Saturday, October 24, 2009

What Goes Around (March 2009)

I have a new parking spot! You wouldn't believe the politics attached to these things around here. You gotta have the right friends.

We live in a two-building co-op that used to be a four-building co-op until the corporation spilt in a fit of rancor years and years ago. You can still find an old timer or two doddering around who remembers this with such vehemence it's like it happened yesterday, this falling-out. Whatever it was. I've never been able to listen to an explanation of it beyond the second or third sentence, it's so boring. It involved the shared parking lot, need I say more? And who cares now, anyhow? They're like the Hatfields and the McCoys, these little old folks.

We moved into the co-op (Section ONE) when I was pregnant with Zack. We had to meet with the committee....oh, what was the committee called? The one that vets you to determine whether or not you are fit you are fit to be one of their neighbors? Peter and I had our meeting one evening and brought along sweet little Everett, four years old, to up our cuteness factor. I lumbered in. Actually, I was fortunate enough in both my pregnancies to not get very big. I did very little lumbering, and I could always manage, all the way through my ninth month, to bend over and tie my shoes. When I was seven and a half months along with Everett, I was still skinny enough that the Ob/Gyn did another sonogram, just to make sure somebody was still home in there. But for the purpose of the meeting with the committee, I wanted to play the part well. We had it on "good advice" that they were specifically looking to lower the median age of the buildings' residents to something below the 79 or 80 years old it seemed to be. So, I kept my hands on my belly, occasionally puffed a bit of hair off of my forehead, and tried to look as 'uncomfortable-but-happy-as-hell-to-be-here' as possible. I, in a word, lumbered.

We passed muster, and soon were residents....sorry... "cooperators." An ironic term, since some of these folks turned out to be among the surliest people I had ever met in my life. The oldest ones, and there were some ancient folks back in that day, had been there since the co-op had formed, some forty years before. "I am an original cooperator!" they were wont to bellow in more disagreeable moments. As if being an "original cooperator" meant they owned their shares more than you did.

Once in, we immediately put ourselves on the list for a three-bedroom apartment, which was the only way to obtain one. You never got a three-bedroom coming in from the outside; you had to get a two-bedroom first, and wait your turn. It could be a long wait because basically you were waiting for people to die. If you were picky, if you wanted a high floor or a river view, the wait was longer still. We just wanted the extra room. We could have been looking out over the dumpsters in the back for all we cared.

A few months after Zack introduced himself to the world, we got lucky and somebody died. We found ourselves in a new, bigger, apartment. Across in the other building of our two-building co-op (Section ONE). But same difference. And a nice enough view, after all. We overlooked the garden in the middle, and could actually see a sliver of river through the trees in the winter. I'd miss my little Alzheimery neighbor lady who asked me seventeen times a day what time it was and whether or not the mailman had come yet, but you gotta do what you gotta do. And guess what? We had a little Alzheimery neighbor lady in our new building! She had her name on a piece of paper taped to her door, so she could put her garbage in the chute down the hall and make it back to the right apartment.

We weren't the only young family in this building, either, and we were greeted with almost desperate joy by Lena and Mike and their two kids who were the same age as ours, and by Joanie and John and their two, also in the same age neighborhood. Allies!

"You know what?" Lena and Joanie and I would observe over coffee in the morning or wine at night, "The playground here sucks!" Our kids were prime playground age, or approaching it. And the little enclosed playground area for our buildings was woefully inadequate. It had old, space-agey looking equipment from the 60s that couldn't have been up to current safety standards. There was peeling paint. ("It's probably lead paint, too!" Oohs and ahhs and concerned nods.) We decided we needed to appeal to the co-op board to update the playground. Not only did we need it to be safer for our kids, but we could also make the point that it would be a good selling point for prospective buyers, who might be pickier than we had been, and want a place for their kids to play that didn't look like downtown Beirut.

The co-op board members, not one of whom was under seventy, took great pride in keeping operating costs low. The monthly maintenance hadn't been raised in years and years, a fact they were proud of. A fact which worried more than a few younger cooperators who were more forward-thinking, and knew that something had to give somewhere down the line. But the oldies were in charge, and were voted in year after year, and they made the decisions. And they didn't want to raise the maintenance since what did they care about the state of the co-op ten years in the future? They'd all be dead.

