By Bert Stratton
After college (Ann Arbor), I returned to Cleveland and hung out at Case Western Reserve University as much as possible. I wanted to stay in the college bubble. I wasn’t ready for the world. I helped my dad in the real estate business, and that was too real. (This was 1976.)
[blocktext align=”left”]I was cool. She just didn’t know.[/blocktext]One night I met a medical illustrator at a Case party, and she asked me what I did. I said, “Manage apartment buildings.” She turned away. I had a harmonica in my pocket; I was cool. She just didn’t know.
A friend at that party said to me, “It’s not in her experience – apartment building management.” My friend – and seemingly everybody else – was a grad student.
I couldn’t see grad school.
A woman asked, “Are you in OB?”
“No, I’m not in medical school.”
“I’m not in that either.” I couldn’t bring myself to say “real estate.”
The options at this party were doctor, nutritionist, organizational behaviorist, or medical student. This was my parents’ dream party. I went up to another medical illustrator. She wouldn’t talk to me either. I was lame with illustrators.
My father owned apartment buildings in Lakewood, and I was doing roofs, and these women wouldn’t talk to me, except for a grad student named Marcy. She was doing her OB thesis on “the event of play in a closed group.” I was in her closed-group, I guess. She talked to me.
“So many Harvard people here!” the host said, walking past. Three Harvard people to be exact: 1.) The host, an OB student, 2). Marcy, who had gone to Harvard undergrad and 3.) a political-science grad from Harvard who was on his way to Washington to become a lobbyist. All the Harvard people were on their way somewhere. I was on my way to Lakewood.
I continued working for my father. People called up about low-water pressure, mice and clanging radiators. My dad said to me: “I didn’t send you to college to paint walls.” I painted a few walls anyway and pointed up some bricks.
We had a tenant with no kitchen sink for two weeks because he ripped out the sink trying to install a butcher block countertop. He wanted to charge us for dining out.
Another tenant lost his hot water for three days. I wrote a Japanese-style apology to him. The tenant deducted money from his rent. I couldn’t blame him. A tenant saw a mouse and asked for a hotel room. That happened again and again. It bugged me; mice are good people.
[blocktext align=”right”]I even occasionally say “I’m a slumlord” at parties just for the fun of it.[/blocktext]Decades later, I say “I’m in real estate” all the time. It’s somewhat fashionable now. I even occasionally say “I’m a slumlord” at parties just for the fun of it.
When my dad died (1986), I went full-time. My mother and I sorted canceled business checks on the dining room table the night he died, waiting to go to the funeral home the next morning. I moved all the rental-biz file cabinets into my mother’s extra bedroom. She lived in Beachwood, and I was in Cleveland Heights. I biked to the office – to my mom’s. A neighbor yelled at me, “Get a real job!” In the 1980s, few people worked out of their houses, so the neighbor probably considered me a derelict for not getting in my car and driving downtown. Back then, city inspectors would get riled if they saw too much activity around your house, such as parked cars or UPS delivery trucks. I was prepared if the city ever barged in on me. I would say, “I’m a landlord!” The city never knocked.
Get a real job? My job seemed plenty real to me, neighbors. Plus my mother was happy the rental office was in her apartment. “I get to see you so often, son!” she said. I didn’t flip houses, I didn’t buy and sell shopping centers. I shopped for toilets and water-saving showerheads, and collected rent.
I recently Googled Marcy, my Harvard buddy. She’s a professor at a university in Massachusetts. Not Harvard. I don’t think I’ll contact her.
I still have the harmonica. I’m ready for another Harvard party. Take it or leave it: “I’m a landlord.” Let’s see what happens. Have I learned anything?
Bert Stratton is the bandleader of Yiddishe Cup. He blogs at Klezmer Guy, and has contributed to the New York Times, the Times of Israel, the Plain Dealer and City Journal. He has won two Hopwood Awards.
Support paywall free, independent Rust Belt journalism — and become part of a growing community — by becoming a member of Belt.