Quirky Neighbors in a Modest Place by
(194 Stories)

Prompted By My First Apartment

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The place

Add a land line phone and a black-and-white TV with a coat hanger for an antenna, and my décor was almost complete.

While I appreciated the economy of sharing an apartment during my time in graduate school at UC Berkeley, once I found a job I was eager to get my own place. I’d spent over a year in the north Berkeley flats, definitely not a gentrified area in the mid-1970s, keeping track of break-ins and the notorious northside rapist, who at one time was spotted within blocks of our building.

When I got a job in San Francisco, for miserable pay, I quickly learned that I wouldn’t be able to afford a city apartment. Oakland was a great alternative—sunnier, more economical, with good public transportation. I knew the Lake Merritt area from my undergraduate days at Mills College in east Oakland and found a studio right off Grand Avenue in Adams Point, for $125 a month. From the front door I could step out to the bus stop and head to San Francisco. Right across the street was a Round Table Pizza, for times when I didn’t want to cook. It serves pizza to this day.

The building contained only studio apartments. My second-floor studio was not luxurious, but neither was it a dump. Despite the carpeting, which was finger-paint green, the main room was reasonably large and faced the front outer corner of the building. The kitchen was a separate space, where a tiny table fit, and had its own window. The vintage bath was serviceable. A closet ran along the entire length of the main room wall and contained built-in shelves and a dresser. My double bed, when covered with a cotton bedspread, could simulate a sofa. Add a land line phone and a black-and-white TV with a coat hanger for an antenna, and my décor was almost complete. It’s amazing how little was required to survive at that time!

The neighbors

While the apartment was conventional for the area, my neighbors were not. The young guy across the hall was a jazz musician and night DJ at the local jazz station. Occasionally I would hear wonderful music drift out his front window as I entered the building. My immediate next door neighbor was an oddity—an older, balding man who didn’t seem to work and ogled me occasionally. Across from him lived a charming married couple who had met at UC Berkeley—when he, as an innocent bystander to a demonstration, ran into her dorm to escape from the tear gas.

Down the hallway lived another married couple—I rode the bus to work with the husband, who came from Poland. His American wife, who had the most flaming red hair I’ve ever seen, sadly had a mental illness, and alternately would be bubbly and charming, depressed, or even screaming in agony. Once this couple invited me into their studio, and I couldn’t believe how two people managed to live in it. From the entry door, one step led me into a minuscule kitchen, and a second step would have thrown me into their bed. My studio felt palatial by comparison.

The most notable neighbor turned out to be a fellow named Dave, who owned a house across from my building. We noticed a large number of cars and visitors coming to the house on certain evenings. One night, about 10 PM, there was a commotion on the street in front of Dave’s house, and a small group of people, led by a man using a bullhorn, began shouting. “Dave, you are a sinner, stop this evil, thou shalt not covet another man’s wife.” This went on for about an hour until the police broke up their demonstration. We later learned that Dave hosted “swinger” parties (it was the 70s, remember) and some fundamentalist Christians were protesting the “wife swapping.”

Then and now

After 18 months at my job, I got a promotion and a decent raise, so I left the studio and I moved to a one-bedroom apartment on the north side of Lake Merritt—more elegant and fewer quirky neighbors. For more than 15 years, my mother had a condo right by the lake, and now she lives in a senior residence a few blocks away, so in spending time with her I have watched the area grow and change. It is now gentrified, more diverse, and very much in demand for people working in San Francisco and downtown Oakland. I hesitate to think what the rent for my studio would be now and am grateful to have had a modest place of my own and quirky neighbors to remember.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Marian, this is wonderful! Not only a story about the apartment, but the neighbors too, who were certainly quirky and then some! Love the swinger parties across the street, which you might never have known about if not for the protesters.

    Thanks for the story, and the prompt itself, and for joining the Retro team!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, I love the image of finger-paint green carpeting. Your description of the neighbors was really interesting. Left me wondering what happened to the woman with the flaming red hair and hoping she got some help. I remember using coat hangers to get TV reception. Really enjoying our virtual friendship via the Retrospect Team.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Laurie got it right when she, before me, praised the phrase “finger-paint green”. Wonderful! I also love the description of all your quirky neighbors, but particularly Dave…running a “swingers” group from his apartment! What a wild era!

    Also notable was your comment on watching a neighborhood transition through the years, as well as real estate values. We paid $43,000 for our first condo in 1976. That doesn’t even pay property taxes on any home any more.

    • Marian says:

      Betsy, I’ve watched Oakland’s transition with a lot of interest because there are so many “hidden gem” neighborhoods in this city. Of course the downside is that, if I were starting out now, there would be no way I could afford my own studio.

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