Rotten Plums

Sun Fat's finest
Sun Fat’s finest

The Tenants Union’s is in a Victorian at Capp and 20th, an area that for decades was the home to streetwalkers. They have since been replaced by Google buses.

The intake room is the old front parlor with a big bay window looking onto the street. The counselor sits behind a desk in the window with the client on the other side. The next clients in line sit in a semi-circle of chairs behind the hot seat. You wait, listen, and hear everyone else’s business.

There is no privacy, which is annoying, but as I listened to the other stories I heard things we had in common as well as stupid questions I realized I should not to ask.

When it was my turn the counselor introduced himself. He was so young and fresh faced I thought he was probably a paralegal doing pro bono work. As it turned out he was an attorney and had once worked at the same firm as I had but in a different city. We hadn’t known each other. I went over my particulars and how I was preparing to negotiate on my own behalf. When I told him I was going to ask for $50,000 he gave me a sour look, like “why would you want to do that?”

He proceeded to read aloud the pertinent sections of the Rent Oridinance and explained that clearly I was protected. What they were attempting to do was illegal. I asked if he would represent me, he said at this stage I could do it myself. He would be happy to review what I wrote and advise me. I was not to the point where I needed an attorney. Yet.

If I did offer to settle there was the matter of compensation. I got the impression that he did not want to give me a figure directly. He did say that he’d “heard of some getting as much as $200,000.” I was flabbergasted. He said it was not an outlandish sum considering the amount of money the landlord would make from increased rent in a short period of time, what they would have to spend on legal fees to throw me out, the money it would take for me to find and live in a similar apartment, and the speculative value of the property which was rising as we spoke. His final words were “no phone calls.” Document everything going forward and insist on written responses.

Sugar plums dancing in my head, I stopped at the Sun Fat Seafood Company on Mission Street to celebrate. I bought a live crab to take home and kill for dinner.

I sent Vince Young my letter offering to settle. A couple days later I noticed he had cashed my February rent check which meant the eviction was off. My sigh of relief lasted only a couple weeks. On February 24th he served everyone in the building with Ellis Act eviction notices. Once more I would have to tell him something he already knew. It was my responsibility to notify him again that I was protected by my senior status.

I was told the process would take about one year if I fought it. At least I now had time to figure out what to do.

Farewell Crusty
Farewell Crusty


The Eviction Story

Life on 17th Street

My first month in San Francisco, just trying to fit in. Obviously I hadn’t made it to Vidal Sassoon yet. 


Next: Rotted Plums
Previous: Visions of Carlotta
The complete saga, From the Beginning


Visions of Carlotta

My hero, Hazel Wassername. "I know your kids' names and what they wore to school today."
My hero, Hazel Wassername. “I know your kids’ names and what they wore to school today.”

The false hope of January ended in nothing getting accomplished. Three weeks of thinking I had representation only to find out I didn’t had me bingeing on 30 Rock episodes and eating brown rice. The eviction clock was ticking and I had no idea what to do.

I finally accepted that I was going to have to negotiate with Vince Young’s attorney myself. And I thought of a last-ditch trip to the Tenants Union even though no agency or attorney seemed willing to help me.

I first visited the Tenants Union earlier in October when we had inklings that the building was to be sold. The woman who was the counselor that day assured me that I was protected by my senior status. I thanked her and told her I felt better about the situation. She said she understood. She lived in a 16 unit building herself and even though she knew she was protected she still worried about eviction. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of legal certitude. 

The day I decided to return I thought I should at least talk to the landlord’s attorney .i felt I should get a better feel for his intentions before I met with the counselor. But I didn’t want to do it. I hated the idea of confrontation and had no skills at negotiating. I procrastinated on making the call as I made my way to the Tenants Union. 

