Involuntary Simplicity 

I call landlords madly until Gabe starts to throw things or shout into the phone.

After my three-year-old son, Gabriel, and I became homeless, we spent our first week at a residence hotel in downtown Berkeley. Initially, the prettiness of the place was a comfort, but the $1,200 monthly rent soon overshadowed the décor, particularly since the amenities failed to include a parking space, a TV, a phone in the room, or permission to use a hotplate. This was stripped-down living at an exorbitant price.So we fled and took refuge in a cheap hotel near Richmond's Civic Center. During that long night, an anonymous woman called our room with a battery of mysterious demands, assorted residents knocked on our door, and babies screamed from the far end of the corridor.

So the next day I called a cheap hotel in Oakland, made a reservation, and said we were on our way.

I liked what I saw as soon as we walked in--green plants, homey accents. I thought we could easily stay there for a month. As I was thus mentally moving in, the clerk approached us from down the hall. I said I'd called. He looked down at the floor and began to apologize: he had given our room to someone else. He had no other vacancies. We were homeless again.We went to another Oakland hotel, where the friendly clerk had no trouble finding us a room. Not that it was the room of our dreams. When I turned back the pink and yellow quilt on the bed, I saw that both love and war had been made not long ago between the wrinkled sheets. I gingerly reversed them, hoping that this wasn't what the maid had just done. The next morning, we bathed and moved on.I pounced on what seemed to be a reasonable price in the Temescal District: $200 a week, with phones, TV, and parking. True, there were no kitchens, and the clerks were surly. But a library was just down the street.

But now I faced the challenge of feeding the two of us on what was left of my meager monthly allotment. I came up with parameters: if we ate out, we'd spend a maximum of $3 on breakfast and $5 on lunch or dinner. This hovered on the boundary of the attainable.

At McDonald's, the air was loud with raucous talk of the Santa Anita races. Not being a betting woman, I decided it was time to ferret out the overlooked and unregarded, the yet-to-be and used-to-be, among nearby eateries. This became our quest--and it turned out that in such restaurants, whose ambience is sometimes as mournful as the grave, proprietors are delighted if you spend an hour or more eating a five-dollar meal. And they don't mind an inquistive toddler to whom everything in the place is thrilling and wondrous.

First we made a beeline for an ungainly cafe, a lopsided structure sitting on an island in the middle of the street. It looks as though it could be wiped off the map in a second by a wayward semi, but it's still standing its ground and I'm grateful. The battered menu on the wall, half-hidden by a jumble of paper plates and cups, is surely forty years old. But the food itself is fresh, and we both enjoyed our fancy hot dogs. The bill for two: $5.25.

Next we tried a deserted Mexican restaurant on Telegraph: a long, thin, Byzantine space. A decade-old newspaper review posted inside rhapsodized about the chimichangas, so we dutifully ordered them. That review could have been written yesterday: the sauces are architectural, by which I mean constructed from the ground up.

Two doors down, a North African fellow was eking out a precarious living as a pizza maker. Gabe craves pizza, and if adults didn't have a vote, the two of us would still be eating there every night.

At another place, though there was no kid-sized hot chocolate, only the standard $1.50 cup, I sprang for one, and Gabe gave his GI Joe a bath in it. That was cost-effective.

Now we've also discovered a Greek delicatessen where the charming proprietors conduct business in a patois only slightly brushed by English. The spirit of the Eastern Mediterranean, its sounds and aromas, infuse this little nook. Gabe and I are transformed by it. Under the night sky, conversation at the long sidewalk table rhythmically swells and fades, and we are included in it, although all we have bought so far is milk and a bad phone card. One day soon we'll be able to stop for falafel and baklava.We do all our work on foot, which helps us to sense the underlying unity of the neighborhood and feel at one with it. I allow Gabe to pick up weird items from the sidewalk and gutters and talk to folks who comment on his pink rain boots. Having time on our hands permits us to ferret out the less obvious and more intriguing aspects of the local culture. Mysteriously, the veneer of the universe cracks open and we become travelers in its interior regions.But sometimes, of course, I have to make meals in our room. I carry food in a cooler, and make the rounds of the discount stores for Western Family Graham crackers, two-for-one bags of potato chips, Cap'n Crunch, and Chex.

