Betrayed In San Bernardino
Here be the sorry saga of how a relationship across class lines ended in eviction. What redemption there was and what future hope for my landlording venture.
"Hi Mike," I called out to him when I saw him coming out of the house. He had a large old truck I hadn't seen before, backed up to the porch and a section of the railing had been removed to make it easier for him to pull things out of the front door into the truck bed. He smiled his easy smile and came down the stairs towards me rolling his eyes as if to bear up against all that the universe had poured on his head.
"So you've had quite a time of it," I say to him playing into his victim role, hoping to have his cooperation by being friendly even though he had refused to return my e-mails or phone calls in the last week, having not moved out as promised. It had made me uneasy about what I might find at the house, so I was happy enough to ease back into our old camaraderie. He introduced me to his assistant Frank, a pockmarked Hispanic man who seemed eager to please. Mike was moving next door to the shabbiest house on the block. He had asked us, early last year, if we wanted to buy it for $40,000 presumably so he could have steady work fixing it up. It had been on the market nearly a year; the owners needing to follow a job. A sale was pending; the across-the-street neighbor had bought it for $55,000. Their son had moved into it. Mike had probably traded his skills for a room. He was storing all of his tools in their garage.
I hadn't wanted it to end this way. Nor had he.
"I wish I'd known," he said when we got to talking about Jennifer and the latest news on her criminal activity. The rent owed added up to nearly $3,000 when we started proceedings and was now over $5,000. Catherine had called him twice since we'd given them notice and I left him a message too, but he didn't call back. He said Jennifer had stolen his phone, deleted all his messages. Mike had entrusted all administrative details to Jennifer. She was the one who kept us apprised of things at the property, sent us pictures of repairs, sent the rent money. When Jennifer first decided to grift us she just asked us to forgive them not being able to pay the full rent, that they were short that month. The language of her e-mails included both of them and were filled with emotional promises about how they would pay us as soon as they could. Then she wrote me that her mother was ill from a bad reaction to a drug for her kidneys and she had to go to Oregon to take care of her.
"This woman knows way too much about kidneys," I thought, but didn't say anything, figuring Mike knew about this excuse and was hiding his inability to find work behind it.
In June Mike got a big disability check and they were paid up again so all seemed well. The next month the new tenants in the back house entrusted Mike with their rent in cash and asked him to buy a money order and send it to us because they were afraid they would be late. Jennifer wrote to tell me about the cash being given to Mike. I received an envelope, but no check. I called Jennifer to ask if she had left the money order on her desk somewhere. She swore she had enclosed it. She also wanted to tell me that their truck was broken into the other night, but oddly enough nothing was stolen. As I talked to her I discovered a tiny hole in the lower right hand corner of the envelope and a crease as if someone had extracted the money order through that hole.
"It's been stolen", I told her and she voiced surprise. I asked if she could find the receipt and get a replacement. She said Mike had the receipt in the truck, then reported back that it was nowhere to be found.
"It must have been stolen from the truck," Jennifer reasoned. By this time the whole story was so fishy even I couldn't believe it. I called up Mike and asked what he thought. He said he would shoot the son of a bitch who stole it.
"But doesn't it seem suspicious?" I asked. He changed the subject, started talking about alien sightings. I asked why he hadn't answered his phone and he told me that he had forgotten to pay it to operate. This sounded plain irresponsible for a father with a son of precarious medical stability. So, I thought, he was in on it too. Eliseo, in the back house, had lost his phone altogether so couldn't be reached for questioning. We were stymied. A thief would not bother with a receipt nor would one bother to take the trouble to pull a money order from a hole in an envelope when it would be easier to take the whole thing. Obviously someone wanted me to know the check had been mailed and a replacement could not be had. Then Jennifer sent their money order it was short $50. This made it the same rent Eliseo would have paid, but again we didn't ad it up. Catherine was mad that they had arbitrarily set the rent lower at their whim.
In September, Jennifer wrote again. "I don't know if Mike told you, but my mother died and I had to use the rent money to fly to Oregon," she wrote. I figured mother died years ago and was being made freshly dead for this new excuse, but we didn't think a person would lie about such a thing. In October, she wrote to say she was still in Oregon waiting for money to bring her back and then they would find a way to pay us all the money owed or find a less expensive place to live. This was Catherine's cue to write them and ask them to leave by November 1st. We heard nothing from them after that and I realized we had lost control of the situation. I was sure they were blowing us off and would stay as long as they wanted rent free. We would have to actually evict them. I got a referral from my friend in LA who had sold us the house.
