I can’t remember the PIN number to my handy-dandy, hippie-dippie credit union bank card. I’ve had it for sometime and I’ve never experienced a problem like this before in my life. All of the other uncharacteristic “brain farts” or missing pieces I could vaguely explain away to myself as cannabis or the one-size-fits all favorite, “getting older.”
There are things you know you forget. There are things you know are the most vulnerable to being forgotten during stressful times. Then there are things you just don’t forget.
My PIN number is one of things I just don’t forget and when I stood at the register of the grocery store trying to pick up just a few items for my anti-mold diet staring at my dumb fingers at the keypad with neither the muscle memory to type it out nor the ability to recall the sequence I knew that it was going to be a long recovery process.
As a 5 year resident of Oakland, CA and a sex worker whose housing situation is different from your average renter because either your income is inconsistent or lacks a W2 or someone just doesn’t like your looks or your google trail I’ve had some bad luck with landlords. In one apartment, the landlord knew that the handyman of the building with the master key set had been breaking into units one by one and had a bit of a vigilance issue with female tenants and especially me but hadn’t sent out any warning other than that he had been terminated from his position. He never handed over his keys, the landlord did not declare a massive emergency key change day, the landlord didn’t even warn his most vulnerable tenants privately. All of these things would be a liability or an inconvenience and as the saying goes, shit rolls down hill.
One of the great mistakes people make when it comes to unethical and dangerous behavior is the assumption that it comes from someone being deliberately and willfully malicious. It’s the Snidely Whiplash model of doing the wrong thing. It doesn’t happen like that most of the time in real life. Evil is more about the context of any given situation than a manifest desire to actively cause harm. It’s the endless disavowal of responsibility and the inability to put your foot down when shit rolls down hill because you’re unwilling to get any on your shoes.
When Oakland was part of Rancho San Antonio, the Mexican government struggled with keeping out illegal U.S. residents who would cut the protected redwoods and sell the lumber to passing ships. After the area became part of the United States and the Gold Rush began, the hills swarmed with loggers who sold the timber to builders in San Francisco. -SF Gate, 2006
Oakland’s got a long history of being exploited by profiteers but that’s a ragefuelingly common story for this country. I hate when people talk shit about Oakland because it comes down to hating the dog for being kicked by some douchenozzle with botulism walking by. Victim blaming is bigger than rape, it’s our default setting when we bear witness to exploitation. It makes us feel bad to apprehend that kind of knowledge and we shove off that discomfort in the directions we feel safe to express it. Without dedicated work on awareness, it’s generally directed down the hill.
When I look at an issue like the black mold that came through the floorboards and the drywall of my ex-apartment and made the walls moist to touch I feel angry at what happened to us over 18 months, my gaze turns up to the context that facilitated it and the pervasiveness of the poison. My story is a small piece of a bigger picture and whether or not I resolve some of the short straws I’ve pulled by virtue of being a broke ass Ho has nothing to do with the fact I despise all the ways that people profit off of the pain and suffering of others and a giant social machine permits it. My personal experiences are an insight into a broader political context.
In this case, that context added blood to my husband’s cough, broke the skin of his legs into large sores that refused to heal, introduced him to migraines, stiffened my joints making all movement painful, created persistent distortions in my vision, gave me sudden coughing fits that often left me hurling, caused my dog to itch, and then gave my cats soft sneezes. My beloved Floozy seemed mostly fine except for her endless sniffles and she died out of the blue leaving our other cat without his companion and the dog confused at her absence.
It happened over 18 months and it wasn’t a thing we pinpointed to the mold until it blossomed everywhere after a rainy winter. Mold wants you to be mold food. We knew that winters were dreary times in our home and for some reason we could write it off that no one felt well, ever. That our meals were spent quickly and hunched over on the kitchen counter. That the fainting spells I had, especially after sex, were somehow normal. “Well you get what you pay for,” was the phrase that echoed in our heads as we compensated and adapted to a hostile home environment from mold spores choking everything out in a basement unit with no light and inadequate heating. It was the perfect place for mold to grow but in the midst of it all that could be seen was how impossible it had been to find a place, especially with a dog and how we weren’t like to find anything else for $1000 a month that would take us as we were.