It takes milk to eat cereal, and milk lasts about two days in the cooler. Hence we have cycles of purchasing ice and dumping water. But some cycles are vicious. We watch lettuce float in icewater, or yogurt ooze into it. Then the cold water turns tepid, the milk goes sour, and the cooler starts smelling like salad dressing. A purge of our food supplies becomes unavoidable.

When we get up in the morning, I make my coffee with lukewarm tapwater, and if the packets of hot chocolate haven't run out, Gabe gets a cup.What, then, do we do in the room during those pleasant hours, the musing hours possessed by the carefree, the job-free? Picture a woman sitting tranquilly beneath a reading lamp, turning the pages of a poetry book as her child runs a toy train around the floor. That doesn't describe us.We do few things in the room, actually. I call landlords who claim to have big hearts and who have placed affable, often quirky ads. I poise these ads on my knee and coax the phone halfway across the floor almost to the wobbly table, and I mark them up: dark lines for emphasis, arrows up and down and around ads for two-bedroom apartments, exclamation points for preposterous situations. Houses are out of our range. I call madly until Gabe starts to throw things, to punch buttons on the phone and shout into it. Then I try not to hurl the ads or topple the table.

Nearly every hotel and motel--fleabag, bland, or fancy--has cable TV these days; they must. I turn the television set to the not-too-scary children's shows and hope the monster kids with huge disturbing eyes don't appear: neither those, nor the monsters of whom Gabriel dreams as he sleeps beside me in a sleeping bag.

We are not so safe, not so attractive to landlords as I once was. The job I will soon have I don't yet have, and it is in a different career from the one I left behind. This is a process, each intricate piece helping to fulfill a final design that exists, of course, only as a blueprint. How can I convey this logic as my child shouts into the telephone?

Living in the room is a balancing act, a compromise. What belongs on the closet shelf? A pair of pants, a box of Cap'n Crunch, or a package of diapers? Will a container of yogurt stay securely on the slanted top of a TV set? Shall we have benevolent rays of sunlight falling across the carpet and endure, also, the curious looks of passersby?

Two weeks into our stay we grew very curious about our neighbors. I admit to, one day, casting a glance, not furtive, at a door ajar next to ours and staring across a touching array of stuffed animals of all colors lining the walls neatly from end to end. Religious art hung on the walls. Hairpin tidy, this room was.

When I spoke to the occupant he was friendly. He didn't mind this way of life, he volunteered, having been at it for over a year. He had won the toys at a game-booth with a claw in it down the street. He recommended the $10.99 hotplate on sale at a nearby store: "They don't say cooking is legal in the rooms," he said, "but they don't say it's illegal, and we all pay cash."

Sometimes in the evenings, through the wall, I used to hear the knock-down-drag-out fights he was having with his girlfriend.

I yearned to know more about the other lives behind these eighteen doors. A man in a wheelchair teased Gabe as his soon-to-conceive girlfriend smiled at us. They lived two doors down, and the man pointed longingly at the turrets of a nearby Victorian that was being restored. He ventured that we ourselves should be moving into it. The four of us agreed to move in together should we ever find suitable accommodation.

The Indian woman upstairs seemed to be seeking something with her reticent smiles. And her child's beautiful eyes nearly matched the sky. By the time we got around to speaking--after over two months, many rejections, scores of missed messages, and at least a thousand phone calls, a landlord who thought Gabriel was very cute had accepted us--the Indian lady and her husband had found a place near Lake Merritt. She slipped me a note with her phone number on it. "Happiness is fleeting," she wrote.


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