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From the Editor 27: Sublets


from HABITAT, March 2011

“Hey, Tom,” my brother Pete said to me softly. “Look over there. Isn’t that Barbara Feldon?” He pointed across the crowded theater lobby at a tall woman chatting with a couple of people. Sure enough, it was “Agent 99” from a favorite TV comedy, Get Smart.


“Yes, it is,” I replied, always amazed at Pete’s ability to spot a celebrity.

“Would you like to meet her?”
“Sure, but how – ?“

Before I could finish speaking, he was waving and calling out loudly, “Barbara! Barbara! Over here!” She made her way over to us, smiling, and said, “How are you?”

“My brother, Tom, here, just wanted to make your acquaintance,” he said breezily. After that, the three of us chatted smoothly for a few minutes until Feldon, obviously consumed by curiosity, asked Peter, “Say, I can’t remember. When did we first meet?”

“Just a few minutes ago,” said my brother without missing a beat. And as he explained to me later: “These celebrities meet so many people that they forget who they know. If you act like you’re somebody who might know them, they respond rather than being embarrassed.”
My brother’s chutzpah came to mind when I heard of a building where a shareholder brazenly sublet her apartment – in direct contradiction of the rules, which she knew as a former board member. At first, she said that she was, of course, staying there; then, when that statement proved untrue, she said that, of course, she wasn’t there, she was traveling and had a guest staying there; and then, when that one went down the memory hole, she said that, of course, it wasn’t a guest, it was her fiance’s brother who was staying there (although his appearance and height changed from time to time); and, when that was inoperative, she sighed and asked a weary board, finally, what did it matter? She was going to sell the apartment anyway.

“Guests” are a nebulous thing, for one man’s guest is another’s subtenant. “They’ll claim that they don’t pay rent and therefore it’s not a subtenancy,” David Goodman, a senior management executive at Tudor Realty said to me on the phone the other day. “That’s bull. They’re living there and the board needs to know who they are.”

But has the board ever seen it from the other side of the table? What is it like to be a subtenant, living a dark and shadowy existence as a “guest,” or a “relative,” or an “other.” I know, because my first apartment was an illegal subtenant in a rental. It was a brownstone on West 89th Street in Manhattan and the landlord lived on the ground floor.

What a life I led! Afraid to pass the owner in the hallway, I studied his movements like a spy, not wanting to face what I expected to be a Perry Mason-like cross-examination, at the end of which I would break down and admit: “Yes I did it. I took the illegal sublet.” When I would encounter him unexpectedly in the hallway, however, I displayed the same chutzpah as my brother Pete would with Barbara Feldon, cheerfully wishing the landlord a good morning, as I pretended I had a legal right to be there.

But as an illegal, I dared not complain about the lack of heat in my apartment or the open vent with no cover that made my bathroom feel like a freezer unit in the winter. I rarely talked to my neighbors, lest I was discovered and turned in to the landlord. Even my mail was carefully collected; I didn’t want any scrap of evidence to fall into the wrong hands. And when I was attacked in the vestibule by a robber one afternoon, I did not report it because I was sure that, then, the landlord would surely find out about me.

No, it is not an easy life being an illegal subtenant. The board, naturally, has its duty to do, but the lesson here is simple: try to be as understanding as Barbara Feldon was when my brother’s little ruse was uncovered. Look at the circumstances, and let the punishment fit the crime.
February 7, 2011