After living in upstate New York with my daughter for years, I started to feel like we both needed a change.
I was laid off and no longer had ties to the cushy neighborhood where we rented a townhome, but I had family that lived in a beach town in Connecticut. So I thought I'd give it a try while living on unemployment and job hunting. Sun, sand, the ocean — it sounded pretty enchanting and sure to lift my mood, and what kid doesn't want to squeeze lemon juice in their hair and live by the ocean?
I searched for homes on Craiglist that would accept pets — we have an 80-pound German Shepherd named Tucker.
Most places didn't take pets until I found one that did. The ad practically glowed: two-family home, fenced-in yard, walk to the town and beach; pets considered.
I drove up a narrow driveway and smiled when I saw the wind chime and garden of kale and window boxes full of flowers. It was perfect — like a hot first date...who would later turn into a sociopath.
Next thing I knew I was standing in a sun-drenched living room, meeting with the landlord. I loved the rustic hardwood floors and granite countertops. The walls were painted a not-annoying pink, green, and gray. It felt peaceful.
I was pressed for time and needed a space that allowed our dog, so I didn't ask any important questions, signed the lease, and forked over a hefty security deposit.
Then we moved in and I had my glasses on.
I was a little turned off by the giant white fridge with a broken water and ice dispenser that seemed to have no place to live but against an open wall, and the mismatched black oven, white microwave, and off-white stove drove me nuts. Appliances should match. How did I not catch this?
It could have been worse. I once lived in an NYC apartment with a toilet in the kitchen. My clothes closet was next to the front door.
There was a washer and dryer and four giant closets in the beach house. The two-bedroom ad was kind of a lie. Actually, it was a lie.
It was a one-bedroom with a rec room that could be a bedroom. I gave my daughter the bedroom, so the rec room was my room. It had double glass doors, so either I'd need to cover them with curtains or never have sex again. The room was giant, and my bedroom furniture got lost in it. The space was huge and cold-feeling. I compared it to a ballet studio missing barres on the wall.
After all, it was really a family room that led out to a jungle of a backyard that had grass to my knees, mangled tree branches, and crab apples everywhere — I rolled my ankle on one. The landlord refused to do a fall cleanup.
After the cleanup, I would have been able to maintain the yard. "No, I'm not hiring a landscaper," he said in a condescending tone. This is shit I should have asked about before signing the lease.
The tiny baby-blue bathroom with all-over baby-blue tiling circa 1949 was gross but nothing a little Clorox couldn't fix.
The shower stall would work because my daughter was over bath time, but I needed a bright bath mat to cover up the infinitely, definitively stained shower pan. There was no cleaning it. It was clean because I bleached it and scrubbed it, but it always looked dirty.
Soon I learned that the shower stall literally grew mold. There was no fan in the bathroom — well there was, but it was broken — and the window screen had holes in it and let mosquitos and spider crickets in.
Spider crickets are freaky crickets that look like tarantulas and hop at warp speed. I have no doubt neighbors heard my blood-curdling screams.
I tried to keep it cool and dry in there, but black crud routinely showed up in the tiles. I scrubbed the shower daily and sprayed a white vinegar solution. I showered with flip-flops on like in college. I shaved in the bathroom sink. I took one-minute showers. Sometimes I showered at the gym. The drain was rusty with no drain catcher and I couldn't find one anywhere to fit the shower from hell.
Within one week of moving in, the dryer broke, and it took the landlord about a month to fix it. So, I found myself in the laundromat. Coin after coin, I washed our clothes even though the landlords paid the water bill and there were laundry units in the home.
Then came the leaks. The kitchen and laundry room sinks leaked buckets — and "buckets" I was told to use to collect the water; the landlord would get around to it when he could.
The landlord. He was always beet-red and springing around like a kangaroo with gelled black hair. He was sarcastic and very matter-of-fact at the same time. He talked about God a lot and appeared drunk or high most of the time — or maybe it was his jerkiness that was most apparent.
The next debacle was when the bathroom ceiling caved in, in the middle of the night. Water everywhere. The rug in my bedroom was soaked and needed to be torn up because, after all, the bathroom was in the rec room that was my bedroom.
