Winner Winner, Booze For Dinner

He stared at the house as he backed out of the driveway. It was huge. Nothing extravagant compared to the rest of the neighborhood, but still impressive. Plain white colonial, absent stone or brick. Had to be 4,000 square feet. He watched her close the front door as he shifted into drive and eased up the street.

He couldn’t figure this chick out, his Landlord. She was nice, always had been. Married to an ex-cop who didn’t take shit from nobody. He’d seen the guy toss a brat college kid and his mommy out of a rented room when they challenged him over parking in the driveway. Kurt chuckled to himself at the memory. They blocked his car in once and then left together in another vehicle. Assholes. So he called the Lady Landlord and she sent hubby out. Watching from his second story room, he could hear most of it through the open window. Mommy said something about Hubby Landlord being bitter because he wasn’t successful. Then a barreling voice said, “You know, it’s just time for you to go. Start packing. I’ll be back with a 30 Day Notice.” The Big Guy didn’t stop to listen to another word, just slid into his truck and drove off. By the time Kurt got back from the gas station there was a notice taped to their door.

The Big Guy made Kurt nervous. He was nice enough, but intimidating, partly because of his size. But it was his eyes–they seemed to take in every detail, like he knew way more than he let on–that really made Kurt keep a low profile. That’s why he always went to Lady Landlord. She was pretty clueless, but likable, with her squinty smile and nervous chatter, always wanting to keep the peace.

He had rented from them before, a few months back. Until Bryn got pregnant and was able to convince her parents to rent her a house out near them. But Kurt wasn’t supposed to be living there. When the septic tank backed up and left a foot of raw sewage water in their basement, Bryn called her Dad, who saw the obvious signs of Kurt living there, and her parents threw a fit. The sewage problem was enough to get her parents out of the lease and leave him homeless. Again.

But Lady Landlord came through for him with a room back in his old place. That’s when he really started to see how crazy she was. He told her upfront he couldn’t pay her anything for a week and she agreed to make him a personal loan. He almost felt bad about lying to her. Thank God she didn’t check like she said she would. Once he was back in the place, he fessed up to being fired from the limo company. She didn’t need to know it happened months before, back when he moved out the last time. Her fault for not checking.

He turned left onto the main road, passing the club house, then took another left back into the neighborhood. The back of the clubhouse opened up to a patio looking out over the golf course. On the other side of the fairway stood an all-brick monstrosity with a rambling, multi-tiered deck winding down to an in-ground pool. He drifted back to Vegas, when he was selling real estate. He’d been so close, clearing $140,000 in commission his last year. He still owed the IRS for the taxes. He felt a churning in his stomach, sweat on the back of his neck. Instinctively, he reached for his travel mug. It was light; he’d drained the last of it as he pulled up to Lady Landlord’s house, the whole reason he ended up in this neighborhood to begin with. He turned around in a cul-de-sac and headed back to the main road, toward the grocery store he saw on the way. Screw the big, fat brick house.

He still couldn’t believe how easily she handed over $150. He shouldn’t have been surprised, really. Afterall, she basically gave him a room for free. Not to mention the bag of food and $50 cash he hadn’t even asked for. It was around that time that he started to feel better about having to move back into that shitbox of a room in Akron. All because of Bryn’s freaking parents. And Bryn. She was sucking every dime out of him, constantly whining about being sick. Dope sick, maybe. Stupid bitch.

His mood lifted as he pulled into the grocery store and saw the big old sign on the building: State Liquor Agency. For the first time in a long time, he’d be able to get a decent drink. He was sick of watered down gas station booze. He’d rather chug mouthwash, and sometimes did.

He had told Bryn he was getting $100 today, which left $50 she didn’t know about. And Lady Landlord had surprised him again with $50 to Olive Garden. He thought he’d gone too far, venting to her about how sick and nasty sick Bryn was. But then she handed him the gift card. “Take her out for a Date Night.” He was barely able to contain himself. This lady didn’t stop! Not that he was complaining.

He left the little liquor store that was inside the grocery store with a couple bottles of 80 proof vodka in a plain brown grocery bag, stapled shut with a receipt attached. Not your average gas station score, that’s for sure. He was thinking about ripping it open on his way past the registers, when a green and yellow sign caught his eye:

Instantly Exchange Gift Cards For Cash.

Jackpot. He dodged a lady with two kids hanging off a cart full of groceries as he headed for the machine. He scanned the screen, followed the prompts and printed a receipt, which he immediately took to the Customer Service Desk for his $35.