I stopped on Fern Alley off Polk Street and pulled out my phone. There were too many hustlers and meth heads hanging out. I walked on to City Hall thinking that would be the appropriate spot. The Bacon Bacon truck was parked in the plaza, I would be too distracted. I kept going until it dawned on me “The Mission.” It’s the oldest building in the City, it’s where it all began.

The first place I lived was around the corner on 17th Street, a railroad flat I shared with 6 other people. We overlooked the cemetery from the back landing. For historical purposes alone this is where I should place the call.

I’m not a spiritual or religious person so prayer wasn’t the reason I was there. But there is no harm in making a wish or going through the motions of seeking divine intervention. It’s a lifetime practice for Catholics. I entered through the gift shop and let the elderly woman at the register explain the highlights to me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d been there many times.

I walked into the adobe church and looked at the red and gold chevrons painted on the cross beams. I always liked them because they were the same colors as the 49ers. I just hoped that the Niners got the idea from the friars and not vice versa. The other colors that interested me were the fauvist amber stained glass windows in the basilica. Their moodiness seemed to imply doubt and uncertainty, issues you usually didn’t raise with the congregation.

I exited the basilica and walked into the graveyard where Hitchcock had filmed Vertigo. I wasn’t going to find a quieter place than this. I braced myself, dialed and waited. It went to voicemail. Deflated, I left a message to call me back but gave no other details.  The odyssey continued on to the Tenants Union.

Rocky horror mission visit. Who knew they'd be closed at 3 am? At least we were first in line for 6 o'clock mass.
Rocky horror mission visit. Who knew they’d be closed at 3 am? At least we were first in line for 6 o’clock mass.


The Eviction Story


Mein Kampf

Any day now, any day now.....
Any day now, any day now…..

My eviction made no sense. A person over 62 who had lived in a unit for 10 years was supposedly protected. An owner couldn’t move in if there were other unprotected units available in the building. But the new owners, Vince Young and the Young Family Trust, said they needed my unit for his elderly father. I called Jim to commiserate. Then I a bottle of bordeaux.

I got the name of the leading eviction defense attorney in the City and contacted her immediately. She emailed back with a brush off advising me to contact the Legal Assistance for the Elderly adding,  “let me know if this doesn’t work out.”

I called the LAE and started wrangling with the receptionist. I told her I had been referred. She asked if I was a client. I repeated that I was a referral. We kept going vack and forth until she snapped: “Are you a client or aren’t you?”

She eventually relented, told me to come by Thursday morning.

I checked in that morning and sat in the one waiting room chair. I soaked it all in, much like their carpet had done with every possible stain. It was one of those old Sam Spade 1940’s office buildings with marble floors, frosted glass doors, and an internal stairwell you could gaze, or jump, down. They tried to modernize the exterior with colored panels but there was no mistaking the Maltese Falcon interiors. The furniture was a hodge podge of free clinic hand me downs. I sat there listening to the surly receptionist venting frustration with every caller.

I felt like I didn’t belong. I was squandering resources that were intended for 86 year old women in the Tenderloin living on welfare amongst mountains of newspapers and 32 cats. I was willing to hire an attorney but eviction defense was not an attractive or lucrative practice for most members of the bar. Since the leading local expert recommended this agency I rationalized the LAE knew what they were doing.

The intake paralegal came into the room, introduced himself and read my eviction notice. His first reaction was that we had to act quickly. I had 30 days to notify them of my status or I would waive it. The response needed to be in their hands by the next day.

I told him they already knew I was a senior from the realtor’s form. It didn’t matter, they were conveniently ignoring the facts as a trick. The burden would be on me to prove them wrong if a response was not filed. He disappeared for 20 minutes then came back with a letter for me to sign and hand deliver by Friday’s deadline. He said he also spoke to the attorney on staff and they would take my case.

Vince Young had retained Denise Leadbetter who I read was one of the City’s leading “eviction profiteers.” I walked over to Montgomery Street and gave the letter to her receptionist. Deadline met, I felt secure that I wouldn’t be facing the process alone.

