Lost In San Bernardino
Over the weekend of May 21st, the date given for those who were to be raptured up to heaven, it was confirmed that one of my tenants had gone missing.
"I'm going in," Mike my manager in the front house told me after noting that there had been no activity in the back house for several days. Mike feared the worse; he'd known that our tenant was seriously depressed. Mike had checked on him recently, woken him up late one morning. Tenant came to the door rumpled, then started crying about something. So Mike took him out to breakfast, talked to him, but he remained in a funk.
My tenant impersonated Elvis. He sent me songs he'd recorded in his bedroom and called me every month to tell me when his check was coming. Told me how grateful he was that I had rented to him. Then a check bounced. His disability check had been stopped without him knowing it. He got it started again, but he was behind and short on cash two weeks into the next month.
I had rented to him because he was gainfully employed, but the long haul trucking job was hard on his back and when he got disability for a year, he took it as his chance to build up his act, doing gigs for a nightclub and parties here and there. He was in New York for a while visiting family and doing his act, which was why he missed his doctor's appointment, which was why they stopped the disability checks with no warning. Last I heard, he told me he was selling his motorbike and would send me the rent when he got the money for it.
His son, recently graduated from high school, lived with him. Soon a friend of his son's was sleeping on the couch. The two guys partied a great deal when Dad was gone. Neither appeared to have jobs. I liked my Elvis tenant immensely, but his son couldn't be bothered to impress me, nodded hello from the couch, shirtless. Father and son used to live in an apartment, but the apartment wouldn't allow the puppy his son brought home. He couldn't deny the son his dog he told me. Last time I visited four months ago, the one dog was now two. They had not informed me that she had had puppies—twice in fact we found out later.
I had called our Elvis for days, listened to his song impersonation that answered his phone and left messages to no avail. Mike entered the house, his heart racing, afraid he would find a body, a suicide. No one was there. He sent pictures. Clothes lay strewn about. Unwashed dishes on the dresser. The TV and couch gone. No vehicles, no dogs. Door left unlocked. A window broken. The place filthy. They had skipped. The money from the motorbike had been getaway money. Mike himself had bought it, in fact, (though he too owed us rent). I called again, left a message, joking about how he had been Raptured up; how I didn't think he was the Rapture type. How he had been like family and hadn't even said goodbye and we wanted to know what had happened to him. Please wouldn't he call and tell us? He did respond, but not to me. He was too ashamed. He called Mike, said he was sorry, he would pay what he owed, but he had moved to New York. He left a forwarding address in Yonkers.
Well I thought, maybe it was for the best. San Bernardino was not a good place in which to be depressed and his son's activities didn't make him the best neighbor. There had been an arrest for underaged drinking. San Bernardino had lost its luster for me too. Our property was likely underwater. Our new financial advisor seemed to be laughing at us, told us we were working too hard for what we were getting out of it, told us that the time to buy property was not when it was bottoming out, but when it was going up. You never knew with real estate if it would ever recover. He was likely right; the area continued to be hit hard by the recession. Was, in fact, the hardest hit area in the nation for foreclosures. At least we had cash flow as long as we had tenants.
The Road Less Perfect
When I first discovered San Bernardino in 2009, it had been a little Shangri-La like. A place that time had forgotten, where people were nice to each if you just got through the day. Those in the Bay Area had faced the recession with a determined competitive edge that increased the divide between the savvy and talented and those not quite up to snuff one way or the other. I was not sure yet which it would be for me. Talented I was; savvy not so much.
A colleague, whose talent lacked in education, but who was guided by determination, called me to tell me she could no longer find work as an organizer and would I like to join her at an inspiring seminar that would help us sell a miracle health cure? She had already signed up with this outfit, was convinced that it worked for all manner of ailments and was giving me the patter. I scanned the website she gave me and told her she was pushing vitamin supplements through a pyramid scheme. She e-mailed me asking me to just give it a chance. Geesh. Was this all that was left?
