Monday, June 29, 2009

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.

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