What I Learned in College : Musings Part 2
There's something about being young that seems to compress life's major ups and downs into impossibly short bursts of time and emotion. You wake up feeling like life is full of love and potential only to be crushed by the heaviness of it all by lunch. By dinner you're bursting with energy and craving adventure. You can fall in love--and out again--with just a passing glance. The lines between friendship, love and hatred are all dangerously close together. While we're all busy trying to find ourselves and figure everything out, we're completely, selfishly unconcerned with who we crush along the way.
It feels like everything is changing at once, yet everything is also painfully the same. It feels like you're the star of your own movie but just can't figure out what genre you're stuck in. Romance? Comedy? Thriller? Nature documentary? The supporting casts changes, but at least the soundtrack is good. At least you're starting to figure it out. At least you've totally got this whole college thing down. Or do you?
Usually, when you feel like you're finally beginning to figure everything out, life throws in a major twist or two. It keeps us on our toes and keeps things interesting. It makes us appreciate all the important things in our lives, and reminds us to be thankful and humble.
As sophomore year wrapped up, my living situation shifted for the first time. Roommates moved out or moved home, and I had a pretty big, pretty adult decision to make: where would I live for junior year? Outside of SF, this wouldn't even have been an issue, but here finding a place to live can feel impossible. I spent all of my free time refreshing Craigslist and driving block by block through the Sunset District looking for old fashioned For Rent signs and calling whatever number they'd scrawled in the blank space.
Finding an apartment was like finding a job--if job searching required a binder full of bank statements, credit scores, proof of enrollment, cosigner information and references. Who were these Craigslist strangers that demanded so much of our personal information? Where were we supposed to go?
No, I don't make three times the monthly rent. Yes, that's my actual last pay stub. No, my current account balance will not cover first, last and deposit. Please, we won't be loud, we don't have pets, we won't have any fun. Promise.
One of the first things you'll learn looking for a place to live in San Francisco is that renting is a sick competition that's somewhere between an Olympic sport and The Hunger Games. Winning means you get to fork over thousands of dollars a month for old plumbing, no parking and dated appliances. Open houses last for 15 minutes, are sometimes so crowded that you won't even make it inside, and people will literally shove you out of the way to talk to the landlord first. Often, if you aren't the actual first person to apply, you won't stand a chance. Sometimes you'll feel so close, like it's meant to be, only to loose out on a place at the last minute.
I spent the summer racing from open house to open house, touring every single kind of apartment, house or flat you can imagine. I'd seen bad, very bad and health hazard. As my lease in ParkMerced quickly came to a close, desperation set in. But, like the magic witch that San Francisco is, I was able to find a flat in the Inner Sunset and the roommates to fill it just in time.
Our landlady lived downstairs with her husband, two little girls and her parents. Their unit was freshly renovated. Ours hadn't been touched since 1965, but it was sunny and spacious. The walls in the kitchen we yellow and happy. There was a hidden room turned mini library in the hallway. At sunset, I could just make out the Pacific Ocean, shining on the horizon, from my bedroom. One of my roommates brought an actual dining table with her, and we'd spend late nights in the gigantic living room/dining room combo snacking, drinking and painting our nails. The couch was of the over-stuffed, 90s green variety, and had come with the apartment. Four girls, one split bath and somehow we were pretty much drama free. My roommate lived in a converted sunroom in the back, which meant she had to go through either my room or my roommate's room, but we didn't really mind. We wound up with free cable for months because the previous tenants never canceled their account. Our landlady paid the water and garbage bill and took the trash cans out. There was plenty of room in the house, and we always had friends visiting. I felt like the rental goddess had smiled down on us and blessed me.
Other than an unfortunately long ride to campus on always crowded and nearly always late 28 bus down 19th Avenue, the location was perfect. We could walk to tons of cheap restaurants on Irving, get 50 cent margaritas at Underdog's on Tuesdays and order beer towers at Chug Pub. We'd play darts in Yancy's Saloon and then get Indian food at Naan 'n Curry.
Most of my friends moved to The Sunset, too. Two blocks away, 10 blocks away, right around the corner. We felt grown up and independent. We'd meet up out at bars instead of going to house parties every week, but not that much was different from the year before.
This was the year I turned 21, and I spent the day of my birthday at the Conservatory of Flowers with my best friend. That night I had a joint party with one of my guy friends, and together our group roared through the dive bars in Lower Haight. I wore a new-to-me designer sequin-covered dress I'd found cheap and with the tags still on in a thrift store on Haight. I made friends with all the old school punks at Molotov's and shared a beer with the resident pit bull who sat on a bar stool at the counter like a human. I got a free slice of the best pesto pizza in town at Mythic Pizza after last call. We were too busy laughing and having fun to stop and take any pictures. In the morning, we found out that we'd missed a mysterious male stripper who'd showed up at the house when no one was home. Evidently, he was pissed off, half naked, and demanding money. It was December and he was frozen.
