It was nearing dusk last Tuesday when I signed the lease on my new apartment.
Light still streamed through the generous sized Victorian windows of the commercial unit, advertised as a live/work apartment, poised above the infamous Grant Avenue of North Beach. The street itself was second only to Columbus Avenue, the district’s main drag, and boasted a nightlife scene that proved a magnet for tourists, gang bangers, segeway crews, yuppies, and self-professed poets who were a standard fixture at the espresso shops. The second floor station boasted a prime location for the theatricality that played out on Friday nights, when these disparate groups converged at the same local bars and fought over finite parking spaces.
The unit met all my basic qualifications: It was above ground, in the right neighborhood, bathed in natural light, could accommodate a queen size bed, and had a separate room for my child. Essentially, it was the opposite of my current place, which was a dark, concrete, basement apartment, filled only with artificial lighting that I hardly used in an effort to stabilize my electric bill, where my bed sat in the living room, providing my husband and I with no privacy because the living room was actually a storefront, on street level, where I could hear dealers selling drugs like clockwork every Thursday night and the homeless spanging as they used my front door as a headboard. Yes, the new place was good. The rent was reasonable for San Francisco. And I liked my new landlord the moment I met him.
The first thing I noticed, and it was less like noticing something and more like being struck across the face by it, was that Gavino was Italian. Very Italian. He’d grown up in North Beach and had attended the same Elementary School my five year old son would be starting at in the fall. He knew all the streets and the locals. His brusque demeanor reminded me of Mafia guys I’d seen in the movies. Like the Sopranos or the Godfather—the family-oriented part, not the bone-breaking mobster aspect. It was almost whimsical, renting from a authentic Italian in Little Italy.
He accepted us quickly, with the hitch that he’d raise the rent because we’d be living and working there, as opposed to solely working. I’d balked over the increase, but he pegged us. “You’ve got a kid, a dog, and you need two bedrooms. You’ll have a hell of a time finding a place in this city,” he’d stated frankly, with his oh-so Italian accent. It was true. Finding a two bedroom with a child and a pet was all but impossible. The last apartment I’d applied at had elected to drop the rent by a hundred dollars instead of renting to us. They wanted a single person. Not a family who feasibly needed two rooms.
I didn’t begrudge Gavino for his insight. Instead, I paid the two hundred dollars extra. Per month. And called it a day. I even offered to give him a six months advance on rent to secure the apartment when a white-collar guy from San Diego offered him a higher monthly payment.
So it was mine. For my family. Gavino talked us through the lease, giving us the highlights, as my husband and I initialed quickly, signing our rights away. Then I gave him a cashier’s check for fifteen grand, which he placed in a folder after handing us our copy of the lease, our proof of payment. His daughter was graduating from Junior High School on Friday, so we could pick up the keys on Saturday. It was all by the books. Simple. Easy. Done.
Except now I’m writing this. On Sunday. Morning. At two-ten PM. It had been difficult to wait the four days till Saturday to call for the keys. I was excited. I’d even fallen asleep Friday night plotting out where shelves and chairs and sofas would go. I was so delighted, I hadn’t even begun to dread the back-pain that moving the shelves and chairs and sofas would surely cause. When I picked up the phone at eleven AM on Saturday, I knew exactly how the conversation would go. He’d greet me, knowingly, using his caller ID feature, I’d be polite and ask how he was doing, he’d reply graciously and cut to the chase, I’d ask when we could swing by to pick up the keys, he’d name the time, we’d hang up, I’d go and pack, pile my life into boxes, and the boxes into my Ford Focus Wagon, and drive to meet him. It was going to work out.
But Gavino’s phone didn’t even ring. Didn’t give the option of leaving a message. No. The automated female voice simply replied, “The person you are trying to reach is not accepting calls at this time. Please try your call again later.” After my first three failed attempts to reach him, I decided to Google him, out of curiosity. Sitting on the back stoop, coffee in one hand, my iPhone balanced on one knee, I pecked in his full name—the one I’d made the cashier’s check payable to. As the page loaded sluggishly, a testament to AT&T’s lousy reception, I considered what I’d find. Perhaps a Facebook profile, or Yelp reviews about his properties, maybe even an article or two about his work in the community. Two long sips of home-brewed coffee later, and the search results were in.
I had found him. Too easily. His name came up in the first listing, surrounded by words like ‘allegations,’ ‘prosecuting,’ and ‘gunned down.’ I stared at the tiny screen, zooming in with thumb and fore-finger to be sure.
Apprehensively, I touched the link. Pixel by pixel, the article from SF Gate, a source I deemed reasonably credible, came into view. Briefly scanning the page, I gathered that the article was about a corrupt San Francisco District Attorney, who had posed an inordinately low bail for a murder suspect.
Dread consumed me. I dashed inside to my laptop, spilling the contents of my insulated mug across the stoop in my haste. Inside, the screen flickered to life, and I pulled up my browser with the same article, and opened a new window, searching his name again. The second reference fell right below the first, the hundred and sixty character description calling him a ‘violent man’ who ‘locals feared.’ The third link had a title that referenced ‘La Cosa Nostra,’ with my new landlord’s name credited as a figurehead. The forth link showcased his name and read ‘Find me in the White Pages,’ but the fifth link was titled ‘San Francisco Mafia.’