Screw Bryn’s date night. This was just like winning slots in Vegas.

Flipping Switches

The more interaction I had with Kurt, the more I wondered about his story. I was beginning to realize that my initial impressions were off, many of them by miles. I remember commenting to Matt that Kurt “just seems like such a nice a kid.” To which my astute husband replied, “You do realize that guy’s 38 years old?”

Okay, so I’m not the most observant person in Summit County. In my own defense, I do tend to create images of people based on their application data and background check. Kurt first applied for a room with us in 2018 and I didn’t meet him until he came to get his keys. Any information I had before that came from the rental application…that he completed. And I did not look at his date of birth.

On paper, I saw a guy who was earning a reasonable income driving for Uber with a more than decent little Kia, no criminal or eviction history and only one speeding ticket, ever. His current address was local, and prior to that, he’d lived in Vegas. His emergency contact was a cousin who lived in our area. His car told me he was responsible enough to make payments, his squeaky clean background said he was too young to have made much trouble yet, and his emergency contact indicated he had no spouse or parents in the area. In my head, I made him a twenty-something guy who had fled from Vegas to Ohio, where his cousin lived. Perhaps he was exchanging the party life for a simpler one, and maybe a few classes at Akron U. It was a responsible decision for a young man.

Even I can do a bit of basic math (just not in my head) and things weren’t quite adding up between the Kurt I had created and the Kurt I was now getting to know. Driving for Uber can be great for someone working toward more (like an education) but he wasn’t. And the on-again-off-again thing with Bryn was junior high level lust at best. Not to mention he was borrowing money from his Landlord. (Where was this Emergency Contact Cousin?) There had to be more to this man’s story. So when he came to collect his loan proceeds, I gave him a cigarette and got to picking his brain a bit.

I started with Bryn and their love-hate relationship. His recent texts had been riddled with snippets of a self-centered nag who did nothing but bring him down, so I half expected him to tell me they had–yet again–parted ways. I was surprised when Kurt said they’d been together for two years. Their baby was due in June and they were planning to get married as soon as he got back on his feet. With a child-like grin on his face, he pulled out his phone to show a picture of a frumpy, plump faced girl with thick, brownish hair piled on top her head in a ponytail loop. Not even close to the image I had conjured. (She wasn’t blonde and she was not petite). If I hadn’t known she was pregnant, I would have judged her as overweight. She was caught off guard by the picture, a bulky men’s hoodie unfairly adding to her size. Her eyes held years beyond her age, but there were hints of pretty peeking through them.

Kurt said she lived with her parents (so how old was she?) about 40 minutes away. She’d been sick throughout her four months of pregnancy and wasn’t able to work. (So they both had no income.) Her parents were assholes, he said. Despite having the financial means, they offered no help.

But she was living with them...
And hadn't they just been looking at houses to rent?  

Well yes, but then that whole “blow up argument” thing happened and Bryn’s “pill-popping” mother had physically come at her with accusations that she tried to take money from her purse. He said, “Her parents treat her like shit.” Like the flip of a switch, his face scowled and his chest raised a bit, as he spewed details of how they “do everything” for their other kids but “Bryn gets nothing. She has nothing for the baby and no one will even have a shower for her. Her parents can go fuck themselves.” This was not the talk of a 38 year old man. Then his whole demeanor flipped again. And again, it was like a switch. It was as if he suddenly remembered who his audience was and realized he’d been giving the wrong speech.

These ‘flipping switches’ were a pattern for Kurt, but it would be months before I could recognize it. In the meantime, I bought into everything he said and continued to see him as the sweet, innocent ‘kid’ I had concocted in my head. If I was questioning anything at this point, it was about Bryn. Kurt’s ‘flipping switches’ and nasty rants–about Bryn one minute, and the familial injustices they suffered the next–were red flags. And I rushed right by them to pass judgment on Bryn by deciding she must be the source of Kurt’s problems.

I still can’t define the sense of allegiance I felt toward helping Kurt and, eventually Bryn and their baby. At the time, I was so clearly being led by God to be a light and an example; to give something back in a pay-it-forward sort of way, that I virtually never questioned any of my decisions. Everything I did–physically, financially, emotionally–it all felt like it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. They were in great need and God had blessed me with the time, resources and financial means to meet most of that need. If I didn’t do it, who would? I never stopped to think about why they were in that position to begin with.

