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By Thaddeus Rutkowski
My landlord invited me to a party in his loft. His place was in a fashionable neighborhood, and it was bigger than I'd expected. It had two floors and covered about 3,000 square feet. When I arrived, I stared at the fixtures and exposed wood. The appliances were shiny, and the railing around the balcony looked like it was made of oak.
During the party, my host pretty much ignored me, but when he noticed me, he took me aside. "You know," he said, "your rent is nothing, compared to what I pay."
"I was the host's subtenant. I lived in a building that had been abandoned, then sold to a group of artist-entrepreneurs. "I'd like to have a permanent lease," I said.
"Don't worry," he said. "We're going to fix your place up; then we'll sell it to you."
"An option to renew would be enough."
He slapped me on the shoulder. "Buddy," he said, "you could be a friend of mine, except you're my tenant."
At the end of his party, he released dozens of balloons that had been held in a net near the ceiling. As the balloons bounced, he said to me, "I'll say one thing for New York. It's the easiest place to get laid."*
I invited a young woman to my loft. She didn't seem to mind the fact that I had no furniture. We sat at a table made of two-by-fours and particleboard. Under the table, a split in the floorboards revealed a sliver of the apartment below. Below us, the couple in residence was yelling at their dog. First the woman, then the man, would shout, "Klaus, no!"
"You remember the party we met at?" my guest asked.
"Yes, of course," I said.
"It had a theme."
"The theme was 'Say yes to love.' "
From below, I heard the woman, then the man, yell, "Klaus, no!" but when I looked through the crack in the floor, I couldn't see the people or their dog. I didn't know what Klaus was doing wrong.
"It was a nice party," I said, but I didn't really think so. I'd come there with a couple, and by the end of the party, they'd broken up. The man had met another woman and ignored his date.
"You have to say yes," my guest said. "You have to say yes to love. Downstairs, my neighbors said no again to Klaus.
Later, I walked my guest out to the street and helped her hail a cab. I must have been nervous, because when I shut the car door for her, the metal frame hit me on the head. *
My landlord sent a man named Olaf to install a new wood floor in my place. Olaf had a routine: He would align a plank, then sink a nail into it with one blow of a hammer. He repeated this action hundreds of times. In two days, he was half finished with the job.
I noticed that the floor wasn't level. It swelled where the old subflooring was higher, and it dipped where the former floor had sunk. I pointed this out to Olaf. "The floor is curved," I said. "You have to level it out by using shims. You have to shim it up. Do you know how to shim?"
I couldn't tell if Olaf understood, because he didn't say anything.
I tapped the floor with my foot. "You call this a shim?" I asked.
Olaf left then and never came back. The floor remained as it was. Half of it was new, and half was the old, rotting wood.
At one point, I noticed that cockroaches were infesting my place. I sprayed with insecticide, but it didn't make much difference. So I called a phone number I'd found in a classified ad for extermination services.
Two women came to my place. They called themselves the Lady Killers. They blasted white powder from squeeze bottles into every crack and seam. I saw fewer roaches after that, but the powder coated everything. Whenever I picked up a glass, dish or utensil, I would see a residue of roach dust.
"The tenants in my building formed a group to fight against our landlords. None of us had renewable leases or predictable rent increases. We retained a lawyer, who advised us to put our rent into a bank account. The money would be there and would show that we were able to pay, if we wanted to. We just didn't want to.
I was appointed treasurer for the group. I set up an escrow account, collected rent from all of the tenants and deposited the money. I kept a record on paper.
One night, a couple of other building residents came to visit. We sat at my particleboard table and played cards. Now and then, the gas heater mounted in a nearby window kicked on with a bang.
"My heater doesn't do that," one of the residents said.
"Don't worry about it," I said. "When it restarts, it explodes."
People seemed startled every time the gas ignited.
Presently, we heard a knock on the door. I opened it and saw a young man standing in the hallway. I thought he was a friend of one of the other residents. "Do you want to come in?" I asked.
He handed me a paper document. When I asked what it was, he said, "Just read it."
I brought the document inside. It document was a summons to appear in court. We had been subpoenaed.
One of my neighbors came back from a deposition. "I listened to the statement of one of the owners," he said. "She kept saying she was an artist."
He imitated her accent: " 'I am AH-tist! Give my space back!' "
The owner was Korean and spoke English with an accent.
"What are we?" my neighbor said. "We're artists, too. We're AH-tists. Artists don't pay rent."
I started working with a couple of guys to rehabilitate an abandoned building nearby. We planned to clean it up and occupy it. We were going to move in and take ownership.
There was a secret door to get to the stairs-it was a piece of sheetrock nailed to a frame. The three of us went through the door hole to get inside.
"As I walked through the apartments, I saw rooms with different-colored walls. There were pink rooms, blue rooms, yellow rooms. I saw shelves with dishes still stacked on them, and floors covered with plasterboard shards.
Using a broom and a shovel, I scooped up as much trash as I could-I worked hard.
After a few days, the three of us had made no dent in the piles of debris.
I called our housing lawyer to discuss the situation. "Maybe we could live in this abandoned building," I said. "We would move in and just refuse to move out."
"Who owns the building?" the lawyer asked.
"You don't own it?"
"Do you have a lease or any sort of contract?"
"What you're doing is tantamount to walking into a bank and saying, 'We're going to break into the vault and take some money, but it's for a good cause. We're going to give it to the poor.' "
Our landlords made us an offer: a four-year lease, or no lease at all. If we moved out immediately, we could keep the rent we'd saved in the bank.
Most of my neighbors chose to move out right away. I withdrew money from the escrow account and gave them their portion. One person, however, claimed I owed her rent for one month more than I had recorded. "You have to give me another thousand," she said.
"I don't see it on my record sheet," I said.
"I'm not leaving until I get it."
I should have told her to sue me, that I wouldn't hand over the money without a fight, but I didn't. I didn't have the time to argue. I gave her the extra amount.
I chose the four-year lease. I knew I'd never be able to afford a place as spacious as the one I had. I decided to live with the unfinished floor and the exploding gas heater and enjoy the loft for as long as I could. Klaus and his owners were moving out. I could still look through the floorboards to the apartment downstairs. Who knew what I would see? It didn't matter. If a dog didn't move in, things would be quieter over the next four years.