J OUR­NEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DIS­COV­ERY Wake in fright

Mon­ica McIn­er­ney books a night­mare hol­i­day apart­ment in down­town San Fran­cisco

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

NEVER ex­pected to spend my first night in San Fran­cisco wish­ing I could lev­i­tate. Or that I had a suit­case full of rub­ber gloves and in­dus­tri­al­strength dis­in­fec­tant. The apart­ment we’d rented for a week over the in­ter­net had looked great in the pho­tos: in the funky Hayes Val­ley area of the city, just me­tres from shops and bars. It was above a bar, in fact, but the owner as­sured us it was beau­ti­fully quiet. Near pub­lic trans­port. A good price. Just what we were looking for.

The pre­vi­ous year, while I was re­search­ing my novel Those Fara­day Girls, we’d rented a New York apart­ment via a web­site. We hadn’t re­alised it then but we’d hit it first-time lucky. It was on Wash­ing­ton Square in Green­wich Vil­lage, a light, airy apart­ment over­look­ing a com­mu­nal tree-filled square, with a long bal­cony and French doors. It was half the price of a ho­tel and we spent that week in Man­hat­tan feel­ing like lo­cals. I liked the apart­ment so much that Mag­gie, the main char­ac­ter in my novel, lives in an iden­ti­cal one.

The trip to San Fran­cisco was also for re­search pur­poses, a trial of life-as-a-lo­cal for my next book. Warn­ing bells should have sounded when the owner of the rental apart­ment didn’t re­spond to my emails about col­lect­ing the key un­til just hours be­fore we were to fly out of Dublin. I’d paid in ad­vance, so there wasn’t the op­tion of cut­ting our losses and find­ing some­where else. When his email fi­nally came, he was laid­back to the point of co­matose. Hey, sorry to worry you,’’ he wrote in re­sponse to my se­ries of anx­ious in­quiries. I wouldn’t have left you guys in the lurch. Good thing you’re com­ing to San Fran­cisco to chill!’’

His di­rec­tions to the apart­ment and the key pick-up were like a crazed trea­sure hunt. Take the sub­way. Turn left at the aban­doned build­ing. Walk 400m past the home­less hos­tel. Go past the all-night take­away un­til you see a bar with a dozen or so mo­tor­cy­cles parked out the front. Go into the bar and ask for Ge­orge, his friend.

We fol­lowed it to the let­ter. Aban­doned build­ing. Home­less hos­tel. Fi­nally the bar and the quest for Ge­orge. The bar­man looked blankly back. He had no idea who or what we were talk­ing about. We tried ring­ing the owner. No an­swer. It was 11pm, we were jet­lagged and the warn­ing bells were now clang­ing to ri­val Big Ben.

About to go in search of the near­est ho­tel, we heard our names be­ing called. A young, cool guy in a base­ball cap ran up the street. Hey, guys. How was the trip? I’m Ge­orge.’’ He took us to a pair of dou­ble doors be­side the mo­tor­cy­cle bar. Un­for­tu­nately, he had prob­lems with his key, which gave us time to read the hand­writ­ten no­tice stuck to the glass. At­ten­tion ten­ants. The ro­dent and flea eradication pro­gram will com­mence next Mon­day.’’

Mon­day. Two days af­ter we’d gone. My hus­band and I looked at each other. This way, folks.’’

Up a flight of stairs. Down a wind­ing corridor. Through three sets of fire doors. Our senses were now on high alert. Yes, that was urine we could smell. Yes, that did look like blood on the wall. Yes, the car­pets did feel sticky un­der­foot. That was the thump of a bass we could hear from the floor above.

Home from home, happy hol­i­days,’’ gar­ru­lous Ge­orge said as he threw open the door. He moved like light­ning. Light switches here. Bath­room here. Bed there. Just leave the key on the ta­ble when you go, OK? En­joy San Fran. Bye!’’ He was gone. It was just the two of us, stand­ing in the spot­light of the bare lightbulb above us, its im­age re­flected in the win­dow. The barred win­dow. The barred, cracked win­dow. My hus­band spoke first. I’m glad it was you who found this one.’’

