Monday, June 29, 2009

The AfterFred (Part X)

(Note: This is the end of a long, long story. For the beginning, click here.)

So what did we learn from the Fred "M"oland experience?

Well, for one, the obvious--take pictures, write down *everything* on the Statement of Condition, document everything you can and hold onto it. The fact is, if Fred had gotten off his butt and simply sent us a letter within the 30-day time limit listing his deductions and damages--fictitious or not--we would've had a much harder time proving our case against him, because it would've been simply our word against his. Fortunately, he didn't, and so we had both goodness and the law on our side. A nice one-two punch.

We learned that if the tenants before you are able to convince their dad to drive up from a neighboring state just to pump heating oil out of the tank rather than leave it for the landlord, you might want to reconsider your choice of landlords. If it's too late, well, a few extra pictures might not be a bad idea.

We learned that if your upstairs neighbor knocks on your door and offers to trade you some pills he found in his apartment for a bag of weed, you shouldn't answer your door in the future.

We learned not to rent from anyone who bears a strong resemblance to an aquatic mammal.

We learned that "Don't worry about that" can, on the lips of a lawyer, have a variety of meanings. To us, it meant, "I'd rather see this settled than make any additional money on it, so take the two grand and let's get out of here." When I received the check from David the following week, it turned out that what it had meant to him was, "I'm willing to settle for another $350 off the top so you guys can get your original deposit back, minus the $500 that you've already paid me."

Corollary: we learned why lawyers get everything in writing before agreeing to it.

And when all was said and done, we learned the value of compromise. I still wonder if we could've stuck it to Fred in court. I also wonder if we would've ended up with a jury of landlords and gotten nothing at all out of him. We did get our original deposit back, mostly, and we got the satisfaction of knowing that Fred didn't gain anything out of the deal. It ain't exactly triple damages, but it's something.

One more thing we learned, much later:

I pondered, for a long time, what my moral duty was to future tenants of Fred "M"oland, the Peachtree Trust, or whichever other sham name he whipped up for himself in the future. Should I try to warn every future resident of that house? Could I drop flyers? Take out an ad? At what point would it cross the line to harassment? I wasn't sure, so I did nothing and hoped that the scars would fade over time.

Then, in December of that year I received a very odd phone call. It was from Joanne, a new tenant at Fred's apartment. A package for me had been sent to my old address; fortunately, the sender had put my cell phone number on it, which was still accurate after all this time. Would I like to come pick it up?

I couldn't let this opportunity pass me by. Not just for the package--although I do really like presents--but to check in on the old digs and see if this poor person knew what she'd gotten herself into. I gathered up some of my notes from the case and headed over.

Joanne gave me the package, we made small talk for a while, and then I asked:

"So...what do you think of the landlord so far?"

Her look spoke volumes. Fortunately, so did she.

It started, for them, when they had some troubles with their dishwasher. After several calls, and familiarly enough, a missed rent check, Fred came by to look at it. Joanne remembered that part clearly, because he scared her half to death when she came out from the bedroom to find that he had let himself in, unannounced, and was hunkered down over the sink. He grunted menacingly and brandished his tusks, and she retreated to the bedroom again with her laundry.

A bit later, she returned to the kitchen to find that he was sitting at the table, helping himself to some leftovers from her refrigerator. This was when Joanne began to suspect that he was not, perhaps, the most upstanding of citizens.

"Wow," I said. "That may be a new low even for Fred. What do your neighbors in the other apartment think?"

"Oh, they're long gone," she said.


Apparently, the downstairs neighbors had tired of Fred's antics even more quickly than Joanne and her husband had. Two of them moved out early; the third was still looking for a place, and had to stay a bit longer. That meant that he was there for several unannounced visits as Fred roamed through the apartment looking for damages to trump up (or, more likely, a bucket of raw fish).

One night, when he heard the sound of Fred's key in the lock yet again, the remaining tenant decided to do something about it. So he slipped into the bathroom with a cell phone, locked the door, and quietly called the police to report that someone had just broken into his apartment and he was hiding in the bathroom. Could they please send help right away?

Two of Belmont's finest were at the door just minutes later, blue lights flashing. Naturally, Fred was quite confused and unsure of which prepared alibi he should use. Sadly, we'll never know what he may have confessed to. The drama was cut short when the tenant came out of the bathroom--"Oh, Fred, it's just you! My bad!"--and everything was sorted out. The tenant moved out very shortly after, leaving behind a wonderful story for Joanne and, I assume, his security deposit.

When she had finished telling the story, I handed Joanne the packet of papers that I'd brought. "Here's everything you'll need when you move out," I said. "What we did...relevant passages of Massachusetts Housing Law...and here's the name of a lawyer familiar with Fred and what he did in our case." (Yeah, I gave her David's name, even after our little $350 misunderstanding. Again, the value of compromise--keeping Fred from stealing anything was the greater good.)

"Just do me one favor," I asked, "and share it with whoever moves in downstairs from you." Joanne assured me that she would.

That was the last I saw or heard from her. Up until I started writing this saga, I hadn't thought about it much since then. But here we are in a busy market, with college kids moving out and new tenants starting to look...perhaps its time to swing by that old brown house in Belmont and drop off some papers for those prospective tenants.

The perfect post title...for justice! (Part IX)

It seemed to take forever, and yet it seemed to take no time at all, much like reading this blog, only not. Finally, before we knew it, the day was here. October 2 dawned clear and cool. It was the perfect weather...for justice!

This was it. It would be the final battle. One of us would not be leaving that courtroom alive. Or at least, one of us would not be leaving with our security deposit. To improve odds a bit, I asked James and Bert to go with me. Together, we formed a perfect team...for justice!

James and Bert were still roommates, so I met them at their place and we headed toward the Cambridge District Court in Bert's car. Howard Stern was playing on the radio. I've never been a big fan of Howard's--partly due to an unfortunate experience with a previous roommate (who is, by himself, a story for another day), and partly because, well, you can't like everybody. For some reason, though, on this day, I didn't mind. We were loose, relaxed, ready for action. We were on the side of good. We had the strength of our numbers and a lawyer on our side. On a day like that, even Howard Stern seems OK. Better than OK, it was perfect. The perfect radio...for justice!

We parked on the street (the perfect parking spot...ah, nevermind) and headed into the imposing stone structure. I'd made a practice run the day before, so we found it easily, and with the extra time we allotted for traffic we were actually a little early. We located the right courtroom and were the first ones to take a seat. David DeCelles wasn't there yet, so we were content to just talk amongst ourselves and wait.

Now, I mentioned last time that I might have to get a haircut for this one. When this court process had started, I had a tangly, frizzy mess of ruggedly handsome curls that ended somewhere in the vicinity of my shoulder blades. Between my last appearance with Fred and this one, I'd sent all those ruggedly handsome curls to Locks of Love, much to the delight of my parents and the dismay of my hockey team, which believed that my hair had Samson-like qualities. (To this day, I like to picture some little girl opening a package from Locks of Love, putting on the wig inside, getting a faraway look in her eyes, and saying, "I think I wanna be...a goalie when I grow up.") I'd decided to shave my head partly in conjunction with the aforementioned State Police interview process, and partly because it was just so darned *hot* that summer. Since I no longer needed a beard to make my gender apparent from a distance, that went, too.

But I didn't realize just how different I looked until Fred gallumphed in and took a seat right next to me. He swept the room with his beady little eyes, but I was blocking his view of Bert and James, and he obviously didn't recognize me. He took out a yellow legal pad--probably the closest relationship he's ever had with legality--and scrawled some notes. I did my best to read them over his shoulder, but his inability to evolve opposable thumbs didn't do much for his handwriting.

I was still trying to decide if I should strike up a conversation with him about kids these days when the judge entered the room. (After all the episodes of "Night Court" I've watched, I'm still surprised that we didn't have to "All rise!" when he entered the room. Once again, real life falls short of my TV-generated expectations.) As in Waltham, we began with a roll call. I think my favorite exchange of the whole proceedings was this one:

Judge: "Morrison v. Boland."

