[ Note: this is a modified version of the original web page. See: About ]
We were outsiders who rented a house on the California coast, famous for scenery that beggars all superlatives.
One of us, Advocat, is a professor-turned-lawyer from another part of America; the other, Scriba, a writer from across the Atlantic — who is also the narrator on this blog.
The jottings made here are divided into these sections:
Why we moved to the coast
Diary: what happened
How does it feel to be injured by ‘septic backup’?
Warning: vital information withheld from us that caused actual harm
Tentative conclusions from a life-changing tenancy
A litigation nightmare begins
WHY WE MOVED TO THE COAST
A Scottish friend, a Highlander, was unimpressed by California, except for Bodega Bay – having admired the way Alfred Hitchcock, his favourite director, used it as a backdrop in The Birds. But the best-known spot on the north coast is a graceful sand crescent slightly south of Bodega. It’s the one usually marked for attention in the bracing patter of pilots – as in, ‘This is your captain … approaching San Francisco airport … just below us … it’s another gorgeous day on Stinson Beach … and yes, some of those tiny specks are surfboards …’.
‘Why are there so few houses on the coast?’ I asked anyone who seemed likely to have the right answer, on my first visit to California from London. Not only did I fail to meet a single ocean-dweller among the people I worked with in San Francisco and Silicon Valley; I met no one who knew anyone who fit the description.
The rough consensus was an explanation in two parts: (i) Cold: the ocean was frigid and the coast seldom got enough sun. Too often, it was shrouded in an icy mist known locally as ‘the fog’. (ii) Environmentalists: these had commendably gone to work early in the history of the state, drafting laws for protecting the seaside from development – fearing the ugly, overcrowded concrete sprawl common in coastal Europe and Asia. That made it hard to find Pacific property to rent or buy.
In the early summer of 2012, after the landlords of the house-in-the-woods we had been living in were forced to put our refuge up for sale, we had to look for a new home in a frighteningly overheated rental market. Houses and apartments we could afford had become as rare as peacock’s teeth – at least, anything that met our requirements. Because Advocat commutes to his office in San Francisco, the ideal perch for us was a swift run to the Golden Gate Bridge – but it also had to be somewhere replicating the peace and open vistas of the mountain home in eastern California from which Advocat asked me to move, to be with him.
After weeks of brutally competitive house-hunting and failing to find that vital compromise between our needs, I was scanning Craigslist when I spotted an advertisement for a three-bedroom, modernist bungalow in Stinson Beach with a surprisingly low rent.
We should have been suspicious.
A week’s rent for many neighbouring houses, we would soon find, was higher than the price set by our new landlords — Henry and Fritzi Humperdink — for a whole month of occupying theirs, the Villa Que Sera (see About). We might have checked on this sort of detail if we had been house-hunting under less pressure. We imputed far too much integrity to members of a residential community in which Senator Dianne Feinstein had a getaway mansion, and a few months earlier, Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council, had sold her three-bedroom house for $2.2 million.
The Humperdinks told me that they wanted renters who would love their house as much as they did: that this mattered to them more than money.
Advocat, when he came for a first look, was just as keen on the Villa Que Sera — even if it was not the Pacific Ocean but an a lagoon that we saw mere feet from a wall of picture windows. Instead of gazing at neighbouring houses across a garden wall, there was blue water in-between. We could hear waves crushing sand in a grand, calming rhythm on the shore less than two hundred yards away, in the other direction.
Natural beauty was what had drawn each of us to California. Separately and together, we had lived on San Francisco Bay; in wooded inland valleys; on steep hilltops; in wine country; in high desert terrain; on the lip of Lake Tahoe in deep snow.
The one California setting neither of us had ever tried was the coast.
Moving to Stinson Beach would mean making Advocat’s daily commute twice as long — perhaps the most important reason, we told each other, why the rent was improbably affordable. I was uneasy about the Seadrift house’s location in a gated community — the sort of regimented environment that strikes me as not unlike a minimum-security prison. Still, we agreed that the house seemed sent by providence to satisfy our curiosity about life on the water’s rim.
