They came from all over and lived for a time at 214 Olive Street. Some lived there for decades. Others only for a few years. They all called it home. At least for a time. The complex, built in the 1950s, was small by modern standards. Just three buildings, two floors each, one unit on top and one on bottom. Arranged in an odd triangle that created an even odder courtyard in the middle. All angles and straight lines, nooks and crannies, caused by the three buildings. Every unit, the same floor plan. A bedroom, a living area, kitchen, and bathroom.
Out in front, there were letters attached to a wall that identified the place as Rosewood Apartments. The tenants referred to it as ‘The Rosewood.’ In the evenings, whoever was around gathered in the courtyard and shared in the dying light of each day.
From #1 came Janie, who did not have a gun. Instead, she had a tattoo from her days in the Navy. Yes, it’s not just old guys from the 1940s with an anchor on their bicep to show their allegiance. Janie, who was in the first group of women allowed to serve on warships in 1994, got the tattoo. It was a rite of passage. A commitment to her service. A need to show she was just as tough as the guys on the ship. The U.S.S. Roosevelt. Named after the first President Roosevelt, not the second.
It hurt. Damn, it hurt. But she didn’t cry. She gritted her teeth and got through it. Only later, when Janie was in her bunk and it was dark did she let tears course down her cheeks as she quietly relived the pain of the needle.
Janie served ten years before getting out. She had done what she set out to do – she was as tough as the men and she had the damn anchor tattoo to show for it. When she got out, Janie returned home. Not to her parents’ home, where she had spent her childhood, but to the hometown. Sacramento. Where she moved into The Rosewood, scraping together rent money out of her small military pension and the tips she earned working at the pizza place down the street.
It was the life she lived and she was okay with it. Never married. No kids. A few friends here and there. A simple life with little expectation and even less fear. In the evenings, when the neighbors gathered in the courtyard, Janie brought her backgammon board.
In #2, above Janie’s was Sheldon, who everybody called Shel. The newest arrival at The Rosewood, Shel moved in a year before the owners provided notice that of the pending demolition. He wanted to fight it, get the rest together and take the owners to court. Show up at city council meetings. Talk to the local newspaper. Do something. Anything to make it stop.
Shel worked at a health club, handing out towels and wiping down equipment. He took yoga classes and ran on the treadmill, only occasionally lifting weights. On his days off, Shel went for runs along the river and met with friends for a beer afterwards.
Those who gathered in the courtyard seemed resigned to their fate. No matter how much he pushed them, pleaded and begged, nothing changed. “We’re only a few people. Who’s gonna care about us,” Janie said when she had finally heard enough. “Nobody. That’s who.”
“But what about Rebecca?” Shel asked.
Rebecca, who lived in #3. Rebecca, sweet, wonderful Rebecca. She had moved into The Rosewood a couple of years before Shel. A year later, her parents died in a freak accident. Her old man’s life insurance policy paid off to the tune of $250,000. But she didn’t move. She stayed right where she was.
Rebecca had a very healthy case of agoraphobia. The money went into the bank. She stayed in her apartment. DoorDash, Instacart, and countless other delivery services were her lifelines to the outside world.
There were a few months, after she moved into The Rosewood, when Rebecca was just like everybody else. Working, hanging out in the courtyard, doing the downtown social scene. Until one day, she just stopped. If asked, and she was never actually asked by any of her neighbors, she would have told them.
It was because of the homeless man who occasionally slept in the complex’s entryway. He muttered things to her when she walked by him. Late in the evenings, when it was dark and all she could really see of him were the whites of his eyes in the pool of darkness that was the entryway. Whispering to her about how she looked and how she smelled. The words wheedled their way into her brain until she … just … couldn’t do it anymore.
Rebecca quit her job and stayed holed up in her apartment, never, ever leaving. The insurance payoff was a big deal for her.
Janie thought about Shel’s question and she almost answered one way, before changing her mind. “She’ll just have to figure it out.”
What Janie really wanted to do was reveal that she, as well as everybody else at The Rosewood, knew of Shel’s little secret. He had a girlfriend in the ‘burbs. He grumbled and moaned about the commute to see her, enough that somebody would regularly ask him, “Why don’t you two find a place together?”
Shel would hem and haw and spit out something like, “That’s just not a good idea right now.”
“Just … because.”
But they all knew the real reason. Shel and Rebecca had a thing. Her agoraphobia didn’t stop him from visiting her every now and then.
It was Steffani in #4 who figured it out. Steffani was a career student. Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and psychology. Years spent on her Master’s degree and accompanying thesis while she took more classes, most of which did nothing other than fill her days and weeks.
One night, Steffani heard noises from beneath her, waking her from a dead sleep. Noises like … somebody was having sex! What the hell was going on, she wondered. Her curiosity kept her awake and then when she heard Rebecca’s door open, it drew her to her curtain as she watched Shel return to his apartment. “Good for her,” she thought. “She may not leave her apartment, but she apparently has invited Shel in.”
Steffani, whose car had the most sensitive alarm in the history of car alarms. In the scramble for parking spots on the street outside of The Rosewood, she occasionally hit the lottery and found a spot right outside. When she did, the other tenants would curse their own rotten luck. Chances were, her alarm would go off several times those nights. Waking her neighbors, but oddly, never her. The noises of Rebecca and Shel’s activities, which continued beyond just that one night, somehow did. But all the beeping and sirens and noises emitted by her alarm rarely did.
