Three men-a black, a Wasp, and a Jew-were walking along the street. One kicked a can, and a genie appeared. The genie said: I can take all of you back to where you and your people came from. The black man said: You can take me and all my people to Africa? The genie said yes. Do it, the black man said, and he disappeared. The Jewish man asked: You can take me and all the Jews in the world to Israel? Yes, the genie said. Do it, the Jew said, and he disappeared. Then the genie turned to the Wasp. The Wasp said: I'll have a Diet Coke.
When the landlord was about to raise the rent, Elizabeth received a letter. All the tenants did. The landlord stated that because they'd given the tenants new windows, which weren't put in right, they'd measured wrong, because they'd replaced the old mailbox, which had been broken since she' d moved in, and because they' d put in a light in the front hallway, which was required by law, the landlord regretfully was raising the rent a certain amount per room for every tenant. The landlord assessed the number of rooms at two more than Elizabeth thought she had.
Elizabeth shoved the letter under a stack of junk mail. She ignored it for a day. Then she took it out. She did the figuring. She added up her rooms and multiplied to find what it would cost monthly. It wasn't astronomical. She could live with it or die with it. She might do both. She wasn't going to fight it. Fight the increase. The phrase appealed to her-fight the increase. It was what she should dn. But she wasn't going to, not after the manager, Gloria, had insulted her. Six dollars more per room for the rest of her life, even for rooms she didn't have, was better than standing in a poorly ventilated room next to Gloria.
Being reasonable with the Big G was murder. Roy read the letter. He thought they should do something. He glanced at Elizabeth and shoved the paper over to her side of the table.
I can't rouse myself to action, she said.
Rouse yourself to inaction, he said.
Answer the letter. Do something.
I can't. You do it. Do something yourself.
I don't do that kind of thing.
It's beneath me.
I don't do floors, either.
Their upstairs neighbor was aroused. Ernest was an actor. He worked in a bookstore. Ernest shoved a letter under their door one night. It was addressed to her. He wanted to discuss the tenant situation, their position. Long sentences covered the unlined paper. He said he wanted Elizabeth's help in fighting the rent increase. He used the compelling phrase. Maybe he wrote porn. He followed his letter with a telephone message that took up five minutes on her answering machine. They'd never even talked or seen each other in the hallway. She hadn't seen him. She'd heard him above her, she'd heard what she thought were his footsteps. He exercised.
Then Ernest showed up, after the note and call. He was likable. He told her when he read the landlord's letter he went berserk. He couldn't sleep, he was infuriated by the injustice, the lies . He wanted to take the landlord on, with her assistance . He'd do the hard work, the field work, go to City Hall, search for the building plans, for the architectural drawings. He just wanted her assistance.
The same letter that swamped her in lethargy was the key to an ignition switch in Ernest. Indignant, he enlisted Elizabeth. She was inert and apathetic. But he knew, somehow, that she of all the tenants would be open to his plea. He may have heard her walking late at night, heard in her gait some telltale sign of anxiety. Maybe he even discerned in it a desire for a better world, for justice. That was impossible, she supposed. It was probably because she was friendlier than most of the other tenants. Maybe he had seen her in the hallway and she'd smiled, unaware of who he was. Yes, OK, I will, she said finally. He was asking next to nothing of her.
She would make a few phone calls, knock on tenant doors, get some names on their petition. She'd help write letters, do some minor evidence gathering, contact various City agencies only by phone if he asked her to. She'd use her proofreader's expertise on the letters. The letters would spell doom, defeat, for the landlord's illegal hopes. Elizabeth told Ernest that she'd make sure there weren't any errors of fact or grammar in the letters, no typos. Elizabeth would see to their correctness. The landlord had applied for MCls, Major Capital Improvements, Ernest explained. They were requesting more than they deserved. They wouldn't get it, he said.
