The Apartment

We pulled up to the apartment complex at quarter till noon. My father agreed to let me drive so that I might re-acclimate myself to the road ahead of my upcoming driving test. In a McDonald's parking lot a mile from the halfway house we stopped to swap seats. The steering wheel felt small in my hands, like that of a Tonka truck. A decade ago, before I went to prison, I might not have had to adjust the car's mirrors, as Dad and I were then about the same height. Now he is seventy seven years old and the long dragging whine of the side mirrors' motors lent a comical air to an event already made comical by the memory of us having been here once before when, years ago, my father had taught his teenaged son to drive for the first time, the two of us rolling through the empty streets of a new housing development at ten miles per hour. At one point in our drive to the apartment he clutched the passenger-side door thinking I'd suddenly swerved into oncoming traffic.

"Relax, Dad. It's a turn lane."

I parked on the street before a small complex located beside a tattoo parlor and a gay bar called The Back Door. Across the boulevard was a Range Rover dealership, bank, and gym. There was not one child- or family-friendly attraction within 1,000 feet of the apartment. No day cares, no playgrounds, no churches with youth Sunday school programs. According to Google Maps, the nearest park was 1,200 feet south. That said, the neighborhood was decent, so long as you didn't mind listening to the low roar of the nearby tollway or seeing a water tower from your bedroom window.

Wing, the landlord, had told me over the phone that she didn't care about my criminal past so long as I could make the rent on time.

"You have job? How much money you make? You pay fifty-dollar application fee, I show you apartment."

On the morning Wing had called, my father and I had been out looking at another apartment across the city a few blocks from The Noodle House where I work. The leasing agent had wanted $850 for the tiny studio, which she maintained only needed cleaning but in reality was a dump. The multicolored carpet squares that defined the living space were soiled beyond salvage and the painted plywood countertops in the kitchen were curling from moisture damage like overgrown fingernails. It was just as well, since the apartment turned out to be across the street from a park. I stayed only as long as I thought polite, flipping light switches and fiddling with faucet knobs. Back in the car I filled out the application Wing had emailed my father and, after sending her the fifty-dollar application fee using Dad's smartphone, she texted me a smiley face and asked that we meet at noon the next day.

The complex's twenty-four units were divided between two brick buildings built circa the 1960s. Between them was a small courtyard with a kidney-shaped pool. The surrounding grounds were well-manicured. The hedges had recently been trimmed, the flower beds weeded and mulched. Dad commented that the place looked nice, and I agreed.

Though it wasn't as nice as the first apartment I'd looked at. Or the second or the third, all of which, for various reasons, had been lost.

I thought I'd fallen into good fortune when at the beginning of my search for an apartment I found a sympathetic army veteran who owned several rental properties throughout the city. One was a handsome two-story brick home divided into four units and nestled in a quiet neighborhood across the street from Dallas's prestigious Highland Park. The vet wanted $850 for a one-bedroom, the maximum my budget allowed.

I was upfront with the vet. I told him I'd just been released from prison. I told him I was a registered sex offender and divulged the charge. I explained to him that I have no credit (Experian reported I have a credit score of eight). I told him, in other words, every thing a landlord hates to hear, yet he agreed to show me the apartment that same afternoon.

Only the halfway house wouldn't approve me to leave on such short notice, so I enlisted a friend to tour the unit in my place. Over speaker phone he described a space that was modest but which held certain charming architectural details such as crown molding, built-in bookshelves, and original hardwood flooring. I asked my friend to take an application.

Later that evening, however, the vet called to tell me he'd reconsidered. His business partner had expressed trepidation with leasing to a sex offender. The partner was concerned what the other tenants might think. The vet said he'd discuss the matter further with his partner and that he'd call me the following week with their decision. But the man never called, and my messages went unanswered.

