LIKE MANY greenhorns from the hinterlands, where housing is abundant and cheap, I was applled at Washington, where it is neither. A week's tour of a apartments listed in the classifieds revealed that anything in my original price range likely as not resembled a reconstructed bomb shelter. When I at last stumbled on a safe, pleasant (read: habitable) efficiency in Alexandria, I grabbed it like Billy Carter attacking six-pack. You know the story.
I was therefore understandably ecstatic when some friends announced an opening in their big, cheap townhouse in the District. It was only blocks from where I worked, in a nice neighborhood, and featured running water and other luxuries associated with modern urban life. The only porblem was subletting my efficiency, which had three months remaining on the lease. No problem at all, I chortled to myself: I envisioned lines of desperate apartment seekers clamoring for my place, flattering me and slipping me $20 bills.
Only one thing stood in my way: my landlady. She seemed sure to respond [WORD ILLEGIBLE] brazen attempt to defy the terms of my lease with all the righteous contempt it deserved. My future clouded over with the prospect of being hauled into court, taken for all of the little I was worth, and left in the gutter to reflect on my sin of ingratitude.
After a few nights of such disquieting dreams, I squared my shoulders and marched - okay, crawled - into the landlady's office. She listened to my plea patiently, and in a transformation that bordered on the surreal, responded with a languid smile, "Well, honey, if you don't want to stay we certainly don't want to make you." Just find someone to take over my lease, she explained, and everything would be settled.
I placed a classified ad, started packing my collection of Waylon Jennings records, and waited for the lines to form. The first call came - a sullen man whose tone suggested a belief that he could find a better dwelling at the National Zoo. I disposed of him curtly, in my best slumlord manner informing him that if he didn't want my luxurious hideaway, thousands of other Washingtons did.
I was still telling myself that three days later, looking back on a dozen unkept appointments. At last a woman called and asked to look at the place, sounding as if it were the answer to her residential prayers. Arriving home 15 minutes before I had arranged to meet her. I spied two bulky young females posted outside my door. The collection agents have finally caught up with me, I said to myself, looking around for an escape route.
"We're here to see your apartment," piped up the larger of the pair. Sighing with relief. I showed them in, struggling to keep my slumlord arrogance in check. They inspected the place, marvelling at its most mundane features, and pronounced it ideal. Noticing the small dressing alcove outside the bathroom, one squealed with delight. "This is perfect! When we have everyone over, they can change clothes in here."
My expression must have betrayed visions of orgies, because she hurriedly explained. "We're members of a medieval society that has feasts and costume parties and things like that." The Society for Creative Anachronism, I said, recalling it from the mists of my memory. I pictured jousting matches in the courtyard and said a silent prayer that my neighbors would forgive me, or at least find it impossible to track me down.
"We'll take it," said the brunette, "if we can bring our dog," I weakly promised to check with the landlady, even as I recalled a clause in my lease that forbade pets on the premises. My memory was correct. My landlady forbade it.
The next day brought a call from a woman seeking a place for her elderly mother. As soon as they walked in the old lady, who had a malevolent glint in her eye and a manner charitably characterized as irascible, sniffed and snapped. "You have a gas leak" (I had no such thing). She glared at the dust in the corners, shook her head at my cluttered bathroom, and muttered disparagingly about the size of the kitchen. As I began to show her out, she sat down and said. "This seems to be just what I'm looking for. Now, what did you say the rent was?"
I told her.
"That's too much," she replied firmly, sitting back with an expectant air, to give me a chance to lower the ante. I told her the rent was fixed in the lease and thus out of my control, a point I had to explain at some length.
"Well, it wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for that damned security deposit. I can't afford all that money."
I dug in my heels. Nothing I can do about that, I said through clenched teeth, and besides, you'll have to pay a deposit anywhere. She complained some more about the cost. I clenched my jaws tighter.
At last she stood up, sniffed disdainfully and said to her daughter. "Well, we might as well leave if he's going to be so unreasonable. And there is that gas leak."
With the weekend upon me, my place still lacking a tenant, I spent Friday night on the town, briefly escaping my troubles. After staggering into bed only a couple of hours before dawn. I was awakened at 9 a.m. by what seemed like a deafening knock at my door, only a few feet from my throbbing head. Pulling the covers higher, I resolved to ignore my visitor. The knocking persisted. Finally I crawled out of bed, pulled on the pants I had left in a heap on the floor, and somehow managed to pry the door open. Outside stood a grim-visaged man in a three-piece suit clutching a copy of The Post.
"Here's your paper," he said shortly, thrusting it in my face. I rubbed my eyes, which looked and felt like oysters on the half shell, and mumbled that I wasn't used to having my paper hand-delivered by a paper boy dressed like a banker.
"I called yesterday about the apartment." The Jack Daniels fog parted momentarily. I showed him into the living room, suitably cluttered with empty beer bottle, dirty clothes and my unmade sofa bed. Sixty seconds later, following what might generously be called a cursory inspection of the premises, he bolted out the door, trailing promises to get in touch.
That afternoon an amiable computer programmer with a beard and blue basketball shoes ambled in to look at the place. He decided it was exactly what he wanted, his only concern being the suitability of my telephone for use as a computer terminal. Upon examining it, he declared it acceptable. I didn't argue.
"When can I move in?" was his next question. We arranged all the details in a matter of minutes. As he stood up to leave, he smiled exuberantly and said, "I'm sure glad I found this place before somebody snapped it up. A nice apartment like this couldn't last very long."
I told him it was his lucky day.