SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
October 27, 2019

The First Brick to the Skull

 

At about eleven one morning toward the end of August, I received an email from my landlord, Milo. That in itself was kind of an odd thing. I never, ever hear from Milo, especially when I’ve written to tell him the heat was out again or the apartment has been flooded. He was adamant about his laissez-faire approach to building management, and his stony silence in the face of any kind of building-related crisis has become a running joke among the tenants. This was the same landlord I wrote about earlier this year, who’d recently pleaded guilty to embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from a religious organization. Last I heard he was still awaiting sentencing. A note out of the blue from him was unheard of, and just seeing his name in the inbox made me a little uneasy.

             The subject line read, “Insurance inspector.” After apologizing for the short notice, Milo asked if I would be around at noon, and if so, could I let him and the insurance inspector into the building?

            This was stranger still. I’ve been here ten years and can’t ever recall any insurance inspector coming around. Did he mean a fire inspector? I think that happened once before, but in that case he’d given us a day’s notice and asked everyone to clear any crap out of the common hallways. And wouldn’t you think the landlord would have his own set of keys to get into the building? Unless of course his parents and brother, in their deep family shame over Milo’s crimes, had taken his keys away.

            Well, whatever. With Milo you took it as it came. I let him know I was around and would let them in, then went into the hall and dragged some shit away from the door leading to the roof. If it was the fire inspector, he’d probably want access.

            A few minutes before noon I went downstairs to wait outside. You could never be sure if the doorbell was going to be working or not, and I couldn’t hear it from the office anyway. So better to go outside and have a few smokes as I waited.

            A man I’d guess to be in his early thirties was standing by the front gate. I had no idea he was there until he said hello and introduced himself as David. We shook hands and I confirmed that he was the one waiting for Milo. He then joined me at the top of the stoop and started asking friendly conversational questions: Was I from Brooklyn originally? How long had I lived in the building? Was I married? Did I like the neighborhood? What were the people on the block like? Etcetera.

            I thought nothing of it at first, just an insurance inspector passing the time. Then I began to sense something in his responses to my answers that made me a little wary. When I mentioned how many people on the block were the third or fourth generation to grow up in the same house, that people simply didn’t want to leave, he told me he’d been born and raised in Borough Park, and there the kids were fleeing the neighborhood as soon as they were old enough, which was opening up a lot of rental properties, and rental prices were skyrocketing. The more we chatted, the more everything he seemed to say was somehow real estate related. The more he could report real estate prices were going through the roof, the giddier he became. He wasn’t talking about insurance at all, let alone fire safety. Before I had a chance to ask him straight out what the hell he did and what kind of inspection he was doing, Milo showed up and the two of them ducked inside.

            They left about ten minutes later and I thought nothing more about it. Maybe he was just one of those incredibly boring people obsessed with New York real estate.

            Around that same time another strange building-related thing popped up. Out of nowhere, Milo’s brother, Dmitri, wrote to the tenants of all three apartments asking if we could pay the rent electronically from that point onward. For ten years now, every month Morgan and I would write Milo an old-fashioned paper check, put it in an envelope, and leave it in his mail basket in the entry way. But this was fine, sure, much quicker and easier I suppose. Morgan was familiar with the online system Dmitri wanted to use, so we were pretty much good to go. When I told Dmitri we’d just paid the rent the previous day, that it was still down there in Milo’s basket, he asked if we could go grab the check and tear it up, using the new electronic system immediately.

            Okay, um, sure. He seemed a little overzealous to get the new system running, but again, whatever. The address where we were sending the payments sounded pretty generic, but if that’s where Dmitri wanted the rent to go, that’s what we’d do. Quietly we speculated that after Milo’s recent conviction on federal charges, the family, who owned several properties in the area, no longer trusted him with those checks made out in his name. But that was just speculation.

            Given this sudden change, and to try and get a bit of clarification, I asked Dmitri if we should continue bringing any building issues to Milo’s attention, or, should the furnace crap out again, say, should we contact him instead? It was a subtle way of asking, “So . . . has Milo been sent to Sing-Sing yet?” But Dmitri assured me we should simply continue to do things as we always had in the past, that nothing else had changed.

            Well, shit. That was a disappointment. Doing things as we always had meant we’d never hear from Milo and nothing would ever get fixed until we did it ourselves. But at least we were used to that now.

            Two weeks after the supposed insurance inspector stopped by, all the tenants received a note from some guy named David who asked for our contact info, informing us he would now be managing the building along with Milo and Dmitri.

