A Natural Born Cunt

I love the word cunt. I think it’s fun, intimate, and, still has shock value. I reserve its use for the humans I trust the most—my sister when she makes a hilarious but subtle dig at me. Or my best friend when she utters something particularly surly. And, under rare romantic circumstances, “cunt” can be really sexy.

This weekend, one of my best single friend (let’s call her “C” in honor of this post) and I took what has become a yearly end-of-winter pilgrimage to Miami Beach. While the majority of the tourists lean “frat boy” or worse, the escape from New York’s late-coming spring is well worth it. And with dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, we figured we’d have the resources to locate like-minded(ish) vacation friends and potential flings. But, by the end of our Friday night on the town, I had met exactly zero single queer women and C’s date had called her: “a natural born cunt.”

Here’s how it all happened:

When I landed, C had already been in Miami for a few days, exploring on her own and having some fun on the dating apps. Since she had taken herself on a movie date that evening, I had an extra hour to kill before she got back to the hotel. When she returned, C asked me, “have you been swiping?” as if she’d been paying for my piano lessons and wanted to make sure I’d been practicing my major scales. “Yes, ma’am,” I replied wearily. With a tinge of self-pity, I lamented that I’d already run out of women on Tinder and had just turned to Bumble where I saw the same cast of (limited) characters.

As C and I sat down to enjoy our first official vacation libation, a pick-up truck with giant tires and an unbearably offensive sound system parked right next to our table on the street. Hordes of tourists descended to photograph the monstrosity and awkwardly bob up and down to the “music.”  Because we couldn’t hear each other speak, we both dove into our apps. C, a straight woman in her 30s, had several viable candidates on both Bumble and Tinder, and many more swipes to go. I glared at her in envy.

Spotted in the Sky in Miami Beach

A lovely advertisement for the “Firearms Museum” spotted in the sky over Miami Beach.

In the morning, I woke up early and checked my phone. I’d now been on the app scene a solid 12 hours, and I expected to wake up to a few matches. My mission was simple:  Find out where, if anywhere, queer women hung out on the weekends. And maybe, try to meet someone cute at said location(s). But I had just one match on Tinder and one on Bumble. I quickly realized it was the same girl who seemed uninterested in actually communicating.

Later, after a run in the warm sun, Tinder sounded the alarm to show me a second match—a girl I’d meant to swipe “no” on but inadvertently “super liked.” That apparently really does happen when you’re working quickly and dealing in high volume swiping. The day remained quiet until about 5:00 pm when I heard the charming ring of a Tinder match on my phone, inducing a Pavlovian kind of momentary excitement. But it wasn’t a match: It was an advertisement for the Body Shop. (Is this a thing? Ads disguised as matches? Was this ad sending me a message? Have a nice fragrant bath in lieu of a disappointing night out?)

At C’s urging, by 6:00 pm I had broadened my settings to include women four years younger than usual (down to 25) and within 25 miles (rather than 10) of my location. It was vacation, after all. But still, no real luck. Lauren, from Bumble, the one woman with whom I carried on any sustained conversation, had an early class the next morning and refused to venture out. A business school student, Lauren fancied herself a rare breed of classy Miami lesbian. She provided me multiple levels of warnings about dating in Miami. I was to watch out for the following (and I quote): violent crime, uneducated women, women with penises  (she assured me she wasn’t transphobic—she had trans friends), STDs, and ghetto lesbians with gold teeth.

Despite, Lauren’s warnings, out and about on the beach at dusk, C and I met some vaguely bi-curious cuties who invited us to play “never have I ever,” and even shared their thermos of vodka. Even though the ring leader claimed to have moved past her “lesbianic” phase a few years ago when she stopped making out with her female friends, she seemed down to join C and I at Twist. The infamous local gay club, bragging “seven bars,” “three dance floors” and two stories of debauchery, Twist seemed like the best option in absence of guidance from the ladies of the apps. Surely, one of those seven bars must have had regular women patrons.

Before our night out at Twist, C and I stocked up on snacks and beer (liquor stores close at 8:00pm in Miami and sit down dinner will run you easily $50 a head).  As C readied herself, I offered to staff and monitor her apps (she had a number of conversations to carry on, and, of course, I offered to assist).

Dennis* took up the majority of my attention. On the plus side, he was close by and seemed amped to come out to meet us both at Twist. He’d even come to the club once a few years ago, and demonstrated none of the homophobia I might expect from a random cis, straight man. On the negative side, he seemed a little too eager to prove his ability to bed the ladies of the various cities he had visited (“Turns out Philly girls are really fun and hot,” he commented on his time visiting the City of Brotherly Love).

When C and I arrived around 11:00 pm, each of the seven bars at Twist were flooded with gay men. When we made it to bar number five on the second floor, C and I started dancing with a group of guys celebrating their buddy’s bachelor party. These 20-something male millennials identified as bi, gay, and straight. All pretty attractive, they each paid us a lot of attention, offering drinks, glow sticks, and inquiring about our respective relationship statuses.

The groom-to-be, who I had assumed was engaged to another man, told us that he was actually marrying a woman in August, and that they had an open relationship with his fiancé. It seemed several of them—even the ones on the straighter side of the spectrum—had “sucked a few dicks” and/or had been in open relationships involving folks of multiple gender identifies.  One cute guy, Jason, described his relationship status as “TBA” at least three times when I inquired.

Our 11 new bachelor party friends also came with one female gay friend, Anna. By the time I introduced myself to her, I’d heard a variety of reports from her male companions, all of whom seemed to feel for my isolation (let’s leave aside for a minute whether I even found her attractive).

In trying to effect a setup, I’d been told she was:

  • Single: I should do dance with her!
  • Taken: She had a girlfriend so I should be careful about crossing a line.
  • Taken: But, very recently. Reportedly, she’d had three dates with the same woman and was now “practically married.” I didn’t know if that was a warning not to dance with her or an invitation.
  • Taken: But, serving as the third in the groom-to-be’s open relationship AND dating her own girlfriend (of unspecified duration). I wasn’t sure how to take that.

Finally judging that her dance card was more than full, C and I turned our attention to Dennis who let us know he would arrive shortly. To help welcome him, C and I hung out on a balcony above the entrance to the club and called his name as he walked in. I think we made an adorable first impression.

Dennis, C, and I hit up bar number four, but after we ordered, I let the two of them have a few minutes alone to feel each other out. I wandered the club looking for the secret female hideouts but, after seven minutes of fruitless searching, I decided to check up on C and Dennis.

When I found C, Dennis had disappeared. Apparently, he didn’t judge C receptive enough to his initial physical “moves,” and then stormed away because she hadn’t seemed likely to put out within the first two minutes of their meeting. Definitely his loss, C and I concluded as we searched for our bachelor party friends anew.

Two minutes late—exactly 15 minutes from the moment Dennis had arrived—he followed up with C via text: “You’re a natural born cunt.” My jaw dropped. After a moment of initial shock, C seemed hardly phased. “Has this happened before,” I demanded. “Yea, once,” C answered nonchalantly.

