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Smiling Jack

Although the apartment was supposed to be empty, the treasurer of our small, Upper West Side co-op – who lived across the hallway – was sure he had heard noises coming from inside. Not believing in ghosts – at least, not the supernatural kind – but still feeling that there is safety in numbers, he asked me to join him in his investigation.

We knocked on the door. It was answered not by a poltergeist but by a balding, slightly nervous, middle-aged man.

“Yes?” he said, opening the door slightly and peering out, like a character out of a Dickens novel.

“We thought we heard a dog barking in your apartment,” I said.

“Dog – there’s no dog here. I’m, ah, watching TV. Perhaps you heard that.”

Before we got too far, I decided to level with him. “Look,” I said, “we’re from the board. Where are the owners of this apartment?”

The man laughed, then smiled weakly. “He’s away. I’m staying here.” He paused. “Can’t I?”

I felt like the landlord heavy in a Lillian Gish silent weepie, evicting the penniless tenant who had pleaded with me for clemency. “It’s not a question of can you,” explained the treasurer, “it’s just about proper procedure. We have to know who’s living in the building for the protection of the building.”

We finally worked it all out with the owner and allowed the sublet, but why is the concept of procedure so hard to grasp? It’s really a matter of security. I had heard many nightmares about illegal sublets or unwelcome guests, like the apartment in another co-op where there seemed to be parties going on day and night. The noise was bothering everyone on the floor, so the board stepped in. It contacted the tenant, a man in his late 50s who lived alone. The man said he had taken on a guest, a 26-year-old who was a friend of his son’s, and it was the guest who was holding the parties. In addition, he now refused to leave. A complicated situation? It got more so. The man changed his story. Now the guest was a friend of his. And it got more unusual. There was evidence that sex was going on between the two.

Normally, a board wouldn’t be involved – and would probably not have much jurisdiction over a roommate – but this was a quality of life and security issue. Who was this kid?

Which brings me back to my original point: many residents seem to think the board is made up of National Inquirer wannabes, searching out scandal and dirt, when all the group is interested in is the safety of the building. At my co-op, for example, there’s a young man who lives upstairs (we’ll call him Jack, though of course that’s not his real name). Now Jack is not the original owner of the apartment. His parents bought it some years ago when Jack was just a tyke. Jack Senior, his dad, was always a friendly guy, but – as my mother used to say about questionable characters – he smiled too much. You always got the feeling that he was hiding something from you. And he usually was – like the time we found he had constructed an illegal wall in his unit (he had to take it down), or the other time when he did some rewiring that our super said was improperly done. When confronted with these sorts of things, he always gave a Peter Lorre kind of smile – and it usually took repeated calls and letters to get him to fix them.

One day, I met Jack Senior and his wife (also a smiler) with all their furniture in the lobby. Although we had procedures for moving in and out – a fee had to be deposited with us to cover damages to the wall, for instance, and the super had to be given notice to inspect those walls both before and after – Jack S. had not notified anyone.

“Moving out, Jack?” I asked.

“No, no. We’re just moving our furniture to another place,” he said, which I guess he figured was not, technically, moving out.

I didn’t push it, but we didn’t see much more of Jack S. after that. (In an odd coincidence, he and his wife were later sighted as happy residents at a large high-rise about ten blocks from us by a former board member who had moved into that building, too – although she gave us fair warning.) We saw a lot more of Jack Jr., however, who also smiled often but who also freely told us that he had taken over the family homestead. Although we were a bit ruffled by this end-run around our carefully constructed rules, he wasn’t actually a sublessee or even a new owner, and we didn’t need to be told. He was just a family member who had grown up there and moved back in after college. So much for procedure.

I still think he smiles too much.

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