If you watch too many movies, you may begin to think that life operates according to a script. And sometimes it happens that way. The much needed money shows up right when you need it, that person you've always had a secret hankering for, actually likes you back. In the movies there is usually a happy ending, a triumph in the face of great odds right before the credits roll. But moving and movies have little in common.
I just never thought it would be that hard finding an apartment in Vancouver. After all I've lived here some twenty years, I've rented lots of places, some cheap, some not, some small, some huge. Even when I was 18 years old and didn't have a job I found an apartment with no trouble at all. So how come it was so different this time? One word: kids. Finding a place with small children turned into a Homeric odyssey that was I was completely unprepared for. Well, not entirely unprepared for. Something similar happened when I was nine months pregnant, and living in a hotel after a mysterious Egyptian dentist boiled mercury on his stove and killed himself, and our entire apartment building was evacuated by the health board. That's a movie unto itself. I waddled the streets, looking for a place, and no one would rent us anything. They took one look at my jutting belly and said, "No, sorry," their mouths in a tight little line. Things looked grim. My blood pressure sky rocketed, preeclampsia loomed, and my midwife consigned me to bed rest. I lay in the hotel room, on my left side, and the only thing on TV was the Eco Challenge. The contestants in the Borneo rain forest, hiked, biked and ran with rotting feet and no sleep. I took some comfort in the fact that at least they seemed to be having a worse time than I was.
We took the first place that we could find. Although it was always too small, over the garage door, and on the alley where I once watched a young man drop his drawers and lay the largest loaf of poo I'd ever seen come out of a human being. But at least kids weren't an issue. We lived there almost four years, and I was REALLY ready to move.
Run for your lives! A child!
It was all supposed to be easy. The week before we'd even given notice, a two bedroom apartment came available in my sister's building, right across the hall from her. It was a nice old place, a three storey walk up, a block from the park and my son's preschool, three blocks from my mother: perfect. I called even before they'd finished putting the sign up, and at first all looked well. The building manager seemed a decent fellow, we spoke, arranged a time to go see the apartment and then he asked the fateful question.
"How many people will be living there?"
"Three, my husband, myself and our son."
"How old is your son?"
There was a long pause, and then a sigh, before he said "Okay, here' s the deal..." And with those three words my heart sank. Seems there was already a three-year-old child in the building and like most three-year-olds he moved around occasionally. This had caused a flurry of complaints, letters and threats of lawsuits.
"If it was up to me I'd never say no, but I have to ask the owner of the building. I'll call you back at 4 o'clock and let you know."
Of course, there was no call, just silence. Therein it began.
From their bad rep, you'd think kids spent 24 hours a day jumping up and down. In reality, it's only 12 hours a day, because they're usually in bed by 7:30 pm. They don't throw many parties, or rehearse with a rock band and they're a little too disorganized to start a grow op. You can be a crack smoking, Rottweiler owning, party animal and I'm sure you'll find a place before me and my three-year-old.
Early bird gets burned
So far I've looked at almost thirty different places, some were nice but expensive, some were cheap and smelly, while others were 80s-style mouldering Miami Vice horrible. Price sometimes seems to bear little relation to what you actually get. One of the nicest apartments I saw was also the least expensive. I was the first person to see it, some 20 minutes early to the showing. The pleasant woman, who showed me around said "The early bird catches the worm," and promised to put in a good word with the owner of the building. We never heard a thing.
Other places, you don't want to touch anything in case you come away with a communicable disease. In one house, the tenants (three young men) had recently been evicted and had one hell of a party before they were kicked to the curb. The house looked liked a movie set the day after the big party at Porky's. Cigarette butts, lipstick kisses all over the window, half empty beer bottles everywhere. And it stank of cigarette smoke. The one place I gave my heart to will haunt me for years. The little old lady who had lived there, had recently sold up and moved to an apartment. The place positively reeked of gentility, it was lovely, and enormous but a couple hundred dollars beyond our budget.