Rage bubbled up inside me as I fantasized about an apt response to Dennis. Given Dennis’ rapid and rude exit, any unkind text would have been completely out of line. But, how dare he co-opt “cunt.” As I contemplated a retort, I realized I’d find no equivalent even within the deepest recesses of my crude vocabulary. In the way Dennis used cunt, it was inherently misogynist, and therefore uniquely oppressive when directed at C.  “Asshole,” “jerk”, “douchebag” would all just seem like a light tap on the shoulder—even an implicit congratulations for being a player—compared to the punch “cunt” packed.

Motivated to move on from Twist and realizing our “lesbianic” beach friends were a no show, Lauren from Bumble suggested a girl party allegedly happening at a venue in Miami proper (where we would find all that crime—she advised us to go “door to door” in a car). A roundabout Lyftline later, we found ourselves shoulder-to-shoulder with a crowd that was decidedly not that queer and not that female. Because it was 4/20, we were also surrounded by ample clouds of marijuana smoke. Less than thirty minutes after that, I paid for another “door-to-door” trip back to the hotel. Lauren sent me a screen shot of the club she had suggested, and informed me that we had gone into the wrong venue—the lady party was apparently across the street. Epic gay fail.

While my night ended without even exchanging a word with a single queer woman, C  got a text from Jason, the guy whose relationship status was thrice characterized as “TBA.” Jason offered to meet C at our hotel for a 2:00am stroll on the beach. As C later recounted, Jason’s situation gave him free reign to engaged in a limited set of sexual activities. And so, our truly bizarre night out ended in C playing by Jason’s open relationship rules for an hour on the beach.

While my failure to locate the lesbian scene and/or set up an online date felt deflating, I realized there was beauty in the fact that if my date ever used “cunt” with me, it’d likely be in a sexy way. To get to “cunt” though, I’d probably have to stick to the bigger progressive cities. Meanwhile, from now on, I’m taking Natural Born Cunt (“NBC”) away from Dennis to describe any female-identified badass women in my life. Accordingly, C is definitely a “Natural Born Cunt.”

 

*All names in this post have been changed to protect the innocent except for “Dennis” who I’m actively still trying to hunt down and find a way to shame.

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Tinder-Connectedness

(Note: If you haven’t gotten around to watching Season 3 of the L-Word in the last 12 years, there’s a brief spoiler in paragraph 2)

Recently, a friend of mine started thinking about exploring her sexuality and, at the bizarre suggestion of her therapist, dove into the L-Word to try to sort it all out.

Of course, as a first matter of business, all the queers we know tried to steer her towards Seasons 2 and 3—the famously popular Carmen/Shane episodes (all except for the whole insane leave her-at-the-altar thing). But we also warned her that the show would prove heavy-handed, unrealistic, dated, and even offensive at times.

Carmen and Shane

Carmen and Shane being very hot

To be fair, before queer women had any real positive visibility in entertainment and media, the L-Word offered a peak into a world that we desperately longed to explore. Ten or fifteen years ago, young questioning women snuck around with DVD copies to stealthy watch after their parents went to sleep.

After plowing through the six seasons at an overachieving pace, my questioning friend shared her impressions. She confided that she was glad the show didn’t have much basis in reality; the notion of everyone’s sex/dating lives overlapping in an incestuous web of connections seemed very unappealing to her. Did she know me? Without giving it more thought, I blurted out, “that’s just about the only thing the show got spot on.” (I know know, way to lose a potential team member…)

Yes, Alice’s “Our Chart” is scary real.

Our ChartMy friend’s commentary got me thinking about my own “Chart.” This past year, I had tried (and sort of failed) to forge new, clean connections not haunted by ghosts of my past. But first, I realized, I had to dust the cobwebs off some of those older and still messy connections.

. . . 

I moved to New York City more than seven years ago.  And since that time, I’ve been in only one monogamous relationship that lasted more than eight months. And even if I haven’t been a total slut, I’ve gone out a lot.

I’ve been to lesbian networking events, lesbian speed dating, alcohol-infused “Bikini Brunch” parties, real lesbian brunch (with food), queer dance classes, annual pride parties, Stone Walls’ Friday lady’s night, the Hot Rabbit parties, etc. Whenever I go out, I run into friends, acquaintances, and folks with whom I’m excited to reconnect.  That part of our interconnectedness leaves me feeling energized and part of something special. And then, of course, sometimes I run into folks I really had hoped to erase from my life forever.

On the virtual side of things where you have a bit more control over “run-ins,” during the last nine months, I exhausted Tinder’s supply of potential matches without really going on that many dates. Perhaps I had been a bit too picky last summer in my early stages of single-life, applying strict rules by swiping “no” (a “left” for those not accustomed) on the following potential matches.

  • anyone in a relationship (at least 25% of candidates);
  • anyone who uses an Instagram filter to put birds/flowers/bunny ears, cat noses, other decorations on their heads/faces (about 10-15% of candidates);
  • anyone with the following words or phrases in their profile: “astrology,” “yoga,” “spirituality,” “vegan,” “free-spirited,” “420 friendly,” “cat mommy” “tarot cards,” “curious/questioning” (no offense, just not up for it now),  “unicorn”,  and “poly” (collectively, about 50% of candidates); and
  • anyone with too many emojis (not really sure why but another 5-10% of candidates).

Refusing to change my criteria, I accept the consistent appearance of that sad pink pulsing circle that tells you Tinder has no more ideas for you.

(As a side note: This is a circle that straight people probably never see unless they visit their grandparents in a retirement community. I recently spoke to a straight friend who didn’t even know about the pulsing circle of sadness. The friend also informed me that users have limited “right swipes” on Tinder. I had never reached the limit, apparently).

TInder Fail Real

When those pulsating radar-like circles appear to tell me that I’m now staring into an empty lady-less abyss, it also asks me if I’d like to upgrade and expand my search with the “Passport” feature.  I could, for example, pay Tinder a monthly fee of $19.99 to enjoy searches of other gay cities like Los Angeles, Austin, San Francisco, Portland, or Madison. If I struck Tinder gold in any one of those locations, perhaps I could consider picking up and moving for the lovely ladies of Tinder.  (Maybe Tinder wasn’t actually that crazy; my last girlfriend found the presence of exes in my life so “suffocating” that she suggested I move to LA).

But with some pesky long-term commitments like work and a lease, I decided to stick with New York and let Tinder hibernate for the rest of winter.  Sometime in February, I did open Tinder and found some new potential matches awaiting. Perhaps some gays had just broken up, moved to New York City, or opened their relationships? HOORAY—perfect candidates for more drama!  But, I soon realized, my app was flush with potential matches. Something wasn’t right.

As I sat there on the toilet, familiar faces started rushing across my screen (I swipe almost exclusively in the bathroom).* That’s when I realized that Tinder had reverted back to May of 2017. Tinder’s data scientists probably thought they were demonstrating some kind of great mercy by discarding almost a year of  “no swipes” (and people who swiped “no” on me). But as Tinder threw exes, friends, acquaintances, crushes and others right back at me, I started to have had more mixed and unsettled feelings.

