I was scraping by as a line cook in San Francisco in the mid-’80s when my landlord offered me the job of managing a 24-unit apartment building on Pine Street. It sounded like easy money: vacuum the hallways once a week, make sure the trash chutes emptied into the dumpsters, collect rent checks, and show empty apartments to prospective tenants. After deducting my salary from the rent, I’d owe $100 for my studio apartment.
Since I worked in a restaurant at night, I’d had little contact with my neighbors. This changed after I became the apartment manager. It was as if I suddenly acquired 23 roommates. Tony, who lived in the studio directly below me, was my least favorite.
At first I knew Tony only from the angry screeds he slipped under my door complaining that my eight-pound cat and I disturbed the peace night and day. I bought a carpet and tiptoed barefoot to muffle my existence. I took away my cat’s toys. The notes continued. He whacked the ceiling and cursed when I got home from work. According to Tony, I was so reckless that chunks of plaster rained down with every footstep I took. After becoming the building manager, I moved down the hall so I didn’t live directly above him. He continued his feud with the new tenant and the one after that.
Every month an exterminator came by in an attempt to control the cockroach population. It was my job to post the time and date of the visit and unlock the apartments. Tony was usually home and screamed from behind the closed door for us to go away.
Without protective gear, I stood in the hallway outside each unit while the exterminator worked his black magic. One of the tenants, a feminist artist, insisted that I stand in her living room so that the bug-man’s negative male energy wouldn’t desecrate her artwork, mostly garish paintings of female genitals. In a mask that completely covered his face, the exterminator squirted poison in the kitchen and around the windows while I stood in the artist’s Pepto-Bismol pink living room examining the paintings. After two poisonous viewings, I told my neighbor that she’d have to forgo the spraying if she wouldn’t allow an unaccompanied male in her gallery. She chose to live with the insects.
Another apartment that the bug man never entered was the cat lady’s unit. The cat lady was a grouchy older woman who looked as if she cut her hair with pruning shears. I suspected she had multiple disabilities — she scowled, mumbled to herself, and seldom made eye contact. Her gait was lopsided, and she became winded when she climbed the stairs to deliver the rent check. But not too winded to yell if I didn’t open my door, no matter what time of the day or night. The cat lady explained that she knew the check would blow away or that I’d deny its existence if she didn’t hand it directly to me. For the first six months I opened the door because it was easier than arguing with her. But when she decided one month to pay her rent at 6 a.m., I decided I’d had enough. She knocked. From my futon I told her to slide the check through the crack. She demanded to see me. She leaned on the doorbell. She yelled. It was only after Twitchy Tony bellowed out his bathroom window to “Shut the % up!” that the cat lady slid the check under the door.
A few months later the cat lady was in a traffic accident. Since she would be hospitalized for at least two weeks, her social worker requested that I call the Humane Society to pick up her cats. She didn’t have a friend to care for them. I couldn’t make the call. I imagined myself in her shoes — how awful to be a grouchy old woman with no friends, get injured, and then come home to a studio apartment alone. I promised to feed the animals until she recuperated.
A foul odor came from the general area of her unit, so I knew she wasn’t much of a housekeeper, but the smell that seeped under her door was nothing compared to the full force of the interior stink. When I unlocked the unit, I expected to find a rotting corpse. Over a dozen cats and kittens skittered behind the sparse, filthy furnishings and jumped through the partially opened ground-floor window. The walls and windowsills were brown where the animals had rubbed against them. Cat-food cans littered the kitchen counters and floor. Scrawny and flea bitten, the cats all bore a striking resemblance to each other. The odor inside the apartment was so repulsive that I could only take small doses without gagging. I opened every window to air the place out overnight before reentering to refill the litter boxes, vacuum, and take out the trash.
Shortly thereafter the cat lady limped home on crutches with her neck in a brace. I told her that she could keep two cats, but she’d have to find other homes for the rest. I expected a thank you for caring for her pets, but no gratitude was forthcoming. Forever after, the cat lady mumbled curses when she passed me on her crutches.
