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Breathe Better: San Francisco

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“San Francisco is known for its cool summers and fresh air
that blows in off the water. It was the only city that ranked
average or above in all 12 categories ….”

According to a survey conducted by The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), if you want to breathe, the best city to do it in is….ta da! Our dearly beloved San Francisco! Seattle comes in second, and Portland third. No mention, for better or worse, of Oakland, where I currently occupy a tiny dark studio apartment.

When I moved cross-country from New York in 1988, it was to San Francisco. I’d fallen in love with the city, as so many people do, while on vacation visiting a friend. Six months later I found a bright, airy, affordable studio apartment in the Richmond, and lived there more or less happily for three years. Then I met a guy, fell in love, and followed him to the grimy grubby East Bay. Emeryville, where we lived at land’s end on the water, was grand—but in a few years we broke up, SF rents went through the stratosphere, and I haven’t been able to crawl out of Oakland since. As the wise, too-young departed Amy Winehouse put it, “I should be my own best friend / not fuck myself in the head with stupid men.”

(Below: SF:)

Rents didn’t just rise in SF, but everywhere, so at this point I’m in East Oakland paying relatively low rent in a neighborhood devoid of trees, outdoor cafés, or decent supermarkets. What we do have are gangs, never-ending dust from the nearby freeway, and nasty neighbors who yell at me through the windows when I cheer the Yankees or sing a song. I’ve wanted to move back to San Francisco for at least a dozen years—but I also wanted to move, for various reasons, back to New York, or to Portland Oregon, or to Los Angeles to be near my grandkids; I got myself too confused to go anywhere. This report on the air in SF, though, is the straw that’s pushing this camel over the bridge at last. Because I really need to move, for my health if nothing else.

(Below, East Oakland):

In February 2002 I was diagnosed with COPD—Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. It began while I was in Los Angeles, and I blamed the smog for a sudden case of pneumonia that had me gasping for air in the ER of Cedars Sinai Hospital. Gasping for air sounds mild compared to the experience, which I’ve never before attempted to describe. An inability to breathe is the worst, scariest thing I have ever been through, and during the following year it happened maybe half a dozen times. I remember during one episode thinking, “Why don’t I just die?” I wished I would, it was so painful not to be able to breathe, and I couldn’t understand how I was still alive without oxygen in my system.

For the next two years I got pneumonia six times, was in and out of hospitals, on oxygen, unable to work.  I stopped smoking immediately of course, that first night, and wanted nothing to do with tobacco. And then, as soon as I was off the oxygen, having no breathing problems, I wanted to smoke again. I squelched the urge as long as I could until a crisis gave me an excuse. Even so, I continued to be all right. I didn’t believe I really had COPD, though my pulmonologist insisted I did, and that it would come back again. He was amazed that I stayed as healthy as I did, still sucking on sickarettes.

I promised the doctor and myself that if I started to feel lousy again I would quit, but it took me years to finally do it, and I found it impossible this time without the help of a hypnotherapist. I also visit QuitNet regularly, a terrific supportive tough-love website.  Apparently I did further damage to my lungs–although I quit more than 3 months ago, I still can’t take a deep breath. I hate not smoking, but I just can’t do it anymore. I’m hoping that when I move back to the city by the Bay, with its cool moist winds, I’ll be able to breathe again and will feel a lot better for a lot of reasons.

If anyone out there has a lead on a cheap place to live, please let me know. I’m finished fucking myself in the head with sickarettes and stupid men.



How I Avoided the Housing Scam

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Half million dollar house in Salinas, Californ...

Image via Wikipedia

I don’t want to brag, but….actually, that is a lie: I do want to brag. The whole reason I am writing this is to brag about my highly developed bullshit detector. Hey, I do enough of putting myself down, enough self-deprecating humor; it’s okay if I want to pat myself on the back once every thirty years or so.

Back in the late ’90s-early ’00s, or whenever the genesis of the housing bubble occurred, everyone in my office was running around to meetings, mortgage companies, and banks, buying up houses and condos, excited to become homeowners. These were people who worked for non-profits, people whose salaries were livable, but low. They convinced me to go to one of these meetings to learn how I, too, might purchase my very own home.

