Ready with several classified ads, Mapquest directions and a rental car, I visited a handful of apartments in Durham and Chapel Hill. I was relocating from Houston to the Triangle, trying to find a nice home with a rent that I hoped wouldn't burn a hole in my pocket. I found the perfect place. There was just one obstacle: a little old white lady from Chapel Hill.
I'd found it advertised on Craigslist: "The most charming apartment in Chapel Hill." It was a garage apartment behind the home of an 87-year-old widow, who, I was later told, is a vestige of Chapel Hill's aristocracy. The ad showed hardwood floors throughout, old but superbly maintained appliances, molding around the windows and doors, and built-in bookcases. The apartment was, in a word, charming. I'd been corresponding with the friendly tenant, who had taken on the task of showing the apartment to assist her landlady. The tenant and I made an appointment for Wednesday afternoon.
After a quick look, I fell in love with the place. Before I left for the airport to catch my flight, I asked her the question that had long been on my mind: "How do you think your landlady will feel about a young, black man living in her garage apartment?"
Without pause, she replied, "Well, since I'm neither black nor male, that's hard to answer. But she really is a kind old lady. She's been renting this place for years. I'm sure she's had all kinds of tenants."
On my second trip to the Triangle, I visited several more apartments, but the most charming apartment in Chapel Hill was still my favorite. I made an appointment to meet the landlady in person. I drove to the house and parked in the driveway a few yards from the garage. I wore khaki pants and a nice shirt, ironed and tucked in. I'd shaved and removed both of my earrings.
To the left of the driveway was a paved path that cut through the manicured lawn and led to the house. I walked to the door at the path's end and rang the bell. After a few minutes, I heard a murmur behind me. I looked over my shoulder, and there she was—the landlady, hunched over her cane, frail, white haired and looking every bit of 87.
I followed her into the side door through a solarium and a kitchen and into the living room. The walls were covered with sepia photos of her late husband in his army uniform. There were shelves and shelves of photos. I acutely felt like I was in a white sanctuary, not because all the faces on the wall were white, but because it eerily felt like I was the first black person to ever lay eyes on them. It's a feeling that I questioned—a feeling that was the first, but maybe not the proper response. But it was visceral. The landlady and I sat in two low-lying chairs and talked.
"I fell in love with the apartment," I told her. "I would love to move in."
"Your tenant showed me the place and I thought it was great. I'm willing to write you a check right now." But there was still something unsaid between us. She asked me how long I would want to live there, where I was from, whether or not I'd be living alone. But it was small talk—inconsequential. It was clear that I wouldn't be living there.
"Just to be fair," she said, "I would like to allow others to see the apartment." I sensed the futility of any further efforts and led our conversation to a close.
On my way out of the living room, she called out: "Can you close that door please?" I complied. I'm not sure what I closed the door on, but it left me feeling a bit morose. The charm had certainly worn off.