The Hidden Place Building

For nearly a decade, I’ve watched snippets of their lives from my corner bedroom down the hall to the left

Stephanie Rice
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readJul 12, 2014

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I learned recently that the large Chinese characters affixed to my front gate mean “Hidden Place.” In the eight years I’ve lived here, I’d never bothered to ask Mrs. L about the characters.

Mrs. L is my landlady. She’s lived in a neighboring flat since moving from China in the ’60s. I figured the gate characters, their sculpted metal painted a fading crimson, were one of those things more interesting if left a mystery. Like Mrs. L’s first name or the bowl of oranges outside her back door. She probably feels the same about why I’m always typing in my kitchen in yoga pants.

But Hidden Place is an appropriate name for the space inside this old Victorian, its glory days buried somewhere beneath a generation of 20-something tenants and decades of white paint. I doubt Mrs. L has ever seen a maintenance issue that couldn’t be fixed with a fresh coat of white paint.

It doesn’t look like much from the outside, a bulky three-floor structure layered in wood shingles that must have seemed a fashionable choice at the time. But more than anywhere, this is where I grew up — in this long, creaking flat bathed in sunlight and the memories of those who don’t live here anymore.

In the eight years since I moved to San Francisco on a whim at age 22, dragging a single suitcase and a vague idea about becoming a journalist up the steep staircase, so many have come and gone through the Hidden Place gate.

There have been too many to remember them all. They’ve moved on for internships in Switzerland, relationships they already knew wouldn’t work out, the allure of a newly renovated one-bedroom with a view. For nearly a decade, I’ve watched snippets of their lives from my corner bedroom down the hall to the left.

There was the artist whose sweet personality clashed with her dark paintings. She once hung a giant canvas ass on the wall of her bedroom. And not the kind of ass you want to see on your wall, if there must be one. A wrinkly, saggy ass that measured at least as tall as me and surely was the topic of conversation at dinner parties in the flat across the street.

There was a chef who stayed for one summer and left me a parting note critiquing my housekeeping skills. More than one twentysomething moved on after a nervous breakdown, usually involving a breakup followed by the sudden realization that they would perhaps never wrangle their San Francisco existence into perfection. I watched them maneuver their furniture and dreams back down the unforgiving staircase. An ambitious TV producer with a mop of corkscrew curls left for a temporary gig in LA and never came back. I see him on Facebook these days, posting selfies with Lady Gaga and the cast of America’s Next Top Model.

There was a kind, funny Irish guy who died before he finished unpacking. One morning, about a month after moving in, he said “See you later!” and then got hit by a car before later could happen. He loved Mexican food and was growing chiles in a green plastic pot in his room. The chiles sit in my kitchen now, the fragile stems a constant reminder that there are deadlines that cannot be extended.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Hidden Place was never supposed to be mine.

Eight years ago, I responded to a Craigslist ad hidden beneath two weeks of fresh postings that surely should have been filled by now. There were three living here already, and I’d met just one before moving in — a stunning girl from South Africa whose beauty and worldly ways made my 22-year-old self feel about 12.

It would work temporarily, I thought. Six months tops. Then I would move on, as I had a habit of doing back then. A different neighborhood, a different city, a different coast, a different planet. My first night here, sleeping on a fluffy comforter on the floor beneath a cove of bay windows, I had no idea that this place was the end of my moving on — from apartments, cities, college majors. Myself.

I had no idea that night, as the streetlights poured through my curtain-less windows, that the next decade of my life — a career in journalism, an extended stay in the Mideast, a dead roommate, a handful of people and experiences that would change who I was — that it was all already hidden in these walls, waiting.

These days, my Hidden Place has both curtains and all the comforting familiarity of home: the cacophony of energetic Cantonese spilling through my open windows as I type, the sharp curve of the front staircase that makes the UPS guy curse the 19th-century builders, the fold-down ironing board in the kitchen where someone with handwriting like my grandmother’s once tracked the height of a girl named Marlene. There are few better feelings than the wave of relief that washes over me as I trudge up the stairs after a long stay in someone else’s city.

That’s not to say that Hidden Place is always peaceful. Mrs. L and I have had a complicated relationship since I moved in. We both like to bend the world to our will and would prefer minimal outside intervention on that. That can lead to mutual respect. It can also lead to your landlady stealing your green compost bin, which she considers unclean, and holding it hostage in the locked basement. (We’ll get to the Compost Wars of 2010 some other time.)

In addition to being skeptical of composting, Mrs. L doesn’t share my enthusiasm for spackling the cracks in our aging walls. But she makes up for an aversion to repairs with tips on marriage and furniture placement. She also uses our shared cleaning lady for espionage, meaning no house guest or feng shui violation goes unnoticed.

Just as I don’t know Mrs. L’s first name, I’ve never once heard her say mine. She doesn’t know what I do for a living but knows that if she rings the doorbell enough times in the middle of the day, I will probably appear. Sometimes on a warm day I’ll leave the back door open as I work, which clearly is an invitation to wander in.

Mrs. L, now in her seventies, says she was too busy working and raising kids to study English when she was younger. I think she enjoys forcing the language to follow her rules. Either way, every phone conversation begins with, “Hi, my name is Mrs. L.” She has little interest in pronouns, and I used to get confused when stories about her perpetually single daughter would go something like: “He won’t get married! I don’t know; he’s 45, and I think he doesn’t want to get married!” (For the record, “he” is a she who did finally get married, much to Mrs. L’s delight.)

She gives me a bottle of wine every Christmas, and I give her tea that I’m sure she regifts. A red envelope with a $5 bill gets delivered on Chinese New Year along with a spirited “Gung Hay Fat Choy!” She lets me manage the extra rooms in my flat without too much intervention — only the admonishment that I make sure that tenants are tidy and “have a good heart.” (I’ve yet to find a background check that can assure me of either.)

When I declared to Mrs. L recently that I would never get married and intend to live here forever, she laughed at me. “No, I think you’ll find a good boy — not too much drinking, not too much gambling — and marry him,” she said.

“Fine, maybe I’ll get married, but I’ll still live here,” I told her.

She stared at me, exasperated and amused. “Okay!”

The truth is I simply can’t imagine ever walking out that gate for good. Wherever I am in the world, however long I’m gone, I find comfort in knowing there is a Hidden Place in San Francisco waiting for me to return.

Unlisted

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Stephanie Rice
Human Parts

Freelance journalist, writer, editor, human. Powered by restlessness and coffee. Work at: stephaniericeSF.com