In expensive cities such as Boulder and San Francisco, where unmarried adults often live together, some shared living arrangements resemble tumbler locks. For them to function properly, all the elements, or pins, have to align. These are the owner, the property, often the master tenant (the person who holds the lease), and the roommates (selected by the master tenant and, sometimes, other roommates). In one of my housing situations in Boulder, the master tenant preferred leaving the front door unlocked 24/7, which is how she grew up in Tennessee. Locking the door increased rather than assuaged her sense of unease. Ditto for the other housemate. Since the property was in a quiet area in a fairly low crime city, the unlocked door was neither an egregious risk nor an anomaly in that community. For the sake of harmony, I went along with it, and even grew to appreciate the ease of coming and going. Still, being on the ground floor, I locked my bedroom at night. While the unlocked front door was not the main reason I later moved out, it was one of the elements of the arrangement that didn’t line up well enough for me to continue living there.
Last week, back in San Francisco for my Feldenkrais training, I stayed with a friend the first four nights. She is one of two roommates of a master tenant in a sprawling two-storey, rent stabilized (or controlled?) unit within walking distance of my program. The four night duration was determined by the master tenant, a woman who’s lived there nine years and sets the rules which, at times, seem arbitrary. She, the master tenant, is the primary contact with the landlords who live downstairs. Before I left Boulder, my friend kindly mailed me keys for the metal gate and the interior glass paned door, up a flight of stairs, which shares a landing with the owners’ unit. She told me that sometimes the lock to the interior door requires fiddling. It worked the day I arrived, and the two days after that (ditto for when I visited last June, during my road trip).
My final evening at her place, on Thursday, I returned from dinner just after 8pm. No one else was there, and I looked forward to packing and going to bed early before heading to class in the morning and transitioning that afternoon to my next lodgings. Except the key, which had cooperated earlier, didn’t work. Over 10 minutes, if not longer, I continued to reinsert the key and turn it in both directions. I heard the cylinder move but the door wouldn’t open. While I’m no stranger to fussy locks, I was unable to finesse this one and knew that as my frustration grew and patience plummeted, I was unlikely to succeed. I reluctantly texted my friend, who wouldn’t be home until late, and asked her what to do. As much I hated admitting failure, it was preferable to possibly bending the key or breaking it in the lock, making the situation worse. She called a few minutes later and advised me to be gentle with it. I tried several more times, but the stubborn lock snubbed my kindness.
I texted her again, and she suggested I knock on the landlords’ unit and tell them I was a friend of the master tenant (whom I’ll call Jane), whose name they’d recognize. I lightly rapped on a glass pane of their door. A young man (Chinese, I believe) with close cropped black hair answered. I explained that I couldn’t get inside. He called over a woman in her late 50s or early 60s, her face framed with short black hair, already in pale blue pajamas. I told her who I was, showed her the keys, said they weren’t working, and asked if she could let me in. People who meet me typically trust me, so I hoped she would, too.
“If Jane had told me you were staying here, I would let you in. But since she didn’t, and I don’t know you, I can’t let you in,” she said. “It’s a liability.”
That I had opened the metal gate in order to stand in front of her door, alas, wasn’t sufficient proof that I was indeed a legitimate pin in the tumbler lock of the situation.
“I respect that you’re protecting yourself,” I said. “And my suitcase is upstairs. I can describe it to you. I’ve been here since Monday.”
She looked at me, face impassive. I held up my iPhone.
“I can show you emails from my friend about my visit.” To my chagrin, my voice rose as if in a plea. It was nearly 8:30pm and, with my introvert energy tank empty, I sagged from exhaustion.
The landlady blinked a few times, perhaps while debating whether I was a pathetic creature or a potential criminal.
“Let me call Jane,” she said. “If she tells me you supposed to be here, I let you in.”
The landlady went inside and, door ajar, dialed Jane. I heard her leave a message. She said she’d wait for Jane to return the call and verify my identity. She closed the door, leaving me on the landing. I felt as forlorn as a young child whose parents are late to pick her up. In the long minutes that followed, I wondered why the lock, whose capriciousness pre-dated my stay by seasons if not years, had not been changed or repaired. To do so runs $100-$250, a fraction of the rent collected on that unit each month. A functioning lock would eliminate hassle and frustration for the landlord, tenants and visitors alike. It seemed like a sound investment, with immediate returns in peace of mind. Was the landlady too locked into a mindset of frugality to replace it? Why had the master tenant tolerated an unreliable lock for, who knows, years? Had she locked into the notion that it was a small price to pay for below market rent?
We all get locked into beliefs or stories that limit freedom, create unnecessary inconvenience, or grate on our souls. I’m no exception, and I frequently bump into walls built of such beliefs. Yet, it’s easier to notice it in others than in ourselves, especially when one is locked out, keys in hand.
The landlady’s phone rang. She opened her door halfway and looked at me.
“Can you describe her?” she asked the caller. I felt as if I were in a police lineup…of one. She nodded, hung up and grabbed a keyring.
She placed a key in the lock and turned it. The door did not budge, lessening my embarrassment but not appearing to cause her any. She grunted and, not particularly gently, fiddled with it some more. After a few tries, the lock yielded.
“Thank you,” I said.
The following afternoon, after class ended for the week, I rode the bus to my new neighborhood in South San Francisco. I made the arrangements via Craigslist, posting an ad that included my photo. The hostess, whom I had “met” over Skype last month, collected me at the bus stop, drove me to Trader Joe’s and waited while I purchased groceries, and gave me a key to her home, all before I had paid her a dime (she declined my offer to send a deposit). Her behavior is not typical, but reminded me that trust unlocks ease and opens the door to possibility.