Editor's Note: This is an updated version of the same story that appeared in the San Francisco Herald in 2002.
This is a common story, especially for a guy who lived in San Francisco, and I beg you to take a few minutes to read it, so that you may not make the same mistakes that I did. As I wrote this in 2000, I was no longer a man, but a weak, nervous, emotional wreck. Let the story start here. (The name of the person this story is about has been changed).
This tale takes place back in the late 1990s, when I was a poor student living in San Francisco, contributing to the San Francisco Herald. I liked to go to coffee shops to sit and read, have an espresso, etc. One day in November, I walked into a cafe in North Beach, and sat at a small table in a corner.
A man came up to my table and asked me something about the book I was reading, so I chatted with him for a while. He seemed like a nice guy, about 60 years old. He was dressed in rather expensive looking black suit, with a black trench coat. He was wearing thick black glasses, the kind you see nerds wear, but they looked cool on him. He introduced himself as Joe. We talked for a while, cracking jokes about this and that. He seemed like a very well mannered, well-spoken intellectual. After a few minutes, he went back to his book and I left, headed for class.
Over a period of several weeks, I returned to the cafe to find Joe sitting in the same place, working on his laptop. He always recognized me, and I always sat near him. I asked what he was working on, and he said he was a writer. I made a joke about how you can't find enough "writers" in North Beach, and he laughed, and then I noticed the book on his table, with his name on it. It turns out he was a published author and the screenplay to his book was recently approved for a small film.
I was humbled, and talked to him about the newspaper I worked for, and if he would be interested in writing an article or posting part of his book on its web site. I asked the publisher, Gene Mahoney, to show up and meet me at the cafe the next day, and we all chatted. They got along great, and Joe said he would happily give us a chapter or column to post on the site.
So here I am thinking, Great! I'm networking, making contacts with authors and screenwriters! And I'm also sitting in the same area where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay to The Godfather!
Oh man, if I had only known.
Anyway, after a few more meetings with Joe at the cafe, we found ourselves talking about the housing situation in San Francisco, and he mentioned he had to find a new place as he was getting evicted. It turns out the man who owned his building had sold it and the new owner was moving in or something like that. I asked him what he was looking for, as I had a room for rent in the apartment below us that my girlfriend managed. (We had our own apartment upstairs, and the owner wanted her to take the lease on the apartment below us so we could rent out the rooms for her. The only advantage was getting to pick who could move in, and it kept us on good terms with the owner).
Holly, my girlfriend at the time, had asked me to look around for someone to take the room. I told Joe that it was only a small room in a 4-bedroom apartment with 3 other people, but he could have it if he wanted. I mean, I knew him for about a month now, I had never seen him do anything but work at his computer, and go outside to smoke every now and then. I had never seen him drunk or display any signs of being a freak or psychotic, so I felt comfortable in offering him the room. Hell, he was wearing a $1,000 suit! He had been interviewed by Terri Gross on NPR! He had taken a call from a Hollywood producer about a movie to be based on his book!
After I told him about the room, he looked at me like he was surprised, and said, "Really?"
I said "Sure, why not? You and I and Gene are all working on the web site, and we all hang out together anyway. It’ll be fun!"
Well, he said he would come over later in the week to check it out, which he did, and he wrote me a check for the first month's rent and security deposit. I introduced him to my girlfriend, who was the leaseholder, she was cordial and they talked for a bit, then he left.
Later that night, she told me she didn't like Joe, she didn’t trust him, and that she didn't want him to move in. I asked her why, and she said because there was “just something about him.” We got in a small fight, me arguing that you couldn't refuse a person a room because of something that vague, and that I had known the guy for a month by then, and that he was cool. She argued that everybody else in the place was in his or her early 20s and that they wouldn't get along, and that she had "woman's instinct" which told her that something was wrong with the guy.
I laughed it off and argued my point, and in the end she caved in and we let Joe move in on the 1st of the next month. Man, if only I had listened to her, it would have saved us more grief and sleepless nights I wouldn't wish on my worst enemies. Of course, it never really occurred to me why an older, successful writer would want to live in a small room, in a shared apartment with 3 other people, mostly kids barely in their 20s.
