Friday, July 10, 2020

Birmingham, AL: COVID-19 Unfolding #888: House Hunters 1: Flag Waving

Sharing of the salt in the communal kitchen, Casa de los Amigos, Mexico City. November 2018.

Over my lifetime, I've had a few communal-living experiences. Each had its ups and downs. For the most part, the "downs" have made for amusing stories.

Like that time, as a college freshman, when I walked into the unlocked communal bathroom at the quasi-university-related house, much to the surprise of the peeing-in-progress university professor (the house 'advisor'), who, upon being so startled, swiveled to the right, whilst still holding his spraying penis, intending to recover his modesty, at which he succeeded, but at the expense of watering the wall next to the toilet.

In Tucson, I spent six weeks in a communal house, which had its ups and downs, leading to a not-amusing-at-all theatrical climax on my moving-out day.

Since my Tucson departure, thanks in large part to COVID, I found myself relying far more on motel stays than on ChezP sleeps. Each week that passed in a Motel 6, glottal moans and vibrating bones from my frugal Swiss ancestors pleaded with me to stop this spending madness.

To escape the motel-go-round, I sought a one-month rental somewhere in Birmingham. Ooh, not many options. A couple of extended stay hotel operations were at capacity.

I even considered reconciling (begrudgingly) with Airbnb, but the pickings were few and the rates were well beyond my means, probably due to COVID.

I did, however, find one possible candidate. The rent was more than I could sustain for more than a month, but with a month's breathing space, I could find just the right place for my time in Birmingham. 

I contacted the house owner - who rented out several of her bedrooms - and we made an appointment for me to visit her house.

I said on the call: "I'll be wearing a mask when I come." I assumed she'd be reassured by that, right? Before she allowed a complete stranger inside her air space - and which her current renters also shared? Yeah, well.

The owner - let's call her Melinda - gave me a heads-up about her steep driveway and how her neighbors got cranky when the house residents parked in front of their houses, so would I be sure to use that steep driveway? And that she knew when she saw my masked presence at her threshold it would remind her to put on her own mask.

You know that bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when God appears in the sky and intones something to the knights below? This one:

After that first contact with Melinda, the skies above opened a bit to reveal a pale gold light with a circle of shimmering flags. They waved ever so gently.

I drove waaaaaaaaay out to a subdivision that I guess is still kind of Birminghamish.

There may be 20 streets in Melinda's subdivision, all with the same name, but with different suffixes: Street, Lane, Drive, Way, Terrace, Court, Avenue, Circle, Point, Overlook, Peak, Summit, Valley, Jump-off, Abyss, etc.

The subdivision boasts many, many cul de sacs, which were all the shit 20 years ago.

Finally, I arrived at Melinda's cul de sac and saw the driveway.

And this is where those soft-focus flags above crisped up and I heard the first snap of cloth.

I had assumed that the driveway climbed up steeply, thus was unprepared to discover a driveway that is flat for a bit, but then you see only the empty air in front of you because the concrete plummets so precipitously that you are pushing out on faith - like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy must step out onto nothingness in that act of faith.

Unlike Indy, evidently, I'm agnostic, and I said to myself, "No, no, no, no, Mzuri. You will not do this." I backed out and found the one spot in the cul de sac that wasn't in front of a driveway or mailbox.

While I walked up to Melinda's front door, I wondered if I could live with that driveway for a month.

I rang the doorbell, masked, and Melinda opened up, unmasked. She saw me, and said, "Oh! Right, I'll go get my mask!" Throughout my visit, she messed with her mask, up and down, stretching it out, letting it return to her face, saying that it was hard for her to wear a mask for health reasons.

The room I'd have: Unremarkable. A ceiling fan, which is always nice. No lock for the door. Unfortunate. I'd tested the internet speed down in the living room before I even looked at the room, because that was a deal-breaker. I tested it again in the bedroom. Super fast internet.

I would share a Jack and Jill bath with one of the housemates. Ew. Not the sharing (though at the price Melinda was asking despite the house's location and ridiculous driveway, I should have had my own bath). It was the dirtiness of the toilet that made me say ew. I envisioned a future when I'd have to choose between two roles: Nagging Mom or Martyr Mom, who is the one who cleans the toilet so she can have a clean one.

Melinda's dog tends to poop in the house - "because he's a rescue" - and so housemates need to be careful to close doors. Because sweetie likes to visit all the rooms.

One refrigerator for, I don't know, five or six adults. I've been there before; the Tucson house had food hoarders. Back in the day at the communal house for university students, a housemate ATE MY TUNA! when I was so poor that I could only afford saltines and tuna for lunch every day.

A really nice screened-in porch, but that's "kind of for the woman who rents the room with a door that opens directly onto that porch" (even though there's a door that also opens onto that porch from the community porch), but "she's gone so often that I'm sure she wouldn't mind if you  ...."

"Let me show you something in the newest housemate's room - he hasn't even moved in yet, he's so new." I said I didn't feel comfortable entering someone else's room - "Oh, I'm sure he won't mind." Yeah, no. I am not going to enter a housemate's room without their express permission even if they haven't quite moved in yet. Because, for one: It's not my room. Because, for two: I sure as heck don't want you to come into my room because you're "sure I won't mind."

The requested rent is $675 per month plus shared utilities. I asked Melinda about the usual cost of the shared utilities - oh, she said blithely, "about $100 per person." Say what????

And the cost to move in? $40 or so for a background check and one month's deposit (because she's got some very nice things in her house; expensive things). Cash or money order. Today. (But she's got 30 days after you leave to return the security deposit. Even though she can see readily if there's any reason to keep some of it, as she lives right there.)

By this point, those flags in the sky were whipping so sharply that they would cut flesh.


Sidebar notes:
  • Prospective landlords are always surprised when I ask what kind of documentation about their backgrounds are they willing to give me? May I see your driver's license? May I do a background check on you? Because trust works both ways when one is living in the same house. Right?
  • Prospective landlords such as Melinda (and the ones in Tucson and El Paso) have a right rosy view of what their house is worth to prospective renters, not to mention their design aesthetics. 
  • However, I have learned that renters are presumed untrustworthy, as evidenced not only by some of the absurdities that prospective renters experience, but how companies charge renters more for their services than homeowners.

If you think this post comes across as a little rant-y, I'd agree with you.

Generally, if I go look at a place, it's with detachment. Will the place work for me at a price I can afford? Yes, no, maybe?

But in this case, I felt flummoxed by Melinda's normalization of a dog that poops anywhere it pleases (including space I'm paying for), of carelessness about her housemates' (and visitors') health with her mask antics, and the disrespect for her renters' personal spaces.

And she seemed so oblivious about her behaviors.

Apparently she Pushed a Button. Or maybe my experience with her was simply the last straw of an accumulation of such absurdities by the Tucson and El Paso landlords.

To tell you the truth, though, my experience wasn't so much disturbing as it was sitcom-worthy.

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