A chance to live in the grand house of the former Prohibition-era San Francisco mayor introduces a memorable housemate.
The best way to find a room in a sharehouse in San Francisco in 1994 was to sign up with Roommate Referral, a small, efficient storefront off Haight Street. The office was lined with shelves of ring binders: on one side, binders full of people looking for a room; on the other, binders full of people with a room to rent.
I was looking for someplace cheap and within reasonable distance of a BART station. But within these parameters my main selection criterion was good handwriting. On paper, a room might appear perfect both in cost and location, but I’d pass if the handwriting looked unfriendly. I’d pass if a leaky biro had been used, or mistakes had been scribbled out.
In my mind, I was weeding out sociopaths and stalkers by analysing the shape of their letterforms and the angle of their slant. The use of a fountain pen was a good sign. In this way, I rejected a couple in the Castro who were in recovery and couldn’t have alcohol in the house, a household on Church Street that had a functioning darkroom, a group of girls in Noe Valley who had a grill and an incredible view toward the East Bay, and a woman on Bernal Heights who worked at the feminist sex shop Good Vibrations.
I had also skipped over the listing for a room in a house on Capp Street because the handwriting didn’t meet my minimum standards. It was aggressive, in my opinion, hurried and perfunctory. So when Bryan called me to arrange a time to come meet him and see the room I politely agreed to do so, but didn’t hold out much hope. Much later, he told me that my handwriting hadn’t played any part in my being chosen to take the room. What he deduced, from my listing, was that I wouldn’t have any furniture of my own.
This was to my great advantage. The first time I visited, the blinds were drawn even though it was daytime. Translucent white stone alabaster lamps lit the hallway with a moon-like glow. In the sitting room, occasional tables, Oriental rugs and Eastlake chairs were artfully arranged, though the impression was less museum than stage set. There were marble busts and framed etchings and peacock feathers in an oversize vase.
Through an archway, I could see a large dining table in a room painted forest green, with gold silk fringing pasted beneath the cornice. As I passed by, cut-crystal pendants hanging from candelabra tinkled. The back garden was filled with succulents, statuary and a gnarled fruit tree.
Bryan was an actor who believed that the size of his head (small to normal) had prevented him from achieving Hollywood-sized success. He was a tall man with long arms and legs and a vaudevillian’s rubbery face on which he maintained a tiny wedge of beard below his lower lip that he called his ‘Chesterfield’. His west coast accent regularly morphed into a highly enunciated form of diction more regularly heard on the Shakespearean stage.
He was a tall man with long arms and legs and a vaudevillian’s rubbery face, on which he maintained a tiny wedge of beard he called his ‘Chesterfield’.
Bryan got up late most days and drank coffee on the back porch, surveying the damage raccoons had wreaked in the yard the night before. When I moved into the house I understood that Bryan managed the place. He divided the monthly phone bill, paid the rent, arranged for repairs, found new roommates.
He was roughly 40, 20 years older than me, which, at the time, seemed impossibly old and nullified any possible attraction between us. Outside of theatre work, Bryan didn’t have a job, though in time he intimated that he’d once managed to save quite a bit, by which I understood that he used to sell drugs.
If my perceived lack of furniture was what originally endeared me to Bryan, what he really hoped for, I think, was that I’d also have a similar lack of friends. But his judgement failed him on this second point. I’d made friends in my classes at Berkeley and with other Australian ex-pats whose phone numbers I’d scribbled on scraps of paper. I made friends with people who’d rejected me as a roommate. I made friends with a man who failed to tell me he was married. New friends introduced me to their friends, and as soon as I moved into Capp Street I started hosting Sunday brunches in the backyard and pizza nights where everyone was drunk before I managed to get food on the table.
Worse though, for Bryan, were the houseguests who came to stay: old friends from Australia, family, friends of friends, people who’d been given my number as a contact in the city. I couldn’t say no.
That I opened the house to others was a source of great tension between us. There were stormy silences, slammed doors. One morning, he and a woman I hadn’t seen before appeared tousled and languidly post-coital on the back porch only to discover the parents of one of my Australian friends at the garden table enjoying croissants and juice and keen to discuss San Francisco politics with a native.
The story Bryan told me about the house was that James ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph, former mayor of San Francisco, had it built in 1914 for his mistress, believed to be the film star Anita Page. The house wasn’t exactly a secret: Rolph’s initials were wound into the ironwork on the front balcony, and on the weathervane atop the house’s turret.
Shipping had made Rolph a rich man, but the great earthquake and fire of 1906 made him a hero. He mobilised relief for survivors and spearheaded rebuilding efforts. He was elected mayor in 1911 and secured the 1915 World’s Fair for San Francisco, an extravaganza designed to show that the city was unstoppable. Bands broke into his signature song whenever he happened to mount a stage. Rolph threw riotously joyous parades and, once, a party that lasted two days on an especially chartered 12-car Pacific Northwest train.
