by Christopher Bacas
Because we remained so long in Housing Court’s trash-strewn orbit, Management assigned us our own agent. Every week, I saw Hassidim in our lobby. One was bigger than the others, with a jellied midsection spilling over pants, bowing his long black lapels. He moved like a man barely acclimated to walking; legs chugging ahead, thighs rubbing, wisps of beard waving cilia-like from his jowls.
To introduce our new handler, Matthew, the property manager, came by. He was a small man who always spoke quickly, words folding back on each other, nervous laughter erasing their authority.
“This is Jo-El. He doesn’t work for me (chuckle, chuckle), the landlord brought him on to work with the building.”
In fact, our landlord’s name was posted on a public list of “New York’s Worst Landlords”. I submitted the open violations in our building to the Public Advocate and within days, his name appeared. The new arrangement was designed to get the owner off that embarrassing list. Jo-El wasn’t a lawyer by training, he was a fixer. His fixing kept broken things broken.
We shook hands. Jo-El didn’t smile. He pressed his lips together and looked down.
Months before, in court, I watched him represent another landlord. The case involved a large building with more than a thousand outstanding violations; a stunning but not rare number. HPD sought twelve-thousand dollars in fines and immediate correction of the most serious conditions. A violation wasn’t abstract. I pictured the lady on our floor, mushroom growing out of a gaping crack in her wall or the family whose top floor unit flooded, ruining both kids’ bedroom sets. The HPD lawyers stood on one side with a crowd of tenants. It’s rare to see so many show up for a case. Defending your rights as a tenant means documenting communications, assembling and presenting evidence of conditions and skipping entire days of work on short notice; a year-round part-time job. Jo-El argued his client acted in good faith; fixing hundreds of violations. The City countered that hundreds of new violations quickly followed the supposed repairs. The big man reminded the Court the previous owner was a notorious slumlord. Since the building recently changed hands, the judge didn’t levy the fine. Broken things stayed broken.
My wife looked at Jo-El.
“If we have issues, we should call you?”
Matthew broke in. “No. No. No. No. No. You should call the office (chuckle). Call the office.”
“I don’t work for Matthew. I work for the landlord.” Jo-El said dismissively.
“So, you’re not here to help us?”
“I’m here to make sure the things get done for the landlord”
After ten years with dirt-brown indoor/outdoor carpet in all our rooms, we asked management to replace it. After months of inaction, our super finally pulled it up, exposing a landscape of splintery hillocks and winding riverbeds. Thirty years before, upper floors sagging more than a foot, they’d put a brace of steel beams and supports in the basement below us. The floorboards warped around the beams. Hundreds of gleaming carpet staples sprouted from the battered wood. They clumped like fish scales and cut like razors. I opened a Guinness and the super and I stated removing them with needle-nose pliers; a tedious and dangerous job, as they often snapped. My wife, Beth, arrived to see us gloved and bent over like gardeners. She called management, told them the floor was dangerous and making the super and I do the work, unacceptable. I had called the brown carpet camouflage for roaches. Now we wished it had stayed down until new carpet arrived.
We moved clothes and furniture out of the bedroom and living room, jammed them in the second bedroom, and carpeted the floors with cardboard boxes from a nearby Sears’ appliance department. Our new bedroom set was a mattress and camping pad on the floor.
January brought a deep freeze. The radiators alternated solar gusts and Arctic silence. At night, frost grew mossy around window frames. Finally, heat quit altogether. The super admitted that our fuel tanks were nearly empty. He showed me an old receipt from the oil company. I called and asked about a delivery. The guy on the phone was Brooklyn/Italian all the way.
“I can’t get a truck to ya until Thursday.”
It was 10am on Tuesday.
“But we’ve run out of oil”
“You call da management company?”
“Yes. They said you’re coming today”
“Look, until they make a payment, I can’t make another delivery”
“You know there’s small children and number of elderly here?”
He got agitated.
“It’s ya Management’s fault. I got a business to run!”
“What would it take to get a delivery? How much?”
“Why? You gonna pay fur it?”
“I’ll pay for the delivery.”
“How you gonna pay?”
“Do you take credit cards?”
