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  • Sara Tucker

P.A.’s Diary: Remembering the Mayfair

August 4, 2020. I once lived in a six-storey apartment building that had started as a gentleman’s hotel. There were little doors on the bottom left of the apartment doors where men would set their shoes to be picked up and polished daily. (Today, many of the little doors are painted shut, but you can still see them.)

I loved how apartment buildings in this particular neighborhood had names, just like big ships. My building was called the Mayfair. It was built somewhere around the 1920s, perhaps even earlier. The old pipes frequently acted up and needed a plumber almost once a week. The heating was so effective, I usually left my windows open all day and all night. I remember a children’s book called “The Finch’s Fabulous Furnace” about a family that had a Victorian home sitting atop a baby volcano. I was sure there was a volcano in the cellar of the Mayfair, since it was always THAT warm.

It was my first experience living in an apartment building that had so many tenants. The Mayfair even had an onsite manager! Our manager was Lilly. She had a soothing, earth-mother presence that I always appreciated because I frazzle so easily. I appreciated having Lilly to assist us with complicated package pickups, leaky faucets, clogged drains, overactive water heaters, jammed cabinet drawers, peeling ceilings—you name it, she got it fixed for us. She also was a delight to chat with. She loved animals, and she and I could chat about them endlessly. We all loved having Lilly as our building manager.

I started off in a small studio on the third floor, a little too close to the stinky garbage bins. After a few months, I moved up to a sixth-floor one-bedroom corner apartment, and my then-boyfriend, Orlando, moved in with me.

Our apartment had these stunning vaulted ceilings painted with some sort of Icelandic stencil decorated on the beams. I have fond memories of that apartment. Orlando and I adopted our cats, Spike and Cordelia, when we lived there. Lilly was instrumental in helping us care for our kitties when we traveled.

Eventually, Orlando began to tire of spending forty-five minutes every evening trying to find a parking space on the streets of our popular Oakland neighborhood. The elaborate dinner party meals we prepared in our tiny galley kitchen may have been impressive achievements, but I was aching for more storage and prep space. Orlando convinced me to buy a house with him. Honestly, I never thought we would find anything we could afford. It was the California Bay Area for cryin‘ out loud! We had some of the most expensive real estate in the country.

I saw a pattern emerging with our house hunting: If a home had a particularly attractive remodel, then we would instantly be outbid. If a house was staged with the owner’s belongings, they were more open to our price range. If a property needed a big-ticket repair, then we DEFINITELY had a good chance of getting it.

This two-bedroom bungalow on the outskirts of Maxwell Park in East Oakland did not impress me right away, but I saw the possibilities.The seasoned realtor showing the home kept waving her hand in the air, like she was shooing away imaginary flies, and saying that the little tilt in the foundation is no big deal. She assured us that the foundation had been properly strengthened in the 1980s, and that it would hold for at least another seven years. I was fairly certain she wasn’t telling us the truth. There was a good-sized backyard, and ultimately, that is what got me on board with buying an ancient bungalow with old pipes, knob-and-tube wiring, and a less than perfect foundation.

It has been a few years and nearly all of my inheritance from my parents, and a loan from my retirement funds have helped this ancient little bungalow. The foundation is now level and secure. The windows have all been replaced, making us cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. My husband rarely has anything left over from his generous pa