I was wrong. For the next three weeks the agency never called and would not answer my messages. My first clue should have been hearing the attorney’s voice mail recording: “I will try to call you back but I might not.” This lack of concern seemed pretty extreme to me.

As the deadline neared, I scrambled for backup solution at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. The receptionist said no one could see me but gave me a number to call. I did, twice. No response. I called a friend who was a pro bono attorney. She was sympathetic and said she would ask around but added there wasn’t a lot that could be done. She told me to just cut my losses.

Finally, the LAE attorney called and said he couldn’t take my case. I asked why he hadn’t told me earlier. He said I should have known. Then he started a rant on what I should do: go see where the father lives and talk to him, try to negotiate; find out the owner’s financial holdings; hire a private detective to follow him. Then he launched a series of “what if’s” and conspiracy scenarios that got so weird I abruptly thanked him and ended the call.

I contacted the star attorney to inform her things hadn’t worked out. I never heard back. It was January 29th,  a week until the eviction process would begin. I was frustrated that everyone I contacted had different interpretations on the law. And that they were so nonchalant in refusing to help. The only thing they agreed on was I didn’t stand a chance.

Dearest Virgin, hear my prayer
Dearest Virgin, hear my prayer


The Eviction Story



Life Without Eyebrows, 1974

One thing we hadn’t considered when we shaved our eyebrows was how long it would take for them to grow back, over a month. Plus the red make-up we used on my face left big blotches that took a week to wash off. A clerk at Woolworth’s asked me if I’d been in an accident. So I went with it, added oversize bandages to heighten the effect.

I was standing on the island at Mission and Duboce one day after the red washed off. Spaced out and distracted, I waited for the light to change. A car pulled up and this matronly woman rolled down her window to ask, “dear,  do you need help?”

Next: Mein Kampf
Previous: Christmas, Baby Please Come Home
For the complete saga, From the Beginning


Christmas, Baby Please Come Home

Eviction notices at Christmas. 'Tis better to give than receive. 1977
Eviction notices at Christmas. ‘Tis better to give than receive. 1977

My landlord Frank told me in October, 2013 he would be selling the building. His wife was ill, he needed more time to care for her and after 25 years he couldn’t deal with managing apartments any longer. It sold the first of December. All tenants received a letter from the new owner telling us who to mail the rent to.  We were assured that everything else would remain the same.

I flew home to Indiana on a Sunday and by mid-week I had an email from my upstairs neighbor Jim saying he was being evicted. Less than ten days after taking ownership the new landlord was handing out early Christmas presents. He had the right to evict one unit if he intended to occupy it plus an additional unit for another family member if he chose. My rent was cheapest in the building so I was the obvious target. But I was protected because of my age. Jim had lived there a long time too, 20 years, so he was also paying a lower than market rate. That made him next in line. It all sounded so suspect. Obviously everything was not going to remain the same.

My return flight to San Francisco was on January 3rd but after an interminable White Christmas it didn’t look like I’d be able to get to the airport. After much finagling and sloshing about, I rented a car, drove to Chicago, dropped it off at O’Hare and spent the night in an airport hotel. The only seat available over the next four days was early Sunday morning so I took it. When we touched down at SFO, 48 hours after I was ticketed to land, the American Airlines pilot proudly announced  “another on-time arrival.”

The first order of business was to get to the post office Monday. Every exchange with my local branch is an adventure in comprehension so I sometimes wait a couple days after a vacation until I’m in the right frame of mind.  Once after a long trip I was told I hadn’t received any mail for the entire month. Another time I picked up a huge stack only to find that a third of it was mine and the rest belonged to five other addresses in the neighborhood.  My most recent quibble with them was over a sweater I mailed in a flat rate envelope. If it fits it ships. My carrier brought it back a couple days later and told me there was not enough postage.  We bantered over the concept of flat rate for a while until he made a rounded motion over the envelope and said, “but it’s not flat.”

