FILED IN: Child Safety

Basement Dweller

My baby’s first neighbors were drug addicts. I guess they were not exactly neighbors in the official, legal sense, but I feel confident about the drug part. Technically they fell into the category of “squatters” but they did most of their living within twenty yards of our kitchen.

In the 1950s, our Victorian house on San Francisco’s historic Alamo Square had been chopped into four individual flats with a couple of non-residential storage rooms underneath. Our photo-friendly location marked a primo tour bus stop, with the famous “Painted Ladies” as our neighbors. We also had quick access to Haight-Ashbury — birthplace of the Grateful Dead — and the Castro, the gayest hood in America, with limitless opportunities for drinking, dining, dancing and shopping. Dino, our beatnik Daddy-O landlord, carefully selected all of the tenants on what he believed to be a hepcat blend of character traits and groovy personalities. We loved our charming flat and we thought we had struck habitat gold.

And for a while we did live in the mother lode. Our building housed Dino’s dream mix of creative, urban professionals, and we all got along beautifully. Casual chitchat peppered the front stoop, invitations to parties were frequent, and we often left homemade cookies on each other’s doorsteps. When Grace, our baby, was born, the other tenants elected her building mascot, and showered her with coos and affection. Randy, Dino’s on-again, off-again handyman, lurked about now and then, but naive in our neighborly bliss, we initially neglected to see the warning signs of his sneaky residency.

Randy reminded me of a gray-haired, strung-out version of Schnieder from One Day at A Time, complete with a dirty white t-shirt and tool belt. His white mustache usually retained crumbs from yesterday’s breakfast, and his stiff hair too closely resembled Donald Trump’s mysterious coif, sans the Wall Street panache. He was always hanging around, although he didn’t come in through the window. He rented one of the basement storage rooms that had its entrance through our backyard, and he used the room for some sort of enigmatic workshop. Boxes of Randy’s stuff littered the back garden, and I often heard him using unidentifiable electric power tools for hours on end. He gave me the royal heebie jeebies, but his status as our fixer-upper earned him some space and rights to make a mess.

Randy’s white, serial-killer panel van, with all its windows painted shut, often blocked the garage where our neighbors kept their cars. The driveway block is a major violation of San Francisco parking etiquette, and on many mornings they blasted their horns to rouse Randy to come move his mystery machine. The fact that he came shuffling from his backyard basement hideaway at 7:30 a.m. was our first clue that something was afoot with this handyman gone awry, but we naively simply assumed he was an industrious guy who took his handyman job seriously. Gradually, the warning signs piled up and the tenants started keeping their heads up for more shenanigans.

They weren’t too hard to find. The platonic gay roomies, who lived right above Randy’s lair, swore that they heard a television blaring well into the night. Phil, the hyperactive building manager, peeked into Randy’s basement one day when Randy wasn’t around. Randy’s trappings, a mattress on the floor, the confirmed TV, drug paraphernalia, and boxes and boxes of crap, gave Phil the willies, and he pounced on Dino to get an eviction, and pronto.

Evictions take a long time to process in tenant-friendly San Francisco. While we waited to hear if Randy would get the boot, we had the joy of becoming well acquainted with the chemically imbalanced radiance of Randy’s lovely Better Half, who seemed to have nowhere better to go than our house. One of the bartender guys from upstairs conferred upon her the moniker of “Crackety Crackhead”. My husband Jeff and I, having been raised in genteel Texas and taught to abide by certain standards of formality in manners, simply anointed her “Mrs. Randy.” We especially didn’t want to offend any crack users who weren’t actual “Crackheads”.

Mrs. Randy wandered the sidewalks in front of our building, drinking giant three liter bottles of generic brand orange soda and yelling to the sky. And if Randy’s crunch-tastic hairdo needed a good conditioning, then Mrs. Randy gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “styled with an eggbeater.”

Her sweatpants were usually pulled up to her thighs, exposing her dirt-encrusted, unshod feet, furry calves and scabby knees. Keep in mind that we lived along a well-traveled urban footpath where it was not unusual to step in any number of bodily excretions, both animal and human. Mrs. Randy’s feet slapped happily along the filthy thoroughfare as if we lived in suburban Orange County and the sidewalks were tidy manicured lawns. We had no confirmation of where she came from or where she slept, but all signs pointed to Randy’s spooky lair.

The graphic designer who worked from home in one of the upstairs units, confirmed this suspicion when he started seeing Mrs. Randy wandering around the back garden at all hours of day and night, one time with curlers in her hair. Although not all of my questions were answered, I finally had an insight into how she maintained that fresh from the salon look.

Once, I tried to sneak past Mrs. Randy when taking Grace out for a walk, but I had no such luck. As soon as I tiptoed over the threshold, Mrs. Randy jumped up from the anthill she sat on, and yelled with eyes wilder than a caged hyena, “How is your day today?!?!” I stared at the ground and muttered a soft, “Fine, thanks,” before scurrying away, all the while saying a silent prayer that her deranged vibes wouldn’t rub off on my clean-souled little baby.

It all came to a head one day when I was home alone with Grace. Overcome with a bout of mania, Mrs. Randy spent the afternoon standing guard in front of our house, metal rake in hand. She scraped the already spotless sidewalk for hours, creating a bone-chilling repetition akin to the proverbial nails on the chalkboard. Once she had sufficiently removed the imaginary debris from the cement, she raked most of the bark off the lower half of the lone tree that sprouted from the concrete in front of our stoop. Then she turned her delirium to the house itself and proceeded to scrape the side of the building for what seemed like several years.