Internalized shame: I deserve to live in a mold cave, it’s just a little mold–penicillin is mold, you’re lucky you even found a place to take you, if you just did more cardio your chest would feel better, you know you’ve seen worse than this, this is the downside of having pets, every house in the neighborhood probably has the same mold anyway, what are you complaining about as a healthy 20 something anyway?
Mold wants you to be mold food. It prefers when you stop going out and just sit inside of it and don’t really know where a few hours went when you were just staring. It likes when sometimes you going from verbose and articulate to being literally unable to form coherent sentences. But if it can take to sturdy and health 20 somethings who hike mountains without thinking, then what is it doing to the kids in these houses? What is it doing to the elderly? And as I think about planning my own family, I wonder what it means for a pregnancy.
I quit smoking and drinking. I jumped on an extra health kick with vitamins and lots of time moving my body. People in the porn industry commented on my svelte and toned (albeit hairy) body and asked about my routine. I thought of it as getting into shape, I didn’t realize how much of it was my body’s attempt to protect itself from the damage being done with everything breath. One of our greatest gifts as humans are zipfiles that allow us to survive and adapt to all sorts of conditions. Our ability to adapt and go on is a gift. It’s why humans are found all over the globe. It’s also why a contributing factor to why a dangerous context creeps up on you. Without the perspective that there is more out there, somewhere, and that what you’re experiencing in front of you is not ‘reality’ but a slice of it can cause both pain and hope depending on whether you are literally allowed to leave.
“Why didn’t you just move?”
Not everyone has the liquid cash to pick up and go at a moment’s notice. We sure as fuck didn’t. When we finally had to because even a few hours in the mold cave caused immediate problems we literally had nowhere to go. Our surviving cat went one place, our dog to another, and Ned and I found refuge with our respective lovers in different cities. There are a lot of reasons why we might have been even more fucked than that and it wasn’t easy. It strained our relationship, it was stressful for the animals, ad we hemorrhaged cash. Suddenly the clothes on our back were toxic and had to be destroyed because of the time and expenses to get (confirmed) black mold out.
I wonder what we would be doing without the background and education to know how to access legal resources that are (technically) on our side. We learned that there is no official standard for mold save for ‘water damage’ and lawyers don’t really take on cases unless it’s for larger suits of whole buildings. Everyone should be protected by the court system but it only serves the needs of certain segments of society. There are a lot of reasons why it’s scary to put the many, many, many hours of research and documentation into building a lawsuit and even with the best of resources it’s not always feasible. The court system is designed to be out of reach and inaccessible. What we seek is restorative justice to repair the damages to our bodies and our property.
I have health insurance but I shudder at the costs of the battery of tests on my body without it. I had cardiac and pulmonary testing as well as lots of lung x-rays and blood work. There were scripts to fill. Specialists to consult. We had to hire a private mold inspector to look over the property and run tests on the air and surfaces of the space. We had to have enough liquid cash to pay for meals when we had no kitchen to cook in and on top of that we learned that our diet would have to radically shift to recover. Apparently most cheap and processed foods use the dregs of crops and stocks and it often contains mold. There is a totally acceptable standard of mold in food products and on top of that sugar is a prime feast for mold spores. Look at the labels of your food today and see if you can keep yourself below 35 grams of sugar a day.
So much as I preferred to shop local, away from chains, and in staunch opposition to companies like Monsanto I always kind of thought it was a special luxury thing to get “hippie food.” Now I question why fresh air, fresh water, fresh food, and safe housing is literally branded as a luxury or privilege in our society. We have it backwards. Food justice isn’t about getting fancy top shelf products, it’s about pointing out we are in possession of sovereign bodies. Our society has put forth an architecture of exclusion that dictates who among us gets to have access to the food that isn’t dangerous.
I’m no longer surprised that the French revolution was tipped over by the moldy bread allocated to the poor while the wealthy maintained a “let them eat cake” attitude. Is it any different today?
When confronted with unethical and exploitative practices as the hands of industry, people like to say, “You have to understand they’re trying to run a business.” What I understand is that there is a process of logic at bay, that only one set of interests are under consideration, and most people want to get everything they can squeeze out of you and not have you make them feel bad about it. I understand they’re not stroking Snidely Whiplash facial hair giggling about the horrible things they enjoy doing to people in pursuit of a buck. Most people want to expend as little as effort as possible for the maximum personal gain.
