Writer and theology student, Jonathan Callard, had several near misses while searching for a room to rent in Berkeley, California. Not a ‘psycho’ at all but a ‘good egg’, Jonathan just wanted a sunny room in which he could find the space to pray. Not much to ask? But for now, Roshi the cocker spaniel and Zoe the cat need his companionship and care (no biting!).
31 August 2003
(WRITTEN UPON ARRIVING IN BERKELEY, CA, TO HOUSESIT)
So I’ve been in Berkeley over a week now, and I can tell you this: people don’t speak their minds, they just wear shirts with slogans or plaster their cars with stickers. Here’s my favorite T-shirt: ‘Compost: Because a Rind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.’ Best stickers: ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Buy at Starbucks’ and ‘The Goddess is Alive and There is Magic in the Air.’
This week has been about looking for housing. And slowly coming to the realization that I’ve actually moved out here, that this isn’t an exploratory visit. No internet access here in the home, as my old laptop has no compatible ports, like a lover whose intimate ‘bits and pieces’ are no longer serviceable. I haven’t found Viagra for Compaqs, so I’ve gotten to know Jose at Crazy Copy, my friend Maura’s housemate Amy, and the credit card machine at Kinko’s. Each day after some limbering up and attempts at prayer (Zoë the cat does not understand personal space) I would jump in Bill and Andra’s car and go off in search of internet access. I’m going to Craig’s List, this amazing website with free services for everything, employment, companionship, and of course housing. So I’ve whipped together this lively verbose ad with the title ‘Theology Student Seeks Housing’ and hoped for the best (I know, I know, I’m not currently studying theology right now, but I have recently, and may in the future, and besides, who would turn away a theology student as a potential housemate? Right?) And I’ve been checking the postings like ‘Clean House, Cool Roommates, Find Your Dream Room Now!’
Housing option number one was $350 for a room that could fit my two-person tent and that’s about it. One of the current roommates looked at me intently and said, very seriously, ‘So, does this fit your space needs?’ I almost gagged but recovered and said well, tell me know, do you pro-rate the rooms? Yes, he responded, and showed me his, which was twice the size, but only just a little more in rent. I thanked him and walked out the door.
Housing option number two was about meeting an impressive woman Martha, a lesbian from Colombia who lives in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. She rekindled the flame with her high school sweetheart when she had to return to Colombia to be with her dying father a couple of years ago. She needed someone to comfort her and her brother referred her a local woman, who turned out to be her long-lost lover, and they reunited-after twenty years in which Martha had fled Colombia to go to a place more accepting of her sexual orientation. She never thought she would see this woman again. She dreams of spending half of her time in Colombia with her partner and her partner’s daughter, and half of it in Oakland, where she does graphic design. The Fruitvale district is 99 percent Latino, Martha explained. The blacks lived here until the Oakland’s industrial base crumbled, and then the Latinos moved in. As I drove the Saab down the street, black telephone wires hung low over simple houses, and children chased each other in the street, oblivious to my car. It was I who felt like the outsider.
‘Let me show you the room for rent,’ said Martha. She opened the door and in it I saw a dark room with a tiny window covered with a black iron grille.
‘The bed will stay, but the dresser is going,’ Martha explained. I tried to imagine getting up in the morning to pray, looking for the light through the bars. On the other side of the paper-thin walls salsa beats thumped and some of the hangers in the closet rattled. Music from the third roommate’s room, a Peruvian man who worked for a moving company and got to keep housing appliances for low prices, Martha explained. He could repair anything, she marveled. In the backyard I saw an old washing machine he was working on, parked right next to a large plant.
We talked about the recall, Schwarzenegger and the rest. Martha supported Lt. Governor Bustamante, because he would be the first Latino to be governor in a long time. Still, she said, all politicians get amnesia, regardless or race. Gov. Gray Davis had campaigned against Republican Pete Wilson on the anti-immigration bill, and he had gained the support of Latinos. But since being in office he had done little to back up his words in making California welcoming for immigrants.
‘One last question,’ Martha said, as we wrapped up our conversation. I imagined she would say something like, how are you going to support yourself, or, what exactly did you come out here for. Instead, it was,
‘Because you have studied theology, I wanted to make sure you were okay with gay people.’ That was when she told me her Colombian love story. Yes, I was okay with that, I said, and went on tell her about the Episcopal Church’s recent ratification of a gay bishop. It made me realize that even out here in California, where they say everything goes, people are still wary of narrow-minded folks. When I told Martha I was housesitting in North Berkeley, she laughed.
‘Oh, the Gourmet Ghetto. I lived there for a few years. No one talked to me there, and there were no people of color. So I moved here, with my people.’ Yes, I have learned this week that I am living in a gourmet ghetto, a place of cheese cooperatives and fish stores and bread stores and maybe even pate stores. All run by the same folks who staged the student uprisings 35 years ago.
