City Paper is not for tourists
I lived through the real-estate boom from the turret of group-house privilege. As Mount Pleasant filled up with rich new residents, their BMWs, and their babies, I watched from the grand front stoop of a brown-brick, three-story corner houseall with the comfort of a Barry-era $370 monthly rent.
The only hassle was the prickly relationships with roommates. We had a nonprofit lifer who performed Shabbat services at the house, transforming our stoop from a smoking pit into a pulpit. A Naderite harbored a squatter in our spare fifth bedroom. And god forbid that our resident union organizer found us cheating on the recycling.
But none of these characters prepared me for the late-November day when my landlord, Ray, made good on his long-standing threat and moved in.
We knew Ray as the perfect landlord. He fixed things on time, let us have parties, took an interest in our lives, and never hiked our rent to market rates.
But we liked our landlord just where he was: far away on his Pennsylvania tree farm. Over the past year, however, we picked up signals that our landlord buffer was eroding.
When the house’s soap-opera addict moved out, 61-year-old Ray offered to take her room. He relented at the last minute. Still, he insisted on micromanaging us: During the summer, he asked us to remove the rickety chairs on the stoop because the neighbors had complained. “The neighborhood is changing,” Ray explained. “We have to fit in.” Then he threatened to bar us from hanging out on the stoop altogether.
We are all on a month-to-month lease, a dicey rental relationship that could end any day with little warning. When we asked Ray for a lease, he said sure, but he’d double the rent. And soon he leaped to threatening a wholesale takeover of the house, evicting each and every one of us. Even he knew the folly of those threatswe’d all just end up in Landlord and Tenant Court forever.
“I can’t kick you guys out,” he once said. “It would cost me $10,000.”
But Ray had a better scheme, one so perfect that it would soon have us wishing we could leave: he would move in and quickly turn into the Roommate From Hell. He’d spent years not just collecting rent but carefully observing group-house dynamics, studying, mastering the intricate chemistries that make housemates either grow banana peppers together in harmony or turn into BattleBots over bathroom maintenance. He had mastered all the house rules and knew how to break them: visiting our unattended bedrooms, touching our stuff, tossing out our furniture, pulling passive-aggressive moves not even previous chore czars would fathom pulling. The fallout? There would be police and restraining orders and blood-pressure medication.
But in November, when Ray first walked through our front door, sleeping bag in hand, we didn’t know anything. We were just group-house lambs.
Ray took the old union organizer’s third-floor room. It was the best room in the house, and it was right across the hall from mine. He prefaced the move by implying that he would be nothing more than just another roomie. The other roommatesmy brother, Todd, and punk rocker/baby sitter Amandaand I thought this wasn’t a big deal.
“Ray’s not even going to be around,” Todd offered.
On Ray’s first night, he was around enough to turn the house upside down. One by one, our new roommate flipped over the couches and cleared out the cluttered bathrooms, scattering tables in his wake. The couches all lay facedown with their legs in the air.
“I’m throwing the couches out of here,” Ray bellowed. One of the couches had committed the ultimate sin in Ray’s book: It had left scratches on his hardwood floors. The floors were his baby, his black Cadillac Escalade, to be treated with respect. It had not been our fault, he assured us, but he added we were still lucky he didn’t really go apeshit.
The whole scene left us scared and shellshocked.
When Ray went to bed that night, my roommates and I held a house meeting in the kitchen. The agenda was countermeasures. We whispered, for safety’s sake, brainstorming any tactic that could make him uncomfortableor at least realize he had housemates. We seized on toilet paper. We would fight back with a toilet-paper embargo. We decided to use up the remaining rolls and then not replace them, keeping a secret stash in Amanda’s room. He was sure to bend to our wishes. After all, we had experience in group-house living. Going without toilet paper was the ultimate group-house leveler. Even if he was twice our age, we could at least, well, make him buy toilet paper.
When I went upstairs, that night, I found that Ray had dismantled the bathroom. In so doing, he had moved my toothbrush to a secret location at a nearby table. New roommates aren’t supposed to touch their housemates’ toothbrushes.
The next morning, Ray was at it again, this time targeting the books and tennis rackets.
“Is this yours?” Ray asked. It was before 9 a.m., Day 2, and he was already clearing out the foyer closet. His voice rang with agitation as he flopped dusty paperbacks on the floor and gathered up long-forgotten umbrellas.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Could be.” Whatever, dude. You’re not supposed to go through that closet. No one ever did. It’s house rules.
“Is this yours?” Ray kept at it.
When I took over my bedroom, I didn’t throw out the newspaper clippings and poetry books of the previous occupant, a neo-beatnik. I was even too lazy to toss his old wine bottles. In group houses, old stuff stays until long after it becomes ownerless, untraceable, without any roommate copyright. But that night, and every night that week, we were having to save group-house hand-me-downs from the Supercanor listening to one of Ray’s rants about the goddamned floors.