The law office referred cranked out evictions like hamburgers. For $650, I hired this MacEvict house and on Halloween our three day quit or pay notice and our 60 day notice was served. (Because they had lived there longer than two years it had to be 60 days, not 30.) The lawyer speculated that they would be long gone before then. I still couldn't believe that Mike would so easily give up the house he had lavished so much time customizing to fit all his needs. Two weeks later we both got frantic messages from Mike.
"I know I'm behind on the rent, but I'll make it up to you. Jennifer stole all my money," he said pitifully. Then another message to say that she had been arrested near the border of Oregon. I felt a sense of relief that it wasn't him; that he was still the man I thought he was, but Catherine didn't want us to call him back and get roped into his drama. She had liked Mike too and now felt betrayed.
He called again. This time I answered. He talked to me in his most calm professional voice, telling me he could understand how it must look especially given how Tally had disappeared on us with two months' rent due just last May. Told me he was not the kind of guy who didn't pay his bills. That he was nothing without his reputation and would pay back every cent he owed. I wanted to believe him, wanted to give him back his home, help him find his kid, but Catherine didn't trust him; why hadn't he called as soon as Jennifer left given that November's rent was due?
Jennifer was doing time, had several cases of elder abuse against her from her job as a caretaker in the homes of ill patients, Mike told me. A patient had been screaming for her and a neighbor had come to see what was wrong; Jennifer was not on the premises. She had stolen from others, whatever she could lay her hands on. I tried to reconcile my acquaintance of her with this criminal mind. I remembered the first time I met her. I was curious to see what kind of woman Mike was hitched to. When I walked up to see her face I was almost sorry I had been curious. She was not just plain, she was ugly in a way that made me feel sorry for her, but repulsed me at the same time. I had gone out of my way to treat her as a peer, ate dinner with her, even talked about how important it was to gain the trust of my clients. I had assumed she shared my assumption that one had to actually be trustworthy.
When I saw her last summer she had told me that she couldn't work overnight anymore because Mike couldn't seem to get their son to school on time. It was an issue, she said. But was that enough to leave him or was she just sticking around to embezzle his disability money? When our eviction notice was served she must have realized the game was up. Mike said he never saw the eviction notice.
Jennifer's sentence for her elder abuse was all of three months, only the jails were so overcrowded she got off on a work permit and only had to serve her time on the weekends. Later she was arrested for a hit and run which she tried to blame on Mike, but he had already reported that she had taken the car so that wouldn't wash. There was no end to her badness. Nor was her mother dead, but mother was a shady character too, Mike said. The whole family was like that. I asked him what she did with all the money she stole. He said he had no idea. Later he revealed to me that she had a conviction for possession of cocaine on her record which should affect the custody case. He had had his own run-ins with the law he admitted, but he'd never been convicted of anything. This did not exactly reassure me.
On the morning of the eviction he was telling me how he got her car back. The sheriff drove up, saw us talking. A young man in a sharply pressed uniform, he asked me if I was Jennifer. I said I was the homeowner. Trying to be friendly he made an attempt to pronounce my name. Then he walked through the mostly empty house, picked up the vacuum cleaner and put it outside as if to fulfill his role. I asked him how many evictions he did.
"Twenty-five a day, 100 a week," he said. He made it seem routine.
When the sheriff left, the plumbing company showed up; the foreman striding in with a clipboard, a blue tooth headset in his ear. Mike had told the truth about the leak he had written me about in his final e-mail. There was a lake under the house that required another company to come out and pump out 326 gallons of water before the plumbers could begin their work. The galvanized piping was rotting and the foreman recommended re-plumbing the entire house with copper and PEX. I saw the wisdom of it, though I was pained by the sticker shock—$6,400 not including the $1,800 for the water pumping. The foreman shut off the water, not realizing the back house was shut off too. Said he would be back in two days after the ground had dried up a bit. Then the locksmith showed up to rekey the 15 locks on both houses since Mike had keys to the back house as well and we didn't want to worry about Jennifer or him trying anything. It would take all day to do both. I offered the locksmith a bagel; he smiled and explained that he was on a special diet for medical reasons, told me about a holistic doctor he was seeing. How his cancer went into recession because of this diet. He looked more computer tech than working class. The law firm had sent him. He also served as the eyewitness reporting on the condition of the property.