That Monday, however, I did not have the luxury of waiting. The uncertainty over what the owner might be up to had me at the Post Office when the doors opened. Everything went smoothly until the clerk plopped down my bundle on the counter. On top were several overstuffed envelopes from a local attorney I’d never heard of, three of which had the green return receipt cards affixed. I put them in my shopping bag and took them home to read. I was being evicted too and I had six copies to prove it.


The Eviction Story


Life at the Original Midnight Sun, mid-70’s

Next: Christmas, Baby Please Come Home
Previous: Rear Window
The complete saga, From the Beginning


Rear Window

Thom took me up on the roof one Sunday to teach me to watercolor. Sadly, my work did not survive. His did. 1984
Thom took me up on the roof one Sunday to teach me to watercolor. Sadly, my work did not survive. His did. 1984

My apartment was built in 1915. It is one of three in a series of redwood framed buildings on Jones Street, a block down Killer Hill from Grace Cathedral. The wood theme continues into the interior with faux redwood wainscoting. It has large bay windows on the street side and in the lobby there was once an art nouveau stained glass peacock.window. That was gone within my first year of living there. the little Chin girl broke it playing ball.

The Chins were the landlords and could have cared less about art nouveau. Their interest was in the monthly rent not architectural heritage. There were other Edwardian anachronisms in the apartment like the pull out ironing board in the kitchen and the working bathroom sink in the front room closet. I’m guessing the closet doubled as a dressing room for Joan before she dashed off to work.

Then there were the interior window wells. They were designed to provide light and circulation to the back rooms but they also gave you sight and sound into your neighbor’s units. You might be standing in the kitchen confiding to a friend sotto voce but if the window was open your secrets would be broadcast to 11 other units. On the bathroom side of the building you never wanted to leave the window open if you happened to be experiencing explosive diarrhea. It’s called common courtesy

I used to watch the back neighbors in the next building because our dining room windows were perfectly aligned. They were an older gay couple in their late 30’s. I was 25 so to me they were OLD. And they did OLD things like dye their hair in the kitchen sink or have their friends over on Saturday night for drinks and Yahtzee. As the sound of their drunken laughter and slamming of the dice played out in the background, I would be picking out my outfit, making sure it was one I’d never worn before, and doing a line of coke to get me amped for the club.

As we both recovered on Sunday afternoons, their routine never varied. At 4:00 the one guy would go out, probably to one of the beer busts in the City, while the other stayed home alone. He would draw the drapes for privacy although I don’t think he realized that I could still see silhouettes from my side. His special time would begin, this back and forth, back and forth. He would be moving constantly, crossing the room in a straight line, never stopping. This would go on for at least an hour, sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly. I just kept watching this figure go back and forth, back and forth. I had no idea what he was doing, maybe some kind of aerobics.

One afternoon we were both home in the midst of one of our semi-annual heat waves. Everyone had their windows open to cope. At 4:00 his drapes were drawn but the window remained wide open. And I could hear what was going on. It was big band orchestral music, he was ballroom dancing. It now made sense, the coquettish throw of the head, the elegant glide, his mastery of the various tempos, the Cyd Charisse twirls that dazzled every beau. He was the belle of his own personal ball and his dance card was always full.

Despite this rather odd personal fantasy, he did have a rugged, aging Mediterranean look to him that was appealing. So I would sometimes visit the vending machine. We might be suntanning on the roof in our speedos, or taking out the trash in our underwear. There would be a nod, a wink and, if the partner wasn’t around, a brief assignation at my place would follow. This would happen a few times a year and continued for about a decade until it died a natural death. After that we would always exchange pleasantries on the street, sometimes a 30 second catch-up or sometimes just a wave.

Still life with speedo, 1979.
Still life with speedo, 1979.

