Pick Up on South Street
“Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.” — Elbert Hubbard
At the behest of his newest client, Lionel King, Roy Bloom scheduled an open house at an over-priced, nondescript rental apartment in Harlem. One of many units Lionel owned, rented, and failed to maintain. Although Roy had arrived early for the event, the building’s entryway was already jammed with prospective renters intent on being the first to hand in an application—incorrectly assuming Roy worked on a first-come, first-served basis. He didn’t.
Despite rapidly graying hair, Roy appeared significantly younger than his sixty years. At five ten one hundred and seventy pounds, he was a wiry, hard-working freshman real estate agent in an industry he had quickly grown to hate. Smart and well spoken, Roy was also broke and out of work when he reluctantly accepted a position at Three Partners Realty. Although a natural salesman, Roy was mired in real estate’s bargain basement. To survive and compete, he had quickly adopted some of the same questionable sales practices other agents used: non-existent purchase offers to tweak the bidding process and bogus rental applications to manufacture interest. Sarcastic and cavalier, Roy had few illusions about his work—or anything else for that matter.
As a hard, cold, late October rain fell outside; Roy maneuvered his way through the vestibule. After he unlocked the inner door, the unruly crowd pushed into the lobby where the concierge quickly corralled them. Roy always paid building personnel to help maintain order. Three Partners Realty was a third-rate firm, too cheap to provide Roy with an assistant. Allowing chaos to reign, however, was verboten. If residents were inconvenienced by an open house, the building would no longer permit them.
The weather should have deterred apartment hunters, but it hadn’t. Roy smiled to himself. This was going to be even easier than he had imagined. A small, ordinary one-bedroom in a large un-renovated co-op on an unattractive street in upper Harlem with a forty-minute trek to midtown on a good day had a price tag of $2,500 a month. Outrageous to an outsider, par for the course in New York.
As the hopeful renters spilled into the ninth-floor apartment, Ray spun around to get everyone’s attention. “Here’s the deal, guys,” Roy began. “This place won’t last the afternoon. The price is too good. What you have here is a beautiful pre-war building, a terrific view, and a subway at your doorstep. The first viable application I get is the one I submit. If it’s approved, you have yourself a new home. Don’t debate too long, though. Trust me, this is the best deal in the neighborhood. If you think you can spend the afternoon shopping other options, rest assured that when you get back here, this little gem will be gone.”
Spin was Roy Bloom’s stock in trade. Not afraid to make a difficult co-op board appear downright friendly, or an apartment with an unrealistically high rent a steal at twice the price, Roy stepped over the line only when absolutely necessary. He didn’t lie as much as exaggerate. But like most agents trolling the bottom of Manhattan’s real estate market, his ethics were flexible. Unlike many of those agents, however, Roy was actually a salesman, not a tour guide. Even so, significant commissions continued to elude him.
Halfway through the open house, Roy judged it a success. A lot of people had already expressed interest and promised Roy he’d have an application shortly. Nonetheless, Roy continued to work the crowd. Although the small one-bedroom had little to recommend it, Roy extolled what virtues it did have to a skeptical couple from Youngstown, Ohio. Recent arrivals in New York, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, ramrod straight, with nary a hint of a smile on either of their faces. American Gothic had nothing on these two. Roy had, at least, gotten them to agree the price was fair. But as out-of-towners, they were worried about the safety of the neighborhood. Roy assured them that they had no reason for concern—something he was expressly forbidden from doing by the Real Estate Board of New York’s code of ethics. But Roy saw no harm in offering his opinion, even when instructed not to do so, or adding, without justification, that he was sure the place would be snapped up any minute. Although unsure of their level of interest, he continued his pitch until the arrival of more prospects caught his attention. Sensing a better opportunity across the room, Roy politely excused himself, abandoning his midwestern prey for the appeal of a fresh audience.
Introducing himself to an older African-American couple, Roy welcomed his new prospects warmly. “Feel free to take a look around. Kick the tires. Let me know if you have questions. The apartment is available immediately. The co-op board requires financials, so if you’re interested, we can work on those together. Just to let you know, I’ve had good interest so far. If this apartment is for you, time’s a-wasting.”
