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Unexpected Machinations of Everyday Life

Derek Alger

...Notice to Cease in bold, black, capital letters at the top.

I wish my brother was familiar with the works of Kafka, especially The Trial, which might have helped him better deal with the completely unjustified efforts to evict him from his apartment. My brother believes in justice and good will. He has difficulty accepting arbitrary, inexplicable actions, and as a result, internalizes conflict, reverting back to a passive state in which he feels he must be the guilty party.

I can understand, and identify, to an extent, with much of this insecure groundwork which resulted inadvertently from our father, a prominent psychiatrist, who in trying to be helpful came across as overly critical. Now, decades later, the inner voice of self-doubt remains, though it’s much more pronounced in my brother, who is the third of my parents’ four kids, with myself being the oldest.

The most simple explanation of why my brother ended up in the middle of an eviction proceeding was due to a horrible, nasty woman who lives downstairs from him in the four unit garden apartments where he currently resides, primarily because it was one of the few places around allowing tenants to have pets. For some reason, this woman became obsessed with getting my brother since he lost his temper and stormed out of a party at the woman’s apartment three or four years ago. That was enough, the combination of this angry, relentless woman, and the mindless bureaucratic machinery of the legal process, resulted in my brother receiving an eviction notice.

My brother was completely blindsided, upset, almost to the point of hysteria, when the first letter arrived from the management company’s attorney with Notice to Cease in bold, black, capital letters at the top. Then citing a statute of New Jersey Law, the letter stated a number of so-called reasons my brother might be evicted if such behavior continued, While many would have laughed at the absurdity of what was cited in the letter, my brother went into panic mode, his fearful imagination flashing forward to a situation where he was alone, living on the street with his pets, his dog and his cat, and terrified over the thought of not being able to take care of them.

I’ve worked as an “accidental” journalist, meaning reporter, for years, mostly because I could write declarative sentences and was able to automatically turn out articles, particularly about ongoing political conflict and election campaigns, which never seemed to end. That’s how I approached the beginning of my brother’s saga, as if I was doing a story. If you pursue the facts thoroughly, and ask the appropriate questions, it should lead to the proper headline, though many reporters these days try to make the facts fit a preconceived headline.

My brother instinctively sensed the fallacy of the statement “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about,” a sentiment I agree with completely, having seen many instances of those with power, usually meaning substantial money, such as government or corporate entities, crushing someone who hasn’t done anything wrong, and presumably should have nothing to worry about, but obviously does.

The general litany of complaints against my brother, all coming from the woman downstairs, included, “Repeatedly engaging in disturbing conduct, shouting at other residents, making physical contact with them without permission or justification, and calling them obscenities.”

The first thing jumping out at me was the date on the letter, somehow my brother had lived in his apartment unit, with this same woman and her husband on the floor below, for the past six years. Why would there suddenly be a problem? Why was I reminded of the Salem Witch Trials or the worst of the McCarthy era? It didn’t seem quite right that my brother was being considered guilty until proven innocent, and the allegations were seemingly coming out of nowhere.

Other specific alleged incidents were related in the letter, what one would regard as hearsay, and bizarre hearsay, at that. I know my brother pretty well, so I knew the charges against him were preposterous. Still, even though I knew that, they were merely listed as part of the beginning paper trail initiated by the management company to begin eviction proceedings against my brother.

My brother is religious and I’ve never heard him use curse words, but then again, my parents, especially my mother, rarely uttered a curse word, and I’m sure neither ever directed curses at another person. That being so, I laughed when the attorney’s letter accused my brother of “Repeatedly calling a female resident of the property a ‘cunt’ and ‘bitch.’” It just wouldn’t happen. I can’t imagine my brother calling anyone a “bitch” and the word “cunt” is not part of his conscious vocabulary.

The complaint went on to cite a social gathering at the woman’s apartment in December, some two years before the “cease” letter arrived, claiming my brother “frightened and disturbed other residents by screaming insults at another resident and doing so in such a bizarre unprovoked fashion that it frightened the other residents.” And furthermore, according to the letter, my brother “shortly thereafter frightened the same resident by grabbing her about the neck in a misguided effort to apologize.”