DIARY: WHAT HAPPENED
Undisturbed quiet, we told the Humperdinks, was supremely important to us. This is what I need not just after dark, but in the mornings, after long nights at my desk. Their house, the Humperdinks assured us, was just such a perfect retreat.
The problems that began on the first day after we took possession of the Villa Que Sera were many. Too soon, there was a virtually non-stop procession of specialists in home repair and construction tramping through the house and yard, alternating with frantic email and telephone exchanges with Henry and Fritzi.
Though the sewage disasters would soon dwarf all the other irritants, chronic, loud noise came a close second, on too many days — often starting soon after dawn.
Imagine being worn out by house-hunting during an acute habitation shortage, by packing and cleaning out the home we were leaving, coping with the logistics of coordinating what we did with a moving company — and longing for nothing as much as being left alone to settle into our new place.
As this diary shows, the prayer went unanswered:
Wednesday June 27
We move into the Villa Que Sera in the Seadrift gated community in a surfer’s paradise, the Californian town called Stinson Beach.
Thursday June 28
We discover that, during the night, the refrigerator froze our sparkling water solid and irreparably damaged all the vegetables Advocat had bought at a farmers’ market.
Also find that the oven cooks unevenly, burning parts of food.
Saturday June 30
While I am taking a bath, the septic tank backs up, filling tub with grey, feathery objects and jelly-like blobs. The second bathtub also fills with water from the drain.
Plumber1 arrives, adjusts septic tank (technically, ‘switches leach fields’) gives some advice on septic problem; not enough, sadly, to protect us from reruns of this drama. Notices that faucets are unmistakably leaking in both basins in master bathroom — one set, heavily.
A house-maintenance contractor, Plumber2, out fishing earlier, when our landlords called for help, arrives and gives me more detailed explanations and advice on the problem (though even these would prove insufficient, in time). He was the last plumber to work on the septic tank and plumbing before we moved in. Says he had told Henry and Fritzi that the surest way to put an end to the plumbing emergencies that had long preceded our arrival was ‘scoping’ — putting a camera down the pipes (yes, the plumbing equivalent of a colonoscopy).
I had hoped to start un-boxing my starter-pack for work in the new house — write a few lines of the chapter of the book I was working on before the move. This did not happen, and would not, for several weeks to come …
Sunday July 1
I scrub both bathtubs with vinegar and water; puts shower curtains, liners, and towels through washer-dryer. The job takes 2 hours, in the middle of the night (I had been unpacking boxes all day).
Tuesday July 3
Hx Construction arrives to work on the plumbing for several hours. While this father-and-son repair crew toils, there is another – smaller – incident of reversed plumbing.
They leave and I go through the bathrooms again: disinfect; clean; wash towels.
Wednesday July 4 – July 7
Advocat and I finally leave on a holiday for which time was set aside months ago. The plan was to spend the first half of the week of July 2 relaxing, and in the second, work outdoors, far away from Stinson Beach. … No relaxation was possible: departure had to be postponed to deal with the plumbing crisis and its aftermath.
Sunday July 8
Toilet in main bathroom ‘bubbles’ ominously – even though the septic tank was pumped by sub-contractor of Hx Construction, in our absence — on July 7.
Tuesday July 10
Septic Wizards arrives to check plumbing and diagnose cause of bubbling. No conclusion reached.
Wednesday July 11
Hx Construction spends most of a day installing two sets of new bathroom taps (faucets) and new oven. Tiles are cracked in tap replacement, which lengthens the tasks by an hour or two. This is not necessarily Hx’s fault, but does mean that my work will have to be interrupted yet again — for tile-repair.
[to be continued some day when we can stand the remembering: watch for the biggest and most disgusting septic crisis yet]
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE INJURED BY ‘SEPTIC BACKUP’?
