This is going to be a long one – lots of ground and experiences to cover. I hope you stick around till the end.
Who knew when I left Berkeley on Sunday morning to pick up my rental car and head to Sonoma that I was entering a black hole where my time, hopes and sanity would be sucked into a void of frustration and despair! As I was leaving the comfort and safety of Sean and Sabine’s house, the rubber part of the wheel on my borrowed suitcase began to disintegrate, but I was sure that was going to be the worst thing to happen. Really, it was a foreshadow of the things to come.
I stepped out of the BART elevator somewhere between the San Francisco Civic Center and the UN building, without a taxi in sight to transport me the half mile to the car rental office, but considered this no biggie. I started up the hill that lay ahead of me, but the hill was the least of my problems. This was San Francisco’s dark side, ‘the Tenderloin’ – the acrid stench of piss wafted, homeless drug zombies paced and yelled – at themselves, each other, passersby. For the first time in my entire life, including many a late night in New York City, I felt that me and my 60lbs of stuff limping along were in imminent danger. I prayed for those suitcase wheels to hold it together because I was sure if I stopped, I would be dead meat. Never have I been so grateful to go unnoticed.
Relief replaced my terror when, at last, I darkened the Hertz office doorstep. ‘I’m safe!’, I thought. ‘I’ll be mobile and independent again – yay!! Next stop – the beautiful, rolling countryside of Sonoma wine country!!!’ The Northern California hillsides were the most sparkly shade of drought-ending green from all the recent rain and this trip had already revealed so many stories to be written. My first-ever Airbnb host, we’ll call her Betty, invited me to a wine bottling event at her boyfriend’s mountain event center, which sounded like the perfect activity for a visitor from the other coast staying in wine country.
The first red flag was the kind you stick in a cupcake. It was small, fairly insignificant, but… there.
Betty asked that I lie to her next door neighbor about being an Airbnb guest, to say that I was actually a friend of a friend. I wasn’t planning to talk to her neighbors at all, but she assured me that “Harry” would introduce himself and want details. A little white lie – ok, I guess…
When my GPS said I had arrived at the event center in Sonoma, I was a mile down a pothole infested dirt road in the pouring rain, with only what looked like a dark, old farm house barely visible through the trees at the address given. It was the furthest thing from what I envisioned a Sonoma event center to be. Despite the ominous look from the road, I went in and before I knew it, was sitting under the leaky metal roof of a chilly 3-walled bar/n (that’s a barn that’s a bar), happily hand writing ’08 Meritage’ on 600 bottles, drinking a wine that had all the sharpness of a good paint stripper, having a laugh with some fine people, scratching the head of the coolest Rhodesian Ridgeback, Kingston, who rested his head on a bench, intently watching the rain as if willing it to stop. Betty arrived and we had a laugh while writing on bottles.
Hours later, the afternoon was winding down, the rain was picking up and I was ready to retreat to my new home away from home to warm up and get some work done. Betty had already explained that she would be staying the night and described where I could find the spare key, but then pulled me away from the dwindling group to speak to me privately. The cupcake flag was about to be replaced by a red flag the size of the US flag soldiers roll out when they do the National Anthem at baseball games on Memorial Day weekend.
“So, I actually have 2 boyfriends.” This initial statement amused me. Betty was in her late 50s, conservatively. I can’t get one guy to commit to me, so I was impressed she had two willing candidates in the tiny town of Sonoma. “So, when you answer my phone, if it’s one of them and I’m at the other’s house, don’t tell them.”
Suddenly, I am an accessory to the deceit of TWO MEN?! Was there a drama clause in my Airbnb contract I had failed to read?!
“How about I just don’t answer your phone…” I offered up with a forced grin, which she met with surprising hesitation but agreement to this solution. The further I got from the shabby chic (not really that chic) ‘event center’, the more pissed off I got that I had been asked me to lie TWICE in one day by the same complete stranger. I’m a Buddhist and I take this shit seriously! I don’t LIE… for ANYBODY!!
‘OK,’ I thought to myself, ‘I will just limit my interaction with her for the month. No problem, I can do that.’
After a morning of hauling my limping suitcase past zombies and an afternoon just out of the chilly rain’s reach, I didn’t have much left to give the day but, I was safe at my new home. And then I opened the door.
A branch of blue spruce with lights on it sat atop the leaning piano, putting the Charlie Brown Christmas tree to shame. Lots of bookshelves, filled with books, picture frames, nick-nacks, dust – started to burrow a little hole in the last hold I had of hope that things would work out.
The clanging sound of water from a leaky tub spigot echoed from the bathroom, next to which a bucket full of water stood.
‘My bedroom’ was a wee box with a wee bed and a wee desk, and a window 2/3 of the way up the wall. I would find out the next morning that it was better off up there, discouraging anyone from actually looking out it to the garden of death and discarded, forgotten remnants of belongings.
I knew when I agreed to a $21 a night place that I was not getting the Waldorf Astoria. And I am not one to criticize how others live. My father was a hoarder. I wouldn’t describe myself as the neatest person on earth either, but I do not open up my home to strangers and ask for money for it. I was deceived and then asked to deceive, and now shivering in the middle of this cluttered shoebox, all hope evaporated, taking with it the capacity for rational thought and problem solving. I gulped at what $660 had purchased but already exhausted from the day, at 8 at night with a typhoon going on outside, there was nowhere to go. I would attempt sleep and deal with this shit show in the morning.
