I had a decision to make. Omelette or scramble. The ingredients listed for both were the exact same. Did I want scrambled eggs or slightly less scrambled eggs?
I pick at the corner of the menu. It’s laminated. This always gives me pause. Who else had touched this? Where had they been? What remnants of themselves had been left behind for the next poor soul? I realize I need to wash my hands.
Kati is ordering. Shit. Omelette or scramble? Omelette or scramble! The guy behind the counter turns to me, waiting patiently. Man, I’m glad I don’t work in the service industry. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with people like me.
“Uh, yeah, scramble please. With bacon. And a latte.”
The guy turns away and I’m quite proud of myself. Didn’t even stutter once. It was loud in there. Maybe that was it. If I can’t hear myself speak, I rarely stutter.
Kati is already at a table. She’s on her phone, scrolling. The table next to us is close. Really close. I generally don’t like being able to fully comprehend a stranger’s conversation. Because if I can understand them, it means they can understand me. They can hear me talk. And even if Kati has long ago gotten used to my stutter, strangers have not. I generally get looks.
Resigned to this, I take a seat. Kati doesn’t even look up. Sometimes I ask her what she’s looking at, but I already know. Dogs. We still don’t have a dog, but I know it’s something gnawing on the back of her brain like, well, a corgi puppy. The corgi puppy we will one day have if we can ever find an apartment that allows dogs in this dreadful city.
My phone buzzes. For too long. It means it’s a phone call. Who calls anymore?
I glance at the number. Hmm, no idea. It could be one of those spam calls. But something tells me it’s not. Spam calls don’t occur on weekends. I make a mental note of that. Is that really true? Strange. And it’s not work. So it must be an apartment. Yeah, I emailed that one and gave my number. Damnit, why the hell did I do that?
“Hello, is this Hunter?”
“My name is Graham, I own the apartment that you are looking to view. I own the building, actually. I just wanted to give you a call and get to know you. Ask you about your life, your job, whether you have pets, who else you plan to move in with. You know, that sort of thing.”
Oh fuck. It’s an interview. It’s a phone interview, possibly the worst kind of interview. I look up at the couple next to me. I can clearly hear their conversation. Kati is no longer scrolling, watching me. She mouths, “Who is it?”
This is going to suck.
“Excuse me, sir.”
I look up to see the behind the counter guy now standing behind me. Can everyone just calm down, please?
“Do you want your bacon on the side or in your scramble?”
I turn back, ignoring the behind the counter guy. I can almost feel his shrug. But I can’t be bothered. I’ve got an impromptu phone interview with some stranger in a cramped cafe in the middle of Inner Richmond.
“So, uh. Yeah. I-I’m uh…”
I realize I’m just going to have to tell him. It’s nearly impossible to hide it for such a long period, and especially over the phone. Better to just tell people up front. Level the playing field and it makes things easier, at least in my experience.
“Just a heads up, I’ve got a s-s-stutter. It’s not you, it’s me. Okay?”
This line is well rehearsed. I have used it too many times to count.
The stranger named Graham listening on the other end doesn’t miss a beat. “That’s no problem.”
This is the universal reply. Like all humanity had a conversation one day and decided that if some stutterer ever decided to actively tell them they had a stutter, the response would be no problem at all.
But it does give the conversation a caveat, and I launch into my backstory. I don’t actually mind talking to strangers. It’s just that once they know about the stutter, I feel a great weight is lifted off me.
He interrupts me once asking whether Kati is my roommate and I tell him she’s my wife. I gloss over my work, her work, where we currently live, why we want to move.
That is the trigger in all this, why we started looking for pet-friendly apartments about six months ago. Kati wants a corgi. Technically, I do too, but I’m not scrolling through the latest Instagram posts with absolute joy every waking moment of the day.
Graham, now not so much of a stranger, locks in on this fact. “Has either you or your wife had a dog?”
I notice my scramble has been brought out on an iron skillet. I can tell it’s growing cold. Kati is eating. She looks concerned. I can feel her thoughts. Who is that and why do they want to know so much about us?
“Yes, I’ve had d-dogs growing up. I actually had a corgi too. They’re great.”
“What about your wife?”
“N-n-o. Never has.”
“I see. That might be a problem. There are two problems here.” He goes on to explain that problem number one is the fact that dogs are extensions of their owners and if he can’t meet the dog before we move in, then it’s usually a non-starter. Especially if the dog is a barker. Barkers are banned from the building.
I tell him I totally get it, but he’s already knee deep in problem number two. “You see, these apartments are very old and they have their original wood floors. And when a dog pees on these wood floors, the wood soaks up with piss and on hot days you can smell the piss. You have to rip up the floor boards to get rid of the smell of piss on hot days.”
This guy is really worried about the smell of piss.
He stops talking. I look at my food. It’s quite a nice presentation. I do like the iron skillet. Kati is already finished with her food. Back to scrolling. Graham hasn’t spoken for a couple seconds. I wonder if I should break the silence. Is he waiting for something? Is this a test?
“Well, I guess you should see the place and tell me if you like it. Then we can go from there.”
Oh I see. But what happened to clearing the dog first, I wonder. Maybe he doesn’t really care. Maybe he just likes to hear himself talk.
“Yeah, t-that’d be great. W-when’s a g-good time?”
Graham says something in Spanish. This took a turn.
“Sorry my kid is here. I have two six year olds. I’m sixty-six years old.”
“So how about-“
The line goes dead.
I stare at the phone. I still have service. Must’ve been his.
Kati is concerned. “Who the hell was that?”
I take a bite of the skillet scramble. Lukewarm. But surprisingly good.
“The owner of that flat in Cole V-valley. He’s uh…”
The phone rings. I pick up.
