Baby’s Got the Ben[d]s

Leaving New York City with no concrete plans other than a couple of plane tickets to South America 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 USD, 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 asked 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 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 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  dedicated to this phenomenon that has a game called “German” or “Lesbian?). 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 had attributed the phrasing 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!” 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 belongings 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  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.

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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 10 am 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, 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,” Uri 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…”

Ms 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, Ms. 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, Ms. 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 single 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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 apartment 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 in the “garden level” 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 in exchange for affordable and temporary rent. The true deal breaker came only 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 with V, I lived on best friend’s couch for the week, and scoured Craigslist in search of immediately available apartments. During a conveniently-timed holiday weekend, my friend and I made three back-to-back interview appointments withs to see apartments.

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 in the heart of West Harlem. The owner, a man in his 40s, bought the property before the area had gentrified, and bragged extensively about his sagely 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 teal.

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. I support erotica.
  • The Wife: According to the other 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 salad greens. 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.”
  • Deal Breaker 3: I didn’t even know about this deal breaker until after I moved out but Friendlord seduced a much younger queer woman I brought over for a quasi-date. I had decided she was too young for me (she was about 23;  I was 30).  Friendlord also had a blog dedicated to his “greatness” which detailed how much women and lesbians love him.

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

 

Turning 30 (a few years ago now).

Note to Reader: A month before my 30th birthday, I went through a rather dramatic break up (more on this later, I’m sure). This is what I decided to write about, apparently.

I’ve always been absolutely convinced that all of my orifices are below average in size. When I order a sushi roll, I ask that the chef split the standard six pieces into eight lest I choke to death.  Whenever I purchase an Apple product, I offer the ear buds to my more capaciously-eared friends; and, it somehow took me five years to learn how to properly insert a tampon.

In 1999, I spent six months convincing my best friend, Ella that I suffered from “Vagina Minimius” in order to lure her to her own surprise birthday party. While I could have persuaded Ella to come to the party in a variety of creative or mundane ways, I reveled in the opportunity to act out my fear that, indeed, my first trip to the gynecologist would result in a prolapsed uterus.

A dutiful friend, Ella agreed to accompany to the OBGYN, where, I would supposedly discover the extent of my Minimus condition. In the meantime, Ella had her mother give me a pep talk involving a detailed description of the miraculous stretching power of the vaginal walls. I struggled to keep a straight face while she used her fist to demonstrate.

After months of build up, Ella’s surprise went off with only one hitch. We got our favorite all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant that we had planned to dine at prior to the appointment. Except, when we all shouted surprise, Ella responded with confusion: “everyone,” she announced, “it’s really very nice of you to come out to support Stephanie but we only have 30 minutes before we have to leave for the appointment!” Ella assaulted me with her  bag upon learning that I had made the whole “Minimus” thing up.  But had I really?

In the year we both turned 30, Ella, now an OBGYN, gifted me a Diva Cup.  The Diva Cup, designed for the eco-conscious, looks a bit like a diaphragm meant to collect menstrual blood.  Because of its rather commodious size, the Diva Cup need only be changed once per day and a user can easily wash it out in the shower before re-inserting in the evening. The Diva Cup extraordinarily obliterates the need for tampons and pads.

Model 1 and 2

As a self-identified environmentalist, I had always meant to buy a Diva Cup but somehow I never found the strength to make the $30 investment.  Roaming the aisles of CVS where I began briefly contemplating the insertion process, I found myself clamping down; the thought had evoked my inner teenager.

So when Ella forked over my gift, and I saw she’d selected the euphemistically named “Model II, Diva Cup” I felt my insides contract.  Diva Cups come in two “Models”—Model 1 (i.e. small) and Model 2 (i.e. LARGE). I’m sure the most basic market research revealed that no one, not even the most confident of eco-feminist, wanted to be caught purchasing the “large” Cup. And so, the company cleverly created a sizing chart with the dual “Model” scheme.

Chart Diva Cup

Upon examining the chart, I learned that by virtue of my age, I fell squarely in category 2—along with those women who’d given birth.

Assuming that the chart came from general statistical averages—averages to which I had to prove an exception—I asked Ella if she had considered gifting me Model 1. After all, we both knew of my small proportions and my youthful concomitant aversion to inserting even a “Lite Day’s” Tampon. Moreover, I had turned 30 a mere six months ago. Surely, nothing had transformed so dramatically as to put me over into Model 2 territory within only a period of six months. Or had it?

Ella, anticipating my questions, quickly defended her decision. She had carefully interviewed a Diva Cup Rep and purported expert at one of her gyno conventions.  Despite learning all the details of my “minimus” situation, the “expert” explained that my 30-year-old vagina fell into Model 2 territory. No exceptions. End of story.