Being queer in a small community doesn’t just mean that exes haunt my bathroom; they haunt real life spaces. Last year, at Dyke March, as I pushed through the crowd to avoid awkward encounters with some random hookups, my ex and her friends were attempting to evade me. The image of my ex running from me as I attempted to escape a number of other women struck me as so absurd that I recently vowed to face my lesbian demons:

  • My last situation-ship: Short-lived and intense, it ended with a barrage of very unpleasant text messages. Last week I reached out with an olive branch text, “hey, I’m sorry things ended so badly but I hope you know I think fondly of our time together and I’m really hoping you’re doing well.” I never heard back. Unresolved. And maybe to be continued?
  • Two situation-ships ago: Also short-lived and fairly intense (hmm…do we see a pattern here?), she reached out and we had brunch. We ended up talking about our dating lives and we each described a similar torturous Tinder date. You guessed it! Of course, it was the same woman (two weeks apart). Success.
  • My ex who stalked me for two years: Unfortunately, past attempts at peaceful dialogue failed miserably and only led to more stalking. I’d just have to engage in the usual risk management techniques (i.e. wearing lace up shoes in which I can run). Still unaddressed but I’m accustomed.
  • My most recent ex who told me to move to LA: A recent dating situation took me way closer to her on the vast queer”Chart” than I ever intended or realized. She had reached out several times in the past but I had always declined her invitations. I emailed her to see if she wants to get together. To be continued

As much as I gripe about the intimacy or incestuousness (depending on how you see it) of the lesbian community,  I don’t actually hate it as much as I say. Not only do I think it’s healthy to face my lady demons, but I love being part of a small community within a huge city (even if that community proves highly dysfunctional at times).

Last year before Pride, an ex from about five years before reached out. Even though I never ignore emails, I ignored her. She had caused me a lot of stress and I wasn’t in a place to face her. But then, I ran into her (because, of course, I did). She invited me to hang out a few more times and when we did, she offered me one of the most healing and kind apologies I’ve ever received. Now, running into her isn’t so bad at all.

. . .

* I almost exclusively swipe in the bathroom so that:
  1. I don’t get addicted to it at the dinner table or before bed (it can make you feel very shallow and even dirty); and
  2.  If any of my Tinder dates ever turn into a relationship, I can tell everyone I swiped on her in the toilet which, for me, is superior to the traditional, “we met on Tinder.”

 

Baby’s Got the Ben[d]s

Leaving New York City with no concrete plans other than a couple of plane tickets inspired a bit of anxiety in everyone I know. I hadn’t traveled alone internationally in four years and my Spanish felt rusty. The idea of sleeping in a bus station or on the floor of a random person’s apartment when things went awry felt less appealing now than it did in my 20s. And it didn’t help that when friends, family, and acquaintances asked me about my travel plans and I responded “no real plans,” they gasped in horror and basically told me not to die.

As I landed in Colombia, my anxiety reached its peak levels. I had to pass through customs, exchange money, and negotiate transportation to the city in Spanish. This would be the first of many days of uncertainty.

While waiting on the long line of foreigners entering Colombia, I caught the eye of an extremely attractive backpacker who soared over the crowd. Somewhat embarrassed, I looked away and wondered why, of all the short travelers with big bags, he choose to look down at me. Perhaps I had imagined it all together.

When I reached the airport exit, the handsome backpacker approached me to ask in English about where to exchange money. We later introduced ourselves and he told me he had been traveling for a month or so from Germany.

Gorgeous? Yes.

Ill-prepared? Completely.

I pointed to the money exchange counter. He handed the cashier $20, and he received back 60,000 Colombian Pesos. “Explain this to me” he barked into the glass. The cashier struggled to explain the math as he continued to puzzle over the exchange rate and ask questions in English.

Of course, as a female traveling alone, I had already done the math on the exchange rate and created a little cheat sheet to keep handy in my pocket:

$1=COP 3,000

$5=COP 15,000

$20=COP 60,000

$50=COP 150,000

$75=COP 225,000

$100=COP 300,000

$1,000=COP 1,000,000

Even if it seems simple enough to multiple by 3,000, I find it the math extremely hard while under the gun to negotiate a transaction. Generally, I’ve always found numbers most challenging in a second language (my brain translates them first to English in a way it doesn’t for words).

While the German backpacker took at least five minutes to perform what should have been a five second transaction, I mused that he a lot like Ben Affleck. When Ben (that’s what we’ll call him) asked me to split a cab, I handled the negotiations in Spanish given my fear of his further English barking.

Although I love a good bargain, when a vendor (almost always a man) gives me the firm “no deal” sign, I either accept his price or walk away. Ben had a different strategy all together. Even without uttering a word of Spanish, he conveyed a firm tone that suggested he wasn’t fucking around.

At the airport we developed a strategy that would prove extremely effective throughout our time together. While I served as both interpreter and “good cop,” he played “bad cop” using a combination of English and non-verbal puffery. I never had to step out of the traditionally meek female role because ostensibly, I was only Ben’s messenger; if I failed to get him what he wanted, I too would face his wrath. I could throw up my hands and basically say “don’t shoot the messenger. He only wants to pay $6,000 pesos, no more.”

Even though I came to understand Ben’s demeanor while bargaining as a deliberate exaggeration of his actual mood, Ben’s bad cop disposition actually made me momentarily intimidated. Intimidation had never been in my box of negotiation tools and I couldn’t pull off these kind of deals without him. (I later learned Ben is actually a cop in Germany).

After dropping our bags at our respective hostels, Ben and I met for a late lunch. Lunch turned into a walk at dusk and then drinks. It was only several activities in that I realized that, for Ben, this was a day long date. Perhaps I sent mixed messages because of his rugged good looks, or maybe German women stereotypically present more “gay,” thus robbing Ben of his gaydar. (There’s a mildly offensive website (http://www.blairmag.com/blair4/dyke/square3.html) dedicated to this phenomenon). Whatever the reason, Ben seemed shocked to learn that that I identify as queer.

Of course, Ben had lots of questions about my sexuality most of which revolved around whether or not I’d consider myself bisexual. Subtly wasn’t Ben’s strong suit.

When Ben asked me about how “it works with a woman so I can imagine,” I avoided discussing anything explicitly sexual by describing how much I liked the lack of pre-assigned gender roles in a same-sex relationship. (I’d like to attribute the crudeness of this question to the language barrier—Ben’s English was mildly awkward—but that might be giving Ben way too much credit).

When Ben asked me to elaborate on how gender roles played out for lesbians, I told him that as a woman who presents as “masculine of center” or “androgynous” (some new vocabulary for Ben), I am sometimes expected to take the lead in certain ways. Ben reacted to this statement with indignation:

“I’d never find you attractive if you were masculine,” he protested. Oh Ben…

With Ben by my side (or more accurately towering over me), the world saw me differently. I encountered less street harassment, negotiated better deals, and even caught looks of envy from far more feminine women (“is he your man?” a woman asked me on the beach).