That's a widespread habit I've noticed since returning to the free world. People rarely answer their phones or return messages. I'm told that an uptick in spam calls in the past decade has now made it necessary to screen one's calls. My suspicion, however, is that people aren't interested in speaking to anyone anymore. Everyone texts nowadays. It's a less demanding form of communication, one that frees its participants from commitment and from the anxiety and uncertainty that come from real, spontaneous connection. Everywhere I go, in stores and on the train and in the streets, everyone is tapping, scrolling, and swiping. In the dining room at The Noodle House entire tables of friends and families sit mute with their noses pressed to glass while their pho sits getting cold. The technology that once promised to connect us has made us more disconnected than ever.

It's a worrying phenomenon, this devolving of social interaction. Texting has breached even the spheres of business and commerce. One leasing agent I contacted preferred to conduct our exchange solely through text rather than over the phone. For an hour we played text-tag, volleying incoherent spurts of numbers and letters and lazy emoticons. I'd had enough and finally called the agent, who seemed offended by the intrusion. I met his annoyance with bluntness.

"Look, do you lease to sex offenders?"

There was a pause on the line, either because the man was taken aback or because he'd momentarily forgotten how to form audible words. Eventually he regained himself.

"Absolutely not. We can't help you."

Finding an apartment is almost improbable when you're a sex offender. Not only do most leasing offices want nothing to do with you, but many sex offenders are restricted from living near parks or schools or other "places where children congregate," which severely limits an offender's options.

Some cities ban sex offenders from living as far as 1,000 feet from a park or playground. The city of Dallas has no such restrictions, and, initially, my probation officer told me I could live anywhere within the city.

With this news I cast a wide net. My father scoured online apartment listings for me, since I'm not allowed to use a computer. He compiled a list of every vacancy in the city that was within my budget. He also searched the online sex offender registry to see where other offenders had had success in finding homes.

I spent hours each day looking for an apartment. The calls, if answered, went much as they did with the textaholic leasing agent. "Absolutely not. We can't help you." I didn't take the rejections too personally. Many people I spoke to were polite and conveyed what could pass as genuine regret. They explained they had policies, reputations, and tenants to think about. I could understand that.

Then one month into my search I came in contact with a leasing agent at The Mirage, a complex located in uptown within walking distance of the city's trendiest boutiques, restaurants, and cafés. It was also one block away from a popular urban hiking trail.

Cynthia, a leasing agent at The Mirage, was exceedingly kind and after explaining my circumstances suggested I apply for the apartment online and let the computer decide if I qualified for a lease. The implication was that I might avoid human scrutiny so long as the computer found me acceptable. It's startling how much control we willingly hand over to our machines.

Cynthia waived the application fee and my father submitted my information online. The computer approved. Cynthia said the felony didn't even show up in her system.

I was thrilled to have received the green light, but the apartment's proximity to the trail concerned me. It seemed too easy, too much in my favor that I should be allowed to live wherever I pleased. So before paying the $300 security deposit, I placed another call to the probation office.

By then I'd been assigned a different officer. The new PO speculated that the city enforced a 500-foot radius for sex offenders and was unsure whether the trail was considered a park. She said she would double-check and call me back. Meanwhile I contacted the city and confirmed what the first PO had said, which was that Dallas has no proximity restriction.

By policy the probation office has thirty days to review and approve a potential residence. Three weeks had gone by and I still hadn't heard back from my PO. Cynthia called asking for a security deposit to hold the unit. I called the PO again and left her a message. A few minutes later, she texted me back.

PO: I double-checked and spoke with my supervisor, and although it's not a Dallas ordinance, it is our practice to enforce 500 feet from a park, school, etc. So unfortunately I will not be able to approve that address.

Me: Was my last PO not under the same supervisor? Why would she not have told me about this policy?

PO: No, she and I do not have the same supervisor. There are at least 10-15 different supervisors, and although everyone tries to do the same thing, that's not always the case.

Me: Do other supervisors have greater restrictions? Might another PO in another part of the city specify a radius greater than 500 feet?