They spent time together, side by side, strategizing. They had to determine how the landlord should be rebutted and combatted and what information they needed. The landlord stated that their building and the one next door were one building. That way any repairs on the one next door counted as money spent on their building. Their building could be charged higher rents for work done on the other building. An evil twin situation, Elizabeth thought. She'd once wanted to be a twin, but now it repulsed her. The two buildings' separate registrations had to be found. The other building had double the number of tenants, too, double the trouble.
Ernest was relentless. He was on fire. He went downtown to a vast city building. He walked through room after room and floor after floor, through hundreds of rooms of file cabinets and computers and documents. He dealt with clerical people who ignored him. He waited on long lines and wasted his life. Elizabeth read that people waited on line at the Post Office five years of their lives. Waiting added up. Then he would get to the head of the line and as part of a tradition or ritual he would be told he was on the wrong line and he should see another clerical person, somewhere else, on another floor or building, and that person would keep him waiting too, be rude, or tell him to see someone else, and finally someone else would tell him he or she can't help him, and he has to start all over, in another location. He did that. Elizabeth was impressed. He took action. He was a hero in a local way.
Ernest even found a free tenant lawyer. He came back from the first meeting with pages of yellow paper; he'd taken detailed notes. He absorbed and learned acronyms for all the city agencies and departments, and he learned legal terms, too. Elizabeth didn't know exactly what the acronyms stood for. Since Ernest did, she didn't need to. A PAR, he repeated patiently, was a petition for administrative review
A man was going away and he asked his brother to look after his cat. Then he phoned home to ask how the cat was. The brother answered, Your cat is dead. The first brother asked, How can you tell me like that? Why didn't you prepare me? You could've said, Your cat ran away. And then when I called again, you could've said, The cat's on the roof. And the next time I called, then you could've told me he was dead. You should've prepared me. His brother said he was sorry. Some years later, the man went away again. He called his brother. He asked: How's Mom? His brother said, She's on the roof.
Ernest asked Elizabeth to attend one of the legal sessions with him. The office wasn't far,
and the meeting wouldn't take much of her time, he said. Elizabeth agreed, shamed by his
commitment. The meeting was in a shabby, brown room, with fake wood furniture. The
lawyer wasn't a lawyer but a paralegal. She used the acronyms Ernest used and knew.
Elizabeth tried to appear involved. She knew if this was a documentary she'd be caught
looking uninterested. There were stacks of paper on the harassed woman's desk,
thousands of claims against landlords, standing for thousands of tenants in trouble. It was
a sorry place for sorry situations. Elizabeth was desperate in desperate places.
Hector the super's daughter-in-law walked in to the squalid office. Elizabeth said hello, and everyone nodded. Hector's daughter-in-law was having trouble with her landlord and her husband. Elizabeth knew that. She'd already had two kids and the two kids were miserable. Even before their parents separated, the kids were falling on their faces, having too many awful accidents, and were being rushed, bloody, to too many emergency rooms. The daughter-in-law was tragic at eighteen.
Elizabeth worried that the girl would mention seeing them to Hector the super, seeing them in the free tenant lawyer's office. Hector would tell the Big G. Ernest told Elizabeth they were within their rights, doing what they were doing, they were absolutely within their rights. Nothing would happen to them. He smiled benignly at her.
Elizabeth wasn't sure if being within her rights covered being seen as a conspirator, an agitator, and whether her rights would keep her from being tormented before being thrown out of the building illegally in the middle of the night. It wouldn't happen, Ernest went on reassuringly. They were sitting tenants with leases. She was, she repeated to herself, a sitting tenant with a lease.
One night, when no one was around, except the morons on the street, Ernest and Elizabeth collected evidence for their dossier against the landlord. Pictures had to be included with the letter to the City. They needed photographs of the filthy halls, walls and broken stairs. It was so late, the building was quiet, like the Tombs, Ernest said grimly. They arranged to meet in front of her door. They moved stealthily through the halls. They skulked. The naked lightbulbs were stark illumination. The light accented the streaks on the walls. Shadows made it harder to know where the dirt was and also made the dark spots darker. It was just the way shadows in gangster and romantic movies obscure and enhance the seamy sides of life.
