Monday, October 23, 2006

miss clare

There was an article Sunday in the NY Times about crazy neighbors and landlords in NYC. One of the stories featured was about Miss Clare, my old landlady.

People are more likely to vote with their feet when the solution begins to seem more bothersome than the problem, especially when the problem is the landlord.

Pam Fica learned this the hard way during a two-year tenancy in a town house near Washington Square in Greenwich Village.

Ms. Fica, now 29 and an agent at DJK Residential, thought she had found the perfect share in September 2004: $840 per month for a room in a sprawling four-bedroom apartment at the top of a five-story town house owned by a woman who lived downstairs — and ran the establishment more like a halfway house.

“She had a whiteboard in her apartment where she would write our names and try to jot down our comings and goings,” Ms. Fica said. The landlady, who had lived in the building since the 1940’s, also interrogated nonwhite visitors and disapproved of long-haired tenants, who might clog the plumbing, she said. (Ms. Fica wore her hair up during her initial interview with the landlady and passed inspection by accident.)

Then, there were the mandatory “team meetings” organized every few weeks in the younger women’s living room. The object was to “tear apart every problem, but she would focus on things like dirty dishes in the sink, that we had too many plants and too much furniture, causing damage to the ceiling below our apartment. And whenever we would bring up any problems with the lack of heat”—at times the temperature dropped to 50 degrees in the winter —“or the freezer, she would say, ‘That’s not my problem.’ Anytime you would challenge her on something, she would say, ‘I’m not going to renew your lease.’ ”

Ms. Fica said she shivered it out for two years because of the prime location, good roommates, cheap rent and her own low-maintenance personality.

“I think I lost sight of what normal was,” she said. “My friends started really getting concerned. ‘You don’t even realize how unusual this is,’ they said. ‘You’re being abused.’ The more I thought about it, the more I realized they had a point.”

Finally, she listened to her friends and moved to a two-bedroom share in Harlem a month ago.

(When Ms. Fica left, she and her roommates were responsible for bringing a new candidate/victim for their landlady to vet. Their advertisement on Craigslist asked, “What is your tolerance for a crazy landlady: high, medium or low?” With affordable New York City rentals an endangered species, the ad received hundreds of responses.)

I’m sure it did.

I lived on the fourth floor for a year and a half with three roommates, a year of which was during the period described in the article. I remember I was watching TV one night in the living room while a party was going on upstairs on the fifth floor. Evidently there were too many people in the room above because the ceiling started to cave in. The next morning there was a big chunk of plaster on the floor and on bits of it on top of the TV.

The ceiling in our bathroom also started to fall at one point. We’d go days with no hot water, during which time I would shower at the NYU gym if I didn't feel like an icy blast. I was the only one of my roommates who attempted to use the oven periodically. It was at least 50 years old and I always worried it would explode. Miss Clare discouraged guests because she thought they’d make the utility bills go up. Any visitors who spent the night at the apartment did so in a state of fear that they’d run into Miss Clare on the way in or out—that never turned out well.

One time, the ceiling below my roommate’s bedroom fell into the room below. One might sensibly attribute this to the fact that the building hadn’t been renovated since Eisenhower was in office. Miss Clare said it was because my roommate had too much furniture in his room.

Did I mention she was nuts? She used to live with a sister who died some years ago. I was told Miss Clare was the kinder and gentler of the two.

I always got along well with her, though. Underneath the paranoia, she was just an anxious, lonely woman determined not to be taken advantage of. I think she liked me partly because of my Mormon background. (The second and fourth floors were all LDS while I was there.) She would often make comments about how Mormons were clean, quiet, and good tenants. I quickly realized the futility of trying to explain that I wasn’t particularly religious anymore. Once a Mormon, always a Mormon, in her eyes.

I used to speculate that she so obtrusively latched onto the lives of her tenants because that was all she really had. At the very least, 116 Waverly will always be good for some interesting stories.

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