December 2003

The Money Pit, or the Year of the Landlord

By Janelle Holden

This is dedicated to anyone paying rent to a cheap crazy person who likes to call him or herself your landlord, but whom you call an unmentionable name.

For innumerable years, my husband and I have rented our living spaces – both before couplehood and after. This includes apartments, shared apartments, bi-level houses, cabins, shacks, tipis, and other places you might call caves. In all of these situations one rule holds true: the landlord will rip you off in the end.

In May, we moved into our last apartment -- the bottom floor of a three-story house. The place looked as charming as the ad suggested – wood floors, leaded windows, radiators, and a kitchen painted a medicinal blue. Which is why I overlooked the fact that my landlord could scare small children.

When we first met, Michael had dyed his hair, eyebrows, and the skin underneath a strange purplish/brown – a look that transformed his 70-plus-year-old face into something akin to a Halloween mask. He smelled like an herbal supplement turned rancid, and his only clothes appeared to be a pair of nylon gym pants and a wool shirt.

Right away he promised to fix the chipped porcelain sinks in the kitchen and the bathroom. For several days he filled our apartment with his smelly paint and smelly self, painting our sinks with pants pulled down so low in the rear he could have been fined for indecent exposure. We couldn’t use the sinks for five days while the paint dried and then the paint didn’t stick (you really can’t paint sinks) and I ended up washing my dishes in a plastic sink pan.

Our apartment had other quirks. Our refrigerator froze all our food. The oven would only work if you fiddled with the electrical wires in the back, and just three burners worked on the stove – all of them bent to just the right angle so that only part of what was in the pan would cook.

We were afraid to ask Michael to fix anything because then we would have to hear more of his peculiar beliefs. He had mentioned that he could talk to the dead, and something about the power of positive and negative ions, but the strangest part was that he believes he is a reincarnated Babylonian god called Bel Marduk, and is immortal. I’ll leave it at that.

The day we moved out, a German woman, Honey, came to look at the apartment. She loved it, and Michael agreed to fix it up – sinks and all – before she moved in. When she decided to visit Al, her new upstairs neighbor, she told him that in a past life, he had been her “tender” Hungarian lover (never mind that neither of them are Hungarian). When Michael interrupted this scene Honey ordered him out of Al’s apartment because in a prior life Michael had been her abusive husband. This didn’t jive with Michael’s belief that he was an immortal god, so he turned a shade of purple that approached his hair color and told Honey he didn’t want someone of her spiritual character renting his apartment.

Then followed what Al called “the clash of the higher beings,” in which Honey refused to leave and Michael refused to let her stay. In the end, Honey got Michael to return her deposit AND pay her $350 extra for the trouble of moving in and out on the same day.

This story astonished me because when we left, Michael was so cheap he took $15 off our deposit for “unpolished burner bottoms” on the barely-functional stove. Turns out all I had to do was question his spirituality and I could have been out of there with money in my pocket.

While we were happy to rid ourselves of landlords forever and buy our first home, we didn’t have a smooth transition from renting to owning. The former owner of our house was a single artist who didn’t have any plans for where she would go after selling her home.

So we agreed to rent to her for a month so she could figure out her next step in life – and what she was going to do with all her shoes.

Susan, the owner, was supposed to clean the house the day before we moved out of our apartment, so I set up an appointment to meet her that evening to transfer possession (swap keys, etc.). My parents were there to help us move, and while the men loaded the trailer my mother and I went over to the house.

When Susan opened the door, clouds of marijuana smoke rolled out. My mother started coughing, and I struggled to keep a straight face while Susan explained that she had been burning some “sage” with her friend. Scattered across the living room were a sleeping bag, some shopping bags filled with stuff, and a cat – sitting in the middle of a Christmas wreath on a pillow. Apparently we’d interrupted a leave-taking ceremony that somehow involved the cat, pot, three-quarters of a bottle of wine, and a blue wig (it was, after all, Halloween).

Susan finally departed with her cat and everything of any value that wasn’t nailed down, including the blinds and curtains. She left us an empty toilet-paper roll and a garage full of garbage.

But as she was leaving, she looked at my husband, pointed to a small feather stuck to the outside of the house and said generously, “You can have my feather.”

We’re in our home now and we’ve decided we can never, ever leave – not if it means dealing with the likes of Michael or Susan in this lifetime - or any other.

Janelle Holden writes from Montana.