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Gotta Serve Somebody

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Gotta Serve Somebody

Landlords are people, too. December 24, 2015

“I don’t like rich people,” said Irwin, the singer in my klezmer band, as we loaded in our sound equipment at the country club. The club manager as usual made us go through the kitchen door. At the luncheon—a bar mitzvah—she wouldn’t let us eat the chicken fingers at the kids’ table and would only serve us lemonade, not soda pop. Definitely no beer. We were service-industry workers.

Didn’t the club manager realize Irwin and I are middle class? Irwin is a retired middle-school art teacher. I’m a landlord. We dabble as working class several hours a weekend, period. Forty-four percent of Americans self-identify as middle class, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. “Upper middle class and upper class” account for 15 percent. “Lower middle and lower” is 40 percent. Nobody says rich.

At my apartment buildings, many of the tenants are food-service industry workers, and some don’t like me on principle; I’m the landlord. These tenants all lived rent-free as children, and now, in their twenties and thirties, they have to pay for walls and a roof. About 5 percent of the tenants don’t pay on time. Many of the servers and bartenders come home late and begin partying at 3 AM. When I ask for the rent, the tenants sometimes get sassy: “You want the rent? Let me pull your coat to this—my bathroom ceiling is still leaking.” Luckily I know some jazz slang.

My older son said I seem miserable in my real estate job. I said to him, “Nobody said the job was supposed to be fun. It’s a way to raise a family and hopefully provide decent housing.” Real estate is not music.

In the music biz, weddings are the Rolls Royce of gigs. Nobody wants to be a wedding singer except real musicians. They die for wedding gigs. The money is good and there’s often salmon. One musician in my band brought baggies to gigs. That was particularly useful at buffets. Was he middle class, working class, or just hungry? I seem to go through a couple social classes a day. I suspect most poor people don’t.

I’m a part owner of a medical office building. There, some of the tenants play golf on Wednesdays. The doctor-tenants complain unhesitatingly and often. Irwin—the artist in my band—put up six original paintings in the medical building lobby. A doctor texted me: “If you’ve got money for pictures, then paint my door.” So we painted the door. The door painter said to me, “If you gave that doctor a gold-plated key to heaven, he’d complain the lock was broke. He’s Dr. No.”

The medical building was a house of pain and uneven temperatures. Very few patients were in a good mood there, unlike at bar mitzvahs and weddings, where everybody is happy (except the club manager). I visit neighboring office buildings and say to receptionists, “I have a general question for you. How’s the temperature in here?” Everybody is too hot or too cold. I read how women and men react differently to air conditioning and heat. Apparently everybody needs their own personal bubble. I’ll probably never get the temperature right.

Irwin has memorized all of Bob Dylan’s “list songs.” Driving to a gig, Irwin sang this for me: “You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed.” When we got to the country club, we went through the kitchen door.

Dr. No was late with his rent, on purpose. He was punishing me. I was in his corner office, the area with the family pics and diplomas. Dr. No said, “Take a seat.” I sat, he stood, and he lectured me on climate control. He was hot, and I was sweating the rent. Eventually he handed me the check.

At weddings, I work with a photographer who writes “no wraps” in his contract, meaning no sandwich wraps for him. He insists on a hot meal. But sometimes you get it cold. If my food-industry tenants could have seen me in Dr. No’s office, they would have loved it.

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