I lived in a studio apartment on University Avenue in Berkeley for 13 years. 1982 to 1995.
It was a pretty big place; kitchen, bathroom. big livingroom, and a big walk-in closet where I threw a mattress and used as my bedroom. It was a pretty funky place, typical bachelor pad, more like a teen boy’s clubhouse than anything. I had a big beanbag chair in the livingroom, and psychedelic posters on the wall, and this beautiful female mannequin that I used to dress up in different outfits and hairstyles. For a couple of years I had women living with me, and they immediately transformed it into a “home,” if you know what I mean. Doileys on the end-tables, and fresh flowers and stuff like that. But left to myself it was just a place to work (my art studio), to eat and sleep, and hang out with my guy friends.
When I first moved in in 1982 the rent was $125 a month. Which was pretty much the going rate back then, it wasn’t considered any kind of deal. But the landlord was this old guy who didn’t like any kind of changes (thankfully for me) and didn’t raise my rent for 10 years. So it became more and more of a deal as the years went by. Nowadays you could probably rent the place out for over $1,000 a month. Which is shocking when you think of it: that rents would go up TEN TIMES in just 30 years. But such is the tragedy of our times, and we have millions of homeless and dispossessed to show for it.
The owner, Mr. Williamson, was this gruff old guy in his 70s. He had lived on University Avenue all his life. In fact, when he was a boy there used to be cable-cars going up and down University and he lost one of his legs in an accident with one of them. Had a prosthesis, one of those fake legs. And it gave the impression that Mr. Williamson had given his body and soul to University Ave. He was kind of an intimidating guy; he’d sort of bark and shout at you. But then I realized he was just hard of hearing, practically deaf, which was why he shouted at people. And I’d shout right back when I talked to him. Which I enjoyed. He always had sort of a secret smile when I came down to visit him in his office, I think because I was one of the few people he could actually talk with and understand. Still, I’ve always had this weird paranoia about dealing with my landlords. Even though I’ve always been on good terms with all of them, and they’d all probably rent to me again in a second, I always have this deep-seated fear whenever I would go down to pay the rent on the first, that they were suddenly going to shout at me: “AH HA! WE’RE FINALLY ON TO YOU. WE FINALLY REALIZED YOU WERE NO DAMN GOOD ALL ALONG!! NOW PACK YOUR BAGS AND GET OUT OF MY BUILDING!! NOW, BOY!!!” (I should probably see a psychiatrist about these issues)
People used to always whisper: “Mr. Williamson, he’s a millionaire!” And that really meant something back then. But you’d never guess that from his demeanor. His clothes looked like he’d bought them at a Good Will 30 years ago. And his cramped little office was covered with dust, and piles of papers that looked like they’d been sitting there for 30 years. And he banged out your receipt on this decrepit old manual typewriter. His son was always trying to get him to switch to one of them new-fangled electric typewriters. But like I said, he was set in his ways.
He even refused to put locks on the frontdoor of the building the first 10 years I lived there. Believe it or not, the building was wide open 24 hours a day. And that was not uncommon back then amongst residential hotels. There was no reason to back then. Because the world Out There wasn’t threatening. There was a commonly-accepted social order back then. I remind myself of that — that unlocked front door — when I think I’m maybe just wallowing in rose-colored nostalgia about the Good Old Days. Things really were different back then.
When I first moved into the place back in 1982, it was mostly elderly, retired people who lived there. Which was fine by me. I like a nice, quiet place to live. There used to be a bench down in the lobby where some of the old people would hang out. I’d catch snatches of their conversation as I passed, and the one thing they mostly seemed to always talk about, their favorite conversational gambit, was their various physical ailments. “Gosh, my rhumetism is acting up lately!” “With me its my arthritis. It hurts like crazy whenever I do this!” “Oh, you don’t even want to get me started about my persistent painful rectal itch!” On and on. I thought: “Boy. I got something to look forward to in my old age.”
The other funny thing about old people is how their faces sometimes get frozen in certain modes. Like this one old lady, she always had this look like she was sucking on lemons. A look of total disapproval. About everything. Everytime she looked at me, it felt like she was going to shout at me: “I do not approve of you!!”
There was this other little old man who used to hang out in the lobby. Mild-mannered little duffer with a little pot-belly, sort of built like a pear. Reminded me of Mr. Peabody. This one day he was sitting there on the bench wearing this black, sleeve-less, David Bowie t-shirt. Of all things. I doubt he even knew who David Bowie was. You got the feeling he was completely out of clean clothes and that was the last clean shirt in his drawer. But it was one of the funniest visual images I have ever seen. Sort of like a living cartoon character.
The weird thing was, over the 13 years I was there, all the old people would disappear one by one. Until finally, by the time I moved out, there was mostly young people living there. The little old woman who lived next door to me — it was whispered she was an “alcoholic” — I think I only saw her twice in all those years, passing her in the hallway. But that’s the weird thing about those residential hotels. You can live side-by-side in close proximity with people for decades and not even know they were there. I didn’t know any of the people that lived in my hall.