I went against everything in my nature and bargained, asking the new owner if she'd consider dropping the price in exchange for excellent tenants.
But love and real estate have very little relation to each other.
Location, location, location
I am not particularly naïve. I realize renting is simply a business transaction: I will give you this amount of money, and you will give me this box of space. But when kids enter the picture, the idea of home takes on an entirely new meaning. Sometimes I feel like a salmon that has returned to spawn only to find that its stream is gone, paved over by condominiums.
For each place, a whole new life was envisioned, this will be my life here, this is my new neighbourhood, my new grocery store, my video store, and for each cycle of new hope, a small death. Most people have been sweetly apologetic' others mouth nice things to your face and you never hear from them ever again , even if you call back and leave pleading messages saying " I know no news is probably bad news, but can you just let me know, so I can cross you off the list." Nothing, no calls, just sin by omission.
Lately, my son has invented a new game, where he pretends to pick up the phone and says "Hi, I'm calling about the two bedroom on T-bone. Can you call me back at 8890--0990--999, thanks!" to great hilarity. His mother of course, is less than amused by the reality of the situation. Our housing karma has not gotten any better since the mercury incident, but at least we're not alone. I know of two couples who had exactly the same problem. One with a four-month-old baby (who ended up taking our apartment) and one expecting their first child, who were rescued by friends of the family who rented them their retirement condo.
I've seen places where people obviously had no idea what they were doing, houses butchered into 50 suites, each one approximately 10'x5' with no laundry, but one place takes the cake. It sounded promising -- three bedrooms right in the area we were looking for -- I called to ask which street it was on.
The man answered. "You know the Chinese restaurant, it's right above it."
I'd been by that corner probably at least a thousand times, and I'd never noticed an apartment, but lo and behold, I went to look and there perched on the complex that housed the Chinese restaurant was a house.
I had to go look, purely out of curiosity, and it wasn't all that bad, except for a few minor things. You had to come in through the back entrance of the restaurant, and the view looked out on the air ventilators. I was standing in the kitchen, which was right next to the bathroom and I noticed there was no door between the shower stall and the kitchen. Anyone in the kitchen could see anyone in the shower. I didn't want to be mean, but I thought perhaps, this needed to be pointed out. The man showing us around, was the manager of the restaurant below. He looked for a moment, between the kitchen and the bathroom and had the good grace to be embarrassed. "You're right," he said and then, "everything is negotiable!"
But just how negotiable is the question? If you have kids, you can always move to Coquitlam or North Vancouver if you want to commute for two hours. If you don't own a car and you still want some space, your options are not that optimal. You can get a big place and get some home stay students, or you can move in with your mother. Or if you have the means you can buy, but that's a whole other kettle of fish. And they aren't salmon, they're sardines. Vancouver purports to be a gracious welcoming city, but family housing is low on the list of priorities. "A gated paradise" I think it's been called.
If I wasn't exhausted and utterly demoralized, I might talk about how when we find ourselves in strange sequence of events, we say, "It's just like a bad movie!" It feels that way, especially when we realized we'd booked the movers for the wrong day and my husband sat down and cried from sheer stress. At midnight, frantically packing boxes so that we could load them into a half tonne truck, and be out the next day by 1 p.m., it certainly felt like a horror film, but if it was a movie, you'd be thinking, "This is too much. Who wrote this stuff?!"
Finally two days before the end of the month we looked at one more place. It was the perfect location. The right price. Everything we wanted and needed, we filled out the application, told our sad story and the woman who owned the house listened carefully, nodded her head, and looked at our desperate faces. She promised to call that evening. Here is where the script ends. In a movie world, we would be living in a new apartment, happy, at home. But in the real world, there was no phone call and we moved into my sister's boyfriend leaky condo, and continue to look. But that's a whole new story.
Dorothy Woodend, who usually reviews films for The Tyee on Fridays, was too busy looking at cruddy flats this week to go to the movie theatre. (If you have a place for rent, please have pity.)