Recently Rural: A Memoir
by Eugene Havens
Let’s make this easy
Gil was country. “Just go ahead and move in. We’ll meet each other afterward. We’ll sign the papers then.”
City person hears: “I am literally insane. Have a nice day.”
Here’s the thing. Gil was the managing agent of a number of rental properties in the small town. Except, Gil didn’t like following boring rules. Were they complicated? The rules of renting were pretty basic. You filled out an application. The managing agent reviewed it with glazed-over eyes and pretended to do a background check on you. You were accepted. You wrote a check.
In Gil’s view, country people were above these formalities. What were we, animals? Instead, Gil asked around town about us. We hadn’t gotten to town yet, but our reputation preceded us—Iris’s friends and family told Gil all he needed to know. We were in. But what did we know about Gil?
He came recommended. It was the small town’s seal of approval. You shouldn’t work with anyone who wasn’t recommended. It was why I went ahead and followed Gil’s lead. We moved into his rental house without so much as a handshake.
Only later would I learn that a person who came recommended wasn’t the same with everyone. A recommended person could be a superhero to important people and a villain to lowly you. If you were new to town, you were on the bottom rung. People had no reason to be on their best behavior. Your word-of-mouth wasn’t very strong. Who knew you? Who trusted you? A person who came highly recommended knew how to play the game. It wasn’t always a badge of quality.
In the city, things were different. It was all about money. You had money? You were in. Money depersonalized things. It was simple. In a small town, you had personalities to deal with, like Gil.
Now we were in town. We unloaded our moving truck and spent the night in the rental house. Gil had left a key. The next step in Gil’s backward process was to meet him and sign the papers.
The following morning, I drove to Gil’s office like I was driving to a court date, dreading it. Renting was an unnatural thing. You put your life into the hands of a stranger who saw you as a cash cow. Your monthly rent would fund someone’s European vacation or, in these parts, a second RV.
Only in New York City was renting worth it. It was like a sport. You won something when you signed on a New York apartment. You celebrated. You went so far as to feel destiny was on your side. In the competitive New York scene, you searched for clues that you had what it took to survive. Finding an apartment was a sign. You hoped the luck stayed with you.
My time in New York was in the pre-internet days when you searched for an apartment with a newspaper and a pocket full of quarters for a pay phone. I rented in brownstones, prewar buildings, high-rises, and in trendy neighborhoods I never expected to live in; the East Village, Chelsea, the Upper West Side. Always between jobs and goals, I was constantly on the move, jumping from situation to situation until I found my footing. There came a time when I could even turn down places to live. One such apartment was on the seventy-sixth floor. As I walked through the place, out the window, I saw an airplane flying by—at eye level. I felt I could detect the building swaying in the wind. I knew I’d never fall asleep in a place like that.
A New Yorker could cut bait and walk away. There was another rental in a city of eight million.
Not so much in a small town. There was a housing shortage, they told you. Not enough units had been built recently. Iris and I found a vacancy in Gil’s rental house. We were lucky, they said.
It wasn’t the same luck as in New York. That city promised some level of fortune or interaction every day you were there. Life was healthier practically everywhere else but also less challenging and profitable. When luck landed on you in New York, you imagined it would only increase. You saw it as an upward trend. Later, you realized it was a lightning strike, a rare thing.
Life steered me away from New York for a greater goal, a wild publishing chase. I was striving to become a bonafide author who went on book tours and wore tweed jackets. Books were published in New York, but few could afford to write there. My goal was my only connection to the city now, a new gamble. I had a New York voice that remained in my head like a conscience. It wasn’t convinced the gamble would pay off. “You’ll lose everything. Then where will you be?”
In a small town, the furthest place from the city I idolized all out of proportion, to quote another. Could I embrace this move and become original? Writers were meant to live off the beaten path.
Today, I would officially change my address to read small town, America.
Gil’s rental office was the size of a storage container. It seemed to be an old sales office situated at the front of a housing development. A developer would make the office house as tiny as possible so another house could be squeezed onto the property. Except this office was no longer needed. The neighborhood was fully built up, and the houses sold long ago. Gil must have gotten it for a song it was so small. Now it was the headquarters of his property management business.