I went to check on our tenants in the back house at the end of the day. They asked when the water was going to be turned on. I called the foreman; he said the water couldn't be turned on until the end of Thursday. This was disastrous. I couldn't leave my tenants without water for three days. I went next door to find Mike sorting his things in the garage.
"We have a situation here," I told him. He reached for his wrench came over to turn the proper shut off valves to the front house, then turned the main on. We went together to tell Eliseo his water was back on. I owed Mike now and he knew it. I drove to my room at the Super 8 motel. No camping on the property this time round.
The next morning as I drove in from the commercial, spruced up end of town, I called out to the powers for help, any powers out there. Asked for the day to go well, named all the details I had in mind, listing them out loud. I worked alone in the front house spackling and cleaning. Mike had promised to come over and help. At eleven I went next door and rang the doorbell. He answered, said he'd had a late night, would be right over. An hour later he makes it over and asks me what I'd like him to do.
In the afternoon a van drove by, slowed to look at my 'for rent' sign and made a U turn. The passenger asked what the rent was.
"$975" I told them. "And a $500 deposit."
"That's not bad at all," she said and asked if they could see the house. A very fat Hispanic woman who had been driving, climbed out, followed by a moderately fat one, a skinny young white guy and a child. I showed them in. The first woman introduced her daughter whom I realized was not fat at all but was pregnant. The mother said she had five kids all told. The young man said he was the boyfriend.
"We get social security," the daughter told me.
"So do I" said the boyfriend. "I'm deaf in one ear," he added by way of explanation and turned back his ear to show me a scar.
"How are seven people going to fit in a two bedroom house," I asked them.
"Oh this is much bigger than the apartment we live in now", said the daughter. "We have bunk beds", they explained. I was feeling out of my depth and was wishing someone would tell me, right then, that I couldn't possibly rent to seven people. I gave them an application so as not to appear to be discriminating. Then my mother calls and they drive away while I'm still on the phone.
The plumbers came back the next day. The foreman looked serious; he hadn't counted on the line running all the way to the back house. It was going to cost more to replace that line too, $1700 more, might take two days longer too. I groaned inwardly and approved it. If they didn't complete the line the old pipe would clog up the new. Our loan on the property would now top $200,000. We were in for the long haul; a very long haul of renting. Luckily help was arriving.
Veronica, our real estate agent, a young, ambitious Hispanic woman had agreed to be our eyes on the ground for an hourly fee. She pulled up in her black Mercedes and jumped out in a black Nike warm up suit, a white Nike cap over her long black hair. She gave me a hug. I gave her the tour, introduced her to Blanca in the back house. She admired all the work that had been done since she sold us the property. She was studying Suzie Orman's online class and was practicing her financial analysis, asking how much we put into repairs after the $100,000 we paid originally.
By a stroke of good timing, she was also able to meet a couple who wanted to rent the house. They had come by the day before and had returned, having seen the condition of other offerings and apartments with no yard, no patio for their cat. They were moving from San Diego to be closer to family. I liked this pair; I could see they were normal in the middle class sense, though his teeth were sorely in need of dentistry. They were struggling some to rebuild a life. Everybody who comes to San Bernardino is struggling some. It is the end of the line. They didn't have jobs, they had SSI benefits and an army stipend. But she was a fighter—a feisty bantam fighter—determined to put her life back together after a breakdown. He was going to go to school on army money. Veronica asked if they would send copies of their bank statements and documents to prove they were getting these benefits. She was a lesson to me on tracking accountability. They actually had bank accounts. And decent credit which was even more rare. I promised to peruse their application over the weekend.
When they left I told Veronica about Mike, how he still had stuff to move. How he was living next door. She was incredulous that people were taking him in, that he would actually find housing after an eviction.
"He's friends with everybody," I said. Mike was a living example of community building, of surviving on connections and I admired that. "He's charming," I added, "even I fell for it. He fixes things; he can bring cars back from the dead," I added. This idea of trading skills for favors was a novel concept to her.
"He a white guy?" she asked.
"Yes," I said appreciating her having made this distinction. In this diverse neighborhood a white guy was the universal glue. His approval and friendship were valuable to everyone of minority status. Veronica nodded. Being a white guy also meant getting away with more.
