It is with great pleasure that I introduce guest blogger Susan S. Barmon. Susan and I met in San Francisco’s North Beach in the 1990s. The City was still reeling from the AIDS epidemic, and at the same time undergoing rapid gentrification. We enjoyed walking and talking around North Beach, dropping into various cafes and bars. The views were gorgeous, the people quirky. And due to skyrocketing rentals, we knew our days in the hood were numbered. Susan will be periodically presenting her Slice of Life Stories here on Capitare a Fagiolo. SJ
My story started unbeknownst to me when we moved to San Francisco in 1992. Four years later we returned to our planet, east of the Mississippi, and I began sorting through the unforgettable people I met while living in the west. The Slice of Life Series began with The Heiress and Transvestite.
Susan S. Barmon
Slice of Life Stories
Fiction by Susan S. Barmon
© copyright 2013 All Rights reserved
The Heiress and the Transvestite: Part One
There’s a “Raver” in North Beach who spends most of his days in Washington Square Park disrupting traffic on Columbus Ave. He’s in good shape and appears to work out regularly. Briskly marching around the park he rants to fat people about the importance of exercise, inevitably belittling what he perceives to be their rich, comfortable lifestyle. When finished he turns abruptly, picking up his pace in preparation to deliver his message to the next “victim.” It was a warm spring evening when he marched in front of us. Not being overweight I was a little surprised to be face to face with him and got a weird feeling in my stomach wondering what the “message” would be. The Raver had another mission in mind. His destination was the three foot tall concrete column latitude marker, engraved 37 degrees, 47 min., 57 seconds N., embedded in the grass yards from where we were sitting. Jumping up on it and balancing precariously on the pointed top, he started to rant.
“North Beach and San Francisco are all about money and trust fund kids.” He got louder, complaining about the selfishness of “the idle rich in North Beach and their lack of soul.”
Little did he know how timely the message was for us. That very morning The Heiress had given us our thirty day notice to vacate our apartment. Illegally evicted. Shocked, we were trying to wrap our heads around what eviction would entail, when the Raver screamed at the top of his lungs
“It’s all about the money!”
In the weeks following the eviction notice our lives were slipping out from under us like a cheap rug. We needed a lawyer. Careening between feeling murderously angry and total despair at the thought of being homeless, anyone within earshot knew we were looking for a place to live. Betty, who owned the cleaners two doors from our flat, let us put a sign in her window. She hated The Heiress because the Transvestite, whom she lived with in her North Beach flat, never paid his cleaning bills. Actually, he always “forgot” his wallet until “the next time.” The Heiress, embarrassed and not willing to settle his bill, went to her competitor up the block.
Once again our lives were a big question mark at the whim of someone else. It was those exact circumstances that brought us to California. My husband’s twenty-three year airline pilot career ended in the company declaring bankruptcy and my job in retail advertising went out of business. When employment in the west was offered, Matt had been teaching flying and wondering how much longer he could hold life as he knew it together.
Seemed like we couldn’t afford to take the job and we couldn’t afford not to. And, he told himself, being an executive at a professional flight school could be a good thing. My mother was ill and I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of leaving her or my daughters and friends. We were still reeling from our perfectly good lives being sacrificed for someone else’s wealth. It almost sounds like today instead of 20 years ago in the early nineties. Then interest rates were double digit, cell phones were new (although huge and still very expensive) and a laptop weighed in at eight to ten pounds. It wasn’t a good time for either of us and certainly not an optimum time for sound decision making. Our house went on the market and we drove west into the unknown. It was the only port in a very heavy storm. Here we were four years and several apartments later and we still hadn’t gotten it right. Deja Vu all over again.
Nick owned the corner market across the street from Betty and along with Betty kept urging us to get in touch with The Tenant’s Union. We were approaching desperation, with no appetite for apartment hunting. What a surprise to learn we were living in a city where tenants actually had rights. All it took was $35 to make us members of the San Francisco Tenant’s Union. It was no comfort to know “we belonged” somewhere. After reading The Heiress’s letter, the volunteer lawyer on duty said the same thing as the man at the Rent Board. “This isn’t legal. You don’t have to do anything.” He gave us a handbook with a list of lawyers that did tenant/landlord cases and sent us on our way.