“A gift from Verizon.”
I laugh. It’s not very funny.
“Three o’clock tomorrow. Is that good for you? Please have a printed application and credit reports for both you and your wife. You can use a generic application.”
I tell him it’s fine, neglecting to mention that I don’t have a printer and that I certainly will not bring a printed application.
We hang up and I let out a huge sigh of relief. The table next to me is very quiet. They’ve been listening. Oh, fuck them.
It’s tomorrow, and we’ve already seen three apartments. All unique in their own separate ways. We’re not sold on any of them. Graham’s apartment is next.
Kati and I walk up Cole admiring the houses. We pass a for sale sign without even a pause. No way in hell we’re in the financial position to buy.
“It’s kinda far from everything.”
“Not really. It’s like two blocks from Cole Valley.”
Kati gives me one of her patented looks. I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about. Which does happen. But I’m pretty sure about this one. She often tell me I’m stubborn and I never agree.
“This is it.”
It really is nice. Must be at least one hundred years old, but the structure is in excellent condition. You can see these little nooks on the corners of the building, like it’s built for a writing desk and big windows to look out as you battle writer’s block.
I ring the bell. Graham, I think. His name is Graham.
The door opens and it’s basically Richard Attenborough, the guy who played John Hammond in Jurassic Park. A bit slimmer with longer hair, but that’s who I’m instantly reminded of. Huh.
“Howard! How are you?”
Off to a good start.
“Hunter. It’s Hunter.”
“Oh, dang, Hunter! I even practiced it earlier to make sure this wouldn’t happen.” He gives me this smile that tells me he’s smart, probably smarter than me. We shake hands and he’s got these giant rugged hands with a firm grip. Guys and their handshakes. Always tells you something.
We’re walking up the steps that open into a gorgeous one bedroom. It’s basically perfect. The kitchen is modern and renovated. The living room is a good size. The bedroom too. Bathroom is tasteful. High ceilings. Lots of light. And that lovely writer’s nook.
I already know I want it, but I also know it’s just out of our price range. I mean we could afford it, but it’d be an extra thousand added to our current rent. How much of a premium do we really want to pay for a pet and updated kitchen?
Graham is asking where we’re from. I let Kati field this particular question. She’s always weird about how much I say about her background and plus I’ve already talked enough to this guy.
It comes out that she’s Hungarian and he goes, “Oh, you’re a Magyar?”
We both stop and turn. I lived in Budapest for nine years so I know what Hungarians call themselves, but it’s rare to meet another American that does.
Kati must be reading my mind because she’s already asked him how he knows.
“I lived in Geneva and Italy. I was in Budapest in…hmm, probably before you two were born.” He tells us that it had to be right after the wall fell, so decidedly not before we were born but close enough.
He continues, “The Magyars are fast drivers.”
“Are they?” Kati doesn’t drive. It’s news to her. I don’t mention how one of the first things I noticed when I moved out there was how drivers sped up when you crossed the street. It was never clear why but it sure felt they were actively trying to murder pedestrians.
The conversation turns to corgis. Just a couple hours before, Graham ran into a man on the street walking a corgi. He asked if corgis bark. The man said yes, but it can be trained out of them. I roll my eyes. Of course you can train corgis not to bark. But does anyone really have that kinda time?
“How long have you been looking for an apartment?”
I take this one. “Like half a year.”
His eyes sparkle. “Ah, you have no deadline.”
“I always tell my students that once you have a deadline, everything falls into place.”
There it is. He’s a professor. We learn he teaches writing. Of course he does. His well spoken and clearly defined opinions make a lot of sense now. I glance at Kati. She’s studying Graham.
“Once you have a deadline, you’ll find an apartment.”
He’s probably right. Kati and I have seen many many apartments all across San Francisco.
“Yeah, I guess we’re just…they’re not p-p-perfect.”
He finishes my sentence. “Perfect.” I hate when people do that. Even though I know they’re just trying to help. Still, probably just as well we’re not walking around in the wild west with guns on our hips.
He goes on. “You’ll never find a perfect apartment. Until you have a deadline.”
We’re wrapping up. Yes, it was nice to meet you. Oh, we need to discuss before we make a decision. Thanks so much for taking the time. Etc etc etc.
I can already tell Kati loves the flat. We’ll both gush over the kitchen and writing nook. The space. The light. That nook.
But we’ll also agree that it’s too expensive and that we need to lower our maximum rent search requirements because $3500 for a one bedroom apartment – no matter how nice it is – pushes the threshold just a little too high.
And then it’s over. Kati and I walk down the sidewalk, admiring the houses on Belvedere Street. We don’t need to speak just yet. We both know where the conversation leads.
I take my time crafting the text. Earlier, I toyed with sending an email. But text usually gets a more immediate response.
Graham was certainly one of the more interesting landlords that we met, and I had plenty of call backs in our conversation that I could reference. I feel like that’s important. Not just because these people are meeting many others, but because it shows that I care.
After some fits and starts, I shoot it off:
Hi Graham, Hunter here. We’re going to keep looking. No deadlines, right? Your flat is beautiful and everything we wanted but we decided it’s just a bit out of our price range. Thanks again for taking the time to showing us. It was good to meet you. Rare to find people versed in the Magyars. Best of luck with your future tenants!
A minute later, he sends his reply. It takes me a moment to comprehend what I’m looking at.
“Son of a bitch.”
Kati looks up. “What?”
“He sent me a thumbs up emoji!”
She bursts out laughing.
I stare at my phone, trying to decide if this guy’s an eccentric genius or just an asshole. Probably both. I turn back to Kati. She’s scrolling. Dogs, most likely.
We really need a deadline.
February 5, 2019