I moved to San Francisco from New York in 1993. I moved there for one reason and one reason only: I was lazy. I'd had a full-time job in New York and had never experienced anything in life that sucked as bad as going to work every day. San Francisco had a reputation as a place where you could goof off a little and still get by. I didn’t need another reason to go.
And, as it turned out, when I arrived, I didn’t really find one. I instantly disliked the place, a dislike that continues to this day. Sure, it was beautiful, if you stood on a corner in Pacific Heights and looked out at the blue bay. The rest of the city was basically a garbage dump surrounded by dilapidated Victorians and populated by smug people in bad moods, some of whom were into computers and the rest of whom weren’t into much of anything at all, unless you count fixed-gear bikes as a thing and I don’t.
By the way, this is how I saw the city as a 23-year-old, 20 years ago. I’m not trying to start an argument about whether San Francisco is a nice place or not. I happen to think, for example, that Los Angeles is beautiful from every angle and populated by the most wonderful collection of human beings ever assembled in one place. There’s no accounting for taste.
I stayed with a friend in the Upper Haight for a while, in a chilly cold apartment that smelled a little of dampness and dust. Then I went to find a place to live and discovered that indeed every apartment in San Francisco smelled exactly the same way. At any rate, one of the places I looked at was an enormous room in the Western Addition for $365. The apartment was also inhabited by two brothers who were terrible artists and another guy who was taking his sweet time applying to graduate programs in English.
The room was weird. First of all, it was painted dark red. What was it with San Franciscans painting things with dark, airless, doomsday colors? Second of all, it had a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Third of all, it felt like not one but several people had died in it. The whole city felt kind of sinister to me, what with its fog and its treeless streets and number of citizens who seemed utterly untethered to reality or even another human being. The way I saw it, the room was only slightly creepier than my general surroundings and it was cheap. So I just went for it.
The guy who had previously occupied my room lived in a group house with the ex-girlfriend of Roger, the would-be grad student. His name was Dave. Dave was very smart but wasted his intelligence reading and re-reading Carlos Castaneda. He had long hair and large brown eyes and he hit on every single girl he met — not in a particularly creepy way though, more in like a, “Well, I might as well try this” kind of way. “Hey, how do you like the room?” he asked when he met. “It’s great,” I said. We talked about how big it was. He talked about how New York sucked,and I told him that I had taken to calling it the Victorian Shit Hole, which I thought was hilarious. He didn’t laugh, but he did ask me if I wanted a back rub, which I declined. I will say this for Dave — he walked away from any unsuccessful conquest just as cheerfully as he went into it.
Meanwhile, I painted the room white. I was too young and unaccustomed to self-care to know that you can’t just paint white over red so it had these sort of white walls with red lurking behind it, but it was, arguably, a bit less grim. I got rid of the single bulb and set up lamps. I put some nice white cotton curtains in the windows. Meanwhile, the room was getting scarier. Whatever feeling in the room had started out as unsettling had now become downright menacing. I felt like there was a white noise machine playing all the time, a white noise machine that did not like me and wanted me gone.
One night I woke up because I felt something sitting on my leg. I was kind of hoping a cat had wandered in there or something, but alas, no such luck. I thought about how when I was young and had read "The Amityville Horror" because someone had left it at our summer rental and how it had taken me about five years to convince myself there was no such thing as ghosts. And now I had my own ghost. I felt weird, having a ghost. It wasn’t something I had ever expected. Part of me, despite reason, had always kind of believed they existed but I have to admit I always thought they would bother other people. I think — and I know this is ridiculous — that a ghost would just find me a little bit too preppy.
I finally confided in the would be grad-student that I thought the room was scary. I remember he was reading the Nabokov novel "Ada" when I told him. He set it down on his chest. (One year later I would think, Is there anything that more defines San Francisco in the early nineties than an unemployed 25-year-old man with "Ada" resting on his chest?) “You should ask Dave about the room,” he said.
His tone frightened me. “What do you mean?” I said.
He picked the book up again. “Just ask Dave,” he said.
I was hesitant to make any overtures towards Dave, as he might think I was trying to get into his pants, but then I realized that would really be his problem and not mine, and that even if he did think that, he would eventually discover he was mistaken. I arranged to meet him at his house. He looked kind of scared when he opened the door.
“I talked to Roger,” he said. “I know why you’re here.” The perpetually glimmer of sexual interest was absolutely gone from his expression. Terror made him innocent. “I didn’t want to tell you about it,” Dave said. “Because, at first, I thought it might not bother you. But for me, it got really bad. I could feel that thing in there all the time. I felt it sitting next to me, standing next to me. It’s why I moved out.”
I told him my white noise machine analogy and his eyes got very wide. “Oh my god,” he said. “That’s exactly what it’s like.” He shuddered. “It scares me so much that you can feel the thing, too. I was hoping I had just imagined it.”
I stayed in the place another six months after that conversation. Part of me told myself that Dave was too much of a weirdo to place much stock in, and that allowed for the possibility that the ghost, the weird feeling, the sinister tug of that room was all in my imagination. There was also part of me who always thought of that feeling as a manifestation of my general anxiety about the city itself — its darkness, its fogginess, its people who came from a different world than me and who were as mysterious, arguably, as anything supernatural.
But once I left that room, I never felt anything like that feeling again, like someone was right next to me, breathing, moving, thinking, taking up as much space as a person without actually being there. I recently looked up the building and saw that it had been painted olive green with brown trim, and I do know one thing — that it's not going to help.