Fred: "Defendant."

Me: (after a beat, turn and give Fred my biggest smile) "Plaintiff!"

He jumped as high as his stubby little fins could propel him and quickly flipped the legal pad over so I couldn't see it, edging away from me as he did. Most enjoyment I got out of the whole trial.

We were again offered the option of mediation, but as it had worked so well for us before, we politely declined. With that, we were left to our own devices as the judge moved on to the next case. Fortunately, David showed up then and pulled me outside the courtroom for a chat. Bert and James followed.

Remember, this was the first time I had met my attorney face to face. For lack of a better description, he looked like a lawyer; tall, well-groomed, with distinguished gray hair and the requisite leather satchel. We shook hands all around and then got down to business. After a few minutes refresher and a few additional details, David offered to go talk with Fred. We waited in the hall.

He came back after a bit with an update: Fred was offering to refund our entire security deposit to us now.

"Right now?"

"Yes, today."

It was too easy. Not so much for us, but for Fred. And since we'd now purchased almost $500 of David's time to date, and we knew the law allowed for triple damages for this offense, it wasn't enough. Fred was not getting off that easy, and we told David so. He nodded and headed back into the courtroom.

He came out after a much longer pause this time. "He's not willing to negotiate," he said simply. "He wants to take his chances with the jury."

Okay. Unless the jury was composed entirely of crooked landlords, we had this in the bag. I mean, we had an attorney! And I'd gotten a haircut! What more could we need?

We spent some time going back through Fred's list of damages, explaining again why each one was bogus. After that we just stood in the hall and waited. And waited. And waited. James called in to work to say that he'd be later than he thought. Bert and I wallowed in our unemployment and just kept on waiting.

David popped in and out of the courtroom to check on the proceedings in there. At 11:00, he came back out with a grim look on his face. "They haven't even started jury selection yet," he reported.

Tell me again about the speedy trial? Is that really the same amendment as the one about a jury of your peers?

"Why don't we see if there's a free mediation room," our attorney suggested. "It can't hurt anything at this point."

We shrugged our assent, and off he went. It turned out that there was both a free room and a mediator to go with it, so we trooped on in. I don't know if David had to do any arm-twisting (sadly, only of the verbal variety) to get Fred in there, but he joined us shortly thereafter. The mediator, Denise, was a pleasant woman who acted like she'd probably been there long enough to have heard it all but not quite long enough to stop caring.

Once again, each side presented its case. We went first, and as I was getting pretty used to this by now, I summed up our side for her in much less time (and with fewer walrus jokes) than it's taken me to write.

Then it was Fred's turn. By now he had abandoned the "I don't own the property, I just own the trust" defense, and he saw what happened when he tried relying on the arbitration clause of his lease. Instead, his argument now seemed to be that giving the security deposit back to any one of us would result in each of the other two suing him for the same amount, so that he would be liable for paying triple the amount of the original deposit back to us.

I'm not exactly sure how this was a defense. Neither was David, who started gleefully cross-examining Fred until Denise made him stop. She decided it might be best if she spoke to each side separately, so she ushered Fred out of the room and sat back down with us. As soon as the door closed, Denise cut to the chase.

"How much would you be willing to settle for here?" she asked.

This was the first time we'd been asked that question, and we really weren't sure. "How much can we get?" we asked.

She shrugged. "Would you take the full deposit?" We shook our heads. "1,800? 2,000?"

"Fred needs to pay something for this," I broke in. "Or he's just going to do it to the next tenant. And we're not willing to let him keep a nickel of that deposit. Two thousand would still leave us short after our legal fees."

It was David's turn to pipe up. "Don't worry about that," he said. "If that's all that keeps this from being settled...we can work that out."

"So, two thousand?" Denise asked again.

We looked at each other. We looked at David. We looked at each other again. We were all thinking it, but I had to say it.

"Absolute minimum. Please don't start there." David nodded his agreement.

Now it was our turn to head out into the hallway, while Fred waddled back in. We sat down on the uncomfortable wooden benches that were apparently purchased for every courthouse in Massachusetts. After a few minutes of silence, I had this conversation with David:

Me: "We're in the right here, aren't we? I mean, I'm sure every client you've ever had thinks that he's in the right...but it seems like we really are. He's pretty much taken the Mass housing law and violated it word for word, hasn't he?"

David: "The guy's a bozo."

I've changed my mind about what I said earlier. THAT was my favorite exchange of the whole proceedings.

"So why are we talking about settling?" I asked. "Seems like, if the book is this open and shut, shouldn't we throw it at him?"

"Well, you'd like to, but the reality is that it doesn't usually work that way," answered David. "People are rarely awarded the full amount to which the law says they're entitled. We'd probably have to be here all day before they selected a jury and heard the cases before ours. They might not even get to us today, and then we'd have to come back. If we can get a check out of this guy today, we should take it."

I was still chewing on that when the door opened and Denise motioned us back in.

"Mr. Moland has agreed," she began, "to write you a check today for $2,000, in return for the three of you dismissing the claim against him."

You could see that coming, couldn't you? In hindsight...well, we'll get to that later. Again, the three of us looked at each other, visions of triple damages slowly fading from our eyes.

"I don't know," I said slowly. "We've already paid a lot in attorney's fees, and we've been here for another three and half hours' worth today..."

"That...don't worry about that," David shook his head reassuringly.

We looked at each other again. Not much point in paying for an expert opinion if you're not going to take it. Also not much point in pushing for a trial your lawyer obviously doesn't want. Besides, if he was willing to reduce his fee to get this settled, he obviously thought it was the right move. And it was closing on a year, now, that I'd been pursuing this. It was time to put it to rest. Looking again to James and Bert, we all nodded.

"All right," said Denise brightly. She quickly scratched out the terms of the agreement. It was very straightforward; Fred wrote us a check, we dropped the case, and both sides agreed not to sue the other over this again. We all signed it, and Denise went off to make copies.

For some reason, to prove to us, once and for all, that he was indeed the biggest wanker we could ever hope to meet, Fred opened his mouth.

"Any of you guys work with computers?" he asked.

We looked at each other. Bert and I both worked for software companies, so we kind of fit the bill. We shrugged.

"My son's been having trouble trying to save a document that he's been working on for school," Fred said. "When he opens it up and changes anything, then tries to save it, it tells him that it can't locate the file. Have you guys ever heard of anything like that happening? Any idea how to fix it?"

I was dumbfounded. I opened my mouth to reply, but no sound came out. This man--no, I can't even call him a man--this mammal had spent the last fifteen months trying to steal $1,650 from us, and now he had the nerve to ask us for help? If I were to light him on fire, I wouldn't stop long enough to spit on him, and he's asking for help? In what twisted recess of his mind does that make sense?

I don't remember exactly what we told him. I think Bert may have mumbled something about file corruption (appropriate, that) and we left it at that. If I had it to do over again, I would've told him to delete his Windows boot file and left him staring at the black screen of death, but I was too flabbergasted to think of that at the time. We just needed to get the check and get out of there. Denise returned to the room with several copies of the signed mediation agreement and passed them around.

The chairs in the mediation room were extremely large and unwieldy, which is the only reason that Fred is still alive today. After we all had our copies of the agreement, he said, "Now, I can't write you the check today, because I don't have enough in the account to cover this. I'll have to send it to you."

I blinked. James began turning purple. Bert made an odd gurgling sound. Acting quickly to protect his clients from themselves, David stepped in.

"Make the check out to me," he said. "I will wait until Thursday to deposit it and then send a check to Mr. Morrison. Is that acceptable?" He looked at us.

"Next week would be--" Fred began. Denise cleared her throat. "Yeah, OK, I can get it done by Thursday."

Deep breaths all around.

We left, shook David's hand, thanked him for all his help, and went on our way. James called into work again to say that he'd be even later, and we headed over to the Cheesecake Factory for lunch and much-needed beer.