Quite an indictment, unless one reads such sentences with an open mind and always remembers to whom such complaints are being attributed, as in the all important phrase, “According to whom?”

But not enough, the letter also accused my brother of loitering outside the woman’s apartment “apparently in an effort to eavesdrop” and then the next day, stopping to peep inside her apartment “in an inappropriate manner,” whatever that means, and before that, pushing the woman “while walking up the stairs causing her to fall.”

Most would laugh off such insane allegations, but there are many who are not adept at handling such things, and others who wouldn’t even know where to turn for appropriate advice or help. It happens all the time. The invisible people in society whom no one ever hears about or sees in a three-dimensional way.

I should have known, but didn’t, the first letter from the management company’s attorney was just laying the groundwork before sending a Notice to Quit & Non-Renewal of Lease letter, accusing my brother with not complying with what was noted in the first letter. The letter was dated February 5th, and my brother was ordered to move out of his apartment before April 1st.

My brother freaked, inappropriate inner guilt projecting him to a point where he viewed himself standing up against a wall before a firing squad. A premature reaction, most would say, but not so out of the ordinary for one, such as my brother, who has lived a more parochial and pedestrian life than others. My brother tends to see the world in black and white, good and evil, so instead of seeing the charges in the second letter as also being completely unfounded, he started rambling out a defense to me as if it never occurred to him that I didn’t immediately see the charges were ridiculous and had absolutely no validity.

One, in particular, really jumped out at me. The eviction letter, referring to my brother, stated, you “deliberately drove your car quickly in the direction of another resident and did so repeatedly causing the resident to reasonably be in fear that you were attempting to cause them harm.”

“If she truly feared for her life, why didn’t she call the police?” I interrupted my brother’s unnecessary defense.

He paused, pondering as if in agreement, but I could tell on an emotional level he was still nowhere near convinced.

“You could also say you’re such a good driver, that if you tried to hit her, you would have,” I said, trying to emphasize how humor could be found in such accusations, though I didn’t get any reaction from my brother.

So, the impersonal machinery of “constructive eviction” was set in motion and my brother, my innocent brother, needed to get an attorney specializing in landlord/tenant matters, an expensive, unexpected, out of pocket expense. The attorney comes from a referral by a referral from a former elected official I know from running a newspaper in the Bronx. He previously worked for the Manhattan DA’s office so he was experienced in the ways of the world, and seeing the less complimentary side of people.

I understood my brother’s anxiety, and am not great myself at accepting the fraudulent, hypocritical nature of the grown up world, much of the time, but we have different ways of handling such situations. My brother becomes passive, withdrawing into himself and relying on the Internet for information, which rarely provides you with a true glimpse into the actual conflict and motives of adversaries in situations where in a rational world there should be none. My brother wouldn’t call his attorney, despite his increasing anxiety, because he felt the attorney was too busy and my brother didn’t want to bother him, all the while forgetting that he had paid the attorney a flat fee to represent him.

When my brother first met his attorney, the attorney rambled off the procedural steps required to take place before my brother could ever be evicted. The management company can’t throw you out tomorrow, the attorney stressed,

you have to receive a notice to appear before a housing court judge. The attorney told my brother not to worry. The attorney also told my brother to let him do the worrying, and then assumed everything was okay, his job for the moment done, because my brother nodded his head and didn’t ask any questions.

“Are you sure you want to continue living in such a place?” the attorney asked, clearly thinking the actions of the management company were particularly aggressive and unusual, bordering on blatant harassment.

The eviction letter also accused my brother of “deliberately and very loudly stomping his feet” and “deliberately slamming his door to disturb others.” Since my brother was in a serious car accident two years ago, breaking his pelvis, and then requiring surgery on his ankle, the letter should have more accurately accused him of stomping his left foot, but who cares about truth?

My brother also works the graveyard shift as a security guard so any door slamming would not occur between 11 p.m. and 10 a.m. or so in the morning, but I don’t need to defend my brother, I’m just noting how spurious and absurd these complaints from the downstairs woman were, and find it rather remarkable that no one from the management company, especially the on-site property manager, took the time to verbally inform my brother about the obsessive woman who was repeatedly complaining, and what she was complaining about.

“You don’t seem like the type of person who would do any of these things,” the attorney observed.