Though its a weird story about the apartment right across from mine. Right before I had moved in, the guy that lived there committed suicide. His body laid on the floor for two weeks before they noticed the smell and discovered him there. His body left a permanent stain on the floor. But here’s the weird part. The next guy who moved in there was pretty weird. I passed him a couple times and he always had an intense, haunted look in his eyes. One time I was coming in the front door right after him, and he purposely (seemingly) slammed the door in my face. I was told he was a Viet Nam vet or something. It was obvious he was an intense, pent-up, strange dude. Anyways, the dude ended up having a heart attack and died on the floor almost on the exact same spot where the other guy had died. One day the manager said to me: “Do you smell something strange in that apartment?” I said, “Yeah.” So they broke into his apartment and there was his body lying there. What are the odds of that happening twice in a row? I always believed in the concept of haunted houses after that.
The building manager and his wife were a charming old couple that lived next door to me, so I had many dealings with them over the years. Stan and Rose Mary. Stan was pushing 70, Rose Mary was pushing 60. Which seemed ancient to me back then. Not so much nowadays when I’m pushing 60 myself. Stan had white hair and a white mustache and a twinkle in his eye and he was light on his feet for an old guy. You could tell he had been a handsome, athletic man as a young guy. One time he actually sat down with me and showed me his scrapbook from his glory days, full of these yellowing old newspaper clippings. Stan had actually been, among other things, a circus acrobat when he was younger. And he proudly showed me old photos of him, shirtless, doing his circus stunts. I could tell it was a thrill for him to share with me these relics from his past. And over the years, Stan and Rose Mary both sort of adopted me, and started treating me more like a son than a tenant.
Rose Mary was a sweet and daffy old lady. She reminded me of Gracie Allen, the comedienne on the old “Burns and Allen” show. As much as I liked her I used to sometimes dread getting cornered by her when I was going in or out of my apartment. Because she could talk your ear off. One of those people who could talk for 20 minutes as one big, run-on sentence. A non-stop talker. Making it awkward to escape. I mean, it seems rude when you suddenly turn and leave right in the middle of a sentence. But it was always the middle of a sentence with Rose Mary. Ha ha. She was such a doll, really, And if I had had more sense, I would’ve spent more time talking with her. But I was always in a hurry back then. At one point she came down with cancer, went through chemo-therapy, lost all her hair, and her face looked haggard and awful. I figured she was a goner for sure, getting cancer at her age. The big C was still seen as sort of a death-sentence back then. But she recovered and went on to live another 10 years.
Stan and Rose Mary were the perfect building managers, because they got along with everybody and left everybody alone to do their thing. They even got along with Gladys, the building busy-body. I’d regularly hear Glady’s knocking on their door, at all hours, to complain about so-and-so who was doing something-or-other. Until finally, in exasperation, Stan said quite firmly: “Gladys, would you go fuck yourself!” Glady’s squawked: “MY WORD!” and went stomping down the hallway in search of someone else to complain to.
As much as I liked Stan and Rose Mary, I was always slightly paranoid around them, too. Because they were the managers and they could kick me out if I fucked up. I constantly worried that they might catch me smoking pot in my apartment, smell the pot and rat me out to Mr. Williamson. So I’d open up all the windows and blow the pot smoke out the window. I figured if gruff old Mr. Williamson ever got wind of this, he’d call the FBI and have me arrested as a drug addict. I was even paranoid someone might spot my copy of High Times magazine that came in the mail every month. Things were different back then. Like I said.
I remember one time I was a couple months behind on my rent. I ran into Stan in the hallway and told him I might have to move out of the building because I was broke. Stan said: “For god’s sake, Peter (he was one of the few people in Berkeley who still called me by my real name, who knew me back in the day before I got engulfed by the “Ace Backwords” thing). What you need to do is start growing pot!”
“Say what?” I said.
“You heard me,” said Stan. “You should start growing pot! There’s big money in pot! I’ve been growing it myself for years. I’ve even got eight other people in town who are working for me. I set them up with all the grow-room equipment in their closets, and supply the primo seeds and plants. And then we all pool our earnings.”
“You’re kidding!” I said.
“Heck no,” he said. “Here, let me show you something!” He rushed back into his apartment and came back with this big tub of butter. “This is pure THC pot butter,” he said.
Rose Mary popped up right behind him and handed me a couple of cookies. “You should try these, Peter. This is from a batch I just baked this morning!”
“Gee. Thanks,” I said. Somewhat stunned.
“But if I were you I’d only eat half a cookie. They’re pretty strong,” said Rose Mary with a giggle.
Turned out Stan even subscribed to High Times. Ha ha. It occurred to me old Stan often did have a glassy-eyed smile on his face. You just never know what respectable old people are actually doing in the privacy of their own homes.