I still have no idea who ordered him or where he came from. I'm still sorry we weren't home.
Finally being 21 meant that suddenly every bar was open to me, not just the dive bars that never seemed to ask for ID. My girlfriends and I learned that you could get free drinks just by sitting at the bar, and if you were lucky enough and the stars were aligned then maybe some stranger would pick up your whole tab. I learned to order a martini and to specify not only what kind of liquor but what brand.
This was the year I realized that school was serious and adults don't have all the answers. I learned that when your journalism professor says that anything with a name spelled wrong gets a zero, she means it--even if she feels visibly bad for you when you have to take a zero on a final. I got my first internship, and learned that real working ladies do not in fact wear their highest heels to walk to work. I learned that sometimes older people have too much to drink and will cry to their coworkers about their nasty divorce. I learned that if you're going to go to an awesome concert and you're under 5'3" you should push your way up to the front so you can actually see. I also learned that you need to wear boots to concerts so that you don't get your feet trampled while you're dancing on stage with GirlTalk at the Fillmore. This was the year I rocked black toenails because I wore cute flats and got trampled.
This was also the year that college stopped being a magical land of zero responsibility. The economy was in a death spiral, and budget cuts at the state level meant that college students across California couldn't get the classes they needed and wouldn't be graduating on time. Without the minimum number of classes, I didn't qualify for my student loans. Without my student loans, I couldn't pay my rent or my tuition. We were angry and disenchanted. We marched on campus and through downtown. Classes were canceled. Students occupied buildings on campus and were arrested and beat by SFPD. We chanted and screamed until we couldn't talk, but no one listened. Nothing got better. Nothing changed.
We struggled to get classes, and to be heard by a system that seemed to be rigged against us. We'd never realized that the university was in a position to fuck us over. Why was tuition increasing every semester? Why couldn't we get classes? Why was the system so broken?
Because life isn't fair. Because like many other aspects of life in our country, the higher education system is deeply flawed. Because not everything is parties and happy people dancing in the street. Sometimes, life catches up with you and kicks you in teeth.
I'd never considered that I'd have to pay for classes I didn't need and didn't want because the classes I did need were so heavily impacted. I never thought that I'd graduate a semester late and feel lucky, since so many of my peers were so much further behind. I never thought that school would be hard because of forces outside of my control. Maybe because I grew up comfortable and privileged and was just naive enough to believe that if I worked hard and went to class, I thought that graduating in four years was a given. I imagined myself in a creative, comfy, salaried journalism job straight after school. Instead, I was worrying about getting the units I needed and begged professors to let me into their overcrowded lectures. I'll sit on the floor, it's fine. I just needed some classes.
I spent spring semester angry but grateful. I'd managed to get into enough classes to be considered full time even if it meant bitching out freshmen so I could move up the wait list. I worked three days a week at a newspaper downtown as a paid intern with a fancy title, and couldn't wait to be done with college. Work seemed so much more simple. Show up, get paid, go home. I spent most of my time at my desk brainstorming story ideas that weren't negative and didn't highlight how bad the economy was. I saw men in suits screaming in the street. I saw people, qualified adults with years of experience, worried about keeping their jobs. But, I got to interview local business owners all over the Bay Area and ask them whatever I wanted. I ironed my clothes before work, and felt fancy when I showed up on campus for an evening class still in my slacks. I proudly used notebooks swiped from the supply closet in our high-rise office. I learned how to work the coffee machine and how to take notes as fast as someone talked. I learned you couldn't rely on your tape recorder to catch everything. I learned to keep a change of clothes and an umbrella at my desk.
I was working on my life-work-school balance and it felt like my boyfriend and I were getting serious. When he wasn't completely inundated with art school assignments, he'd take me out for sushi or Thai food. We'd binge watch HBO shows when the only way to binge watch anything was by way of illegal streaming or download service, or getting lucky and finding the next season of your show in stock at Blockbuster.
He lived at the top of Crocker Amazon in a strange subdivision that didn't fit in with the rest of San Francisco. The house was a track home straight out of the suburbs. There were mirrors on too many of the walls and a gigantic fish tank. The landlord made them pay in cash and drop the cash payments off at his house down the street. The landlord would answer the door in dirty clothes surrounded by a pack of tiny, loud white dogs. What the house was lacking in location and amenities, it more than made up for with it's view of downtown. Far below, the bright lights and tall buildings sparkled through the fog, taunting us. We were trying so hard to be in The City, yet felt like we were so far away.
As yet another year of college came to a close, San Francisco fucked with me again. The good witch who'd blessed me with a good apartment and nice landlady was no where to be found, and the bad witch barreling out. One morning as I was getting gas a crazy looking lady with lipstick all over her face cursed me and screamed that I'd never find a place to live. She screeched that I'd be homeless for months and everything would go wrong. Her eyes were wild but darkly focused on me. I tried not to cry as I yanked the pump out of the car and slammed it down onto the hook. I'm not sure how she knew I was starting to look for a place, but holy shit she was right.