So I went. The meeting was held in a big auditorium downtown that bustled with activity. People like me sat in the seats looking confused, while people in suits holding clipboards worked the room, handing out applications and information sheets with large-type numbers, crudely drawn graphs, and dollar signs all over them.

I shuffled through the papers, feeling somewhat uncomfortable; the longer I stayed, the more discomfort I felt. There was something about the situation that struck me as false: the suited people were upbeat to the point of mania, and exerted pressure on the rest of us to buy into what they touted as  wonderful; if it was so wonderful, why the  pressure? You know what they say: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Now, I know nothing about real estate, loans, mortgages, high finance. I remember none of the factual details, and even at the time I couldn’t tell what the graphs and numbers all meant. It wasn’t the details that set off warning bells in my head; it was the vibe. Just that: the vibes weren’t right. Yes, I know it sounds like hippie gibberish, or magical thinking — but the upshot of it was that I left the meeting after less than an hour: the only one to leave early, the only one in my office who decided, This isn’t for me.

I don’t know what happened to those people who stayed, and I’ve lost touch with my ex-colleagues. I know that one of them has since moved out of the condo she’d bought, but I don’t know the circumstances. I’d hazard a guess that many of those at the meeting bought a house and lost it by now.

Once in awhile in analyzing the housing bubble, somebody mentions the home buyer, as in, don’t those who fell for this scam bear any responsibility for what happened to them? Because I escaped the scam, I think they do bear some blame. If I felt “the vibe” in less than an hour, how did they not see anything wrong during the months it took to close the deal? It won’t do to be too harsh on them, though: that’s just blaming the victim.

I’m no better off in terms of my living situation than I was back then, so I can’t go too overboard with my braggadocio. I only know that when a scam was dangled in front of me as opportunity, I knew it was a scam. I’m proud of my well-developed bullshit detector. I might not be better off than I was, but because of my instincts, I’m not worse off either.

Neighbors, Noise, and Living With One Another

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At approximately 6:14 this morning my downstairs neighbor came a-calling. She was irate because I’d woken her, as she says I do every day,  “dragging shit” all over the floor. I tried to tell her I’d covered all the chair and table legs with felt so they make not a sound, but she kept talking right over me, cursing like I do when I’m mad. “I don’t wanna listen to you,” she shouted, “I listen to you every fuckin’ night.”

“It’s morning,” I corrected her.

That’s how far apart we are. As she yelled, though, I figured out it must be my desk chair that’s making the noise – it’s on wheels that can’t be covered with fabric. I admit I would not want to be woken up by wheels rolling across a hardwood floor either. I guess I’ll have to buy a small rug. I won’t apologize to #109,  though – she was too nasty to rate an apology.

This was not the first time she’d come calling. Once when I ran across the room to pick up the ringing phone, she came up and told me to “walk a little lighter,” which kind of knocked me out. Did she think I was going to be running marathons up here? After that, whenever I swept the floor, or even so much as dropped something, she banged on the ceiling like a maniac. That’s why I put felt on everything: I’m not  inconsiderate, I just hadn’t realized my chair was so loud.

The irony  is, I write in the early morning hours partly because of all the noise around here. Most mornings I’m at my desk, and therefore in my wheeled chair, by seven. At 10:30 or so the guy upstairs gets out of bed, turns on his music, and stomps around; it feels like footsteps pounding on my head. Every minute he’s awake and  home he’s playing music, sometimes unbearably loud. I don’t hear music down here, though: what I get is the steady BOOM BOOM of the bass. If I’m writing I put on jazz to cover over it (lyrics distract me when I’m working).

I’ve spoken to #309 several times, and so has the building manager. After the first two visits, he lowered his music considerably, but it slowly began to drift into the upper decibels again. “It’s not that loud,” he said the third time I went up there. I stood still and listened. It really wasn’t that loud. He’s a young guy, his girflfriend’s there half the time, they want their music….I was almost ashamed. I decided to leave the kids alone.