Instead, I worked diligently to avoid seeing what I didn’t want to see. And not just about Kurt; but about myself, and my priorities, and my own unhealthy boundaries. But mostly about my drinking. When it was finally clear that Kurt had a deeper problem, it never crossed my mind that alcohol was the source. Not once, until someone else brought it up. And even then, I discarded the thought. I would know if he had a drinking problem.

I would know…Because I had one, too.

Broke, But Not Homeless

read the last post about kurt: Broke & Homeless

It didn’t take long for Kurt to get comfortable back in his rented room on Roselawn Avenue. He kept in touch frequently, mostly by text message. I assumed he and his pregnant fiancé, Bryn had called it quits, otherwise he wouldn’t have been homeless. I expected the old happy-go-lucky Kurt would resurface now that he’d been relieved of the premarital woes that seemed to have plagued his previous tenancy.

You know how we often say, “If there’s anything you need…” ? It’s kind of meant to be congenial from a distance, like saying “good morning” to a passing stranger, or “how are you?” to the Target cashier. You don’t intend to invite an ad hoc therapy session; you’re just being polite. Most people will smile and respond with something like, “I’m fine, how are you?” and probably not even wait to hear your reply. And~if you’re like most people~you’re okay with that. And~if you’re like most people~when someone, like say, the hotel desk clerk, says, “if you need anything…” you have that special little filter that stops you from trying to bum money from her. One would think this “filter” – often referred to as a boundary- would be especially sensitive in someone who had just been given a place to stay, a little bit of cash and some basic human kindness from a relative stranger.

From the start of Kurt Take Two, it was obvious he had found his assertive side, and it was ignorant to social cues. Much like the annoying kid in the neighborhood who never knows when to go home. It seemed that providing an opportunity for Kurt to get back on his feet came with price tags of entitlement and expectations, and I had unwittingly signed up to pay the freight.

Three days after he picked up his room keys, Kurt asked me for a “loan” of $150. He fessed up to losing his dispatch job (although he didn’t say when) and said he had just interviewed with Goodyear, which was “in the bag” just as soon as his drug test came back. In the meantime, he needed to “make some quick bank” until his first check rolled in so he could pay the rent he owed me. My loan would fund car insurance and gas so he could drive for Uber, which he had done prior to dispatching limos, so he was sure that would pan out, too. And everything he made “would be going right back to [me]”. He hated to ask; I had already done so much. But, he reminded me, I did say, “if you need anything…”

“And by the way, THANK YOU!” He had just found the $50 I stashed in his donation bag of canned goods. “You didn’t have to do that!” Oh hey; was there any way we could move the bed frame out of his room and get him a second twin mattress so he and pregnant Bryn could sleep comfortably together in the one-person room he rented but hadn’t paid for? And it was cold as hell in there! Could we come by and check the vents and maybe bring him a space heater? He was heading out right then to donate plasma (he didn’t know you could DO that!) for cash, but he would graciously postpone that if there was any way that I could meet up with him right now to make my $150 donation to Uber For Kurt.

I said yes. Yes. To loaning $150 to a relative stranger. I can still remember staring at my “Yes I can” text on my phone before hitting the send arrow. I’d like to tell you that I thought long and hard, weighed the pros and cons, talked it over with Matt, and prayed about it before mindfully making the decision. But I didn’t. At the time, it honestly felt like the right thing to do, a no-brainer. We have much, Kurt had little. “Of they who are given much, much is expected.” So I said yes and The Bank of Vicki was established.

I really never questioned my decision to loan Kurt that money, which was almost exactly 11 months ago. Frankly, I had forgotten all about it until now. And while going through my notes to write this, my resounding thought has been, “What in the Hell were you thinking?”

Was it the right thing to do, a good decision? Or was it wrong? I’m still wrestling with that question, which is why it’s taken me two weeks to write less than 800 words. But I do know that one small decision set several people on a life-changing path to recovery, healing and forgiveness.

And grace. Incredible grace like I’ve never seen before.

Meet “Landon”

He was startled awake by the silence. Spider-Man was over; he always fell asleep before the end. In the creepy sliver of light peeking through the curtains, he knew things didn’t look like they should. And it smelled funny, like when his Grandma left his Paw Patrol tee-shirt in the washing machine too long. His bed made a big squeaky noise when he sat up and he knew that he wasn’t in his bedroom. Panic and fear took over and then his thoughts. Scary thoughts that had no place in the head of a four year old. But they stayed there. Like Nick , the mean kid next door who never seemed to know when to go home.