Next (and final) post: The Aftermath; lessons learned, bridges burned, and more things staying the same.

Hammer time (Part VIII)

Ah yes, the right of the accused to a trial by a jury of his peers. Stupid Sixth Amendment. Aren't Constitutional amendments supposed to protect the downtrodden and oppressed? (Oh, right...sorry.) And the appeal was scheduled for a full two months in the future, presumably so an expedition to the Arctic Circle could be organized to round up a herd of Fred's peers.

In addition to leaving our security deposit in Fred's grubby flippers for sixty more days, there was another problem with the trial date: it coincided with one of the many steps I was treading in the Maine State Police application process, the full details of which will be chronicled in the book "Not Quite Hero Material," available soon at your local bookstores or, more likely, on this blog over another overlong series of posts. I don't remember exactly which step in the process this one was--if I recall correctly, the timing should make it the review board--but I do remember clearly the boldface all-caps print telling me that THIS TEST MAY NOT BE RESCHEDULED.

I couldn't be in two places at once. It was time to get help. I needed a lawyer.

But how to find one?

My previous experience with members of the legal profession in Massachusetts fell into three categories:

- Randy, the corporate counsel from my last job. Like me, Randy was a Colgate grad, and as such, the stories I heard about his exploits featured more keg stands than witness stands. Besides, as one might expect from a corporate counsel, housing law was not his area of specialization;

- Late-night commercials for personal injury attorneys with names that sounded like rejected professional wrestlers, such as Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro and Howie "Squid Pro Quo" Fine. Their ads were always fun, with very serious-looking men wearing very bad toupees asserting "I'm Bobby 'The Teddy Bear' Robertson, but my friends call me 'The Executioner.' If you've ever been injured, know someone who's been injured, or have injured someone else, you're probably entitled to sue them. Call now and we can have you in a neck brace before you're off the phone! As I like to say, 'Habeas Corpses, baby'!" And, of course,

- Law & Order reruns.

None of these seemed like an entirely satisfactory resource. Instead, I turned to the Yellow Pages, where I found the listing "Lawyers - Landlord & Tenant." There were two names there, one of which was "AAA Super Best Legal Guys," so I picked the geographically closer one, Attorney David T. DeCelles of Arlington, MA.

I know what some of you are thinking, and you should be ashamed of yourselves. But I also know what some OTHERS of you are thinking, and that is: After all the time and effort I've put into this, I'm going to trust my case to a name picked at random out of the Yellow Pages? To which I respond:

The important thing here is that I wasn't looking for legal help, merely someone who could stand in my place and request that the trial be postponed until such time as I could be present for it. A trained seal could do as much. Unfortunately, walruses are their natural predators, so I needed a human.

I called up David and explained the case to him. He asked a few intelligent questions and agreed that I was totally in the right, so he obviously knew what he was talking about. We settled on an hourly rate that I hoped was fair, and I sent him a copy of the court documents and my notes on the case to date. (Some have said that I can be a bit long-winded when I write, dragging an account on for pages and pages when the pertinent details could be summed up in just a few paragraphs. I have no idea what those people are talking about, but in case they were right, I did hope he was a fast reader. He was charging by the hour, after all.) Again, I emphasized, I just needed someone to show up for the court appearance and ask for it to be postponed until I could be there. He assured me that he'd take care of it. Satisfied, I headed off to Maine for a trial of a different sort.

I returned to find a letter in my mailbox from the Third District Court of Eastern Middlesex (giggle...I said...), Cambridge Division. Ah! My new trial date! I eagerly tore open the envelope and read:

"Michael Morrison (Plaintiff) vs. F. Boland (Defendant).

This action came on to be heard at this sitting
Judge Hogan
and the Plaintiff
Michael Morrison
having failed to appear this action is dismissed."



I sat down.

A trained seal. A trained seal!

I placed a call to my apparently untrained seal and left a message on his answering machine. "Hi David, Mike Morrison here. Just got back from my trip and found a letter here stating that the case was dismissed because I failed to appear. Why would it say such a thing? Give me a call when you can, please." I thought I sounded very calm, as they say one does when one is on the verge of committing a violent crime. I then headed inside to await the late-night ads in hopes of finding new legal representation.

Fortunately, David contacted me before it came to that. Turns out that a clerk in the district court had told him that the case was not scheduled for that day, or in fact for any day in June. Being an attorney, bless his heart, he made sure to get that in writing. Armed with this evidence of administrative misinformation, he assured me that it would be a simple matter to get the case back on track. He would file the necessary motions to do so and keep me informed. In return, I would put down the knife and back away slowly.

A new trial was scheduled for July 10, then rescheduled for July 17 when Fred protested that he wouldn't be able to make the first one. (The irony was not lost on me, either.) Since I was not required to appear, I had nothing to do but wait and hope that David made it to this one.

He did. And it went well. Because I enjoyed them so much, I'll let him tell it in his own words [with my comments in brackets]:

"Mr Morrison:

"Yesterday (July 17) I appeared before Judge Kilmartin [couldn't get a Judge Kilfred?] regarding my motion to get this matter back on track for the jury trial as per Mr. Boland's statutory demand.

"Although I was there at 9:00 AM, Mr. Boland had called ahead and said he would be late.

"Even after his arrival, we were not heard until 11:20 AM.

"Mr. Boland filed a written opposition. [Remember when he defaulted--twice--and I didn't oppose letting him back in? Do you see why I feel some antipathy toward the man? I bet he cheats at solitaire, too.]

"After interrogating Mr. Boland, Judge Kilmartin not only allowed the motion (reactivating the case); but also amended the original complaint to add Fred Boland, Trustee, Peachtree Trust, as a second party defendant.

"The latter occurred because Mr. Boland made much of his claim that you had selected the wrong defendant in that the building had been sold, during your tenancy, by himself, as individual, to a trust in which he is the trustee.

[This is my favorite part!] "Instead of creating a favorable impression by revealing that fact, the impact was the opposite in that it appeared to Judge Kilmartin, and rightly so, that Mr. Boland was trying a relatively unsophisticated trick to avoid liability.

"The matter has been scheduled for trial at the Cambridge District Court, Jury Session, for 9:00 AM on October 2, 2002. Of course, you must appear to testify on your own behalf, and I shall be there as well.

Very truly yours,

David T. DeCelles."

October 2. Fifty weeks to the day since I first filed in Small Claims court. A trial by jury! I might have to get a haircut for that one. I assumed David would coach me about such things. I wonder if I got to help select the jury? Ooo, what an experience this would be!

Well, I was right about that part.

Next post: Justice comes with cheesecake

"Hangin' Judge Finucane" has a nice ring to it (Part VII)

'Twas a bit past noon when we emerged from our fruitless mediation session and returned to the courtroom. Not surprisingly, Middlesex County Clerk-Magistrate Michael J. Finucane was at lunch. The mediator went off to find him, and after a few minutes, he entered the courtroom, wiping a bit of mayo from his mouth as he ascended to the bench.

This was now the third time I'd sat before the Hon. Mr. Finucane to present my case, but the first time that someone had sat at the table opposite me. Our previous sessions had been much more enjoyable (for him as well, I suspect). The first order of business was the defendant's motion to remove the judgment of default. "You can object to this," the judge told me, "but unless you can show a good reason why the case should not be heard, I will probably have to allow it anyway."

I waved my hand dismissively. "I've got no objection," I said. "I'm happy to let the case be decided on its merits." Wasn't I cute? All that naivete and no place to go! (I have no theme music, so I can't properly set up the foreshadowing here, but remember this event--it'll come up again next post.)

That out of the way, it was time for each of us to present our sides. I went first, and I believe the two practices served me well; I was able to be pretty straight and to the point. ("Moved out. Waited 30 days. Didn't get deposit back. Want deposit. Also, please disembowel landlord. Thank you.")