Landlords and bosses and government and friendly neighborhood monolithic corporations are totally running businesses. I’m running my life. The quest to make a profit does not extend onto the personal turf of other people’s lives.
No one is doing people a favor renting them patently unsafe homes. You’re no saint for charging a low price and “allowing people to have a place to live.” That’s some job creator bullshit right there. It’s apologism for exploitation. No one goes skipping into a situation like this with glee. It means they were at the end of their options and down the back alleys of marginalization there is someone willing to make a buck.
You see, my landlord knew that there was mold and she knew it was a toxic mold. This was information she was in possession of and yet she continued to funnel in tenants without making changes in between. She knowingly put me and my husband and out pets in a dangerous situation and she did so for $1000 a month. It’s so little for so much damage. Her actions are mostly born out of the fact that selling the property would likely be unfruitful and the cost of actually tearing it down or renovating it to safety would be costly. She rents her dangerous properties because it’s just easier to do that than actually make change.
Living in Oakland helped me integrate a lot of ideas I’d had. It turned a lot of class theory into practice. It taught me a lot of shit I needed to know and it was a radicalizing experience. Class stratification isn’t a theory, it’s an experience of the majority. It’s kids developing lungs in toxic mildew while being actively denied a diet that can help them thrive let alone combat the stress and damages of a life at the mercy of the state and the rich. It comes in so many forms and it all feels so big and hopeless to take in at once. I’m reminded that this is the case so long as we are divided. We cannot afford not to get to know our neighbors and mind our own business if we are to overcome the architecture of exclusion.
I always thought polyamory was a radical idea because I saw in it our obligation to look every person we meet as someone as we could love. In practice, this might be the case but we cannot allow ourselves to look at someone and declare them unlovable. When we confront injustice it must come from a place of love and with the broad perspective of the system creating a context we’re all fighting a long war against. To think of revenge is to become myopic.
The story of the mold isn’t the story of something terrible that happened to Ned and Maggie Mayhem. It’s happening to entire portions of my city and many people know. They just don’t want to take on the project and there are profiteers at the borders of every ghetto who make no more than a gatekeepers salary. We cannot allow it to continue. We have to consider what it means that the gap between a CEO and a front line employee’s salary is the biggest it’s ever been. Even lovers of “traditional America” need to look at the facts of the economic climate and how unsustainable it is to stretch the classes as much as they have been. When you keep pushing people up against a wall with nowhere to go they are going to be forced to strike back and no one wants it to come to that. It’s dangerous and terrifying. We cannot be “aggressively negligent” in the ways in which we, including myself, are complicit in this war on the poor comforted with the scraps and spoils.
It’s exhausting to love as much as it’s going to take to start and win and revolution. It means reaching out to people from all kinds of backgrounds and abilities. It means recognizing that poor people aren’t fucked up and crazy by nature but that living in poverty means being denied access to any of the things you need to build a foundation of all health from the head to the toes. It means realizing that there are all kinds of legal statuses in the states beyond immigration. It means recognizing that the drug and sex wars are a part of class stratification because if we keep locking people up for drug or prostitution violations we are stripping them of their ability to gain other employment.
I remain pleasure positive not just because pleasure is not a privilege and is a vital human right but also because of everything we would need to do together on this world to be able to actually experience it and share it on an even standing with our fellow humans. I know that this is something I will never see in my lifetime. It is the goal out of my reach that feel like breathing and won’t let me stop. To have a world where we share joy and company with one another freely we’re going to have to ensure that every individual on earth is fed, clothed, sheltered, and able to live each day without fighting for survival in a world where the biggest danger is the side effects of greed. We would have to tear down borders. We would have to dismantle the weaponry. We would have to expend the effort to do the right thing even when there is a personal cost.
My experience with mold got meta real fast. Although I still can’t remember my PIN number, I think I can remember why I’m here on earth better. If there’s anything to take away from that it’s a purpose to my existence. I want to shorten the gap between where I am and where I want to be. I want to learn to love all the people the way that I know I must. I know that I have to confront the painful truths in the ways in which I have blood on my hands and I have to unlearn habits of convenience and work on my own sense of power because that’s when I will see that I have more tools than I thought I did and I will take time to use them rather than hoard them.
I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. -Edward Everett Hale