Catherine Zeng

Living in a Basement in San Francisco

“So when are you going to find a house?” my cousin asked me. I felt my stomach sink at the suggestion that we were overextending our stay. After my boyfriend and I moved to San Francisco, we were desperate to find housing quickly so that we could stop crashing at my cousin’s place in Mountain View. For some background, San Francisco housing is extremely hard to find, especially on such short notice, and for people our age, affordable housing meant living in a hacker house with 10 other people for which there is a competitive vetting process to make sure you are agreeable to the culture of the house. Because we were a couple and couldn’t commit to long-term housing, it was difficult for us to get into hacker houses, not that our personalities were that exciting either.

Soon we exhausted the leads from friends for housing and my level of desperation reached Craigslist. One stressful night, I contacted every listing for Mission District and Soma that was within our acceptable price range, which had been bumped up from $1,500 to $3,000 per month to reflect our new levels of desperation. The next morning, I received a text from the landlord of a nice looking “studio” apartment in Mission District that was fully furnished, offering for us to come take a look in person. We liked that the place was private since it would give us space to build our boba machines, so we hopped on a $60 uber to Mission District to take a look.

The landlord greeted us at the gate of the place. He wore his hair gelled back over his balding head and a gold chain, was relatively short in stature, but stocky, and spoke with a New York accent. He looked like a junkyard car salesman, or a con artist. Turns out the reason the studio was so cheap (only $2,000 a month!) was because it was in the basement; there was only one window in the apartment and it let in very little light. The place was indeed fully furnished, but the furniture looked like it came from the sales rack of Goodwill. Nothing matched. The landlord, however, was a brilliant salesman who managed to put a positive spin on everything. He pointed at a black coffee maker and exclaimed: “Look, it even comes with a coffee maker! My wife got it for Christmas, but didn’t like the color, so I brought it here.” Our judgement was clouded by the excitement of being able to secure housing by the end of the day. So we signed the three month lease and happily left Mission District to pack our bags in Mountain View.

After living in the basement for a few weeks, I began to learn its quirks. There was absolutely no natural lighting in the basement, and waking up in a dark pit every day seriously messed with my circadian rhythm. It was hard to shake off the basement’s cold, damp air that clung to me like microscopic parasites feasting on any excitement I still felt for life. The closet door, which looked like a piece of wood sawed out of the wall, squeaked because of the difference in air pressure between the closet enclosure and the rest of the house. There were mice everywhere, which made a lot of sense in hindsight, and we’d often see furry creatures scurry across the room, even in broad daylight, not that it made a difference in the basement. At night, the mice would contribute to the squeaking of the closet door with their scurrying and scratching in the closet, creating a cacophony of sounds that accompanied our sleep.

One day, my boyfriend decided that he wanted to catch a mouse and keep it as a pet. With his analytical mind and patient temperament, he came up with a system for catching mice that was fail-proof. By holding the acrylic sheets we used to build our boba machines up as wall fortresses, he blocked a mouse from escaping into the space behind him and slowly inched the boards forward until the mouse was cornered by two sheets of acrylic and a side of the wall. Just as he thought he had gained the upper hand on the mouse, it spasmed. For a split second, all we could do was watch in horror as the mouse’s tiny body shook like a thousand shock waves had passed through its body. And then, just as suddenly as the seizure had started, the mouse dropped dead. We whipped out our phones and quickly confirmed that mice can indeed die from shock. But just to be sure, we put the little guy in a glass jar and waited patiently for it to wake up. Two hours later, we disappointingly threw him out in the garbage bins outside.