As Roy moved about the apartment, other newcomers fanned out opening closets, windows, and kitchen drawers. Turning the faucets on and off. Checking the refrigerator. The stove. The lights. The toilet. Bombarded with questions, Roy did his best to make the apartment appealing. It wasn’t easy. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the Youngstown couple leave without taking an application. He didn’t care. They struck Roy as complainers and he was keen on putting the right people into the right apartment. He always worked hard to make sure that happened.
With rentals, Roy’s technique was neither new nor complicated. At open houses and individual showings he always made it clear that he had already been promised an application, even if he hadn’t. This served two purposes. First, it allowed Roy to deem any application the initial one (who would ever know?), giving him maximum latitude in selecting an apartment’s next tenant. Second, it lit a fire under everyone else to get his or her application completed in order to be next in line should the first (non-existent) application falter. Roy then selected the winning tenant carefully—neither he, nor the owner, needed problems. His future success depended on repeat business.
At two o’clock, with the open house over, Roy prepared to leave. He was already expecting more applications than he needed. And with the chance to finally close a decent sale on the Upper East Side later that afternoon, he wanted to be on his way. A knock at the door brought him up short. Roy hesitated. He was tired, tired of selling, and tired of people. But he wasn’t unkind; he opened the door.
Alison Meier apologized for her late arrival. She asked if she could still see the apartment. At least twenty-five years Roy’s junior, Alison was tall and gaunt, with close-cropped blonde hair, a long thin nose, and dark, deep-set eyes. Not conventionally pretty, Alison radiated a sexuality that went to the core of Roy’s erotic fantasies. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d spontaneously become enamored of a prospective client. Although some might have considered this a character flaw, Roy believed it the result of an unsuccessful adolescence. Alison’s demeanor, however, struck Roy as odd. Although possessing a sweet, albeit reluctant, smile and a pleasant disposition, Alison was nervous, hesitant, and awkward. She appeared hopelessly uncomfortable.
Although annoyed by the disruption to his schedule, Roy extended an overly friendly welcome. Intrigued by shy, reticent women, Roy took an immediate liking to Alison. Distracted by her presence, however, he managed only a half-hearted sales pitch, failing to enumerate the few genuine advantages the undeservedly high-priced apartment possessed. Surprisingly, after only a cursory viewing, Alison expressed an interest in renting. She handed Roy the completed application she had brought.
“Applying already? You barely looked at the apartment. Are you sure you want it?”
“It’s fine. It’ll do. I need something quick,” Alison said without elaboration.
“Okay, you’re the one who’s going to live in it,” Roy responded, not bothering to conceal his surprise at the abruptness of her decision.
Although skeptical, it wasn’t Roy’s job to evaluate the motivation of a prospective renter. He did, however, need to review Alison’s application. It didn’t take long. She clearly didn’t meet the co-op board’s requirements for a subtenant.
“You’re going to need a guarantor for the lease, you know that, right? How about your parents?”
“Really?” Roy was surprised. Parents were usually the go-to guarantors.
“Yes, really. They died recently in a car accident. That’s why I need to find my own place,” Alison said in a strangely matter-of-fact way. “My father was drunk. He drove off the road into a ditch late at night after a party. The car flipped over twice; they died on impact. His blood alcohol level was significantly above the legal limit. Both my parents were heavy drinkers for as long I can remember.”
Jesus, Roy thought. Way more information than he needed. A simple “no” would have sufficed. As attractive as he found Alison, he was, after all, only trying to rent an apartment. He didn’t need her backstory, although he was curious why someone Alison’s age was still living at home.
“I‘m really sorry about that,” was the best Roy could muster. Condolences weren’t his specialty.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to be so blunt.”
“Right,” Roy said, wondering why she had been.
A short, uncomfortable silence ensued. Roy had an uneasy feeling, but decided to keep things moving.
“Older siblings maybe? An aunt or uncle?”
“No one,” Alison said dejectedly. “You sure I need a guarantor?”
Roy glanced at her application again, but knew it wasn’t going to work. Her financials were weak. He looked at Alison. He saw resignation in her eyes, as if life had once again let her down. She appeared almost to have expected it.
“It’s too bad you just switched jobs. One month in a new position at a small business is going to make the board nervous. If you had some decent assets then maybe, but you don’t.”
