Just because I do it doesn't make it right

Just because I do it doesn't make it right

It’s been a bit risky but then again, life’s like that.

You decide on a course of action early on and then you stay with it.

No matter what.

So it’ll probably come as no surprise that I’ve always rented, not wanting to get tied down, always leaving that back door open, figuring that if the worst happens – which it has – I can always just start again in a new place, believing in the power of good karma.

I remember the first time I got kicked out of an apartment. It was a nice place: living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom with the added amenity of a balcony deep enough to hold a chaise lounge, a charcoal grill and few plants. It had a western exposure, which meant that during the prime tanning hours, I was placed perfectly.

This was the late Seventies, a time when – for the lack of a better phrase – I had no idea what I was doing. One week, I was living in the basement of my parents’ house, the next I was writing checks to cover rent, cable, phone and electricity. It wasn’t even my idea.

My girlfriend had decided that I needed a place of my own which, now that I look back on it, wasn’t the worst decision I never made.

I was 24 when I moved in and 27 when I was told I had to leave.

I had done nothing wrong, faithfully writing those monthly checks, trying to get along with the neighbors – more on that later – and genuinely enjoying my days and nights in a reasonably priced unit.

What I hadn’t taken into account was the precarious nature of the landlord-tenant relationship. As it turned out, the owner’s son had taken a fancy to my apartment, specifically the spiffy deck, and that was all that was needed for me to pack my stuff and get out.

A few years – and a couple of apartments – later, I was assigned to write a series of articles on that very subject and, in the course of my research, I was astonished to discover that in the eyes of the law, the tenant had virtually no legal standing when it came to disputes with a landlord. Those scales were all out of whack.

Interviews with folks at Legal Aid – the place where those who can’t afford lawyers go when they need advice – yielded reams of cold-hearted precedents, all of which ended badly for renters.

Despite that knowledge and, of course, dealing with the skin-flinted nature of trying to survive in small-town journalism, I maintained my tattered devotion to the renter’s credo, which goes something like this:

“Don’t want no mortgage, don’t want no tax:

Just give me a few rooms where I can relax.”

Renters are looked down upon, marginalized and often subjected to the kind of stereotypical prejudice most often reserved for societal misfits. We are often artistic free thinkers immune to unwarranted loathing, reveling in our gleeful ignorance of the word “equity.”

We don’t know about escrow, either, and the thought of replacing a furnace or putting on a new roof sends us into paroxysms of dread. We try not to annoy the neighbors but this is never easy because, in my experience anyway, they are a loutish, nasty breed.

Remember that first apartment, the one with the tanning deck?

New neighbors moved in downstairs and, in addition to a huge slobbering beast of a cur, one whose tread shook my floorboards, they had a police scanner that somehow bled into my stereo system, which meant my music was ruined by Johnny Law’s traffic static.

That kind of thing has dogged me my entire renting life and I’m used to it. Long ago I adopted the policy of expecting the worst and, with few exceptions, it’s proven to be a wise course of action.

But then I think back to the Summer of 1975 when I was hired to do some work for a woman who was renting a house from friends of my parents. She was an artistic type, too, but rather than keeping to the tenant’s creed, she decided to push the envelope. I don’t want to disparage her in any way but she acted more like an owner.

“I want you,” she said, peering up at me from beneath a wide-brimmed gardening hat, “to steam off the wallpaper in the sitting room and then paint it a rich chocolate brown. It’s my dream.”

Turned out that there were seven layers of wallpaper, an astonishing excavation that required me to enlist the reluctant assistance of my brother, who pulled me aside with a scowl.

“You know she’s crazy, right?” he asked, sotto voce. “It’s going to take weeks to do this and we have no idea what we’re doing.”

We learned a lot about each other that summer and for that, I’ve always been grateful. If you’ve never steamed layer upon layer of wallpaper during the heat of an Ohio June and then followed that odious chore by slapping on three coats of heavy, oil-based latex paint the color of an infant’s soiled diaper, then you haven’t lived.

Oh, and then we had to dig gardens all the way around the house.

How she had the gumption, the temerity, to demand those kind of ridiculous changes to a rental property, I’ll never understand, since I’m the kind of tenant who worries about asking for any tiny favor.

It’s a risky way to survive, but so far, I can’t really complain.