Saturday, August 14, 2010

In which I realize I have a bad landlord and even worse neighbors

When I got the job in Miami, the Yellow Truck Sweatshop Employer, who shall go unnamed, flew me to Miami for a few days a month before I was supposed to start working so I could find a place to live. That day, I found a cute, cute duplex in Coconut Grove. A little stucco house with wood floors and a porch and arched doorways and a built-in bookcase. It was to die for. Expensive, but hey I was rolling in the dough now.

I also got my drivers' license in about two seconds because Florida allows you to make appointments at the DMV. I was the only person who seemed to have figured this out, because when I got there, there was nobody at the "appointments" counter and a huge line at the other counters.

Driver licensing is the one public service that Florida does well. Getting license tags and getting the car inspected were nightmares. My first year, I got to the car inspection place, which closed at 5 during the week, not that I could have gotten there even if it stayed open until 7, or 8, or 9 because I would still have been at work, on Saturday morning at 7:30 in anticipation of the 8:00 a.m. opening. There was already a long line around the block. When they opened the gate, we moved into four lanes. After I had been waiting 40 minutes, someone drove from the outside, around those of us waiting, and to the front of the line.

NO ONE DID ANYTHING!

Another car decided to try the same trick. I thought, "Not on my watch, buddy," so I honked and did the Latin America finger wave, which is when you move your index finger from side to side. That means, "No way in heck are you doing this and if you do, there will be severe repercussions."

It worked. Spurred by my example, the other drivers showed a bit of cojones and honked as well. The breakaway car had to slink to the back of the line. That had probably never happened to him before, as line cutting is an enormous problem in Miami. They would even cut in line at communion at church, which come on - you're not going to miss communion and it's not like church will end any faster if you cut, unless you're like me and leave right after communion because you cannot stand to hear one more awful song from the "Gather" hymnal.

Back to the landlord. He seemed like a decent guy, although it's pretty clear from some of my other rental decisions that I am completely incapable of judging landlord character. I told him if he would buy the paint, I would re-paint the living room. He dropped off the paint and the brushes. I asked where the dropcloths and the tape were.

Oh no me preocupe, he told me. Don' worry 'bout it.

I didn't understand how he could be so cavalier about his own property. I bought tape and dropcloths because although I do only a half-assed job on things like washing dishes - clean enough not to give anyone food poisoning is my mantra - I am a kick-ass painter. Dishes can be re-washed. Painting is a different story.

He did jump to my aid when I called him to announce there were rats in the kitchen. Or rat. I didn't know how many. At least one - it was eating my bread (through the wrapper). Then I saw it scurry under the stove one night. In a completely instinctive reaction, I jumped onto a chair. When you see that scene in a movie, do not laugh. It is what rational people do in response to seeing a nasty, disease-laden, eats the noses off babies rat.

He came over the next day with a mousetrap and the advice to get a cat or a snake. Because snakes eat rats, you know, and wouldn't it be nice to have a snake roaming the house?

The trap didn't work. I put cheese in it and the rat stole the cheese. I read that I should use peanut butter instead. I tried that - the peanut butter was untouched, but the bananas were nibbled upon.

I bought poison, something the landlord had been unwilling to do. Cheap? Ignorant? Who knows.

I saw the poison level (the box was in the kitchen) decreasing a little bit each day, but saw no dead rats. A few days into it, I came home to find a stoned rat in the poison box.

He had been eating the poison and was happy, happy, happy. I tried to sweep him out of the house, thinking to take advantage of his drunken slowness, but he still scrambled under the stove.

The next night, the same thing, only this time the rat had the nerve to wave at me.

Then I didn't see him again, but a few days later, I smelled a whiff of something nasty. That whiff became a horrible odor.

The rat(s) had climbed underneath my floor to die. And to decompose. Thank you, humid Miami climate, for carrying that stink into my house for two weeks.

I checked into getting cats. I went to the adoption fair that the crazy cat ladies were running at the bookstore. I picked two cats, but could not take them home until my house had been inspected by the crazy cat lady.

"Vere vill ze kitties eat?" she demanded.

"In the bathroom."

"Zey cannot eat in ze bazroom!"

"Um, in the kitchen?" I said weakly. It's not like she would be coming back to inspect once the cats arrived.

She seemed satisfied with that answer.

"Vere vill ze kitties sleep?" she continued.

