As I was pulling shards of glass out of the frame of the shower door at our rental property yesterday, I couldn't help but feel a little contemptuous toward our tenants. Yes, I was suspicious of their story that the shower door had broken in the course of normal use. But that's not what bugged me.
On my way to the bathroom, I had sidestepped countless piles of dirty clothes, bits of garbage, food debris, and garden variety junk strewn throughout the house. The bathroom itself was covered in mold and funk. The toilet lid had a coat of short, dark hairs--they didn't look like pubes, exactly, but more like the detritus of someone having run electric clippers over their (or someone else's) hairy ass. Or something. I didn't really want to know. I just wanted to pick up the broken shower door and be on my way.
Even though the renters hadn't done any real damage to the apartment as far as I could tell, I resented the condition they kept it in, because about five years ago I had spent several months remodeling that unit, and I had gotten it looking cherry. And the couple who moved in right after the remodel kept it clean and tidy, with a minimalist decorating scheme that added to the apartment's open, expansive feel. The couple who moved in after them stayed for two blissful years, along with their hip vintage furniture and tastefully scented candles.
But don't get me wrong. The current renters, while filthy, are a beautiful dream compared to some of the other shiftless reprobates we've had in our little three-unit building. The current tenants pay their rent every month and...well, that goes a long way.
We bought the building about a year before the peak of the housing market, back when you could secure a jumbo loan by texting someone who claimed to be a mortgage broker and promising that you were a nice person. And for a year or so, we wallowed like Scrooge McDuck in the imaginary money we were raking in from the increasing value of our frumpy little 1970 stucco box, patting ourselves on the back for our shrewd investing.
Of course, now the best we can say about our "income property" is that it's a good tax write-off.
When we bought the building, we inherited not only a long list of deferred maintenance, but also a long-time tenant. I remember the first time we saw him, when we met with our realtor and building inspector to walk the apartment before finalizing the purchase.
The tenant--we'll call him Bob--was a jittery wisp of a guy, with darting eyes and a nervous mumble that barely registered in my rockband-and-construction-site-ravaged eardrums. He had a friend there, trim and neatly coiffed, who stayed two steps ahead of us, looking for a place to stash an armload of gay porn videos and magazines.
Our plan upon closing was to try to encourage Bob to find a new place to live by raising the rent up to its market value, which was about 150% of what the previous owner was charging.
It was not Bob's predilection for porn that made us want him out, but rather his chain smoking and his cats. We had intended to forbid both pets and smoking in our building, but because of either some arcane renters' rights law or maybe our own sense of fairness, I forget which, we waived this policy for our inherited tenant, despite the smell of cat piss and the coating of cancer-colored tar on the walls. We thought he would be gone soon.
But Bob wouldn't take a hint, and held on to that apartment tenaciously, even when it became clear that he couldn't afford it.
After the first year, he started bouncing checks or simply neglecting to pay his rent every once in a while, and I would always come up with some kind of installment plan for him to pay back what he owed. And whenever one of the smaller, cheaper units in the building opened up, I would offer him first dibs on it. But he wouldn't budge.
We had learned the hard way through another tenant, to whom we had rented an apartment despite his bad credit history because we didn't want to be jerky slumlords, that the eviction process is long, expensive, and unlikely to result in any recouping of lost rent. So we avoided going down that road with Bob until he was into us for about four thousand dollars.
After that, I reluctantly contacted the lawyer we had used on the first eviction, and got the wheels in motion. I called and emailed Bob innumerable times to try and convince him to move out and avoid legal action, but he always dodged me.
Soon, the other tenants started contacting me to complain that Bob and his friends had been partying loudly into the wee hours. When I went to deliver the eviction notice, a friend of his answered the door and explained that he was staying in the apartment for a while. I explained that Bob was being evicted, and suggested that maybe the friend might think about helping him out with his rent. He made a noncommittal, mildly exasperated gesture, like, Oh that Bob--you know how he is.
So we went ahead with the eviction process. We filed the paperwork and waited for another two months while Bob lived rent-free in our building.
