After 12 years and six months in a studio apartment on Valencia Street, in San Francisco's Mission district, I decided I'd had enough with the noise, the filthy auto exhaust, the sirens, the tiresome beeps of trucks backing up, car alarms, shouting, rumbling motorcycles, and an upstairs neighbor who regularly hosted, what he called, "Drunk Olympics."
I searched Craigslist for a few days and looked at two places in Alameda, an island in the San Francisco Bay separated from Oakland by an estuary. It is also the location of my current, and previous, job. I chose the second place I saw. It has a bedroom. I hadn't had a bedroom in over a decade. It's also spacious and has full-sized appliances, unlike the sad tiny one-person stove and refrigerator I had before. It has a bay window that spans the width of my living room with an expansive, ugly evergreen tree just outside (trust me, this is one unattractive tree,) shading me from too much sunlight and peering eyes. There is a pantry; an entire tiny room with many shelves to store food and extra kitchen accoutrements. Previously, I had one cupboard for food.
In the living room, there is a fake fireplace stuck to the front of a real fireplace. It does give off heat, but it's electric, not gas. The "flames" can be blue or orange, or any combination of the two. There are nice built-in bookshelves as well as a built-in buffet with lead-glass cabinet doors, cupboards and drawers. There is crown moulding around the perimeter of the living room and part of the bedroom. The moulding is about 6" deep with two grooves to keep things from slipping. On it, I display a fraction of my art collection. I have a lot of art from my years as an art journalist and my own artistic endeavors. The accents are white, while the wall panels are a soothing slate blue. There are sliding doors between the big kitchen and the big living room, but I never close them. I'm used to a singular open space.
My studio in San Francisco was my first apartment all to myself. The first place I ever lived without roommates. It is also the longest I've lived anywhere in my whole life, even my childhood. I haven't lived anywhere even half as long as I lived in that studio. During my tenancy, I regularly dreamt that I'd moved somewhere else, or back to the place I lived before, a shared house overlooking the ocean from a hill in the Inner Sunset. In these dreams, I was panicked that I'd given up my precious studio. Terrified that I'd irretrievably lost a crucial element of my identity. Hipster. Artist. Gallery goer. Photographer. City dweller. Participator. Pedestrian. In the thick of it. Eyes on the street. Wheels in the critical mass.
Three years earlier I'd tried to move to the East Bay, to Oakland. I found a spacious apartment in upper Fruitvale. It had a lovely private back yard and a galley kitchen (the best shape for a kitchen!) It also had a real wood stove and charming, if not terribly fancy, midcentury modern styling. I saw it while the previous tenant still had most of her belongings in it. I signed a lease, paid a significant deposit, gave notice at my studio and started packing. A few days later when I got the keys and the apartment was empty, I stopped by to assess and plan where my things would go. That's when I noticed: all of the appliances were rusty, cracked, worn out. Drawers and cupboards didn't open smoothly. Windows did not seal properly or open/close easily. The wood stove was unusable. I considered the neighborhood: houses, endless houses, kind of up on a hill but no view to speak of, nowhere to walk to. Quieter maybe, but it wasn't enough. I begged out of the lease, begged my landlord to disregard my notice. I cried. I wailed. I lost a ton on the deposit, but it was okay. It was the wrong time and the wrong place.
Still, I had to get out of that studio. I'd been wanting to move for years, but I was so afraid. I had rent control. And, (I thought) I was cool! My rent was $925 at a time when other studios in the building were going for 3x that. But it was so, so, so disgusting. The basement garage, while grateful to even have a garage and it being connected to my building, it had to be accessed via an alley regularly filled with garbage, human excrement, people doing drugs, people doing sex, really aggressive pigeons! and the occasional mattress.
