Slum Lords and Children’s Tales

16 May

My father was a slum lord of moderate distinction. To be clear, I don’t think that he enjoyed being a festering tick on the underside of humanity so much as it was that very low-rent apartments were what the underside of humanity could afford and they were all he could afford, too. Believing that property ownership is the pathway to affluence (“always buy land! they’re not making any more of it!”), Dad purchased and managed multiple small apartment complexes in low-income areas located about 9 miles south and $150,000 in annual household income away from our neighborhood. Every month, he’d drive his 1977 Lincoln Continental town car over to pick up rent checks. If the renters were falling on tough times, he’d accommodate and allow them to pay semi-monthly or even weekly, on a money order basis.  He never allowed daily payment plans or cash – both seemed too close to acknowledging prostitution or drug sales. Besides, it wasn’t worth his gas or time to drive there.

Safety was paramount in Dad’s mind when we’d accompany him on rent collection visits. He’d hide anything of value or with his address on it under the seats or in the glove compartment and lock it. We would be left in the car with the windows rolled up and doors locked. We’d see his departing back, darkened with sweat down the middle and a .357 Magnum tucked into the small of his back, holster removed and safety off.  He checked on my sisters and me after every apartment visit, just to ensure we were still okay. We always were. In neighborhoods where cocaine usage was commonplace and shootings weren’t unheard of, no one ever approached us except to confirm that three thirsty, sweaty, over-heated children were still alive sealed in the dark blue interior of an un-air conditioned car that had the windows rolled up in 110 degrees. Dad would always chase the passers-by away. For our safety.

Dad would often promote a tenant to the position of ‘property manager.’ The qualifications were pretty minimal: The tenant family needed to include one youngish able-bodied man to do work around the premises and they needed to have paid the first and last months’ deposits. In exchange, the tenant family could live in the front apartment which was 72 sq. ft. larger than the other apartments, boasted a large front window, and sported white Venetian blinds that my father included at no additional cost.

Ricky was long-haired and stringy, early 30s. He wore buttoned-down plaid-print cotton shirts that were always fully unbuttoned, no undershirt, showing his Jesus-thin torso. His female companion was Mary, lanky with long dishwater blonde hair, and an expression that I now recognize as being wasted. Living with them was Jessica, a girl a little older than I, with brown hair and jumpy behavior. She wore jeans and jelly shoes, her feet were always dirty. This is the last property manager family I remember before the bank foreclosed on the apartments and they were lost to my father.

I thought Jessica had real friend potential. She met the classic book-and-TV stereotype. Our fathers ‘worked’ together. She was about my age and let me borrow her vending machine jewelry. She was streetwise, I was book-smart. A nighttime TV crime-fighting serial could’ve been made about us. “Cutie and the Smart Kid,” perhaps? We could work on the title once the networks picked us up. There was time.

After numerous playdates at the apartment complex (which were really more us keeping out-of-the-way while our dads worked), I succeeded at entreating my parents to allow Jessica to come over to my home. My mother was a bit reluctant.

“Please, Mom, I’ve been good all day!”

“She’s not a very good reader, honey. And I don’t know if her parents are our kind of people.”

“But we’re not going to read! We’ll watch movies!”

Mother relented. Next up was Ricky.

“I don’t like my daughter out of my sight.”

My dad nodded emphatically. “I understand. We’ll only go to our house and back again. She won’t go anywhere else.”

Ricky hesitated. “I want her back by 7.”

“That’s no problem. The girls will probably just play a little, have a snack, and we’ll bring her back.”

Operation Playdate at My House was a ‘go.’

I was beside myself with excitement. A real friend. In my house. This. Was. Awesome.

We had just purchased our first VCR and wood-paneled television from JC Penny. (Note: 25 years later, my parents still own the TV. Those folks at JVC make some hardy stuff.) Due to his experience as a DJ with multiple radio stations, my dad was the only one in the house allowed to touch the VCR and TV which was located in the master bedroom.  He would do so only after washing his hands with soap and water, drying them, and then using a cotton ball doused in alcohol to clean any residual oils off his fingertips. Thanks to the local library and a neighbor’s loan of a second VCR, we had several bootlegged children’s movies. 

“Do you want to watch a movie?” I asked. “We have lots of movies!”

“Sure, that’d be cool. Whaddya got?”

“Let’s watch ‘Hans Christian Andersen.’ It’s one of my favorites.” I lowered my voice sotto voce. “Danny Kaye is so cute.”

Jessica made a face. “Uh, I’m not a Christian. I can’t watch that.”

I hastened to correct her. “Oh, it’s not about anything Christian! That’s his name! It’s about fairy tales and music!”

“Uhm, I dunno. What else do you have?”

We negotiated and settled on Disney’s ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ It still had music, still had good stories. There was no dancing Danny Kaye as the Danish pied piper or theme of unrequited love for a prima ballerina, but I could watch that some other time.

Dad set us up and Jessica and I settled on my parents’ California king-sized bed to watch ‘Alice’ not once, but twice. We ate Cheerios with brown sugar, washed down with 7-Up.  When it was dinner time, I set the table gracefully with paper towel napkins and placemats where we ate macaroni and cheese casserole, cooked to dried and crispy tastelessness. I was hostess extraordinaire.

