(This article appeared in the Irish Times in May 2008 and The Weekend Australian in February 2009.)
I never expected to spend my first night in San Francisco wishing I could levitate. Or that instead of having good walking shoes for the hills and a warm coat for the fog, I had a suitcase full of rubber gloves and industrial-strength disinfectant.
The apartment we’d rented for a week over the internet had looked great in the photos. In the funky Hayes Valley area of the city, just metres from shops and bars. It was above a bar, in fact, but the owner assured us it was beautifully quiet. Near public transport. A good price. Just what we were looking for.
The previous year, while I was researching my novel Those Faraday Girls, we’d rented a New York apartment via a website. We hadn’t realised it then, but we’d hit it first-time lucky. It was on Washington Square in Greenwich Village, a light, airy apartment overlooking a communal tree-filled square, with a long balcony and French doors. It was a sub-let, which meant we had to pretend to the doorman that we were friends of the owner. He didn’t believe us, but still let us in. It was half as cheap as a hotel and we spent that week in Manhattan feeling like locals. I liked the apartment so much that Maggie, the main character in my novel, lives in an identical one.
The trip to San Francisco was also for research purposes, a trial of life-as-a-local for my next book. Warning bells should have sounded when the owner of the rental apartment didn’t get back to my emails about collecting the key until just hours before we were to fly out of Dublin. I’d paid in advance, so there wasn’t the option of cutting our losses and finding somewhere else at the last minute. When his email finally came, he was laidback to the point of comatose. ‘Hey, sorry to worry you,’ he wrote in response to my series of anxious enquiries. ‘I wouldn’t have left you guys in the lurch. Good thing you’re coming to San Francisco to chill!!!’
His directions to the apartment and the key pick-up were like a crazed treasure hunt. Take the subway. Turn left at the abandoned building. Walk four hundred metres past the homeless hostel. Go past the all-night takeaway until you see a bar with a dozen or so motorcycles parked out the front. Go into the bar and ask for his friend George.
We followed it to the letter. Abandoned building. Homeless hostel. Finally the bar, and the quest for George. The barman looked blankly back. He had no idea who or what we were talking about. We tried ringing the owner. No answer. It was 11pm, we were jetlagged, and the warning bells were now clanging to rival Big Ben.
About to go in search of the nearest hotel, we heard our names being called. A young, cool guy in a baseball cap ran up the street. ‘Hey, guys. How was the trip? I’m George. You’re from Ireland? Cool. Come this way.’
He took us to a pair of double doors beside the motorcycle bar. Unfortunately he had problems with his key, which gave us time to read the handwritten notice stuck to the glass. Attention Tenants. The rodent and flea eradication program will commence next Monday.
Monday. Two days after we’d gone. My husband and I looked at each other.
‘This way, folks.’
Up a flight of stairs. Down a winding corridor. Through three sets of fire doors. All five of our senses were now on high alert. Yes, that was urine we could smell. Yes, that did look like blood on the wall. Yes, the carpets did feel sticky underfoot. That was the thump of a bass we could hear from the floor above. As for taste, I was keeping my mouth tightly shut in case a flea or a rodent jumped in.
‘Home from home, happy holidays,’ garrulous George said as he threw open the door. He moved like lightning. ‘Light switches here. Bathroom here. Bed there. Just leave the key on the table when you go, okay? Enjoy San Fran, bye!’ He was gone.
It was just the two of us, standing in the spotlight of the bare light bulb above us, its image reflected in the window. The barred window. The barred, cracked window.
My husband spoke first. ‘I’m glad it was you who found this one.’
It was the same apartment I had looked at on the internet, there was no doubt about that. But what the owner hadn’t shown in the photograph were the added extras. The pile of rubbish in the corner of the kitchen area – pizza boxes and bags of rotting vegetable peelings. The stains, crumbs and bits of bread on the kitchen table. The cracks and stains in the toilet. The seven – yes, I counted them – half-used bits of soap on the bathroom floor and shower cubicle. The cloud of flies that streamed out of the unwashed coffee maker on the stove when I accidentally touched it.
We edged our way to the bedroom. More bars on the window. One of them bent. A wardrobe with a broken door and five misshapen wire coathangers, one with what looked like a straitjacket hanging from it. And the piece de resistance? Someone else’s underwear on the floor by the bed.
Of course we should have walked out there and then. Rung the owner. Run after George and asked did he think we’d lost our minds, the place was a pigsty. But we were tired. Jetlagged. In a new city. It was now after midnight. We weren’t thinking straight. We stayed.
I changed into pyjamas. My husband slept in his clothes. (We washed them both several times before we ever thought about wearing them again. I then threw the pyjamas away.) Neither of us slept. We could hear sirens outside and creaks on the fire escape. The bathroom plumbing emitted a series of recurring gasps and gulps. My senses became so alert I thought I could hear the whirring of the flies’ wings around the coffee machine. I hoped it was those flies, and not fleas on the bedsheets I could hear. It was then I wished I could levitate, or time travel, or teleport. Anything to get me out of that bed and far from that flat.
We were up and dressed before 7 am. We didn’t shower. Was it because of the mould? The dirt? The smell? The used soaps? I rang garrulous George (no answer) and then the owner. No answer there either. I left two frosty voice messages. We walked to the nearest internet café, followed the voice messages with an even frostier email demanding an immediate refund of the rental money paid, then searched the web until we found a hotel that would take us for a week. We got the last room in a Holiday Inn two streets away. To this day, I would do advertisements for them if they asked me. I have never seen a cleaner, lovelier room. I wanted to roll on the spotless floor in happiness.
In retrospect, I did get exactly what I was after for my research – the chance to live like a local. Unfortunately, it was a local who lived in a fleapit. And a local who’d been ripped off. The best piece of advice about on-line renting is one that applies to everything on the Internet. Don’t believe everything you see. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. I’d add one extra bit of advice: always carry a bottle of disinfectant when you travel.
As for our refund, I’m still waiting. The owner did eventually email me, expressing astonishment at my complaints, insisting it had been spotless last time he’d seen it. ‘When was that? In 1976?’ I wondered. The owner told me he was just going through a rough patch workwise, but as soon as that was sorted out, I’d get my money back. A month later, another email, another delay, another excuse. It’s now almost a year ago, and the excuses keep coming. I’ve started to look forward to them. The most recent one said that he hoped to send me the refund, but unfortunately he’d cut off his thumb in a gardening accident and the medical bills were horrendous. He attached a photo to prove it. I didn’t open it. This time, I decided to take him at his word.