Had it been brown rather than clear waste-water that came surging up through the plug-hole when I took my first bath in the Villa Que Sera — on the fourth day after Advocat and I moved in — we would have moved out immediately. We would also have done so if we had known that I would effectively be confined to the premises for over three weeks by a violent dermatological reaction, after two more septic accidents. But contact with sewage from defective plumbing was so remote from our experience that we did not realise — until too late — what health risks we ran by staying on. We were waiting, patiently, for the Humperdinks to make repairs.
A septic tank is a sort of box, a miniaturised sewage treatment plant in which the ‘solids’ are designed to sink to the bottom. What came floating up in the first sewage crisis were jelly-like, transparent blobs of partially treated waste, and slimy, feathery objects.
When disaster struck, I had innocently been draining part of the bathtub to replace cooler with hotter water from the tap — as this was supposed to have been (oh irony of ironies) a curative soak, to stop the aching in legs overworked by days of packing and lifting boxes.
Only after I ran to the shower in the other bathroom to scrub myself clean and saw water coming up its plughole, too — as the toilet bowl gurgled and filled — did I realise what must be happening.
Eczema — my first experience, ever, of its gruesome damage — struck a few days after two other incidents of sewage flowing the wrong way in the Villa Que Sera. Though I never had another septic bath, my attempts at cleaning up before professional cleaners arrived on a deep-sanitation mission re-exposed me to contaminants. The first septic system crisis happened early on a Saturday evening; the second, in the late afternoon of the 3rd of July – too late, in each case, to telephone housecleaners.
I was careful to use rubber gloves, disinfecting all the contaminated surfaces with vinegar and pure alcohol — but a specialist in ‘sewage damage remediation’ would later explain why this a task strictly for professionals).
Until my skin began to itch, ooze, and form scaly eczema crusts, I had no idea that contact with sewage could have such an effect – although Google, when I thought to look there, instantly confirmed the connection. The links that popped up on the first page of search results were mostly for medical literature and reports of people hurt by such accidents in wretchedly poor parts of the world – such as slums or underdeveloped rural regions in the Caribbean, Vietnam and China.
This was my stream of consciousness after the eczema got going:
This itching is so ferocious that I want to rip my face off. … Try another natural remedy.
Have another colloidal oatmeal (Aveeno) bath. If only the relief from these — the recommendation of my dear, brilliant friend, BMR — lasted for more than two or three hours …
Immersing my hair in the colloidal oatmeal bath does stop the raging itching on my scalp for a while, but no matter how hard I wash out every last trace of the powder, it – and the more frequent shampooing – are making my hair dull, dry, and discoloured.
Trying to cover my face with makeup, even the mineral kind I have managed to find – a formula marketed by dermatologists for allergy-sufferers – does not hide the redness and hideous, weeping, scaly patches.
I cannot stand the sight of myself in any mirror or reflecting surface. Red, damaged, swollen skin on my face and straw-like hair.
I cannot distract myself from the itching by attempting to work on my book because I have yet to unpack my research – which is still in boxes.
Why are they still there? To unpack my work notes and books, and the rest of the pots and pans, for our kitchen, I would have to be sure that we are staying in this house. I am not sure we should. But …
… I cannot look for a new house until these symptoms have subsided enough for me not to frighten or disgust people when I go out.
But when will that be? Sensations of imprisonment and claustrophobia are overwhelming.
(… three weeks into this horror, as symptoms begin to ease) I begin a second round of house-hunting in three months. This is hard enough, but close to unbearable is the embarrassment of having to explain my still rather strange appearance to managers of property for rent. … At the Apple store in Corte Madera where I go for technical support for a malfunctioning tablet, the young employees look horrified when – in the heat and overcrowded room – my skin begins to blow up and the itching makes my eyes water.
Even my doctor, when I see him, and show him photographs documenting the progress of the eczema, is visibly repelled.
The hairdresser, a very young woman, feeling lumps on my scalp as she shampoos my hair, looks puzzled and uncomfortable.