The bed next to him was empty, the covers bunched into a ball on the floor. His Mom was there before, watching Spider-Man with him. But really she was just playing on her phone. His eyes scanned the room, landing in the corner where the light creeped from under the bathroom door. Untangling from the covers, his little feet hit the floor just as a slamming door outside shook the room. Then voices, loud and laughing, passed by the window, making shadows on the wall as they stumbled into the night. He ran to the window and climbed onto the metal humming box; his Mom said it would make the room cool. Peeking through the curtain, he saw the voices, still loud and laughing, getting into a car. His tummy felt wavy and then calmed a little as he realized his Mom wasn’t one of them. He ran to the bathroom door, peered through the crack. His mom spent a lot of time in the bathroom; he probably should have looked there first. He knew better than to bug her by knocking, but if he could just see that she was in there, then maybe he wouldn’t feel so much like crying. His tummy did the twirly thing again; he could see his clothes were still on the floor and now so were the sweatpants his mom was wearing earlier. Gently, he pushed the door open, knowing he’d be scolded for disturbing her. But he was wrong.

He hated crying and being a sissy, but sometimes being brave was extra hard, especially in a weird place like this. The room at the motel was old and tiny. And now he knew that his mom was nowhere in it.

She was more like his sister, really. Landon was born when she was 21 and still trying to find her way in the world. As a child, she struggled to feel okay, never really measuring up to what other people felt was normal. At 18, her vulnerability didn’t go unnoticed by Landon’s father. She was captivated by his rough good looks and bad-boy attitude. He treated her like an adult, introduced her to adult things. Nothing else mattered when they were together, not even Landon. Living with her parents made it easy for her to come and go; to put off parenting until she was ready. She knew that Landon didn’t really mind; but then again, he had never known anything different.

He climbed back onto the box by the window and pulled the curtains open. There was no one out there now, just the eery yellow lights that tried to brighten the parking lot. The road out front was dark; he couldn’t even see the plastic play house that excited him when the man dropped them off at the motel. 45 minutes was a long car ride, and his legs felt like they needed to run. But his mom was in a hurry and promised he could play there tomorrow. Now he didn’t even want to. He just wanted to go home. He wanted his Grandma. And his cat.

Thoughts of his Grandma made the wavy feeling move from his tummy to his chest and into his throat. Grandma never got angry when he went looking for her at home. Most of the time he didn’t even have to. When he couldn’t sleep, he could call her name and she’d appear almost before her name left his lips. She would curl up in his bed sometimes and stroke his hair, singing quietly in her sweet, soft voice until he drifted off to sleep. Even her smell- like cookie dough and coffee- was comforting. Grandma made him feel safe. The wave left his throat and turned into a noise he didn’t recognize, scaring him even more before he realized it was his. He was crying now, giant heavy sobs that made his tiny body shake. He didn’t care if he was a sissy; he knew this was bad. Even at four, he knew that he had never been all alone, and certainly not in a creepy, smelly place like this.

He took a few deep breaths and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his pajamas. He had to find his Grandma.

Because he was certain that she’d never be able to find him.

Becoming Landlords

In 2002 my husband, then a full-time law enforcement officer, began investing in real estate with his father. The original intention was to buy low, rehab cheap and quickly flip “a property or two”. The real estate market in our suburban Summit County area wasn’t favoring cash poor rookie investors; the houses we did buy took too long to resell and the net profit wasn’t quite worth the effort. We either had to make a larger initial investment or step outside our middle-class comfort zone into areas where houses were cheaper. We chose the latter and soon became the proud owners of more than 40 rental units among 10-12 properties, most within walking distance to the University of Akron. So much for flipping houses; we were now Landlords. We were hoping to provide decent, affordable housing to mostly students, which worked well in the handful of multi-unit properties we acquired. Most of our investments were along East Buchtel Avenue in Akron’s Middlebury neighborhood, just east of the University; beautiful, Victorian homes built in the late 19th Century when Akron was becoming known for its rubber industry.