“I only live there cause of my pets,” my brother said. “I don’t know where else to go.”

Many can compartmentalize aspects of life, but not my brother, and actually not me either. As a result, the perfunctory and mundane can magnify out of all proportion to importance, causing one to feel more threatened and afraid. I have always dealt with such anxiety by talking to others, and I’m pretty good at knowing which people to go to to get specific, reliable information and advice on how best to handle whatever I may be facing. I like to follow the rule of talking to three people I trust, and then making up my own mind. I guess I’m lucky because I know more than three people I can trust; I’m not sure my brother could think of three people to call, much less trust, and most are too busy with their own respective lives and would also objectively think my brother was fretting over nothing, even though that “nothing” represents my brother’s entire existence because of his dog and cat.

My brother felt better, much relieved, when he received a pay stub from the management company to pay his rent, which he did, and April 1st came and went and he was still in the apartment, despite his constant fear. But then, the next day, a health inspector unexpectedly appeared at his door, asking to see inside his apartment. The inspector acted friendly but informed my brother he was in violation of something or other, this code or that, and he needed to have the carpet professionally cleaned by April 19th.

Unfortunately, my brother still didn’t reach out to his attorney and was becoming more anxious as he kept checking his online bank account and saw his rent check hadn’t been cashed. I wanted to start calling the management company attorney and others who are harassing my brother and tell them I’m writing an article about their disregard and shabby treatment of my brother, bordering on malicious, but wanted to talk to my brother’s attorney first, but of course, I needed my brother to clear the way for me to do that. I was concerned that if I started demanding answers from these people who were disrupting my brother’s life that I might be in violation of some little known clause, or amendment, or God knows what in the complex legal world we currently live in, which only a select few can possibly understand.

The health inspector returned, this time with the on-site property manager, and her demeanor was cryptic, no trace of friendliness at all.

The inspector looked about, then frowned.

“Was the carpet cleaned with chemical treatments?” she asked.

Huh? my brother thought, having no idea what the inspector was talking about..

“Do you know what chemical treatments were used to clean the apartment?” the inspector persisted.

Of course, my brother didn’t know, which seems natural to me, because I wouldn’t have known either.

The health inspector asked for the phone number of the carpet cleaners, called them, and then curtly informed my brother that the carpet must be cleaned again. So, my brother’s was out the $250 he just spent for the cleaning, and now he was being compelled to repeat the ritual and pay again. Failure to do so, according to the health department, “will result in a summons being issued to you compelling you to appear before the magistrate in an action for the collection of a penalty as described by law.”

I could understand how the words “summons” and “magistrate” might intimidate someone feeling somewhat helpless simply trying to get through life day by day, especially with no appropriate arsenal of defense to call upon.

And then, more distress, the expected, inevitable letter arrived announcing the date my brother was supposed to appear before a judge in landlord/tenant court. To say my brother freaked is of course an understatement. Fortunately, he had previously cleared the way for me to talk with his attorney, and though the attorney was a rapid fire, waste no time guy, I understood what he was saying, plus, perhaps most important, the attorney frequently appeared before the judge assigned to my brother’s case and said the judge was a decent, fair guy.

I was able to calm my brother down somewhat, repeating what his attorney had said, and explaining what it meant. Basically, my brother went from absolutely terrified to merely anxious, which was manageable.

That wasn’t the end, though, my brother received a letter from the attorney for the management company tacking on two additional complaints about my brother’s dog being let off her leash, which is probably true, but the dog is now 13 years old and not. exactly a threat to anyone, and never has been.

There is sort of a happy ending to this ordeal, and also no ending at the same time.

My brother was over at my apartment one Saturday afternoon, shortly after he received the court hearing letter, fearful and distressed, trying not to cry, while only

able to see impending doom. I called a friend who, unlike myself, can weave her way through the paperwork of bureaucracy without being phased, or losing her temper, which I found remarkable. She spoke to my brother and was able to calm him down with her practical take on the matter, especially regarding the health department inspector.

The next day, my friend called and told me about a one-bedroom apartment near mine that allows pets after she had done a quick search for such a place. I relayed the information to my brother, and though fearful of rejection, and also change, he did make the appropriate phone call, met with the landlord, filled out an application, and sweated out a day or two before receiving the welcome news that he should come by and sign the lease.

