My very first apartment, in Sunset Park, was a great place to live for a lot of reasons. As I’ve said before, I loved the apartment itself even when I moved out. You saw all the space I had – a bedroom, an office, a catch-all room. Plus, there was the bay window and, of course, my beloved stoop. Nearly every spring, summer, and fall day that I spent in that apartment, I could be found sitting out on my stoop with a beer after work. Speaking of beers and stoops…I thought I’d share a story about a sticky predicament my old co-worker, Kimber, was in, a couple of years ago. Read this NY Times piece on that principled debacle.
This is Kimber, on his stoop, where he was ticketed for drinking. He fought the case, arguing that he was on his own property, and the cause-celebre made him the man of the hour with beer-drinking-stoop-sitters throughout the borough of Brooklyn.
I was certainly on Team Kimber in this debate! Sitting on a stoop feels like an inherently Brooklyn thing. When you’re there, it just seems right. It was relaxing, and I liked to just sit and watch the world go by. Of course, I’d also chat with neighbors and passers-by. But one person I did NOT chat with was Dorothy.
Since I’m not still living in Sunset Park, you may have guessed that there were some major drawbacks to my living situation. Hiking up the hill on the way home was no fun. Navigating my way down the hill in the mornings, especially in the ice and snow, was even less fun. As for the apartment itself, there wasn’t too much to complain about. Yes, it was old. Yes, the outlets were badly placed, resulting in a bird’s nest of cords and cables around the TV and computer. And yes, the kitchen was completely separated from the rest of the apartment, making it a challenge to talk with company when entertaining. However, none of those points were deal breakers. The deal breaker was my little old Chinese landlady (I lived on the border of the Brooklyn Chinatown), Dorothy.
This typical Sunset Park street doesn't look steep, but photos can be deceptive. Try this hill in heels, and then come talk to me.
As a first time renter, with my parents backing me as a guarantor, I was extremely nervous about doing anything “wrong” with regards to the apartment. You’re probably sitting there thinking “Honey, ya don’t live in a dorm room anymore. There are no RA’s. This is your HOME!” And you’re right. But I’m a rule-follower, and at the time, I was nervous. So, when Dorothy initially seemed to be “monitoring” my lifestyle, I’d get myself all worked up in a tizzy with anxiety. Well, let me tell you: by the end of my year in Sunset Park, I wasn’t in a tizzy anymore. I was flat out pissed.
The first problem with Dorothy was that she’d seem to wait by the door and run out into our shared entryway when I came into the building. And then, the interrogations would begin. Picture a chubby old Asian lady, with a sourpuss on her face (always) and a thick accent, shuffling out of her apartment in sweats and slippers.
- D: “Do you have another girl living upstairs?”
- R: “No, Dorothy, my friend from out of town just spent the night last night.”
- D: “Are you sure?”
- R: SERIOUSLY? “Yes, I’m sure.”
- D: “Bye.” (hurries back into the house)
- D: “You left early this morning.”
- R: “Yes.”
- D: “You’re coming home late now tonight.”
- R: “Yes.”
- D: “…” (blinks at me)
- R: “Ok, see you later!” (runs upstairs as fast as humanly possible)
See what I mean? She literally monitored my comings and goings. And, I was too nervous and naïve to put her in her place.
I still believe, also, that she went into my apartment when I wasn’t there. I never walked in on this, but once or twice I came home to find my apartment door unlocked. Locking the door is something I’m fanatical about, and call me crazy, but my home just felt like someone had been in it. Creepy and rude. Oh, and illegal.
To make matters worse, I once left my keys at work (an hour away) by accident, and when I knocked on Dorothy’s door to ask if I could borrow her key, she said she didn’t have one. She’s the landlady. It’s her home, and she DOES have a key.
TIP!: As a renter, you are your landlord’s TENANT. You are not a guest in their home. The apartment is YOUR home, so long as you’re under a lease and paying rent. You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, play Spanish Inquisition with your landlord or building-super, as long as you are clean, quiet, minding your own business, and not doing anything illegal (basically, adhering to the terms of your lease).
TIP!: The only time your landlord can enter your house without your permission is if the police come looking for you, or if something hazardous, like a fire, is occurring in the building. Any other “check-ins” should be scheduled ahead of time and agreed upon.
Dorothy’s second annoying habit (after meddling/hovering), was that she would cook food that smelled horrific, and the odor would completely permeate my apartment. Now, let’s get one thing straight. I love food – ALL kinds of food. I’ve traveled around the world, and there is nothing that’s too weird for me to try. But whatever Dorothy was cooking smelled like fried moldy greens. Most people who visited me at the apartment can attest to the smells – they induced gagging. And, to add insult to injury, the rest of my neighborhood smelled like delectable Spanish food, as I’d walk up the street at dinnertime (Sunset Park is about 99.9% Hispanic, except for the streets that border Chinatown). Fair? No.
The final and biggest problem with Dorothy was that she deprived me of heat for an entire winter. Yes, you read that correctly. In the cold of winter, the only heat my apartment got was the residual heat rising from her home below me. The average indoor temperature at my place was 53 degrees. I walked around bundled in blankets and fleece sweatshirts, and my guests kept their coats on when they visited.
No, that is not legal. NYC (I later learned) has strict guidelines for landlords. After a certain date, if the temperature drops below a given level, your landlord must provide heat. More to come on 311 in future posts.
The magic number for New Yorker advice.
Now, in fairness to Dorothy, she THOUGHT she was providing heat. Her thermostat was on. However, in fairness to me, I told the old hag 15 times that I was frozen and the apartment was not heating up! She even came up one time to “see for herself”. She touched the radiator, said “Oh, that’s cold,” and left. You don’t say!
I insisted that I thought there was likely a problem with the heating system. The entryway near her apartment was warm! The heat just wasn’t making its way up to me. Finally, I told her I was going to be calling a plumber myself and that she should expect to receive the bill. What a surprise when the plumber found that Dorothy had put on the wrong valves, so that NO HEAT WAS ABLE TO COME THROUGH! Additionally, he told her that the thermostat in her apartment was incorrectly situated. Basically, she’d created a situation where she was roasting in her apartment (and paying a ton in heating bills), but she was not actually heating my apartment at all. And this continued, all the way through until March, when I finally couldn’t take it anymore and called that plumber, because she didn’t want to pay someone to come look at the system.
My radiators' cousins.
At the end of the whole heating debacle, Dorothy huffed past me in the hallway and groused “I’m not renewing your lease. You complain too much.” Riiiiiiight.
I wish I could say my situation with Dorothy was unique. However, the more people I meet who live in buildings owned by single landlords, the more I see how common Dorothy’s behavior is. My dad tells me this is just the way old ladies are with their homes – they want (or need) the rent money, but they still want to control everything that goes on in “their house”. Apparently, my great-grandmother was an equally incorrigible landlady at times!
Still, that does not make it right. Stand your ground as a tenant. In considering your new place, it is smart to weigh the options of choosing a building run by a management company, versus a single owner. There are pluses and minuses to both options, but I can assure you this: by the time I left Dorothy, I’d sworn off single landlords for good.
Ok, somebody regale me with a good landlord/tenant story, in the comment section. There are sooo many of these tales out there! Life as a renter.
Images: (1) The New York Times, (2) Time Out New York Kids, (3) 311, (4) Portland Salvage