Keeping operating costs low, of course, meant performing only bare-minimum upkeep on the buildings. The outside of the buildings looked all right, and the insides were kept up well enough to pass the casual muster of most residents. The playground was another story. Not that the playground was a factor in the structural well-being of the buildings, but it was a vital part of the premises, and it was ill-maintained, out-dated, and falling down. Bench slats were loose. Since the old-timers on the board had raised their kids already, renovating the playground just wasn't on their agenda. Lena, Joanie and I, we had to make it our issue.

We went to a co-op board meeting. The co-op board president, Grandpa Munster, let us speak. Heard our concern. And promised the board would discuss it, and get back to us. OK. They listened to us, we told each other. We'll give them a couple of weeks, and see what they say.

They said....nothing. The three of us answered the lack of response with a strongly-worded letter to the board, which we intended to make sure they addressed before the next meeting. They didn't.

OK, OK....the three of us gathered ourselves. What would be our next strategy? We were certainly more clever than this stale old board, we could certainly come up with something to force their hand. Let's kick it up a notch.

Lead. The lead paint. We had mentioned that as one of our issues. We had other concerns, too. The size of openings in the apparatuses. A child could get his head stuck, his finger stuck. We went down with our cameras and took all sorts of photos, demonstrating the shortcomings of the equipment, its dangers. We ran around with our cameras out there and documented everything.

We called in a company at our expense to test the surfaces for lead. I had the unique pleasure of taking the....lead guy?....around the playground that morning while he took all his samples. A couple of the board members glared daggers out their apartment windows. They knew we were stirring up trouble. Surprisingly, there was not an appreciable amount of lead in the playground paint.

No lead. Rats.

"A petition! We have to circulate a petition!" Lena insisted. I wasn't so sure about this. "What if no one will sign it? What if we look like a bunch of dopes? What if...."

We wrote up a petition. We stood in the playground and got passers-by on their way home from work. We got a lot of the little old ladies, who, much to our delight, were more than happy to sign. Turns out they didn't particularly like the old farts on the board, either. Stories from generations ago kept popping up. "Don't you remember the time that darn Herman wouldn't let you repaint your apartment door, Irma?" They've got long memories, these old folks. But most of them were on our side. With us to the point that there was an unprecedented turnout of little old ladies at the next co-op board meeting to see just what they planned to do for the "sweet little kids."

Grandpa Munster was not happy. He brought up liability. How if a cooperator's child had a little visitor over, then the visitor should not get to play on any new playground equipment to avoid possible injury and potential lawsuits. Which, of course, made no sense, since there was no such restriction currently, and the current equipment was an accident waiting to happen. "Hey," he continued, "perhaps the board should discuss the possibility of banning child visitors from the entire property, inside and out??" The rest of the board harrumphed in unity. They were grasping at straws and getting more and more ridiculous. I pointed out that a visiting old fart was much more likely to break a hip on the front steps, so we should probably ban visitors all together, shouldn't we??

These folks just weren't that bright. And mean. Not a good combination.

But with the encouraging little old lady turnout and crowd sentiment clearly in our favor, the board reluctantly agreed to form Lena, Joanie and me into an ad-hoc committee to scour playground catalogs and weigh our options. They gave us a budget of $10,000 to keep in mind as we did our research. Not a hell of a lot, but it was a start.

They commissioned Jack Link to keep an eye on us. Jack Link, the perpetual short-straw puller on the board. He always got stuck with the fun jobs, like informing people they wouldn't be getting their security deposit back, calling old ladies to tell them there's been a complaint about their cat yowling, and.....well, having to deal with Lena, Joanie and me. He was also voted "Most likely to bellow "I am an original cooperator!"

The three of us discussed what was needed, rifled through the catalogs, found what looked like just the thing that would make all sides happy, and submitted it to Jack. Jack brought it back to the board.