Joe moved in, and he had few belongings. He bought a futon from the previous tenant; he had a small desk, a night table, a printer and scanner, and his laptop. All his clothes easily fit in the small closet that was in the corner of the room. The floors were hardwood, but unfinished and worn due to neglect by the previous owner, so he bought a large carpet that was cut to fit the room. He also brought in a small plant. The other roommates in the place were a little pissed that I didn't allow them to meet with Joe before I gave him the place, and I should have, but I really didn't think about it at the time. I was so excited about have a "published author" and screenwriter living in the apartment. I liked the fact that he was older, to maybe keep the others a little quieter, and maybe lose the "dorm" atmosphere in the place.
At first everything was fine, and although Joe got along well with all the other roommates, he became good friends with one of them, a French exchange student. They set up a chores list, and he did his share. He liked the large kitchen, and often made large meals, enough for everyone. My girlfriend slowly lost her sense of unease, and we kind of just forgot about Joe. We never heard any complaints from the other roommates, so we assumed everything was fine. Let me say that despite holding the lease to the apartment downstairs, we had very little to do with it. She collected the various rent checks, and sent them all to the owner. If they had any problems like clogged-up drains, we just called the property manager of the entire house.
The month passed uneventfully. Joe paid the rent on the 1st, and everything was good. Around the 12th, our doorbell rang at 11 PM. I was already in bed, but went downstairs, and there was one of Joe’s roommates. She was standing there, looking nervous, and wringing her hands. I asked her what was wrong, and she said that she had come home an hour earlier and found Joe at the bottom of the outside stairs, passed out on the sidewalk. She said he smelled of alcohol, and obviously fell down the stairs. She helped him up and walked him to his room, then wanted to call an ambulance, but he didn't want her to. She wanted me to take a look at him.
I went to his room, and he was sitting on his bed, his left shoulder bent up at an angle. It appeared his collarbone was snapped. He also had a large 2-inch square section of his scalp missing; hair and all. While falling down, he scraped his head against the sharp, old-fashioned steel handrail.
I decided we should probably call an ambulance. He was really out of it; he couldn't answer any of the paramedic's questions, and couldn't walk. I was a little worried when he was taken to the hospital, but assumed it all just an isolated incident. I mean, many people have too much to drink and fall down.
He came back the next day with his arm in a cast. He was still a little drunk. I chalked the whole episode up to him being eccentric, you know, the writer who likes to drink and rip up the town, etc. As I said, I had never seen him drink in the months I had known him, so I thought it was a one-time thing.
A couple of days later, my girlfriend got a letter from the bank with Joe's check in it, saying it had a stop payment on it, and that she was hereby charged $25 for it. She threw it at me, pissed, and started in with the "I-Told-You-So!" speech. I sighed and collected my blankets - I would be sleeping on my sofa that night.
The next day, I took the check and went downstairs but Joe wasn't there. I rode my motorcycle to the cafe, but he wasn't there either. I asked the barista if he had seen Joe. “Joe? Yeah, he was here, and I threw him out! He came in here all drunk, making a scene. If you see him, tell him he ain't welcome here no more! If you’re looking for him, check the gutter." A bunch of the old regulars there laughed.
I sighed and went back home. Why the hell would he stop payment on his check? If he had a problem, he could have talked with us, but to stop payment? Maybe it was a mistake. The next day I knocked on his door, and a roommate answered it. Joe was in his room, laying on his futon, stinking of booze. He hadn't shaved and his hair was a mess. He sat up on the edge of the futon and acted surprised when I told him that the check had been stopped. "I didn't do it, why would I do something like that? The bank must have made a mistake!" he slurred. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and said, "Okay, I believe you. Maybe they did make a mistake, but I called them up and they said the only way to stop payment on a check is if the owner of the account calls in and does it. Anyway, we need the money for the rent, and the $25 penalty they charged us." He said he would go get cash as soon as he was "feeling better", and I left.