Two desks had been shoehorned into the room. Only Gil was here. He towered behind his office desk, making it look like an ironing board. He was likely three hundred pounds, give or take.
When I entered his office, Gil said, “How was your first night in the house?” It was a nice enough question, only there was mystery in voice. His question sounded portentous. Didn’t horror movies begin this way? Some weird guy sent you to live in a house you shouldn’t ever set foot in.
Gil liked to stir the pot. It’s what his grin told me. Why did he grin so much? I saw I had totally mistaken his appearance from our phone calls. Not knowing his weight was understandable, but I pictured him as an aging farmer in a red flannel shirt. I was not close. Instead, Gil was an aging urban hipster in a retro bowling shirt and trendy big-frame plastic eyeglasses. His head was shaved like the balding hipsters did. Gil was a transplant to the rural scene like I was, and I wondered how he coexisted living in a small town. He was dressed like a dad going to brunch in Santa Monica. He looked to be my age, in his late forties. Living in this town was taking up valuable years he would never get back, nor would I.
“Great,” I replied to his query about the house. Truthfully, I had slept poorly. Keep up the enthusiasm, thinks the smart renter. Keep selling yourself. We haven’t signed the paperwork yet.
“Thank heavens for small surprises,” he mumbled. Or something like that.
I could tell he wanted me to ask what he meant. Gil wasn’t big on introductions, already knowing who I was from our appointment time. “I have my checkbook.” I held it up.
Gil sat back, and his chair creaked. He wasn’t in a hurry. Gil wanted to tell me about the house.
“Oh?” I said.
I had gotten strange vibes from Gil on the phone. In my experience, signing a lease agreement took about five minutes. The leasing agents in New York had better things to do than drag it out.
He’s just being friendly, I thought. He had a new person in his office. He liked to talk.
Gil gave me background on the house’s troubled renovations. It had been a thorn in Gil’s side for two years. The owners wouldn’t quit fixing up the place. Gil finally convinced them to rent it.
“You don’t think it’s a good house?” I said, or some such thing.
“It has curb appeal,” Gil said as a joke. The rental house became a pet project for the owners, an older couple, bored; no kids, no grandkids. Transplants from Wall Street. Out here to retire, and yet, too wound up for relaxing hobbies—instead, rental properties. The first round of house upgrades was understandable. Plumbing; electrical. They bought the place from an old lady with junk everywhere and newspapers stacked to the ceiling. The owners got it into shape. A year ago, it was a nice little rental. But the owners weren’t done. They replaced the old floors with high-quality wood flooring. Then they polished the floors. They polished rental floors.
I let him know we would take care of them.
Gil laughed, as in, it’s what a tenant would say. He went on to tell me about the owners’ eccentricities. I didn’t know how he did it. He was a master at offhanded gossip. The wife of the couple had recently gotten into a minor altercation with one of Gil’s tenants at another property they owned. The woman pulled up flowers in a flower bed. The tenant hadn’t asked to plant them.
I cut in. “I’m signing a lease with your company, correct?”
He nodded. The owners do like to be involved, he said.
I asked Gil if the other houses we had talked about were available. Gil said one was still available. It was twice the rent.
We had already moved in. I wondered why Gil was telling me this. Why hadn’t Gil simply presented the lease to me so I could sign it? He didn’t seem worried that I would leave empty-handed. He didn’t seem to be thinking about business at all. He was scratching some itch he had. It was more important than rental properties.
What if Gil wasn’t just a managing agent but another kind of agent? I knew the phrase agent provocateur from reading old novels. The agent provocateur was someone who stirred the pot. It was a clever, devious person who goaded dumb, naive people into ruining themselves. That would be me. An agent provocateur would get victims into trouble for fun or, maybe, profit. Gil was running a giant ant farm. He could toy with hundreds of lives that lived in his properties.
The New York voice I listened to was saying, cut bait. Find something else. Sleep in your car.
I knew it wasn’t possible. Iris needed to study for her securities exams. She couldn’t begin work until she passed them. We had moved into the house at Gil’s invitation. I would have to work with the situation and be the model tenant who would stay under the radar. “I’m ready to sign,” I said.
Gil and the owners would ask us to leave the house four months later.
Pen photo Trey Gibson.