As I sulked home with my Model 2 in tow, I began to contemplate my options. Before I made my final decision, I decided to pay a visit to the Diva Cup website: And there it was…

In the rare case that you are still unable to remove The DivaCup after more than twelve (12) hours, seek medical advice.”

I could easily imagine falling into the “rare case” category—forced to make a midnight run to ER with the Cup lodged sideways inside my loins. From an environmental perspective, trying the Cup and risking failure would mean needlessly expending greenhouse gases on the trip to the hospital (assuming the discomfort proved too great for a subway ride). Even more wasteful, after the medics pried the Cup from the jaws of my loins, I would end up tossing it (or perhaps morbidly saving it for sentimental reasons but certainly never washing and reusing as intended).

Thinking ecologically, I decided to leave it in the package and gift it to one of my more cavernous friends. But, would the recipient take offense upon receiving Model 2? Would she also obsessively wonder what 30 years of use had done to her and her insides?

And so, as a more loosely-loined 30 year old, I entered the dating world, ready to face the challenges knowing full-well that something profound had shifted inside me.  Literally.

Epilogue:

I know the reader is dying to know what happened to my Mode II Diva Cup so I’ll fill you in. A year later, I would meet a 26-year-old who I would date for the better part of two years. At some point in the first year, her Model 1 Diva Cup required replacement. Unfazed by the age guidelines,  she gladly accepted my Model 2, still in the package. Somehow, it felt good to know it had found a home under 30.

But, Where’s the Penis?

parasite

During my first year in the workforce, I got a job as a paralegal at a legal services organization, serving low-income clients in a major city. It was during that year that I came to two life-changing conclusions:

1) I wanted to suffer through three very expensive years of law school to become a legal services attorney; and

2) I really should have taken Spanish in school.

During middle school, students chose between starting a seven-year track of either French or Spanish. For obvious reasons, the vast majority of kids chose Spanish; only the nerdiest kids took French. At 12 years old, I had only two major life goals: (1) Make friends; (2) Avoid bullies. I figured the kids in French class would be less likely to shove me into a locker. Admittedly, in college I could have switched over to Spanish but the elementary classes were offered five days a week at 8:30am. French it was.

In the six months before law school started, I decided to finally learn Spanish. To expedite the process, I took a trip to rural South America and volunteered on a farm with a monolingual Spanish-speaking family. I’ll probably explore the events of that solo trip in future posts, but the most important takeaway for the purposes of this entry, is this: Over the course of six months, I somehow managed to contract a combination really disgusting parasites.

After my return to the United States, my mother took one look at my now diminished ass, and dragged me to Doctor C, renowned in New York City for his ability to extinguish all manner of parasites. He often bragged that celebrities returning from “Save the Children” tours in what he called, “The Third World” routinely debug under his care.

The visit itself proved less traumatic than expected. The probing went surprisingly smoothly during which Dr. C talked about his grandkids and arrogantly recounted his decades of career success.  I left with a bill for several thousand dollars, an expanded sense of the depth of my colon, and several strong medications the doctor promised would clear up my problems in a few short months.

On the way out, the Dr. C asked me, rather offhandedly, whether I had a boyfriend.  At first I thought he wanted to set me up with one of his highly successful grandkids, but then it occurred to me that no grandfather in his right mind would set up his grandson with a parasite-infested patient. “No,” I responded, “and why do you ask?”

“Oh no reason, really,” Dr. C trailed off, “just because parasites are sexually transmitted and if you had had a boyfriend, I’d have recommended he come in for testing as well.”

I left stunned, my mind reviewing the adventures of the last months. It was May.  How long had these beasts been lurking in my gut? Since November?

Pangs of guilt began to plague my conscious. The next day, I gave Dr. C a call to inquire further about the nature of the sexual transmission of the parasites.

An elderly female nurse fielded my questions. If Dr. C was in his mid 80s, the nurse looked like she might be pushing 90, and I wasn’t looking forward to talking to her about sex.

I started broad, explaining only that I needed more information about how parasites are transmitted sexually.

The nurse seemed awed by my stupidity, “by sex, dearie” she said slowly, as if talking to a child.

“I see. What I mean is, what type of sexual contact leads to transmission?”

Now the nurse seemed to think I might have missed the “birds and the bees” talk, and she started explaining how sex works. “When the penis penetrates…”

I stopped her. “Let’s say for arguments sake there was no penis.”

“No penis? But dearie, how could there be no penis?”

I finally asked her about oral sex, not wanting to venture into any other penis-not-involved sex acts.

“But, dearie, during this ‘oral sexual contact,’ you speak of, where was the penis at the time?”

Again, I tried to explain that the equation involved no penis.

Thrown completely off course, the nurse said she’d have to ask the doctor and call me back. Resigned, I decided to err on the side of caution and write some really embarrassing emails to even those partners without a penis.