In My Apartment Building, Who Needs Soaps?

From Zac Unger
Tuesday January 13, 2004

Apparently, the apartment downstairs and one over from mine was broken into last week. One of our neighborhood methamphetamine enthusiasts forced his way through the bathroom window and started rifling through some drawers while the tenant and her boyfriend were, ahem, busy in the back bedroom. 

My wife and I were out of the apartment at the time, but my mother-in-law, in town on a visit from Canada, was home when the squad cars arrived. I have a feeling that she loved every minute of the drama, especially when it was her turn to be interviewed by the boys in blue. Things like this just reaffirm her faith in the frozen tundra of her home, a land where everyone is kind and there is no crime. For her, coming to Berkeley is like visiting the slums of Sao Paolo. Warm weather and the wretched of the earth: Who could imagine a better vacation? 

Naturally, when I heard about the break-in, my first concern was about my plunger. I’d loaned it to the nice people in Apartment D a few weeks ago, and since they hadn’t returned it yet, I worried that it might have been a casualty of theft. Fortunately, meth addicts often don’t think straight and my bejeweled heirloom toilet tool emerged unscathed. 

I’ve been living in this same apartment for almost five years now and my wife has been here for 10. Due to the near-mythic wonderfulness of Berkeley rent-control laws we’ve been holding out in this student pad for as long as we can, figuring that if we can just endure it for a few more decades, then maybe the baby can live here if she gets into Cal. Sure the roof leaks and the windows don’t exactly fit their casements and the places where we’ve spilled red wine on the carpet are indistinguishable from the places where we haven’t, but have you seen the payments I’m making? My poor bastard landlord can only raise the rent five bucks a year, and some years not at all. I don’t feel too sorry for him though; he told me that he bought up Berkeley buildings for a song back in the ‘60s when prices were low on the fear that the city would abolish private property and collectivize all real estate. 

Because we’ve been here so long, we’ve become like den mothers to the other residents, many of whom are scared sophomore kids living on their own for the first time. I loan out my vacuum cleaner and my blender, give recommendations for dentists and auto repair shops. I leave clucking notes when people lock their bikes in the middle of the communal stairways and discard armloads of castoff free AOL disks from the mail slot. Last week the computer science major from across the courtyard sidled up to me in the Safeway with a bottle of tomato juice in one hand, cranberry in the other, and asked me which one went better with vodka. Ah, the wisdom of the ages. 

One of the quirks of apartment living is that the neighbors in their fancy detached houses don’t take me seriously as a resident. They look up at my Hollywood Squares style building and figure I’m not enough of a lifer to be embraced by the neighborhood clique. What they don’t know is that my second story picture window gives me the ultimate vantage point on their world, and whether they want it or not, I am most definitely included. I see the pall of smoke lingering in the air long after the local Green Party bigwig has driven off in his lemon. I’ve watched the sullen teen across the street buy a weightlifting set and then a motorcycle, much to the consternation of his little parents. 

I don’t know a single name, but I’ve done so much watching over the years that I’ve constructed entire life stories for all of these people. I am completely invested, for example, in the unlikely interracial teen romance going on next door. I didn’t see the suitor for a few months and I started to despair…but wait! He’s back again now, playing football in the street with the girl’s brother and all seems right in the world. I still worry about Unnecessary Bike Helmet Man and British Cigarette Woman. They both seem lonely and sad and I wish they’d have an affair, if only to spice up my life a little. Winter is kind of a quiet time around here—Suntan Dude packs up his chaise lounge and his aluminum reflectors and Very Aggressive Yard-Sale Guy spends the cold months collecting crap which he will foist on passersby come spring. 

The angle of the sun and the filthiness of my windows mean that I can see out but nobody can see in. I don’t watch these folks out of voyeurism or snoopiness, but because they’re right there in front of me and I can’t help it. They may not know it, but these people are my community, even if they do look at me like I’m crazy when I wave at them like old friends as we pass on the street.