One morning, Ben absentmindedly placed his phone on the street to free up his hands to light a cigarette. Without thinking, he walked away and forgot to retrieve the phone. A few minutes later, he returned to search for the phone, and ran into a group of Argentine tourists who had found the phone laying on the ground, and decided to stick around to see if the owner would return.

When Ben attributed the return of his phone to his excellent karma—“good things happen to good people,” he boasted—I nearly snorted with laughter. Ben’s trip “karma” was nothing more than luck and a huge amount of white male privilege. His English barking, his bargaining over the equivalent of 30 cents, and his general lack of awareness of where his belonging and body existed in space didn’t buy him any karma points.

After nearly a decade of dating exclusively women, I probably stuck around with Ben longer than I should have just to take in the world as a straight woman might. While imagining life as Ben’s girlfriend induced feelings of panic, I couldn’t ignore the fact that the world seemed to have the opposite reaction.

As Ben and I parted ways (a moment we both welcomed), I realized that wherever I travel alone, I almost always find a “Ben.”

Bens have let me stay in their family’s apartments, offered me home-cooked meals (to be fair, cooked by their mothers usually), served as tour guides, carried my bags, drove me around the city, and even taken care of me when I was sick.

As I begun to recount my solo travels over the last decade, the sheer number of Bens astounded me. I’ve had several Argentina Bens (from Argentina, France, and the US), a Puerto Rico Ben (from the US), a Peru Ben (from Scotland), a Dominican Republic Ben (from the DR and New York), a Mexican Ben (a family member of a friend in the US) and now three Colombian Bens (one real Ben from Germany and two Colombian Bens). Once, a Chilean dude tried to become a Ben but I couldn’t understand his thick accent so we never ended up coordinating a successful meeting after getting to know each other on an overnight bus.

The vast majority of my Bens showed great kindness, respect and generosity without any expectations. I don’t regret my time with any of these Bens without whom I would certainly have missed out on incredible travel experiences (hitch hiking to a hidden river; scaling a mountain at an altitude I’d never attempt myself; hiding out in a tiny town far off the beaten path; bargaining at a Colombian outlet mall for new shoes).

A few Bens from my early 20s converted into short-term boyfriends. While I secretly dreaded sharing a bed (perhaps that should have tipped me off about the gay thing), I did like paying for only half of a private room. I even stopped protesting occasional assistance with my luggage when I saw how my 6-foot-something Bens made my backpack look like “Travel Barbie’s” favorite accessory. The majority of my Bens; however, were completely platonic friends (at least from my perspective) who served as travel companions and guides.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, a handful of prospective Bens tried to pressure me into sexual situations that, in retrospect, I understand as attempted or even actual assault. These men never earned true Ben-status but it often took a day or two to rid myself of these parasitic travel relationships.

After I bid the real Ben goodbye in Colombia, I vowed to either remain solo or seek out a female Ben. But thus far, I continue to encounter male Bens. In Colombia, I stayed with a Ben’s family and had a personal tour guide (who drove me pretty much everywhere in terrible Bogata traffic).

Ironically, even when I engage in the most independent behavior I can imagine—traveling alone without any obligations or plans—it appears that societies across the world push me back into a traditional female role. To those I meet, I’m not a dyke traveling alone, I’m someone far easier to digest: I’m Ben’s other half; I’m Ben’s interpreter; I’m an outgrowth of Ben.

Before the end of this trip, I vow to push back against whatever patriarchal forces create a climate in which it’s always raining Bens. But that might mean a lot of time alone. A prospective Ben just interrupted this post, tried to read over my shoulder, and enticed me to come with him to the pharmacy because he has a toothache. I declined.

Travel Interlude

After I moved (see the painful description here and here), I got a new job (more on this later) and negotiated a month off to travel. Despite having just forked over half my life savings to a new landlady and her confederate (i.e. the evil broker), I decided to leave my newly-rented, highly-valuable real estate vacant for the month of December.

My lease says, and I quote, “ABSOLUTELY NO SUBLETTING.” Even though the law permits all tenants to sublet (if they follow certain protocol), my landlady has been on my case since I moved in and I didn’t want to make things worse.

According to the landlady herself, she’s not the biggest fan of single women. The other female tenant told me that there’s a bit of a hazing period that I need to just power through. Given our fragile relationship, I decided not to give the landlady another reason to hate me.

The state of the doors in my apartment has been the biggest point of contention. I have only three doors in my entire apartment—a closet door, a front door, and a bathroom door. Since I moved in, all three have broken in some form or another. The landlady has, of course, accused me of an insidious door-sabotage- scheme, and I’m still trying to put her paranoia to rest.

I’m lucky to have enough savings to dismiss the last six months to a total financial shit show and take this rare moment between jobs to travel. In the New Year, I’ll hopefully clean up my finances a bit. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this. But until then…

. . .

I love traveling in South and Central America not only to escape New York winter but to freshen up my Spanish language skills and enjoy what is often a slower-paced culture. This trip, I’m visiting Colombia and Argentina.

So expect some travel-inspired posts. I say “inspired” because I’m definitely not turning Lawyers, Dykes and Money into a travel blog—there are already many excellent blogs about food, site seeing and bouts of travelers’ diarrhea (of which I expect many if the past is any indication—see previous post here).

There’s No Such Things as A Friendlord Part II

After posting the cautionary tale, There’s Such Thing As A Friendlord, I feel obligated to share the shameful results of my housing search.

Caveat: If I represented my clients in the manner I have recently represented myself, I’d be ashamed to call myself their attorney. All I can say is this: Please don’t judge me.

. . .  

In the course of about three weeks, I looked at more than two dozen apartments in Brooklyn. The vast majority of the places were tiny, dark boxes going for about $2,000/month, plus utilities and fees (we’ll get into fees later).

The brokers usually justified the astronomical rent by throwing in the ever-trendy pitch of “stainless steel appliances” and “granite countertops.” There’s nothing like cooking in luxury on top of your underwear drawer.

A few observations about brokers before I regale you with the pitiful results of my search:

1. Brokers are totally insane/evil: Although I’ve always attributed the evils of New York City housing to the owners and their predatory lenders (See An Introduction to New York City’s Slumlords), brokers have now gained a well-earned place high on my shit list.

2. Brokers create ridiculous lies about rent stabilization: Getting a rent stabilized apartment should be the goal of any apartment hunt in which a tenant seeks long-term (i.e. more than a year) housing. Stabilization means you won’t be evicted for calling the city to report a fire hazard and that your rent won’t go up excessively when a sushi bar and a Red Mango open on your corner. Admittedly, the question of whether an apartment is stabilized isn’t always straightforward but, the rules are generally simple:

  • The building must be erected before 1974;
  • It must have six or more units; and
  • The legal rent must be below $2700 upon move-in.