I didn't see him for the next couple of days, and I put a note on his door telling him to cough it up or get out. Stupidly, this was my chance to get rid of him, but I didn't know better at the time. I could have filed a 3-day notice to pay or quit, but I wasn’t a professional landlord. When I finally did see him, he kept making excuses and putting it off, crying about how his "ma died" recently. Something about how he stopped payment on the check to buy a plane ticket to visit her. Anyway, near the end of the month, he was still drunk every day, the whole apartment smelled, and we still hadn't gotten the money. The other roommates were all complaining about him, the odor, the fact he was eating their food, the fact that he was bringing homeless people into the apartment, leaving the house door open all the time, and that he was smoking in his room. They were threatening to leave if we didn't get rid of him.
Once I went down to his room and found 2 bums digging through his desk, looking for money. I booted them out, and told Joe he had to leave. I dragged his futon and sheets down into the courtyard, as they were soaked in piss. He had been sleeping on them for days. The whole apartment smelled of piss and stale cigarettes.
I called his daughter, whom I had met once at the cafe by chance. I explained the situation to her, and she told me that she hardly knew Joe, and wanted nothing to do with him, and that I shouldn't call her anymore. She was crying by the time she hung up.
I visited him a couple of times when I knew he was in the room, and he was totally out of it. All he would do is make excuses, that his "ma died", that his daughter had problems, etc. Trying to reason with him did no good. He’d say he was trying to get better, but it was hard.
I posted the room for rent on Craigslist, and started showing it to people. Joe was in there most of the time; I just ignored him. It scared many of the people who came to see the place, but I assured them he would be gone. Mostly he was stone-drunk and sprawled on the bed, which he had dragged back inside.
Finally, February rolled around. It was morning, and I went downstairs and knocked on his door. He kept yelling for me to go away. I went upstairs and called the cops. They showed up right away, and I went and unlocked the door. I stuck my head in and said, "Come on, man, time to go!"
He just sat there on his futon in a stupor. I then noticed some movement on the far side of the room, and saw somebody in a sleeping bag getting up. I told the cops that guests were not allowed in the room, and they took over, asking him who he was, etc. The guest became very obnoxious, yelling and swearing, and the cops had to physically throw him out. They then told me that they don't do evictions, only the sheriff can do them.
They did wink at me and said that I could just take his keys and put him on the street, and left. I went into his room, helped him get up, and walked him out to the street, and set him down on the edge of the curb. I went back into his room and started boxing up all his crap, what little of it there was. While I was cleaning up the room, Joe's "guest" (let's call him “Mike” - not his real name) came back and stared yelling at me to open the door, so he could get his own belongings. I said he shouldn't have any belongings in the place, but if he stood under the outside window, I would drop them down to him. He refused and kept "ordering" me to open the door, or he would bust it down.
I refused. He backed up and gave the door a big kick, and it loosened a bit. The deadbolt was giving way; we lived in a 100 year old Victorian and the wood was old. I called 911, and told them some homeless freak was trying to kick in my door. I told Mike that I had called the cops, and he should leave. He said he would back off and stand at the bottom of the stairs if I would give him his stuff, just place it at the top of the stairs, which I did.
As he was collecting it, the cops showed up (luckily, the same ones who were here earlier). Mike made a big scene again, and this time they arrested him. Then another cop showed up, this one older and more hard-nosed, and wanted me to tell him the whole story. Afterward, he said if I threw Joe out, I could end up going to jail, as he had been there more than 30 days and the place was now his legal residence, and since there was no legal paperwork, it was an illegal eviction.
They noticed Joe was just sitting on the sidewalk, numb, so they called the ambulance. The cop told me that the most they could do was take him to detox at the ER. They made me give him back his keys, then the ambulance took him away, and the cops released Mike and told him not to return.
I then went into Joe's room and boxed up all his stuff and moved it to the courtyard, and threw a tarp over it. I found dozens of empty liquor bottles, and several beer glasses on the floor filled with piss. Several had been knocked over and spilled on the carpet. I put on my heavy-duty work gloves and dragged everything downstairs. I also found out this guy was a chronic masturbator, finding dozens of porn DVDs and all types of lube everywhere. “Mango-scented lube? Where did he get this stuff? Who would bother with mango-scented lube?”