While we stood there watching the plumbing job in full swing, a truck from the electric company drove up. I realized he was there to turn off the electricity. I told him I was the homeowner and he said he would leave it on if I would call up the electric company that day. He showed me the name on the current bill. It was Mike's last name, but with a different first name. He must have been dodging old bills. The man assured me I would not have to pay his delinquent bill.
After Veronica left, I went to tell Mike he was missing out on the fun. He was still in his boxers looking confused when I knocked on his door. I wanted him to put back the railing and finish smoothing out the dirt after the pool clean-up, but he looked quite pale and was clearly out of commission. He went off to the doctor, came back later and told me he might have an ulcer.
"Well that wouldn't be surprising", I said. He was often conveniently ill when he didn't want to face something. The final day of my visit, the day I had to have everything of his off the property as I promised Catherine, I saw him take off in the morning with Frank and I knew they had found work and I would get no more help from him. I called him up reminding him that he still had stuff to move and I was leaving at five. At four-thirty he dropped Frank off. Frank came over and politely asked me what I wanted him to move. I pointed out everything and he set to work while I went to the hardware store for bolts to put back the railing on the front porch because the plumbers had cleaned up everything when they were done and thrown them out.
"Those bastards," said Mike when I called to tell him, but he made no offer to come back and fix it. I was getting tired of these not quite finished jobs he had left me and the plumber leaving me holes in the wall to cover. But I was proud of being able to do it myself. When I came to the final sweep out I saw there was still a stack of particle boards and closet pieces and a kitchen garbage can full of trash left from Mike's stuff.
I went next door and knocked. Frank answered the door looking nervously at me.
"Can you move the rest of the stuff?" I asked him. He said he'd do it later. I explained that I had to have it finished before I left.
"I'm busy right now. I can't do it. I'm waiting for Mike," he said. I didn't like the way he was blowing me off like that and his tone of voice was condescending. I gave him another half an hour then called Mike to complain. Mike didn't answer. He was blowing me off. Had no reason to make good on his lip service to make it all up to me. It was my turn to show my irritation at his having dragged things out, left me to clean up after him.
I did in fifteen minutes what Frank was too busy to do. I'm surprised he didn't come out, given the racket I was making tossing the garbage can into their yard and the particle board and closet pieces on top of it. The final touch was a bag of soccer balls. I tossed each one over the fence at Jennifer's car parked in the front yard next door. I threw a few into the engine compartment just to unnerve Frank. He had the hood propped open to charge up the battery. There was a stick almost thick enough to be a log in the pile of leftovers and I tossed that gently onto the engine. Frank came out ten minutes when I was just about to load finish up. He threw the soccer balls back into our yard trying to hit my car which was in the driveway just before the porch steps where I was standing. A ball hit the house with such force I knew I was in for it.
"Why did you do this?" he asked.
"Because you're so lame," I said.
He threw more balls at the car. I felt strangely calm. My black belt training had accustomed me to physical attacks, allowing me to think clearly. He wasn't aiming for me. He was completely focused on the car. I heard him mumble something.
"What" I said.
"You're so fucking stupid," he shouted.
"No you are," I said calmly, "I'm just giving you the same back."
He bent over to pick something up. And I heard a thwack as that something hit the side of my car. It was the log. Then silence. We both realized he'd gone too far. I saw myself standing there alone after dark, having deteriorated to the level of my slum lord neighborhood. Things could get unpredictable.
"Okay," I told him, taking out my phone, "I'm going to have to call the police." But I was not wearing my glasses so had to squint a bit at my phone as I pressed 911.
"Go ahead", he said and went inside. I was rid of him this stand-in of Mike's lame performance. No one had come out to see what the ruckus was about. I stood listening to the quiet and closed my phone, the call uncompleted.
I locked up the house, loaded my cleaning supplies and step ladder, drove off the property, got out a final time, listened for any trouble and closed the gate. I felt in control again. I had reclaimed my property and had new tenants waiting. Mike might take it out on the house given my losing it with his last bit of crap, but something in me had shifted. No one was going to take advantage of me quite so easily again. I had faced my fear—an eviction—and acquired a new authority. I was no longer operating on a hope and a prayer. Things would be businesslike now and probably not nearly as entertaining, but that was fine with me.