Of the two dozen or so apartments I saw, at least a third should have been subject to rent-regulation. When I asked the brokers about the status of the apartments, they made up ridiculous rules like, “oh see how the owner installed an elevator; that means it can’t ever be stabilized.” In order to avoid revealing my identity, I had to play along, “oh right, I forgot about the elevator rule…”

3. Brokers have all the leverage to totally F-you over (and they do.): Before you fork over your entire life savings and your first-born child at the lease signing, no broker will provide you a copy of the lease ahead of time. As scam artists, brokers require at least a $500 deposit to “take the apartment off the market” and then delay the lease signing by a matter of days or even weeks. By the time you actually meet up to sign away your rights, you really have no other option than to swallow whatever nonsense they put in front of you; it’s simply too late in the game to start the process over with another corrupt broker and try to claw back that $500 deposit. Rather than risk homelessness, you’ll sign the lease even if the rent happened to be a bit higher than originally advertised or the stove has “temporarily” been removed while the owner deals with a pesky little gas leak problem.

Now, that I’ve gotten that off my chest, without further ado: Of the three weeks of housing hunt hell, here are some of the lowlights:

. . .

1) Rent Stabilized Penitentiary-Style Building: The second place I saw was advertised at the address of a cute little brown stone but the actual studio was located across the street in a fortress-style 80-unit monstrosity in Crown Heights.  Because the building had a tax abatement, the unit was actually advertised as stabilized with at least 10 exclamation points. Sure, the building looked like a penitentiary and smelled like rotten eggs, but the kitchen did have those sleek stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops. And, for a studio, the square footage proved impressive. Despite an ungodly broker’s fee, the rent still came out below market.

The broker, Sharon, a woman in her 20s, showed up at 10am on Saturday morning apparently still intoxicated from last night’s escapades; she wore almost no clothing at all. As she showed me the building’s “luxury-style amenities,” I tried to avoid catching glimpses of her exposed body parts. But Sharon seemed preoccupied, describing the drama of her evening—-one involving a near arrest and an ex-fiancé.

As we made it to the unit, new details of Sharon’s evening emerged: Apparently, as she was drunkenly cruising around Grand Army Plaza at 2am, her ex-fiancé happened to spot her driving erratically. He also spied some nearby police getting ready to give chase. When he called Sharon to tell her this, her ex also instructed her to pull herself over and get out of the car: Apparently, if you’re just drunk standing outside your car, the cops can’t arrest you for a DUI? As we ended up outside the building at the end of the tour, I realized I had been so distracted by Sharon’s story I barely inspected the unit. No matter: Sharon seemed to feel more strongly about sharing this DUI-avoidance dip than selling me on the apartment. When I told her I didn’t own a car, Sharon seemed genuinely disappointed.

Why is this not my new home? Before handing over my social security number and various other financial documents, I did look Sharon up to make sure she had a an actual Real Estate license (she did).

After paying the application fee, it took me two weeks to “qualify.” Sharon dutifully texted every few days to say “we’re close” or “looking good on that application!” Finally, she told me I had officially qualified but when I asked to go back to the unit to take measurements (I had been so distracted last time…), she stalled and told me the “final approval” had “yet to go through.” With time ticking by and my move date coming, I finally realized something wasn’t right: Perhaps after a “Google” Search, the owner had wisely decided not to hand over a rent-regulated apartment to someone who makes a living suing slumlords. After all, his building had quite a few housing code violations already on record. Fair enough.

Compound outside

The “Compound” advertised as a brownstone

2) The Secret Terrorist: Shortly after meeting Sharon at the compound, I found an actual brownstone with a ton of character and the kind of easy subway access of which a girl who loathes winter could only dream.  For the size and location, the apartment was renting slightly below market even with the broker’s ridiculous fee. The catch? I really hated the mansplaining broker George, who, when I asked him to negotiate with the owner for me over a few small things, gave me a long lecture about how rental markets work in New York City. Thanks, George, I really appreciate the lecture on how tenants always lose—-cause I wasn’t sure about that.

When I asked George about who was running the show, he nearly lost his already dwindling composure. Though I had qualified for the apartment, as per George, apparently I had not reached “the point in the process” entitling me to learn of the Owner’s identity. At what point, I asked George, might the Owner reveal himself? Before lease signing? George, flustered, agreed that I could “know” the Owner prior to the lease signing but abruptly hung up. Despite George’s uselessness, my own research revealed that the Owner had not property registered the building in many years, and the last registered owner had just celebrated his 94th birthday.

Nearly ready to put down that non-refundable deposit, and my curiosity piqued by George’s strong reaction to my questions about the Owner, I decided to continue my own research. I knew the Owner would control the heat and hot water, and I also knew that I might file a complaint with the state for the Owner’s failure to register the apartment as rent-regulated. Basically, I wanted to know who I might royally be pissing off. A sweet old lady? A large corporation? A 94-year-old real estate baron?

Some quick Googling revealed that the owner who actually managed the property had spent several years in prison due to a conviction for terrorism-related activities. The media had labeled him a “home grown terrorist” with associations to major acts of domestic and international violence. To be fair, I wanted to research his conviction more before making a final decision (the media and the justice system does not tell the full story, especially when labeling people “terrorist”) but my decision was made for me. Good old George called me the next morning to say that the owner has revoked my approval; he felt I asked too many questions. Touché, George.

3) The Luxury Apartment: After losing the convicted “terrorist’s” apartment, I finally took a weekday off from work to try to get to see apartments just as they were coming on the market. After an exhausting day of viewing $2,000+/month apartments that didn’t yet have a bathroom or kitchen in less than ideal areas, I felt deflated.

The last apartment viewing of the evening, a brand-new luxury building, lured me to an area well east of where I intended to live. In an unfamiliar neighborhood, I saw a stunning one bedroom with a private balcony, new kitchen, new bathroom, central AC/Heat, huge closets, laundry, a roof top deck, and a real gym.

The price was high but a tax abatement rendered the property rent-stabilized so, in theory, the rent would never go up much (though, the broker refused to let me see the lease so I couldn’t be sure). A 23-year-old orthodox Jewish broker, Uri, immediately honed in on our Jew connection and told me that “God had sent” me to this apartment. When Uri asked me whether I had grown up in a religious family, I evaded the question and smiled.

IMG_1556

Amazing view of Manhattan skyline from luxury apartment roof deck (Not Pictured: Uri badgering me to transfer him $500 on PayPal).

As Uri and I sat on the roof desk watching the sunset over Manhattan’s skyline, I felt tempted to just end my suffering and lock down this apartment.  Uri sent me a link on my phone where I could throw down a PayPal deposit. Once I pressed send, all this would be mine and my search would be over.

When I demurred, the Uri urged me again: “This is going to fly off the market in no time; pay now or else you’ll lose it.”

I told Uri I needed a few hours to crunch the numbers and research the area a bit. As we left, (I’ll never know if she a plant) a young woman passed us and greeted Uri, “another broker,” my guy whispered. “She’s going to try to rent it; I’d move fast. You were first so it’s yours if you pay now.” During my train ride home, I texted Uri two words: “I’m sold.”

As soon as I paid application fee about 20 minutes later, Uri texted to say the other female broker had gotten a deposit exactly 11-minutes before. But not to worry, he’d fight for me. After dragging out the battle by 24 hours and asking me to add funds to my deposit, he assured me I had it. Success.

After putting a total of $1,900 down over the course of 24 hours, I began to feel a deep sense of regret. When I called to beg for my deposit back, Uri became positively distraught; “Oh no! Why in the world would you do that?”