It was the same apart­ment I had looked at on the in­ter­net, there was no doubt about that. But what the owner hadn’t shown in the pho­to­graph were the added ex­tras. The pile of rub­bish in the cor­ner of the kitchen area: pizza boxes and bags of rot­ting veg­etable peel­ings. The stains, crumbs and bits of bread on the kitchen ta­ble. The cracks and stains in the toi­let. The seven — yes, I counted them — half-used bits of soap on the bath­room floor and shower cu­bi­cle. The cloud of flies that streamed out of the un­washed cof­feemaker on the stove.

We edged our way to the bed­room. More bars on the win­dow. One of them bent. A wardrobe with a bro­ken door and five mis­shapen wire coathang­ers, one with what looked like a strait­jacket hang­ing from it. And the piece de re­sis­tance? Some­one else’s un­der­wear on the floor by the bed.

Of course we should have walked out there and then. Rung the owner. Run af­ter Ge­orge and asked did he think we’d lost our minds, the place was a pigsty. But we were tired. Jet­lagged. In a new city. It was now af­ter mid­night. We weren’t think­ing straight. We stayed.

I changed into py­ja­mas. My hus­band slept in his clothes. (We washed them sev­eral times be­fore we ever thought about wear­ing them again. I then threw the py­ja­mas away.) Nei­ther of us slept. We could hear sirens out­side and creaks on the fire es­cape. My senses be­came so alert, I thought I could hear the whirring of the flies’ wings around the cof­fee ma­chine. It was then I wished I could lev­i­tate, or time travel, or tele­port. Any­thing to get me out of that bed and far from that flat.

We were up and dressed be­fore 7am. We didn’t shower. Was it be­cause of the mould? The dirt? The smell? The used soaps? I rang gar­ru­lous Ge­orge (no an­swer) and then the owner. No an­swer there ei­ther. I left two frosty voice mes­sages. We walked to the near­est in­ter­net cafe, fol­lowed the voice mes­sages with an even frostier email de­mand­ing an im­me­di­ate re­fund of the rental money paid, then searched the web un­til we found a ho­tel that would take us for a week.

We got the last room in a Hol­i­day Inn two streets away. To this day, I would do ad­ver­tise­ments for them if they asked me. I have never seen a cleaner, love­lier room. I wanted to roll on the spot­less floor in hap­pi­ness.

In ret­ro­spect, I did get ex­actly what I was af­ter for my re­search: the chance to live like a lo­cal. Un­for­tu­nately, it was a lo­cal who lived in a fleapit. And a lo­cal who’d been ripped off. The best piece of ad­vice about on­line rent­ing is one that ap­plies to ev­ery­thing on the in­ter­net: don’t be­lieve all that you see. If it looks too good to be true, it prob­a­bly is.

As for our re­fund, I’m still wait­ing. The owner did even­tu­ally email me, ex­press­ing as­ton­ish­ment at my com­plaints, in­sist­ing it had been spot­less last time he’d seen it. When was that? In 1976? I won­dered. The owner told me he was just go­ing through a rough patch work­wise but as soon as that was sorted out, I’d get my money back.

A month later, an­other email, an­other de­lay, an­other ex­cuse. It’s now al­most a year ago and the ex­cuses keep com­ing. I’ve started to look for­ward to them. The most re­cent one said he hoped to send me the re­fund but, un­for­tu­nately, he’d cut off his thumb in a gar­den­ing ac­ci­dent and the med­i­cal bills were hor­ren­dous.

He at­tached a photo to prove it. I didn’t open it. This time, I de­cided to take him at his word. Mon­ica McIn­er­ney’s lat­est book is Al­lTo­geth­erNow, a col­lec­tion of short fic­tion (Pen­guin Aus­tralia). Su­san Kuro­sawa’s De­par­tureLounge col­umn re­turns next week.

Deals of the week

Five free nights in Phuket; ho­tel gi­ant in mil­lion-room sell-off; sav­ings on Euro­pean river trips; kids cruise free in Fiji. Th­ese and other money-sav­ing of­fers are fea­tured in Travel&In­dul­gence ’ s hol­i­day deals, up­dated daily:

www.theaus­tralian.com.au/travel/dd

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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