Fred, on the other hand, seemed to think that the judge would be on his side against this punk kid. He started with his list of damages, showing how irresponsible we punk kids were with our drunken parties and careless showers and stampeding herds of water buffalo and all the other acts that he was sure were taking place at his apartment, all leading to this final $9,000 bill for--

"How much?" interrupted the magistrate.

"Over $9,000, your Honor," Fred said, throwing a smug glance at me.

"Well, the limit for Small Claims Court is $2,000," the judge replied. "If you want to submit this as a counterclaim, you'll either have to reduce the amount of your claim to that limit, or file this as a separate suit in civil court. You can do so downstairs in the Clerk's Office after we're done here, if you like."

The smugness disappeared. "Two...claim...civil...huh?" Fred argued glibly.

The Hon. Mr. Finucane repeated himself, speaking slowly and clearly, as one would to a small child, or perhaps an aquatic mammal. For whatever reason, Fred was unwilling to give up any of his fictional damages, so he withdrew his counterclaim--"For now," he said. Whatever. If Small Claims Court was the "simpler, faster process," I was pretty certain we'd exceed his life expectancy (only 35-40 years in captivity, according to long before he pushed anything through civil court.

Fred next pointed out that he no longer owned the property in question. The property and its accompanying security deposit had been transferred to a trust. Therefore, if we wanted our deposit back, we would have to sue the trust. Oh, and pay Fred for all this wasted time in court.

"A trust?" inquired the judge.

"Yes, your Honor, the Peachtree Trust," Fred replied, the smugness back.

"And are you the trustee?" asked the judge.

"Well...yes," Fred replied, less smugly.

"And are there any other trustees?" queried the judge.

"Yes, your Honor," Fred replied, only mildly smugly.

"And who are they?" pressed the judge.

" wife..." Fred replied, totally smug-free.

"I see."

There was a moment of silence. I was beginning to think that perhaps Fred's showing up this time would actually improve the odds of a judgment in our favor.

Fred's final argument was to point to the arbitration clause in the lease that we had signed, which clearly waived our right to a trial in the event of any dispute concerning the lease. For this one, I actually had to argue my case, and I can't tell you how happy I was that I had done all that homework back before the first trial. I mean, I spent entire semesters in college without doing the kind of research I'd done for this case. (Uh...just kidding, Mom and Dad!) Notes in hand, I fired back.

"First of all, this dispute has nothing to do with the lease. The lease is over and done with. This is about the security deposit that you've stolen after the lease ended. Second of all--" I flipped to page four of my notes "--according to Massachuessets General Law Chapter 186, Section 15F, 'Any provision of a lease or other rental agreement relating to residential real property whereby the tenant agrees to waive his right to trial by jury in any subsequent litigation with the landlord...shall be deemed to be against public policy and void'." I produced a printout of the passage I had just quoted and held it out to Fred. He didn't take it. My hand was shaking a bit from the adrenaline rush--was this how Vinny Gambini got started?--so I returned the paper to my pile.

"Well, you still did $9,000 worth of damages to that apartment." Fred cleverly replied. Apparently, he'd run out of new arguments for the day.

"Fred, the only legitimate charge in there is the cans in the basement, and you know it," I shot back.

"My son spent a whole day cleaning those!" he argued.

"Well maybe if you'd done something when we called and told you the basement was flooding, they wouldn't have gotten so dirty," I responded. (And yes, I know this sounds like a lost episode of 'Jerry Springer'.)

"You'll have to talk to God about that, not me," was Fred's retort.

"I did. He said you should replace the broken sump pump. And also something about 'Thou shalt not...' help me out here...rhymes with 'veal'..." This is what I wish I'd said, now that I've had several years to think about it. What I actually said was, "I did. He was busy."

Not quite as punchy, is it? In future versions of this story, I'll probably just go with the first line. I'm swearing anyone who's still paying attention to secrecy here and now.

Anyway, Middlesex County Clerk-Magistrate Michael J. Finucane chose this moment to step in, narrowly averting an outbreak of slap-fighting. "Alright, I think I've heard enough here to make a judgment," he said. "You'll receive your decision in a few days."

Huh? A few days? Where was the instant gratification? Where was the gavel banging "Guilty!" and the burly bailiff upending Fred and comically shaking money out of his pockets into my outstretched hands? I'd had visions of seizing his car that very day! And now I have to wait? Argh!

The next few days passed torturously did the following few...and the few after that. Why was it taking so long? Was the arbitration clause really valid? Was Fred doing something behind my back? Would he be laughing at me from the shady boughs of the Peachtree Trust?

Ten days I spent wondering these things, until that happy afternoon when the mailman brought me a letter from the Waltham District Court. Eagerly, I tore it open to read the words I'd longed to see:


And then, in much smaller print:

The defendant's reliance on the arbitration clause treated as affirmative defense.

I didn't know what that meant. I really didn't care. The clock was ticking once again, and Fred had 30 days to pay or we could start getting medieval on his butt. Sure, it had taken six months, but I like my justice, like my revenge, served ice-cold. I also like my lemonade that way, but that's neither here nor there.

"But wait!" you say. "In our judicial system, doesn't any party in a legal case who feels that it has been treated unfairly have the right to appeal that decision to a jury of their peers?"


One week later, this notice came in the mail:

"Please be advised that the above defendant has appealed the judgment that was rendered in small claims court in Waltham on 4/9/02. This appeal will be heard by a jury in Cambridge Court at a future date and time to be determined by that court."

A trial by jury?

Back to the Law & Order reruns...

Next post: Justice takes a commercial break

There's no "im" in "mediate" (Part VI)

If you're still reading this, you have an even more boring job than I did. Good for you! Thanks for killing some time with me.

Now, back to the neverending saga of Fred "M"oland. If I recall correctly, the facts of the case were thus:

- I was one of three roommates who rented a moderately dilapidated apartment from Fred.
- We moved out in July of 2001 and waited three months for the security deposit that, by law, he had 30 days to return.
- We filed suit against him in Small Claims Court in October of 2001 and won, not once, but twice, when Fred failed to show up for either appearance.
- The court ordered Fred to pay up by April 15, 2002 (an enjoyably auspicious date for numerous reasons, chiefly being both tax day and the day the Titanic went down). I was to return for a "payment review" a week later, at which point, had Fred not paid, I could hire a constable to collect from him. (But would I be able to find the LAPD officers from the Rodney King video in time?)

And the most important fact of the case thus far:

- Fred is an idiot.

So it was no surprise when, after receiving notice of the second judgment, he again filed the same series of motions to remove the judgment and award himself the same $9,000 in damages. And I do mean "the same", because he simply mailed in an exact copy of his previous letter, right down to the February date and the typos.

And so, at 9 AM on April Fool's Day--really, I couldn't make this stuff up, though I wish I was--I found myself sitting once again in my favorite seat in the Waltham District Court of Middlesex County, listening to the magistrate call the docket of cases for that morning. For the third time, he called out "Michael Morrison vs. Fred Moland," and for the third time, I raised my hand and replied, "Plaintiff."

And for the first time, a voice called out "Defendant."

I didn't recognize him at first. You'd think it would be hard to forget the pig-eyed, ox-jowled, balding-walrus-headed face of your arch-nemesis. Turns out that those exact features are common to a much larger portion of the Boston small claims court population than I would have believed. To this day, when I meet someone matching that description, I'm aware of the instant dislike that I have for him (or, more rarely, her). I suppose it's similar to the new awareness that you have for a certain type of car or laxative after you've purchased one yourself; it was always there, you just notice it more now that you're looking for it.

Wow! Fred was actually there! This would mean that I would have to argue the case on its merits, rather than simply winning by showing up! It was like being thrust from the Special Olympics into the X-Games. All the nervousness that I'd felt the first two times came flooding back to me in a torrent of anxiety. At that moment, I was aware of two things: one, that I could not recall ever having won an important one-on-one competition in my life; and two, that antiperspirant ads are horrendously misleading. "Body-heat activated," my butt. "Body-heat overwhelmed" was more like it.