Oh, by way, remember I told you he was a published author? It turns out he did write one book, but it was with the help of a homeless veteran program to help them write about their experiences. Yes, Joe had been through several marriages, each with kids produced - and abandoned. He had lived on the streets for over 10 years.
At this point, I really didn't know what to do. This guy hadn't paid the rent in over 30 days, and the cops were telling me I couldn't evict him. My girlfriend was threatening to kick me out if he wasn't gone. How the hell did I get in this mess? All I wanted to do was attend art school and start a career. Instead I became a baby-sitter for a nasty drunk. *sigh*
Anyway, about 2 days later, the doorbell rang, and there stood Joe, all disheveled, shaking, and wondering where all his belongings were. I told him I put them in storage until he paid the rent. I assumed the detox did its job, as he wasn’t drunk, but sure smelled like it.
He apologized for everything over the last month, and went to the bank. He came back with enough cash for the previous month's rent, the current month’s rent, and the bank penalty. We moved all his stuff back upstairs. He spent the next week in his room getting cleaned up. He went into a big phase of shamefulness, apologizing to everyone for his actions. It turns out he was drafted and sent to Vietnam when he was 18, suffered from PTSD, and has been a major alcoholic since he returned from the war. He also spent 10 years homeless here in San Francisco, which I unfortunately found out too late to prevent all this.
What could I do now? He had sobered up, cleaned his room, paid the rent, apologized, and was writing again. Me, being the big-hearted moron I (was), decided to give him one more chance. I warned him though, that if anything like it happened again, he would be out. I also told him I didn't need this shit, as this wasn't a job that I was getting paid for - and hell, it wasn't even a job! He promised nothing like this would happen again, and I tried to close the book on the entire incident.
All of February passed without incident. I ran into Joe sometimes, and he was always sober, clean, and polite. His daughter came over sometimes and I talked with them about his mother who had passed away, and sometimes they went out together to eat. Even my girlfriend became friendlier to him, exchanging pleasantries when they happened to meet on the street. Even she started making excuses for him, saying his mother had died, and that he was in Vietnam, etc. Personally, I never gave into any of these lame crutches, myself. I’m an Army veteran, I was in for 10 years - one year in Iraq - my mother had died when I was in my 20s, but I didn't go out and become a homeless drunk.
After a few weeks of calm, I looked out the window one afternoon and saw Joe being helped home by some young, scraggly-looking guy with no teeth. I watched as they approached the building, and stopped to rest. The guy was basically carrying him. He struggled with him up the stairs and managed to get him into Joe's room.
After a while, fearing this guy might be robbing Joe or burglarizing the apartment, I went downstairs. I heard noises coming from Joe's room that I wish I could wipe from my memory. I heard cheesy porn-music, grunts, wheezing, gasps, and moans. (Gag). Now… I’m not saying what was going on behind the closed door; I'm just telling you what I heard. Maybe they were just watching porn together, but I distinctly heard him say, “Harder!”
What little respect I had for the guy I lost there. I went back upstairs and finished my homework. After a few hours, I went back down and found the apartment door open, as well as the door to his room. I saw Joe lying there on the bed, passed out, alone. His wallet was lying open on top of his bed, looking empty. I shut the doors and left.
Later in the week a roommate of Joe’s called me and complained about the smell again, and that something had to be done. I went downstairs and opened the door to Joe's room, and it really did stink. Once again, I put on the heavy-duty gloves and dragged the futon mattress (soaked with urine, among other things…) downstairs, along with the sheets. I also found a large enamel pot that he had been pissing and shitting in. I cleared out the room as much as I could, putting all the empty bottles into the recycling bin. He also had food rotting in take-out containers. I threw it all out and put an old plastic air mattress on his futon frame. I almost vomited doing all this. You can be damn sure this is coming out of his deposit, I was thinking to myself.
