The poppy seeds in the ugly tin can have sprouted a few green shoots and leaves. I have left the pot on my window seat that currently houses my little secret garden. That large naturally occurring egress owes it’s existence wholly to the unwise and somewhat precarious oriel window that shadows _____ Street and has done since the early days of the twentieth century. That window seat is the entire reason I picked this apartment rather than the larger one owned by the same landlord next door. The landlord is a sweet round faced elderly man of Chinese heritage, who always has a smile and an appreciative word when I do him a small favor and let his workman go through my apartment so they can access the back staircase, or stop the malfunctioning fire alarm beeping incessantly. Mr Li is wonderfully absent so long as he gets his rent and the noise is kept to a minimum. He even occasionally fixes things that go wrong. To be frank his gloriously lassiez faire attitude is one of the best things about this old building that perches on the outer reaches of the Tenderloin.
When we were looking at apartments, during that long hot summer of ’21, in a seemingly endless round of rejections, restrictions and wild goose chases I really didn’t dare hope that me and the Boy would get a place to ourselves. I always figured we would have to share an apartment. I do not play well with others. After everything the absolute minimum I need is my privacy. I will be honest, apart from the Boy and a single dear old friend, I struggle to cope with any close relationships. I don’t trust anyone, I can’t take their lack of understanding of the life I have lived and continue to live, nor the choices I was forced to make that failed to be choices at all. So when we were faced with not one, but two options, within the price range of the subsidy paying, albeit in a slightly gritty part of town, despite my trepidation about making the wrong choice, I considered us lucky. Mr. Li did not think I picked the right place. He wanted to put us in the larger, newer, more lavishly decorated apartment next door that was exactly the same price as this one. It had a fancier bathroom and a nicer larger kitchen. The newer apartment had a view to the back of a small square of slightly ramshackle mid 20th century tenement buildings.
“Why not take bigger the bigger place! Same price! Newer building!”
Mr Li always speaks in gentle mini exclamation points. I am not sure if I bring this out of him or if this is just the way he expresses himself. “Quieter! No one sleeping out front! New shower! Nicer place!”
My devotion to romanticism, period moldings, inbuilt turn-of-the-20th century book shelves, oriel windows with deep window seats and original stained glass windows seemed to confuse him, almost to the point of disgust, and he insisted I view the other more modern apartment repeatedly. My mind was set, and so was the Boy’s. “I prefer the one with the bookshelves, Ma…” his voice trailed off uncertainly, “but whatever you prefer is cool….” The ornate moldings, the gutted fireplace nook, and the window seat that looked out onto a busy road won out over a newer kitchen, bigger bathroom, and a view of a mostly deserted courtyard. I knew from the window seat I could watching the comings and goings, perhaps mitigate a few losses, and foil a few overdoses. The oriel window was wasted in modern times, from a purely aesthetic point of view, but it provides a sense of space to my bedroom/living room space, and a slight and inadequate shelter for my unhoused neighbors below, at least until the city moves them on and on and on again.
I am confortable with the Victorian ambitions of the building. I sit and fret about the Dickensian suffering at street level: the piss pots and the trash, the city trees, and the city lights. It is a place to sit and wonder how long it will be before I am back out there in the middle of it looking in, rather than in here guiltily looking out of it. From the inside out is preferable. From the outside in feels inevitable. As I walked into that apartment for the first time as a tenant not a visitor, with the fresh white paint and its twisting fire escape and the metal grate to keep the outside coming in, I felt a huge sense of relief. Sitting here today, the raindrops clattering off the metal and stone, I still feel that relief that I am no longer out there getting soaked to the bone, but it is tinged with an inevitable countdown to The End. Oh to exist in that perfect moment of safety forever, growing flowers and herbs hovering above the street-level losses.
A few more shoots have pushed up from the soil in the pots: a few breadseed poppies and a fuzzy baby-green carpet of Californian state flower shoots. There are certain floral possibilities. The planters of italian basil and coriander are going to need a little more time, but the mint and thyme and parsley are coming up in a bright verdant carpet. My window garden labels sound like some traditional folk song lyrics involving cambric shirts and remembered love.
These windows are not airtight, the heat in the apartment is out, and the draughts swirl around my head. Outside the light from the windows opposite blinks on and off, and blurred figures appear and disappear at their own windows. Someone climbs onto the roof from the fire escape of a building a little down the hill and a thin trail of smoke rises from their vantage point. I wonder if they can see the hily horizon from out there? The city is stagnant and unmoving, despite the constant stream of cars that rush past stinking up the afternoon. Dog walkers haul terriers on fat leashes. A neurotic type from next door screams at her chihuahua at 8 am and 3 o’ clock sharp every day. The dog hates everybody, but especially men and sometimes bites passers by on their vulnerable ankles, sending his owner into paroxysms of anger at the people who dare to get bitten and try and shake ‘the Gregster’ off. A local Fisher King riding a scooter carrying a large partially torn plastic bag shouts truths to pearl hunters with porcine features, who cannot hear him because his packaging is not stylish and clean enough for them. Put him in a Yeezy coat and watch ’em sit transfixed. To the hothouse plants who sometimes walk down this road the Fisher king is just a Geary Street Boy with a headful of acid who had lost himself, but those of us in the know understand he had found some secret to existence during the losing. His mind is Marie Kondo’d. Gonzo’d. His psyche a no-go. His nails gone too. Down to the bone. He wept openly underneath my window. By the time I got down there to offer him a joint or a cup of tea he had gone again. We never seem to manage to cross paths on the same level of the street.