A few hours after #309 gets up, the street beneath my window comes to life, as people return from work and kids from school or camp. When I moved here in March I didn’t realize I was moving into el barrio, but that’s exactly where I am. The street is the site of evening socializing, festive weekend parties, kids playing, and – worst of all – cars cruising, parking, and pulling out, all the while blasting music. People frequently leave their engines running, with or without music, for fifteen or twenty minutes while they go off somewhere. Not only is it noisy, but my apartment needs daily dusting, and if there’s that much dirt in the house, what must be going into my lungs?

One night a car was parked under my window, its radio so loud I actually couldn’t hear my own tv, the car’s owner nowhere in sight. Frustrated, not knowing what else to do, I tossed frozen string beans onto his windshield until he showed up; he was mad but couldn’t help laughing. I’m probably known as the Crazy Old Lady on the Second Floor.

I’ve lived primarily in apartment buildings since 1970, when  I took my kids and walked out of my beautiful ranch house in suburbia. I lived in New York City, where you expect noise, and never had a problem. In San Francisco, my upstairs neighbor complained about my singing. Yes, I sing once in awhile, and my voice is less than wonderful….but come on! The landlord sided with my neighbor;  she’d previously evicted the opera teacher who lived across the hall. I’m no opera lover, but I liked it when his students came for lessons – that sort of thing reminded me of New York. And yet the landlord gave me a condescending lecture, saying I had to “learn how to live in apartment buildings.” She felt perfectly justified about giving the opera singer the boot – so she sure wouldn’t hesitate to throw out someone who couldn’t carry a tune. My favorite part of this story, though, is the name of the complaining neighbor: Kathy Annoye. My son and I called her Ms. Annoy, and he used to get a thrill out of ringing her bell and running away.

Anyhow, in the here and now I’m sandwiched between one neighbor who’s noisy, and another who expects me to play dead, all of it going on against the backdrop of a soundtrack straight out of Mi Familia. I decided months ago that I can’t stay in this place, that I’ll move when the lease is up. But now with #109 cramping my style (I like to breathe) I’m thinking I’ll have to break the lease and get out sooner.

Next time I move I’m going to scrupulously assess every detail, from my neighbors to how many trees are on the street (very few here, but that’s another blog). I’m getting sick of these lateral moves – but maybe no place I live will be tolerable. Maybe life is the way Marge Piercy exquisitely said it at the end of Gone To Soldiers, when her Jewish characters leave Europe for Israel:


……of one set of problems is the beginning of another.

June 31st Update:

Yesterday I went to Office Maxx and purchased (for a whopping 40 bucks!) a hard plastic mat to put under the wheels of my chair. On the bus ride home a bizaare event occurred: a woman asked me where I got it, and told me why she needed one, and I told her my reason, ending with “My neighbor better not complain after I spent $40 on this thing.” Suddenly a voice somewhere nearby said, “And that neighbor is ME!” I looked up abruptly, and there she was, on the bus: #109. Can you believe she “caught” me talking about her? And then she just walked on to the back of the bus.

Meanwhile, this stupid mat slips around on the floor. I’ll probably kill myself on it.

Gotta Move!

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Gotta move!
Got to get out.
Gotta leave this place
Gotta find some place–
some other place
some brand new place
some place where each face
that I see won’t be starin’
back at me tellin’ me what to be
and how to be it…

This song, belted out by Barbra Streisand on her second album, has accompanied me on upwards of 25 moves in a lifetime of searching for the elusive perfect domicile (one friend calls them “lateral moves”). I long ago learned that you take yourself wherever you go, yet even this painful lesson did not entirely abolish my need to keep moving. It did slow me down: I stayed in my last apartment nearly six years, a record – and I hated that place more than anywhere I’d previously lived. In fact, it’s probably the only apartment to ever defeat me: I have a facility with prettying up places, no matter how dumpy they are to begin with. My last apartment, though, must’ve seen so much misery it was embedded in the shit-colored industrial carpeting and clung to stained kitchen counters that, no matter how much bleach I used, were never entirely clean. Gotta Move has been running around my head for years.