The no ending, of course, was that my brother was never able to confront the woman downstairs or the attorney for the management company to defend himself and denounce them for defaming his character, something he felt adamant about, adamant to clear his name, as he saw it. In fact, I wouldn’t mind telling them what I thought, and the emotional pain they put my brother though over a five month period, but what good would it do? I explained to my brother the old maxim from my college political science course days that when you can’t get maximum gain, you go for minimum loss, and in my brother case, though he might not quite see it, yet, his minimum loss was actually a victory, being able to leave his previous apartment on his own terms, not to mention his commute to work has been cut by a good half hour, saving him valuable time and money paid for gas.

9 Comments »

 

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Larry Baker says on June 9th, 2013 at 2:11 pm:

Kafka, indeed, would understand. Joseph Heller in an odd way too. Borges? Those men create fiction; unfortunately, Derek’s brother was living in an all-too-real factual world. I suppose that in our own way we are all potentially at the mercy of something equally as insidious as a legal system being manipulated…that is, social media without a referee. Case in point? A close friend was falsely accused of stalking a woman…in the reader review section on the Amazon site where his books were sold. He had it taken down in a few days (these retractions never happen quickly) but the damage was done. A friend of his son saw it, who reported to the son. Another person commented on it on Facebook. And the lie spread. The accusation was as good as guilt. And if my friend defends himself in any electronic forum, then the charge spreads even more. Life goes on. But not the same as before.

John Domini says on June 15th, 2013 at 6:15 pm:

Condolences to your brother & all concerned. If it’s any consolation, I fought a similar battle w/ a Cambridge, MA, landlord, once upon a time, & I “won,” in a nominal sense — but as in this case, the struggle wore on me long afterwards, & when I moved out as well.

Richard Holinger says on June 18th, 2013 at 7:04 am:

How I wanted the downstairs neighbor to receive her due punishment for harassment. Maybe this can be converted into a short story and have justice be done….The essay is a wonderful evocation of the nightmarish world of false accusations and the innumerable machinations that must be accepted to fend them off.

Dewitt Henry says on June 18th, 2013 at 6:48 pm:

This is nicely framed by the Writer’s brotherly concern, which compensates for the persecution of the younger brother. The nasty woman remains inscrutable, and seems to be the driving force of the absurd system. I thought of the hatred of the Irish spinster for the drunken super in James Alan McPherson’s “Gold Coast,” which costs the super his dog; also of McPherson’s account of being a charitable landlord in his memoir Crabcakes. This is a fine, richly troubled and troubling essay, expressing love and asking for justice and pity.

susan tepper says on June 19th, 2013 at 12:11 pm:

A perfect New York ‘ducts’ essay about a tenancy problem, combined with family angst and a fair amount of suffering. That about sums up NYC and its accoutrements. Beautifully written by Derek Alger.

Gloria Mindock says on June 19th, 2013 at 1:20 pm:

This was so well written about your brother and the whole system. Glad another place came through for him. What a nightmare all of this was for him.

Lee Martin says on June 22nd, 2013 at 2:48 pm:

I love the combination of a happy ending with no ending at all. So representative of much of life.

Jennifer Goble says on June 27th, 2013 at 2:08 pm:

Excellent interweave of the brother’s personal, emotional reaction to the author’s logical, cynical take on the system. He created a visual that truly depicted two sides of one story, which is true reality.
I was personally disappointed that the complaining tenant won, so to speak. I believe in consequences for one who intentionally seeks to harm another.
I see a sequel coming.

Terry Ann Thaxton says on July 19th, 2013 at 6:13 pm:

Derek–Moving essay not only about the unexplained wickedness of some, but also the love between brothers and the helplessness of being one of the very few people your brother trusts. The love and care you give to your your brother who doesn’t navigate the world in the way others might, is inspiring. You depict your brother’s uniqueness without labeling him. You show your own anger at the system that doesn’t see individuals. I like the connections between how to write a news article and how the world operates–within this formulaic expectation, and if you don’t fall into that expected formula, you can forget having your voice (your unique voice heard. Bravo.