“I told you guys: You have to have coasters underneath everything,” Ray said. I argued with himwe did have coasters. But, well, things get lost, things disappear.
“We didn’t fuck up your floors,” I said. “You told us it wasn’t our fault. In fact, the offending couch wasn’t even ours. You can’t blame us for this. You can’t hold it against us.”
Eventually, Ray brought out his smoking gunone of the legs on my bed frame didn’t have a coaster. “I told you about the coasters,” Ray said. “I can’t trust you guys.” I dashed up to my room and threw an old New Yorker under the leg. It didn’t matter. Ray found the same problem with my brother’s bed. He threatened to take Todd’s bed away.
As for any furniture on the main floor, Ray had a new rule: There had to be both coasters and rugs placed under them. Inspections to follow.
Ray’s mood didn’t improve by the end of his second day. “He told me in exasperation he wanted to kill himself,” Todd reported back to Amanda and me. I couldn’t believe I was living with this guy. We decided to give each other Ray Mood Updates. Checking his mental wiring became a vital part of our daily lives. His bad mood meant maybe not coming home at all. His good mood meant we could enter the house, make dinner, and maybe watch some TV. But we had to make sure the TV wasn’t too loudand, eventually, on a program he approved.
By the end of the week, the furniture started disappearing. Two couches went first. Then a bathroom table. Then our favorite chair. We don’t know what happened to any of it. Ray offered only his version of events: “You don’t understand. I just don’t want anything on those floors.”
The toilet-paper embargo seemed to have little effect; Ray had his own secret stash, in the basement bathroom. With each day, he became more emboldened, more eager to piss us off. Still, we had one thing binding us to our increasingly unfurnished house$370 per month rent. With that rent, we could afford to put up with Ray.
For a while, we played patsy to Ray’s cause. We Swiffered the floors and collected the errant newspapers. We cleaned the kitchen and scrubbed the bathrooms ’til they shined. All things we had never tried to be good at. When it snowed, we shoveled the sidewalk. For our efforts Ray gave us a “C-plus/B-minus.” I wanted a B-plus, but he refused. I can’t believe I begged for a B-plus.
Then again, my mates and I had always been F-level group-housers. Before Ray came, we rarely cleaned the place. As stewards of a historic property, we sucked.
Ray himself didn’t partake in any chore-doing. He left stacks of newspapers on the kitchen floor and a trail of grubby footprints wherever he stepped. And with those footsteps usually came Evil Stepmother recriminations. He’d rub his hands through his graying hair and then offer fresh ordersremove the beer bottles from the back porch, mop the kitchen, clear out the old newspapers. He usually followed his commands with threatsfor example, he said we’d have to hire a maid to come in every two weeks.
When we protested Ray’s regulations, he would pull out his ace in the hole: The ’88 lease, a document that our group-house ancestors must have signed, back when Ray held the hippie ideal of creating a commune with a chore wheel. No one had ever seen this agreement, but Ray has a photographic memory of it. Whenever we did something wrong or challenged him on our rights, he would refer to the lease. It would quickly assume mythic status, becoming the Dead Sea Scroll of leases.
Because none of us had read the elusive rental agreement, Ray helped us out by keeping a list of our responsibilities posted in the kitchen pantry. Among the 18 items, there were eight rules pertaining to the floors alone. He barred from the house all bikes, water beds, wet sneakers, “running shoes…inside the house without checking for embedded stonesthis includes other open-grid shoes,” and pets. (Fish and invertebrates are exempt from the pet ban, because they pose no threat to the floors.)
When Ray wasn’t invoking the Great ’88 Lease, he was making alterations to the house. One night, I came home to find him puttering again in my bathroom. He peeked out from the door to tell me he was going to turn the bathroom closet into a shower. I knew the special closet-shower wasn’t for me. This was just part of his plan to get us out of the house.
“Sure,” I said. “Whatever.” I was too tired to contest his plans. I went to my room and blasted some angry tunes. This was my latest strategy, something that had worked on other roommates. Rites of Spring or Sonic Youth would surely have him bowing to my every command. I would extend my private jam sessions late into the night just to make the point: I live here, too. But Ray later bragged that the city noise, all of it, helped him get the best sleep he had in years. The guy’s a machine.
Ray had one assistant on the floor-protection beat: Kevin, a longtime neighbor and friend of Ray’s. He had lived in the basement of our house for eight years and so rarely came up for air that we just knew him as the Lonely Guy and diligent house narc. He’d consistently report back to Ray on our activities: We played the TV too loud, we let a band stay at our house, I got in a screaming match with a tyrant neighbor after he caught me dumping trash in his Supercan. Soon enough, Ray would call to complain that Kevin had complained.