I shrugged. "Wherever they want, I suppose." Had she never observed a cat in action? If someone can tell me the secret of keeping a cat from going where you do not want it to go, please share this information with me. Primo and I have two cats who have taken over the kitchen. Over the house. I have surrendered and now use a cutting board (stored in the cupboard) for preparing all food because I do not want my food to touch the counter where the cats have trod using the same feet they use in their litter box.

"Vy do you vant ze kitties?"

"Because I have rats," I told her.

She staggered and put her hand to her chest. (OK, not really.) "You cannot haf ze kitties if you haf ze rats!" she exclaimed, horrified.

"Why not?" I muttered. "I have to work for a living. Why shouldn't my cats?"

Somehow, I passed. I don't know if the cats could have killed any rats, but perhaps their constant killing and eating everything but the heads of the cute bright green geckos that lived on my blinds served as a warning to the others. The heads and tails would disappear on Saturday mornings when I would put on my glasses and clean the house. The rest of the week, I just didn't look. Plus I usually didn't get home from work until like midnight and who cares if she has a clean house at midnight. Have I mentioned I hated my job at the place that rhymes with "Sider?"

I don't think the rats were scared of the cats (whose names I have forgotten - shame on me - I had to give one of them away when I moved to Cedar Rapids - the other was killed by a car and more about that later when I talk about my really clueless neighbor), but perhaps their mere presence was a deterrent. Yes, there was the gecko killing, but it's easy to pick on something smaller than you. The rats were almost as big as the cats and it's not like my cats were hungry or anything because during the day while I was at work, they hung out with my neighbor Mousson (not the bad neighbor - Mousson was really nice), who, along with her teenage son, Rudolph, fed the cats on demand. Cats need to be a little bit hungry to be truly effective hunters.

Back to the landlord. His responsiveness kicked into super low gear when I discovered that the roof was leaking and that the plaster above my sofa was getting soggy. I called him every day for five days, telling him that there was a leak and it was damaging his ceilings. On Sunday, I awoke to see that the plaster was sagging about an inch. It was going to fall.

I pulled as much furniture out of the living room as possible and covered the sofa with an old sheet. A regular sheet. I didn't have many old sheets in the sense of "used up and replaced by new sheets" because I had been in grad school for two years, then a year unemployed, then two years of Peace Corps, then another year unemployed, all of which meant that I had only the sheets that I had had for years.

But a sheet is easier to replace than a sofa, so there you go, just as the Good Towels are easier to replace than the basement carpet when the sewer drain backs up, which it has done every summer since Primo and I bought our house. Primo freaks out that I am bringing the Good Towels downstairs to blot the water ("blot" being used in the sense of "try to sop up the five gallons of water that are now inhabiting our new basement carpet") but I point out that the carpet cost $1,000 to install and yeah, the insurance paid for it but still do we want to go through that hassle again and towels are not that expensive at TJMaxx and you can even get stuff that's not made in China, which is a quality I seek as I am not a fan of slave/prison labor.

I called my landlord again and left the message that the ceiling was about to fall and he might want to arrange for the repair.

Then I went to a movie. When I returned, the plaster had indeed fallen - a chunk about 3' x 8.' I pulled my trash can in from the street and began tossing the plaster into it.

Do you know how heavy wet plaster is?

It is very, very heavy. And a trash can full of it is very, very, very heavy, even when you are dragging it back out to the curb rather than carrying it. I could hardly walk the next day at work. Who knew my glutes needed so much work? I should have left it for the landlord to clean, but I didn't want wet plaster soaking through to my sofa. And he probably wouldn't have done it.

Why he just hadn't fixed the leaky roof in the first place I do not know. Wait. I do. I was in Miami a few years ago with my former boyfriend (the one who gave me the belt sander, which I still love) and we drove past my old place. Only it was gone. It had been replaced by some crappy new construction. My place had been built in the '40s. It was solid, good construction - wood, stucco, tile. The corners were square. The materials were high quality. It had character.

It had been replaced by a McCondo. So sad.

I was going to talk about my bad neighbors, but I'll do that next time.