The landlords—bless their hearts for not raising my rent even one cent over those 12 years—refused to replace or upgrade anything. My bathroom sink looked like one you'd find as an urban explorer in an abandoned asylum. The windows that opened were in various states of disrepair and none had screens. The front windows didn't seal properly, and even after I added sealing tape, I could hear conversations on the sidewalk below. The fridge was never replaced, despite the fact that it froze anything at an indeterminate distance from the back - as evidenced by the shards of green glass from an exploded Pellegrino bottle I woke to find one morning. The enamel on both the stove and the bathtub was so rusted and flaking, it was impossible to clean them properly. The seal on the sink top, where there wasn't a spray hose, it completely eroded and fell into the cabinet below.
Oh, and the walls. No thanks to a boyfriend who lived with me for a few years and disregarded everything I told him not to do, my poor walls were covered with screws, nails and staples. Even where the walls hadn't been abused, the paint blistered and peeled, outgassing decades of paint fumes. The drywall, too, erupted and cleaved off slowly over the years. No doubt the humidity from the infernal radiator contributed to that bit of rot. We were to keep our radiators on FULL BLAST or not at all, otherwise they would leak and destroy everything. My upstairs neighbor ignored this one year while he was away for some days... and slowly, over the course of a week, I watched a corner of my living room ceiling change color and buckle until it was urgently repaired to prevent his radiator from crashing through. When I needed heat, I had to turn on the radiator, but it made the apartment so impossibly hot that I had to also open the windows, remember, the ones without screens. I enjoyed many insects in that apartment. And just before I moved, a mouse came visit and left evidence for a few weeks.
The final straw was the barber shop next door. I was so excited about that barber shop before it opened. My boyfriend at the time had a particularly unruly beard, and I hoped he would let me treat him to a proper trim by a professional. Well, that never happened, and when the shop opened, I was treated to a daily chorus of the salon workers' very loud motorcycles idling and revving outside my windows, the screenless ones I had to keep open... so there was a really invigorating smell too. Sometimes, they would come outside, start up the bikes, idle and rev them for AWHILE, then turn them off and go back inside. They weren't going anywhere, they were just ... I don't even know, existing loudly? I asked friends who ride motorcycles, what is that for? Is there a mechanical need? Oh, no. Just the need to be noticed.
I was done. So very done.
When a person doesn't move, they tend to accumulate things. I love furniture. In another life, I am a furniture designer or collector or refurbisher. What I didn't realize, until I moved out of the studio, was that I was slowly closing myself in more and more. I had so much stuff in such a tiny space that I could only add things vertically. When a friend visited my new place, he remarked, "It's nice! It's all your same stuff... but with space between things instead of right next to each other!"
Alameda is a former naval air base. I see people in uniform around town, though the base is no longer in operation. I'm familiar with the area because I worked at a software company there for almost five years before I was laid off but then got another job on the island. It is very flat and not very big, just 23 square miles - 10 of which is land, 13 of which is water. I live near Park Street on the southeast end of the long, narrow island. Park is the original main street, but now one of two. The other is Webster, on the northwest end.
There are two architectural aspects to the island that appeal to me. Since it was once a military installation, there are many government buildings and structures. Mothballed government buildings are some of my favorite things. I am certain that a mystery awaits discovery in each. They look so sad and hollow, featureless and bland, yet something happened there and now they're abandoned. Conspiracies and imaginations run wild.
The other aspect is the dollhouses. The life-size dollhouses. Alameda is home to an impossible concentration of very well cared for Victorian- and Queen Anne-style houses. Many date from the late 1800s and early 1900s. They are so delightfully peculiar, so strange architecturally. They look like fancy cakes, extravagantly wrapped presents, or ornate desserts all with treasures inside. On the outside, tiny and odd-shaped windows and dormers, turrets, gables, belvederes, balustrades and recessed balconies obscure secret passages and hidden rooms.
The commonality for me is 'architecture as a source of inspiration.' Schrodinger's house. In my mind, it can be all, nothing, or anything inside because I can only see the facade.
