I settled in on the bar stool next to the Ghost of Christmas Past. “It sure is nice of you to take this time to hear my side of things, Mr. Ghost,” I said cheerfully. “Especially with this being your busiest night of the year.”
“Why so formal?” he grinned. “My friends call me C.P.” He ordered a round then reached for the bar snacks.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, C.P.,” I warned with a raised eyebrow. “I read a study about cocktail peanuts."
“Oh yeah,” he said, brushing the salt off hands. “I read that, too. Good lookin’ out. Now, tell me more about the tenants. I want to hear it from you.”
I explained to him that sometimes tenants keep you so poor you can't afford the legal process to get rid of them. I told him about the tenant who refused to leave until she racked up $3,000 in back rent. When she did leave in the dead of winter it was still at her own convenience.
I found out the hard way that she hadn’t been paying her gas bill either. Peoples Gas put a lock on her meter and she never told me. I couldn’t get the gas turned on in my name until the earliest available appointment a week later. Within those few days the first Polar Vortex grabbed Chicago by the throat and burst the too-cold water pipes in my vacant unit that I was unable to keep warm enough. I was already broke, but now I was ankle-deep in flooding. I had to get the pipes repaired. And I had to replace a ceiling and a brand-new ruined hot water heater.
“Au contraire, mon frere,” I said. “That’s not the kicker. This family belonged to a religious organization that goes door to door sharing the good news. Even after they ditched their filthy apartment and left a dumpsters worth of crap for me to toss they were still showing up on my doorstep to preach about salvation. I told them that the bible I read teaches about personal responsibility and living by the Golden Rule. I asked which version they were reading.
I told him the unlikely story of even the nicest tenant I ever had. She was a retired widow who had lived in my building for years. She had a good payment history and five prosperous adult children who visited her regularly. She also experienced a financial setback. Instead of asking her to go live with one of her children until things got better, I let her stay-- in a unit much nicer than my own. After months and months of partial payments when things weren't getting any better, we both agreed she should move out. We sat at her kitchen table to review her payment history. Her balance came to $2,600. To avoid the expense of going to court, I asked her to sign a good faith agreement to re-pay a minimum of $25/month or as much as she could afford.
“I never received a dime,” I told C.P. “Ten years later that former tenant was alive and well and still living in a nice new place in the same neighborhood. At first some naïve part of me held out hope she would do the right thing. Even when I wised up I couldn't afford to file against her, so her credit report never showed evidence of her debt to me.”
“That is f***ed up!” said C.P. banging his fist on the bar and spilling the pissy peanuts.
“Take it easy, C.P.,” I chuckled as I patted him on the shoulder. “Watch your language.”
“No, I’m serious!” he said. “I’m serious. It’s just wrong...and it’s unfair...and it’s an injustice!”
“Ahh, well. That’s all water under the bridge now,” I shrugged. “I’m revoltingly rich now so it all worked out. I guess.”
C.P. dabbed his eyes. "I'm just so upset that those tenants robbed you of your soul!"
I gave him a dry smile and patted him gently on his shoulder. "Don't worry, C.P.,” I reassured him. “Souls are highly overrated."
I drained my glass. “To sum it up, it’s not that I haven't tried to be friendly with residents. We weren’t always at odds. In those early years I attended family weddings and funerals by their invitation. When I would work double shifts on Thanksgiving and Christmas for the overtime I needed to keep the heat on, some would meet me at my door with plates of greens, fried chicken, and baked macaroni they set aside for me from their holiday meals. But look at where it got me. At the point I decided I was being too nice, I guess I swung my pendulum too far in the other direction.”
“Besides,” I continued, “I’ve been keeping a blog on Chicago Now for the past 20 years. At least people can look back at my posts and understand how I got to be this way. Thank goodness for blog archives.”
My companion rose and grabbed his coat. “You headed to Trump’s house?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I think they have that covered. I’m headed back to the office. I wanna check the database to see if I can find any of your former tenants. Maybe I’ll pay some of them a visit tonight.” He nodded thoughtfully.
A customer walked into the bar. The tiny bell over the door tinkled. “You hear that?” asked C.P. “You know what they say: ‘Every time a bell rings a landlord gets her money.’”
I tilted my head and smiled at him curiously. “Mixed movie metaphor?” I asked with amusement.
“Where I’m from we watch the same holiday movies over and over again, too.” He tipped his hat to me and walked out the door.
And then I woke up. And I had a clear-eyed view of how I can improve my business practices to become a more sensible, more efficient landlord. And maybe even hold on to my soul.
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