In which I have a huge crush on a co-worker friend and think he likes me back but then he outs himself to me

I moved to Miami for a job with a big company, which will remain unidentified but let's just say "yellow trucks," in the sweatshop known as corporate finance. It was a horrible, awful job, where we drones (aka "financial analysts") worked until 9 or 10 at night because the director and VP wouldn't meet with us to review our work until 7 p.m. and really, who would have a problem with that after arriving at work at 7:15 a.m.? After all, we could drop our dry cleaning off on the first floor and there was an on-site cafeteria and a gym. Why would anyone need to go home?

I hated that job with a passion. Hated it. The only thing that made my one year and one day there somewhat bearable is that I liked four of my co-workers a lot. They all quit shortly after I did. The others are still there. Are you seeing a connection?

I especially liked Liam. We got along great, hitting it off from the beginning because of our shared love of travel and our shared hatred of our workplace. Although who wouldn't want to go through the past 15 years of annual reports and calculate what the stock price, revenues, and profits would have been had the company not sold its aircraft division ten years earlier? That is Very Useful Information. One of my co-workers had to do a cost-benefit analysis of installing a security system in the building. It didn't matter that the system had already been installed and the money already spent.

Liam had majored in Chinese or Asian studies or something like that. After college, he got a job running a small factory in China. He spoke Chinese fluently and had traveled all over Asia. He returned to the US to get an MBA, then got his job at The Sweatshop.

Liam and I became fast friends. We went to lunch together, volunteered in a business program at an elementary school together, went out to concerts together, went dancing together. We got an opera subscription together. We would use the tickets investor relations got to attend gala events together, like the Yo-Yo Ma concert and the small dinner afterwards. Oh yes. I have been not ten feet from Yo-Yo Ma. Are you impressed?

Liam had an out of town girlfriend, Claudia. But they were having problems. He would discuss the problems with me. I hoped he would ditch her. I never met her. He didn't have a photo of her. But she sounded like she did not deserve him.

I thought it odd when Liam told me that he had given Claudia a fancy camera for Christmas. Not very romantic, I thought. But that was before Primo gave me a digital SLR for my birthday a few years ago and before a former boyfriend gave me a belt sander. Those are two of the best presents I have ever gotten. So the camera should not have given me pause at all. At the time, though, it did.

Liam and I spent so much time together that our colleagues thought we had something going on.

"We're just friends," I told them.

"Right," they said.

I would then say, "Look at Liam. Do you really think we go together?" Liam was 6'2", blonde, green eyes, fab body. Gorgeous. And smart. And super nice. He'd been picked for the Cutty Sark clipper sail from Norway to England. As in, they picked the civilian crew for their photogenics.

A guy like that can do much better than me. Not that I am chopped liver, but I am not the female equivalent of Liam. Brooke Shields is the female equivalent. (Except she has a lot more money than Liam does.)

I was flattered that they were so convinced.

But no.

One day, Liam asked me if I thought it was better to be with someone who was like you ("you" in the non sex specific third person sense) or one who was different.

Thinking, "I am the one who is like him! We both love chocolate!" I answered, "Definitely the one who is like you."

"Yeah," he sighed. "I think you're right."

Then he told me he had something important to discuss with me and could he come over to my house that night.

Oh yes! This was when he was going to confess his feelings for me! I knew I wasn't his looks match, but we clicked on everything else. It could happen.

I bought a baguette, some good cheese and some grapes. Liam showed up with a bottle of wine.

Oooh! Makeout city tonight! My only other social and - other - actions since I had moved to Miami had been a phone message one Friday night asking if I wanted to buy a septic tank, which I did not because 1. I was connected to the sewer system and 2. I rented. Having a guy over was a big deal.

We started talking. I was waiting. Waiting for him to tell me, "I want us to be more than friends," because really, how many guys hang out with a woman as much as we did without an ulterior motive?

That is not what he told me.

What he told me was that he wanted to tell me something important that nobody else at work knew but he was tired of having to keep secrets all the time.

He told me he was gay and that Claudia was a man.

"You're dating a man named Claudia?" I asked. I didn't get it.

"No!" he told me. That was the name he had given to his boyfriend, Pedro, so he could take about him/her at work and nobody would suspect anything.

My jaw dropped. I usually had pretty decent gaydar - I had several gay friends from the Peace Corps. But they were out. Maybe guys trying to hide it in a suit and tie corporate environment could turn it off.

Well crap.

Well rats.

Well I knew it was too good to be true.

