There May Be Fire on the Other Side of This Door

Prologue
Now that I’m getting into my late 60s, I’m developing a gag reaction to jewelry in particular and sales in general. Just one problem: it’s how I’ve made my living since 1975. But writing is more fun. Compared to business, it’s sort of like the choice between dating Nicole Kidman versus going to a petting zoo. You can see my dilemma.

How did I lose my “ka-ching,” the cash-register sound that is emblematic of the buy/sell chip located somewhere in the brain? Am I old, defeated, or both? Perhaps will is an actual substance that is part of a mind-body continuum, one that dims along with all the rest in the inexorable fade-out into the great afterwhile.

Bad choices in people have definitely been a problem. Not that lots of good ones haven’t aided me enormously in the past, but it’s the old “rotten apple that spoils the barrel” truism. Especially when it comes to lawyers. They’re like the medieval doctors who promised a cure, such as bloodletting, that made the original problems look benevolent. For example, I went from making $50,000 in January of 1996 to being a month away from the street five years later. Can you say roller coaster? The takeaway from all this is that lawyers are the maggots who live in the open wounds of broken relationships. Judges are lawyers, too, but I’ve got jury duty soon. My theory of the social hierarchy is that shit floats (Obama’s one of the exceptions). And please don’t judge my judgmentalism, okay? Me, unemployable? Whatever would lead you to say such a thing?

Though it is true that when dealing with litigation “the process is the punishment,” there are other frustrating obstacles to reentering biz at this point. To wit, my ongoing aging and the recession, whose silent tsunami overtook my subset of the industry. Welcome to the new subnormal. Maybe I need to shift fields and meet a whole new group of sociopaths. One idea for a start-up was “If It’s Not Too Sticky,” a nonprofit specializing in recycling used porn to seniors. Another, which came to me way back in college, is “Costumes for Failing Marriages.” These ventures, though close to the heart, may not be practical. They meet my personal criterion of not making a difference, but aside from being broke, I don’t want to be bothered with controversy. To put it in the newly learned terms of my fledgling computer skills — and here’s hoping I don’t lose this bastard when I try to save it to my flash — everything has led me to where “minimize” and “shutting down” are my biz default modes. Enough said.

What to do? I tried spirituality, but no one answered my heartfelt “Ailee, Ailee, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me in My Hour of Greed?” So I’m headed to a meeting in North Park at Elderhelp to scope out the Eldershare program. That’s a deal involving an exchange of cash and/or services (don’t get smart) for rent. If I could offer driving and doggie care in trade for a decent spot, I’d be one happy eldersharer. The cheap downtown rentals in the classifieds have always intrigued me, so I decide to check some of them out before the eldershare meeting.

I seek to find a way to live on my Social Security until I either regroup or die, whichever comes first. I seek peace of mind. I am one of seven billion.

Since my car crapped out last year just before Christmas (take that, atheist!), it’s only once a month or so that I enjoy a rental. What a treat! There’s great classic rock blasting out on the airwaves as I move onto the I–5 and point my now-exotic machine toward San Diego. Strictly on the natch, I’m higher than three kites in a vertical wind tunnel. And promise is perfection, take it from me.

Story
I stop my rental car at the red light on C Street near the first address. I’m going to check it out via drive-by. I’m near the trolley tracks, trying to scope out the okay-looking building, when I notice five rough guys in their 30s and 40s (though they all look rough around here), talking about something that evidently just happened. It must have, because there are three squad cars parked at the corner and cops are looking around for evidence in the aftermath of the “happening.” First stop in my possible new — you should pardon the expression — stomping grounds, and here’s this omen — sweet. By the way, a telltale sign of aging is if you have to look twice to make sure the cops aren’t Boy Scouts.

It’s St. Paddy’s Day, and streets are being blocked off for the oncoming festivities. I’m trying to negotiate all this in a now-unfamiliar downtown, my having been ensconced in middle-class bliss for decades in North County. The plan is: read the rentals section of the paper, then drink in as much as I safely can while locating my wished-for haven. What could be more basic than the need for a safe, dry lair?

As I’m driving around on one-way streets, trying to locate the next address listed in the classified rentals, I realize that San Diego’s downtown has a definite charm. It’s not all that depressing from inside my music-filled, temperature-controlled steel and glass bubble cushioned over rubber: there are trendy bistros, bustling business types and typettes, surprise peekaboo views of the sparkling turquoise ocean from the would-be prepossessing man-made canyons. In other words, everything that represents promise to a full-fledged member of society — to a citizen. Not at all depressing, if you screen out or diminish the hopeless ones, who may or may not be doing a better job of living in the moment than the rest of us. But how can they avoid living in the moment at my next, maybe-new digs, which are located over a wholesale-produce company whose incessant slow grinding/beeping forklift action drowns out the rest of the street noise?

There’s a vacant meter, so I take it, because there’s two potential rentals on this block. The first one, upstairs from the produce warehouse, is closed: office hours are mornings, it says on the glass door through which I can see mysterious worn steps disappearing up into the dark. So I don’t have to wonder, for now, if there’d be a big fat rat with, say, a corncob, sitting on my pillow some night when I came home loaded. And they have families, the rats do, you know — they’re not loners, like certain members of a certain species we won’t name.

