A Little Mao In Mei
By KIM GIRARD
Blast San Francisco Bureau
I awoke last night frightened that my toothless landlady, Mei, was
lurking hunched and troll-like in my closet waiting to spring on me if I
dare leave the bed. Perhaps this was because I spent that evening - a
Sunday I could have spent watching Masterpiece Theater - scrubbing
yellowish mold blobs from my bathroom ceiling to please her. I quickly
became dizzy, stretching on top of a wobbly chair I had planted in the
tub, scrubbing voraciously for about an hour. I prayed yellow ooze would
not drop into my panting mouth.
I did this revolting chore for a simple reason: Money - exactly $1,050 in a rental security deposit. I am breaking my lease. I have quit my job and am heading back east from San Francisco. Mei holds this money, probably under a dirty mattress, and I need it. So I not only have to pretend to like her. I also have to scrub accumulated scum from the bathroom ceiling and when I am done with that, my 1930s refrigerator will require defrosting as well. It is packed with ice deeper than the Everest summit.
Landlady Mei, like Mao, is not an easy person to like, at least from
where I stand. From the day I moved into my $700-a-month shoebox, she has managed to stir my beastly, intolerant side. The part of me that makes me want to push someone in front of a Muni bus, spit in someone's Coke or tell them their new haircut makes them look like Elton John. It's not that she calls me a Caucasian and refers to my neighbor as "the Japanese man" (this, I guess, is just the reversal of the crap we've given Asian people for years -- see: the Überasian column). And it's not that she keeps sharing her sundry health problems, including her weak bladder (she typically flees a phone call she initiates to take a pee) and some persistent lung condition that requires her to get lots of fresh air.
|"From the day I moved into my $700-a-month shoebox, she has managed to stir my beastly, intolerant side. The part of me that makes me want to push someone in front of a Muni bus, spit in someone's Coke or tell them their new haircut makes them look like Elton John."
With Mei, who will likely outlive us all, it's a whole host of other
things that annoy me, many of them quirks I guess any old woman who is
losing her mind would possess. A kinder person would probably try to
Her unpleasantness began last October, the week I moved in and
arrived home one night to find a pile of crap in front of my apartment
door, including a dirty lawn chair and a dusty brown sleeping bag that
stank. The chair was covered in orange soda that was leaking all over
the floor, leaving a small puddle.
I stared at the vile present, wondering what the hell it was doing
there, and unlocked my apartment. Inside I found a scrap of paper on the
floor with a message written in wobbly long-hand. It said "Do not go on
the roof. Do not leave things on the roof."
The note was signed by Mei. I was furious and immediately knocked on
my neighbor's door to seek an explanation for the note and the strange
behavior. My neighbor emerged, sympathized with me and told me that Mei,
though basically an OK person, was a bit wacky. Her mother was a doctor
under Mao's regime in China, allegedly, and she is a single woman who
lives downtown and travels a lot.
"She is leaving all of her money to some weird church," the neighbor told me.
"Figures," I said.
Inside my apartment, I hunted for my lease and called Mei.
"Mei, this is Kim from 4th Avenue," I said. "I got your note and I
was wondering why you left this stuff in front of my door. I have never
seen it before."
"I am so sorry," she blustered. "You are new tenant. I thought it
belonged to you. Have the Japanese man next door move it."
"Mei I just don't understand why it was left there in the first
place," I said.
"You are new tenant and I thought you did not know to not go up on
the roof," she said.
"I don't even know how to get on the roof," I said. "Is someone
living up there. Is this something I should be concerned about?"
After apologizing again, Mei asked me to go upstairs, where a slight
though heavy footed pony-tailed man lives with his mother in some
Divine-esque arrangement, to inquire whether the sleeping bag and chair
belonged to them. And after I did that I was supposed to ask the
"Japanese man" next door to clean up the mess. The Japanese man
apparently gets free garage space because he is our unofficial building
manager, though I think the building has not been cleaned since the
Nixon administration. You could probably grow a palm tree in the heavy
dirt on the back stairs.
|"I think the building has not been cleaned since the
Nixon administration. You could probably grow a palm tree in the heavy
dirt on the back stairs."