He tried every trick in the book to convince me to take the apartment, and I endured another long mansplaining lecture about how the housing market functions. I countered that if the apartment had “flown off the market” so fast, he should be able to rent it easily. I also pointed out via screenshots that though I had paid my $1,900, the owner had NOT taken the apartment off the market; all the major rental websites still had it advertised as available.

All of the sudden, confident young Uri acted worried he wouldn’t find a replacement renter by October 1, still more than two weeks away. When he asked for my help advertising it on CraigList, I started to freak out. But Uri comforted: “don’t worry, God is going to return to your deposit; you’re a good Jewish girl.”

I told him that I didn’t think God gave two craps about my deposit but he assured me that God cares about all Jews (I’m not sure what God thinks about the others though…). To date, I have been wrangling with Uri and his company for three weeks and still don’t have all my money back. I might have to hire a lawyer…

And now for the winner:

4) The Winner: I honestly think a combination of fatigue and hopelessness put me in a vulnerable position, thus clouding my judgment and compelling me to break one of my golden rules:  There’s no such thing as a friendlord (i.e. don’t live with your landlord).

With two weeks before move day, yet another broker took me to the tiny unit under construction with no complete bathroom or kitchen. When I asked about the fee, she said $2,300 without a hint of irony. When I gasped I horror, she told me that the fee had been lowered; this was a deal!

When we were done viewing the construction site, and I descended the charming stairs of the brownstone, I had mentally decided that this was not the apartment for me. Sure, great location but the usurious broker didn’t really make a good sell: “yea the place is super small; needs a lot of work.” And when I asked if it would be ready for October 1st, she shrugged and said, “October 1st, um…sure, why not?”

IMG_1428

The kitchen upon viewing. As per the broker, “it’s getting a facelift” before I move in.

Nevertheless, when I saw some tenants hanging out on the stoop, I decided to ask them about the place.  They told me they loved living there. When I asked about the owner, a small older woman peaked up at me from the garden level door below and said, “well she’s right here so you can ask her yourself…”

 

Miss S., the owner, lives in the garden level of a five-unit building. She first charmed me with a story about investors aggressively trying to get her to sell the property in this quickly-gentrifying neighborhood. Her response? She called the police on them. I couldn’t help but fall in love.

We talked about the other tenants, her garden, local politics, and affordable housing. By the time it came to signing the lease, Miss S, given her more advanced age, clearly had not Googled me. Meanwhile, the broker in her attempt to do as little work as possible, also refrained from a Google search.

At the lease signing, the apartment still lacked cooking and sanitary facilities—the construction “team” (i.e. one dude who swore he was bringing in a helper) had made little progress. But I dutifully handed over my life savings to the landlord and her broker friend. I winced as I signed a lease containing unconscionable and illegal terms underlined in bold and followed by five exclamation points. It took all my will power to keep my mouth closed.

After the ink had dried, Miss S turned to me and said: “you know what, now that you’ve signed and paid, I can tell you the truth: I don’t usually rent to women.”  She told me that she likes female tenant as a general matter but that so many young women have aggressive, drunk boyfriends who create a ruckus. She started describing all the personal ongoings of her previous female tenants.

Taking my opportunity to rip the gay band-aid off, I emphasized to Miss. S that I would never bring home a boyfriend. When she failed to grasp what I meant, I tried to repeat with different phrasing but the broker shot me the evil death stare and nearly dragged me out of the building by my shirt collar. Looking on the bright side, I hope Miss. S will just think I have some very close female friends or maybe lots of sister. And if I have gas service and running water when I move in October 1st, all the better.

To be continued…

 

 

There’s no such thing as a “Friendlord”

uhaul lezes

When it comes to my clients’ abusive landlords, I never back down, never show emotion, and fight until we win.  But when it comes to my own landlords, I avoid, defer, and sometimes breakdown in tears (see note).*

Worst of all, I often find myself uttering patently false statements meant to placate ill-behaving landlords. If my toilet breaks and it takes three weeks for the owner to fix it, I’ll end the debacle with: “I appreciate how patient and understanding you’ve been throughout this process.” And when a landlord illegally withholds my security deposit, I bend right over: “I did think I left the place immaculate but go ahead and take out what seems reasonable to you.”

I’ve lived in New York City for six years, and I’m currently in engaged in my seventh hunt. Given that my job requires me to engage with New York’s most heinous landlords, one might expect me to take a slightly more thoughtful approach to my own housing search. But, time and time again, I have colossally failed. Accordingly, with this post, I have one simple goal: To remind myself to remain strong, steady, and selective the seventh time around. But also, as my mother always says, if you can’t serve as an example to others, serve as a warning.

With that, here are my warnings:

Lesson 1: Exercise Extreme Caution with Significant Others: As the old joke goes, lesbians bring a U-Haul to the second date. But in New York City, with soaring rent and hour-plus commutes between boroughs, couples of all orientations combine households at record speeds. In my experience, the benefits of cohabitation never outweigh the heavy financial and emotional costs of moving when the relationship fails (likely not at the same time the lease expires). Proceed with extreme caution before intermingling your housing fate with another’s.

 Lesson 2: Landlords should live at least a block away from their tenants  

  • The Lure of the Brownstone: Of course, the temptation to rent an adorable “garden level” apartment in a stately brownstone from a cute (and wealthy) family may prove truly overwhelming in the midst of a whirlwind apartment hunt. But resist. Just resist. Sure, you’re already aware of the potentially awkward politics surrounding sharing common spaces like the laundry room, backyard, and entranceways. But drawbacks go far beyond the utter lack of sunshine and the need for prescription-strength Vitamin D supplements. Remember, the landlords and their minor children will overhear all of life’s most intimate moments: fighting with your partner, sobbing over a broken heart, and finally, rebounding with high decibel orgasms. I’ve done it three times. Just don’t do it.
  • Multiple unit building: As described in past posts, eccentric landlords who live in one of the apartments in a multi-unit building might treat tenants as unpaid personal assistants. Before you know it, you’re plucking unsightly hairs off hard-to-reach places or experiencing far weirder hardships.

Lesson 3: Google and research the hell out of your new landlord: For work purposes, I always perform a basic background check on my adversaries. Often, simple online stalking reveals felony criminal records for all kinds of crimes tenants might find concerning. I’ve also found YouTube videos of a landlord throwing hard objects at a tenants or a newspaper article about a mysterious fire at the owner’s property. Do your research.

. . .

When finding an apartment, the application process is fiercely competitive and extremely stressful. Prospective tenants tend to skip steps, rush, or ignore my sagely advice offered above. If my lesson list has not sufficiently sunk in, the personal housing debacle I share below should really hit home:

Lesson 1 (Careful with S.O.s) Explained: After wrapping up my first job post-law school, I planned to take a sabbatical and move to another country to work on my Spanish. I had already packed my belongings into storage when a long-shot prospective employer unexpectedly offered me a job. Start date: Immediate. Nope, not negotiable.

