorbell hanging by wires just means that the landlord never comes around, always a plus in my book. I knocked. I waited. I knocked again. I watched the fashionable youth of respectable tattoos leave the house next door and wondered why they were looking at me like that. I called and a woman apologized for not hearing my knocking.
Years ago a shy girl, mocked or ignored by her peers, sough solace in flowing black clothes, hair dye and bands who wrote songs you could cry to. She made friends in some black light basement club who accepted her for who she was and turned her onto skeleton jewelry and crystal meth. Life trickled by in a hallucination of death discos and abusive boyfriends, food stamps and victimization. Then one day the shy girl caught a glimpse of the stranger in the mirror and decided that she needed to make some changes. Meth was replaced by corner store cupcakes. A menial job got her off food stamps. She got herself a cat.
But she kept the flowing black clothes, the hair dye and the jewelry. Eyes now worked independently of one another and a cheek convulsed intermittently. One arm had grown twisted and refused to leave the sanctuary of the tortured body that bore it. She limped. From somewhere to the left of reality a voice beckoned me inside.
The front room had a fake fireplace for toasty winter nights on one side, a lonely throw rug in the center and a rusting weight bench on the other side. Been working out, I asked? Oh no, actually this is more of a living room for dinner parties and such. We continued through the house into a galley kitchen. My hostess dragged herself past a counter littered with knives. Butcher knives. Bread knives. Knives from various sets and complete sets. She wanted to show me the backyard but wouldn’t open the door which meant crowding together to stare out a window. We looked at broken concrete and soil so forsaken that weeds struggled to grow. This is a nice place to sit on long summer nights. I asked if she ever tried to plant tomatoes or anything. Oh no, I have something of a black thumb. She led me past the knives again to see the bathroom. Steak knives. Filleting knives. Paring knives. Flickering fluorescents showcased pea green and cheap motel fixtures bereft of towels or toothbrushes. Where are the downstairs bedrooms? Oh these, she indicated two padlocked doors, aren’t available for showing right now. Knives scattered all across the counter. Knives hung from magnetic strips. Knives with the blade wrapped in packing tape so that you don’t accidentally cut yourself. Would you like to see the room?
It was upstairs, down a hallway only wide enough for one person to walk at a time. The ad said it was big and it was. The ad had mentioned a walk-in closet and there it was. Sunlight streamed through windows and fell on the cardboard someone had tried to tape over a skull-sized hole in the back wall. She told me that the landlord had been thinking about replacing the carpet. I stared at the deep red stain about the size of a body in the middle of the empty room.
At the far end of the hallway was another bathroom. The tile had been scrubbed so lovingly that even the grout had a shine. Houseplants soaked up sunlight. The bath mat, the soap dispenser, the toothbrush holder, everything looked fresh from a catalog. It was a room of brilliant colors and swirls. Someone was bursting with hopes and dreams all held waiting for one day. They only had the means to fill one room with them.
She stood between me and the stairs. Is the room okay? It’s the biggest room in the house, and the walk-in closet is nice. We’re close to several bus lines and there’s a supermarket nearby. It’s a very quiet street. Do you think you can afford it?
I’m a pretty honest person. I was also a very scared person. Yes, I can afford it. I can let you know for sure by… Tuesday. Yes, on Tuesday I will know for sure and I will let you know. There was a moment’s hesitation, but then she relented and began her pained descent. We were halfway down when another of the upstairs doors burst open. Hi! I thought I should take this opportunity to introduce myself! I shock the hand thrust over the railing. It had been built up by countless hours at the rusting weight bench. Yes, I will let you know for sure on Tuesday. Thank-you very much for showing me the house, it was very nice to meet you.
We’re all a little witchy and kinda strange. Good thing we live in Portland.
The Hungarian woman never called. I rang a guy with two rooms open at his house and then cancelled a couple hours later. His voice sounded like engines an socket wrenches, Budweiser and Marlboros, like an uncle I once had who kept winding up in jail. He called me brother.
But there are cool people in the world. I met a musician who once performed for generals and politicians in Moscow. I met a girl who led tours of a science museum and who had moved into the house entirely by bicycle. I met guys who were cross breeding their fruit trees by q-tip and who laughed at my crackhead jokes. I met a girl whose cat slept in her suitcase and who had a Bananas flyer on the wall. I met a self-taught expert in edible plants who raised test beds in the backyard. I met a woman who bankrolled her house and nursery with money saved from working at the BBC.
The cool people often lived in tough circumstances, condemned by yesterday’s choices to navigate precarious paths. I met solitary people who clung to their one security, their responsibility over shared houses they didn’t even own, who soldiered on after the time of careers and love and success and dreams had long passed. They established house rules and added a cohesive tone throughout the common spaces, screening each new prospect with a very cautious hope. They wanted a member for the family they’ve cultivated over the years, plucked from chance by necessity. And I sat with another drink and another cigarette watching another dawn, terrified that one day I will die in someone else’s house surrounded by other people’s stuff and rooms filled with strangers.
Do you remember the Golden Girls TV Show? They all had separate lives yet time to meet up in the kitchen for cheese cake……..
On a premature summer day I locked my bike to a stop sign and crossed my fingers that I wasn’t heading to the house dressed in American flags. I wasn’t. Here’s the room, here’s the kitchen, here’s the bathroom, here’s how we do utilities, here’s the backyard with vegetable beds and grass and the biggest cherry blossom tree you’ve ever seen. I sat in the grass. I told my audience of all my travels, all the houses toured and people met. They too were nervous about Craigslist, agreed with the decisions I’d made and sympathized with the rough breaks. We spoke of bygone days and how to grow mushrooms in a basement. There were jokes, there was laughter, there was no sense of forced conversation. When I left two hours later I was sure that I’d missed every internationally recognized social cue to leave, but I was also surprised at how easily time passed.
I had a good feeling about it. I even told my mom who was worried sick that I was going to live in a cardboard box behind Safeway with roommates even more maladjusted than me. When I got the phone call inviting me to move in I started shaking and couldn’t sit still for the rest of the day. Weeks of prowling Craigslist, writing syrupy introductions to myself, riding around town collecting pollen and tree dirt in my eyes, weeks of shaking hands and touring houses and trying to remember names and the questions I should ask, weeks of sleepiness nights and one meal days, blind date after blind date, pacing a drinking and smoking, over. It was all over. One meeting, one afternoon in a backyard, one long conversation and I had a new home.
I was the only person they had interviewed.