During Prohibition, Rolph entertained San Francisco’s men of power in his pleasure den, the large wainscoted basement room that was now Bryan’s bedroom. The dumbwaiter in the kitchen lowered directly into this room, which Bryan furnished as lavishly as the upstairs rooms in a fashion befitting a prosperous, charismatic mayor, a mayor who most certainly would have had a king-sized water bed had they existed in his day.
During Prohibition, Rolph entertained San Francisco’s men of power in his pleasure den, the large wainscoted basement room that was now Bryan’s bedroom.
Bryan never answered the front door or the phone. He poked a small hole in one of the blinds on the front windows and would creep down the hall to peek out if someone knocked. That I met the three elderly people who knocked on the front door one day was only because he wasn’t home when they called by. They hoped to see inside the house in which they’d grown up.
Their parents were Italian immigrants who ran a shoe repair business on 26th Street. They remembered lots of parties in the house, the downstairs wainscoted room taken over by dancing couples. In what was now our laundry, they remembered their mother rolling out vast sheets of pasta dough on a marble-topped table, expertly pinching thousands and thousands of beads of gnocchi.
The landlord, Bryan told me, lived down south, and had appointed Bryan his agent in absentia. Evidence of his great trust came when we received word that the house was going to be painted, and that Bryan was free to choose the new colour scheme.
That year, I learned all about dentils, about spandrels, and pediments. For weeks, the kitchen table was strewn with paint chips. Bryan and I spent hours on San Francisco sidewalks, staring up at houses, debating the merits of one colour over another. Eventually, Bryan settled on a pistachio green as the dominant colour, with cream and gold accents.
A painting crew was hired, two flirtatious Irish guys who surfed Cronkhite Beach every morning before work. Bryan’s role extended to labourer and overseer. For weeks, the three of them stripped paint from the facade with a thoroughness that was new to the Irish guys. Eventually, lead exposure turned their hands red and the green was more accurately mint than pistachio, but the paint job was perfect.
Bryan’s small head may have prevented him from securing film work, but he was regularly employed in repertory theatre in the Bay Area and in summer stock further out of town. I’d lived in the Capp Street house for more than a year when Bryan was cast as the Prince of Wales in Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George III in Carmel for the summer season.
His plan was to live with his mother in Carmel part of the week and come back to the city during the days the theatre was closed. It took convincing for him to agree to me coming to see the show, a reluctance I understood to be less anxiety about the production and more not wanting me to meet his mother.
In all the time I’d lived with Bryan I’d never seen nor spoken to his mother, and Bryan told me very little, suggesting something dark or difficult in their relationship. But when she greeted me at her front door, I found her to be charming: a tiny, white-haired lady with sparkling eyes, gracious manners and a dancer’s carriage.
In all the time I’d lived with Bryan I’d never seen nor spoken to his mother, and Bryan told me very little.
I was keen to get to know her better, but Bryan made sure that I wasn’t ever left alone with her until just before he and I were due to leave Carmel for San Francisco. She asked how I was finding Capp Street. She was concerned for my safety, with the local gangs and drugs and everything else. I love it, I told her, everything about it: the house, the Mission, the city.
Then she said this: Bryan’s father and I were very glad we were able to help him buy the house.
Just like that.
Of course the house was his. If someone left a damp umbrella on the living room floor, Bryan dried the spot with a hair dryer on low, furious that the parquet might warp. He once suggested that if he were ever to live in the house with a wife and family he’d reinstate the laundry chute. I made out my rent cheques out to him and didn’t answer the front door if he was home.
I couldn’t fault his logic – a fictional landlord provided a convenient buffer between him and his tenants, who, after all, shared his home. But the lie hurt.
Later, standing outside on the street one day admiring the painted facade, I said to Bryan, ‘You were so lucky to buy this when you did.’
We stood there a while longer, looking up at the gilding, the terrazzo, the weathervane superimposed over the perfectly blue sky. Bryan didn’t say a word.
Last time I visited San Francisco, I hoped to see Bryan. I hadn’t been able to reach him, so I walked over to Capp Street. I saw that the Phone Booth, the bar on the corner of 25th Street and South Van Ness that 20 years ago I’d predicted would be discovered by hipsters finally had been.
The front gate made the particular sound I remembered. The curlicue R on the porch fence still cast its calligraphic shadows on the terrazzo. The same lace curtain I remembered obscured the view into the hall.
I knocked against the doorframe. No one came. It was September and sun warmed the front of the house. I waited. The elderly people I’d met once who’d grown up in the house had told me that in their time they’d owned the block of land next door and that from the dining room they’d looked out over fruit trees. I saw too, looking south from the front porch, that the view from the dining room must also have once included Bernal Hill in the distance, rising high above the Mission.
I knocked one last time before slipping a note between the door and frame. I turned to go, before remembering the hole Bryan had poked in the front blind. I started laughing. It was still there.