When both parties show up in Small Claims court, they offer you one last chance to work out your problems without involving the law. Trained mediators are standing by to try to help the two parties reach an arrangement before wasting the judge's time. If you cannot come to an agreement, you can still go back to the courtroom and battle things out there.

The judge explains all of this to you when he calls your name, and asks if you would like to attempt mediation. Being still without gainful employment, and not averse to wasting Fred's time (which, if you recall, he'd previously valued at roughly $150 per court appearance), I said sure. I'm not sure why Fred agreed as well; it may be that he didn't want to appear unaccommodating, though I doubt that. He may have known that he didn't have a legal leg to stand on and thought that he could talk his way into a smaller settlement. Or maybe he is just genetically programmed to come into contact with as many people as he can annoy. I'm really not sure. In either case, we both headed back out to the lobby to await our turn at mediation.

And await it.

And await it.

And await it.

Lemme tell ya, you want uncomfortable, try sitting on a wooden bench next to the person you're taking to court. I've had blind dates that weren't as bad. Well...not much worse, anyway.

After an hour of waiting, a mediator emerged from one of the side rooms and approached us. Finally!

"Hi," she greeted us cheerily. "Are you waiting for mediation?"

I nodded. Fred slapped his front flippers together and honked affirmatively.

"Well, I'm one of the mediators here," she began perkily. "We're just finishing up with this case, and yours is next on my list. Unfortunately, I've got to leave in fifteen minutes, and I wouldn't want to start with yours if it doesn't look like we'll have time to get through it. So I'll ask one of my colleagues to put you at the end of her list, OK?"

I nodded wordlessly. Fred scratched himself with a tusk.

"Great! OK, we'll see you then." She left. We waited some more.

After another hour, we were finally ushered into one of the side rooms, and seated at a large wooden table with several comfy chairs that were entirely too heavy to be wielded as weapons--a trait, I noticed, common to most of the furniture in the courthouse.

The mediation process was, after all that, remarkably ineffective. Basically, it's a chance to argue with a complete stranger rather than the person you hate. I suppose it cuts down on assault charges, but it's also a much less satisfying feeling, y'know?

I presented our side of the story, mostly the part about a Massachusetts landlord having 30 days after move-out to return a security deposit or provide a list of deductions, and how we were now 212 days beyond that. Fred presented his list of made-up damages and demanded that I fork over another $7,350 to pay the balance. I laughed at him and pointed to a few of his damages, including the "lost rent increase" and the items that he had included on the original statement of condition and was now charging us to repair. He admitted that "some of the items on there are a little questionable."

At this point, the mediators stepped in, asking if there were any charges that we could agree on.

"Yes," I replied. "We left the bottles and cans bagged up in the basement, just like it says. But I'm not paying him $60 an hour to take them to the recycling center."

"My son didn't like that job at all," said Fred.

"You pay your son $60 an hour?" asked the mediator.

"No, I paid him $5 an hour."

"So would you be willing to settle for your actual cost, then?" asked the mediator.

Smoke rose from Fred's tiny ear flaps as he thought about that. Finally, he nodded. Good for you! Have a raw fish.

"OK, so 7 hours at $5 an hour would be $35. And would that be acceptable to you?" asked the mediator, turning to me.

Now, I know I shouldn't have gone into mediation with an uncompromising attitude. But there was no way I was going to pay him a dime for labor his son did. And we certainly were not going to go through the rest of the list of damages one by one and whittle them down to nothing.

So I nodded.

"Sure," I said. "If he'll give us credit for the deposits on those cans and bottles. Let's see, he said it was over 800 of a nickel apiece...that comes out to $ we're five to the good!" I smiled.

Fred's beady eyes sank even further into his wrinkly hide. "Now you're just getting nitpicky," he accused.

"Yes, and you're still a thief."

That about did it for our mediation session. This one would be up to the judge to decide...again.

Next post
: My decision would have involved more sawblades

The landlord strikes back! (Sort of.) (Part V)

The sweet taste of victory lasted for precisely three days. On January 31, I received my official copy of the court's judgement, and to my dismay, the court had neglected to include the 15 months of interest to which we were entitled, according to Massachusetts General Law (remember how I told you to get used to hearing that? I really need to get better about using Autotext).

Being the older and wiser person that I am now, I realize that I should've just accepted that judgment and moved on. But I was neither old nor wise back then (quiet, you), and the amount of interest was almost $200, which was not an insignificant sum to people of our means. So back down to the Small Claims Clerk's Office I went, to see what could be done about this situation.

In my previous column, I failed to do the Small Claims Office justice (rim shot), so let me briefly correct that oversight. The people who staff that office operate with human-like efficiency while maintaining a mechanical warmth, and no, that is not a typo. In their defense, they have probably heard every complaint, excuse, and argument out there, because as we saw, any yahoo with 19 bucks and an axe to grind can take it to Small Claims Court. I think that the day that technology advances to the point where we can replace them with machines will probably be best for all involved. Maybe even machines with big whirring sawblades that can decapitate landlords after, say, their third appearance in a five-year period.

[Computer voice]: Name.

[Nervous landlord]: Scott Stevens.

[Computer voice]: You may pass.

(The landlord shrugs and moves on.)

[Computer voice]: Name.

[Balding landlord with bad moustache]: Uh, Fred...Fred, uh, Noland.

[Computer voice]: Nice to see you again, Mister "Noland". *BZZZZZAAAAAWWWWWWWWWW*

But I digress.

The Clerk's Office gave me a form to fill out explaining what I wanted to change about the decision, and told me that it would be considered at my payment review hearing, which had been scheduled for March 4. That wasn't bad--even I wasn't so naive that I expected Fred to pay me the money before then, anyway. The turnip truck is at least around the bend by now. But neither did I expect the response that I did get from him.

On February 22, just ten days before the payment review hearing, I received a fat letter in my mailbox from one Fred W. "Noland". Why, I thought, he must have mailed me the entire deposit in cash! Wasn't that generous of him!, he didn't. What he had mailed me was a copy of the motions he had made in court to remove the judgment against him, dismiss the case, and award himself roughly $9,000 in damages over and above the security deposit he'd already stolen.

I'm sure you can imagine my reaction to this, but at the time I was unable to express it properly, there being a mandatory 7-day waiting period to purchase a handgun. I chose instead to vent my frustration through another outlet--namely, writing about it. I wish that other people could provide me with as much inspiration as Fred; within the next ten days, I had crafted a 14-page response to his motions, complete with citations in MA General Law, as well as an item-by-item refutation of the $9,000 in damages he had claimed. A few more landlords like him and my dream of being a novelist would quickly become a reality. (Heck, look at how many posts this has turned into!) I won't reproduce the entire thing in detail here, but there were some highlights:

- "The three tenants jointly paid the deposit thus, Morrison is not under any circumstances due any amount greater than 1/3 of the deposit of $1,650. Morrison's maximum claim on the deposit is therefor $530." (Apparently, math wasn't Fred's strong suit.)

- "...arbitration is demanded in the lease and is now demanded in this court or transferrer [sic] to such court where such demand maybe [sic] made..." (Nor was proofreading.)

- "The defendant does not own the property in question and thus is the wrong defendant; the property is now owned by a trust and the deposit was transferred to the trust." (Ah! His strong suit is attempted legal dodges! Well...not really. More on this later.)

- "I hereby demand a payment of $150 for this day in court." (As you'll recall, he had yet to actually appear in court...but if he's going to start putting a price on it, I'll settle for the same.)

The list of damages were a hoot, too:

- $540 to replace a porch railing that was broken when we moved in, plus an additional $100 in "punitive damages". (James established its condition by nearly tumbling to his death when he first leaned against it. Had he not had Bert's oversized head to grab onto, we would've been fighting our legal battles with Fred much sooner.)