Oh well.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In which I get taken advantage of by a family that took advantage of babysitters, then make things worse by giving them my best friend's phone number

My friend Jackie still has not forgiven me for this. She brings it up every time I see her, which sadly, has not been for the past few years. We seem to have lost touch, despite my calling and writing. My automatic assumption is that I did something to make her mad and not want to be my friend any more, but the last time we talked, things were fine. I would rather have her be mad at me than be dead or in a coma, though.

When I was in high school, my main source of income was babysitting. There weren't many options for the teenagers on base in Panama. Teenage jobs, such as bagging groceries or teaching swimming, went to Panamanian nationals, which only makes sense: these people had families to support, we just wanted to buy clothes and makeup. Well, some girls wanted to buy makeup. I might have, had I a clue of how to use it, but I didn't get that gene. My sister did, so she does a makeover on me every time I see her and darn if I don't look better after she is through. But I am way too lazy to do what she does, so I usually remain unadorned.

I made 75 cents an hour, which you will note was less than minimum wage at the time. I think it was about $2.25 then. (This was the late '70s.)

Babysitters in my neighborhood today make about $10 an hour. Much higher than minimum wage. Why should babysitters make more than minimum wage here? Maybe the parents have to compete with McDonald's to get babysitters. Or maybe I live in a higher-income area than I did when I was in high school and these girls aren't going to leave their houses for less than $10 an hour. Whatever it is, I have considered babysitting as my second career. Ten dollars an hour, cash, tax free is not too shabby. (My friend's daughter gets $20 an hour in San Francisco.)

One day, I got a call from a family a few miles away. I usually babysat within walking distance of my house and did not know this family. I don't remember who referred them to me. I wish I did so I could call that person and let them know what's what. I should have been suspicious that they were calling someone so far from their own neighborhood.

But I wasn't.

They offered me $10 to babysit for a whole day so they could go fishing.

It seemed like a fortune.

Ha.

I wish I remembered their names so I could call and demand more money.

They picked me up at 6:00 a.m. and dropped me off at their house before speeding away, wheels spinning in the gravel. The concrete. The roads were paved, even in enlisted housing.

I walked into the kitchen.

Horrible mess. Not a "we didn't finish the dishes last night after supper" but "we have not washed dishes in a week plus we do not understand the concepts of 1. wiping off the table and the counter after preparing a meal and eating and 2. occasionally sweeping the crap off the floor."

Granted, they had four children, but I know other families with four kids and they do not live in pigsties.

For other families, I would wash the dishes after the kids went to bed because I was usually pretty bored once I had found the Playboy magazines and eaten cold cereal of the kinds my mom never bought, like Cap'n Crunch. (An addiction that haunts me to this day, such that I avoid the cereal aisle altogether lest I find myself buying the 2 for $5 regular and peanut butter Cap'n Crunch, eating half the box before I get home, then hiding the rest in the basement from myself and from Primo so he won't give me a hard time about eating such junk, even though he is the one who hides the Dill Pickle Pringles from himself in the basement and has a lifetime supply of ramen noodles). Washing dishes also sometimes generated a little extra cash at the end of the evening. I knew who paid for it and who didn't.

But this house - let's call this family "the McCalls" - was of a different order of magnitude. I did not want to spend an hour cleaning that kitchen. Then the kids woke up - all four of them - and demanded breakfast.

I pulled out the cold cereal and discovered there were no clean bowls and no clean spoons to be found.

I had to wash the dishes. I had to wash the frying pans with the burned-on food (hello Mrs McCall! have you never heard of scraping the extra in the pan into the trash and then soaking the pan?) and the greasy kettles and the silverware that was thrown on top of them just to clear the sink.

Then I had to wash the plates and glasses on the counter so I could find the bowls.

It took forever. Is there anything more gross than sticking your hands in someone else's nasty dishes?

Well yes there is.

When the kids came down for breakfast, I discovered that two of them were still in diapers.

Remember a long time ago when people used cloth diapers? Do you remember how cloth diapers worked? Poopy diapers rinsed in the toilet, then thrown into the diaper pail with the other pee diapers until there was a full load for the washing machine.

Do you remember how the diaper pail would smell after a day or two?

Oh yes that poopy ammonia smell. The smell that would make you gag.

Why am I writing about this, you ask?

Because there were

1. two kids in diapers and
2. not a clean diaper in the house

Yes, the McCalls were getting their money's worth. But really, how could they have anticipated that I would need clean diapers? No parent can see that far in advance.