That’s where we found Marilyn. We called her first because she didn’t charge for telephone consults. The initial phone interviews yielded the information that even if we stalled the process, despite what the Rent Board had told us, we would still have to move. It wasn’t going to matter that the letter wasn’t legal. No matter what the laws, “money would talk” and our recourse would be to wait for The Heiress to notify us that we could reoccupy. Legally, she had to, but so far she wasn’t concerning herself with too many annoying legalities. Her ideal scenario would be for us to quietly ride off into the sunset so she could raise the rent and be done with us. “Out of sight, out of mind.” Our legal obligation, if we wanted to move back to the flat, was to notify The Heiress by certified mail as to our whereabouts. Being homeless, with all our belongings in a storage unit in San Leandro, we faithfully let The Heiress know our three different addresses that summer. We were biding our time until the project was completed in the fall, when we would get back in touch with Marilyn to apprise her of the current situation.
It was a big surprise when we got a notice from the Housing Board informing us that The Heiress needed an extension on her project and we were required to attend. The time had come to finally meet Marilyn.
Her office was located at the foot of Polk Street, just North of Market. Not a great neighborhood. All the buildings surrounding the one we were entering cast permanent dark shadows on the grim doorway. The whole building was grim, with spare aluminum framing that enclosed dark green plastic squares. A facade reminiscent of the early sixties. Waiting nervously on the sidewalk to be buzzed in, this meeting felt like a seedy rendezvous, which amused me and I gave in to an irresistible urge to look both ways to see if we’d been followed. Only the wino on the corner gave us any notice.
We bravely trusted our lives to the rickety, old fashioned caged elevator which deposited us up a couple of floors to a dingy waiting area piled high with stacks of Gay Rights pamphlets, magazines and posters. Being a reader, I was immediately drawn into browsing the literature, keeping a lookout for any material regarding illegal evictions from one’s place of residency. Marilyn told Matt, “It is my specialty.” Not judging from the pamphlets, I thought.
Hearing heavy footsteps, I peered around the corner to come face to face with a gigantic woman dressed in huge denim overalls. She looked as if she’d just left the farm. Aside from being proportionally mismatched with a big body and a tiny head, her brown, curly hair cut boyishly short emphasized the distortions. Her voice sounded as if she had just had a hit of helium when she introduced herself. Her dog, a pit bull mix, was at her side. He appeared to be as fat as his mistress, with the potential for having a nasty disposition. Marilyn introduced the dog, “Chunky”, and her hand disappeared somewhere into the depths of her pockets to produce a treat for him. A bribe to keep him at bay. Listening to Chunky devour the rock-like morsel, I watched him sharpen his teeth systematically from left to right, knowing from the way his bulging eyes were regarding us, that he would happily eat our faces at the first false move. With this in mind, I stood very close to Matt and looked up at the woman brightly when she asked, “Are you afraid of dogs?” We replied in unison “No, we’re not afraid of dogs.”
“We’re the couple who have been communicating with you regarding the illegal eviction from our apartment.”
“Our landlady,” I said.
“The Heiress.” I resisted the urge to say, “With a capital “T.”
“I’ll need her real name.”
“Her real name is Mary Jane Moore, but she uses The Heiress as if it was her real name.”
I neglected to tell Marilyn that The Heiress had used several different names on and off during her life.
Marilyn’s office complex was shared by several lawyers. There were no secretaries, and a few private offices facing the street. We were the only people there. She and Chunky ushered us into her office. It had a large collection of legal books dealing with civil rights, and a window facing Market Street. As Matt started to speak, I gazed down the block thinking to myself that this was a fitting end to our lives in California. Here I am in this strange office with this strange woman and her dog, watching the new retro tourist trolleys roll by. There had been a lot of publicity over those trolleys because they looked like trolleys that ran on Market Street in the forties. Each car was painted either red, yellow or green and they created a pleasant backdrop for the homeless who were starting to panhandle in front of the shelter on the corner. It was as ludicrous outside as it was in. This was the icing on the cake. I smiled to myself, knowing we would be miles away when The Heiress and Marilyn met.