First, I needed to clear the amount with my credit card company. Then, Management should agree to take it off my rent check(s). I also needed to clear it with my wife, who was at her day job in a law office. I convinced her to make a conference call with Management and the Oil company. She’d listen in.
Our manager expressed no concern about freezing my neighbors and questioned me, not to scuttle my plan, but to clarify my motives and ability to pay. He had “cash flow problems” and thought the oil guy was being unfair. My wife patched us through. The oil guy put us on hold. I found out they’d been adversaries for years. Matthew switched companies often. Vendors don’t respond well to whining.
He introduced me as a really great tenant who was doing a big Mitzvah for him and especially for all the other tenants. The oil guy wasn’t impressed. He let the manager know that he wanted regular payments from now on. I hadn’t given my wife an exact price. When the oil guy blurted out the amount I was going to pay, my wife broke in.
“We’re not…WE DON’T HAVE THAT MUCH MONEY.” She ended the call. Matthew called me back to apologize. He was a racist; cruel and capricious, but he didn’t want to make it bad for a married couple.
The truck came late in the day. I watched them hook up the hose and got a big whiff of the fumes from our first floor window.
After the oil fiasco, our floor problem remained. Jo-El called me to arrange a visit. He was very busy, of course and arrived late, finishing a call, alternating Yiddish and English. Standing in the empty living room, its floor carpeted with unfolded refrigerator boxes from Sears and mattress leaning against the wall, he launched a Mephistophelian disquisition on the Law.
“The Law exists to serve both sides. There’s limits, you see. No one gets everything they want. Each side has to give up something and that’s good. The Law is fair in that way. You get something..”
His hand swept the air.
“…and we get somethiHe turned his open palm toward his chest.
“The law favors the tenant, though. Matthew does his best. He tries to keep up with repairs, but the building is old, you know. They don’t build them this way anymore. Very old.”
” I’m glad we get to talk, because you understand me. Some of the people here, don’t understand these things”
Simultaneously, he patronized me and disrespected the West Indian tenants, more than half of whom spoke Krayol. This kind of racist claptrap often accompanied our talks.
I sat bare-chested on a futon. Around me, piles of clothes still on their hangers. While he spoke, I looked directly at his face. His lips stretched unctuous around the words.
“We don’t want you to be unhappy. We want you to have a great place to live.”
His voice echoed slightly; passing from the empty room into one packed, floor to ceiling .
“Where’s your dog by the way?”
Our dog was coal black and wolf-like; eighty pounds of semi-feral energy.
“He’s in the bedroom. Would you like to see him?”
“No, no. I’m not afraid of dogs… Some dogs….Your dog is good. He listens to you. You know dogs. You trained him. There was a dog at one of our buildings. He was skinny, barking all the time. I asked the super there: Who takes care of this doggie? He said the owner, you know, didn’t take care of the doggie. So I gave him a hundred dollars. I said: take care of the doggie, get him some food, you know. A hundred dollars. Next time I was there, I asked: where is the dog? But he wasn’t there. Something happened. I don’t know.”
He continued as if I were inanimate; a pile of pastrami or a rug. I fell into a stupor. The radiator gushed tea kettle heat. The window panes dripped glacially. His cell phone rang. He flipped it open.
“Hello. Nein. Ein zimmer. Yah. Yah. Ein zimmer!”
Still talking, he strode from the room into the hallway, unbuttoned coat swinging. They were going to deliver the carpet tomorrow; between nine and five.
He cupped his hand over the phone. “Will someone be here?”
“Not all day. Can you narrow it down?”
He cupped the phone, again.
“Very busy day for them. I’m lucky they said yes. Lotta deliveries. I’ll have him call you. Ok? You can set it up with him, if you’re not going to be here.”
“Give me the driver’s number. I’ll call them.”
“The guy is making deliveries. He can’t call. Call the store, Sarah is there. She’ll speak to you.”
“I want to make an appointment and have the driver’s number so I can call him to confirm”
“They’re busy. We have to take what we can get”
“We’ve been waiting for 4 months for a hundred square feet of carpet. I’m not taking what I can get.”
“We are working with you. There’s more people ahead of you on their list. That’s the way it is.”
They were working…on us. Only, it wasn’t working; Beth wasn’t shutting up and we weren’t moving.