Before there was an apartment, there was a basement. It was a big, mostly empty basement with tools from the days of coal and an oil burner that the Smithsonian would have cherished. I wanted to make it into an apartment and my wife wanted to make a new kitchen, but I prevailed and this is how I became a landlord. As Pogo said (sort of), I have met the enemy and it is me.
People now lie to me. People look me in the eye, swear oaths as to their say. People swear they will show up for appointments to see my new apartment, but they do not come. They promise times -- exact times -- and so I hurry back from wherever I have been and then do nothing but wait. They almost never show.
I have taken to asking for home telephone numbers so that people will fear my call if they do not show. They give their names and still they do not show. Ms. Smyth did not show -- "that's S-M-Y-T-H," she said on the phone . S-M-Y-T-H did not show.
One woman said she would rent the place but needed to check with her boyfriend. Could I hold the place fora day while he returned from out of town? I said I wasn't sure I could do it. She pleaded. She nearly cried. This was the apartment of her dreams. The neighborhood of her dreams. The dishwasher, disposal and air conditioner of her dreams. I told her to call in a day. She never called.
I know what's happening. I have become a landlord. Somehow when people become a landlord they are thought to have lost their humanity. I am no longer the old me. I have been transformed into an older man in a beaten fedora, ratty cardigan and unforgiving expression who has learned to trust no one. I sense this because for hears, before I became a landlord, I, too, thought that God forgave all lies told to landlords -- that there was, in short, an asterisk at the bottom of the Ten Commandments that said, "*Does not apply to landlords."
Except for a bried period, my family never owned its own home. We rented. We lived once in a place where, for warmth, we had to burn some old furniture in an old wood-burning stove. In another place, we lived above the landlord, who frequently played "Dance, Ballerina, Dance" on the organ. And we lived in another place where the landlord used to stay up all night working on old cars by floodlights in the backyard.
When I finally moved out on my own, I had developed my very own jaunciced view of landlords and became well versed in the art of driving a landlord right up the wall. I got to know the health code. I got to know the housing code. uI got to know how to write threatening letters full of lawyer-sounding phrases that implied a hearing before the health commissioner and a hearing before the housing commissioner. In my trpewriter, a single cockroach loomed like the Black Plague and only a landlord who did not want his entire building sealed by the World Health Organization would dare ignore me.
I refused to distinguish between rent and blood money. In New York, I once paid $44 a month rent and thought nothing of signing a petition accusing the landlord of gouging. In fairness to me, I have to point out that the old lady who lived on the first floor paid $14 a month. She signed also.
So in my early days as a landlord, I went out of my way not to appear landlordy. I made jokes with the people who came to see the place. I offered coffee. I discussed politics. I didn't have all the answers to all the questions, attempting, you see, to appear the dabbler, the amateur. I used the word "frankly" a lot and tried the word "honestly" once or twice. All I got was queer looks.
I rented the apartment once and the tenant broke the lease. I showed the place to a man who asked me to move the kitchen sink to the other side of the room and I have talked to people on the phone who hang up after being told something like, "I think it's too small for four people." Slam! They don't even say goodbye.
Slowly and inevitably, I am changing. The other day when I showed the apartment, I kept my hat on. Soon I will be wearing an old cardigan and then I will have my number unlisted. People are awful to me, but it's by fault anyway. After all, it's people like me who make people like me.