Her delivery was reminiscent of a character offering a monologue in James Joyce’s unique, experimental novel Ulysses: run-of-the-mouth and breathless, crazy but also strangely sane.
“In the magazine, what is it, on page 6, about rating your building,” she begins, without any preamble. “You know the city law requires – I don’t think the city requires any laws. You know there are a lot of rentals. It’s always co-op and condos, you know, they get after. The rentals are so neglected, these rental apartments in these cities, in this New York City – in all the boroughs – are so full of violations and the city does nothing to correct these violations. Inspectors come and go – you don’t even think they’re qualified. They look at you like morons; they write it down, like 311, and nothing is ever followed through – they expect you to go to court, to get a lawyer and go to court – they don’t get after these landlords...
“The landlords don’t care. The doors are all busted. The filth…they pass a filthy mop and sometimes they don’t. They don’t sweep. It’s terrible – they spit in the hall – I mean it’s just disgusting. It’s just disgusting. And the landlords destroy you, too. The tenants destroy the buildings. The landlords destroy the buildings, and there’s no one to come here and city, state, state housing, Gert Plaza, does nothing. And the city, code enforcement, does nothing where a lot of the tenants there have so much violations, and nobody does any nothing to correct it.”
It was a strange, rambling rant (that went on for another minute or two – but who’s still listening?), and although it came to me as an editor at Habitat, it put me in mind of some of the eccentrics you have to cope with on a co-op or condo board. As president of my board for over 20 years (yikes!), I often find messages on my answering machine that ramble on about some issue that concerns the caller – the doors are the wrong color, the laundry room is messy, there are marijuana smells in the hallway – that may not be as wild as the Joycean phone rant but can sometimes feel just as disjointed. It starts to get to you.
I remember the last time that I began to feel that way. It was years ago, and the board had just passed a new, more restrictive sublet policy. We felt we were protecting the interests of the building – too many sublets would destabilize the building and make it harder for buyers to get mortgages (since banks frown on buildings with huge numbers of sublets). But some shareholders saw it differently. One longtime investor didn’t understand why she had to give up her lucrative renter (and complained bitterly to the board). My own cousin, who sublet his unit there, called it unfair and wrong (in more colorful language than that). And one shareholder, a traveling salesman who had barely lived in the unit before he took off and sublet it, left a message on my machine that rambled quite a bit (not unlike my recent Joycean caller), and ended with a charge that the board was acting like a “bunch of Nazis.”
Of course, that’s extreme – I don’t think we beat up anyone or burned books we didn’t approve of (at least I didn’t) – but it still hurt. Indeed, when people call being on the board a thankless job, they’re not kidding.
But then, you think about why you’re doing it – to protect your investment, to help your neighbors, to create a better quality of life – and you take a deep breath. And then you keep on keeping on. After all, a co-op is like a family, and families have disagreements, disputes, and harsh talk. Still, you’re in it for the long haul, and the work should be its own reward.
And, hey, you don’t always have to answer the phone. You can just listen to the crazies later.
Habitat, January 2012