Entrepreneurs in the Bay Area retooled, marketed more aggressively, spruced up their offices and their online presence as they angled for business. This brought me work, but I was not doing the same retooling. I was sitting at home in a paralyzed funk; I hated marketing and was convinced that it wouldn't do much good anyway judging from my peers. As the work stopped I had just stumbled on San Bernardino. I jumped on those two little houses to stay busy. I happily drove the seven hours there to retreat to it, to get away from the competitive glut of talent looking for work. It wasn't hard to feel on top of my game in San Bernardino. My literacy skills and organizational ability were all it took to come in with the energy of a mover and shaker, someone who made things happen. Backed by the home equity loan, Catherine had taken out in response to the recession, I could attack the project of restoring this property with gusto, bringing in jobs to hungry vendors. Have a talent like Mike eager to show me what he could do. Have a place to try out my design skills.
Thus energized I would return to the Bay Area where I managed to stay in business as an organizer due chiefly to my skill working with hoarders. With all the hoarding shows on TV, hoarders were coming out of the closet (or their family were). It took a certain psychological perseverance to stick with hoarders, both because the work seemed as endless and futile as Sisyphus pushing his rock up that hill and because hoarders had so many questions that seemed to have nothing to do with anything. This confounded most of my peers eager to attack the mess. They ran out of things to say. But I loved nothing better than to answer questions. I had answers I could quote wholesale from all the books I had read explaining how the world worked. I could see how it all connected in my clients' minds and why they needed to know these things. I distilled for them these answers into little bite size packets that kept their interest in the tedious work at hand.
Because these were not the tidy perfectionist jobs typical of high end clients, I thought of myself as something of a slob. My car, for instance. Catherine called it a piece of junk. It was a 23 year old Honda Wagon with dings and green stuff growing on the weatherstripping, but it suited me. It didn't attract thieves or project an attitude. In childhood I had often been warned not to attract thieves. My relatives in Thailand had a taste for gemstones. My grandmother wanted to hand down to me beautiful heirloom pieces as soon as I was old enough to walk. My favorite was a pendent, a checkerboard grid with diamonds and sapphires alternatively dangling in each square. When I was a teenager, my aunt warned me not to wear the piece to the Sunday Market for fear that someone would pull it from my very neck. This alarmed me. I realized how much these nice things made me a target. I didn't want to be watched like that. It would disturb my ability to blend in, to be an observer. Life was easier unencumbered. As a biracial kid, I already stood out. I saved the pieces for special occasions. By day I would go undercover like a spy.
My Hobo Wagon was good cover. It was perpetually filled with client cast-offs going to Goodwill, recyclables to drop off, salvaged building material and tools. I kept the back seat covered with a painters drop cloth. The hatch back I propped up with a broom stick because I couldn't get the replacement strut. I taped the top of the back seat with fabric tape to keep the sun from blistering the fabric further. I worried about the crack on the tail light letting water in and rusting the body from the inside. When I started driving the 420 miles to San Bernardino, I feared that it was only a matter of time before it was scrap. Every time I returned something needed fixing. Last time it was a clutch job.
But I was comfortable in the car. It was the right size, not overwhelming like the bloaters on the road now. It drove like a compact car and could still carry a serious load. Fifteen bankers boxes for instance, eight foot lengths of lumber, a full sheet of plywood strapped to a luggage rack on the roof. It got 33 miles per gallon and I didn't need a footstool to get in it. I could see over the hood. The visibility to the side and back was better than any other car I'd driven.
With the cooling problem solved, I grew even more fond of my eccentric car. But when the engine gave out on a local trip to Oakland three months later, I knew that judgement day had come. I managed to drive my car home on the overheating engine and then to my mechanics the next day. My same mechanic since 1984. I trusted his opinion. We would grow old together. He offered to look for a replacement used engine, but I had to decide soon.
I looked at all the options over the weekend. Other similar size wagons, the Toyota Matrix for instance, was still too new to afford at $7,000. Nostalgically, I looked for my Honda Wagon. I discovered the car had its own club, was being restored and souped up by enthusiasts because it was different they said, because it wasn't an SUV. One was available on Craigslist for $3,000 boasting a new paint job, perfect interior and though it had less mileage than the 230,000 miles on mine it was still high. Did I dare buy the exact same car? No one returned my call. I gave my mechanic the go ahead. In a week I had my car back. The engine he found, was so clean, it probably only had 50,000 miles on it he said. It was from a Honda CRX. It sounded different, younger, more energetic. It drove a little sportier got better mileage. And cost me only $1650 all told. This secret new engine under the hood bolstered my confidence. I tackled I-5 like a veteran.