The new place is bright and airy, with hardwood floors and spotless, shiny kitchen tiles, and the rent is actually less than the abovementioned hellhole. Of course, I’m slowly discovering this one’s drawbacks, primarily the busy street life below my second-story window. We’ve got kids who play outside until dark, roller skaters, basketball hoopsters. We’ve got men working on their cars, and a couple of motorcycles that come and go with booming regularity.  And we’ve got a dog who is not long for this world if I have any say in the matter. I just keep telling myself I’ve moved to a more urban environment, that I’ll get used to it.


Even if I hadn’t hated my last apartment, I would have moved. I get restless and bored, and moving is a chance for the adventures I’m not rich enough to finance through travel. Plus, given that both my profession and my personality keep me home most of the time, I burn out on my living quarters pretty fast.

Even when I was raising my kids I moved around a lot, for which I carry a hefty load of motherguilt. Once, sitting with Stacy on the back of a U-Haul on West 72nd Street in New York, waiting for my boyfriend Kenny and the moving man to bring down more furniture, Stacy suddenly announced, with four-year-old conviction, “I can’t wait till I grow up so I don’t have to live with nobody!” Still breaks my heart.

Then again, I honestly believed it was good for kids to have new experiences, to discover new ways of living and different kinds of places to live. Now that the chips are in, I can’t say I was right or wrong; all I know is, I’m a nomad, a runner, a girl who needs change on a regular basis or I stagnate. Maybe I just made up that child-rearing theory to accommodate my own desires.

In the midst of the move I turned 64, that magical iconic age when I’m supposed to “knit a sweater by the fireside/Sunday mornings go for a ride.” Instead, I was schlepping possessions from one place to another, wishing I had none, handing stuff off to anyone who’d take it (I gave away over 100 books this move, and a gigantic bookcase. So guess what? I still have too many books and now I need another bookcase to accommodate them.)

The older I get the harder it is to move, and a week later I’m still totally exhausted. I wonder about the women my age who have such busy productive lives, for instance, Hilary. Where does she get the energy to jet around the world meeting with heads of state and deciding the fate of the little people of the world? How does she keep up with everything she has to do for her job? I get tired when I go out to dinner. How does Ruth Bader Ginsburg dole out justice all day every day? I cannot imagine how these ladies do it. They put me to shame.

Not that I know what Hilary’s up to these days; I was disconnected from the Internet for a week, and too involved in stuff like where to put my unwanted, unneeded stereo. The one current event I couldn’t avoid, of course, was passage of the health care bill, about which there is just too much to say. Dennis Kucinich was a surprise – he’s a far better sport than I, and was probably right to cave in and vote for a bill that might benefit insurance companies more than people. He did it for the broader cause. What a guy.

But enough about the world. My adventures consume me.

Comcast pulled a fast one; I’m furious. Fed up with their outrageous fees and rip-off policies, I downgraded to Basic awhile ago. When, a few months later, I bought a flat-screen television, I discovered it was so powerful, it pulled in stations from distant planets. I had just enough time, before the move, to get addicted to Bravo’s Millionaire Matchmaker. When Cable Guy came to hook me up at the new place, he swore he wouldn’t report my freebie service — but two days later all I got, after the basic drek, was a darkened screen and the words “Scrambled Video.”

Why is this okay? Why is it okay for Comcast to scramble signals that my high-powered TV set picks up? I’m serious. Does Comcast own the airways? I always thought they were in the public domain. This is seriously fucked, and I’m wondering if there’s anything to be done about it. If anyone has a clue, please, please let me know.

No Comment Department:

Finally: While I was preoccupied, two new laws were enacted in the great state of California. You’ll be glad to know that from here on in you’re allowed to tote a gun anywhere you like within the public parks system – but don’t you dare light up a deadly cigarette.

Smoking Guns Only