After Ray moved in, Kevin, 44, made his own power grab. Bitching that his basement digs were too cold for him, he took over the landlord’s third-floor bedroom when Ray was out of town. He moved his peanut butter, his microwaveable dinners, and his cereals upstairs. Kevin soon set up an observation post from our living room.
Kevin played the beat cop perfectly. Failure to obey his orders meant threats or much worse. He bragged about wanting to toss my brother through a window. And as for the Washington Post, he saw the morning paper as a free commodity, like mail service and clean air. He refused to pay his $13 share of the bill for the paper, which was long past due because of him.
But one January morning, Todd and Amanda caught Kevin freeloading openly, sitting in the living room reading the Post. They decided to confront him: Pay up or give up the paper.
Kevin refused to pay the bill or quit reading the A Section.
When the asking and refusing reached a stalemate, Kevin shoved Todd aside and retreated to the basement. Soon, though, he was back, and this time he grabbed my brother and slammed his head over and over against a kitchen wall. Amanda had to pull Kevin away. My brother’s face was scratched and bloody; he hadn’t even fought back.
Kevin left our group house in handcuffs that day, charged with assault. Before he left, he tried to impress the police with his group-living bona fides: “I’ve lived here for eight years.” Because that had nothing to do with tenderizing my brother’s head, the officers hauled our group-house cop away. Because of the restraining order, Kevin returned only oncewith a police escort to pick up his scattered belongingsand hasn’t come around since.
The tension kept racheting upward as the day of Kevin’s trial approached. We learned that Ray had agreed to testify on Kevin’s behalf, as a character witness. He pleaded with Todd to drop the charges against Kevin. “It would be one thing if he broke a bone,” Ray argued.
On the morning of the trial, Ray launched his final push for a group-home purge. There was the issue of his blood pressure. He told us he would have to raise the rent by at least $100 each.
Even when Kevin’s trial was postponed, the advance continued. Ray came up with new psychological warfare tactics. He started with what I call the Gaslight Effect. He left the lights on in nearly every room all the time. In the basement, he left the radio on through the weekends. It felt as if he were everywhere even when he wasn’t. It freaked me out big time. But defense was easy enoughI simply turned off the lights.
Still, Ray matched my tactic light for light.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked him. “It’s a waste of electricity.”
“Nobody is ever home,” Ray shot back. Kinda true. “Burglars can walk by this house and see we’re an easy target.”
Ray then launched into his newest tiradethe newspaper. Sometimes we didn’t pick up the paper in the morning and bring it inside. Another signal to those burglars.
Finally, in mid-March, I tried to go on the offensive: I left the newspaper out front on purpose and waited for his response. Sure enough, that afternoon, Ray caught sight of the lonely Post still in its plastic bag, still on the stoop.
“Why didn’t you pick up the newspaper?” Ray asked. This time I was prepared.
“Were you here this morning?” I shot back. Gotcha. Ray admitted he had beenand had even moved the newspaper from the steps to the stoop.
“Why couldn’t you bring the paper in?” I asked. “How lazy can you be? You walked inside and you couldn’t take the paper in?” This was my Watergate.
Ray admitted he had left the paper out. But, he said, he had done it on purpose: “I left the paper out so the robbers could see it,” he said. “I’m gonna wait for them and then catch them breaking in. Then I’m going to confront them. That’ll send a message to those boys on the corner.”
“What boys on the corner? The drunk old men?” I asked. “The ones who aren’t ambitious enough to panhandle?”
“I don’t want to argue about it,” Ray said. That had become his latest retort, replacing the ’88 lease.
In the following week, Ray would move my toothbrush againjust to get back at me.
Two weeks ago, I came home one evening to find that Ray had started renovating the bathrooms, dried paint chips surrounding the shower, his tools left on the floor. Late into the night, Ray set to painting the third-floor bedroom. Every brush stroke meant he was closer to gentrifying our group house. We soon fought over the closet-shower, and we fought over his defense of Kevin.
“I really feel bad for Kevin,” Ray said. “It’s just terrible what happened.” He meant Kevin’s getting barred from the house.
On a recent weekday evening, Ray lectured me on the stoop. The block, warm and peaceful, was filled with dog-walkers and baby strollers. Ray said he had thought things over and decided to bump our rent up from $370 to $600 per tenant, a price none of us could afford. He then slipped into the argument about chores and floors. He wanted a chore wheel up, fast. I promised we’d comply. But we never got around to it.
The floors and the dirty dishes didn’t matter anymore. The wildness of it all was vanishing with each fresh coat of paint. Soon I would be joining the beatnik, the grad school do-gooder, and the squatterbecoming house history. CP