Those who lost sleep tried to talk to her about it. Janie asked her,
“Why can’t you disconnect it?”
“Are you kidding me? It stops thieves!” Steffani replied.
“How? You apparently never hear it.”
Shel told her to “turn the damn thing off” more than a few times.
The end result was that Steffani rarely came to the courtyard gatherings. She felt a shunning and was powerless to prevent it.
Until, of course, she disclosed her secret. One night when Shel was with his girlfriend and the rest of the crowd was gathered, she slipped into the mix and told Tom, who lived in Unit #5, what she had seen. And heard.
Well, you know how these things go. Soon, everybody was talking about Shel and Rebecca, except, of course, for Shel and Rebecca.
Tom, now, he had a sympathetic ear for Steffani. The tenants bitched and moaned about him too. But how could he help it. He played the trombone for the Sacramento Symphony and he had to practice a lot in #5.
Once again it was Janie, it always seemed to be Janie from Tom’s perspective, who complained. “Can’t you practice somewhere else? Aren’t there places for you to do that?” she whined to him one day.
“Sure there are, but they cost money,” Tom replied. “Do you know how little I get paid playing for the symphony. I’m barely getting by as it is. Paying for a place to practice would break the bank. You know?”
“Jeez,” she said. “It’s just kind of difficult for me, for the rest of us, when you’re practicing constantly.”
“That’s too bad.” Tom shrugged. “It would be nice if you appreciated my talent instead of finding it offensive.”
They didn’t talk much after that. Keeping their distance in the courtyard gatherings and grumbling ‘hello’ when they crossed paths.
Five of the six units were occupied by single people. #6 was occupied by the only family. Hasib and Aaela, and their little boy, Hamid. Refugees from Afghanistan, they were whisked into the only empty unit one night. For weeks, they barely left, never coming to the courtyard gatherings. At times, the curtains in their front room, which looked out over the courtyard would part, fingers visible on the curtain, but not much else.
Members of a nearby church brought them food every few days and eventually Hasib began to leave early in the morning to drive a taxi around the city’s streets. And gradually, they joined the courtyard talks. First, Hasib, who revealed he had worked as a translator for the U.S. during the war. That they had escaped with the clothes on their backs and not much else.
Soon Aaela came out with her husband, bringing lavash and lamb to share, or bolani with dipping sauces. She always smiled quietly and sat with her husband, letting him do the talking. Their little boy, Hamid, was quiet as well, but eventually he opened up and, as small boys do, brought laughter and play to the courtyard crowd when he was there.
They’d lived there for three years, eschewing the places where refugees tended to live together, preferring the home they made among these Americans. Hamid soon went off to school during the day and practiced his English with Shel and Janie, Steffani and Tom.
While once they gathered quietly over the years to spend their days and nights at The Rosewood, when the news came that the place was set to be demolished, the evening conversations took on a different tone. They were given three months’ notice. Three months and $2,000 to find a solution. Conversations that all too frequently turned into arguments as those who wanted to do something ran head long into the apathy of those who had given up.
Hasib pleaded with his neighbors, joining Shel, “We must do something. You have taken us in. You are our family. Our boy,” he brought Hamid onto his lap and tousled his hair, “speaks more of each of you than anybody else in his life.”
Shel, as previously noted, concurred. Strongly. “H is right. Dammit!” He stood up. “There has to be a way to fight this.”
“How,” more than one of the others asked when push came to shove. “How,” they repeated.
It was a question nobody had a real answer to. The media. Their council member. Protests in the streets. Chaining themselves to an immovable object? Everything was thrown out and shot down for not being enough because, in truth, they were not enough. Who would care about a handful of residents of an old apartment complex when developers were planning on replacing with a six-story building with condos for the rich and influential. How could they compete with that?
In the end it was Rebecca who brought them a bit of time. With a week to go, none of them had moved. An inertia had befallen all of them. A disbelief that they would actually have to move. A belief instead that something would change. That something was Rebecca when she called out from her window while they argued once again. “I’m not leaving,” she yelled to them. “They’ll have to cart my dead body out of here to get me out of here.”
Her declaration united the others to action. “Save Rebecca!” they shouted. “Save The Rosewood!” they roared. In the days ahead, all but Rebecca picketed in front of City Hall. A local news station ran a story on their efforts.
But, on the second Monday of May, the demolition crew showed up anyway. None of the tenants had moved. If Rebecca wasn’t leaving, neither were they. The foreman scratched his head when he saw that they were all still there and called his boss who called the developer.
By noon, the developer was on-site arguing with the tenants, who remained in their places.
In the months that followed, a court order was obtained by the developer. A team from the Sheriff’s Department showed up to enforce the court order. And still the tenants didn’t move. They stayed for months, after a contempt order was issued. After the cops showed up again. They stayed.
Until, eventually, they tired of the effort. First, Janie left, moving a few blocks over. Then, Hasib and his family departed for one of those complexes in the suburbs filled with other refugees from Afghanistan. Then it was Tom, who took his trombone, and Steffani, who drove her car off to another town and another life. And finally, all that was left were Shel and Rebecca.
In the dead of night, they left together. Finding an apartment they could share. The girlfriend was no more. It was just Shel and Rebecca, who still wouldn’t leave once they got settled.