Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In which I rent a duplex from Michelle the worst landlady in the world

I had been accepted at the UT-Austin graduate school of business. My friend Rebecca and I were sharing a house, but she was moving to D.C. for a job with the Department of Labor. I couldn't afford the house on my own.

I found a cute duplex in the same good zip code neighborhood. We were Oh-three-ers. Highly desirable Austin location. I looked at it, thought yes, this will work, and the landlady, Michelle, and I signed the lease.

Four hours later, she called me to say that she needed to charge more rent than we had agreed upon.


But I ignored that banner. And I - this is where it gets worse - agreed to the rent increase.

How dumb was that?

I moved in. Cute cute little Tarrytown duplex. Walking distance to the shuttle bus to school, although I tried riding my bike at first, which is not the best idea when it is 112 degrees outside. For a week straight.

A few days after I moved in, I came home to find that someone had closed the blinds, removed my plants from the windowsill, and put a "for sale" sign up in the front yard.

Michelle. She left me a phone message: "Please keep the blinds closed. It looks tacky to have them open."

The "for sale" sign? I spoke to my upstairs neighbor. "This place has been for sale for months," she told me. "Michelle took the sign down before she tried to rent your place."

Because knowing if a place is for sale and that I could possibly be displaced by new owners is not information that would be useful in making the rental decision.

Deep breath. All the Drama was over. Still a cute place.

No. Michelle stopped by my neighbor's house on her way home from aerobics "just for a glass of water." As in, let herself in with the key while the neighbor was out, got a glass of water and left the dirty glass in the sink.

Realtors started bringing people by. Unannounced. When I was busy studying, something I did in grad school. A new experience for me. Who knew that studying could improve your grades so much?

In the middle of studying for finals, I was interrupted by a realtor and a client. The client was a pompous jerk who worked at Dell. I told them that they couldn't look right now; I was busy. Yes. They should have called. And yes, it would only have taken a few minutes to let them look, but I was not inclined to be charitable to someone who might displace me from my home and who was in any way in cahoots with Michelle.

The client and I got into a bit of a yelling match. (I know! I don't usually yell at people to their faces! I wait until later that night after someone has ticked me off and yell about him to an innocent person.)

He made some snotty comment about the UT business school - he had his MBA from Wharton.

"How much did you pay for your MBA?" I asked.

"$60,000," he admitted.

"Mine will cost me about $5,000 and guess what? UT is a top-20 school. Plus we're both here in Austin. Looks like I made the better investment," I snapped.

I complained to Michelle's husband. He agreed that she was pushy and talked smack about her, but wouldn't challenge her. He would call me to complain about her, which I thought was highly inappropriate. He talked to me - his tenant - about divorcing his wife. I don't know why he stayed except she was very pretty with a large chest. But she was pretty only on the outside. As soon as you spent more than a few minutes with her, you knew that if you looked it up in the dictionary, her photo was next to the phrase, "Beauty is only skin deep."

She re-landscaped the yard and would come in to use my bathroom. Without asking.

She let herself into my neighbor's place while my neighbor was - ahem - busy with her boyfriend.

That was the last straw for my neighbor. She moved out. Prospective tenants started looking. They would ask me what it was like to live here.

I warned them.

One of them told Michelle I was telling people not to move in.

She called me and screamed at me.

I went to legal services at school to see what I could do. The lawyer told me that according to the lease, Michelle did have the right to enter when appropriate, but the devil was in the definition of "appropriate." He agreed with me that her behavior was insane.

I started to have nightmares about Michelle coming after me with a knife. With legal aid's help, I wrote a letter to Michelle telling her I wanted to move out because of what she was doing.

She sent me a letter saying fine, I could break the lease but I had to be out by December 25 and forfeit the deposit.

I was not in a position to lose that money and legal aid said that she was within her legal rights.

I stayed.

The place was still for sale. Nobody wanted it as a rental property and the lot wasn't big enough for a single-family home by current zoning.

She moved onto her fourth realtor in eight months. I spoke to one of them and she told me that Michelle McMichael had a reputation with Austin realtors as being almost impossible to work with.

I got a new upstairs neighbor who moved out after three months. The place was up for rent - again. I continued to warn people.

One of the prospective tenants I warned against renting did indeed rent - not to live there but to cheat on Austin schools and have an address to get her daughter in from out of district.

