Freedom with a Roof by
(27 Stories)

Prompted By My First Apartment

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Freedom with a Roof

At age 18 in January of our Senior year in high school my boyfriend Mike and I were chomping at the bit to get out on our own. We both grew up in Santa Clara Valley as the orchards were starting to disappear. We both had jobs in the tech industry of the Valley that was just beginning to be known for its silicon wafer/electronic/computer companies- way before the bubble most think of now. That ignited the passion for our own independence with wild dreams of partying, making grown up choices and shelter from our parent’s supervision. We found it hard to wait until summer when we would have the deposit money to begin our search. 

We found the only housing that we could afford was mostly run down apartments and duplexes. Lots of no call backs, which we attributed to our youth and limited work history. We finally got an interview, and liked the location. I remember how excited I was when we went to meet the landlords. We had prepped each other to have the right answers to any questions that might arise.  A buxom woman with gray streaks in her brown hair answered the door with a waft of Indian curry aromas floating out the door. She greeted us in a fragile quiet voice and introduced herself, waving toward the couch in the living room. The house had Hindu decorations, yet the woman was very white American. As her husband came into the room, she disappeared. He was a lanky Indian fellow with a mustache and strong odor of sweat. I glanced over at Mike, to see if he was going to make an inappropriate remark about it. He just grinned at me. The man introduced himself with a very heavy accent. All of his sentences were commands: “You will come see the place, now.” Or “You will sign the papers after.” 

As he was speaking, a younger man came in with a violin and began to play. He was the son, and the family resemblance to Dad was obvious. As his playing got louder, our conversation got louder. Then the young man started playing the violin AT me. Smiling at me, he’d stoop over and bring the bow very close to me. I knew this would not go well with Mike, and right then he scooted over on the couch and put his arm around me and glared up at the son. 

We soon followed Jarhid, the land lord, to look at the 4 plex where he was offering a first floor unit. My Dad had coached us to look, but to ask for time to think about it before signing any lease. Jarhid did not take kindly to that, and I thought we would lose the place for sure. 

We went straight over to my folks’ house to tell them that we thought we had found the perfect place, but were using Dad’s wisdom to be cautious. Thank god. The next day my Dad came with us as we proudly showed him the dilapidated, weary place. He brought a clip board. He saw so many things that our naïveté and enthusiasm had hid from us, from broken back door to water stains on the ceiling, to a stand out of a stained carpet. We still thought it was perfect. We brought the list with us when we signed the paperwork, asking it be included as we all signed a 6 month lease. I remember feeling proud and accomplished.

We were FREE!! Family and friends donated to our mish-mash furniture and housewares. We had a giant puke orange couch with a stain on one corner, a donated TV that we called the acid TV because every few seconds a horizontal line would flip through the screen; we had unmatching dishes and utensils and towels and we were so happy. We splurged on a stereo system from the Flea Market, and now we were ready to rock!

This lasted through our first “Friendsgiving” were I forgot to take the plastic coating from around the innards out of the turkey before stuffing it, but we drank Harvey Wallbangers and smoked thai stick, and ate chips and appetizers, all in good cheer. Its now a fond and foundational memory of my battle with cooking.

At this point we had noticed the wife of the land lord, Phyllis came every 3 weeks or so to mow the lawn and check the garbage/garage area. Never the son or dad. She often had a black eye or bruises on her face and I was starting to really not like our landlord. 

In a series of bad circumstances we had a month from hell. The apartment upstairs flooded and that stain gained new significance as the carpet smell now made sense as well. We couldn’t get him to fix the back door, or the lock to the bathroom that kept sticking. He just sent his wife with a rented carpet cleaner for clean up of threadbare and mildewing waste of time.

One night Mike was in the bathroom and I was sound asleep when I heard familiar rattling at the bathroom door. I got to the door and we began the dance with tools and turns and frustration building. Suddenly Mike yelled fiercely “Stand Back!”  There was a loud crash as the door came off the hinges. Mike looked at me in a way that dared me to say something – but I knew better than that. He marched to his tool box, got out a pair of channel locks and wrenched the door knob off. He picked it up and began to walk out the door. “Where are you going? Nothing is open now,”I asked. He said through clenched teeth, “I am going to deliver this!” And with that he left, slamming the front door. When he returned later I asked what he had done. He said, “ I just took it over to the landlord’s house and knocked on the door, leaving it on the step.” It was 2 am. We never heard about it, and just adjusted to having no door knob on the bathroom door after Mike had got it back on its hinges.

I was working during the day, and going to school at night. My boyfriend was working swing shift. We started to feel like we only saw each other to deliver messages of the apartments decline and further failure to get the land lord to act. We decided to start to look for a new place. When we gave our notice, the landlord, in his typical fashion told us, “You cannot get your deposit back as you have destroyed the apartment.” And then Mike began to yell at him and he to Mike. I actually felt like laughing even though I should be pissed because Jarhid was yelling “You will not yell at me” as his face turned a deep purple and his eyes became wild”. 

I pulled Mike away. We began our own relationship dance that would last for decades.

Eventually we got the first experience of taking someone to small claims court, with our 4 neighbors and getting awarded our deposit back, largely because of my dad’s insistence on that list. On the way out of the courtroom, we saw the landlord and his wife in the parking lot and he yelled “You are very bad people” to us. Mike started to run toward him, but Jarhid grabbed his wife and hid behind her. Mike laughed, turned around and threw over his shoulder- “We expect our check in the next week.” We got it.

I feel like the whole things was such a sweet adventure, even the late night wrestling to get out of the bathroom, and the other minor catastrophes. Up until my dad died 12 years ago, my husband Mike and I would always go to him about important decisions and to weigh our options. Family wisdom served us well.

Profile photo of January Handl January Handl

Characterizations: well written


  1. Marian says:

    Wow, what a landlord from hell experience, January. I can relate to your searches in the Santa Clara Valley and remember an apartment I had in Sunnyvale (not my first) where Indian spices permeated the kitchen cabinets. Not always what I wanted to wake up to for my first cup of coffee.

  2. Suzy says:

    Wow, January, getting your own apartment while you were still in high school! My parents would never have let me do that, but then again, I couldn’t have handled it. You were very brave AND very mature, it sounds like. What a nightmare though, with that horrible landlord and his battered wife.

    I love that in the last sentence you subtly let us know that you actually married that high school boyfriend and are still together.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    How brave of you to venture into the real world at such a tender age, January. But clearly, you got a lot of support and good wisdom from your father, which really paid off. I love the way you describe the beginning of “the dance” with your own husband Mike. But the limitations of that first apartment are diminished because they meant freedom for you. I enjoyed your turkey story – it sounds like something I would have done. Great that you and your friends found other ways to celebrate the holiday together and continue to. Thank you for sharing this intimate tale with us.

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