PO: I would say 500 minimum.

Me: I must tell you it's very frustrating that this policy wasn't disclosed upfront and that different people in probation are telling me different things. This process of finding a home is difficult enough without guesswork and misinformation.

PO: I understand your frustration, but you have to understand that we have a duty to protect you and the community as well. Living so close to a park, because that's what the trail is considered, can put you and others at risk.

The Mirage extended two blocks from east to west with the trail defining the property's western boundary. I called Cynthia and asked if she had any vacancies on the complex's eastern-most side, far from the trail. She did, though it was almost $200 over my budget. I took it anyway and immediately paid the security deposit. Two weeks later I got a call at work from the PO. I'd been slicing eye of round on the deli slicer and my greasy hands fumbled to answer my phone. The PO said that while the new apartment was over 500 feet from the trail, the management company, whom she'd made a point to contact, hadn't known that I was a registered sex offender and was refusing to lease to me. I'd lost a third apartment and $300.

I made more phone calls, called up more apartments. My father found a complex which, according to the registry, accommodated four sex offenders. But while the leasing agent was willing to rent to me, she admitted that the complex had recently come under new management which banned sex offenders and would not be renewing the leases of their registered tenants. The four men would be out of a home by year's end.

I spoke to more leasing agents, called individual owners, inquired about guest houses and garage lofts. I considered group homes for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. I even contemplated contacting one landlord infamous among the city's registered population for renting out single rooms to desperate sex offenders for an exploitative one grand per month.

Then Wing called: "Everyone make mistakes. All I care is you pay rent."

At nearly half past noon she pulled up in a white Lexus SUV. She was younger than I imagined, somewhere in her early forties, and wore a crisp white blouse and white slacks. She didn't stop to introduce herself or even approach our car but walked ahead toward the complex gate chattering over her shoulder about her teenaged daughter having taken forever to put on her makeup. She did not, I noted, explicitly apologize for being a half hour late.

I followed her up cement steps to the second story of the nearest building. Before a pale green door she squatted daintily in her high heels to rummage beneath a dusty rainbow-colored door mat.

"I tell Brett leave key here when he go," she said.

But there was no key beneath the mat.

Just as she was turning to descend the stairs in search of a spare, the apartment door opened to reveal a young man about my age looking rather sheepish, like a boy caught eating cookies before dinner.

"Brett!" Wing cried. "Why you still here? You say you move out by first! How I supposed to show apartment if you still here?"

Brett stuffed his hands inside the pockets of his hoodie. He ignored Wing, who continued ranting, and stepped aside to let me in.

Inside, so far as I could see, was evidence of a man who'd lost all control of his life. Every horizontal surface of the 370-square-foot efficiency was stacked with debris. It was too much for the eyes to take in and for the brain to process, but I saw a bed, of that I was sure, and noticed too a stove and sink stacked with dirty dishes, pots, and pans. Then, just coming into fucus, I saw hoards of clothes, trash bags, empty sex-toy boxes, women's undergarments, and, most bizarrely, a life-sized dollhouse.

The space was so densely packed that one could imagine peeling back the apartment's four walls and being left with a detailed junk-cast of the space, complete with impressions of door handles and light switches. It was a depressing little hole, and yet I felt buoyant toeing through the wreckage, for here was a man who made me look as though I had my shit together.

Quite smartly Dad had decided to stay on the porch landing, and as I was stepping back outside I heard Wing say to my father that the rent was $800, utilities included.

"I'll take it," I said.

Back on the street, Wing set the lease on the hood of Dad's car and I signed and initialed each of its thirteen pages. Using Dad's phone I paid Wing the $1000 security deposit and prorated rent for the month of June, which came to $510. Wing said she'd mail me the key.

Minutes later we sat in the car, my father behind the wheel; I was too shaken and giddy to practice any more driving.

"Do you think I did the right thing? Do you think the PO will approve it?"

Dad started the car. "Son, I don't know."