My mother came into the kitchen. “Honey, it’s time for us to take Jessica home.”

Jessica looked at the clock and blanched. “Oh, no! It’s almost 8:00!”

My mother looked at the clock, too. “It’s okay. I’m sure your father won’t mind. You’re with us.”

“Did you call him to let him know I’m late?”

Mother looked a little surprised at the thought. Clearly they hadn’t. “No, but we’ll drive fast and get you there soon.”

Jessica and I clambered into the town car and my dad coursed down the 8.7 miles south between Jessica’s home and mine, between 800-square-foot apartment and 3800-square-foot home, between dirty feet and vending machine jewelry and a 32″ screen TV. I remember we lay together on our backs, side-by-side, on the deep cushioned seats, without seatbelts, and watched the street lamps pass above us while my dad’s cigarette smoke wafted into the back seat. Closing my eyes a little bit, I could imagine a ring of nicotine-scented mist around the lights being straight from scenes in Mary Poppins.

We arrived at Jessica’s home. I thanked her for coming and Dad walked her to the door while I waited in the car with Mother. The window open to let in a warm night’s breeze, I could hear few words of Ricky speaking. He seemed irate.

“…take my daughter like that…late…school night…no right…big trouble…”

I assume Dad apologized. Ricky took Jessica in, pulling her by the shoulder. She got in a quick wave to me before the apartment door closed.  Dad walked back to the car, shaking his head a little and twirling his finger around his temple to indicate Ricky was a little nutty. Dad got in the car and began to work on his journal where he faithfully recorded the time and date of his every move with the corresponding number on the odometer and initials of who he was with. That’s a story for another post.

While Dad was writing, I looked out the car at the extra wide window in the ‘property manager’ apartment. The white Venetian blinds were open and the light behind them was warm and dim. I saw Ricky and Jessica enter the room. Ricky looked like he was yelling and he pushed Jessica forward.

“Dad, look at their window,” I whispered.

Dad took a break from writing to look over. “It’s okay, honey. She’s probably just in trouble for being out late.”

“But it’s our fault. Did you tell Ricky that?”

“Yes, he’s still pretty angry though. It’s okay.” He went back to writing.

Ricky put his hands to his half-bare Jesus-like torso where they paused for a few moments, moving. I saw his right arm extend with a snake-like thing attached.

“Dad, what is he doing now?”

I saw Jessica open her mouth and assume she screamed or cried but I couldn’t hear. She turned away from him. Ricky grabbed Jessica around the waist and pulled her jeans down.

“Dad, what’s he doing?”

My dad looked up from his writing, mid-inhale on his cigarette. Mother said, “Don’t look, honey. Just lie down and take a nap.”

But, of course, I couldn’t look away so I saw Ricky pull his arm over his head. I saw Ricky bring his arm forward with the snake-like thing still attached. I saw his arm stop abruptly when his belt hit its target. Although the apartment windows were closed, I remember hearing a scream. Maybe I imagined it, or maybe it was me. The arm and snake-like thing went up again.

“Dad, I think Ricky is hurting Jessica! You have to stop him!”

“Honey, she’s not my daughter. It’s none of our business.”

I saw Ricky’s arm move up and down several more times before Dad finally started the ignition and we drove the 8.7 miles north from their 800-square-foot apartment to my 3800-square-foot home, from Jessica’s dirty feet and vending machine jewelry to my parents’ 32″ screen TV. 

Jessica never came over to our house again, and I don’t remember playing with her again either. I know I saw her at least once more, but recall she turned away. I don’t blame her now and doubt I did then either.

Ricky, Mary, and Jessica were evicted soon afterward. Dad said they weren’t the kind of people he wanted at his apartments. I marvel at his self-deception. They were no different from anyone else who rented from him. But Jessica was the only one we brought home. The inside of their life was the only tenants’ lives he’d been forced to see.


Posted by on May 16, 2011 in auto-biographical


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3 responses to “Slum Lords and Children’s Tales

  1. midaevalmaiden

    May 16, 2011 at 6:00 PM

    This story is so well told. The comments I thought Ide had at the begining of the story were swept away by the events at the end of the story. All I have left to say is, wow, this is very moving.

    I wonder if you could still find Jessica if you tried.

    • thoughtful-whatnot

      May 16, 2011 at 8:37 PM

      Thank you, @midaevalmaiden. That’s kind of you to say. I’ve thought about trying to find people from that far back – with the miracle of Facebook, isn’t it all possible? But that’d require talking to my parents about it to find out their last name and go through old rental contracts and I’m not up to rehashing that now at the end of my dad’s life. I was talking about the post with a friend and I worry that the post makes my parents sound like creeps, when I really don’t think they are. But it was impactful. I’ve never been beaten and this was one of the very few times (and the first time) I’d ever seen a child beaten. Now that I’m older, it’s a great example for me of bystander behavior – although a really sad and disappointing one.

      Thank you for continuing to read and participate. 🙂


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