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Night Crawler 

rm w/no vu; must perform

Wednesday, Jun 28 2000
My hallway closet can fetch $200 a month on today's rental market. No joke. I've actually been offered that much. There is, after all, a little window in the closet and room enough for a twin-sized bed, with space left over for a bedside table or a small chest of drawers. A little imagination, a few posters, some curtains, and voilà!

"It would be like sleeping in a ship's berth," enthused a friend-turned-hopeful-tenant. "I just love ships."

My friend's current passion for cramped sleeping quarters is the result of several months of fruitless home searching. His rising panic is a palpable, tangible thing. It infects everything he does, from the furtive way he walks down the street, eyes darting from window to window searching for signs of imminent departure, to the distracted way he engages in conversation while eavesdropping on strangers, hoping to catch wind of an opening. (His last roommate got a place that way.) He's completely given up on the idea of finding a nice little place of his own place and is now willing to share the cat box room with two 300-pound bikers who are exploring their sexuality. As terrible as I feel for him (and as wary as I am of the fickle nature of landlords and rental gods), the litany of desperation and madness that my friend has encountered during his countless interviews is a ceaseless source of merriment for me: Nice, respectable people actually camp out overnight in front of newly available flats with sleeping bags and pizza boxes; people arrive at interviews with briefcases of cash to pay rent for a full year in advance (this opens the door on a whole new avenue of high-stakes hold-ups that should be explored, I think); people offer themselves up as indentured servants, willing to wash cars, walk dogs, watch children, and rub feet; people bribe landlords and potential roommates with stocks and jewelry (taken right off their body, as my friend once witnessed). It's vicious out there, and if you've got a room, or a closet, you've got the power.

Enter 27-year-old Dan Kern. How happy was I to find someone in this city sadistic enough to take advantage of this newfound power, so I wouldn't have to? Someone who would choose the abject humiliation of his peers over monetary gain any day? Happy. Very happy.

When Kern posted a room for rent on Craig's List he got 42 e-mails within nine hours. Most of the applicants offered to do anything for an interview. Anything. So Kern announced Roommate Pageant 2000. Candidates would be required to compete in several categories in front of a panel of judges and a video camera; the person with the most points would get the room. Thirty-three anxious responses came back.

Outside a standard-sized flat and an iron gate that faces the onslaught of Geary traffic, in a neighborhood euphemistically referred to as "Laurel Heights," the reigning Ms. Roommate 2000 adjusts her sash and lights a cigarette. Maggie Lance is not eager to pass on the tiara that sits atop her very blond head. But she has put on a happy face and a bright pink evening dress for the occasion. She wants Kern to find a worthy replacement, someone who will be creative and fun and inspiring.

"Only seven contestants have arrived," says Kern, pacing the hall, wearing a tuxedo and a slightly apprehensive grin. "I guess this was a good way to weed people out."

The apartment is very clean, slightly featureless, but sunny and adorned with the artwork Kern produces when not working at the gym as a personal fitness trainer. It's nice. Everything is nice.

Several obviously nervous contestants wearing numbered name-tags are clustered together in the kitchen, munching on cheese and crackers and drinking microbrews. There is Contestant No. 1, Christopher Stout, an abstract artist who works in the computer industry; No. 2, Gabriel Meil, a student of landscape architecture; No. 3, Andrea Mikonowicz, who is taking classes in women's studies; No. 4, Nikki Fox, a teacher who plays the Indian bamboo flute; No. 5, Forest Croce, a database operator with an aversion to cameras; No. 6, West Hays, an irreverent 21-year-old who works in tech support and claims Kern once saved him from a burning building; and No. 7, Luke Ball, a user-interface designer who has been looking for a room for eight months (200 e-mails, 50 call-backs, and 25 interviews). Everyone thinks the pageant is a great idea. For now.

In the living room, a group of judges, each of whom has lived with Kern in the past or knows him well enough to give an informed opinion, sits on the couch in front of a silver tinsel curtain while a full camera crew futzes with stage lights and boom mikes. The preliminary interview process, determining age and occupation, is already complete, and the swim/evening wear portion of the contest begins.