But I digress. After I hung up with Mei I was, of course, fuming and
called friends to share the tale. I did not bother to talk to the
upstairs neighbors until a month later when my key got stuck in the
ancient front lock and I nearly missed a flight. Thankfully, the
Japanese man moved the chair and sleeping bag and cleaned up the orange
Mei followed up her initial strangeness with a string of phone calls
at rent time. She usually called at least twice to remind me to leave my
rent check taped to my door. Mei hand collects all money as she does not
trust the postal service. Typically she asks for rent a day or two
before the first of the month, and lets us know the exact time of her
morning arrival via Muni bus.
If she cannot reach a tenant before her scheduled arrival, she
sometimes asks me to kindly knock on their door and remind them to leave
their check out, a request that boggles my mind.
There have been other niggling offenses as well. When my kitchen was
invaded twice by an army of carpenter ants that somehow managed to bust
into my refrigerator, infiltrate my cereal boxes and invade my salt
shakers, I called Mei to inquire about spraying. After all, I had
spotted the nasty creatures stampeding up the base of our stucco
She told me to go out and buy a can of Raid, which temporarily
helped, though a second, stronger invasion left me fuming for days and
humiliated when a visiting friend watched me cleaning ant guts off my
smeared kitchen walls. A third invasion hit the bathroom, leaving my
floor and toilet covered with the creatures until a Raid blast forced
them out. At that point I decided asking Mei to fix my locks, kill ants
or clean the building was beyond her scope as landlady. She relied on
the "I am old and alone" excuse far too heavily.
One time, when she was visiting to pick up her loot she asked me why
I had left a big piece of wood in our driveway.
"Never seen it before Mei," I said. I smiled brightly at her and
This was before I told her I had to move out; that I was breaking my
lease. I dreaded talking to her.
"You are breaking the law," she sputters, sitting at my table. She
has come to inspect the apartment. I stare back at her. She rummages
through a canvas sack that holds empty, crumpled plastic bags, random
keys, pens and pieces of paper I assume she uses to write notes. She is
small and slow-moving and speaks with a thick Chinese accent, halting
between words. She has never called me by name, but starts every phone
message with a now notorious catch-phrase that rings in my head "This
|"She has never called me by name, but starts every phone
message with a now notorious catch-phrase that rings in my head 'This
"Can I use your bathroom?" she asks.
She is in there for a bit. I wonder what she is looking at -- the
soap, my box of tampons, the ocean still life?
When she returns she complains about the bathroom ceiling, tells me
what a good and honorable person she is, how much her previous tenants
love her and how one man even wants her to move to Colorado so he can
keep an eye on her. She says she donates all the rent money to a
scholarship fund and, apparently sensing I do not believe her, leaves a
letter of thanks from a student on my table the next day.
"I buy my clothes in second hand shop," she said, as she pulls the fabric on a striped T-shirt. "This shirt was one dollar."
Good Mei, I think. I want to punch her.
"Mei what do you think about the security deposit?" I ask, staring
at her again.
She asks me for a key to my apartment. I hand her one. She tries
putting it in the door and cannot make it work. I try showing her how to
work the key - my special twist and pull method to free the old,
wretched lock. She cannot get the key to work and says she wants to go
and make another key. Something is wrong with my key, she says, propping
her foot against the door and yanking at the knob. I tell her I need to
go; that I have things to do.
The tenant who lived here before, he was district manager, she tells
me. He was Caucasian. He moved to Colorado. He kept the place nice. Nice
furniture. He was only here a week out of the month. I want someone
stable here, she tells me.
"He wanted to look after me," she continued. "My health is not
good. My lungs. I have emphysema or asthma. I need to get lots of
I know from her answers that I will possibly wait forever for my
security deposit. I hand her a self-addressed stamped envelope
As Mei leaves my room that day, she lurks in the hallway, pretending
to wash a window that leads to the stairs. I know she is waiting for me
to leave so she can play with her key to my apartment again and maybe go
back inside to pee or to sit. I leave and lock the door behind me.