I went into the empty back house. It didn't look too bad. Mike and his wife had already started the clean-up and cleared out the remaining clothes and furniture. There was just some touch up painting to do and the broken window in the back door to replace. It was a mystery why it was broken. It was plexiglass. Had someone lost their keys or just been drunk at a party. There was also a curtain missing, an even bigger mystery. Why would someone take a single curtain? Did they accidentally burn a hole in it?
I had brought the paint for the kitchen cabinets and more cereal boxes with which to line shelves. The linseed oil paint I used on the cabinets was hardened now and had held up under scrubbing; I noted that a backplate under the knobs would cover where fingernails had nicked it (and we found some at the nearby Ace Hardware.) The cereal boxes made into shelf liners were mostly still good. I replaced the stained pieces. Mike commented that they had startled him. He'd never seen such a shelf liner pattern, but when he saw what they were he thought it was a good idea. The cardboard was nice and thick he said. He asked if he could have a flattened box to use as a surface on which to mix up some Bondo. The tenants' puppies had chewed on the corners of the baseboards leaving large ragged gaps. In half an hour Mike had applied the Bondo, shaped it and sanded it smooth. Bondo was a filler used for car repair. It dried too fast for me to work with it.
In the evening I was invited to a chicken dinner Jennifer had cooked. Their son Addison, of the kidney transplant, returned from down the street where he had been visiting a neighbor kid. He was a very active boy now, going everywhere on his bike.
"He's a good kid," Jennifer told me when he went to his room. I agreed. I could see it in his face, his seriousness. I offered her my theory of how the trials of his kidney disfunction, the daily dialysis, the frequent doctor visits and medical procedures requiring careful compliance had built, in this boy, patience and perseverance. I imagined his future, saw him going the college route. At times our whole adventure in San Bernardino had come down to giving this boy a safe, stable place to live.
On Sunday I met a family that wanted to rent the house. Mike had told me about them. They had heard from their aunt across the street that the house was up for rent. How lucky was that? They had already filled out an application and were eager to move in right away as they were living at his mother's house. The application showed an income so small it was less than the rent. How was that going to work Catherine asked? Other sources of income were shown me including state assistance for the children. Together it would cover the rent with barely enough to live on. I listened to their hard luck story. He had had his own business, owned three trucks, had to sell them, go to work for his brother's landscaping business. He just got a job at a chain grocery store. They couldn't afford to stay at the townhouse where they were living even though the landlord brought down the rent. Credit not so good either, but he wanted to get it back again, buy his own house. He had goals, he assured me and would take good care of the property, landscape it even. Their small children needed a yard to play in.
"I don't know what happened to the economy," he lamented. I did not offer an explanation to this eager, hard working, immigrant family. Didn't want to tell him the middle had fallen out of the American Dream. I wanted to rent to them, got Catherine's okay when I called her later. He was so happy he came back late that night to put down his money. It was then that we realized there had been a miscommunication about the amount of rent. Mike had given a "guestimate" that was $100 to $200 lower than what we had been getting and they had hoped for the lower of the two, could, at most afford $850.
"No one is asking a thousand," he told me incredulous. I believed him, but I couldn't bring it down that much. Not just yet; I stayed up late making calculations to show Catherine; I asked the advice of the friend who sold us the property, asked about rents in the area. We were going on vacation before the next month rolled around. Chances were we wouldn't get the place rented until we got back, thus another month's delay. Less rent now would make up for a higher rent received later I was thinking. $850 sounded like a lot lower than what we were getting, but it would do. Everyone could live with it.
I packed the one curtain, sewed another when I got home. Mailed it. The family was already happily moved in by then. "They are very social," Jennifer reported. I was satisfied. Order had been restored in our little neighborhood.