I ran into the new tenant months after I moved out and she, who did not even live in the property, shook her head and said, "I should have listened to you. That woman is nuts."

"I told you so," I said.

As soon as my lease was up, I moved out.

In which I rent a room in a group house in Washington DC with the three post-college guys who lived like post-college guys

I had to move out of the room I was renting from Crazy Carmen in D.C. I had gone to Washington D.C. after I got out of the Peace Corps in the hopes of finding a job in international development. What I discovered was that someone with my background - master's degree, one foreign language, international work experience, Fortune 50 company experience - could find employment as a secretary. A temp secretary.

The key to a good job was connections, of which I had none. Connections could be developed if one was willing to stick around town long enough, working for almost no money. The people who did this were subsidized by their parents, I suspect. Those of us who had to pay for our own health insurance, car insurance, rent and food on $11/hour from the temp agency had a harder time making ends meet.

I first rented a room from Carmen, a Peruvian woman who was a full-time secretary with benefits at the World Bank. Not a bad gig. The secretary thing, I mean. I temped at the World Bank for secretaries who were on vacation. I don't know if my workload in their absence was anything like what they did, but I had about six spare hours a day after I distributed the mail, printed the boss's emails for him and sent a few faxes. One of the secretaries for whom I subbed passed her spare time looking at internet porn, if her internet bookmarks were any indication.

Note to people who take vacation and are replaced by temps: Delete your porn bookmarks.

Note to temps: On your first day, when the head secretary is showing you around and tells you "there's the bathroom" and "there's the break room" and "here's where the mail goes," realize that the first two statements are for your information but that the last one is so you know where to put the mail when it arrives because for the first time in your life, you are a mail sorter and deliverer, which can be a humbling experience after you have had significantly more responsibility than making sure Mr Smith's mail doesn't go into Ms Carr's box but hey, it pays the bills (sort of) and you are not in a position to be choosy.

I was one of two tenants renting an upstairs bedroom and sharing the upstairs bath. Carmen was reluctant to let me use the kitchen, but acquiesced when I promised I would just make oatmeal in the morning and maybe make a sandwich in the evening. For my $400 a month, she also reluctantly agreed to let me use the washer and the dryer. I was not, however, supposed to sit in the living room. Or have overnight guests, male or female. For $400 a month. For one room. In 1995.

I was not a housemate, as I presumed. I was a renter of one room. One. Other than that, I was to stay out of her sight.

I moved out after she accused me of ruining her ceiling. The plaster on the ceiling underneath the upstairs bathroom fell off because the bathroom floor leaked. The other tenant would bathe and leave the shower door open. The water dripped off the shower door and onto the floor, where it leaked through.

When I noticed this problem, I bought a squeegee and used it on the door every time I showered. I suggested that the other tenant do the same and told Carmen about the problem, suggesting she might want to have the grout re-done.

They both ignored me and after a month, the plaster started to fall.

According to Carmen, this was my fault. That the floor was destroyed because of my one month of showering and squeegeeing and not because of the other tenant's year of not squeegeeing.

And I didn't just move out; she evicted me.

Maybe I am the "X" here. Two destroyed bathrooms and I am the common factor.

On to the group house in Arlington. A DC tradition: a bunch of people who don't know each other sharing a house.

I shared the house with three men in their 20s. Two lived downstairs and had their own bathroom; two of us were upstairs and shared the other bathroom. Knowing that I would be cleaning the bathroom anyhow, I negotiated a deal with my floormate that he would let me use his phone (I did not want to install my own phone - remember, this was in the days before cellphones) in exchange for my cleaning the bathroom.

But I had no such power over the kitchen.

Three guys in the mid-20s vs me.

They won.

Honestly, how could I expect someone to move the pizza box two feet from the counter to the trash? And to use the drain trap when rinsing dishes? If you do that, gunk gets caught in it. That's gross. Easier to let the food wash down the drain and clog the sink.

I finally got tired of the whole thing and moved away. I wasn't patient enough to wait months or years to meet the right person to get a decent job. I had done my charity work; now I wanted to make real money. And I was tired of sleeping on the floor on my blowup mattress and sharing a bathroom with strangers.

In which I rent from Janette, who I thought was my friend but then went a little crazy

I moved from Maruja la Bruja's house (Maruja the Witch) to Janette's house. I had met Janette when I shopped at her knitting store. I knit a lot in Chile. At work, we had long meetings (on benches, not even on chairs) about important issues like, "Should our mission be to serve Mapuche women or young Mapuche women?"

