As my husband and I walked over to the boardwalk, a man standing on the balcony of a building opposite our Old Town apartment called over to us. "Who's that?" I asked.
"His name is Jim," Barry said. "I think he runs the building."
Since 2000, Jim Wolters, 63, has been the manager of the Driftwood Apartments, a former brothel in Eureka's wild early days, he says, now made up of single rooms. Earlier in his life, after receiving a culinary arts and hotel/restaurant management degree from the University of California at Los Angeles, he was a cook at the Denny's at LAX.
Wolters is friendly, always greeting us and other neighbors from his balcony perch. Two years ago, when I broke my wrist, he was concerned, and when Barry had a serious bike accident last year and was in St. Joseph Hospital for five days, he dropped off a handwritten get well card, saying Barry was in his prayers. From Wolters, I've learned the importance of what sociologists call "loose ties," casual connections like neighbors, letter carriers or cashiers we see regularly.
When vacancies arise, Wolters and the property manager Megan Seely interview room candidates together. Four women and seven men currently live at the Driftwood, with three on the waiting list. Their rent ranges from $215-$250 per month, not including phone, wifi and cable. Three bathrooms on the premises are professionally cleaned every week.
Wolters likes Seely to help interview candidates because, as he says, "I can screw up the decision."
"He has a big heart," says Seely, "but sometimes I have to remind him this is also a business. We look at the big picture. Some folks come from women's shelters or the [Eureka Rescue] Mission, but if they come with good recommendations, we take that into consideration."
She believes the fit is important.
"This is shared living — we want everyone to get along," Seely says, adding, "When I get the rent from Jim every month, folks always show me respect and I never feel unsafe."
I asked Wolters if the residents work. While some are unemployed or on disability, he says others work at the casino, clean houses or are employed as security guards. One is a fisherman.
No drugs are allowed, though alcohol and marijuana are permitted, since they're legal. Wolters explained that it's tough to evict someone, but he's had to a few times. One resident was doing fine until he broke his collarbone last year, then started on pain meds and went the poignant downward route to hard drugs.
One resident, 49-year-old Iesha Shore, a mother of three, is an on-call janitor for two developmental disability centers, Bay Center and Humboldt County Access and Resource Center, and also cleans for one of her mom's friends. Her mother lives at Silver Crest, an affordable apartment residency for seniors in Eureka. Shore is on disability for borderline personality disorder, which can cause a pattern of unstable relationships and problems functioning in everyday life. "I'll think Tuesday is Saturday and miss an appointment if I'm not careful," she says.
"I call this my jumping-off place," says Shore, who hopes to qualify for Section 8 housing. "My goal is to have a studio with a kitchen, overlooking Second Street."
She likes the Driftwood, though shared living has been a challenge during COVID. "I'm respectful of people. If someone is in the kitchen, I say, 'Are you OK with me sharing the space?'"
"We see each other as a close-knit family and we take care of each other and check in on each other," Shore says.
Describing the resident who was evicted, she says, "It was like having a brother lost on drugs. We didn't want to see him go, but he couldn't stay." She adds, "It's very quiet here. Jim runs a tight ship."
Another resident, Barry Jones, 65, a former Pacific Lumber Co. employee, grew up in Shively and has been at the Driftwood for six years. He's a graduate of the Rescue Mission's year-long program for getting off drugs and has been off methamphetamines for eight years.
"The Driftwood isn't a 'clean and sober' place, but it's not a drug house either," he says. Jones doesn't think much of pot. "If you're smoking to get high, it's a drug, whether it's legal or not. I think pot destroyed this county," he goes on. "When I was growing up, you could hitchhike on the freeway with a rifle and everyone knew you'd been hunting and the cops didn't bother you."
Jones likes the rent, but he also applied to Silver Crest Apartments to have an apartment with a kitchen. Until then, he eats at the Rescue Mission and in local restaurants. Because of a heart operation and clots in his legs, he can't walk far. He hasn't renewed his driver's license and he wouldn't care except he'd love to go fishing.
This year, my husband Barry and I asked Wolters if we could watch the Fourth of July fireworks from the building's balcony. We joined about eight of the residents watching the sky light up. It was a terrific view — probably the best in town.
As we walked back from the firework display, Barry and I noted that not once in 20 years have we had a problem with any of the residents. In fact, it's the opposite. In contrast to the stereotype of public-housing residents, they're the sweetest neighbors we've ever had.
Louisa Rogers (she/her) is a leadership coach and writer who lives in Eureka and Guanajuato, Mexico.