Thursday, May 03, 2007

The $4,000 House

I once had a chance to buy a house for $4,000. That's right, one four, one comma, and three zeros. Granted, it was last century (scary thought) and about 25 years ago. The town was Slippery Rock, Pennslyvania and was (is, I admit) also home to my alma mater. Yes, I somehow managed to accumulate a couple hundred hours of college credits and a degree or two from Slippery Rock State College and yes again, such a monikered place does in fact, exist. And finally, in summary of this seemingly unending paragraph down Long Term Memory Lane (or what's left of it from that era), it's probably the main reason you are reading this article here and not in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly or any of the assorted 'top shelf ' publications that barely allow writers like me (with degrees from such places) a subscription on credit much less a by-line in the actual magazine.

The rent was $80 a month, the landlord, Charlie--a fall down, snowstorm drunk of Bukowskian proportions, and the setting...well lest I digress too deeply, it was a rock quarry college town in the late 1970's--early 80's fog of my graduate school years. Three miles or so outside of this Western Pennslyvania burgh of mid-to-higher education rested a two-lane stone and concrete bridge and a hundred yards or so below that was nestled, along a rocky and muddy winding descent of rutted roadway, a delapidating park-like community of 1930's circa resort cottages and rusting trailer homes on the banks of the Slippery Rock Creek. Once home to a grand summer pavilion with a painted pony carousel (on display at the Smithsonian for many years in its later life), roller rink, and Olympic sized pool with exhibition style diving platforms, Rock Falls, as it was aptly named, had long since lost its appeal for summer resorters and was all but left for the squatters.

Twenty years past it's heyday, The Falls was now 'home' to a year-round but transient collection of 1960's leftovers; Liberal Arts graduate students, admonished or expelled college professors, twenty or so wandering black dogs from the same lineal extraction, and a bearded and ponytailed platoon of Vietnam Veterans grazing on the GI Bill. Throw a handful of tattoo-branded 'Old Ladies' (biker chicks whose 'Old Men' were either on the lam or in the 'joint' with no actual motorcycles anywhere to be found), the occasional even smaller town runaway, and garden variety of trailer park drunks-- throw them all into the mix and you have before you, the afore mentioned neighborhood of the $4,000 house I once had the chance to buy.

My National Direct Student Loan for $4,500 had just arrived in the Financial Aid Office when the idea was first proposed to me by Charlie B. (He kept his AA designation although he had long since drifted from the pack, as it were). I was the only person with 'real money' in a two mile radius. The check, intended for living expenses, was earmarked to get me through my last semester of graduate school. Charlie B. had a better plan in mind.

He owned two cottages outright and grossed $240 a month in rents from his waterlogged purple corner of the Butler County Monopoly Board. I paid $80, my housemate paid $80, Charlie's housemate paid $80 and Charlie himself, lived for free. We as tenants, were permitted to keep any 'sublet rents' i.e. sofa sleepers ($40 a month), sleeping bags on the living room floor ($30 a month), and outside hammock sleepers ($15 a month in fair climate months). We were also to supply all alcoholic beverages for both houses and Heaven forbid, we ever ran low or actual God forbid, out. And thinking back, the houses themselves were barely habitable with no perc, dried-up water wells and overflowing septic tanks. We showered (most of us anyway) on campus in the Field House. Still, the rent was cheap and the property 'cash flowed' if paid off in full. My first student loan re-payment wouldn't be due for at least 18 months, he reminded me. My landlord might have been a lush but he could count other people's money with the best of them.

Charlie had been on 30 day roar when he came busting into my bedroom with his property deed in one hand and a bottle of Yukon Jack in the other. Again...Bukowskian proportions, I kid you not. He had done the math. With future rents and 'sublets,' I'd recoup my investment in less than three years while living free and clear myself. When I asked about fire insurance he thought for a second then replied, "You don't pay anything for that. No one will insure down here anyway so you make money there, too. You see...maintenance free..."

Maintenance free. $4,000. Renters. Sublettors. Oh, and $500 left over..."for liquor," he suggested. "We'll throw a shindig." He did a little jig jabbing the folded document about my head and thin air like a drunken shadow boxer. I felt like I was being pressured into signing over my last educational stipend. We drank from the bottle. And the pressure was soon on an equal plane with any time share pitch I've experienced since. Even the Mexican cab driver who shanghaied my wife and me to the Mayan Palace in Cabo had nothing on Charlie B. with a snortful of Yukon. I finally agreed, in principle, to think about it while he slept off his bender. Three days later he was back.

"I bought a car instead," I told him. "A 1972 Buick Riviera." This was 1981 so needless to say, it was a junker and perfect for the daily trip up and down the rutted road out of The Falls to get to town and back. I later figured each trip took $10 of value off my vehicle and in a matter of months I would have probably done better with the house deal but such is life and its lessons learned.

I gave him a case of Guiness Stout to make peace and an envelope with $200--two months rent plus my end of the 'sublet' for the current month. He looked like he was going to cry, then hit me, then hug me, then he left and never brought it up again. Honestly, I think he forgot the whole conversation and was just pleased with the booze and by the end of the semester I was gone forever anyway, never to return...

Except twice. Once, fifteen years later I decided to drop by The Falls to see who might still be around. Charlie was long gone, too and my BMW, up to its wheelwells in mud and rocks, had to be towed out of the park. Great, great, great grand descendants of black dogs circled me like a trapped animal, almost sensing I was out of place there with my Fortune 100 job and failed German technology. The house was still standing. A squatter from the next door cottage told me he heard that 'Charlie B.', a rural legend by now, lost both places in a poker game when he was drunk. Not sure how much faith I put in squatters but it made sense to me. Bukowski himself hadn't done much better if you think about it. And if you don't know who he is then you've read and drank way too little in your lifetime. Think Mickey Rourke in Barfly.

Five years later, passing through that part of the state on a business trip, I took the exit ramp off I-79 north on a whim, and returned once more--this time in an SUV. Dogs were there. House was gone. Burnt to the ground (not for the insurance, to be sure). I did the math. Even without the 'sublet' dough, over the years it would have probably been an okay 'buy and hold' seeing that soon after, I abandoned the Riviera on a Pittsburgh bridge when the front left wheel fell off. The $10 depreciation schedule had finally taken its final toll and expired in the middle of rush hour traffic. And while Charlie B. may not have been much of a landlord or an actuary, or even a poker player, he was a pretty damn hard closer and if nothing else, had found a way to collect rent and drink for free.

Geno Petro

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