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Breathe

Twenty-five years ago, I got my first apartment in the city. It was a ground floor studio, perched above the intersection of Union and Van Ness. Despite the constant hum of traffic, I loved the neighborhood, its mournful foghorns, and the quiet that descended every Sunday evening. I would sleep undisturbed until around midnight, when I’d be jolted awake by the sound of shaking, crashing, jingling.

After three months, I stuck my head out the window to see what was causing this weekly disturbance. I spotted a man in dirty clothes with long hair and a matted beard. He was wrestling with the newspaper vending machine, trying to shake the coins free. I opened the window and yelled, “Hey! Stop that! Some of us have work tomorrow morning!” Unconcerned, he continued. “Hey!” I repeated, feeling brave.

He growled, “We’re not so different, you know. You yuppies are all just a paycheck away from the street.” I knew he had a point, so I shut the window.

Within 4 years, my life circumstances had changed a bit. I was married, a homeowner in Marin, guardian of one mean little cat and two adorable dogs. I had my own office at work. I acquired all these things to feel safe. But I began to forget the world around me.

I squandered scenic ferry commutes staring into my phone. Once I alighted into The City, I prepared to run the gauntlet. My headphones canceled the cacophony that surrounded me. I learned to ignore the lost souls I passed — their pain, powerlessness, and fury — lest I fall victim to contagion.

On my daily walk to the office, I consumed hot, bitter beverages from disposable receptacles made out of the compressed pulp of trees, bleached lily white. I’d drop them into overfilled bins that spilled out onto the street. After work, I’d run on a hamster wheel overlooking the Bay Bridge, and paid trainers to offset my stasis. These rituals made me careless and clueless.

Five years ago, life changed once again for me. My partner Jason and I were out of town, awoken at 2am by the news that our house was on fire. A serial arsonist had set 8 blazes in a meth-fueled spree, right here in Alameda. He was apprehended at sunrise, and no one was injured, but dozens of lives were up-ended. A homeless 22-year old from Puerto Rico burned down my house, displaced 4 other families, and destroyed 2 businesses. And yet…

A team of 5 middle-aged women from Central America packed up, photographed, and catalogued what was left of my family’s belongings. In 100 degree heat. Without masks, because the short-term effect would have slowed them down. Never mind the long-term effect of breathing in smoke for 8 hours a day in those conditions.

In public, I went high. I was interviewed on the local TV news and announced that I had forgiven the arsonist. I spoke passionately about our society’s failure to address mental health issues, homelessness, drug addiction. Friends raised money for our short term expenses, helping my family move from hotel to hotel, giving us clothes and shoes and chocolate and wine.

In private, I went low. My life became numb, cold and blue. Nights were for Netflix and days were for drinking. I didn’t like the tiny taste I got of what it’s like to be homeless. And then I suffered the indignity of submitting my credit score to greedy, callous property management companies. That led to 22 months of purgatory in a crappy apartment, located once more above a busy street, where UPS trucks beeped and smokers loitered.

In the end, we made it through, Jason and I. And in return for our patience, we got a much nicer house out of it. I am well aware of my privilege, after hearing how things went for the other 4 families who were displaced that night of the arson attacks. They all shared an apartment building, and none of them had renters’ insurance. I talked to one woman who lived there, lost all her belongings, and had to pay Comcast $750 for not returning her cable box. She ended up moving out of state. More and more of my friends and neighbors talk about doing the same.

No one disagrees how unjust the housing situation is here. (Well, maybe the landlords.) Most days, I don’t know what to do or where to start. But the best advice I’ve heard is this: Pick an issue, learn more about it, and join others who are trying to do something about it.

I also recommend reading Tolstoy if you so desire. He advises us not to get too comfortable. He says, knowledge tells us that fire can burn, while wisdom compels us to remember the blister. So, talk to people. Tell your stories. Listen to theirs. Remember, we are here to lift each other up.

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