We told Marilyn the eviction letter was a total surprise. The warning signals were there, but we hadn’t wanted to see them. The last update Mary Jane had given us was in the early spring after her mother had died. She said the addition of another floor on her building wasn’t going to happen for at least nine months, “…so you can relax. Don’t worry, when it does happen you can be assured of a place to live, at the same rent.” She said she wanted to wait until her mother’s estate was settled. Then the order of financial priorities would be the facelift, liposuction and tummy tuck, followed—after the swelling went down—with a trip to Italy. A red flag should have gone up when The Heiress used any kind of reasoning, but instead we were relieved, not wanting to think about another move. Two months after this conversation, early in the morning, the letter was shoved through our mail slot. She waited until Matt left for work. Facing us would not be an option. It’s The Heiress’s Out of sight, out of mind philosophy.
She had been waiting a couple of years for her mother to die. With the multi-million dollar inheritance The Heiress could build her “dream home,” expanding her four unit building. She wasn’t going to let getting rid of unwanted tenants get in her way. When we asked for specifics she offered no information and told us to talk to her architects. They referred us back to The Heiress for any information because we were not clients. We didn’t know if we would be able to move back, despite her previous assurances. The Heiress had effectively “edited all of her tenants out”, just as her architects did when the rooftop postcard view was marred by a nearby building and the design altered.
Marilyn pushed her tiny little glasses a little higher on her nose, twisted her pretty little ring around a sausage shaped finger pinched in at the knuckle, and reached into the depths of her pocket to produce another treat for Chunky. Those pockets were a bottomless feed bag. Her pen and legal pad were ready for the facts. Matt and I looked at each other, took a deep breath and started to tell our story with the letter coming first.
Yesterday I made the decision to go ahead with the project. After examining all my options and having the hard earned permit from the city as well as a beautifully worked out plan, I recognize that this is the only way to resolve my own housing and art exhibition needs. I now have the financing and have downsized the scope of work enough that we are able to resume as planned. The new schedule will be finalized next week. What is being discussed is that the basement work will begin as early as mid-July. We would like to start the seismic upstairs sometime in August. I strongly urge you to look aggressively for another residence as things are moving along. The longer this takes to finish, the more it costs in lost rent so there is an urgency for me to continue in a timely manner.
Therefore, this is your official 30 day notice. You may take an extra week in August rent free to help facilitate your move. To be more specific, you have 6 weeks notice which includes the extra rent free week. I’m sorry the building department is making me conform to such an amazing degree. I have no wish to displace anyone but I will not abandon a project that means so much to me. Please advise me about your understanding of what your deposits are.
Marilyn’s eyebrows were near her hairline when she said, “Does she not know what your deposits are? This letter is ridiculous. She has acted in total disregard of every tenant-landlord law regarding eviction for capital improvement in the city. I thought you said she had been a friend?”
That’s what we had mistakenly thought too.
To be continued. . .
Susan S. Barmon grew up in New York and has been telling stories through photographic portraiture most of her adult life.
She was educated at Syracuse University School of Art and The Portfolio Center in Atlanta, Ga., where Ms. Barmon studied photojournalism with Dennis Carlyle Darling. Her career has encompassed retail and editorial art direction and location photography. A move to San Francisco presented her with the opportunity to photograph “The Littlest Cowboys” Jr. Rodeo portrait series, and begin “The Millennium” series. Both have been shown nationwide, and won several major awards. In 2005 Ms. Barmon entered the digital world with her botanical scans. They have been shown extensively and are in private collections. She began her “Drive By Shooting” series in 2006. It is being shown and is ongoing.
Ms. Barmon’s Botanicals are represented by Art Licensing for licensing and publishing. In Atlanta, Ga. her work is represented by Soho Myriad Art Consulting.
Contact information regarding the purchase of Ms. Barmon’s work:
http://www.susanbarmon.com for botanicals
http://www.susanbarmonphotography.com for portraiture and personal series
Photo Credit: ” A pair of high heeled shoes with 12 cm heels,” by Wikipedia. Public Domain Photo.