- $809 for the soap dish he'd replaced in the shower;

- $270 for the kitchen sink;

- $1,531 for things listed on the Statement of Condition, including $475 of things he himself had listed there;

- $2,475 in lost rent because we'd left the unit in such poor condition that it could not be rented for six weeks; and

- $2,100 because he had to lower the rent from what he wanted to what he could actually get.

Those last two are my favorites, not only because of the sheer audacity of them, but because he had claimed in the very same letter that he no longer owned the property--it was now owned by a trust, remember? (See, I told you there'd be more on that later!) So he's not the owner, but he still gets to collect rent for the next year. Neat trick!

When March 4 rolled around, I arrived in court even earlier, fully prepared to refute every argument Fred had made. I had the signed Statement of Condition; listings of other three-bedroom apartments renting in Belmont for considerably less than what he'd had to lower it from, or even than what he'd lowered it to; I even had dug out the original canceled deposit check with our boy Fred's signature on the back. I was ready for a fight. More than that, I WANTED a fight.

But I have to admit, I was not altogether disappointed when he didn't show again.

Sports fans will tell you that a forfeit is not a satisfying way to win, but it sure looks good in the box scores. Fred's motions were denied, mine was accepted, and so the earlier judgment for the plaintiff was amended to include the interest. That reset the payment clock, meaning that Fred had another 30 days. I was getting pretty good at this by now, so that was fine--I'd be back in April.

This time, it would be different.

Next Post: You know what, it actually was!

Not exactly Wapneresque (Part IV)

We left that apartment in July of 2001 wanting nothing more than to close that annoying chapter in my life. Little did I know that we'd be turning the short story into a Tolkien-esque trilogy.

I called Fred, son of Frederick, son of Fredonia, son of a...gun, Keeper of the Security Deposit, on the day I moved out, to give him my new address. Massachusetts General Law (get used to hearing that phrase, or MGL for short) states that he has thirty days to return it, or to return a portion of it along with a specific list of damages for which he has made deductions. I was definitely worried that he would make up some damages to try to steal our deposit, so it was with some relief that September 1 came and went without a peep from Fred. The thirty days was past; according to MGL, he could no longer keep any portion of the deposit, even if we'd burned the place to the ground. (In hindsight, we're pretty sure that's what his plan was: to drive some tenants to the point where they actually burned the house down, so he could then collect the insurance money. Had we only known, we could've avoided most of this trouble, because we would've cheerfully set fire to every house he possessed, preferably while he was in one of them. See how important communication is to any relationship?)

Then I realized that thirty days had passed and we hadn't gotten our check yet. I gave him another week, then called. Fred had "lost the address" and apparently didn't trust the postal service to forward our mail. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, as well as my address (again), and he assured me that he'd send the check out that day.

42 days and one written, certified, return-receipt-requested notice later, I was in the county courthouse for the first time in my life (honest!), filing in Small Claims Court. For the paltry sum of $19, I made my claim against Fred and was scheduled to appear in court.

In January, four months from now.

"Speedy trial," my butt!

So I waited. And I worried. I prepared myself by going home during lunch and watching reruns of "Law & Order" on TNT. (And this is the point in the narrative when I look at my life and say, "Geez, you'd think something would've changed in the better part of a decade.") When the trial date finally arrived, I was pretty certain that I was not only going to get the security deposit back, but I was probably going to be able to get him for conspiracy and grand larceny, as well. Of course, I'd let him plead to Man 1 to save the taxpayers the expense of a trial, and hope that Briscoe and Curtis didn't give me too much guff.

January 28 dawned clear and cold, a perfect day...for justice! I arrived at the courthouse half an hour early, found my way to the Small Claims Hearing Room, picked a seat in front, and waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

At ten minutes to showtime, a bailiff meandered in, and I checked to make sure I was in the right room. He assured me that I was, so I went back to waiting.

And waiting.

Can you feel the tension building yet? I was sitting in a puddle of armpit sweat, and we hadn't even gotten started.

Eventually, other people started filing in. I studied each face as it entered, but since I hadn't seen Fred since he showed us the apartment, I had only a vague recollection of a balding man with a walrus moustache that rather matched his walrus-shaped body and walnut-sized brain. However, I didn't see anyone with that description walk through the door. Had Fred sent an attorney in his place? Was he wearing a disguise, or possibly a bad toupee?

I began to look about me suspiciously. Any one of these people could be the enemy! I needed a pair of sunglasses like "Rowdy" Roddy Piper had in the movie They Live. You remember, the ones that let him see which people were actually homicidal aliens in disguise? Sigh...once again, Hollywood has created a consumer need that it cannot fulfill. Perhaps I could still spout some incredibly catchy action-antihero lines, just as Roddy did when the sunglasses were broken.

I was spared the opportunity to embarrass myself by the arrival of the magistrate. He began by calling the cases one by one to see if, indeed, both parties were present. When he got to the case of Mike Morrison vs. Fred Moland, I piped up, "Mike Morrison!"

And only silence answered for the defendant.

"OK, Mr. Morrison, because you are here and the defendant is not, that means you have won your case by default. Go downstairs to the clerk's office and tell them that, they will give you a copy of the judgement and schedule a payment review session. The defendant will be given 30 days to pay, if he hasn't paid you in that time then come back at the payment review session."

That was it? I didn't even need a catchy line like "I came here to chew bubble gum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubble gum"?

Wait a minute...that was it! I'd won! I'd won! This whole painful tale would soon be behind me!

Good thing *you* all aren't that naive.

Next post: Oh, we're just gettin' warmed up!

Never an ark around when you need one (Part III)

It was raining in Beantown that spring. A hard rain. Hard enough to wash the slime right out into the street, down the gutter, and into its cushy downtown job, where it spent its days thinking of other ways to be a lousy landlord.

In all fairness, most of what I'm about to tell you is not at all Fred's fault. But it makes for good reading.

By March, things were really heading downhill at our place. James had begun working more overtime and I was playing more hockey, so we were lucky if we ran into each other once or twice a week. Bert and I had yet to hit it off, and without our common link, we spent most of our time on our separate floors of the house.

Here it's necessary for me to explain exactly how the house was set up. The first floor included the living room, dining room, bathroom, kitchen, and two bedrooms. There was also a set of stairs in the back that led up to the third floor attic, which had been converted into a master bedroom. For those scoring at home--bow chicka wow wow! For those just keeping score at home, that's first floor, five rooms; third floor, one room.

There was no fair way to decide who got this indoor football field of a room. However, Bert had a job that required him to be on the road five nights a week, so we gave it to him with the caveat that we would use it as our rec room while he was out of town. Unfortunately, shortly after moving in, his job changed from full-time travel to full-time work-from-home, which shot that plan all to heck. As a new solution, when we divvied up the utilities, we gave Bert the oil bill, the most expensive of the five basic rental utilities (phone, cable, electric, heat, and pizza). Remembering the lesson of a pickup truck full of oil barrels, we chose not to take the "auto-fill" option, which would have kept our tank topped off every month, but instead elected to pay as we went.

In hindsight--it's always in hindsight--there was one significant problem with this solution:

Bert's room was the only one with electric heat.

It was in early March that the oil ran out. March in New England is not known for being particularly balmy, and large houses with single-pane plastic windows held in by bent nails are not particularly warm. This was not a case of being able to put on an extra sweater for a week or two. This was friggin' cold.

After a few days of hinting ("Anyone want a tomato soup popsicle?"), mentioning ("Hey, Bert, how 'bout getting us some heat?"), and finally, threatening ("Y'know, they say an icicle is the perfect murder weapon--no prints, no evidence..."), we called an oil company and arranged a delivery for the next day. All Bert had to do was stay there with his checkbook to accept the delivery. Since he did not have to leave the house to work anymore, this wasn't supposed to pose a problem.

I'm sure you can all guess what happened next.

Divvying up tasks, I'm afraid, was not our strong suit. For instance, we never agreed who would be saddled with the responsibility of returning our empty bottles and cans for the deposit. Consequently, they gathered in our basement--neatly bagged and tied, but building up by the hundreds, because no one would break down and haul them back to the supermarket. Did I mention that we were all bachelors?