The joke was that they needed photographs of holes in the floor. Any one of the tenants could have tripped or caught their heel in the ugly recesses, they could have fallen down and broken their noses. They could have fallen down and in a freak accident died because of the way their head hit the floor. If they were drunk, they could have tripped, hit their head and bled to death on the floor. The tenants could've sued the landlord. Elizabeth thought the landlord would've wanted to repair things, to avoid being sued. But if everyone's too poor to get lawyers, or too intimidated, why should the landlord repair anything, or if people like her‹whatever that meant‹couldn't even respond when their rent was being raised unfairly, then landlords didn't have to fix anything. She'd heard about someone who broke his arm falling out of bed to answer the phone, though his bed was on the floor too. Accidents happen all the time.
The ugliest hole was in the deepest shadow. It was too dark in the vestibule to take pictures. The light overhead was the dangling naked bulb that the landlord had recently put in, the one they wanted the tenants to pay extra rent for every month. It was weak. If anyone wanted to mug you in the small vestibule, you'd never see him well enough to identify him. The weak light wasn't a deterrent in any way. Just the opposite. Ernest and Elizabeth were standing very close to each other in the small entryway. She could feel his anxiety. She liked it and hated it.
I need more light, Elizabeth said.
You don't have a good enough view? Ernest asked.
I can see the hole with my eyes, but it won't come out
on the photograph.
Let me open the door, he said.
He opened the front door as wide as it would go. And then he looked at her with a worried expression.
Is that better?
Is that better? she thought. The way he said, Let me open the door, his perplexity
about photographing the hole, the way he said, Is that better? was priceless and ridiculous
at the same time. She fell in love with him. For a minute. He changed in her eyes in the
dark ugly vestibule.
She could fall in love with anyone.
He was still holding the front door open so she could get a better shot of the hole. She knew the picture wouldn't come out. It was close to hopeless, futile. The City might still be impressed by the documentation. They also had to get photographs of loose tiles and the grease in the corners. There was a stair that slid out by itself, and anyone could slip off and kill themselves, it just came out, but it was hard to take a picture of that. They moved the stair to show its mobility, to demonstrate it in its improper, dangerous position. Photographing dust on the walls was implausible. She did it anyway and looked at Ernest. He was smiling, reassuringly. He knew it was absurd. He wasn't deluded, he was optimistic. Ernest was a mystery.
She looked at his mouth. She had never noticed the thin scar on his chin. Maybe he'd been in a duel. He was Erroll Flynn or Harrison Ford, a swashbuckler for tenant's rights. She could fall in love with anyone if the timing was right and the place was right, or wrong. Propinquity, proximity, if she was in a room long enough with someone, with no other people around, or if she were trapped in a place, she could fall in love with anyone. Like an animal. She liked animals. They were adaptable.
Anyone could fall in love with anyone, under the right circumstances. Maybe it was the survival instinct. Elizabeth wasn't sure she had one. People want to continue themselves, protect themselves, get pleasure. People wanted pleasure all the time, anytime, anyplace, they'd do anything to get it. Everyone was capable of the most hideous behavior and crimes to get it. The pursuit of pleasure wasn't pretty. It made people cruel during tender moments. If they weren't really getting what they wanted, they could kill as easily as kiss.
Ernest was driven. Driven was sex to her, sexy. Someone active and alive with desire for anything is sexy. Maybe not driven for ice cream or for heroin, because it excluded you, the possibility of you. She could kind of tell what somebody was like sexually, what their body might act like if stimulated, from the way they wanted supposedly nonsexual things. Nothing wasn't sexual.
Ernest and Elizabeth finished for the night. They had done the job. The polaroids were flat and weird, but they were evidence. They showed something. Maybe the City would appreciate that.