MC Tammy Thornton, in a shimmering gold blouse and dress slacks, begins the proceedings. Stout enters wearing a lovely suit and jacket, which he displays with runway flourish; Meil, a little shy in swim trunks and goggles, proffers a rubber ducky and bemoans his lack of knee-high socks; Mikonowicz turns heads with a chic black evening dress and vintage chapeau; Fox appears in a cardboard box with a bikini painted on the outside; Croce awkwardly parades cords and a bad tie; Hays enters in a slinky gray dress and ill-fitting high heels; and Ball strikes a pose in a beautiful leisure suit from the early '70s. The judges confer, tabulate, suck down cigarettes, and crack open new beers. Already several hours into the proceedings, tensions are running high. Maggie Lance is showing the strain, her tiara skewed and her lipstick feathering as she chugs down yet another beer. She is gently reprimanded by Kern, who is in danger of losing control of the situation. "I need you to be present, Maggie," he says, searching for his camera crew after stepping into the kitchen to ask some "casual" questions of a few candidates, Stout and Mikonowicz, in particular.

"You think if I took out big ads in the local weeklies, I might get a room?" Meil asks me in the hall, already feeling his odds fading. "You think if I became a sort of minor homeless celebrity, I might have a chance?"

As the late afternoon sun slants through the windows, the talent portion of the show starts. Stout presents one of his paintings while reading a story about a failed sexual exploit. (The judges concur: He's gay.) Meil performs a puppet show of sorts with plastic action figures, in which the princess of the kingdom decides to rent out a room in her palace and poor little Gabriel doesn't have a chance, even though he offers to cook waffles every morning. The poignancy is not lost on anyone. Mikonowicz performs "They Can't Take That Away From Me" by Louis Armstrong -- in sign language. She flubs a couple of lines and blushes highly, letting her hands stutter, even though none of us would have been any the wiser if she had faked it. Fox paints a picture of herself while wearing Native American garb. Croce performs a Beethoven suite on the electric guitar and, not liking the feeling heartened by the response, soon leaves. Hays "courageously" attempts to turn a computer into a fishbowl, but, having little skill with power tools and not enough prep time, he produces a result that is less than effective and the fish look traumatized (not good for points among the female judges). Ball is the ringer, performing a lip-sync routine to Madonna's "Like a Prayer" with which he had won a drag show at one point. (He is not gay.)

The contestants file out and the judges, hot and bleary-eyed, start the lengthy process of choosing three finalists. The camera crew is weary. The MC is frazzled. The participants are getting restless. Sweat begins to form on Kern's upper lip as the applicants are brought back to stand in a line.

Stout, Mikonowicz, and Ball are asked to step up. Ball cries. The rest wave good-naturedly at the camera, but several leave without their parting gifts (movie passes and free sodas).

The real decision-making comes down to a heated discussion among Kern, his judges, and his camera crew.

Ball has too much energy. He's too San Francisco.

Maggie Lance, the reigning Ms. Roommate 2000, chooses Mikonowicz, hands down.

"But she's a student," counters another judge. "She hasn't really figured out who she is yet."

"She's a normal girl living in an abnormal city," says Lance, defending her choice and her crown. "She feels a little uncomfortable. I can so relate to that."

Still, Kern is leaning toward Stout, who put emphasis on the whole inspiration-between-painters perspective.

"Do you want a partner in art," asks Lance emphatically, "or a safe, respectful roommate? You want a calm, peaceful place to live, don't you? Isn't that what you want?"

Kern nods, thoughts of late-night painting sessions being replaced by thoughts of well-stacked dishes.


"Andrea is safe," says Lance with finality.

After all is said and done, the pageant has little to do with the actual selection of the new roommate.

"It does show the sheer absurdity of the housing situation," says Kern, "the lengths people will go to in this city." Even nice, normal, girl people.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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