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By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, October 11, 1996.
In Santa Monica, where I lived for about three years, they used to have this policy called “rent control.” Part of the idea behind rent control, as I understand it, was to provide adequate housing, and not just for upstanding citizens who drive shiny new cars manufactured by German corporations that flourished during World War II.
Or: that by economically desegregating the community, people with a lot of money learn that people without a lot of money are just like people with a lot of money (only without all that money), and people without a lot of money learn that people with a lot of money buy veal cutlets and Evian water for their dogs.
That is, they see there’s a good chance that if they, the moneyless, were to make a lot of money, they’d become exactly how they already are, only with more money. And healthier dogs.
That’s how I understand it.
At any rate, all of us enjoy spending as little as possible of our collective weekly booty on rent. And one of the most popular ways to pay less rent is to finagle one’s way into a rent-controlled apartment, which is what we’ve been discussing for the last few paragraphs.
So, I’d rented a room in a house in Santa Monica for, as I mentioned, close to three years when my roommate, Sam, announced he’d bought a house and that soon I’d have to move out. I wanted to continue living in Santa Monica, if for no other reasons than to decrease 1) my intake of used air and 2) my chances of having a second nervous breakdown.
Changing neighborhoods stresses me out.
Fortunately, roommates sometimes know people who own apartment buildings, people whom their roommates have met once or twice. Often, these people own one or more telephones. Which brings us to the next part of the story:
(Sometimes when the phone rings, I’ll pick it up.)
(I say) Hello?
(Rick says) Dave? (Rick’s some real estate pusher guy, an accidental acquaintance of Sam’s.)
(I say) Rick. What’s up? Hi.
(Rick says) Hi. So have you decided?
Rick and his lovely wife, Linda, were offering me a rent-controlled apartment on San Vicente. I’d seen it that morning and it was nice — rebuilt and polished up and with two bedrooms, a luxury I’d demoted to fantasy since the early ’80s, when the Reaganites began Reaganizing. In exchange for slightly reduced rent (not so much low as lower), Linda wanted me to do managerial things: call the plumber, annoy the gardeners, shit like that.
“Just walk around the building a couple of times each morning and again at night,” she’d said. “Make sure there aren’t any suspicious-looking people. You know.”
And: “Of course, we ask that you make your bed and keep everything clean.” Because: “You can see inside from the sidewalk, and we’d like you to keep your curtains open.” Because: “It looks nice that way.” From: “Outside.”
I countered that my computer and stereo stuff would also look more appealing from outside, which is why curtains were invented and why I wasn’t into leaving them open when I wasn’t around to frighten away potential thieves with my unboyish bad looks.
But only a smile and “Well, just keep them open. You’ll get used to it.”
Then Linda wanted to show me what some of the other units looked like. Everyone else in the place worked in The Industry — “the executive producer of The Blah-Blah Yadda, the director of Yaddaing the Blah” — short-timers with Saks accounts and six months or a year of L.A. employment before going back to New York, back on the dole, having children out of wedlock, hanging out all day in front of liquor stores doing crack and Grey Poupon . . .
After knocking on a few doors and finding no one home, resourceful Linda whipped out a big wad o’keys and fingered me to follow her upstairs. “Come take a look at this one. Just to give you some decorating ideas. We rent this to the woman who produced The Blah.”
“A movie?” I asked, five steps behind.
“Ah — television,” I pseudo-mused, catching up to her at the top of the stiars. “Television is good. I like to watch.”
She opened the door, and from the landing outside I peeked in.
“Oh, go on in,” Linda perked and squinted. “It’s all right!”
“Thanks, I can see from here.” It was an apartment, all right. Looked as if the producer of The Blah had a thing for sitting — there was a couch! And eating — off to the left was a kitchen! “That’s real nice-like, Linda.”
“Oh, just go in!”
I didn’t (yet) want to piss her off, so I ducked in about 10 feet and looked around, nodding and raising one if not several eyebrows in something noticeably closer to obligatory enchantment than loathsome indifference.
And as I did: “Oh! Hello!”
On cue, the tenant had shown up. She frowned silently at Linda until spotting me — some grimy below-the-line scumbag standing uninvited in her living room — at which point her frown scowled severely and her silence threatened torrential menace.
Linda smiled at the scowl as only real estate professionals can, neither begging pardon nor introducing The Producer to Her Captive Audience.
The rest of the building tour passed without further incident. Linda waved to me tentatively, frowning mysteriously, as she watched me get into my car.
I smiled, sort of, and waved back.
Yeah (I say to Rick). I’ll take it.
Well (says Rick), that’s terrific. (He actually says shit like “terrific.”) There’s one thing, though (he goes on), that I’m not sure Linda mentioned to you. Did she talk with you about your car?
(I say) No.
(Rick says) Oh. Well. What is it — a Volvo?
What year was it again?
1967. I see. Are you . . . do you have any plans to get a new car?
No. Actually, that’s my favorite model of car. Probably keep it even if I had a million dollars.
Yeah. Did you wanna ask me something about the apartment?
Well, actually, yes. Linda and I were wondering if you might get a different car before moving in.
A different car? All right. How about a Mercedes? Say, a 1959 190SL? Or an old Triumph TR4A-IRS. Green. That would be nice. How about—
Yes (says Rick), that would be nice. But what about something a bit newer? I’m sure Linda showed you the other tenants’ cars — Mercedes, BMWs. Have you thought about getting a new Volvo?
I had no idea Rick could do this good a deadpan. I laugh. Rick doesn’t laugh. (I say) You sound serious.
Actually, I am (says Rick). You know, the other tenants are very wealthy people paying a lot of money to live there. We’re concerned they might be . . . upset by your car.
Rick (I say). You’re not serious. You want someone who earns twenty thousand a year to buy a forty-thousand-dollar car, so he can look like a rich white guy?
I’m beige. And you’re kidding, aren’t you?
I’m afraid not.
I’m beginning to get afraid, too (I say). Rick, if you really are serious, you’re insane.
So you’re saying that you don’t want the apartment?
I guess that may as well be what I’m saying.
(Rick says) How about this? What if, for now, you at least painted the car you have.
Paint my car. Then I’m a good man again.
You can get a cheap paint job for four hundred dollars. We’ll loan you the money, and you can pay us back in hundred-dollar installments. What do you say?
I say how about this. How about you forgive me for not answering that, and I’ll forgive you for asking it. And then I’ll hang up and return to my regularly scheduled life, and you can be hung up on? Okay? Okay. Buh-bye.
A few weeks later, when Rick pulled up in front of Sam’s and my house in his old gray LeBaron convertible, Sam took, I believe, considerable deadpan pleasure in asking Rick to move his car down the block, away from the house, away from the sensitive retinas of our neighbors.
I should’ve known Rick was one of those LeBaron types.