High rise residential buildings are a symbol of urban America. If you live in one, you’re either at the bottom or the top. I’m closer to the bottom, but the building I was going to was reserved for those at the top. I was on my way there to pick up a free couch. I pulled up, saw the dark blue reflective glass and a homeless woman sitting on a dirty blanket just steps from the entrance and I knew I had reached my destination before the GPS announced that I had arrived. I turned on my hazard lights because street parking in San Francisco was more myth than reality, especially near the high rises. The bustling corners of a city on the edge are places where parking is paid for, and I decidedly wasn’t paying for a thing. Especially when the money generated would likely go to a tech company as a tax subsidy once the pandemic ended to ensure San Francisco wasn’t left in the dust for Austin, Texas or some other place where artists made something significant happen 20 years ago. I wonder if they would have created anything at all if they knew that their inspiration and hard work would be used to lure the type of people in that would likely result in nothing of significance happening ever again. I got out of the rented moving truck I was in and looked around. It was a characteristically windy San Francisco day. The air from the Pacific felt nice on my skin. I called the number to let the man in the high rise know I was there to pick up the couch. He picked up after 3 rings. His voice was friendly and pleasant. Life had been kind to him. His parents were alive and still together. He went to a good college, not his first choice, but his second or third, and he wasn’t initially happy, but once he started school he quickly made friends and those friends all graduated and they moved to coastal cities. They would playfully argue about which one was superior. His ex girlfriend who he was still friends with probably moved to Los Angeles. LA has captured the mind of the world as quintessentially Californian. It was equal parts ocean and sun. His artist friend who wanted to paint and was a proponent of winter fashion went to Seattle. And him, the generous, politically minded couch giving self identified democratic socialist that he was, moved to San Francisco. That’s the kind of voice he had. His name was Scott.
After a few minutes of staring at myself in the blue reflective glass, I saw him. He looked like his voice, too. He had red hair and was wearing a Stone Temple Pilots shirt. I knew I had heard the Stone Temple Pilots, but I couldn’t name a single song. We did the elbow bump. The elbow bump was a pandemic handshake. I don’t know who decided this, but everyone started doing it. His elbow was small and wrapped in freckle-covered sun sensitive skin. We made small talk as we walked to the elevator to grab the couch. I felt uneasy. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be there. Everything and everyone looked put together. All the people there knew how to do the math problems that I didn’t, spoke at least two languages and had been to Europe or Asia or something. I was likely the tallest person in the building, and yet, felt the smallest.
We waited silently for the elevator doors to open. The elevator was aesthetically pleasing. It was dimly lit, the walls of the elevator were reflective and connected to dark gold railings. The ceiling of the elevator featured a painting of a forest in the fall and decorative brown leaves were hanging by threads so thin they were rendered invisible.
“Whoever did the interior designing for this elevator didn’t think it all the way through.” He looked at me, eyebrows raised slightly and he appeared genuinely curious as to what I meant. “The last thing I want to think about in a highrise elevator is the word fall,” I said in a dry tone of voice. He started genuinely laughing, a bit harder than I deemed necessary for a joke I didn’t think was funny. It was just an attempt to fill the silence shared by strangers in a well-decorated elevator that was moving entirely too slowly. Eventually we made it to his floor. The first thing I noticed as we walked out of the elevator was the carpet in the hallway. It was the exact same color and pattern as the carpet in the Vegas shooter’s hotel room. It made me feel as if every property developer went to the same guy for carpets and all that guy had available was the pattern that hosted chunks of Stephen Paddock’s dislodged skull and brain matter. Other than that, the hallway was unremarkable.
“Sorry for the mess. I just moved into this apartment from the second floor,” as he opened the door to his unit.
“Why’d you move up twenty floors in the same building?” I asked.
As we walked in, he pointed to the unit’s large windows with panoramic views of San Francisco and replied “That’s why,” with an audible smile in his voice.