As I began my second frantic apartment search, an elegant solution materialized before my very eyes. I’d been dating “V” for a few months, and she owned a co-op in a central area in Manhattan. Her new job required her to commute a few hours by car to the suburbs, and for the last few months, she’d had been planning to rent a cheaper place near work and sublet her Manhattan apartment. Between not knowing where to store her belongings and the complicated co-op rules, she hadn’t yet executed her plan. But now it seemed obvious. Of course, I would make an excellent sublettor. She could leave all her furniture and personal belongings in place and visit on the weekends. Truly an elegant solution.

In exchange for her charging a well-below market rent, I offered to pay three months up front. Sure, there were some initial hiccups. For example, her large extended family failed to digest the “apartment has been sublet” message and showed up at all hours wondering about the naked stranger in her bed (even though they knew perfectly well who I was..). But these kinds of disruptions I could handle. The true deal breaker came a few weeks into our three-month synergistic sublet adventure:

One Saturday when I returned from a legal clinic in the Bronx, V had a meltdown, broke up with me, and started throwing objects at my head.

It was time to go. But where?

Lesson 2 (Don’t Live with your Landlord) Explained: After the explosive eviction from my Manhattan sublet, I lived on best friend’s couch for the week, and scoured Craigslist in search of immediately available apartments. During a conveniently time holiday weekend, my friend and I made three back-to-back interview appointments.

A veritable cave, we crossed the first place off the list.

For the second appointment, we visited a young rabbi in a pre-war walkup in Harlem. Aside from the fact that the rabbi had a rent-stabilized lease (i.e. well below market rate) and clearly planned to profiteer off his roommates, the rent fell squarely within my budget. All went well until we sat down to get to know each other. After covering simple topics like cooking, cleaning, and shower schedules, we ventured into significant others and dating.  Embracing the notion that full disclosure upfront trumps living with a homophobe (having already lived with a homophobe), I told him that I dated women and that I didn’t have a significant other. When he showed his acceptance by implying he’d be down for a threesome, we decided to proceed to appointment number three.

As an aside: to my credit, I was primed to see the next potential roommate as an angel sent from heaven so long as he didn’t sexually harass me or offer a room on par with a dudgeon.

Appointment three was with the owner of a gorgeous brownstone on a tree-lined street. The owner, a man in his 40s, bought the property before the area had gentrified, and bragged extensively about his investment. Living the New York dream as a renaissance man, he made a money as a CrossFit trainer, a writer, an inventor, and life coach/therapist.

He and his wife lived in the basement; they wanted a tenant for the garden level that had its own entrance and bathroom. A third long-term tenant lived on the main level with the communal kitchen, living room and backyard. Although the kitchen looked a little disheveled at the time of my visit, the landlord, promised that, upon his wife’s return from Europe, it would sparkle once again.

Finally, the landlord coined himself my “Friendlord,” offered to lower the rent because he valued my work in social justice, and emailed to ask what color I’d like the room painted. I agreed to move in immediately and selected the color blue.

Lesson 3 (Do Your Research) Explained: I hadn’t heeded the red flags or done sufficient research (if only I had found this dude’s blog…):

  • The Writing: Friendlord wrote biblical erotic; he took biblical stories like Genesis, and described the “begetting process” in a lot of detail. I did “Google” his books prior to paying the deposit but the biblical erotica alone didn’t really seem reason enough to back out.
  • The Wife: According to the long-term tenant, Friendlord had a wife and she used to keep the kitchen in order. But in the eight months I lived there, I never met her. Apparently, her trip to Europe had been indefinitely extended. So, I begrudgingly took on the role as new kitchen wife (later giving up and just eating a lot of instant Ramen).
  • Duck Hunting Season: When I moved in, duck hunting season was apparently upon us. After a trip up north with some buddies, Friendlord proudly brought back two duck carcasses. Although he graciously kept the skulls in the backyard, he shoved the remainder of the bodies into the refrigerator. The ducks’ feet dangled off the shelves, and anytime I attempted to open a vegetable drawer, I’d discover some pieces of duck toenail intermingled with my kale. Duck fat also sticks fervently to surfaces, and covered the kitchen for a few weeks.
  • Animal Fat Rendering: By inventor, Friendlord meant that he had created a lotion out of animal fat. During the winter months, Friendlord headed to the Union Square Farmer’s market each Saturdays to collect leftovers from the various meat vendors. In order to transform the fat to lotion, he needed to “render” or cook it down for days in the oven or on the stove. While I had originally hoped the perpetual smell of cooking animal fat might remind me of sizzling bacon, it mostly reeked of dead rotting body. For months, I required male strength cologne before leaving the house in the morning. And needless to say, these were among the more celibate eight months of my life.
  • Cooking Hearts: Because of Friendlord’s paleo diet, he ate meat almost exclusively. At any given time, our limited counter space was filled with boiling electric pots of animal hearts and sundry other organs.
  • Sex therapy: I knew that Friendlord spent time in Union Square during the Saturday farmer’s market both collecting animal fat and offering to speak to strangers about their problems. But, I soon discovered that beyond unlicensed “life coaching,” he also used the basement to perform sex therapy on women and couples.

The eccentricities aside, my next emergency move stemmed from two major deal breakers with Friendlord:

  • Deal Breaker 1: The tenants living above me had recently vacated because of an infestation of bedbugs. Due to a feud with his brother, who owned the upstairs unit, Friendlord refused to address the issue. Apparently, I feared the downward migration of the infestation far more than Friendlord did.
  • Deal Breaker 2: In May, finding that fat rendering season had finally ended, I threw some pizza dough in the oven. Within moments, I discovered the kitchen engulfed in grease fire flames. Somehow recalling a lecture from my Home Economics teacher in 7th grade, I located Friendlord’s wife’s old baking soda collection and started attacking the flames (you can’t throw water on a grease fire; it’ll only worsen the situation). Finally managing to quell the conflagration, I sealed the oven and let the fire burn itself out. Friendlord came back an hour later to a smoky apartment covered in white baking soda. He seemed relatively unfazed by the near-disaster. When I asked him gently about installing smoke detectors to help warn the upstairs tenants of potential grease fires, he resisted. Smoke detectors, he told me, activate way too easily given his invention-oriented lifestyle. When I suggested perhaps installing smoke detectors in other areas of the home (like the hallway outside my room, perhaps?), Friendlord became irate: “I’m a homeowner, you have no rights as a month-to-month tenant, if you don’t like it, you can leave.”

And so began my next emergency apartment hunt. Oh, and he kept part of my security deposit because he wanted to paint over those blue walls.

*also in my paltry defense: my clients almost exclusively live in rent-regulated or public housing. These protections mean that my clients can fight for their rights and not worry about unjust rent increases or the owner’s refusal to renew their lease.  In “market” (i.e. unregulated) apartments, if you don’t kiss the owner’s ass, when the leases is up, you’re basically screwed.

An Introduction to New York City’s Slumlords

A few years ago, after a court ordered a landlord to renovate my clients’ building after a major fire, the landlord’s contractor scheduled a visit for our clients to tour the construction site. Once inside, the landlord locked us in the building, tried to have us arrested, threatened to have me disbarred, and had a major verbal meltdown on me over the phone.