How best to describe my psychological state, after a few days of such a thought-stream?
In addition to waking, on some nights, from screaming nightmares – rare occurrences, for me — these symptoms of a variant of post-traumatic stress disorder (from the Wikipedia entry on the subject in 2012, altered since then) were minutely applicable:
Shame: Deep embarrassment, often characterized as humiliation or mortification.
Self-blame: Exaggerated feelings of responsibility for the traumatic event, with guilt and remorse, despite obvious evidence of innocence.
Subjugation: Feeling belittled, dehumanized, lowered … and powerless as a direct result of the trauma.
Defilement: Feeling dirty, disgusted, disgusting, tainted, “like spoiled goods, …”.
Nearly three years later, I continue to wash my face exclusively with Aveeno’s colloidal oatmeal. My scalp itches fiendishly on hot days, and under extreme stress — as at Los Angeles airport, after a 15-hour flight, returning from a visit to my gravely ill mother — the itching and redness return to my face and head. These had never been symptoms of over-exertion for me before the events in the Villa Que Sera.
The treatment for severe eczema is systemic medication – such as Prednisone, which has alarming side-effects, including nightmares. Manifestations and consequences of full-scale systemic ailments can take years to develop. I am keeping my fingers crossed.
In sum: what follows a septic bath adds up to an experience you would not wish on an enemy.
WARNING: VITAL INFORMATION WITHHELD FROM US THAT CAUSED ACTUAL HARM
If you lived in a glass house-enclave — a small, ‘exclusive’ community — would you take reasonably good care of newcomers and visitors, so defending your settlement from possible stone-throwers? Common-sense suggests that, yes, that is exactly what you would do. Apparently, it was a thought that never occurred to the Humperdinks.
You might imagine that they would worry about their Seadrift community’s image in nearby San Francisco — fair or unfair:
Up the coast there’s Stinson Beach, the popular and noisy strip of wide sand bar and former wetlands loved by both surfers and plutocrats alike. The plutocrats have Seadrift, the gated private community between the Pacific and and Route One, […] In keeping with the gated community vibe, Seadrift actively discourages short term rentals, large groups and parties.
Doug Rigg of Mill Valley was kicked off the beach after he put his towel down in an area adjacent to the exclusive Seadrift development in Stinson Beach. Dr. Kirk Boyd of the U.C. Berkeley School of Law sees Rigg’s encounter as a violation of the state’s coastal access laws.
Peter Douglas, the executive director of the Coastal Commission, called the practice by Seadrift of kicking people off the beach for sunbathing “thuggery.”
The worst prospect I could have imagined for a sojourn in an actively excluding, not merely ‘exclusive,’ gated community in California would have been being surrounded by sterile conformity; and driven mad by nit-picking enforcers of petty rules. The Seadrift Association’s regulations ordain, for instance, that only house-owners and not renters (not even the super-rich paying $8,800 a week) can use the part of the beach that it owns — or believes it does. The guards in the sentry-box at the entrance to the enclave ask even new tenants who already have gate passes to display a sheet of paper painted in Day-Glo pink or green on the dashboards of their cars – ‘for a few weeks, or until we recognise your faces,’ one explained.
What neither Advocat nor I could have anticipated was that, soon after we moved in, I would be making an appointment to see my doctor — as a result, far down the road, of a deliberate decision by the community of Stinson Beach to control population growth by declining to modernise its system of waste disposal. That was a draw-bridgers’ choice designed to discourage newcomers from migrating to the area.
Now, if that is what California law allows, the people of Stinson Beach are certainly within their rights. But shouldn’t would-be renters be warned about the risks they will run — that local property-owners’ personalised sewer-systems fail so commonly that specialists in septic repair say that their services are required in the area week after week?
