The end began with the toilet.
Something had come loose. Perhaps a seal had corroded, and water had dribbled out around the base so that it appeared to be taking a piddle itself. There was no odor or discoloration, meaning that the tank (not the bowl) was leaking. That was the good news. That the landlord would stop by to fix it wasn’t.
The landlord, Herr Johann Wiest, was a stocky, redoubtable German somewhere north of 80. On the first of every month, he would totter about the complex on his stick-like legs, cane in hand, his torso puffed and balloonish. He wore his trousers in the classic old-man fashion: hitched up for high water and loose about the armpits. He reminded me of an upright frog.
During our previous encounters, Herr Wiest had been brusque but decent. Though it now occurred to me that it might not have been obvious before that I was anything more than a visitor.
I had moved into the apartment as a result of a breakup—my roommate’s—and we had never changed the name on the lease from the ex-girlfriend’s to mine. As Wiest came into my home to play plumber, the detail was unlikely to escape his imperious Bavarian eye.
“Should I be concerned?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” my roommate said. “It’s been a year since you moved in, and the landlord’s a good guy.”
Wiest was due to arrive after 10:00 a.m. I made plans to be absent and left the apartment at 10:03, when I nearly collided with him on the outside steps. On the following morning, a note was stuck to the apartment door requesting a credit-history report and a tenant application. So it is partially my fault, I suppose. I knew the man was German. Goddamn Teutonic punctuality.
“It’s standard,” the roommate said. “I had to do the same thing when I moved in.”
All right, then. Reasonable enough. Shouldn’t have been a problem.
But what funny things credit reports are. Their calculation rests on so little. If you, like me, have no loans, no cars, no mortgages, one bank account and one credit card, then your score has only two posts to lean on. One drops a bit, and the whole thing slopes like an unbalanced table. My own report included a late credit payment from the previous year (three days resulting from a computer glitch followed by a holiday weekend) and a $12 charge from a store card I had used once and forgotten about in 2013, giving me a credit score of 705. I dropped the completed application and credit report into the manager’s box. Since this was my first time ever filing for a credit report, I thought to check what might be considered the mark of a good one and found that a score of 700 or better should put a renter in the clear. Even with a score of 640, I could have a mortgage.
Three days later, I received a notice that my credit score was insufficient to qualify as a tenant. I would need to provide proof of employment, payroll, tax information and a recent bank statement. I took this as an indication that minds had been made up and that it was more or less just a matter of time until I was formally asked to leave.
I had been casually browsing Craigslist ever since Wiest’s first request. The results were dispiriting. While a year ago it had been difficult but not impossible to find housing within my budget, the market had changed radically. For a bunk in a shared bedroom, I could now expect to pay the same amount or more than I currently paid for an entire split apartment.
I had done the rounds of roommate Hunger Games the year before with the co-ops and collectives of West Oakland and Berkeley. Because I was at that moment having my financial record pored over by Wiest, I didn’t feel like submitting my character to the same scrutiny by a council of vegan basket weavers.
But then, what did I really have to fear? I had steady work, a good rental history and more than three months’ rent in the bank. I had paid rent on time and in full on the first of every month, filed taxes every April, washed the dishes, made the bed, hauled trash, beat rugs and flossed. Perhaps I wasn’t a model citizen, but I was certainly a reliable one.
It took a week to gather all the information, but I prepared a packet. On the following Saturday, Waltraud, Herr Wiest’s dour hausfrau, dropped by to supervise contractors who were working on a lighting fixture in an upstairs unit. I was hesitant to interrupt her—she was rather busy scowling and pointing—but it was better to get this over with, so I introduced myself.
“Good morning,” I said. “I don’t believe we’ve formally met. I’m the tenant in apartment 2.”
“You are not a tenant,” she snapped. “You are an ILLEGAL occupant. Tenants have their names on the lease, and you do not.”
I’m sure I’ve done more difficult things in my life than restrain my eyes from rolling, as I did in that moment, but even in writing this now, they all escape me.
“Yes,” I said, handing over the packet while swallowing my pride, “I am the illegal occupant in apartment 2.” It was as if I’d broken in through a window. “Here is the information you have requested.”
“This is everything?”
“Bank and tax statements, proof of employment and payroll.” There was, additionally, a respectful handwritten letter, of which I retained a copy, and which I hoped might point out the rationality of keeping a respectable tenant rather than going through the hassle of finding a new one.
“OK, I pass it to the manager,” she said.
Four days later, a letter was stuck in the mailbox, the back sealed shut with a sticker of the stars and stripes—not some boisterous banner of patriotism frozen mid-wave but the flat and cheerless pennant of the moon landings, with the words “Made in America” written beneath. Inside was the notice I’d expected ever since the toilet sprung a leak. They didn’t even spell my name right.