Looking for a place to rent in the city quickly became a lot harder than we had anticipated. The vacancy rate was quite low, which made finding a suitable home quite difficult. However, what added to this challenge was the social chasm that had very clearly divided the city into the rich, living in the various upscale neighborhoods that surrounds the city, and the inner-city, poverty-stricken, ghetto neighborhood, that contained well-worn, run-down, and long-forsaken dumps owned by those who lived in the perimeter.
One of those individuals who lived in the perimeter and who owned these types of homes, was an older gentleman who was in the habit of shaving his head bald. Given his relatively small stature, in retrospect, it was probably a way to invoke some sort of level of intimidation – in the same way that a male would grow a goatee, or drive an over-sized 4*4. He talked in a calm, low, soothing voice, full of pomp and circumstance – with just a bit of martyrdom to carry his words. Although I towered over him in height and was at least twice his size, I found myself drawn to his words, his purpose, and his transcendental meaning of life.
Our journey took us to a coffee shop and a long drawn-out conversation with a retired university professor who wanted to give back to his community by providing an opportunity for inner-city youth to get back on their feet. Well, that was his rhetoric, written on his gold-embossed business cards, always answering his phone to sooth the cries of another desperate individual looking for help from a friend. It was a shame though that those callers did not see just how much that friendship would end up costing them in the end. It cost us around $400.
He showed us a couple of his homes and in the end we were going to take the one that smelled the least bad, seemed like it was in the best shape (in comparison), and in our ignorance – was in the best of the bad neighborhoods. However, as soon as we told him that we would agree to take the home, his tune changed. Within days of our rental agreement being secured he had phoned us with a different set of circumstances that he was inviting us to embrace. He now needed to rent out the basement of this home to another family – a family he needed to help in a time of their desperation – and he appealed to my new role with this inner-city organization to get me on board with supporting him.
He used circular logic in presenting the need, and would incorporate shaming language when I didn’t agree with his conclusions. This new living arrangement was becoming more and more uncomfortable. We would have to share the laundry and would have a common entrance into the home – in essence it would be two families living together in the same home. Finally, we had enough of the changing scenario and backed out of renting his home. His response became angry, almost sinister, and threatening. I felt vulnerable, given that I was just about to start a new job in a very visual role with a very visual organization. He pushed on that front, lining his conversation with veiled threats. In the end we landed on paying him around half a month’s rent to make the problem go away.
We had agreed to meet at his local neighborhood restaurant where everyone referred to him as a hero. We didn’t bother going into the place but instead waited outside for him to arrive. He pulled up in his own over-sized truck. We got out of our vehicle, cash in an envelope in hand, and walked over to his truck. He pushed the button to have his window roll down and I handed the envelope up through the window into his hand. It had the feeling like he had done this before. All too familiar. It felt like extortion. It looked like extortion. It was extortion, however this man was a hero to the hurting poverty-stricken individuals who relied on the generosity of his spirit to keep them both employed and housed in his mini-kingdom. I wish I could say that this individual was the only one of this sort that I have met in this city but he is not. I will say this, though; he is probably one of the nicest, which when you think about it – should make you shudder.