This was the community’s decision about waste disposal, as explained by the Stinson Beach County Water District — established in 1962 to deal not with the supply of water but the pollution of the environment by septic waste:
Many people who move here from areas that are served by sewers are surprised to find that Stinson Beach has individual onsite wastewater disposal systems (septic systems). Water District employees are asked frequently why septic systems are used, why we don’t have a sewer and treatment facility, and why their systems require monitoring. The simple answer is that through the process of community meetings and a bond vote in a special election, the residents of Stinson Beach over 10 different sewer plans and chose the alternative of onsite systems.
We have had no time to look into how many other families renting houses in this settlement suffered the chaotic fallout we did. But there is something not a little surreal about being given a surprise septic bath with the romance writer Danielle Steel for a neighbour (in 2012: she has sold her Seadrift property since then.
TENTATIVE CONCLUSIONS FROM A LIFE-CHANGING TENANCY
High in the introduction to the Wikipedia’s digest of medical literature on eczema is the word ‘persistent’:
The term eczema is broadly applied to a range of persistent skin conditions.
Discussing the treatment of this illness, EczemaNet, a site dedicated to it says:
One of the most important goals of eczema treatment is to prevent the development of rashes by avoiding those things that trigger itching. […] However, experts note, once skin inflammation occurs, prevention is less effective and anti-inflammatory agents, such as corticosteroids, become necessary to effectively manage the condition.
The long-term prognosis for eczema is uncertain. Relapsing is common. Once a trigger like septic bacteria has activated the complex systemic (whole-body) syndrome associated with the illness, symptoms can be set off by a variety of causes – ranging from emotional stress to household cleaning sprays. Eczema can also be triggered by, and run concurrently with, other illnesses.
Corticosteroids are effective in controlling or suppressing symptoms. Oral versions of these drugs are used to treat severe cases of eczema – for instance, the Prednisone that my GP prescribed for me. I filled the prescription but did not take the medicine not just because the pharmacy’s warnings about side-effects included a mention of nightmares as one of these (the days were frightening enough), but possibilities including the glaucoma, cataracts and hypertension also listed on EczemaNet.
The unforeseeable future consequences of a septic bath three years ago have certainly added a dimension to my life that it did not have before.
A LITIGATION NIGHTMARE BEGINS
In September 2012, as I dealt with the eczema’s disfigurement and the depression of unwilling confinement, Advocat withheld the rent. We waited for the Humperdinks to offer the fair financial compensation they had promised us for our taste of purgatory. They named no sum; insisted, instead, that they were still owed the rent because of the repairs they had ordered or completed.
We refused to hand over any more cash without a fair settlement — for a house that was still not habitable. The septic system had still not been certified as safe.
The Humperdinks attempted to evict us with three days’ notice. Shortly after this trigger for legal action, a two-man Septic Wizards team was digging up plants in the yard of the Villa Que Serra. Vegetation was found to be impeding the proper functioning of the septic tank, which had failed yet another test.
Here are some questions worth mulling over by anyone interested in the wider implications of our misfortune. They relate to the management of ‘the commons’ – or the rules a society makes for sharing resources the public owns in common, such as coastal land.
Should landlords be free to set their own terms for doing business and standards of house maintenance …
… in a tiny patch of coastline – about 15 square miles – in which a lucky minority of Californians have been given the chance to own seaside property? …
… a place, Stinson Beach, that these residents defend from new development and population growth by deliberately choosing personal over public sewage management? …
… which also happens to be a place where the sandy soil makes for an operating environment not ideal for septic systems – and increases the likelihood that they will fail? (Details to follow, but this is a good primer: Septic Systems for Homeowners.
… One specialist in septic tank repair working on the Villa Que Sera told me that his truck, and those of others in the same line of work, can be seen in Seadrift practically every week.)
Many houses in this community are not occupied by their owners continuously –or at all — but let as beach property to outsiders, for spectacular rents. Even if they are told about the local system of waste-management, these taxpayers from elsewhere typically know nothing about the functioning of personal sewage systems, or about the consequences when they fail.
Does that mean that there should there be stricter rules for preventative maintenance for the sewer systems of Stinson Beach?
The answer would seem obvious — blindingly so.