Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tale of Two Houses

The kitchen cabinets I had so carefully painted with low emission, all natural ingredient, linseed oil paint were changing color from off white to a pale yellow. That wouldn't be so bad except that it clashed with the Rustoleum paint that Mike had used to paint the doors. That paint was drying to the color of a dolphin skin grey. While the walls were a high gloss bright white latex that just emphasized the difference.


I had not wanted to ask Mike to use the linseed oil paint. This paint was an experiment I had only intended to subject myself to and so far had proven to have a few hurdles. For one thing it took forever to dry. At least 24 hours at the optimum temperature of 74°. And if you ordered the wrong color, as I was beginning to think I had, or needed more, you had to wait over a week for it to be mailed from New York because the paint was manufactured by a family owned company in Sweden and only one American company handled it. That's what too much Internet searching will do to you.

We had both agreed that oil paint was the way to go on woodwork for durability, but the law had phased out oil based house paints leaving only paints formulated for metal readily available. Rustoleum was what Home Depot stocked. (Contractors have also taken to spraying cabinets with automobile paints Mike told me.)

I despaired at the whole project. Part of the point of cleaning up these houses was to make things look consistent. I took a walk around the block to clear my head, but only noticed the many inconsistencies in the neighborhood, walls half repaired, different materials used, broken fences, junk furnishings. My project was just reflecting the general mélange. Where was the charm that had first attracted me? Was I being sucked into the undertow of delaminating suburbia?

Then I saw something that reminded me that this neighborhood had more in common with Mexico than American suburbia. Lying in the yard of one of the more run down houses was a full size piebald pig, fast asleep while a pit bull looked at me from the porch. The occupants would very likely eat the pig using some old family recipe that was not from a celebrity chef at Chez Panisse as happened in Farm City (the latest locavore book by a protégé of Micheal Pollan, who was keeping livestock in an empty lot next to her Oakland apartment). These San Bernardino pig owners would probably never suspect that growing your own meat was the latest hot trend of the eco food movement.

My perspective thus adjusted, I returned to the house and set about to paint the doors to match the cabinets. I was soon joined by Mike's assistant, Rudy, a short bald man with a goatee and his much taller, large son. Mike had found Rudy in the mix of Mexican laborers looking for work outside of Home Depot. He told me he'd gone through a few before he found someone who had the work ethics he was looking for. Rudy was our recycler, I discovered, when I asked why the old aluminum framed windows had not been taken away. He would take the scrap to sell Mike told me. How familiar to my own third world neighborhood ways.

An hour later Mike showed up looking his usual buoyant self, but with his entire family in tow. I had met his wife, Jennifer, once briefly. She wasn't looking her best this morning. In fact she looked like she'd been in a fight and was teary eyed. His son, of whom I'd heard a great deal about on account of his impending kidney transplant, had his arm wrapped around his mother and looked quite forlorn. I didn't want to ask what was up in case I was prying into some family dispute I wasn't supposed to notice. We exchanged pleasantries and when I looked puzzled, Mike said he needed to talk to me.

"We want to rent one of your houses," he said.

"Really, which one?" I asked, conversationally.

"The front one," he said. He then told me they had just had a run in with the owner of the house where they were currently renting two rooms and needed to move out right away. The man had hit his son in a moment that had gone beyond rough housing and then he socked Jennifer in the eye. Mike had called the police to file a report and told the man and his wife that they were moving out. His wife did admit that her husband had a tendency to go off. It was at this point that I realized I had entered a reality quite unfamiliar to my own. At least I could offer one that was more congenial. They had, I remembered, just moved from another house because it was going into foreclosure, so probably hadn't even unpacked.

The front house was in no condition to live in, filled as it was with spackle dust and not yet painted. I was staying in the back house, now transformed from greasy pit to freshly painted, newly carpeted, brand new house. The new vinyl windows making it snug and quiet. The toilet wasn't hooked to water and the sink didn't have a drain, nor the bathroom a door, but it was quite habitable and there was a room going empty.

"You're welcome to stay here," I invited them, indicating the smaller empty room. "Or maybe you should stay in this room since you're bigger," I offered. The small one would be fine Mike said and I wondered if I sounded a little goofy.

"And I haven't met you," I said to his boy who brightened up a bit at being addressed. His name was Addison.

