The Lease I Could Do

I finally found a place to live in Portland, but it took a while. It’s so hard finding the right apartment. You find one that’s a great price, but it’s too small. Or it’s the perfect size, but it’s in the wrong part of town. Or it’s in a great location, but it’s built on an ancient Indian burial ground.

Foolishly, I thought that, being a single person living alone, I might be able to make do with a studio apartment. Many of the ads I read indicated their studios were “huge” and/or “spacious.” I soon learned that, as with so many things in life, this is a bald-faced lie. There is no such thing as a “huge” or “spacious” studio apartment. If it were truly huge or spacious, it would have been split into two rooms, thus making it a one-bedroom.

Of course, there is great variance in the sizes of one-bedrooms, too. In some cases, I think they have done what I just suggested, portioning off a tiny bit of space from a studio and calling it a “bedroom,” even though the only kind of bed that would fit in it is the bassinet of a dwarf’s baby.

Yet despite the many differences among all the apartments — carpet or hardwood, old-fashioned or modern, haunted or exorcised — I have found there to be many similarities, too. In fact, having been shown more than a dozen apartments by various landlords and managers, I have concluded that all of Portland’s apartments have the following things in common:

– Every apartment is in a really great neighborhood.

– Every apartment is close to everything.

– Every apartment has really great neighbors. It’s like a little community, really.

– Every apartment gets a lot of light.

Sometimes these statements are outrageously, obviously false, as when they tell me, “It gets a lot of light,” and I’m standing in the apartment at the time, and it’s mid-afternoon, and all the blinds are open, and I can see for myself that it gets no light. I want to ask, “Now, all this light that it gets: When does that happen? Does it cost extra?”

Everything costs extra when you’re renting an apartment. Many of them advertise “All utilities paid!,” but what they mean is, “All utilities paid except gas and electric!” They pay water, sewer and garbage, which are, I will admit, SOME utilities. But they are not ALL utilities. Furthermore, I’ve yet to find an apartment that doesn’t cover water, sewer and garbage for you. So quit advertising it; it’s not impressive.

They also charge you $30 or so for an “application fee.” And then some of them want another $50 once you’re approved for “sign-up costs.” Of course landlords have administrative costs, but doesn’t all that rent money they get every month cover them? Apparently not. Apparently that money goes right to the barbecue pit, where it is lit on fire. So the only way they can make any money is by charging you to apply there.

(This would not work in other areas of commerce. Imagine going to a Cold Stone Creamery and telling the youth behind the counter that you would like a Gotta-Have-It-sized combination of oatmeal-cookie-batter ice cream and smashed-up Butterfingers, and the teen tells you, “OK, there will be a $5 application fee, to see if we even want you as a customer, and if you are approved, the confection itself will cost another $3.95.” You would not remain a patron of Cold Stone Creamery for long after that, let me tell you!)

Many buildings have signs on them that say, “Apartment available,” with a phone number. Often, when I call those numbers and say, “I’m calling about the apartment,” I am told that despite the sign saying “Apartment available,” there are not, in fact, any apartments available. The sign is affixed to the building permanently, I guess. One time the conversation went as follows:

“Yes, I’m calling about the apartment for rent…?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t have any vacancies right now.”

“But I just walked past the building and saw the sign that said ‘Apartment available.'”

“Yeah, we don’t have anything right now.”

Not, “Oh, sorry, we should take that sign down,” or “Whoops, we just rented the last one.” Just “Yeah, we don’t have anything.” Like there’s nothing they can do about it. That sign on the building? An old gypsy put it there as a curse and it WON’T COME OFF!!!

I called the number listed for an apartment I’d seen advertised on I told the woman I was inquiring about the apartment for rent, and she said, “Have you driven past it?”

“Uh, no, I was hoping someone could show it to me. The inside and everything.”

“We actually ask that you drive past it first to see if it’s something you’d like, and then if it is, call us back and we’ll make an appointment to show it to you.”

“But how can I tell anything just by driving–”

“So give us a call once you’ve driven past it.”

I was stunned. How ugly must this place be? They were apparently very confident that once you’d seen the exterior, you wouldn’t even want to bother looking inside. I wasn’t going to play their games, though. I don’t care what a place looks like on the outside; it’s what’s inside that counts. (It’s the other way around with people, of course.) So I waited a few hours and called back. When the woman asked if I’d driven past it, I said, “Yes, and it’s very lovely.”

Turns out it was fairly hideous, but no worse than a lot of other places. The agent who wound up showing me the place reminded me, of course, that it was in a great neighborhood. The neighborhood was bland and anonymous, and all the signs on all the businesses were in Vietnamese. If I were a blind Vietnamese person, it would probably be a fantastic neighborhood. As a sighted American, however, it left a lot to be desired.

It can be soul-crushing, all this business of looking for an apartment. It really is like going on a series of blind dates. You know some basic information about the person, and their attributes sound appealing, and as you approach the first meeting you’re thinking, “Maybe this is it! Maybe this is The One!” And then you meet and it turns out they smell mildewy and have a tiny bathroom. And then you do it all over again with another place, and then another, and each time, your standards get lower. You think, “Well, it’s really expensive, and it’s too small, but it is in a nice part of town, and the view is OK, and I’m not getting any younger….” And finally you settle for something less than you deserve because everyone’s been pressuring you to find a place and you just want to be DONE with it, for crying out loud, and you’re glad it’s month-to-month with no lease because you’re already looking for something better, but you never get around to moving, and before you know it 20 years have passed and you’re still waking up to that same ugly floor tile every morning and by now you might as well just stay here because you don’t have the energy to look for anything else and then you die. Or so I’m told.

The place I finally chose is not in the exact part of town I wanted to live in — I was hoping for something where all the signs would be in Korean — but it’s good enough. It’s spacious and affordable and it has hardwood floors, which will be convenient if I ever need to kill, dismember and conceal an evil-eyed old man. Otherwise, it just means I have to sweep every day. But the important thing is, the search is over. And it actually does get a lot of light.

There is a disproportionate number of horror-story references in this column: ancient Indian burial grounds, haunted houses, gypsy curses and "The Tell-Tale Heart," specifically. Why? Dunno. Just happened that way.

For those familiar with Portland, the place I have chosen is near the Killingsworth stop on the MAX Yellow Line. It is thus in the "north Portland" part of town -- i.e., without the quaint SW/NW/NE/SE direction in the address -- yet also very "close-in," as they say, mere blocks from downtown. I am satisfied with it. You may not stop by.