OK, so now I can start the story.

I came home one cold, wet, rainy night in March, the latest in a series of cold, wet, rainy nights in March. I was playing hockey that night, and looking forward to it more than usual, because at this point the ice rinks were actually warmer than our apartment. I was cooking a delicious dinner of some form of pasta and cheez (legally, I don't think they can call it cheese) when Bert came down from his electrically heated penthouse. "'Sup."


"Cold down here."


"At least it's not flooded."

That one threw me for a sec, but we had been getting a lot of rain. "Uh...yep."

Bert heard the pause. "Have you looked in the basement yet?"

I could feel the fear coiling in my stomach like a snake. A vicious, many-fanged snake that no cheez could satisfy. My hockey gear was in the basement. "No..."

He handed me two plastic garbage bags. "You'll want these," he said simply, and continued on to the bathroom.

Uneasily, I left the cheez simmering on the stove, opened the basement door, and flicked on the light.

The water was already lapping over the third step. Bags full of cans floated lazily about the room like fat lily pads. From the steps, I couldn't see my hockey equipment, but I took some comfort in knowing that the majority of it, at least, was hanging up to dry, and probably still above water.

I pulled the plastic bags Bert had given me over my feet and secured them with a handy roll of duct tape. Stepping cautiously down the steps and onto the basement floor, I discovered two things: that the water was incredibly cold, and that the bags that Bert had given me both leaked. I sloshed my way over to my gear and took stock. It was, indeed, mostly above water, with the exception of the bag and--most unfortunately--the skates. I carried it upstairs piece by piece, grumbling most of the way, particularly when I noticed that everything of Bert's that was in the basement had been moved to shelves well above the waterline.

Later that night, inside those skates, my feet were the coldest they have ever been (and as my lovely wife can now attest from the other side of the bed, they get pretty cold). It was not a good hockey night. I came home shivering, wet, and wanting nothing more than a hot shower to try and restore feeling to my toes before I crawled under every blanket that I owned.

Funny thing about showers--they usually get their hot water from a tank. A tank usually located in the basement. A tank that, in our case, was heated by a gas burner that didn't, thanks to the six inches of water covering it.

To his credit, Bert had spent some time standing knee-deep in the cold water (actually, it would've been thigh-deep on him) alongside our upstairs neighbor, Russ, trying to get the balky sump pump to work. It was only when the pump threw off a few sparks that Bert realized that playing with a faulty electrical device while waist-deep in water, assisted by someone who was probably under the influence of more than one controlled substance, would make for an incredibly unflattering obituary. I certainly can't fault him for not wanting to join the ranks of the Darwin Award winners. He did call Fred, after paddling through the icy, chest-deep water to the safety of the bottom stair, and asked him if he might find it in his heart to fix the sump pump. Fred's response was, "You'll have to talk to God about that."

The Almighty made his presence felt in the form of the Belmont Fire Department, who cruised down our street the following night with a pump and emptied several basements along our street. We had a hot shower the next morning--again, full credit to Bert, who lay in filth reminiscent of Andy Dufresne's escape from Shawshank in order to relight the hot water burner. And we were once again touched, truly touched, by the depth of Fred's caring for his tenants, which seemed exceeded only by the depth of his caring for our monthly rent check.

By the time July 31 rolled around, we were more than ready to leave. We had given the requisite 30-day notice, packed our things, and left the place in more or less the same condition that we'd found it. The only thing that remained was to get our security deposit back and close the chapter on this life lesson.

Next post: The life lesson gets a sequel...of Harry Potter proportions.

Better Red than Fred! (Part II)

If you'll recall, last post, we left our heroes just as they were about to enter the House of Not Ill Enough Repute. (Obviously, if it had been ill enough, we would've known.) I should take a moment to describe our heroes:

James (not his real name): The aforementioned former Marine (I once made the mistake of calling him an "ex-Marine", before being informed that there are no "ex-Marines," only "former Marines;" I believe this is a term of respect acknowledging the hard work and sacrifice required to attain such a lofty and enviable position, much like "former President" or "former boyfriend of Scarlett Johansson.") James worked the night shift at the hospital, so we only saw each other in passing a few evenings a week, when my hockey schedule coincided with his work.

Bert (not his real name): A friend of James', a generally OK guy whose body never quite grew to the size for which his head was intended, giving him the appearance of an upside-down Weeble. His most notable qualities, from my perspective, were that he was a very good soccer player and usually paid his bills on time, with one notable exception. (Ooo, look! Foreshadowing!)

Me (not my real name): Young, dashing, incredibly virile, with rippling muscles, a flashy car, and large stick with which to beat off the scores of beautiful women who rushed to my side in tight throngs. (Again, that's "STick" and "thRongs," for the benefit of those who may be listening to the book-on-tape version of this.)

OK, so I'm taking a little poetic license be totally, completely honest, Bert's head was not THAT big.

Our lease started in mid-August, giving us a two-week overlap with our previous apartment, which was good because the new apartment hadn't been cleaned since the early 1800's...and the house was built in the 1950's. It's a testament to just how disgusting it was that three bachelors considered it mildly untidy. We gave it a good brooming, subdued or signed treaties with the larger bacteria, and settled in.

The tenants in the upstairs unit of this two-family house moved out at the end of August. I met one of them briefly on a sunny Saturday, as he backed a pickup truck packed with 55-gallon drums down the driveway and up to the basement window. Seemed like a good opportunity to get the inside poop on our new digs.

"Hey, I'm Mike."

"'Sup, Mike. Ryan." We shook hands.

"So, what's Fred like?" I asked innocently.

"He's a dick," responded Ryan. He said it so matter-of-factly, the way you might say "He's a mammal," that it didn't sink in at first. By the time it did, he had fed a hose through the basement window to someone inside, then cranked up the worn-looking pump sitting atop the barrels.

"So, uh...he gave you some trouble, did he?" I asked lamely.

Ryan snorted. "Our refrigerator stopped working in April. He stopped by once, ate some of the food out of it, and hasn't done anything about it since.

"He came by one time and didn't like our garbage can on the front porch, so his way of telling us to move it was to empty it out on our stairs." Ryan nodded toward the barrels. "That's why my dad drove up from Connecticut today so we could pump all the oil that we paid for out of the furnace. I'm not leaving that (expletive)sucker a (bleeping) thing."

What was that? Clue #5? Who's keeping track at this point?

I'd already lived in enough apartments (translation: one or more) to know that the most valuable thing that I have written to date is a detailed Statement of Condition. After being charged $5 a bulb for lights that hadn't had bulbs when we moved in, I learned to be nitpicky. Having seen the do-it-yourself lawyerese in the lease, I thought it particularly important in this case to pick nits to the nth degree. Every window crack, every peeling paint chip, every loose floorboard was recorded on that page in tiny script, along with a few more damages which didn't exist yet, but which I thought we ran some risk of causing. (That's a tip, kids, write it down.) The apartment's condition could best be described as "crap"; but it was a lot of space for not too much money, so who's to argue over a few spots on the carpet?

You may have noticed that Fred has not yet made an appearance in this account. He did the same with the apartment. After the first week, in which he replaced the garbage disposal and assured us that he would be replacing the carpet, I can clearly remember the number of times our dear slumlord paid us a visit, and the times he didn't:

- He DIDN'T when a persistent smell of gas filled the kitchen, and later the entire downstairs, for a few days straight. He assured us that it was just the normal function of the gas stove. Interestingly, the gas company thought it somewhat less normal, and suggested that we step outside until a representative could arrive to check things out. Turned out to be nothing more than a pilot in need of relighting, but it was nice to know that Fred cared.

