Finding new tenants

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Finding New Tenants
by Alison Barnet Contributor
Monday Apr 25, 2011

In August 1970, Madge, the virago on our second floor, went into the hospital-lung cancer! Then third-floor Dixie went in for something minor but they kept her. Mary, my 87-year-old landlady, was distressed and kept telling me that the instructions on what to do after she died were on a piece of cardboard under her phone. She’d donated her body to BU medical school; no time could be wasted in getting her there. She also talked a lot about the "pills to end it all," which she kept in the top drawer of a bureau.

Madge’s death in September was merely a footnote, because Guidy, her husband, had moved out already, leaving no forwarding address. Shortly after, Dixie’s niece called to say Dixie had to go into a nursing home.

"Suddenly I’m afraid of change," I wrote in my diary, "afraid to move. I have fears about money, about finding another apartment, fears about losing this household."

Mary was in no shape to handle renting the two empty apartments; she had enough trouble getting up one flight to my floor, let alone the second or third. I told her I had friends who might be interested, and she was happy to let me deal with it. Judy, a member of my women’s liberation cell, sent over a friend. I showed him both floors, although taking him to Madge and Guidy’s was mostly an excuse to laugh. Grease hung down like hair from pipes over the kitchen stove, and cardboard boxes lined a narrow path from the front door to the bedroom. When we opened a box, we found brand new dishes and glassware. Was Guidy, who claimed to be a lawyer, fencing housewares? He was always up to something.

Dixie’s apartment, although not as filthy, was depressing. Almost everything was blue, even the floor and furniture. Several burlap bags were stuffed with something suspiciously soft, and we were reluctant to look into them.

In both apartments, light fixtures hung from ceilings by long rusty chains, and "gas-on-gas" kitchen stoves were encrusted with the muck of ages; when we opened the side compartments we found piles of dead cockroaches. In both living rooms, little antiquated gas heaters looked like they’d explode and take the whole house with them if we lit them.

Larry sat passively in front of Mary. "Do you think you’re interested in renting an apartment?" I prompted. Finally he said he’d take the second floor. "The one with the grease hanging down from the pipes over the stove!?" He was sure. Larry turned out to be an expert handyman who immediately got to work, scraping away the grease and making the place clean and spare. He stole a large cable spool from an electric supply yard to use as a table, painted wooden chairs primary colors, and made an upside-down bedroom window shade out of a Viet Cong flag. He didn’t socialize much, though; when he answered the phone, he said, "Be brief" and meant it, and, when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came around, he yelled out the window, "I’m with the devil!" upsetting top floor tenant Noah, a Witness, to no end.

Someone at SEPAC had given an Englishman my number. When I told him Dixie’s apartment had no shower, he said, in an English accent much too thick for someone who’d been here many years, "Ectually, I much prefer baaths, don’t you?" When I made the mistake of saying I did, he said, "I thought you sounded like a girl who baathes!" Luckily, I could tell him someone else was seriously interested.

Dixie’s niece and her husband came from Worcester to empty the apartment. I noticed they went up the stairs with a rag so they didn’t have to touch the handrail. They were unhappy to find that those big soft bags were full of cut-up clothing, including gifts they’d sent for Christmas. "What did Dixie wear out to the store?" her niece cried. Mary, who had pulled herself upstairs for the occasion, couldn’t begin to describe Dixie’s outfits and asked me to. I said she usually wore a long black skirt, a T-shirt, and a scarf at the neck. Mary quickly added, although it wasn’t true, "She always wore a hat." We didn’t say she wore cut-off sweater arms on her legs when it was cold. "Isn’t it sad?" said the niece, "for Dixie and for you, Mary, who knew her when she used to dress so nicely." Mary agreed, blurting out that in recent times Dixie "looked like she lived in a ghetto." I thought to myself, "Well, to Dixie’s relatives, this is a ghetto. Why else would they feel they had to bring along an old rag just to go up the stairs?" They were due back the next day to finish.

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