Occasionally I had to settle a dispute. A new tenant gained my sympathy when she confided that she’d moved to escape a homicidal boyfriend. She lost my sympathy when the homicidal boyfriend and his drum set moved in with her. The French woman who lived across the hall from them claimed the boyfriend was Rasputin. I had no idea who Rasputin was, but if he made direct eye contact without blinking, walked around barefoot, and had an overabundance of facial hair, then Rasputin was an excellent name for this nut job. The two neighbors performed musical duels, with Rasputin playing his drums and the French woman banging on her piano. On weekends it degenerated into beating on their shared wall with shoes. They lived on the same floor as Twitchy Tony, who sided with the piano player. He pronounced Rasputin to be insane.
After Tony, pizza boxes were the bête noir of my managerial experience. In the back of the building, a round metal trash chute emptied into a dumpster on wheels. When the dumpster filled up, I switched it out with an empty one. As long as the chute wasn’t clogged, I didn’t have to become closely acquainted with my neighbors’ garbage. But every weekend at least one moron would jam a big square pizza box into the small round chute. Soggy, stinky sacks of trash piled up, three stories high behind the pizza box. When this happened, I was forced to snake and beat fermenting garbage into the dumpsters.
I became obsessed with rooting out the offending containers before they were saturated with grease of chicken and unidentified fluids. My apartment had windows facing the landing, so any real or imagined sound of folding cardboard would taunt me. I woke up in the middle of the night, sure I’d catch the imbecile committing crimes against my free time. How could anyone be that stupid? Big box, little hole. Was someone trying to piss me off? Did Rasputin eat pizza?
Sometimes the owner of the apartments sent me to a building he owned on Bush Street to pick up rent checks and water the manager’s houseplants when she went on vacation. The Bush Street building was unimpressive on the outside, but the manager’s apartment was a beautiful two bedroom with bay windows facing the east, gleaming hardwood floors, built-in bookcases, and sliding pocket doors between the rooms. My studio faced the dumpsters and boasted a lumpy, stained Murphy bed, cockroaches, and a dingy maroon carpet that curled at the corners.
Every month I deposited money into my checking account. When Tony or Rasputin got on my nerves, I got out my bankbook and comforted myself with the growing balance.
Although Tony and I no longer shared a ceiling, his bathroom and my bathroom shared a light well. Early one morning, his angry voice echoed up the shaft. “There’s no *&% hot water. There are children in this building! %$# children need hot water!” His screaming was accompanied by the sound of water splashing in his claw-foot tub. Tony’s concern for the three children in the building was admirable, but as his rage grew in volume and intensity I’m sure he woke them and everyone else in the building. He blasted up the stairs and alternated between screaming and battering my door with his cowboy boots. By now his diatribe had become an explosive nonsensical loop about children, the legal system, and hot water. He left after I threatened to call the police, but curses randomly erupted from his unit for the rest of the day. The repairman arrived before noon, and Tony and the three children had hot water. The door to my unit was marred by cowboy-boot prints.
Later, at work, I told the other cooks about having to wake up to a raving lunatic. One of the waiters interrupted. “Did you say this guy’s name is Tony? Does he always wear a leather bomber jacket and cowboy boots?” I told him Tony’s last name. The waiter said, “Wow. I can’t believe that guy is still alive. He was the drug dealer for my college buddies and me. He used to hang around with us at our parties like he was one of our friends, but we couldn’t stand him. He took so many drugs. He told me he took PCP when he was at home. That guy is a freak.”
PCP? An animal tranquilizer was his drug of choice? That explained his bizarre behavior. That would also explain why the police had been snooping around the building and asking questions about Tony.
After two years, I was earning more money as a cook than I had when I’d first moved to San Francisco. I began to reevaluate whether the grief of managing the building was worth the $350 deducted from my rent. On an errand to pick up checks at the owner’s Bush Street apartment, I asked the manager how much she paid for her apartment. She looked at me like I was an idiot. “Nothing. I get free rent and $500 a month.” Wait. She lived in a beautiful two bedroom, and I lived in a studio that faced the dumpsters. Maybe she had more duties than I did. Nope. She didn’t touch the dumpsters or clean. She collected the rent checks and showed apartments. That was it. And I watered her plants when she went on vacation.
I gave my 30-day notice for the job and the apartment. The next time the police came asking questions about Tony’s activities, I spilled my guts.
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