7am is an hour of the day I only see when I am flying somewhere, having surgery or when I am thoroughly stressed out. By 7:30, I crept past Betty’s bedroom – she had returned during the night after all – with my stuff and drove away with the phone ringing to Airbnb.
Their refund policy for 28+ day reservations favors the host – they are under no obligation to offer one, but $660 was far too much for me to lose. They agreed that what she had asked me to do and the actual conditions of her apartment were unacceptable, but it was up to me to negotiate with Betty. With the dread of confrontation looming, I returned to the shoebox and sat in the frigid living room for 3 hours, waiting for Betty to wake up and get it over with.
Her morning fog was replaced by shock and horror when I explained my case as quietly, calmly, and non-offensively as I could.
“I can’t afford to give you a refund. I was counting on your money to pay my rent!” This was not going to go well.
An awkward, odd, uncomfortable dance ensued. She vacillated between avoidance and mounting frustration. I wanted to leave. She offered me coffee. I wanted to talk about a refund, she made me breakfast. As I choked down a meal I was not hungry for, but felt obligated by my peace accord to eat, she agreed to refund me 50%, the rest if she was able to find a replacement. She went to work finding one. Except she wasn’t looking for my replacement, she was looking for a place for me to go. I didn’t need her to find me a place to go, I needed her to agree to release me from her place so I could get my money back and move on with my life!
She shared that this scenario had played out with the last 3 or 4 Airbnb guests and that she couldn’t keep giving people their money back. She was looking for a roommate, not just a temporary guest. She wasn’t allowed to rent out to Airbnb, but she needed the rent money – she didn’t have any way to support herself while she was waiting for one of her boyfriends to ask her to move in. Desperately, she asked what she was doing wrong – I knew the answers, but she didn’t really want to know and anything I said would likely be held against me when it was time to issue the refund. I just listened.
There were phone conversations with both boyfriends, changing her demeanor to insult and outrage. I tried to move the conversation along and she threw up her hands, saying she was trying to help me but she had her own life to live. Indeed.
Please… live your life – without me in it. PLEASE!
It was after 1pm when an email from Airbnb requested that she sign in to cancel my reservation and issue the refund that we agreed on, so that I could be released. She got up in a huff, arms flailing again, her voice shrilled like that of a child getting her toy taken away.
“I didn’t agree to anything! I don’t want to give you a refund because I want you to stay. You’re a nice person.”
“I feel trapped, Betty,” was my unanswered reply as she disappeared into her bedroom.
Buddhism has taught me to be compassionate and her suffering was palpable. I didn’t want her to be thrown out of her apartment because she couldn’t make rent. I didn’t want her to struggle. I felt defeated, unkind. Just then, as has happened to me in similar moments that demand a strength I wasn’t feeling, I could hear all the women in my life say the same thing:
‘This is self care at its core. You will not get any writing done here. You will spend the month taking care of this injured animal. This is not what you came all the way to California to do – this is your Make or Break Year and THIS will BREAK YOU. For Pete’s Sake – GET UP AND PUT YOURSELF FIRST!!! GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE!!!’
Just as I was finishing the inner dialogue, Betty appeared from her bedroom holding a sweater. “Do you like cashmere? It’s very warm. I could let you borrow this sweater while you’re here if you’re cold.”
I packed up my laptop and only said, “I’m going, ” and walked out the door.
Moments later, in the Sonoma Safeway grocery store, I sobbed as my wise sister offered exactly the perspective I needed to dust myself off and carry on, ‘This is all happening in your home country. You know the number to call if you need the police, you speak the language, the surroundings may be unfamiliar but they are not foreign. You will find a place to stay tonight – a NICE hotel, because safety and warmth and comfort are what you need right now – and tomorrow will take care of itself.’
Fear of would losing all that money kept hitting me in waves, but my safety and ability to work for the next month were more important than even that.
“Are you in a safe place?” was the first question Airbnb Customer Service rep and my new best friend, Ericka asked. Through intermittent fits of tears, I explained how I found myself homeless in the Safeway parking lot. Ericka promised that she would get me taken care of. She stayed in touch with me throughout the afternoon, made sure I got lunch, found a hotel room – all of which Airbnb reimbursed. She promised to do everything she could to recover my money.
Many hours, emails and phone calls later, in my WARM hotel room, I plotted an evening filled with several long, hot showers and margaritas at the Mexican cantina across the parking lot from my hotel. My reward for surviving broken suitcase wheels, zombies, bad wine and wackos was a kind, heavy-handed pouring bartender that asked the just-closed kitchen to put a plate together for me, and an offer for a hot air balloon ride in trade for writing from the two ladies who called me over to the bar from my quiet, isolated table, and the restored ability to laugh about it all. Especially when I got a text from Betty at around 11pm asking if I was coming back.
By the next day, I had received my 50% refund from Betty, plus $275 in coupons from Airbnb, bringing my total refund to within $70 of what I spent on the Cluttered Shoebox. I also received an email from Betty, saying she was sorry I was so uncomfortable with her and her place, but she thought I was hungover and having a bad day… sigh…
I am safe and looked after by my new Airbnb hosts, though I question if spending the entire day in my room to catch up on 3 days’ worth of work and writing is giving them an odd vibe, but I am happy to finally write this all down.