After 20 years of managing apartment houses, Elsie deShields has not lost her sense of humor nor forgotten the stories of her close encounters with tenants of all kinds.
"I got a call from one tenant who said that the man below her was parking his car in his living room," deShields recalled. "Now this was kind of a wild building so I said, 'Well, that is hard to believe but I will check.' Believe it or not, each night that man actually removed the sliding glass doors from his apartment on the ground floor and drove his new Volkswagen into the living room so it wouldn't get scratched in the parking lot."
While this may be the stuff of which television sitcoms are made, most of a resident manager's job is not. Resident managers say they spend the bulk of their time dealing with considerably more mundane situations. There are complaints about leaky plumbing, temperamental heating systems, littered grounds and blaring stereos. Prospective tenants must be sized up, their credit checked and apartments readied for occupancy. But as any tenant will admit, it is the mundane things that really count.
In Arlington County, where more than half the population lives in apartments, a resident manager must be able to handle whatever comes along.
"Most of us feel that this is a profession," said one resident manager. "The days of the lady who keeps the keys and runs around in scuffies and an orange housecoat are gone."
As a group, Arlington's resident managers seem as the apartments they manage. Some run their buildings in a relentlessly efficient and impersonal manner that would impress IBM. Others apparently relish the personal contact and the involvement in tenants' lives, even though the circumstances may be tragic or sordid and involve suicides, unhappy marriages, drug raids and call-girl tenants.
DeShields, a plain-spoken, gregarious 59-year-old great-grandmother who loves talking about her work, has been manager of the 200-unit Park-Adams Apartments since 1976. President-elect of the National Society of Professional Resident Managers, deShields also has managed apartment buildings in the District, Alexandria, Montgomery County and in Memphis and Dallas.
"A manager has to have a heart," said deShields who noted sadly that a young tenant she befriended recently committed suicide. "I suffer with my tenants. You go through such traumas."
Despite differences in managerial style, there are similarities. All the resident managers interviewed said they could write a book about their experiences; two, in fact, say they are working on books. Most of them receive free rent and utilities plus an annual salary in excess of $11,000. All have been resident managers for at least 15 years and said that of the changes they've witnessed as managers, the increasing incidence of unmarried couples living together has been the hardest to accept.
Despite rents that begin at $285 for a one-bedroom apartment, Park-Adams has a large population, according to deShields. "You know how it is," she said. "One week Mary and Joes will move in together and then before you know it , it's Mary and Tom."
People don't realize what a resident manager knows about them," she continued, noting that her tenants in another building once included 14 senators and representatives, many of them with national reputations.
DeShields recalled one prominent southern Democrat who regularly "got drunk as coot and crawled around the lobby on all fours" until he was carried to his apartment. Another senator, she recalled, in order to save a quarter, used to scrub laundry on a washboard rather than use a washing machine.
One well-known southern senator, deShields said, dispatched his office staff to clean his apartment, do his laundry and squeeze his orange juice every morning.
"You have to like people," said deShields who sat on a gold-flowered sofa next to a large picture window overlooking the building's entrances and parking lot. "You don't have to go to a movie in this business. (The tenants) provide it for you."
"Privacy is one of our gratest assets," said Carole Weimer, who for the past two years has managed Prospect House, Arlington's Watergate equivalent.
Set above the Iwo Jima Memorial in a clump of less expensive apartment buildings, many Prospect House apartments have spectacular views of the city and the Potomac. They also have among the highest rents in Arlington.
The lobby of Prospect House is softly lit, the tone is hushed and the residents - Weimer stresses that they are not called tenants - pay $850 per month for two-bedroom apartments.
Current residents include several Cabinet members and a handful of congressmen, all Democrats who won re-election last year, Weimer noted, looking pleased.
"I look for the type of person who would complement the building," said Weimer, who has two degrees from Harvard University, one of them a master's in nursing education. "I look for someone who is well-spoken, well-educated and well-turned out," Weimer said. She might have added well-heeled. According to Weimer, the average annual income of Prospect House tenants is at least $50,000.
Asked whether she recalls any amusing experiences with tenants Weimer hesitated. "I have six volumes of notes I've been keeping for 15 years but I'm saving the good stories for my book. I've run into some real doozies but I wouldn't want to see them in print." Weimer said she plans to write the book after she retires.
Later, relenting slightly, Weimer recalled a tenant who bought Noel Coward's grand piano in Britain, had it shipped here and then couldn't get it through the door of his apartment. "It sat in the basement for three days until it could be dismantled. I was so worried that something might happen to it that I couldn't sleep."
In addition to unusual possessions for which a manager may be responsible, unauthorized pets often present problems. Elsie deShields said she once had a tenant who kept a large snapping alligator in the bathtub of his one-bedroom apartment. When a skeptical deShields was confronted by a hysterical cleaning woman, she went to investigate and found that the man also had a pet snake.
"I don't like your roommates," she told him and, out of curiosity, asked what he did with the alligator when he took a bath. "He said he just put in on the floor. He go it in Florida when it was a baby and he said he liked to send his friends into the bathroom to get something and then watch their reactions."
The most exotic animal complaint Bob Bell ever encountered was chasing a bat from a tenant's apartment. A Latin teacher at Yorktown High School, Bell is owner, and jack-of-all trades (plasterer, painter, furnace-repairman) of Bell's Apartments, an eight-unit apartment house on a quiet, tree-lined residential street near Washington-Lee High School. Bell is no longer a resident manager; he lives down the street from his building.
Bell has owned the stucco building, which he refers to as "the pink palace" because of its exterior color, since 1959. "When my wife and I got married we put our $13,000 in savings into a down payment on the building rather than a house," Bell said. At that time his parents also owned an apartment building on the same street.
Bell, who estimates that he makes $400 per month profit on the building, said that he's gotten management and maintenance and clearing."
Bell rents his apartments for $180 per month including utilities and garage space.However, he also makes individual financial arrangements with tenants, particularly elderly people, who can't afford to pay that much. He also lends his tenants furniture, and extends credit to those who are strapped for rent money.
"I've been a godfather and a best man and I still get Christmas cards from people who moved out 10 years ago," he said proudly. "Sometimes former students rent an apartment, which makes me feel ancient."
But unlike other resident managers, all of whom claim to love their jobs, Bell says his second profession is getting "a little old."
"I plan to sell the building in a few years when my son graduates from high school," he said.