It was almost laughable. According to multiple sources, my new landlord, the man I’d just bestowed with the entirety of my savings, who would be in my life for the next twelve months of the lease term, the man who’d promised to not raise my rent for five years and had said “I give you my word,” instead of putting it in writing, was in fact a made man, protected by bookies and corrupt cops alike, with a wrap sheet long enough to easily fill a paragraph—let’s try that out—including drug charges, stolen goods, credit card fraud, money laundering, illegal gambling, assault with a deadly weapon—not to mention he’d been the subject of an FBI investigation and was acquitted by a deadlocked jury of murdering his wife’s lover on the street in broad daylight.
I could only think one thing: I’d been right. Only this time, there was no satisfaction in it. How would this sound when I told my husband, whose sole dream was to be a cop in San Francisco and bust bad guys?
“You know how I said Gavino reminded me of a Mafia guy?”
“I was right!”
No, I was sure being right was worth absolutely nothing. Nothing compared to fifteen grand.
After reading through sixteen articles that all seemed to corroborate the first story, I tried to think of my next move.
I’d given Gavino everything: my tax records, bank statements, pay stubs, previous places of residence, addresses of my nearest family members—even my ‘call in case of emergency’ contact. He’d given me a P.O. box and a cell number. Both of which were difficult to track and easily disposable. I did have a signed lease, though. And photos of the checks I’d given him. Checks he’d already cashed and had cleared, according to my online banking profile which was now at an all-time low. And I had the number to the commercial real estate broker who’d introduced us. Not thinking about how the conversation would go, I dialed the broker, whose phone prompted me to leave a message. I did not. I didn’t know much about the Mafia but I was pretty sure they didn’t like people prying into their business—asking questions. The real estate broker had already put me in touch with Gavino. He knew we’d exchanged numbers. What would I say now?
“Uh, yes, I’m calling because I gave Gavino six months up front plus deposit and now he’s not taking my calls. Oh, and I discovered he’s a member of La Cosa Nostra. You know, like, the Mafia. Honestly, that kind-of makes me nervous, what with someone who is comfortable admitting to murder having my entire savings and my not having keys to the apartment. So call me back. Thanks!”
There wasn’t really anything I could do. Except continue to call Gavino. Which I did. With little restraint. Five minutes would feel like hours, and I’d break down and call again. I quickly grew to hate the woman with the voice on his non-personalized answering machine message. With her feigned manners, her stuffy voice, and her, “Please try your call again later.” You betcha. I plugged in Gavino’s name as a contact and called him every hour. On the hour. All day Saturday. Until nine o’clock. No luck.
I knew it was silly to behave in this manner. After all, he’d given me no reason not to trust him. He’d presented himself as the kind of guy I’d want to drink espresso with in a quaint cafe in North Beach. The sort of cafe he’d ended a man’s life in front of…
I called my brother just to hear a phone actually ring and pick up. He laughed when I told him what I’d learned about my new landlord. He told me not to worry. Yet. When I informed him I’d already given Gavino the money he changed his answer. By the end of the conversation, I’d used so many hot words that I wondered if the FBI would start looking into me.
I rolled out of bed this morning, wanting to call Gavino, but decided to wait until after eleven. I busied myself cleaning house and packing boxes, as if he would eventually answer his phone, give me the keys, and I’d have a place for my family to move into. Regardless, I’d have to vacate my current place. I’d created a stunning blog for it and found someone to take over my lease in a day in the dark—PG&E had shut off power to the entire block but I made for such a persuasive real estate agent, I had rented it anyway. This was before I’d met Gavino. Before I’d been accepted at a perfect flat across the street from my son’s new school, before that owner had decided to sell instead of rent, before we’d searched for weeks on end, before being rejected by the manager who chose the single guy over us, before I’d spoken to the real estate broker who introduced me to the Mafia.
As I placed knickknacks carelessly into boxes, I tried to console myself with reasons. Reasons why Gavino’s message machine suddenly wasn’t operational. Why he hadn’t called on the day he’d agreed to give me the keys. I could blame it on a dead battery, on it being the weekend. Maybe he’d reformed. He was Italian—he could be in a Catholic service right now. A Catholic service in another country.
I tried not to blame my feelings on his past. I told myself I’d be concerned if I gave that much money to anyone and they didn’t follow through. Which was true. But his past did matter.
I’d always considered myself a formidable adversary. At five feet eight inches, I wasn’t physically intimidating—but my personality was strong-willed, resilient, fearless. I wasn’t timid, didn’t shy away from confrontation, and was ready to stand up for myself, even if that meant taking a few blows. But when I weighed my inner strength against the brutal force of organized crime, I couldn’t help but feel a little inadequate. And I had a family to protect. A child. I had to think about them before myself.
How well would my son do without a home? With parents struggling to provide shelter? Without my savings or six months of rent, we couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. So the risks cut both ways.
I called Gavino at eleven, at twelve, and at one, plus a few times in between, for good measure. Still no ring. No message. No answer. All I wanted was a chance, a couple phone rings. A chance at asking for the keys to the apartment I paid for.
My husband had said not to worry until Monday. If we couldn’t get a hold of Gavino then, we would call a lawyer. We’d accuse him of Grand Theft—taking our signed lease and checks to court to begin a lengthy trial with a criminal who has had all previous charges mysteriously dropped.
I am not as reasonable as my husband…
While he’s at work, I’m plotting my move against the mob. I’m fantasizing about breaking and entering. I’m considering placing severed horse heads atop four-hundred thread count pillows. I’m Googling street warfare,
Molotov cocktails, and airfare prices to Argentina.
I am packing a suitcase instead of cardboard boxes.
It’s just too hard to find a place in San Francisco.