About two years ago I ran into Cyd at the corner coffee shop. He had deteriorated badly, was stooped over and had trouble getting around. With a hollow look in his eyes, leaning on a cane and in obvious pain he said that he was scheduled for major back surgery the next day. There was a finality in his tone like this could be it. I wrote down my phone number for him, which I’m sure he didn’t have even after all these years, and told him to call me if he needed any help during his recovery.

For months I heard nothing and assumed the worst. I asked some of the longer term neighbors if they knew anything, a couple of them didn’t even know who I was talking about. The anonymity of urban life. Then I ran into his partner on the street. It had been a harrowing surgery but he was recovering. He was in rehab and might be there for up to a year. When I did finally see him again, he’d lost considerable weight, was extremely mobile, and in excellent spirits. So we returned to our traditional exchanges of pleasantries, catch-ups and waves.

Yesterday I saw him at Trader Joes. Since he had been forthcoming with his dramatic news a couple years ago I thought I should share mine. Which is not easy for me to do. I told him that after 40 years we would no longer be neighbors. I was being evicted. He didn’t understand so I repeated it. Still nothing. From his confused look I realized that his ailments may be more than just physical. So I elaborated. The new landlord was using the Ellis Act to evict everyone in the building, some of the other tenants had already moved out and by next winter we would all be gone. Our building would be completely empty. He glossed over it with a blithe smile, “well, it’s always something isn’t it?”


The Eviction Story



As the Pot Melts

We could be heroes. Opening night of the original Midnight Sun on Castro Street, January 1974.
We could be heroes. Opening night of the original Midnight Sun on Castro Street, January 1974.

I have lived in my apartment in downtown San Francisco since 1976.  It was perfectly situated for the years I worked in the Financial District and, more importantly, it was centrally located for all the trouble one can get into in this town. I could walk almost anywhere in the City and, if I was too wobbly to make it home, a cab ride was only 5 or 6 dollars.

When I first lived in San Francisco I hopped around between various accommodations in the Castro, Haight and Mission. But I was always intrigued by the area downtown between Nob Hill and the Loin. It seemed so un-California. Old out here usually means mid-century Eichler but downtown there was the 1920’s type construction found in New York and Chicago. It felt big city. Joan Crawford would have lived in this neighborhood and caught the bus to work in a Union Square shop. Snapping her gum and wisecracking behind the counter, she’d bide her time until some oil tycoon swept her away, refined her and turned her into a murderess.

My desire to live downtown bucked the predominant trend of the day which was the rapid gentrifigaytion of the Castro. Gays were moving in by the hundreds, renting, apartment sharing, squatting, buying. It all happened so quickly. The fleeing Irish working class didn’t know what hit them other than the handsome profits for their, until then, undesirable properties. After taking over the housing, neighborhood jobs followed and then the ownership of the businesses themselves. Gay life was so concentrated in the Castro it was almost oppressive.

With so much young gay testosterone occupying every inch of the ghetto, sex was everywhere. You could be waiting for Muni in the morning commute, make eye contact and decide this was the day to call in sick. Run to the corner store for a quart of milk and return home carrying a load of cream. Or be dutifully doing your laundry at the local Mat, get cruised and picked up. One time I actually got placed inside the dryer and blown on the spot. Between cycles.

Despite the lure of the candy store, I wanted to live downtown. Acceptance was the issue of the day and to me you had to be seen to be believed.  I wanted to live amongst the general populace not cordoned off in the ghetto with my kind. It was a time when many still didn’t know what “gay” meant, The New York Times had only recently begun printing the word after years of insisting on the more clinical “homosexual.”

On my personal quest to liberate the masses I felt that living in a diverse area would force people to wonder who I was. They would have to think about and interact with me. Once they realized I wasn’t a threat, I would be accepted. And there were enough gay people in the neighborhood to keep it interesting. If I wasn’t in the candy store per se I could still benefit from the vending machine level of activity nearby.

Steadying Wena on her barstool at The Midnight Sun, c. 1974.
Steadying Wena on her barstool at The Midnight Sun, c. 1974.


The Eviction Story