by Erik Olsen
(originally published in the Seattle Weekly)
Back from a brief stint living overseas, I recently returned to Seattle in search of a place to live. An impoverished grad student, I'm weary of decrepit U-District apartment complexes with their dimly lit hallways, creaky elevators, and carpet that looks like it's been recycled from the Holiday Inn. I decided it was time to find a genuine house, where a little day-to-day interaction with fellow humans brings some simple pleasure to one's life. You know, a clean, well-lighted place, with a couple of chums.
Unfortunately, none of my chums had rooms. Nothing that I could move into quickly anyway. So I made a drastic move: I turned to the shared housing section of the paper. Drastic? Dozens of people find housing this way each month, right? Well, fine. But I just couldn't get over the notion that I would be calling perfect strangers, entering their homes and then, after a brief chat about pet peeves and personal liquidity, I might move in that same night. It all seemed so strange. I had no idea what kind of people I'd meet; but I had no other choice, so I gave it a go.
Finding housing this way, I discovered, demands a great deal of persistence.And tolerance. There is a fine art to dealing with the feigned politeness and probing smugness of some lessors, not to mention the folks who are just downright odd. One guy, who seemed so nice on the phone (Oh sure, come on by! You'll love the hardwood floors.), confronted me at the door, a sour look smeared across his face, and then before I could step foot in the house, he thrust an 8 page document at me titled "House Rules ". Number 8 on the list: Owner reserves the right at all times to inspect the personal belongings of lessee. Now, I'm no lawyer, but isn't that illegal?
Then there was the place in Ravenna: a stylish Victorian number with shiny brass railings on the stairway and a greenhouse out back. It seemed so perfectly pleasant. The ideal space for study and socializing. My signature was nearly on the check when the tenant who I was supposed to replace, a graduate chemistry student, took me aside and whispered confidentially, "Don't do it, man. The place sucks. The guy upstairs is a drummer with the Screaming Headless Nuns (or something like that) I was gone.
This was damn frustrating. I scanned the classifieds page I torn form the paper, which was scribbled liberally with blue circles and cryptic marginalia. I particularly liked this ad:
Hmmm. Immediately, my mind was aglow with lurid Jack Tripper fantasies, and I called for an appointment. "Strange," said the very stern-sounding woman on the end of the line, "I guess we forgot to indicate in the ad that we only wanted a woman for this room. So far, every caller has been male." Ouch. My confidence nose-dived with that disconcerting bit of irony that just lumped me in with a dozen other desperate schmucks out there who had the same randy thought.
Seeking redemption, I called this one:
Hey, that's me. Sort of. I mean, I like trees and stuff. The cats I can probably do without, but a hot tub? Nice.
A plucky young woman wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt answered the door who bore an uncanny resemblance to Mary Lou Retton. "Hi, I'm Susan," she said sweetly, inviting me in through a thick fog of incense. In the adjacent room, some guy with oily yellow d readlocks sat on the couch munching a bowl of Corn Flakes (at 8:30 pm?). Eyes stuck to the TV set, he sputtered a cordial, "Hey dude" without looking up. Susan gave me a quick tour of the house, which was clean and cozy enough, although there seemed to be a hell of a lot of cats around. In the kitchen, she touched me on the elbow. "Just so you know, everyone in the house is vegetarian. Are you?"
I thought I was ready for this one. "Well, I don't eat much beef, but I like chicken and fish," I said.
"Oh," she gasped, dropping my elbow like it suddenly burst forth in worms. "We can't have any animal flesh in the house. And no dairy products. We're strict vegetarians." I thanked her and left, eager to escape the vicious yoke of culinary oppression. In fact, I went to Dick's to think the whole thing over.
Again I pored over my marked up classifieds, by now tattered and spotted with greasy finger prints. Perhaps this wasn't such a great idea. Maybe it was best to find a little studio somewhere, although, given my budget I'd be lucky to nab a place as roomy as Alec Guiness' solitary confinement box in The Bridge Over the River Kwai.
Of course, maybe I was being too selective. Who knows? Maybe someday these veggiephiles would turn out to be the best of friends. Yeah, I might be missing out on all-night hot tub hash fests, Birkenstock galasmaybe on Sundays the whole crew and I could go to the park, play hacky sack, and eat lawn clippings.
Does this sound snobbish? Well, I'm sorry, but choosing one's housemates is not your routine would-you-like-paper-or-plastic kind of decision. After all, these are the people with whom you are likely to ingest your weekly dose of Seinfeld; they may be spooning your mayonnaise; and most of all, don't you think it's important to know what kind of person that hair belongs to that's clogging the drain in the bathroom?
Alas, after twelve grueling days of searching, I wish I could say I found the perfect place. My classifieds page eventually dissolved into nothingness, as did my resolve to keep searching. The friend with whom I was staying began dropping subtle hints that I was beginning to overstay my welcome ("Would you please leave?"). And so I settled temporarily into some lousy student housing back in the U-District. I wonder, however, if maybe the perfect place doesn't really exist. Maybe, as in in life, one's job and relationships, the key is to, as Winston Churchill once said, "Do what you can with what you have, where you are." I guess I'll settle for that for now. And here, at least, I can eat whatever I want.