These meetings would last eight hours and end without resolution. Knitting during these torture sessions made me feel like I was actually accomplishing something.

Rosa, the director of the agency (La Casa de la Mujer Mapuche, "House of the Mapuche Woman," Mapuches being an indigenous group), told me I had to stop knitting because it was "distracting." Rosa's baby was attached to her boob at that very moment. It was not uncommon to see breasts whipped out at least two or three times during meetings for children as old as four. Yet my knitting was the problem.

Note about my working conditions in Chile:

Our office was in an old two-storey house without heating. Offices upstairs, store downstairs. It would get so cold inside that I had to wear gloves while I typed. We didn't have the money for heat, but my co-workers found money in the budget to buy their lunches. Thank you, U.S. taxpayer, who funded the group via a grant from the Inter-American Foundation.

The toilet paper disappeared frequently. Stolen. I brought my own toilet paper to work and locked it in my desk.

My first week at work, there was a party. (Not on my behalf.) Two men came to the office and slaughtered a sheep in the back yard. They stabbed it in the neck with a sharp stick, let the blood drain into a pan (for later eating - mixed with lemon juice and cilantro and left until it coagulated - I avoided that delicacy), then cut a hole in the skin by the back heel and blew it up like a balloon to separate the skin from the flesh for easier skinning.

Then they butchered it and hung the meat on the stair rail of the office, where it rested for two days until it was cooked.

The barbecued meat was good, but a little odd to walk up to my office past raw mutton for a couple of days.

But my knitting was "distracting."

I went to the knitting store a lot. Janette and I became friends sort of. The kind of friend you talk to only in a certain place, like your gym friends who are your friends at the gym but not outside of the gym. Janette was my knitting store friend.

During the Maruja travails, I asked Janette if she knew of anyone with a room to rent.

She did, she told me. She had a little shed in her back yard with one room and a bathroom. I could rent the room and use her kitchen.

Win/win! Rent a room from someone I already like! But with privacy!

I looked at the place (as if there would have been anything to keep me from taking it). It was a small, sturdy building with room for a twin bed and a dresser. The bathroom, which had a shower but no tub, was tiny but it would be my own bathroom, with only my hair and toothpaste in the sink and my shower dirt and my whiskers in my razor.

I moved in.

Janette and I would chat in the evenings as she prepared supper and I made myself something to eat. I liked her two kids. I made them barbecued chicken and baked beans once, but they didn't like the idea of sweet meat and sweet beans. Nor did they like the cornbread. Corn is not for bread. It is for soup - a half a cob thrown into each soupbowl. This would be good if they used sweet corn, but they used field corn, which is only fit for livestock in my opinion.*

I did not take their criticism to heart because the main flavoring in Chilean food is salt. Fifteen years after leaving Chile, I still salt my food too much because I was forced to eat over-salted meals while I was there. (I will say, though, that the produce in Chile was fabulous. The key was to do my own cooking.)

Janette's husband was not around. He, a university professor, had left her for someone else, but they weren't divorced. Maybe divorce wasn't legal in Chile yet? Chile had one of the highest rates of bigamy in the world then, as in, I won't let the fact that I am not divorced from my first spouse keep me from marrying my second.

The door to my room did not have a lock. Janette hadn't gotten around to installing one. I was not comfortable leaving the room unsecured because I had a camera and cash.

The solution?

I removed the doorknob and carried it with me. Without the knob, the door couldn't be opened. It latched closed and stayed that way until the knob was installed and turned.

I soon tired of carrying a heavy doorknob in my bag, so hid it behind the rosebushes instead.

Hi-tech security.

Things were fine.

Then I met that embassy guy in Santiago. The one with the porn magazines hidden under the towel in his nightstand.

He wanted to visit me.

I asked Janette if it was OK if he stayed. She was not comfortable with the idea of a co-ed sleepover for her unmarried tenant.

Oh! I told her. I don't want to sleep with him that way! I was going to give him the bed and I was going to sleep on the floor. (Which was true - not only did I not want to sleep with him that way but there was not room for two people in the twin bed.)

She suggested that I sleep in the house while he was visiting. Perfect. I preferred that solution anyhow.

I thought everything had been resolved.