The view was beautiful. My eyes were drawn to Sutro Tower. A white cloud with a gray outline was floating between its three prongs, giving the appearance of an elaborate crown, fitting for an imperial city’s highest point. We both stood quietly for a few moments to take it in. There were two couches in the apartment, both of which were in good condition.
“So, which couch am I taking?” I asked.
He pointed to an expensive looking couch that was much nicer in person than it appeared in his online posting and said, “that one.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“It’s a really nice couch.”
“Thank you,” he responded genuinely, “I know I could have sold it, but I needed it out quickly and you’re using it to furnish your new place, right?”
“Yeah, just moved to a new spot in Oakland.”
“That’s why I’m giving it to you. A lot of people pick up free furniture just to resell it.”
“One man’s generosity is another man’s side hustle.” My indifference at the prospect of someone taking advantage of his kindness seemed to bother him. After a prolonged pause, I asked “so, do you want to get started?”
We didn’t speak as we moved the couch into the hallway. We didn’t even make eye contact. We just walked to the elevator. As we waited, I thought of saying something, but chose not to. If I made a joke and he didn’t laugh, the awkwardness would grow in intensity. I was already out of my element. I didn’t belong in this building, beside this man. I should have acted shocked at the idea of someone reselling his furniture. He would have appreciated that and then he could have used the time that it took to walk the couch over to the well-decorated elevator to tell me about himself. He would have told me about all things I knew, but couldn’t confirm. He would have told me about his ex in L.A. and his friend in Seattle. I would have listened and nodded. I would have camouflaged myself in his conversation. He would have mistaken my agreeableness for relatability. I would’ve told him lies about my life to mirror the truths of his. I already looked the part, there was no hurt in playing the role, but I didn’t.
As we made our way down, the elevator stopped at the 19th floor. The doors opened.
“Hey buddy!” shouted Scott excitedly.
“What’s up, Scott?” Replied the man on the 19th floor as he entered the elevator.
“Just getting rid of my old couch.” Scott looked toward me and said “This is Allen, him and I went to Stanford together.”
“Nice to meet you, Allen,” I replied with a nod.
“Allen and I were in Treehacks together,” he continued, “we’d party and code all night.”
“Then we got jobs and became boring,” Allen commented with palpable nostalgia. Scott chuckled. Allen brightened his mood. He was back to being affable. They both appeared pleased with this chance encounter. I wasn’t mad at them. I wasn’t even envious. Envy is an emotion that implies the presence of a chance. I never felt I had one.
“Where did you go to school?” Asked Scott.
“I’m finishing up my English degree,” I continued “I currently work at a call center as a bank teller and do some tech support on the side.” My eyes were glued to the floor. I wanted to lie, but I didn’t have it in me.
“Oh, that’s cool,” Allen replied.
I shrugged. It wasn’t cool. There was nothing cool about working a dead end job. There was no response that would be both honest and polite so he forewent honesty in pursuit of civility. God bless the urbane among us in our urban centers. The burden of tolerance will forever be the crick in their collective necks, but it’s at least it’s not a noose. Not yet at least. Give it time. But patience is a virtue that only favors those with time to waste. Time is money and this building was filled with the patient.
We reached the bottom floor. Scott and Allen shared their goodbyes and planned to meet at Ocean Beach to play frisbee. I maneuvered the couch out of the elevator. Allen gave me the pandemic elbow bump. I didn’t understand why he insisted on doing this. Was he trying to make me feel included? I was carrying a couch. Scott grabbed the other end and we began to head out to the street.
“Allen and I used to get into all kinds of crazy stuff.”
“I’m sure they’re still talking about all the wild nights of frisbee and debauchery at Stanford to this day.” He knew I was making fun of him. He forced a chuckle. We didn’t speak on the second trip up. We grabbed the remaining pieces and headed back down with minimal conversation..
“Well, hope you enjoy the couch.” he said in a muted tone. I began to feel like a dick, but then I looked at the gleaming skyscraper where he resided and the homeless woman with her back leaned against it and knew that a bit of sarcasm was the least I could do.
It was all I could do.