            Wait, what? So we should be sending our complaints to this guy now? Did that mean he would be fixing the roof and replacing the furnace and the front door? I had completely forgotten the inspector’s name was also David, so didn’t immediately make the connection. Being naturally and rationally paranoid, before passing along any contact info to this character I sent Dmitri a note, asking if this was legit or some kind of scam. I didn’t bother asking Milo, knowing I’d never receive a response. Ten minutes later, Dmitri wrote back.

Yes. this is legit. He is our broker. We put the house on the market to test the waters. Still way too early in the process. We have a limited time frame with them before we remove it from the market. I will keep everyone posted throughout. No need to worry about anything right now. Please work with him; we would appreciate it.

Thanks

            Oh, Jesus Fucking Christ on a Crutch. That’s when the brick hit me in the back of the skull and everything came together. “Insurance inspector” my sweaty Hairy ass. Even switching over the rent payment method fit into the lousy scheme.

            Despite all the building’s deep and potentially deadly structural flaws, we loved it here. The apartment, which turned out to be perfect for both of us in so many ways, was the first place either of us could call home in a very, very long time. We’d dumped a lot of money into making our own improvements with the understanding we were going to be here for the rest of our lives. We’d installed ceiling fans, fixed the windows, replaced the fridge and the kitchen sink and the shower at our own expense. We’d paid out of pocket to have the washer and dryer repaired multiple times, and bought fire extinguishers for the common areas on the first floor and in the basement. Morgan had put up a shelf in the laundry room and kept the entry hall swept. It wasn’t just us, either. The kids in the basement handled the shoveling in winter, kept the laundry room clean, made various small repairs, and turned the back yard, which used to be an overgrown jungle of weeds, broken branches and trash, into something wonderful. There were things that were beyond our means and jurisdiction, like replacing the furnace and overhauling the plumbing system, but we did what we could. It wasn’t our house, no, but it was our home, and we treated it as such.

            And now these fuckers were going to throw us out to help cover Milo’s legal bills?

            I’d been ousted from my apartment in Park Slope ten years ago under similar circumstances, and vowed I’d never go through that nightmare again, with people lying to me up until the moment they told me I had to be out of there in a month. In that instance things had worked out, but that was all thanks to a fluke that landed me, quite unexpectedly, in Bay Ridge. That wasn’t going to happen again, and we weren’t going to find another place like this for this kind of rent. Even if we did, you move me to another place, it was going to take me another couple of years, starting from scratch, to learn my way around again. How do I get to the store, the bank, the post office? And how do I find my way back again? What are my landmarks? Shit. And they wanted me to work with this weasel? This little man whose sole job it was to sell the house to the highest bidder and toss us all out in the fucking street? Fuck that. “Work with him.” Yeah, while I’m at it, let me give the hangman a big hug.

            Ten minutes after getting that bit of news from Dmitri, I received the following from the weasel himself.

Thank you for sharing with me your email. I am helping Dmitri and Milo with their property. Specifically, I will be helping them market and sell the building. More importantly, I’ll be working with you and all the other tenants in the building during the process. If there’s anything you guys need, don’t hesitate to let me know. I would like to schedule a time to meet with you guys so I can answer any questions or concerns you might have.

            Oh, fuck you. Our questions and concerns? Well, let’s see, how long have you been fucking your mother? Do you take pride in being hired by a convicted felon to throw an old blind man out in the cold? Do you enjoy guzzling Satan’s jism?

            That would do for starters, anyway.

            Upon hearing the house was on the market, the kids in the basement, who had no money and were struggling to raise two toddlers, panicked. They wanted to get out before winter, because they didn’t want to be told in the middle of December they had to be out in a month. They had no idea where they would go or what they would do or how they would pay for any of it. They were the best neighbors we’d ever known, they were friends, so this was worse news on top of everything.

            The lies had already started with that “insurance inspector” bullshit, so there was absolutely no reason to trust anything any of those involved had to say. Nevertheless, I set up a meeting with the little asswipe, just to hear what kind of line he tried to feed me. I refused to let him come to the apartment as he’d requested, figuring he’d just steal things. Instead I insisted on coming to his office which, appropriately enough, was in Park Slope, right around the corner from my old apartment. Figures. I wanted to try to explain to him that if his only goal was to sell to the highest bidder and get us all out of there as quietly as possible—which of course it was—he would be destroying something very rare and human in this otherwise ugly and stinking world. Somehow I didn’t think that would matter to him.

            I calmed down after a spell, especially after learning the asking price was about twice what the house was really worth, knowing this would be patently obvious to anyone who stepped through the front door. Or even took a good look at the front door. That would buy us a little time anyway, unless the fucker decided to sell to the Chinese.

 

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