I knew I couldn’t live in such a dark room. I said goodbye to Martha and dodged a flying football as I edged the car out of Fruitvale, headed back to the Ghetto.
My visiting friend Stephanie from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge joined me for housing option number three. Not much to say here-for $500 you get what you pay for. The room was even smaller, maybe good for storing canned goods, and of the backyard, which was a jungle of weeds, one of the current housemates said,
‘Yes, this yard has a lot of potential, I just haven’t got around to it. My son lives with me in my room and I’m separated from my wife but my mother-in-law owns this place and my brother-in-law lives upstairs and he’s been maintaining the backyard.’ I guess maintaining can mean placing rusty bikes in one corner and arranging the old toilet seat just so.
Housing option number four was being greeted with a hiss by a young girl with wild eyes who proceeded to tick off all the possible problems I should run into if I decided to move in (she was busy, she was applying to grad school and might be out by May, there really wasn’t a lot of space, etc). We moved into the kitchen and she said that’s the storage area (a section of kitchen wall covered by a towel where she kept her suitcases). She lost eye contact with me and when I talked to her housemate who was moving out we could barely fit in the room for rent.
‘There were a couple of murders here last week, but it’s so quiet, I had no idea they happened,’ the outgoing roommate chirped. On my way out a plastic shopping bag, like urban tumbleweed, flitted across my path in the breeze.
Housing option number five was in El Cerrito, two towns north of Berkeley. I’m glad I checked the place out, because I learned that El Cerrito is basically a strip mall with a Bart station (the subway system) and the rich people live in its hills. The young unmarried couple (they met over the internet, he a public defender, she fresh from the Philippines, looking to be a nurse) were nice enough. When I told them I tried to pray in the morning, they were ready to canonize me. This was the first home they had bought and I was the first prospective person they met.
‘You’re not psycho are you-we just don’t want psychos,’ the woman declared, and giggled nervously. Her boyfriend added that he dealt with psychos at work, telling people on death row that they could contact him for DNA testing if they thought they were innocent, but that when he came home, that was a different story. They reached for each other’s hand, and looked back at me across the table.
I told them I thought I was alright. A little more small talk, and I left. I drove around El Cerrito and took in the Target and the Denny’s and the subway station, where I learned that it took 45 minutes to get to San Francisco, and about 20 minutes to get to Berkeley if you played the trains right. El Cerrito is the place where you go when you need a new pair of pliers-not a new faith community.
There have been a few other near misses this week. I talked to Tristan, who sounds like Robin Leech, and he explained that my opportunity to live with David, a 59-year-old autistic man in Berkeley, was potentially a ‘growing experience.’ I was moved by Tristan’s dedication to this man, but when Tristan said he hoped the person moving in would go beyond their 15 hours of face time with David and go the extra mile, ready to ride the rollercoaster of his moods, I knew this wasn’t a good bet for me looking to get settled in a new area. I haven’t heard back from the people whose places really interested me. I sent them my blurb about being a theology student, and loving life and loving my down time, and need for a room with sunlight, and now I’m wondering, is this angle working? Tune in next week.
In the meantime, I am all set to take care of Roshi, a cocker spaniel, through mid-September, at the cute South Berkeley home of Odin (where is Thor? Is this Valhalla?) and Mara, friends of my friend Maura’s roommate Julie.
‘You seem like a good egg, Jonathan,’ Odin said as we hashed out details about Roshi’s exercise needs from September 2 to 15. Odin and his gal were off for some vacation, and like Andra and Bill, were willing to lend me their car (though in this case, it was to make sure Roshi was transported to the parks where she could run around and catch soccer balls in her jaws for a couple hours).
I thanked Odin for the compliment, and wondered how I would do at dog sitting. Zoë the cat and I have had a few false starts this week. At first, she avoided me. Then, I really thought we were in a breakthrough Friday night. There I was, lying on my bed, and she was purring, digging her claws into my chest…and then she bit me! I reproached her. Then she bit me again on the hand a few minutes later and that was it. The next morning I found that she had gone to the bathroom on the couch. It looked like the refried beans I ate on my camping trip. Now we look at each other carefully. Zoë will make sure I am up at 6:45 to feed her, scratching on my bedroom door. In a way, perhaps she is God’s way of getting me outside of my own head (cats have needs too, etc).
Speaking of God, the Gospel readings this week have been about Jesus’ impending crucifixion. And Acts was about Paul getting shipwrecked and shaking off a snake that bit him, and trying to convince the natives at Malta that he was legit. So the way I see it, I just have to get through these small housing deaths, learn to live with a cat and a dog or any other of God’s creatures, and then I’ll be resurrected…