Finally, the sheriff's department called and told me to meet them at the apartment, at which point they would remove the tenant. I had been through this before, and while it was pretty dramatic to see the cops bang on the door with their guns drawn, it had turned out to be a non-event the last time, the tenant having cleared out before our arrival, leaving nothing but a few pieces of furniture behind.
But when I met the cops for Bob's eviction, his car was still in the driveway. I knew this was not going to go smoothly. And, as was the case during the previous eviction, I thought, should I be taking cover? There are cops wielding guns just a few yards from me.
I hunkered down in the seat of my truck as the sheriff's deputies rapped on the door.
One of the cops came over and asked me for permission to break the security chain, the only thing preventing them from gaining entrance. I said sure, and loaned them a prybar from my toolbox so they could do it without damaging the door.
I watched the cops jimmy the door and go inside.
Two minutes later the same cop walked back to my truck.
"I've got some bad news," he said.
"He shot himself."
I had no idea how to respond. "Shit," I said. "Fuck. When?"
"Just now. We heard a 'pop' as soon as we broke the chain."
"Uh...yeah. Pretty much."
For the rest of the afternoon, I watched myself as if from a distance as I dealt with cops, the medical examiner, neighbors, and my friend who was interested in renting the apartment and was supposed to come look at it that evening. (He did end up renting it, after the extensive remodel.) It took me a good five minutes to convince my wife that I wasn't pulling her leg when I called to tell her. Then I had a phone conversation with my mom in which she said that this experience was "one of the worst landlord stories" she had heard.
"It's not the worst?" I thought.
I fumbled around briefly for some perspective on what had happened. Of course it was a tragedy. A man had taken his own life. But it wasn't my fault. Right? I had done more than most people would have in my situation to try to help this guy out.
But I didn't have to grasp for long, because between the evidence in the apartment and a conversation I had with his sister the next day, it became clear that I was the least of Bob's demons. He had been dying of AIDS and self-medicating with all kinds of recreational chemicals. He had been throwing himself a farewell party for the last five months, and I was picking up the tab.
So my flirtation with guilt transformed into anger and annoyance as I spent the following weeks trying to mop up the mess this ghost had made. His sister offered to assume his debts--which she had no legal obligation to do--but then rescinded the offer after paying the four thousand dollar fee to the HazMat crew for what looked like a quick scrub of the bedroom ceiling and the removal of about two square feet of carpet.
As anxious as I was to get started on cleaning up, I had to wait until all of Bob's personal effects were removed from the building. Even after he was dead, I couldn't seem to get him out of the place. His sister hired an "estate broker" who in turn paid some sketchy characters from the neighborhood to man the rummage sale of Bob's third-hand furniture and cat-themed knick-knacks. The other tenants called to tell me that these cretins had been squatting in the apartment for days, and they didn't leave until after I had sufficiently screamed at the junkman who had hired them.
Eventually, of course, I was able to gain access to the apartment and remodel it from stem to stern, replacing every inch of flooring, fabricating a new shower out of concrete and tile, scraping the "popcorn" texturing off of the ceiling, scrubbing the nicotine sludge off of the walls, etc., etc., etc.
During all the late hours I spent working alone in there, I only remember one chilling moment. I was clearing junk out of the bedroom where Bob had sat on the bed with a revolver under his chin, and I had to remove a couple of mirrors that were mounted on the wall. I saw my own reflection in the mirror, as well as that of the darkened bathroom doorway behind me. And I imagined for just a moment what I would do if I saw the reflection of a gaunt figure coming out of the shadows behind me. First, I thought, I would shit myself. And after that? Who knows. I decided to leave the mirrors where they were until the next morning.
My friends who would move into the apartment picked out the very lively color scheme, and even helped paint the place. By the time we were done, there was no trace of Bob to be found. The new renters hung some kind of crystal in the bedroom where he had done himself in though, just in case.
Although I'm not particularly superstitious, I know a creepy house when I'm in one, and this apartment was not the least bit creepy once it was spruced up. And it stayed cheerful through the tenure of the two couples who lived there after Bob.
But I don't know. The shape that it's in right now, with the mold and the filth and the broken glass, just deflates me. It's borderline creepy.