A friend of a friend gave me the number for an illegal sublet downtown and warned me to be discreet. The landlord, he said, was a bit nervous. I phoned and was so circumspect the old man didn’t have a clue why I was calling and hung up twice. On my third try I just blurted out, “I want to rent the illegal studio near the U!” Dead silence followed; well, silent except for a wheezy old man breathing sound. “Hello?” I said. “You still there?” He introduced himself then as Hampton and told me to meet him at the stamp shop on Ankeny Street between 3rd and 4th avenues at 5:07 p.m. He didn’t give me a chance to ask the name of the shop, how I would recognize him, or even if he meant to meet that same day, the next day or what. I’d been crashing on a friend’s couch since I’d landed in Portland almost a month earlier and was desperate to find my own place before classes started, preferably within biking distance. I vowed to hit the stamp shop at five o’clock that day and every day after until I met the enigmatic Hampton or found something else.
Halfway across the bridge I threw a chain so I was late and sweating when I spotted a sign for Hampton’s Stamp ‘n’ Coin. The shop was closed. I cursed. The door opened just a crack and one wrinkly old eye peered out. I addressed the rummy blue.
“I phoned earlier,” I said. “My name is Lucy. Are you Hampton?”
He shushed and gestured me inside. Even as I locked my bike I considered holding onto the heavy Kryptonite for self-defense. But I took a chance. I stepped inside. The front door clicked closed behind me.
It was dark. My eyes took a second to adjust. The shop was crammed full of glass cases crammed full of crap. Stamps, coins, magnifying glasses, key chains, cigarette cases, lighters, jewelry, knickknacks and whatnots covered every conceivable surface. Stacks of stamp and coin books crowded high shelves or lay in toppled piles on the floor. Posters of stamps and coins plastered the walls. Hanging from the ceiling were macramé contraptions holding what looked liked goldfish bowls filled with yet more coins, everything ghosted with the white of dust. I saw Hampton eyeing me eyeing the stuff, and he saw that I saw, and it was all really, really awkward.
“So, I hear you have a flat for rent?” I said. “Is it nearby? Can we walk there?”
I was not about to get in a car with this guy. Not that he posed a threat. On the phone he sounded ancient. In person, he appeared just this side of dead. He wore his pants hiked up to his chest. Beige socks hung loose around bony ankles. His droopy moustache was a dirty dull gray that curled over and into his mouth. The hair on his head, such as it was, looked thin on top and too long on the sides as though he hadn’t seen a barber for several weeks, if he’d ever gone at all. I got the feeling he might take one of the tiny scissors he used to cut stamps from envelopes, clip a few hairs and consider himself groomed.
“Great neighborhood,” I said struggling to make conversation. “It’s close to the U. I’m a student.”
“You,” he said in a quavering voice, “are a girl.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” I was eager to encourage anything resembling conversation, “A girl.” My hair might be considered a little on the butch side but I’m five-foot-two with undeniable boobs and no one had ever mistaken me for a guy. I ruffled the top of my head and half-sang, “I enjoy being a girl.”
He didn’t react at all but picked up a long, wooden pole propped against one wall, pivoted, pointed the pole upward and, with a single gesture, unlatched a door and released a ladder-slash-staircase from the ceiling with a clatter.
“The apartment’s up here,” he said already climbing.
I followed. The two of pressed flat against one wall of the attic to avoid the gaping hole in the floor, until Hampton slid another hatch door over to create a three-by-three foot square of floor space. “Bonus room,” I joked. Again, no response. I made sure it held Hampton’s weight before I dared walk across it. The entire place was not much bigger than a generous walk-in closet but Hampton proceeded to give me a verbal tour.
“Over there is a window. That’s the bed. The sink is in the corner behind the toilet,” he said. “There’s a microwave in the closet, practically new. The shower is small but it works fine. You need to buy the shower curtain. I don’t provide that.”
He’d sublet the place many times before, he said, and insisted on “standard procedure and protocol.” He pulled a folded piece of lined notebook paper from his pants pocket, smoothed it flat against his thigh and pretended to read in the dim light a formal set of rules and regulations including the “requirement that said tenant” avoid entering or exiting the studio apartment during shop hours, avoid making “excessive noise including but not limited to stereophonic devices, chair dragging, door slamming and heavy foot steps” between the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and if on the rare occasion, “said tenant” had absolutely no other choice “but to descend from, or ascend to said apartment” when customers were about, Hampton would have the “legal right to terminate the lease at will.”
“Though in point of fact,” Hampton temporarily went off script to address me directly. “I’d probably say something to you like, ‘Any luck on that stock?’ to give customers the impression that you are a Stamp ‘n’ Coin employee just to be safe. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t also terminate the lease -- I reserve that right to do so -- just not in front of the customers.”
“Sure,” I said.
He went back to reciting a bunch of crazy ass “rules and regulations” from his written list, picking at the perforated margin of the paper where it had been ripped from a spiral notebook. Hampton was eccentric, for sure, and not in a charming way. I thought he was certifiably nuts and possibly dangerous but I stood there politely waiting for him to finish his list in part because I didn’t want to know how he’d react to insult, and in part because he was standing squarely on that three-by-three foot escape hatch. When he finally finished, I feigned polite interest.
“Ten dollars a week paid in cash every Friday.”
I moved in the next day.