The Landlord Blues


January 26, 1992|By DAVE BARRY

If you were to make a list of the most unpopular professions, you'd have to include landlord, which generally ranks, in public-opinion polls, down with attorney, journalist and salmonella.

I myself have had some unpleasant experiences with landlords, most notably back in the early 1970s when I shared an apartment with Randall Shantz. One Saturday night we hosted a party (theme: "Many People in a Small Loud Room") that was a major social success as measured by the number of National Guard units ultimately involved. Mankind can be certain that there are no other advanced life forms in the universe, because if there were, they would have complained about this party. Everybody else did.

The next day, Randall and I received a snippy note from our landlord suggesting that we would probably be happier renting a more appropriate habitat, such as the Gobi Desert. This was typical of my youthful experiences as a tenant, the result being that, like many people, I had a negative opinion of landlords.

Until I became one. This happened about 15 years ago, when some friends and I, in an effort to become wealthy real-estate investors -- similar to Donald Trump, but warm-blooded -- obtained a loan and purchased two small apartment buildings in West Chester, Pa.

We set out to be Nice Guy landlords. We listened to the tenants' complaints and fixed up their apartments and went over immediately whenever they called with problems. I was the Plumbing Specialist, which was unfortunate because our apartments were equipped with highly complex toilets containing millions of parts that were constantly decaying. Also, inappropriate items kept mysteriously getting lodged in them. I'd respond to a toilet alarm in the middle of the night, and, using techniques that are too disgusting to reveal here, I'd determine that the toilet had been clogged by, say, a frozen chicken, or a bowling shoe. I'd show the item to the tenants, who always appeared to be amazed.

"How did that get in there?" they'd say.

So we found that it wasn't easy, being Nice Guys, and it didn't help that about half of our tenants viewed paying the rent as an optional part of the deal, like leaving a tip. The rent would be overdue, and we'd come around to collect it, and our tenants, who operated on a strictly cash basis, would say things like, "I had it Tuesday night, but you weren't here," in an accusing tone of voice strongly suggesting that it was our fault for not showing up when they had the money, thereby leaving them with no viable option but to buy 17 cases of beer.

At one point I took one of our tenants, Julius, to the bank and helped him open a checking account. Unfortunately, he didn't grasp the concept: He thought that all he had to do was correctly fill out the blank spaces on the checks, and the bank would provide money in infinite quantities. Julius thought this was a swell system. He couldn't believe it took him so long to find out about it. He's probably in Congress today.

Our tenants were full of surprises. One time a tenant who went by the name of Fud called to complain that there were holes in his ceiling. So my partner Buzz and I went over, and sure enough, there were holes in his ceiling. Bullet holes. They were put there when Fud, after a few beers purchased with rent money, decided that the apartment was as good a place as any to shoot his gun.

Another time Fud's wife called Buzz at 2 a.m. and mumbled something.

"What?" said Buzz, trying to wake up. "What?" Finally he figured out that she was saying: "The fireman wants to know the name of the landlord."

Fortunately it was a smallish fire. It wasn't nearly as bad as the bats. We found out about the bats one night while watching the local TV news out of Philadelphia.

"Coming up next," the anchor person said, "bats in West Chester."

This was followed by a story about how tenants in a West Chester apartment building had been terrified when, suddenly and mysteriously, a huge colony of bats -- literally thousands of them -- had come swarming out of the attic and dropped to the ground, dead. Of course we recognized the tenants and the building. If mystery suicide bats were going to live in an apartment building, it naturally had to be ours. We never did find out what caused them to die.

But I'm glad they're gone. They never paid their rent.

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