That helped a little bit with the smell. Some days, I would come home and find him crumpled up in the doorway, unable to move. At this point, I refused to do anything to help him anymore; I had had enough. Call me cold-hearted, whatever. I’ve traveled all around the world, including Vietnam. I’ve seen 5 year-old orphans digging through dumpsters in Hanoi, I’ve seen an orphanage in Hoi An filled with deformed “agent orange” babies, all lying there, some blind, knowing some would be dead in a few days because they couldn’t afford a doctor. This guy had a serious problem, but it was self-inflicted.
He did beg me to call an ambulance though, and I did. They showed up and the same crew remembered him (one older guy lectured him, telling him they weren't going to keep doing this). They asked me if I would be willing to take care of him, cook for him and help him get better. I said, "Hell no, I have my own life to live - I‘m a student, I am looking for a job, I have so much stuff to do. You think I have time for this? Call his ex-wife or his daughter or something! I’m just his roommate here!"
When they moved him out to the ambulance one of them looked back at me and said sarcastically, "Thanks for helping him."
What the fuck? Who the hell did this asshole think he was, giving me shit? Because I refused to take care of the guy anymore? What did I look like, a healthcare worker? Isn't it enough that I was emptying the guy's shit-bucket ? I can damn well guarantee you that you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy in a similar situation to do what I did for Joe - and for free.
This guy has been shitting in a bucket, pissing in beer bottles (some of which he spilled onto the new carpet), leaving food and dirty dishes laying around (possibly bringing cockroaches into the place), leaving the main door to the apartment wide open at 2 am, bringing homeless guys into the place to "hang out", stealing other roommates' food, pissing all over the bathroom when he was able to walk, constantly ringing my doorbell for money, and I get an attitude from the medic because I refuse to cook and take care for him? Wow. I had not had a good night's sleep since this whole thing had started, I’d lost my whole sense of security in the apartment, I was 10 minutes from having a nervous breakdown........ I didn't know how much more I could take.
When he came back the next day, he was still drunk, but shaking. He begged me for money so he could buy alcohol; he wanted money from his deposit. He was scared of seizures. He looked like shit; he was so weak and had probably lost 40 pounds. He said he was trying to get sober and that he needed a little booze to stave off the shakes and seizures. He smelled so bad I had to stand a good 20 feet away, and even then I had to cover my mouth with my shirt. I had never seen such a mess of a man before. I went upstairs and poured a glass of cheap rum I used for cooking into an old mason jar, and gave it to him, along with a couple of little glasses of vodka I got from a hotel bar, as I don't drink much. He thanked me and sucked it all down, then shuffled to his room and laid down on the air mattress. He was sobbing and wishing for God to help him, and I stood there looking at him, totally indifferent, just wishing he would leave. Instead, I left.
On a funny note, I heard from my editor, Gene Mahoney, that he had a room for rent, and I called him up and tried to sell Joe to him: "Joe? No, he’s no problem at all, just sits in his room all day working on his new novel! Yeah, that's right! He is the best roommate I've ever had! I'll bring him over if you want, I'll help him move, too!" But Mahoney wanted Joe to call him and discuss moving, and of course Joe never did, so Mahoney gave the room to someone else. Damn.
I would have hated to do that to Gene, but if Joe did move, he would have willingly left this place, and gave up his "place of legal residence". And after moving into Gene's, we could have kicked him out, as he wouldn't have been there over 30 days. Also, I knew Gene wouldn't take him in anyway, as he would have wanted to talk with the guy first, and as Joe was always drunk, he wouldn't have had a chance.
The next day, Joe rang the doorbell, and I went down to his room. His door was open and he was sitting in a chair. The room smelled so bad I almost gagged, and covered my mouth. He had shit stains on his pants and on the chair. I then saw the bucket he was using as a toilet, filled with empty bottles, piss and feces. I went upstairs and got my camera and took several pictures. He just sat there. This had to stop. I called the health department and left a message on their answering machine, but they never returned my call. (Thanks, guys.)
I threw it all out to the street, and he just sat there watching me. I felt he was dying. I called his daughter again, and left a message. I didn't hear from her. The next morning, he begged me to take him to the hospital, as he kept falling down, his legs wouldn't support him anymore.
