February 05, 1997|By Mark Miller

THE WOLVES ARE at the door and my tenant knows it. He's standing on the stoop of an East Baltimore rowhouse, oblivious to the humid winter chill, waving what appears to be a wad of bills. ''I have the money,'' he says. ''It's all here. All of it.''

It shouldn't have come to this. Young, educated, articulate, all smiles and honorable intentions, my tenant appeared to be every inner-city landlord's dream. Even his furniture, upscale and trendy, seemed out of place in this neighborhood that had seen better days. He had moved in with the option to buy. Now he had no options, just a monster arrearage and the prospect of homelessness.

My workman and I watch him from across the narrow street, waiting for the sheriff. We last came calling in September. Seven hundred dollars, two month's rent, was what he needed to stay. My workman went inside, took out a chair and placed it on the sidewalk. ''That makes it official,'' the sheriff had said. The tenant placed a call to his father, who lived nearby. Pop was there in 15 minutes, $700 in hand. The chair went back in; the sheriff left and all was well.

This time, though, Pop is nowhere to be seen and that wad of bills hardly looks like the $1,050 my tenant needs to keep this roof over his head. I refuse to take it and advise him to pack up and leave. It took 3 months to get to this point. Three months of unpaid rent. Three months of hollow promises. Three months of believing what I wanted to believe. Three months of showing good faith without receiving good faith in return.

This is a tough business, and one must be tough, if not ruthless, to succeed. Honest landlords with a social conscience -- hey, we're out there -- take a beating, emotionally as well as financially.

Just a few weeks prior to this second put-out, the tenant called. He was working, he said, and requested that I come by at week's end and pick up two month's worth of rent. I took the bait -- but no money. A week later, a judge in housing court granted the tenant a 10-day ''stay.'' On day nine, he left a vague message on my machine (''I have good news for you''), along with a request to call him back. Not this time, I decided, and filed for another put-out.

Daughter's voice

Thus this second showdown, the tenant waving his wad of bills as if it were some magic wand, turning back now and then to speak to his young daughter, whose soft, innocent voice carries into the street and stirs what little sympathy I have left.

I'm relieved when the sheriff pulls up, a bulky guy in his forties too jaded and detached, I imagine, for either sympathy or contempt.

The tenant waves the bills in front of him, a pastiche, the sheriff notes, of cash, money orders and a payroll check totaling slightly over 1 month's rent. ''That's no good, sir,'' the sheriff says of the payroll check, and advises him of the eviction. The tenant, now off the stoop and on the sidewalk, begs for ''another chance.'' I wave him off as my workman enters the house to begin his hideous task.

The tenant pleads for time to at least get a moving truck, a reasonable request that can save me money. ''Request granted,'' I say. ''Just be out within 48 hours.''

Later I drive by the house and breathe easy when I notice a U-Haul backed up to the rear door. The tenant calls that night and asks another favor: Can he have until the end of the month, another 15 days? I control my outrage and remind him of our deal and the consequences for reneging on it: ''You're out within 48 hours or we put you out.'' He doesn't argue. In fact, he thanks me, knowing full well that he and his fine furniture could have been on the street hours ago.

Soon I'll be showing the house to others seeking shelter. Like most prospective tenants, like the man just evicted, they'll be friendly and courteous, all smiles and honorable intentions.

Mark Miller writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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