Al Martinez: The Woes of Ownership

I was a nice guy until I became a landlord. I smiled a lot and said “Good morning” and “How you doing?” and patted the dog occasionally and my wife more frequently. Then I became responsible for the lives of tenants and it all changed. Overnight I became a monster.

It began with our purchase of a five-unit apartment building in Oakland. It was my wife’s idea. Her name is Cinelli. She believed beyond rationality that by buying a 50-year-old building we would parlay it to make us the biggest land holders in California and possibly Southern Oregon.

I argued that landlords are hateful people, thinking back to the years of the Great Depression when we were forced to move every few months for non-payment of rent by landlords who growled and shouted what in the hell did we think he was running, a poorhouse?

I recall incidents as a kid of hearing a knock on the door and my mother flinging me to the floor to be out of sight and whispering, “Shhh, it’s the landlord!” It was the era of the “Frankenstein” movie with Boris Karloff. In my child’s mind the landlord became a monstrous creature with arms outstretched, walking stiffly toward us moaning a sound from beyond the grave.

“Just be yourself as a landlord,” Cinelli suggested. “A nice guy, fair, maybe a little vague sometimes and not always aware of…”

“All right, all right.”

My first encounter with what I like to think of as the Landlord Me occurred one rainy night in January when a tenant telephoned around midnight to report that other tenants were hauling away the stove from their furnished apartment and making a lot of noise. The tenant didn’t care that they were stealing our stove just that they were keeping her awake.

It was those damned Romanian Gypsies. We had rented a one bedroom unit to two Gypsies and they had snuck in eight children Gypsies and five cousin Gypsies who were living there and driving everyone nuts by stopping passersby and aggressively demanding to tell their fortunes or they would die.

We ordered them out and their revenge was to steal a stove. When I arrived in a downpour, the stove was on the back on their pickup and a refrigerator was being manhandled down the stairs. What next, the linoleum? The wallpaper? After I threatened to call the cops they put everything back and drove off cursing me while I stood in the rain cursing them. Fortunately, mutual curses neutralize each other.

My attitude toward tenants continued to sour as theirs continued to sour toward me, encompassing the attitude in an old Irish proverb that says, “Drink is the curse of the land. It makes you shoot at your landlord and miss.”

Further events, such as a rent-skimming by an onsite manager, a worker who punched a hole in a water pipe and flooded a downstairs unit, and a pair of college students who may or may not have been running a bordello, hastened my transition from nice guy to Frankenstein monster. I even began walking stiffly, arms outstretched.

The final transmogrification occurred with my encounter with the Sweet Old Seamstress who occupied one of two stores that were part of the building. She had been there since the place was built and had paid $80 a month rent forever. We let her get by with that even when the other store tenant was paying five times that much, then decided to raise her rent to $95 a month.

The Sweet Old Seamstress swore like a sailor and said I was taking advantage of her because she was black and I probably hated my mother, but I didn’t hate my mother I just thought she was a little simple minded. The Sweet Old Seamstress and I had a ferocious argument with her calling me whitie and a racist and me calling her a cheat and an ungrateful burden on the American economy. She moved when I threatened to drag her out and beat her and she threatened to call the Black Panthers.

We have since purchased another apartment building, still seeking the American Dream of Greed and Luxury, and just recently my wife, in a whimsical mood, noted that San Quentin Prison might be on the market and did I think I could handle the tenants? I said sure. I’d put lifers in charge of maintenance and let homicidal maniacs collect the rent.

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