“But my previous employment lasted over two years, and I still make more than enough to cover the rent.”
“Doesn’t matter. Boards want security. They need to know they’re covered in case something happens. They don’t take chances these days. They don’t have to. That’s why no one’s offering upfront perks anymore.”
Alison turned away and walked across the room. Maybe a little help might be in order, Roy thought. After all, he genuinely did feel sorry for her.
“Would you consider re-working your application?” Roy asked, making a bad decision on the spot. “A few changes here and there and maybe you could do without a guarantor.”
“I don’t understand. You just said that wasn’t possible.”
Slightly annoyed at Alison’s attempt at naïveté, Roy became impatient and sarcastic. He couldn’t help himself.
“Sure you do. Don’t be coy. You’re a smart girl. You just have to be willing to fudge the facts a little.”
Alison hesitated. Roy’s tone was slightly irritating, and she seemed unsure of precisely what he was proposing.
“Look, I’m just trying to do you a favor. I’ll show you how the application needs to read, you make the changes and re-submit.”
“Why would you do that?” she asked suspiciously.
Telling Alison he was inordinately attracted to her—the truth—momentarily appealed to Roy. However, he quickly jettisoned the idea, substituting instead a more innocuous—and less believable—reason.
“Because I’m trying to be a nice guy and help you out.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not used to people doing me favors.”
Roy immediately had a sinking feeling. Most people would already be making the necessary revisions. Maybe he was knocking on the wrong door.
Appearing confused and unsure of what to say, Alison mumbled a barely audible thank you, walked slowly to the window, and looked out. There was a decent view.
After a minute or so, she turned back toward Roy. “Let me think about it. I do appreciate the offer. I’m just not sure.”
“Fine. Don’t take all day to decide.”
With that, they shook hands and said their goodbyes.
Having spent too much time with Alison, Roy was almost late to his Upper East Side showing. He represented the seller and, by default, the prospective buyers, Martha and Jack Riter. Since the Riters hadn’t employed a broker, Roy was stuck doing all the work. Had Martha and Jack been a likeable couple, Roy wouldn’t have minded. But they weren’t. However, with only one agent involved, Roy wouldn’t have to split the fee, allowing him to give the Riters a break on the commission. Roy thought that might encourage them to make an offer. He hoped so. He was extremely tired of working with them.
Even with a reduced fee, Roy would do well. He hadn’t made any real money yet as an agent and badly needed a good commission. Why else, he asked himself, was he in real estate? He certainly didn’t love the process. The seller, Harriet Kaminski, a difficult and unrealistic woman had already done him a favor by relocating to Florida. But the Riters managed to make Roy’s job unpleasant all by themselves. They were a patronizing, presumptuous couple, but as much as Roy disliked working with them, he knew that they would have no trouble meeting Harriet’s asking price. He wasn’t about to lose sight of the bigger picture.
As the afternoon wore on, though, Roy grew weary. He was eager to go home. He couldn’t get Alison out of his mind, and the Riters were more impossible than usual. Martha measured the kitchen and bathroom endlessly, contemplating a complete renovation. Jack ridiculed every suggestion she made. Roy thought they’d be better off with separate apartments. This was already their fourth or fifth viewing—a bit excessive, he felt. They discussed ad infinitum their remodeling plans and kept asking Roy what the building would allow. He didn’t know and, in the Riters’ case, didn’t care. But he said he would find out. As Roy was about to unilaterally end the viewing, Martha and Jack finally decided to call it a day. In parting, they said they would be sending an offer later that evening. Now, at least, Roy might have something to celebrate.
Returning home to Brooklyn, Roy made himself a drink and flopped down on the couch to calculate his potential commission—always a bad idea since it might never materialize. He liked the number, though, even if he wouldn’t collect a penny until closing. And Roy wasn’t worried about Harriet Kaminski accepting the Riters’ offer. She was as eager to be done with her New York City apartment as he was to be done with her.
As Roy waited anxiously to hear from the Riters, he streamed Chinatown for the umpteenth time. When the phone rang, he assumed it was Martha or Jack with the good news. It wasn’t. After a brief hello, Alison said she might indeed be interested in fudging her application. Did he want to talk about it over a drink?
…to be continued…
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