He came, we drove around the countryside (the joy of driving in a car and listening to the radio after you have had a year of only public transportation on crowded busses is enormous), we stopped for lunch in Pucon, a town at the base of a volcano, we bought Chilean cheese from a farm stand, which is not All That, we got stuff to make supper and cooked in Janette's kitchen.

The kitchen to which I had been granted access. I thought.

The next day, he returned to Santiago.

Janette got mad at me.

Why? I asked.

You let that man into my house! she said.

What? Yes. We cooked supper. You were already done in the kitchen. Why is this a big deal?

You let him into my house! Into my kitchen!

She was adamant that I had done something wrong. She stopped talking to me, which made cooking awkward and difficult for me. Our friendship was over.

I had to once again find a new place to live, me with the scarlet "R" for "renter" or "K" for "kitchen abuser" or "A" for "maybe adulteress."

* Remind me to tell you my fish-flavored chocolate chip cookie story some day.

In which I rent a room from Maruja la Bruja, crazy landlady #240

I will tell you all about Michelle McMichael, the worst landlady I have ever had, but first I need to tell you about other landlords* so you can have some context and understand that I am not exaggerating when I call her the Numero Uno Mas Mala.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile, I lived in four different homes. The first was during my three-month training in Santiago. I lived with a poor family who gave me their daughters' bedroom, which had no door, so they strung a sheet across the opening. A sheet door does give one a place to undress in privacy, but does nothing to keep the noise from two little girls who did not go to bed until midnight out of the bedroom.

The house was unheated, which you would think would not be an issue, but that is only if you know nothing about geography. Santiago is in the mountains - remember, altitude more than latitude (longitude?) determines temperature, which means it does get cold.

The family also did not have a toilet seat on the toilet, something I saw over and over again in South America, which makes me wonder if the toilet was installed that way or if there is a secondary market for toilet seats and if so, what is it? How are they used?

My second living situation was when I moved to Temuco, a city of 250,000. There was a Mercedes dealership and there were ox-driven carts clogging the streets. I moved into a house with Mary, a Scottish college student spending a year abroad, and Louise, an American woman doing some kind of fellowship.

My bedroom was the tiny alcove upstairs without a door. No bed. I put a sleeping bag on the floor and both my head and my feet almost touched the walls when I was lying down.

Mary and I got along great, but Louise was a different story. The bathroom was an interior room and no matter how you positioned the shower head, the shower sprayed outside the curtain. The floor was always wet after one of us showered and there was no easy way to get the moisture out of the room. (Remember, interior room, no external windows.)

I kept a rag in the bathroom to wipe the floor after I bathed, but Louise would use her bath towel on the floor and then leave it in the bathroom instead of hanging it outside to dry.

1. It is disgusting to dry yourself with a cloth that has wiped the bathroom floor. 2. A towel left inside a damp room does not dry.
3. A dirty, wet towel starts to stink very soon.
4. Left wet, linoleum tiles will detach from the floor and Louise will try to make the tenant who has been in the house for only one month instead of the entire year previously as Louise has been split the repair cost. The one-month tenant will refuse.

Louise also had some nasty personal habits. She would sit at the dinner table and pick her toenails, then she would use her hands to eat, sometimes out of a communal bowl. It didn't take very long for me to stop eating meals with her, although really, she was an effective weight control method.

Mary and I decided we didn't want to live with Louise, so we sought another dwelling. I put a "room wanted" ad up at the grocery store. Within a day or two, a spry old lady appeared at my office. She had rooms. Come now! See them immediately! As rental property was difficult to encounter, I did as she commanded.

She had a big house not far from my office where she and her husband lived alone. Mary and I could have the upstairs all to ourselves and would use the downstairs bathroom. We could use the kitchen and put food in the refrigerator, which was stored in the dining room. It seemed like a good deal.

The Problems

The shower, #1
Every time one of us used the shower, the power went out in the house. How is this, you ask? Many showers in South America are heated by what is called a calefont, which is a small box that attaches to the wall and consists of a long pipe, doubled over on itself, passing over gas-powered flames. The water goes through the pipe and is heated as needed.

This is a fabulous system, far superior to a basment space consuming water heater that keeps 20 gallons of water hot just in case you need it. I wish I could have a calefont here. You never run out of hot water, unless you run out of gas, which usually happens while you are in the middle of your shower and have shampoo in your hair. Then you have to get out of the shower, call the gas guy, wait for him to come and replace the tank, and then re-commence your shower. But if you are careful about your gas, you do just fine and you spend less money heating water.

