My landlord wears a flashlight strapped to his forehead while he works. He's tall and large-bodied, and he has a habit of turning a conversational "oh" into a three-syllable word. A friend of mine thinks he's goofy. More than once he kept his flashlight on during a close-range conversation. I squirmed and blinked and rubbed my eyes against the glare, but none of my reactions tipped him off.
I am under a landlord hex. This isn't your typical landlord-tenant dispute regarding money or property damage. The hex has to do with people who aren't quite fit to be trusted with the keys to your home.
So far, my record is 1-3. Only one of four landlords in Chicago hasn't caused me great distress. Before I'm accused of hyperbole, hear me out.
My first landlord was a bipolar schizophrenic who called the cops on me and my roommate. Another landlord exposed himself to me. And my fourth and current flashlight-ready landlord is (I suspect) snooping around my bedroom when I'm not home.
"Well, you're weird," said another friend. "You attract weird people. Makes perfect sense to me."
I think my dilemma has less to do with my weirdness and more to do with the properties. The common denominator in my poor track record points to houses with character, houses that are a little odd, a little old, and a far cry from the modern standards of a gut rehab.
My first apartment in Chicago was an attic unit I shared with a friend. We lived in a canary-yellow Victorian that had a strawberry patch leading up to the house. Below us lived our landlord with his oversized St. Bernard, and below them, a young couple with a daughter.
Right out of a fairy tale, no?
Our landlord had the name of a magician or an occultist. He was in his early 40s at the time, a civil engineer, unemployed, recently divorced, by turns solemn and spirited. He was given to make irrational remarks about global politics, which were easy enough to dismiss, though soon he was talking about a hidden camera in his fire alarm.
Despite his paranoia, he kept his door unlocked. He encouraged me and my roommate to come down any time for a visit, and we did, because the situation wasn't so bad at first. I think he was lonely. He spoke often of his ex, who came by the house occasionally to check in. Then, as if overnight, his comments became more hysterical: imminent government takeovers, Oak Park residents kidnapped and replaced with actors, strangers communicating via signs and symbols.
By November, just four months into our lease, my roommate and I knew better than to engage our landlord in conversation. He began to lock his door. We, too, kept our distance, and when the furnace broke off the heat to our apartment, our landlord completely shunned us. This lasted for days. He ignored our phone calls and texts. The temperature in the attic dropped to 55 degrees.
I was out of the apartment when my roommate called with the news. I came home to find a cop and a canine standing outside the basement entrance with our landlord. I approached them, and the cop pulled me aside out of earshot. "He says you're sabotaging the furnace. Are you?" The cop looked skeptical. "Just stay out of his hair," he grumbled to me before he left.
My friend and I did not complete our lease. I moved to Wicker Park in the spring, enjoying a few months' reprieve from all the landlord drama. I lived briefly with another friend before I decided it was time for me to get my own place.
The new house had nothing outwardly unusual about it except for a decorative tree stump in the front yard. The stump measured about three feet tall and was painted yellow and purple. I rented the attic. Since I was little I've had a storybook fascination with attics. I like their angled ceilings and complicated corners and how they tend to feel apart from the house and everything else. It's where all the mischief happens. In reality, the apartment was cheap for the neighborhood and included an uncovered private deck, which is a godsend to any transplant downsizing from acreage to square feet. I couldn't pass it up.
Below me lived my landlords, a young, childless couple. Below them lived another single woman, and below her, on the ground floor with the tree stump, a mortician and her boyfriend.
The house was a kind of clapboard construction, with thin floors and walls that did little to cover my neighbors' activities. There were certain noises I didn't mind hearing, such as when Rotildo*, one of my landlords, strummed the guitar and sang in Spanish. But no amount of cotton or wax could sufficiently block the noises I didn't want to hear. Luckily, those noises only happened on Sunday nights after church.
My living situation was fine until the first incident happened. Even though the topic of this blog entry is crazy Chicago landlords, there's no easy way to transition to "...and then Rotildo exposed himself to me." But then he did. I blame being in my early and mid-twenties for allowing it to happen three times. It would be a total cop-out if I didn't detail at least one of these incidents. Because how the heck could it happen, right?
Sometimes I let a couple trash bags pile up on my deck, and once, coming home from work, I found a note on my door:
Please may you clean
your garbage on the
back porch is flying
Rotildo knew my schedule because he could hear it. As I'm sure was his plan, on my way down to the trash bin I saw him through a window that looked into his kitchen. He was naked, erect, and standing over the marbled vinyl counter, same as I had in my kitchen, with his arms in a bowed, flexed pose and his hands gripping the edge. His wife wasn't home. I knew because her car wasn't parked in back.
There was no way to avoid him. If you think it was merely a coincidence, this wasn't the first time it happened. But it was one of the most comical. Others didn't think so. (Hey, mom!) In fact, some people were downright appalled when I told them. They wondered why I didn't inform Rotildo's wife or how I could stay for five years.
Mostly, I didn't want to trouble their marriage. I liked Rotildo's wife. She used to bring me groceries from her church when I was low on funds. Nothing I could actually eat (one can of expired meat made its way into the paper bag), but still. I reasoned that sooner or later she would find out on her own.
I have my suspicions about my current landlord. Days ago, I came home from work and discovered that someone had been in my bedroom, which prompted me to write this blog entry. Anyone can be a landlord in Chicago. It's too bad background checks only go one way. Oh well. Time to invest in a cool nanny cam.