The 1988 Honda Accord maxed out at 50 mph because the fifth gear had gone out at the beginning of my trip somewhere near Clines Corner, NM, an eastward journey to North Carolina across Interstate 40.
It was dusk but there was still plenty of light when I stopped at a gas station just over the Tennessee state line in western North Carolina. I went inside the store, and asked the clerk to hold my debit card so I could fill up my tank.
The clerk, who must have spotted my New Mexico license plate, laughed and said, “Go ahead and get your gas — and then you can pay me. You ain’t out west anymore, boy.”
It was a matter of trust. This was the civilized East, not the wild West, and a certain amount of credit might be extended to a stranger. I began to think that maybe there was something to what the conservative Catholic priest at San Juan Pueblo had told me: In northern New Mexico the frontier ethos still held sway. In the vast desert, the law didn’t reach very far. Men were far from home and the moral anchor of their families. The usual constraints on behavior did not apply, and it was hard to trust anyone.
I was like a whipped dog, limping over the eastern Continental Divide in a hobbled car, wary of the next person who might take advantage of me.
When I finally settled in Greensboro after a two-month stay in Durham, I found an apartment to rent in Westerwood, just around the corner from the anarchist house where I had taken temporary shelter in the garage. The landlord showed me the place: a first-floor flat on the edge of an ivy-covered slope down to a railroad spur, just beyond the western boundary of downtown. Based on its proximity to downtown and Tate Street, its solid build and affordable price of $450 per month, I quickly decided to take it. At some point during the tour, the landlord shared that the apartment had suddenly come open because the previous tenant had removed the washer and dryer, sold them to get money to buy cocaine and disappeared. The landlord looked me directly in the eyes, and asked me if I used drugs.
“No,” I said, “Absolutely not.”
We signed a contract on the spot, although the landlord said he didn’t need a month’s rent in advance as a deposit. That was a first for me in my extensive career as a tenant in Durham, San Francisco, Brooklyn, New Mexico and a few other places. Especially considering his recent experience, my landlord’s extension of trust struck me as utterly astonishing.
Ironically, both of us had recently experienced run-ins with cokeheads in our previous real estate rental relationships. My former landlord in New Mexico would periodically wind up in rehab in a clockwork-like cycle of relapse and recovery. Generally, I would deliver my rent check to his sister, who handled his finances. One time I was visiting my next-door neighbor, who showed his hospitality by presenting me with a hardbound book with a line of powder (I later learned from a screaming argument that night that his girlfriend had procured the drugs for the two of them to share). I had politely turned down the narcotic token of friendship when our mutual landlord burst through the door unannounced. Not wanting to see something so precious go to waste, our landlord zestfully snorted up the line.
When I moved out of the place in New Mexico, I sold off many of my belongings, put others in storage and packed a couple bags to fly to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. I cleaned the place meticulously, scrubbing, dusting, sweeping and mopping practically every surface after all my belongings had been removed. In a few weeks I would fly back, retrieve my stuff from storage and pack the Accord for the 1,800-mile journey east.
The return to New Mexico would also provide an opportunity to pick up my rental deposit — $425, which was much needed to offset moving costs and patch in a gap in working income.
I had been anticipating a friendly meeting with my landlord, but found it difficult to track him down. When I finally reached him by phone, his voice was cold. I mentioned the deposit, and he said, “No, man, you left the place a mess. My sister and I had to spend two days cleaning it out. The drip pans were totally ruined. The deposit didn’t even cover the cost of repairs.”
It’s been 10 years since I signed a contract for the apartment in Greensboro. Since then, I met and married my wife, and she joined the household as a full partner. Almost two years ago, we brought a child into the world, and her Pack ’n Play, bottles, books, blocks, Legos and other diversions had jammed up practically every square inch of our one-bedroom apartment. We’ve now moved into the house that we own, and Sunday was our deadline to be out of the old apartment.
We could have just walked away, considering that there was no financial incentive to haul off the unwanted dregs of our accumulated belongings or to give the place a thorough cleaning. But of course we didn’t.
Granted, if there had been a deposit to reclaim, we might not have received it: The weight of our coats had snapped at least two of the hooks on a coatrack, cracks had appeared in windowpanes and once we removed our wall hangings we noticed fault lines snaking over the Sheetrock. There has certainly been plenty of normal wear and tear over the course of a decade. I don’t know how the windowpanes developed cracks, whether a door was slammed or a gale-force wind flung a small object into the glass. I can’t imagine that we did anything to cause the fissures in the Sheetrock.
We replaced the drip pans and the toilet seat. We removed everything that was ours. We scrubbed, dusted, swept and mopped practically every surface.
My wife wiped a tear away as she handed me her key. I sloshed a final bucket of soapy water on the front porch, locked the door and said goodbye.
I hope our credit is good.