So, I moved to Alameda. I found a nice, barely affordable, 50% bigger apartment on a quiet street with trees and a yard, private laundry, and a bike shed so I don't have to haul her up and down the stairs getting chain grease and road shmutz all over my nice coats. It was the least scary place I could move to. Not too far away. Nearer my job. And, I have already experienced the island as part of my delicate identity, so I know I'm good here. It's a little weird, in a good way, with its spooky old buildings and vast psychological distance from the greater Bay Area. There is a mellow kind of retro-rocker scene noticeable at some of the bars. We've got a Target and a Trader Joe's, and I think maybe two Starbucks, but mostly, it's a lot of local, singular businesses. It's a small town. Oh! There's a giant antiques market on first weekends during the better weather months.
When I commuted to Alameda from San Francisco, it didn't seem far away. On a good day I could make it from the Mission to work in 20 minutes. It's only 15 miles. No big deal right? When you live here, leaving the island can be an real mental hurdle. I don't leave without an express purpose. There is no BART train station, the closest are in Oakland at Lake Merritt and Fruitvale. They are walkable but far and not the nicest walk one can take.
Before I lived here, some days I'd leave work and it would be so beautiful in Alameda—warm, bright and mellow—and my heart would sink at the thought of returning to the city where the inhospitable fog and wind would confine me to my miserable nest. There, I'd look out on the street, at people not so fragile as I, those willing to brave the questionable smells, hostile weather and constant raucous, and I'd imagine their lives were so much more fun than mine. Because I could see them, hear them, sometimes even smell them, I felt like a part of it all, as if I was almost social. But, I wasn't. I rarely went out those last few years. I lived for weekends and holidays when I could go ... literally anywhere but there. And, I still want to go places, but it no longer feels like an urgent need.
I'm settled into my new place. Today I took my first bike ride to photograph houses. It seems like there's a gem on every block. It's so pleasant. The light, the lack of noise, the space, the grassy, gentle breeze, the unhurriedness of it. Time, if you regard it as I do, as a rate of change, it moves slower here. The photos will be a fun project, but the real project is figuring out my next big thing. I'm just starting to get inklings of what that will be. My job is my job, and I like it, but my therapist confronted me with, "Well, what would be the ultimate life for you?" (in response to me whining that I'm not anywhere near having the life I want.) I answered, quicker than I expected, "I'd be running a tent and trailer motel in the forest near Nevada City."
Alameda is likely a station on my way. It was the move I could make that didn't result in panic that I'd made a horrible mistake. And now I'm not stuck in that studio, the impossibly cheap and hip, but dilapidated, depressing and irritating little cage I constantly sought to escape. My loves are travel and homes. Houses, hovels, campers, caravans, hotels, motels, forts, tents, teepees and trailers. It has been these since I was a little girl, dreaming of having my own space. A place to hide. A place to be alone and free and myself. I loved to build forts. As I child, I dreamed of running away and living in a cardboard box or going portable by getting a shopping cart. Basically, I dreamed of being a hobo. I dreamed of stealing away on my grandmother's funky three-wheel cycle, the big basket in the back packed with my possessions, rolling on and on.
The South Fork Yuba River State Park, near Nevada City, CA
I don't know what it would take... will take... to get to this ultimate life in the woods, with visitors, new people, near my dearly beloved Nevada City, with a creation of my own, something I can work on, care about and make groovy like my apartments and my office. At work, people comment on how soothing and pleasant my office is. (It's all in the lighting.) I imagine hosting a lecture series and classes and bands and film festivals at this future motor hotel. I'm not sure where to start, but this sounds like the most awesome thing to do. As I like to say: What else am I doing with my life that's so great? Hm!?
I've been happiest in my life in two circumstances: camping with my family in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on our parcel of handshake-agreement woodland and creek every summer until I grew up and moved away. And the summer and autumn I spent at Hat Creek Radio Observatory with my friend Colby, his family and the many scientists who visited. It was magic. I loved living so remotely, in nature, with a small core group on site, but also new people regularly coming through to work at the telescope array. I was learning amazing things about physics, cosmology, and the universe. I was free. I was myself. And, I'm grateful to have ever known such happiness, but I still yearn to find it again.