I threw him in my truck and took him to the VA. He had been "sober" for 3 days, but you couldn't really tell by looking at him. I took him to the ER entrance and they put him in a wheelchair and wheeled him away. Then one of the nurses walked up to me and asked what they should do with him if he isn't admitted - how would he get home? Once again I went through the story of me just being a roommate and that I didn't have the time for this and that he was lucky I drove him here, etc. She also gave me a dirty look, and I went home.
One week later and 4 days before the end of the month, Joe showed up. He was clean and sober, and was using a walker. It turns out he hadn't been eating for at least six weeks, and was suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion. To get to the end of the story, I will just sum it up and say that he spent the last 4 days cleaning up his room, packing up his belongings, and making arrangements to move to Oregon to live with his brother and his brother's family. I don’t know how he arranged it, or if the VA did, but I was glad. I continued to help him carry things downstairs, move furniture to his daughter's house, etc. What else could I do? I needed him out at the end of the month, and he could barely walk. Everybody in the apartment was nervous, waiting to see if he would actually go.
On the 1st, I took him to SFO and he left at 9am for Portland. When I got home, the steel gate company I had called earlier was installing the new gate. Perfect timing, I thought, and when they were done, I locked it, went upstairs and laid down on my bed, not believing he was really gone and this whole mess was over.
Later that same day the doorbell rang, and who should turn up at the house but "Al" (not his real name), one of his "buddies". He had 3 large bags with him, and looked like he was planning on staying awhile. This was the guy who had been giving Joe so many problems. He would turn up at the 1st of the month when he knew Joe got his disability check, and he would "help" make Joe drunk - and help himself to Joe's money. I suspected this early on, but I wasn't really in a position to do anything. He said he had "just talked to Joe and he told me I could come over and stay a few days!" So then I knew he was full of crap. I told him Joe was dead, and to get the hell off the property. He asked if I was bullshitting, and I said no, he had died in his room 2 weeks ago. He chewed on that for a while, laughed, and then walked off.
Life settled down soon after we got rid of Joe, but it wasn’t the same anymore. The people downstairs all left sooner or later. They thought the apartment had too many bad vibes in it, and I didn’t blame them. Upstairs, the happiness we had from being able to control the apartment below us had disappeared. The power I had once felt at being in charge had been replaced with a sense of failure, at my colossal fuck-up for letting that guy move in. It turns out, all I had to do was ask any of the older guys at the cafe about him - they all knew he was a borderline homeless drunk.
I left San Francisco soon after Joe left, and a few years later Gene emailed me an obituary. It was Joe's. He had been hit by a car while crossing a street. It happened in a Bay Area suburb that he was living in. (I guess he didn’t last too long up in Oregon.) The obit said he had a fiance, and was about to be married, if you can believe it.
In closing, let me tell all you bleeding heart "homeless advocates" who would rag on me because I am "insensitive": How about you open up your homes to these people?! You don't like them crapping in the street, let them use your bathroom! Let them sleep in your garage! Come on, guys - instead of just hanging around Civic Center feeding them, let one of them into your homes like I did! You won't be sorry!
Joe had gone through a lot of pain, and his fight against alcohol was tremendous one. This was written more as a warning to other people who sublet rooms than anything else, although I am also describing my experiences.
The story you have just read is true.
In closing, let me say that this whole experience changed my life, very negatively, and in an attempt to get away from life in the city, I re-joined the Army. I just wanted to get the hell away from the place and all the memories it held for me. I looked forward to not having to worry about subletting and rent and electric bills and blackouts and traffic and noise and bums and crack-heads and all the other shit this city held for me.
Funny how life works. This story was published in the Herald in 2002, and because of the experience - like I mentioned in closing - I had to get away, out of San Francisco.
I actually joined the Army right before 9/11, was sent to Fort Bragg as an Airborne soldier, then did a tour in Iraq. After 4 years, I became a military contractor in Qatar and am presently one in Afghanistan.
Because of this, I met my Filipino girlfriend whom I have been with for 6 years now, and will soon be buying some land in the Philippines to start a farm. Because of me, she is now attending nursing school and is living with her child back in the Philippines, instead of working overseas.
All because of Joe. ###