Trapped in my flat, I huddled with Grace as the horror-show scrape, scrape, scrape gradually eroded my sanity. An obviously off-balance woman carrying a pronged, metal weapon lurked just outside my door, and I was too terrified to leave the house. Even the cats went nuts. Thinking that the scratchy noises came from rat toenails inside the walls, they howled in anticipation of a hunt, adding to my tension.

By some miracle of chance, Dino happened to stop by the building, and I heard him yell at Mrs. Randy to make like Michael Jackson and beat it. In response to Dino’s admonishment, Mrs. Randy whined, in a surprisingly nasal Brooklyn accent, “Awww, geee, Dino! WhadidIdoooowrooong?” I suppressed an urge to lean out the window and enumerate her many wrongdoings, starting with those wormy feet.

Mrs. Randy and her rake soon disappeared, but the saga was not over yet. Thinking that it was safe to finally get some non-crazy fresh air, Grace and I emerged from the apartment. We sat on the front stoop to wait for Jeff to get home from work, and I anticipated telling him a story that described more than the volume and consistency of various baby excretions. Suddenly a cop pulled into the driveway and got out of the car.

“Are you the one who called the police?” he asked.

I shook my head dumbly, but before I could open my mouth, Phil, the hyperactive building manager who initiated Randy’s eviction, roared up to the house in his Jeep Grand Cherokee. He practically frothed at the mouth as he leapt from the SUV and ran up to the porch. “I saw it again today! They’re living down there! I know they are!” He panted, “It’s drugs! Definitely drugs!!”

I held Grace tight as I watched Frothy Phil and the policeman go around to the back yard. I expected them to come out dragging Mr. or Mrs. Randy, but they didn’t. Instead they returned with a freshly cuffed new person. Not Randy. Not Mrs. Randy. But a brand new guest.

The strange woman wore a filthy blue parka and flannel pajama bottoms. Her hair looked like it could have benefited from a round with Mrs. Randy’s curlers. She kept mumbling, “I’m just waiting for Randy. He said I could look at TV.” I stared in amazement, processing the fact that not two, but at least three drug addicts lived under my floorboards. I cautiously peered around the side of the house, wondering who else lived back there. At that point, I would not have been shocked if Rush Limbaugh came wandering through the gate, tweaking for his next fix.

Jeff had the precision timing to arrive home from work right as all of the police action went down. Imagine a loving daddy, excited to escape the daily grind, being greeted not by a sexy wife and adorable offspring, but by the following melee: Phil, sweating, screeching, and flailing his arms like he has just single-handedly won the war on drugs; a police cruiser parked in the driveway, its driver calmly escorting a tricked-out looking woman who had apparently just stopped by our basement for some Must See TV; me, wearing unwashed yoga pants, my hair piled on top of my head like I took styling lessons from Mrs. Randy, with one breast hanging a nipple too close to the edge of my unlatched nursing bra; and Grace, absorbing this highly-charged scene with her until-then untainted, six-month-old eyes.

Jeff and I spent the evening debating the pros and cons of moving out of the Randy house. With hindsight, weighing the pain-in-the-butt of finding a new place and the expense and time of executing the actual move against our child’s potential for finding a crack pipe in the garden seemed like a no-brainer. However, the small town yokels that still lurked within us found vindication of our coolness in our awesome tourist-central Frisco dwelling. A claw-foot tub, antique wainscoting, and the San Francisco equivalent of living near the Eiffel Tower were bragging points when we hosted our Texas pre-fab, subdivision-dwelling friends.

I also fought an inner battle against the conservative West Texas shell from which I sprung. I have shunned the Republicanism of my upbringing with great pride, and my urge to run away shamed the liberal in me. I told myself that I should be more compassionate toward the poor and disenfranchised. More loving and kind to the Randy clan. I asked myself, “What would Bill Clinton do?”

Being a mama intensified this identity struggle. The animal need to protect my offspring found refuge in the sheltered Texas girl of my youth and threatened to shut down the wanna-be urban cool kid that I had nurtured for so long. Our Randy situation threw all of these aspects of my personality into the blender, churning up insecurities and future therapy bills

That same night someone rang our doorbell at three in the morning, looking for Randy, and the camel’s back came crunching down under the weight of that very heavy piece of straw. Being a protective mama suddenly took first place in my identity queue, bypassing “socially progressive” and “open-minded” by a wide margin.

It was time to move the hell out of a crack house and find a place suitable for raising a child.

Although we threw off the charmed balance of our lovely tenant community — the last time we drove by I saw our old windows lined with aluminum foil — we decided to schlep ourselves and our possessions to a new flat that had less proximity to Randy-style hijincks.

I know that not all families can escape such sketchy situations. I am grateful that we had the resources to move to a more kiddo-friendly section of the city, where the only chemical abuse in our house comes from Daddy spraying too much WD-40 on the creaky hinges. In time, we’ll tell Grace of this seedier life we briefly lived and in time she’ll experience similar absurdities, but for now we’re happy to do it without having junkies living in the basement.

Until then, sayanora, crackheads!