Much to our innocent delight, we came home one afternoon to find our little playground locked up tight, and much of the old equipment removed. Within a couple of days, it was all gone, and the surface had been ripped up and replaced with a fresh layer of blacktop. We rejoiced. We'd have a new playground before we knew it! And then...


Word leaked out that we weren't going to get a new playground. The board had decided they couldn't afford it after all. But "in the interest of the safety of our children," they had removed the old equipment, and paved the surface.

And kept the playground locked. So there was no place now for the kids to even run around.

Mean, I'm telling you. They were just plain mean.

And cheap.

Not-that-bright, mean, and cheap.

Lena and Joanie and I didn't know what to do next. What could we do? Our kids began riding their tricycles and playing in the old-timers' sitting area. There was no place else to play. The nice old ladies were gracious at first, but each time one had her foot run over by a scooter or was knocked in the head by an errant frisbee, the goodwill dwindled a little more.

Then it was summer. Board activity was suspended in the summer, and we three went off on various vacations with our families.

"Gosh," I wondered lazily to myself as I dozed by the pond in Cape Cod, "Wouldn't taking away a building amenity that was there when you signed your co-op contract, taking it away and not replacing it, wouldn't that be a breach of the contract? There was something there that was part of what you paid for, part of the package, and now it's gone. Can they do that?" I asked Peter and our summer friends what they thought. No one knew the answer, but all agreed it was a pretty good question.

I knew just what I was going to do, and I was going to do it immediately. I wrote a letter to the Q & A column in the New York Times weekend real estate section. Amazingly enough, it appeared in the following week's column. And with clarity achieved only by hindsight, I realized what a bone-headed mistake I had just made. Speaking of 'not-too-bright.' Why find out the answer to something privately, when you can do it in front of millions of readers, including certainly members of our co-op board? The board, wrote the Times' columnist, indeed had no obligation to replace the playground, though he agreed with my Cape Cod friends that it was a good question (my small consolation.) He went on to say that the best way to get our playground was to use our power of the vote to ring out the old members and ring in new ones. Perhaps run for office myself.

Gee, thanks.

A true strategic bumble on my part. I'm sure glad Lena and Joanie were four hundred miles away.

But wait! When we all returned home, what did we find, but new playground equipment, under construction! What gives? I found out from one of our elderly "moles" that my letter in the Times had shaken them up.

"Shaken them up?" I asked. "Shaken them up? But I did them a favor! I basically clarified for them, in a major national newspaper no less, that we had no recourse, legal or otherwise, to challenge their position on the playground.....They won!"

"All they saw was the suggestion that one of you girls run for office yourself. They were scared to death that one of you girls might think it's a good idea and do it, and make their lives a living hell!"

As if the thought had never crossed our minds, however briefly. As if Lena, Joanie, or myself could not have come up with this idea on our own. I guess when you're simple and small-minded, you think everyone else is that way, as well. But whatever, we achieved our goal, our quest for the grail, bass-ackward. Which is usually the way things are achieved when I'm involved.

Hey, we all have our personal style.

That was years ago. Lena's kids, and Joanie's and mine are all teenagers now. They enjoyed the playground for a surprisingly short time, then left it for good. More young families have moved in, and they enjoy the playground. Now they're lobbying for updates and improvements. We nod sagely and wish them luck in their endeavors. Been there, done that. Draw up a petition, we'll sign it.

Most of that board has passed away. Cigar-chomping Grandpa Munster died about five years ago. Jack Link, a year or two after. I almost miss the bile they used to stir up in me, to be honest. They've been replaced over the years by younger cooperators, ones who haven't yet outlived their investment in the property, and have made hard decisions regarding raising monthly maintenance and imposing assessments for building improvements. Only one little old board member remains, Estelle.

Estelle heads the parking committee. Never cracks a smile. I'm afraid of Estelle.

I came home one day after work to a voicemail from Estelle, announcing that a parking spot right in front of the entrance to our building has come open. Would I like it? I wasn't on any waiting list, hadn't asked for any parking spot other than the one I already had, wasn't looking for any favors. She called me. I took it.

I guess now....I'm one of them?

No comments:

Post a Comment