Once again, the school year ended and my roommates dissipated and I couldn't find a place to live no matter how hard I tried. All my friends were either going home for the summer or already had a place to live. I felt more alone than I had in ages, and worse, I felt helpless. I wound up putting everything I owned in storage. My boyfriend and I got in my blue VW Beetle, and got on the road. The benefit of being a student is having an ultra flexible schedule, and I'm still not convinced that any amount of money makes up for that. We had a loose plan to head north and eventually visit my childhood best friend in Seattle. She had an internship at a hippie magazine and was spending her summer on Bainbridge Island. His friends from Maui were scattered all over Oregon, so we'd have plenty of places to stay.
We spent nearly a month adventuring around the Pacific North West, drinking too much beer and sleeping on floors. I talked my way out of a speeding ticket for the first time and made friends everywhere we went. We saw gigantic redwood trees and desolate beaches. We wandered around Portland and marveled at how cheap everything was. We walked laps around Seattle. We ate amazing food at generous friend's houses. We saw first hand how crazy and wonderful and random the world could be.
In the middle of the dark woods, out of nowhere we met an older man from Hawaii. He'd spotted my boyfriend from far off and guessed correctly that he too was from Maui. We met a odd couple in pseudo 1800's clothing, who even in their strangeness were just out enjoying the forest. I took their photo for them. We met a racist white lady just a few minutes north of San Francisco, and an angry meth-head yelling about my short shorts in Forestville. I learned that people were just people, no matter where you went.
In Oregon I prioritized changing the oil in the car and buying new windshield wipers over shopping sales tax free after a harrowing midnight drive through the mountains in a rainstorm. We survived on happy hour and packed lunches. We went to parties and lived out of my car. We drank way too much alcohol and not enough water. We were happy.
I started my paid internship up when we got back to The City, but I still didn't have a place to live. My boyfriend was one of the first people I really knew that moved out of the safety of The Sunset and into Downtown. He left his suburban perch and moved into a big room in a sunny, noisy two-bedroom flat on Pine Street in Lower Nob Hill. His roommate was an anti-social ghost that would go on long motorcycle trips, made too many rules, and collected a disturbing amount of stuffed penguins. I wasn't really supposed to be sleeping over, let alone crashing there while homeless, but that didn't stop me. I'd spent long hours finding ways of avoiding the apartment while my boyfriend was in class. I'd sit in Huntington Park until it got dark and cold. I'd walk to the Trader Joe's on North Point just for something to do. I wander aimlessly around the mall. If I was in his apartment, I was hiding. I'd silently send Craigslist emails pleading to be chosen for a room--any room--in almost any apartment.
If finding an apartment is an Olympic sport, crafting the perfect Craigslist email is fine art. You want to be clean, but not anal. Creative and fun, but quiet and calm. 420 friendly, but won't ever bring the party home. Loves doing chores, communal living and is perfectly responsible. But not too responsible. Employed, but not working strange hours. Hardly ever home, unless you want to hang out, then home just enough. Quick at showers. Not too young, not too old. No pets, but loves pets. Really a great choice, please can I come interview? Please can I move in? I'm your Goldie Locks, I swear.
In the midst of my manic search for a new home, San Francisco changed her crazy tune and sent me a little bit of good luck. My wealthy uncle, newly widowed, would be traveling for a month. I was welcome to live in his two bedroom high-rise condo in one of San Francisco's nicest and newest buildings. Explaining to my editors that I was both homeless and living better than they were was tough. Getting picked up at a dive bar and dropped off at the base of the new, glass tower was strange and wonderful. Taxi drivers were nicer when they found out where I was going. The doorman never said anything about all the friends I brought over. The building was still less than full, and SoMa was still closer to an urban wasteland than tech hub. At night the streets were deserted and quiet. There was plenty of street parking, but my fancy new life came with a fancy dedicated parking spot in a fancy underground garage. I felt like I was close enough to true adulthood to taste it.
Months after being cursed in the gas station parking lot, I finally found a room in a flat in Lower Haight. The room was tiny, just 11"x7" but had a good sized closet and a big window. I patched the walls and my boyfriend painted it yellow one afternoon. I was the youngest person in the house by at least five years, and the only full-time student. They'd picked me out of desperation and because I seemed the most normal out of all the people they'd interviewed. They were reluctant to be living with a 21-year-old. There were four girls and a guy, and at first it seemed like a communal living poster. Family-style dinners, building parties with the neighbors and themed events. Spent warm afternoons sitting outside in the small, shared yard. The weather was such a departure from the fog and grey of The Sunset that I was constantly in awe. I could walk to all my favorite dive bars. When my friends would visit we'd all squeeze into my full sized bed and sleep in a pile like puppies.
The house was happy, until it wasn't...
*Note: I've borrowed some of these photos. They were buried deep in Facebook albums no one should ever look at again. If they're yours, thanks a million.