- He DID...eventually...when the tile in our only shower started to disintegrate. His initial solution was for us to tape Saran Wrap over the hole for a week until he could get there. When he did show up, he tore out a large section of tile around the hole, left it in the tub, and disappeared for another week. When he returned to retile it, he left another heap of broken tile and grout in the tub. Not surprisingly, "Cleaning charges" were not included on his bill...but I'm getting ahead of myself. Did I mention this was our only shower? Yes?

- He DIDN'T come to visit when the kitchen sink broke. It's worth noting that on his own Statement of Condition, he had this item: "The kitchen sink faucet is loose but functions correctly." Not surprisingly, after a few months "loose" became "impossible to shut off." We closed the valve under the counter, put in a call to Fred, and resigned ourselves to using the bathroom sink for our kitchen needs for a few days.

And then a few more days.

And then yet more days.

Do you know how vital a working sink is to the creation of mac 'n' cheese? (I repeat: three bachelors.)

- He DID come to fix the sink when the first of the month came and went without a rent check. ("But, Fred, we thought you were coming out to fix the sink, so we just left the check here for you.") When he did, he found the check taped to the cabinet directly over the sink, and we found ourselves with a new faucet.

- He DIDN'T come to visit when he re-rented the unit upstairs. I am inclined to think that he never even met the people he rented to prior to their moving in. If he did, all I can say is that he is as discerning a landlord as he is an honest one. Russ was a twitchy, slightly-too-friendly sort, the kind of guy who you were pretty sure was walking to work because of one too many vehicular manslaughter charges. He did try to be neighborly by popping downstairs to borrow things, as neighbors do, but instead of borrowing an egg or a cup of sugar, Russ was always looking to borrow a cup of weed. Apparently, the local Store 24 was all out. His wife was a rail-thin chain-smoker who will be credited in the movie of my life as "Domestic Abuse Victim #1." The only thing in their apartment louder than their beloved "Journey's Greatest Hits (Vols. 1 and 2)" CD was their dog, a yippy little puntable that barked at anything that moved, up to and including individual air molecules.

If that was the best Fred could do for tenants, I would've expected him to BEG us to stay. Of course, I'd also have expected him to come out for the flood.

Next post: The one time when a cardboard box definitely would not have been better...and the reason we lost all of ours.

My own personal public service announcement (Part I)

It occurs to me that I have never warned many of you about The Worst Landlord of All Time.

It also occurs to me that I have warned some of you about him a few times too many. Sorry about that. But this is a time of change, not only for the leaves on the trees, but for basically everybody who bought a house in the last five years. And while I'm told that the rental market in Boston has improved--the price for a cardboard box in an alley now includes utilities--someone will inevitably be suckered in by this putz. I'd like to make sure it's none of you.

I should preface this by stating that finding a landlord in Boston (and, I presume, everywhere) is about a 50-50 proposition. That is, for every 50 landlords you find, you wish you could legally shoot about 50 of them. And even if that WERE legal, I would save all 50 bullets for this one. Since some of what I'm about to say could be construed as libelous, I'm afraid I can't use his real name. Therefore, we shall refer to the slum lord in question as "Fred Moland," because that's what you would get if you substituted an "M" for the "B" in his last name.

I first met Fred on my third attempt to do so. I was looking for a 3-bedroom apartment in Belmont, and found one within our price range, or as close as Boston comes to a price range. I called the number listed, and the voice on the other end seemed more suspicious about where I'd found this information than he was interested in showing me the apartment. This seemed odd, since I'd found it in the ad he posted, but he eventually agreed to show it to me the following day.

(Let me break for a moment here to say that, in spite of popular opinion, I consider myself something of a writer, and as such, I frequently view real life from the perspective of how it would be written in a book or movie. I have been delighted to discover that real life uses foreshadowing just as much as those media do; unfortunately, without the benefit of a chapter end or dramatic musical crescendo, it's much more difficult to detect until later. Suffice it to say that this was Clue #1 that perhaps I should have run while I still could.)

I showed up at the apartment at the appointed time. It was a big brown house, a color that precisely matched what its owner had for brains...but I digress. Even from the outside, I could tell that it was spacious, with just enough parking for three cars, and with a large back porch perfect for grilling or sitting, or possibly even grilling while sitting. I couldn't wait to see the inside!

...but I was going to have to, because Fred never showed. I waited a half-hour beyond the appointed meeting time before heading back to the office, slightly disgruntled and a little worried that it had already been rented. Back at the office, I called Fred again, and we had the following conversation:

Me: Hi, Fred, I was just at the house and didn't see you. Did I have the address right? It's--

Fred: Oh, you didn't get my message. I called you back yesterday to say I wouldn't be able to meet you there today.

Me:, I didn't get that message. Where did you leave it?

Fred: No, I left it with someone at your office.

Now, at this point in my life, I was working for a microscopically small (but deceptively wiry!) company with exactly four co-workers, three of whom spent all of their time out of the office. This left one person other than me who could've taken that message, and I was pretty sure he wasn't secretly plotting against me. I knew this because I asked him if he was, and he assured me that he most definitely was not.

So, with Clue #2 out of the way, we rescheduled our meeting for the following day. The following day, I arrived at the apartment fifteen minutes early. That meant that I spent 45 minutes standing around this time rather than just 30. Thinking that perhaps he was waiting inside, I tried knocking on the front door, and the plastic window popped out at my first rap and clattered noisily to the floor inside. I tried shouting "Hello!" through this new opening, but unless he was cowering in the bathroom (more on that later), nobody was home.

I gave up at this point. As Lionel Richie once said, "Fool me once...twice...three tiiiiiiiiiiiimes a lady," and though I really don't know what that means, it makes more sense than "Dancing on the Ceiling." Unfortunately, one of my roommates was not so easily dissuaded, and he called Fred himself to arrange a meeting. It is worth noting that this roommate is a former Marine, so there may have been threats of bodily harm involved. Looking back, I kind of wish Fred'd skipped that meeting, too.

But he didn't, and when we finally did see the inside of the place, we fell in like. It had the grime of a hundred years (or possibly two college semesters) on the walls, but it had big rooms and plenty of 'em, and it was available. We decided to sign a lease.

The lease, as it turned out, was a little something Fred had put together himself. Now, most of Massachusetts uses a fairly standard form, to which landlords append clauses to tailor the lease to their own needs. Our previous landlord, for instance, allowed parties only if he was invited. This lease, however, appeared to be entirely of Fred's own creation, and included such exciting clauses as:

"In order to save time and legal expenses for the parties, in case of any dispute regarding the above lease...All fees, expenses, attorney fees will be paid for by the tenants unless they prevail in the entirety and in such an event the landlord shall pay an amount of one half of all expenses, attorney fees, costs, damages, etc. not to exceed $500.00 in total."

"...The tenants hereby acknowledge and accept the security risk to their person and property including the possibility of accident, forced entry, assault, rape and even death due to the wood and specifically the glass or plastic entry doors and windows...The tenants recognized the security trade off they make for esthetic [sic] reasons."

If a piece of cheap plastic held in by two bent nails was his idea of "esthetic", I'd love to see what he's done with his own place. And my personal favorite:

"If any damages are paid by the landlord to a court, government institution, any party or to the tenants or their representatives, tenants...will repay the landlord such amount including all expenses, legal fees, attorneys fees and costs plus 25% liquidated damages."

Also known as the "I'm rubber, you're glue" clause. It was the first time I actually called up my Attorney General and asked "Can they really do that?" The law student on the other end assured me that I couldn't waive my rights under Massachusetts law no matter what I signed; and with the housing market tight and the September 1 deadline rapidly approaching, the prospect of sleeping in a cardboard box for the next few months did not appeal to me. I crossed my fingers and hoped that this student hadn't been daydreaming during that part of class.

For those of you keeping score at home, this was Clue #D (dum dum dummm!). And just like the braless girl in the horror movies, darned if I didn't ignore the obvious clues and walk down the dark, bloodstained corridor anyway. Hey, at least I didn't twist my ankle while running away in high heels!

Umm...not that I own any.

Next up: Ways in which a cardboard box would've actually been better...