I had to wash, dry and fold a load of diapers before I could change diapers.

Then. The kids were holy terrors. I discovered them climbing out of the upstairs window, getting ready to jump to the ground. They didn't shut up but screamed like banshees all day. If they had ever been disciplined, there was no evidence of such.

Mr and Mrs McCall got home at 7:00 p.m. After I had changed about a dozen diapers, prepared three meals for their kids and cleaned the kitchen after, because that's how I roll.

I did not have the guts to demand more money. They did not offer any.

They got the bargain of a lifetime.

Two weeks later, they called to ask me to babysit again.

I turned them down.

And gave them Jackie's phone number.

I don't know what I was thinking. I wasn't thinking. I deserve for Jackie still to be mad at me today. Because although I would wish the McCalls on my worst enemy, I would never wish them on a friend.

Monday, August 9, 2010

In which a broker kisses me so I steal his biggest account

When I was in Austin, working for the insurance company, I sold direct and also worked through brokers. Some accounts would take direct bids from the vendor, but many relied on a broker to collect and analyze the various proposals. Those brokers were powerful – you didn’t have a shot at the business if the broker didn’t like you.

I had a list of accounts I was supposed to sell and the only way to sell some of them was to convince the broker to let me bid.

There was this one broker, “Jim,” who controlled a few accounts I was interested in. The largest was a savings and loan with over 200 employees, which would have yielded a nice bonus – enough to pay off a big chunk of my student loans and let me eat meat more than once a week. (Well, I did eat meat more than once a week, but that was at lunch when I was entertaining brokers, prospects and clients on the company American Express. When I had to pay for food myself, it was rice and beans and peanut butter.)

I called Jim. We spoke over the phone. We met. We got friendly. We would banter. It was my job to make this guy like me enough that when his account went out to bid, I would get a shot.

I was bantering with a married man OLD ENOUGH TO BE MY FATHER. I was NOT INTERESTED IN THAT WAY.

In my mind, this was absolutely not flirting. He was MARRIED, for pete’s sake. Who flirts with a married man? A married man old enough to be her father?

Not me. I could hardly flirt with single guys my age. Flirting was not in my repertoire.

He asked me for a bid for the S&L. I gave him numbers. We didn’t get the business. We were a check bid. Big waste of time. But he did let me meet the prospect, which was rare. Most brokers liked to keep complete control and separate insurance company from prospect.

Over the next year, I kept in touch with him (and with the S&L finance lady). About eight months after the check bid, I ran into him at a park, where he had been coaching a kids’ soccer team. I said hi and he walked over to my car, bent down and kissed me on the mouth.

He kissed me. On. The. Mouth.

Omigosh.

I had no idea what to do.

So I said, “Well, bye!” and went home.

The next day, I marched into my boss' office and told him I no longer wanted to work with Jim. My boss asked why not. I told him that Jim had kissed me. My boss told me that I must have done something to provoke it. I told him I had no interest in provoking a married man my dad's age. My boss refused to re-assign the broker.

I was ticked. Remember, this was in the late '80s, before anyone cared about sexual harrassment. Then, it was just part of doing business. Someone comes on to you and you don't like it? Too bad, missy. Deal with it yourself. And don't de-rail your career while you do it.

My friend B is a lawyer. She was at a work party with the other lawyers in her firm when one of the partners made inappropriate comments to her and was telling inappropriate jokes. When she protested, he looked at her, smirked, and said, "Don't forget I'm the one who does your performance evaluation."

She found a new job in Washington, DC, shortly after that. She didn't want to work in that environment and suing would have kept her from ever working as a lawyer in Texas again. I'm not a big fan of lawsuits, but I am also not a big fan of people using their power inappropriately.

Back to me and Jim. I had kept in touch with the finance lady at the S&L. Her renewal was approaching, so I called to ask if she wanted us to bid again. She did. I prepared a bid. Jim asked me for one as well and I told him that I was working directly with the client.

I got the account. He lost whatever commission - 6%? 3%? I can't remember what the rate was - he would have gotten for 200 employees at about $90/month per single employee, $200/month per family. (This was a long time ago.)

Teach him to mess with me.

Unfortunately, the S&L went out of business three months after I wrote the account, so I had to return my entire bonus, but it was still worth it.