"You'll have roommates, now," Mike said in case I wasn't quite apprised of the situation. I nodded smiling. This whole house adventure was full of serendipitous outcomes, I told him and went outside to collect my wits and ponder my new role as landlord. Then I left Catherine a message apprising her of the situation. It was probably a good thing that Catherine had decided, at the last minute, not to come on this trip since we had our two dogs to manage and the house would have been quite full.

When I came back Addison asked me if I liked cats then brought his rather unnerved Persian cat over to meet me. I also met Mike's dog, a tiny Jack Russell Terrier named Cupcake. Thus properly equipped with a family for my compound living, I set about cutting and fitting closet poles so they would have a place to hang their clothes.

The next day was Saturday and I was alone in the house, which gave me a chance to concentrate on installing the shelves I had made for the kitchen. By evening a moving van rolled up to the garage and soon Rudy and his son were helping the family unload. They had volunteered their time to help them, Mike told me and I was duly impressed, but not entirely surprised that help was being offered. I tended to believe that people would help each other out when things got bad. Mike had also expressed his gratefulness to me for allowing his family to move in on such short notice. I did suspect that if I were to run a background check on my new tenants there would be a bankruptcy or some other red flag to consider, but having observed the high standard of his work and watching his integrity with his crew, I felt I knew Mike on his own terms and saw that he valued family, was knowledgeable about old houses, had the patience to explain things and wasn't at all patronizing. By the same token he knew me.


We took pains not to step on any toes conversationally, but he liked to tease me about my eco choices while I refrained from mentioning his smoking or his humongous late model truck. He brought me food, a Breakfast Jack from MacDonald's one morning, a sloppy joe he made on white bread in the evening. He reminded me of my father, offering sustenance on the one hand and challenges to my worldview on the other. My father, who had spent his career in the defense industry, took a perverse pleasure in teasing me about going to peace marches. If my dad was helping me from the grave, it would be just his sense of humor to send a man who was here to keep me in my place while offering practical knowledge and assistance that would have me in his debt. Nevertheless I valued Mike's opinion.

"I wouldn't worry about it," he would say calmly if I voiced concern about being able to rent the place. He offered simple solutions when I got overwhelmed and kept his word if it was important. I also knew his flaws— that he had a tendency to run late, was forgetful unless under stress, refused to get on a computer anymore, had had a head injury from falling off a roof, had retired after a heart attack during a big job in New York and was, by his own assessment, somewhat ADD, relying on his wife to keep his appointments together.

He was also an artist. He brought one of his oil paintings over one night the week Mark and I were working at the property. He thought it would add something to the place. Then said his wife wouldn't have it in the house so I could do what I wanted with it. The painting showed a Native American brave brandishing a tomahawk at the sky. I was charmed by it in a log cabin sort of way.

Throughout this adventure of two houses, I had the sense that I was in a parallel universe of fortuitous circumstances, guided by genuinely helpful people. Through a path of intuitive choices I was creating a narrative that was more fable than business anecdote. This cosmically guided sensibility had its own logic based on building authentic relationships that would be marred, I felt, by too much distrust and control. I was perhaps being naïve, but I was willing to offer my trust; if I was betrayed it would likely not be personal, but if it went well then I had increased my personal power and extended my family ties to strangers with the ultimate end of improving things for all of us. I asked Mike if he would be our property manager too. He was happy to. He didn't want anyone messing up the walls after all the work we put in. Later we would put it all in writing.

In the enterprise of renting property, the endeavor is generally considered one of the most potentially litigious in America. Many friends had warned me as much. The previous owner was, in fact, being sued by a friend of a recent tenant, who claimed she had injured herself after falling from the front porch which was devoid of a handrail. That she hadn't filed this suit until a year after the property was vacant was suspect enough. That she was asking hundreds of thousands because said injury did not allow her husband conjugal visits tipped it into the absurd. These legal shenanigans were expressions of human relationships gone awry, of desperate people protecting themselves in lieu of their human obligation to do the decent thing. That's what liability insurance was for.

Not that we had insurance—of any kind. Couldn't get it because there were so many houses going empty across the country and being vandalized that insurance companies would not write a policy for income property until you could show them a rental agreement and your tenants had moved in. Having no insurance made me quite nervous at first, but then it just became a part of this narrative of faith. Or was it fate? At any rate no one had disturbed the properties so far. There were so many dogs in the neighborhood that just walking down the street created a ruckus. Now the property would be occupied and this would certainly help. As Mike started up his gas mower to trim down the newly re-grown lawn, I realized that, soon, I would have to look for another project on which to direct my eco sensibilities.

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