I go across the street and query a middle-aged Latino in a baseball hat, with longish hair and facial shrubbery. He’s presiding over the manager’s office. I ask if there are separate baths in these units, or some such, and he says, no, we all share the bathroom. He seems somewhat uncomfortable. I’m supposed to be the kind of guy he takes orders from, not the guy who’s trying to figure out how to survive on his turf. I’m too white, too old, too well dressed and groomed to belong here — a narc, perhaps. Just as I wheel and hit the front door, yet another rough-looking guy in yet another baseball cap (do they all share the same one, tossing it behind my back?) confronts me: he’s a lean Caucasian, 40s, I guess, strong, and no habitué of barber shops. His mouth is full of something white and sort of gooey/foamy; it’s all around the outside of his mouth too, and he’s chewing to beat the band. He tries to either sell me something or get me to sign something. He’s gesticulating with a bunch of forms, or else coupons; since I can’t tell what the hell he’s saying, I just say no and keep moving. I ponder how many weird denizens of the long dingy hall I’ve just fled — possible future bath-mates — are lurking behind the doors of their fucked-up rooms, waiting to lay their bizarre trips on me. It occurs to me that the exposed overstuffed files in crates on the floor in the manager’s office are the rap sheets or asylum records of the residents.

I figure that my luck’s gotta change, so I go to check out rooms billed as “nice, on the edge of downtown,” with the genteel street coordinates of Park and Ash. First I go to the best 7-Eleven I’ve seen, what with its large exterior smoked-glass windows, well-stocked inventory, good counter space, and friendly, helpful clerks who make plenty of parking change on request. The façade on my target hotel looks quite decent, too. Maybe there’ll be a slightly different group who is attracted to neater-looking environs. But as I approach the Family Health Center next door to my new building, intending to explore, I realize that I’m getting more of the same: several crushed-by-life, stout, masculinized white chicks, who probably are at least ten years younger than they look, are discussing their appointment times as they suck on cancer sticks. They have ponytails, drab, washed-out garb, and gravelly, unshy voices as they holler at each other across the sidewalk. I’m reminded of how the passive attitudes of more middle-class sorts’ toward health care provoked me to suggest we change the name of our country to “Fix It Doc,” with the national anthem switched to “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones.

In a kind of daze of denial, I flop my fish-out-of-water carcass up the stairs to the front office of “nice.” A busy but friendly in a matter-of-fact way, 30ish Latina says that there’s only one rental available, at $585 a month, the midrange unit between the $535 and $635 price points. I ask her if they take Section 8, and she says yes. I quickly calculate a net cost to me of $400, as if what I learned in college is going to do me any good around here. She tells me that I need to leave my ID with her in exchange for the room key. I haven’t seen an actual room yet anywhere, I’m trying to be thorough in my search, so I do the swap. She tells me that if this room looks small, the cheaper one is even smaller than that. She knows me. I fumble with the security-door key, and the desk lady tells me how to use it.

I have almost instant regrets as I check out some of the dudes hanging around the lobby and using the elevator that’s on the other side of the security door. Everyone seems as if they just got out of jail, or knows someone like that. They’re comfortable in their environment. We try not to show surprise at each other: the dude from another world — the one with hope — and the one without, being in each other’s faces. I feel about as welcome as a rabbi in Fallujah. And today’s a good day, one of the first summery days in ages, so people should be in a good mood, right? Some are, but for too many, their permanent weather forecast is dark and stormy, and they bring it on. There are two kinds of people here: scary ones, who look as if they could do major damage; and the rest, possibly scarier, because their fatalistic demeanor seems to say, “Go ahead, beat my face in, you can’t make it look worse, and maybe you’ll even improve it.” These people never had a chance: they’ve been kicked around ever since they could walk — maybe even before that.

I go back again to the desk, ask if there’s stairs I can use to get to my third-floor objective. She says yes; when I ask if it’s in the vicinity of the rooms, starting at #102, that I glanced at in the hallway past the elevator, she says “nonono” and gives me other directions. The stairs turn out to start by room #102. Cultural miscommunication, another omen. For the second time, I pass a tiny alcove, barren of furniture except for a shelf/desk jutting out from the wall and a folding chair. As before, the slender young Latina is sitting on the folding chair conversing on a laptop, relaxed and oblivious to me and all the marginal characters milling about. Cramped space, a portent.

Taking the stairs and beginning to walk down the long and narrow third-floor corridor, I realize that there are many, many minuscule rooms carved out of this small hulk of a building. I pass the elevator, where a tall goateed white guy in his late 30s, wearing some kind of sweater vest over his white T-shirt, is exiting. He’s not muscular but experienced and confident. He’s wearing either a pendant or keys or both on a long neck cord. He notices but does not acknowledge me, unlike the Latino and black guys I encountered downstairs. Next to the elevator is a heavy red fire door, with the following in white letters: “WARNING! THERE MAY BE FIRE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS DOOR!” At least these particular fears are confirmed by somebody — but what about the rest, like the ominous “private shower rooms,” the ones that are “out of order,” “do not use,” “yada yada” — why don’t they simply lock these up? Someone could get murdered in there, or worse. I don’t see or hear anyone in the grim hallway as I pass by scores of rooms seemingly laid out in a large square pattern, and then I come to #310, the number on my key card.

I go in, and there’s a coverless toilet staring me in the face, slightly to my right. The bed close by on my left takes up about half of the jail cell–like room. There’s a sink, a mini TV, a few small drawers and short shelves for one’s meager possessions. Real downsized. I look out the window at the double-jointed red metro rail car with huge mechanical breathing mechanisms on its roof. Or else it’s part of the motor. I’m not as observant about all these things as I might be because I’m nervous and want out fast. I do notice that the place is institutionally clean but worn. That makes it even more like jail. As I make my way down the anonymous tunnel towards the elevator, I hear the only sounds I’ve heard on the third floor, both in my coming and going. It appears to be the voice of a white female in one of the rooms. “This is bullshit!” she says loud and clear. You got that right, momma, you got that exactly right! ■

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