In this audio story, a radio reporter details her cross-country move and search for a home during the pandemic.

ELIZABETH CALDWELL: In the summer of 2019, I lived in a room in a house under renovation. The noise wasn’t bad at first. By winter, though, the place sounded like this. 

(SOUND OF HAMMER NOISE)

CALDWELL: I looked for another rental, but this was on the coast of Maine. I had just finished a graduate program in the city of Portland, where a cheap 440 square-inch apartment went for over $1,000 a month. 

(SOUND OF CONSTRUCTION)

CALDWELL: So I stayed in the noisy room until January, when I did find another place that was quieter and only a little more expensive. The drawback was that it was a seedy motel. And I mean the term “seedy motel” literally. It looked like the kind of place where, in a movie, the bad guy everyone is searching for is hiding. These are some of the online reviews.

Whoa. Is it the worst motel we’ve ever experienced?  Probably not. But it’s definitely in the discussion! 

If you don’t want to feel itchy and/or skeevy, this is not the place for you.

CALDWELL: I told myself when I moved to the motel that I didn’t care. It was just a post-school decision, temporary, and I started planning to move. Eventually I decided on Oklahoma City. I had talked about it with a friend who was moving, too, and I discovered in Oklahoma City I could rent an entire house with a yard for my dog for less than I was paying to live in a rundown motel in Maine. By spring, I was ready to go. But then coronavirus happened. 

PAIGE: The timing on this is pretty…(laughs)...

CALDWELL: That’s my friend from school, Paige. I met with her in a park in Portland to talk about my plans and to say goodbye. I wasn’t sure if I should go through with moving, though. We spent a lot of the conversation going back and forth.

PAIGE: The motel part’s hard, because that must be pretty depressing. Look, you gotta do what you gotta do. It’ll all work out in the end. I believe that.

CALDWELL: Her tone didn’t convince me. And when we said goodbye, I heard a worrying finality in her voice.

PAIGE: Elizabeth, it’s been so nice knowing you. (laughs)

CALDWELL: We couldn’t hug, so we just stood there, looking at each other.

PAIGE: But our paths will cross again, whether it’s a couple of weeks or who knows how long.

Elizabeth Caldwell, far left next to the selfie photographer, and her Salt Institute for Documentary Studies classmates on graduation day in December 2019 (Salt Institute for Documentary Studies)

CALDWELL: One afternoon, a few weeks after that conversation, I was sitting in the motel. I looked at the bare cinderblock walls and at the dirty ceiling. Next door, a drunk woman was singing a George Harrison song. 

(Woman singing: Dalai Lama….)

CALDWELL: I had been working my whole life, since I was 17, and I had never managed to get ahead. More than anything, I wanted a safe, clean, quiet place to live that I could afford. So I left the motel, and I left Maine. 

(Woman singing)

CALDWELL: The drive to Oklahoma was about 1,700 miles. I did it in three days with a lot of hand sanitizer. 

(I’m in Massacusetts … Connecticut … Pennsylvania … Ohio)

CALDWELL: In Indiana I spent the night at a KOA near Indianapolis off Interstate 70. I set up my tent in the dark, then laid in it without sleeping.

(It looks like it rained earlier so the ground is damp, the grass is damp, everything is damp. So it’s cold and … damp.)

CALDWELL: I was happy to arrive in Oklahoma City. The Airbnb I booked was a duplex near the Asian District. The first thing I did was put my tent out to dry. Then, right away, I started looking for a more permanent place to live. As I sat inside and read through rental listings day after day, I got curious about who else might have stayed in the duplex and why. So I called the host of my Airbnb, whose name is Dennis Rudasill. 

Angie Dean, an Airbnb cleaner in Oklahoma City, takes extra precautions with gloves, a mask and bleach solution while sanitizing an Airbnb listing (Elizabeth Caldwell)

DENNIS: I got my degree in advertising, which (at) Oklahoma State is in the journalism department, so, I mean, I went to school around all those journalism geeks.

CALDWELL: Dennis hosts a slate of properties in Oklahoma City. He sympathized with being in a strange place at the start of the outbreak. 

DENNIS: It was kind of weird that like the big catalyst for everything I would say happened right here in Oklahoma City, when the basketball player tested positive and they canceled the game, and then they canceled the season … so it sort of put a spotlight on COVID in Oklahoma City. And then immediately after that, we had a wave of cancellations.

CALDWELL: Bookings did eventually start to come in again for longer-term stays. Dennis said before the pandemic he hosted horse show attendees or people going to other gatherings, but now his guests are workers, construction crews, doctors or people kind of like me.

DENNIS: We had a lot of people from Chicago or Houston or New York that have family here. So they were out of really dense metropolitan situations and sort of hanging out here in a much less than — a much-less-than situation, closer to family, more affordable living situation.

CALDWELL: A more affordable living situation. That was what I wanted, too. In an awful way, it was nice to know I wasn’t alone.

 But I couldn’t stay at Dennis’s place forever. So one afternoon I drive by a house for rent that’s just what I hoped: light-filled, two bedrooms with a yard. It’s both the biggest and the cheapest place I have ever considered living. 

(There it is, mumbling … does it have a fenced yard? It sure does. Yeah, this is good.

I meet the owner later that day. He wears a mask and I wrap a sweater around my face as we tour the place. 

OWNER: There’s a deadbolt there…

(Yeah, this is a really nice backyard.)

CALDWELL: Four days later, I move in. Unpacking doesn’t take long because I don’t have much. After it’s over, in the evening, I go outside with my dog. 

(Backyard sounds)

We walk around and I watch him sniff the grass for a while. Birds are hopping here and there. It’s peaceful. The sun is going down. We sit on the steps and listen to the day end. 

(Fade out backyard sounds)

Elizabeth Caldwell is a recent graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she studied radio and podcasting. She also holds a master’s in creative writing from Hollins University. Follow her on Twitter at @eliza_well.

The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here. Stories and photos are available for republication with appropriate credits. To republish, contact Mike Sherman at msherman@oklahomawatch.org.


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Elizabeth Caldwell

Elizabeth Caldwell Caldwell is a recent graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she studied radio and podcasting. She moved to Oklahoma City in the middle of the...