“Please come right away, I cannot live here.” May*, the new tenant in our rental apartment, called Tuesday, pleading desperately. The previous tenant, let’s call him Lucifer*, had left the place in complete shambles, and she was overwhelmed. They had made arrangements directly that he would leave a few things in the apartment while transitioning to his new place. He told her it would be out of the way and ‘not affect your living space,’ and she could get the keys from the sub-letter. As they were both from China, May thought this was reasonable—help out your fellow countryman, out of courtesy. Since they had made their own transfer arrangements, my husband and I assumed he would prepare the apartment for the new tenant—clean up, basically. None of us could have imagined the wretched mess he would leave her when she arrived.
His stuff was everywhere—bookshelf crammed tight, closet fully hung with clothes. Dirty dishes and half-used remnants of ginger and garlic lay on the kitchen counter. A five foot-high pile of boxes and bags cluttered the far corner of the living room. The opposite corner housed a broken vacuum cleaner and another tangle of cables, trash, and more empty boxes. A vast array of shoes and slippers occupied seven square feet of living room floor. The hallway carpet had acquired a three inch border of decorative dirt on either side, and the kitchen floor looked as if someone had writhed on it after bathing in 5000 mile-old motor oil.
The more I looked the more offended and angry I felt. This had been our home for eight years. My best friend from college helped to install the hardwood floor with my husband when we first moved in, after hubs took out the old, gross, green carpet himself. We shared our hardest years of training here. I watched TV coverage of 9/11 while my husband was on call, hoping Chicago would not become another target. Hubs had laid the kitchen tile himself, freeing cherry hostages from the refrigerator for me every day because I was too pregnant to fit between the repositioned appliances. We lived out of the living room for three weeks and had new, plush carpet installed after the main water pipe burst behind the master closet—also while I was pregnant. It was our son’s first home, where not just his formative memories were made, but ours, as well. How could someone treat it like this? How did we let this happen?
On Wednesday I called my friends’ cleaning lady, Saint Anne*, who agreed to come Thursday. After 5 hours she could only make a small dent in the grime. She spent all day again on Friday, much of it on her hands and knees, sweating through her shirt and inhaling noxious fumes of the cleaning products she donated to the project. I brought lunch between errands and made arrangements for Stanley Steemer to come the next day. May stood by, still shocked and appalled at the conditions of her first home in the US. Saint Anne and I could both see the abject horror in her demeanor, wondering if she should stay another night or board the next flight back to China.
Saint Anne was a woman on a mission. She did not see this as just another cleaning job. She was contributing to the reclamation and restoration of my home. She was helping a poor, young student, new to this country, find her bearings in untenable conditions. She established a bond with both of us, instantly, through her dedication and unwavering commitment. I stand forever grateful to her for this, and will call upon her for any and all cleaning needs as long as I live.
I tried to reassure May that I would do whatever was necessary to make the place livable again. The stove was broken. The air conditioning unit had died. I found myself saying to her, “Please know, whatever I do, I do as if I were living here myself.” On Saturday I waited with her for Stanley Steemer to come, that tedious four hour service window. Saint Anne had done all of the heavy cleaning, GOD BLESS her, and there were still some stains on the kitchen walls. May and I found one pair of rubber gloves, each took one and a rag, and started to wipe things down together. It was the least I could do, to help her feel more comfortable and cared for.
She told me how rudely Lucifer had treated her on the phone, saying he would sue if she threw out any of his stuff, and interrupting her as if she were the nuisance for calling him on his vacation. We agreed that he had taken advantage of both of us, and we would look forward to having him out of our lives forever. We shared stories of growing up, and discussed the differences in lifestyle between America and China. We talked about respect, courtesy, and helping out your fellow human.
That’s when it dawned on me. Of course, it’s about relationships. Everything is. I let Lucifer trash my place because I saw my relationship with him as merely transactional. I never knew him as a person in the two years he destroyed my apartment; he was just ‘the tenant.’ He never knew me beyond the stranger to whom he paid rent. He had no idea that this was my home, and he had no reason to care. Granted, I think he is likely an exceptionally slovenly and oblivious individual, but still, I played a role in this mess.
Relationships take work to establish and maintain. I realized this week that this apartment is not merely a unit that we let out for extra cash. Our tenants are not just strangers who happen to live there and pay rent. The place is our home and the renters its caretakers. Beyond the terms of the rental agreement, if I really expect tenants to take care of my apartment, I have to give them a reason. They must know that I care about them, too.
On Friday I had offered to take May shopping, and invited her to my house for dinner. I wanted to make up for the horrible state of things, which I had a hand in creating. She politely declined. I sensed that she felt uncomfortable with the offer, despite her desperate and forlorn situation. Of course. Shopping and dinner are not things that tenants and landlords do together! But we can choose to define ourselves as more than this. Through this experience, I had started to see her as a little cousin. I felt compassion and empathy for her, and imagined how I would feel in her shoes. Our mutual mistreatment by Lucifer connected us.
By the time the Stanley Steemer guys had finished on Saturday, the place was not quite shining, but infinitely more pleasant and livable than just 48 hours before. She had told me about an upcoming conference gala, and we agreed she needed a dress, in addition to bedsheets and a box fan. We picked up my kids from their friends’ house, got dinner in the oven (she had her first shortcut cooking lesson—seasoned-chicken-thighs-over-frozen-vegie-bake with rice), and headed to Ross for a very successful, if brief, shopping trip. Dinner tasted great after all that work, and we had watermelon for dessert. She borrowed our box fan and took some leftovers to tide her over until the new stove arrives next week.
I made some mistakes in dealing with Lucifer these past two years. I paid the price this past week—several hundred dollars and a lot of time and energy. I also made two new friends, and gained important insights. We may think of landlord/tenant relationships as strictly transactional, and that may work in many cases. It failed this time, and it felt bad. Why not make a new friend if I have a chance, and why allow anyone I would not be friends with to live in my home? When it comes time to find a new tenant, now I know better how to look. I will meet people in person, and tell them the story of the apartment and how much it means to me. I will assess their sincerity in agreeing to treat it as their own. I will convey to them that I see myself and my place as contributing to their pursuit of their dreams. The new people may still trash it—this is always a risk. But at least I will know that I did my best to connect, and the potential human payoff from that makes me positively giddy with joy.
*Not their real names