After these sorts of incidents, I started to think about my cases less in terms of the legal issues and more in terms of the landlord psyche. Or put another way, I wondered: what forces are creating these monster landlords?

I’m lucky. My clients are almost always on the “right” side of the law. And, if I don’t make some idiotic technical error, they should win their cases.

Winning a repairs case in housing court doesn’t usually get tenants money; it’s simply about getting their building fixed or stopping behavior ranging from the bizarre to the diabolical.

That is all to say: If a group of tenants band together and voluntarily spend their days in the decrepitude of housing court, they usually have a good reason (for a description of housing court, take a peak at  “Welcome to Housing Court, Son”)

After much reflection, I’ve created the following three rough categories (acknowledging we have many hybrids out there).

And, of course, a caveat: I know New York City has many wonderful, decent landlords who care about their tenants. I just don’t get to meet them:

The categories:

Type #1: The Neglecter

Type #2: The Eccentric

Type #3: The Sadist

To elaborate a bit on the categories, I’ve provided a brief explanation of each:

Type #1 (The Neglecter): So long as there exists affordable(ish) housing, New York City will always have painfully cheap, absentee landlords. They summer in the Hamptons, winter in Florida, and drive by the property in their Beamer once every few months to make sure the place hasn’t burned down (yet).  The landlord probably has a fancy insurance policy in the case of “accidental” fire, anyway. If the landlord somehow must remediate the mold covering a wall, he’ll send in the super with some white paint, a bucket of bleach, and hope for the best.

Type #2: (The Eccentric): Now on the verge of extinction, The Eccentric is the New York City landlord of legend. This landlord visits frequently (or even lives in the building) and definitely has small office on the ground floor filled with moldy rent ledgers dating back to 1950, a type writer, and a giant printing calculator for “accounting” purposes.

The Eccentric might knock on your door at 2am, wondering if you’d be so kind as to wait in a highly-coveted parking spot in front of the building while he pulls his old clucky Buick around.

Or maybe he’s got a mole on his back and wants your assistance in determining if it’s worth getting checked out. Would you mind just pulling at it see if it’ll come off with a little force? He hasn’t raised your rent in a few years so, sure, you’ll give it a good firm tug.

The state of the building? Ehh, not great.  But hey, the rent is cheap, you know all your neighbors, and you can’t beat the location. You’ll put up with some peeling paint and windows that don’t actually open (the summer is really only two months, anyway).

Of course, The Eccentric gets less endearing as his behaviors slips from strange to dangerous. I’ve seen once-eccentric landlords begin to spout racial epithets in the hallways, threaten to kidnap children, and lock tenants in the basement.

All across the world (but perhaps particularly in New York City), people are or become mentally ill.  It’s a fact a life. The Eccentric might suffer from delusions, Alzheimer’s, or have a brain tumor the size of a grapefruit resting on his frontal lobe. But when eccentricity turns to illness, and someone owns property with people living in it, things get real.

A trial trying to prove The Eccentric has gone rogue usually involves introducing videos of the landlord beating tenants with anything from a file folder to a stick, nighttime rants, hand scribbled eviction notices, homophobic graffiti, disabled electrical systems, and vandalized boilers.

Despite the dark hilarity of the trial and the tenants’ strong legal case, these cases are bummers all around. The Court System is not equipped to deal with mental illness on the landlord or the tenant side, and watching a once-eccentric but beloved landlord get gobbled up by the Adult Protective Services system isn’t fun for anyone.

Type #3 (The Sadist): While I started my career against The Neglecters and the occasional Eccentric, more and more I’m finding Sadists sitting on other side of the table. Why more Sadists?

Most Sadists have taken a “pay-me-back-or-you’ll-wash-up-in-the-the East River” high-interest loan from a less-than-reputable and often unregulated source (like a private equity fund, small bank, or even an individual). To make good on the loan, The Sadist has the following unenviable tasks ahead:

  • Phase I (Month 1-4): Try to evict all the long-term tenants, usually low-income multigenerational families, the elderly, and folks who don’t speak English. The landlord can offer low buyout (i.e. “take $10,000 and go before it gets bad in here.”) Or combine these low buyout offers with a healthy side of imitation. Common tactics include hiring  “detectives”  or “investigators” to intimidate tenants regarding an ongoing “NYPD investigation of drug dealing on the premises.” What, you weren’t aware of your son’s heroin business?  If you’re a smart Sadist, around now is a good time to add leverage by frivolously suing all the tenants for eviction. In the most extreme cases, the landlord will claim the building is no longer re-regulated; he’s just going to ahead and demolish it—your choice if you want out before the demo team gets here

 

  • Phase 2 (Months 4-12): If there remain any holdouts after Phase 1, The Sadist will renovate the now-vacant units in a manner so disruptive, creative, and dangerous that anyone who refused to leave during Phase 1 is going to start to feel the burn (literally). Common tactics? Release some toxic lead dust while demolishing century old walls; remove an elevator from a building with lots of elderly or disabled tenants. Or hey, if all else fail, just rip out the staircase or take off the roof.

 

  • Phase 3 (Months 12-24): Once the vacant units are “renovated,” The Sadist must find a group of alcoholic, night-life loving undergraduates to rent the newly renovated apartments at market rate. What was once a large bedroom (rent $750/month) has now been partitioned dorm-style into three bedrooms and a living room (rent $4,500/month). There will be cigarettes, drugs, loud music, raging parties, and, if The Sadist gets lucky, disco lighting visible to the neighbors. Any elderly remaining tenants should take care to avoid the vomit coating the steps on Sunday morning.

To execute the above-referenced business plan, lenders actually require a Sadist. The kind of background check a bank would ordinarily perform on a prospective individual homeowner might actually work against a prospective Sadist landlord.

In search of the right landlord borrower, the lender needs someone with few moral scruples. Admittedly, I’ve never actually been present during the loan application process but I imagine the lender might start by asking about the prospective landlord’s childhood: Any history of torturing animals? And his adolescence: Any time in juvie? No? What about high school suspensions? And, of course, adulthood: Any felony convictions, violent, or otherwise? Really, not even an arrest or something white collar?

So how does this story end?

Tenants who make it through all three phases earn the title of “The Survivors” (at least in my head). Sure, The Survivors might have a newly-diagnosed case of asthma, a prescription for seven kinds of sleeping pills, and an even more cynical view of capitalism than before (if possible) but they still have their rent-regulated apartments.

And what about their Sadist landlord? He’s probably in the East River; the business plan was never going to work anyway even if he succeeded completely in Phase I.

The lender? The various lenders are battling for the property in court; the richest most evil one will soon prevail, and, as owner, will hire the most expensive law firm to  continue those pesky eviction cases.

And the Market Rate Tenants? The four-to-an apartment students are wondering why in the world they’re paying $5,000/month for an apartment without heat, hot water, or gas service.  But hey, it’s just for one more semester—a true New York City war story to tell their suburban-raised kids one day. Yup, daddy freakin’ roughed in the City.