This would mean my red-faced, sweaty landlord would be in the rental unit way too much for me to stomach. I was sleeping on the couch.
At this point I had landed a freelance medical bill coding job, and I needed quiet to get the work done.
Every time I turned around, he was there. I had no privacy and was constantly on edge that he was going to knock on the door to fix or upgrade something. He used the word "ascetically" too much. I now hate that word.
It was so apparent the unit was rented under false pretenses — he wanted money, so he rented an unfit place. And I was naive.
By the time the first snow touched down, mice had invaded the unit. I heard them scurrying and squeaking around. They were eating snacks and leaving feces everywhere. My landlord wanted me to trap the mice in something called a "mouse house" then set them free into the wild. He didn't like "killing animals."
This was around the time the heat wasn't working and it was 19 degrees out. I lost it. I asked that an exterminator come to the property immediately but my landlord, a faux-jack-of-all-trades, decided setting old-school wooden snap traps he purchased at the junky dollar store was a better idea.
This is when I had to get a lawyer involved for my mental well-being. I needed a plumber, an exterminator, maybe even a priest, and for my creepy landlord to clean out the locked closet he kept in my rented unit.
I imagined it was a sleeper cell, or packed with the crap of hoarders, guns, a chainsaw, cocaine. A million dollars. Nixon. The closet was a mystery. I once knocked on the closet and said "hello" — I was scared he was keeping a slave, like in the movie Room.
The lawyer was able to make him hire professionals and clean out the closet that was also a breeding ground for the mice, not a slave cave. But the lawyer also suggested I start putting my money in escrow and cease rental payments because I had no constant enjoyment of the property and the hallway ceiling was now stained brown with a hole and leaking water. And in general everything was a shit show.
But things got worse. He rented the top unit to a couple of college kids. On the first night at 4 a.m. they woke me up screaming and fighting and threatening to "fucking kill each other." The cops came. People were arrested. I gave them resting bitch face the rest of the time I was there.
I wanted out, but my daughter was in the middle of school, and I didn't want to screw her up more, so we toughed it out, spending a lot of time at the library, the bookstore, the park, the beach with family and friends.
We both hated what we called the "backhouse" — a house in the back of another house. A house that wasn't visible from the street and ultimately the perfect place to commit a murder. I don't think anyone knew we were back there.
Then the shower clogged up. I plunged. I used Drano. And the landlord refused to hire a plumber, instead dumping mass amounts of chemicals down the drain. They didn't work — they just stunk up the place. And got me high.
After four days of showering at nearby family members' homes, I paid $150 to a local plumber who needed two drills to unclog the shower. He concluded tree roots from the ground were inching up.
The final straw was when the home was invaded by green flies. They were everywhere and, again, not my landlord's problem. I got bites all over my legs. School was over and it was time to flee and fast. I moved in with my sister and her family for two months.
The hardest part for me was being berated. I was told I had a "silver spoon" in my mouth and asked if I was "ever happy" or just miserable all the time.
I was miserable when mice ate my Kind bars, the shower filled up with cloudy, murky, water, and the ceiling(s) caved in. I was bummed when the college children got arrested at 4 a.m. I was horrified by the spider crickets. I was pissed we couldn't play in the jungle backyard because it was infested with mosquitos and just a gross mess.
I was happy the rest of the time. The rest of the time, I was not home or I was numbing myself with wine watching Netflix while my daughter was at a sleepover at Grandma's.
Luckily, I found a new place and a full-time job I love. My daughter is in a great school. I learned my landlord had been dipping into my security deposit without my knowledge, but my lawyer arranged for me to keep four months of rent in escrow and my full security deposit, despite the fact that $700 was missing at one point.
All I can take from the experience is: live and learn.
And of course, my first-world problem really opened my eyes to the way other people are forced to live. I donated furniture and a TV to a local place that helps families in need, plus a heaping bag of my daughter's outgrown clothes. The experience actually made me more empathetic. Now I want to help those stuck in hell homes too.
When I signed the lease, I just wanted peace.