The Rubber Capital of the World

In the later part of the 19th Century, rubber factories began to establish in Akron, Ohio. As cars became more widely accessible the demand for tires increased and so did the demand for factory workers. Families migrated from across the U.S. to find work in Akron’s factories. The rubber manufacturing industry exploded, along with Akron’s population, and in the early 20th Century, Akron was the fastest growing city in the entire nation, rendering it the “Rubber Capital of the World”. European competitors eventually swallowed the Akron factories along with over 30,000 manufacturing jobs. Between 1970 and 1975, Akron lost an estimated 23,000 residents. As of 2017, Akron had suffered a 31.9% decrease in population since its peak in 1960 and is currently considered one of America’s stagnating metropolitan areas.

Welcome to Roselawn

During the housing bubble of 2004-2005, we purchased a three story single family home less than two blocks from our existing properties in the same Middlebury neighborhood. Roselawn Avenue sits a block or two away from Middlebury’s busier streets like Buchtel Avenue and Exchange Street. At the time, the homes were relatively well-maintained and many were still owner occupied. Between 2005 and 2015, among a rash of mortgage fraud schemes, the housing market crashed and Akron experienced a huge spike in foreclosures. Between 2013 and 2017, the city saw a surge in drug activity as the heroin epidemic took hold. It wasn’t long before the quaint street of Roselawn was dominated by drug dealers and criminals, making it difficult to find solid tenants; selling would result in a significant loss. We stuck it out for several years and in 2017, we turned the house on Roselawn into rented rooms, just to keep it consistently occupied. Once famous for rubber manufacturing, Akron quickly became known for heroin trafficking and overdoses.

Akron’s Middlebury Neighborhood

  • 70% of homes were built before 1940
  • 56% of homes are renter occupied; 26% of homes are vacant
  • Median household income is $24,744
  • 45% of the population lives below poverty level
  • 15.1% of the population is unemployed
  • Nearly 1/3 of adults 25 or older did not graduate high school

My youngest two kids graduated from their upper middle class high school in 2015. Soon after, they began experiencing the tragic losses of classmates taken by the demon heroin. Many of these kids were the elite in our community; star high school athletes and high-performing academics who suffered the demise of poor choices. As my kids were faced with the cold reality of early deaths, my heart for those who suffer addiction and substance abuse grew. My research instinct kicked in and I scoured articles and statistics in search of reasons and solutions, as if I alone could solve the problem. The crisis truly hit home for me when I learned of the overdose of a kid from our town; it happened a few houses up from one of our rentals in Akron. Until that point, I had somehow been able to separate our rental world from our family home, as if there were some sort of impenetrable barrier between Akron and Stow, which sit just nine miles apart. I was smacked in the face with the realization that no one is untouchable by substance abuse and addiction. There was no reason–other than the pure grace of God–that my kids hadn’t been victims. My hard-line, black and white views toward “drug addicts” slowly began to change.

And then Kurt came back to Roselawn Avenue.

Meet “Bryn”

She was uncomfortably pregnant, resting her left hand on her belly, chain smoking with her right

She had a large presence; her strong voice could fill a room even at a whisper. She was rough on the surface with large features and a metal stud on either side of her lower lip. Her hair was long, thick and wavy, tossed into a sloppy pony-tail with shocks of natural brown peeking through years of layered box color. Tattoos were plentiful yet not overwhelming and not exactly tasteful. Most were names, some from her past, a few giving nod to current relationships; “Landon” above her heart and “Kurt” encircling her left ring finger. She had scars on her arms. Her face was puffy and her legs were swollen. She wore an oversized black tee-shirt, black leggings and black Addidas sandals that cut into her feet. She was uncomfortably pregnant, resting her left hand on her belly, chain smoking with her right.

Her demeanor was childish, much like a teenager still believing the world revolved around her. She was the star of the show, chattering details of her pregnancy between drags from her Traffic cigarettes. Her baby was due in six weeks, on June 6 and she was having a little girl. She had been “sick” throughout the pregnancy and her blood pressure was elevated, the baby would probably arrive early. And yet she beamed with pride.

She spent most of her time with Kurt at the house on Roselawn, in the small rented room meant for only one person. That was a hard and fast “Landlord Rule” and probably the reason I’d heard so little about her. But they were beginning to disrupt the other tenants; their arguments were getting out of hand, food was coming up missing and they were asking to borrow money on a regular basis. Through conversations with an annoyed tenant, I learned she used to be a heroin addict, was somewhere in her mid-twenties, lived with her parents and had a son who was in elementary school.

Nothing about her fit with clean cut Kurt with the squeaky clean background, who was pinching pennies in a rented room while on the straight and narrow path back to middle class living. Nothing about her impressed me.

Everyone has a story.