The other shower-heating method is an electrical heater that attaches to the shower head.

This is the kind that can kill you. Think about it: electricity and water. That is usually not a good combination.

That is the system Maruja had in her shower. Poorly installed and a drain on the house's antiquated electrical system. While Mary showered, I would stand at the fuse box. When the heater blew the fuse, I would switch it back on. She did the same for me.

We decided that we were not willing to risk death to be clean and threatened Maruja that we would move out and take our rent with us if she did not install a better heating system. She was in no hurry to do so, which meant that I took sponge baths for a few weeks. I would heat two huge kettles of water on Maruja's tiny stove and then carry them into the bathroom to complete my toilette.

I did not shave my legs.

The shower, #2
I made the mistake of thinking that because I was a renter with equal access to the bathroom that I could leave my shower things in the bathroom.

I was wrong.

I would leave my razor on the corner of the tub. It got dull very quickly. But why?

Then one day I noticed bristly white hairs in the razor.

My legs do not have bristly white hairs, nor does any other part of my body.

Using my superior detective skills, I concluded that Maruja's husband, Pablo, had been using my razor. I marched into the kitchen, brandishing the razor with the evidence. Maruja and her husband sat at the table.

"You've been using my razor," I accused Pablo.

"No, no!" he protested, holding his hands up.

"Look at this hair! It's not mine!"

Maruja stood behind Pablo, making a circle with her finger next to her temple and mouthing, "Yes, he did it, he's crazy" then smiling at him when he turned around.

"Don't use it any more, please," I snapped.

Then I made the stupid mistake of leaving the razor in the shower again only to find more white bristles in it. That's when I threw that blade away and started carrying everything back upstairs once I had bathed.

The fleas or maybe they were bedbugs
Shortly after we moved in, Mary and I noticed little red bites on our ankles. And on every other part of our bodies. We were being bitten in our sleep.

There were fleas/bedbugs in our rooms.

I went to the hardware store for poison. The clerk admonished me as he handed me the bottle that this was very dangerous! Note the skull and crossbones!

Great. I could be bitten to death or poisoned to death.

Marjua, incidentally, denied the existence of fleas in her house.

The poison did the trick, but we had poison dust floating around for several weeks. I will probably get some weird flea poison cancer in a few years.

The other tenants
When we moved in, Mary and I were the only tenants. It was our understanding that we were renting the furnished upstairs, which had three bedrooms.

One day I came home to discover a Woody Allenish-looking (that is not at all a compliment) guy in the third bedroom.

Maruja had rented the room to him.

Remember, one bathroom, Mary, Maruja, Pablo, and me.

Now another renter.

Who stayed up late at night playing music, smoking, and telling me that if ever "got lonely in the night," I could "just knock on the wall."

Mary left for six months in Brazil. Back to two renters. Yes, one of them was very strange, but only two.

Then Maruja rented out Mary's room to a married couple. Who fought all the time about his Other Woman. I know because I could hear everything through the thin walls.

I came home to find a carpenter building a wall between the dining room and the living room. Marjua rented the living room out to another married couple.

Let's do the math on this:

One bathroom.
Six tenants.
Two landlords.

The three male tenants got up before I did. They shaved. And left their whiskers in the bathroom sink. They peed. On the toilet seat. They left the shower dirty.

You guys know how I am about sharing a shower with someone I either don't know or don't like.

I would betray my country if tortured by having to use a dirty shower.

Unless the shower has been cleaned, it grosses me out to use a shower after someone else who is not

1. My husband
2. Another relative
3. A good friend

The other tenants did not meet any of these criteria, which meant that every morning, in addition to bathing myself before work, I had to clean the tub and the sink.

The toilet broke.

Maruja wouldn't call a plumber because it was too expensive.

To flush it, you had to fill a bucket from the bathtub tap and pour the water down the toilet. We all know how to do this. We've all been in that situation.

And we all know that the Polite, Civilized Thing to Do is to flush our own toilet.

Yet I would find other people's pee in the toilet.

That was when I moved out.

Unfortunately, my new situation was not much better. I'll tell you about it later.

* Think about that term: "land lord." So feudal. So obvious where all the power is. With God as my witness, I will never rent again.