While I was couch surfing through grad school four years ago, I had this incredibly vivid dream about living in a 1920s building in the International District called the Alps Hotel. In the dream nothing really happened, but the place was a taller, narrower, more streamlined version of itself, like a cathedral, and I woke up with an unplaceable sense of hope.
I’d seen sketchy-looking billboards advertising rooms starting at $450 (if only it were still that cheap) and was told by a former squatter who lived there that it was a dangerous place, every unit tiled like a bathroom, anticipating all the ways the liquids inside a person can spill.
These details made me wary of the place but, after paying my tuition with nine months of full-time work and staying anywhere that was free, when I got a grant I snagged one of those now $500 rooms at the first opportunity.
It really was a room–the building, an SRO designed as a boarding house for transient laborers, has few units over 100 square feet, and mine was about average. But mine, on the top floor, has an unobstructed view of downtown and a little bit of the water, and Hing Hay park was my front yard. I was so happy just to have a place I could stay longer than a few weeks, after signing my lease I sat on my own floor looking out at my gorgeous view and cried from relief.
As you can imagine, my performance at school improved immediately. I’d never lived alone before and found that I loved it—cleaning at my own pace, writing in solitude whenever I felt like it, never having to put pants on. One of the things I’d missed most was looking at the paintings and photos I’ve collected over the years—when I covered the entire interior with them, I felt like a piece of my identity was returned.
The building’s residents are mostly elderly veterans, disabled people, and students. As poverty often means less access to mental health care, occasionally someone would snap; lean out their window all day screaming at pedestrians, throw something through a closed window, etc. I’m most curious about a woman who appeared on photocopies all over the building one morning that read, “Do not let this person into the building under any circumstances.” I still wonder what that was about.
Only one scary thing happened—one night I went out because I saw a woman resembling someone I had recently broken up with stumble into an alley, reeling. When I reached the entrance, she had disappeared. A man wearing TWO Bluetooth devices (even one is a red flag) pushed into the Alps as I entered, saying “I’m coming up!” in a voice that suggested he wasn’t actually talking to anyone on his miniature douche phones. He made me nervous, so I walked faster. He matched my pace. I sprinted to my door and as I locked it behind me I heard him outside, and then a moment later, I heard him retreat down the stairs. I still wonder what that was about, too.
The majority of Alps inhabitants are lovely. There’s an older veteran with crutches who always gives me a Jolly Rancher, a pleasant married couple mysteriously able to cohabitate in a space the size of mine, and a man who floods my floor daily with wonderful cooking smells. The handyman is my favorite—one of my bikes went missing and I discovered he had found it in a nearby dumpster and turned it into a moped, which I admired enough to let him keep it. He builds up old cars, raises bees in his apartment and spends his time outside work on a sailboat.
I finished grad school at the Alps, wrote a book, learned to enjoy weed, listened to the Cabaret soundtrack seven million times, fell in love, and had so much sex two weeks ago my antique oak bed finally collapsed.
I’m extremely excited to move in with my girlfriend–something I’ve never done before,and our new place in the Central District is completely amazing–I thought I’d never live somewhere I could garden again. Being excited about gardening makes me feel WAY OLD, as does the existence of a place where my 20s ended. But I’ll always remember the Alps, especially that first day after I signed my lease. As a home, it completely lived up to the dream of hope I had months before I moved in.