Our real estate agent, K, meets us on Boston Ave. in Southeast San Diego. She drives a Prius. Is it possible, I think, to be a real estate agent and not drive a Prius? Is it even legal? Barking dogs drown out the sound of her heels against the pavement. The sound triggers memories of when I delivered mail for the U.S. Postal Service. If there's a singular quality that defines an unwelcoming neighborhood, it's guard dogs.
The owner of the property we're about to see is probably in his late 30s, with a trimmed beard and skinny jeans. A hipster landlord. He notes my beard when we approach and says, “It's like looking in a mirror!” I make a mental note to shave my beard when we get home.
“Now, you have to approach this house with, what I like to call, ‘Lysol behind the eyes.' These tenants are,” he pauses, “…not very clean.”
Christ. Why stop at my eyes? Why not put Lysol in both my ears and mouth? I want to ingest fatal amounts of the cleaning product just so I don't have to listen to this hipster slumlord anymore.
My wife and I look at each other, and then at K. She forces a smile—the kind of smile that says I'm sorry.
Hipster slumlord lets us in and, yeah, it's bad: the kitchen has been cleaned very recently, but the smell of rotten food and dirty diapers still lingers. In the master bedroom, a soiled mattress rests on the floor, not even aligned against the wall. Three children and their puppy occupy the other bedroom, furnished with only one bed. My wife, who has worked with transitioning homeless families into housing, will later tell me that this house is exactly like all her former clients' homes.
“Well, all right,” we say, diplomatically signaling our desire to get out of there, as if things were really all right. As if there was no guilt in intruding on this less fortunate family and judging their home unworthy of our investment. As if there weren't many levels of exploitation at play between hipster slumlord and his tenants.
“Well, all right.”
Back outside, hipster slumlord tells us that he has plenty of other properties if we want to see them. We decline. The drive to the next house is mostly silent.
People often ask how we were able to afford a house. Yes, how indeed?
When wages don't match the rising cost of standard of living; when the Union-Tribune calculates that it takes 18 years for a college-educated household to save enough for a 20-percent down payment in the San Diego housing market; when you work in media—media!— how can you afford a house?
The truth is I'm married to someone who saved money for a lot of years. We also received assistance from her parents. In other words, we are very, very lucky. I recognize ours is a privileged situation. If it's any consolation, not a day goes by where I don't feel a little like a scrub for bringing nothing to the table except my charm and my moderately good looks.
K points to the dead cockroach on the porch and says something about it being a bad omen. I usually appreciate K's penchant for dark humor: often pointing out the creepiness of every wacky add-on we see, or suggesting that every locked door we encounter must hold bodies behind it. But now, given our proximity to Mount Hope Cemetery, the joke makes me feel cold.
It looks like the house was abandoned mid-flip. The dark wood laminate floors look fine, but that's the extent of the remodel. The interior is angled and dark like a German expressionist film. Grime covers the kitchen and bathroom. Someone has left a scale in the bathroom. But the most unsettling thing is the observatory/fishbowl room adjacent to the living room.
The entire wall that separates the rooms is made of glass. The other side contains all the former occupants' possessions. Standing on the remodeled side, it's like you're looking into some diorama, or dollhouse, arranged by a giant child. The bed sits in the middle of the room, facing a TV. Wardrobes and other furniture litter the surrounding area. I imagine a scenario where a mad scientist traps unsuspecting homebuyers behind the glass and enacts a series of sadistic, Pavlovian experiments until we become living dolls in his domestic nightmare. The only time he's not watching is when he leaves to use the bathroom and weigh himself, hence the lone scale. I determine that this must be the most logical explanation for this room, and therefore, we do not make an offer on the house.
We buy a house in City Heights. When I meet the home inspector to get the report, I jokingly ask him if he found any ghosts. “No ghosts,” he says, without missing a beat. Then, he says that our roof needs to be replaced and our floors are crooked.
When the cable guy emerges from under the house after installing our Internet, he says that there's a cat skeleton under our house. “It's old,” he says. “Just bones.”
Sometimes, when our cat's in the hallway, he'll arch his back for no reason.
We live on a hilltop. For the first time since moving to San Diego, we're not looking straight into our neighbor's windows; we have a view. It's our view. At night, we drink beer and watch the flashing lights of the shipyards in the distance. Not a bad way to spend 30 more years.