On July 1st I borrowed a car from a friend and drove from the suburbs into the city: Ridgeway Avenue in Albany Park. Our dog was in the car, along with many packages and two stuffed suitcases. This was move-in day.
As I was getting out of the car, our dog Lexi became excited. An old man was walking by with two Rottweiler’s. I got back into the car to keep Lexi at bay until he and his dogs had passed.
Later that month I would learn the old man’s name along with the names of his two dogs, Haroz and Bobik. Haroz had grey flecks in his coat while Bobik was young and sleek. Haroz was owned by Joseph but Bobik’s owner was Joseph’s son. Joseph was always seen walking both dogs because his son was too busy with work to take care of his dog properly.
In my first conversation with Joseph I learned he was from Czechoslovakia. He spoke with a thick accent in spite of the fact that he has lived in America for 30+ years.
Joseph was a lot like both dogs. On the one hand, Joseph was large and old like Haroz. Confident, he was also like Bobik, full of spirit.
Once, our beagle had approached Haroz head-on and Haroz had growled a bit. I had always known Haroz to be friendly, so this surprised me. Joseph explained that our beagle should not approach Haroz head-on.
That would make Haroz irritable.
Because Joseph was from Czechoslovakia, I mentioned to him that I had read Vaclav Havel’s book Letters to Olga. I had enjoyed it and found Havel’s story fascinating. With the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe, Havel had been imprisoned. Havel wrote Letters to Olga during his imprisonment and later became the first president of what we now know as the Czech Republic. Later, Havel became the recipient of many prestigious honors. The United States Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Order of Canada were among such honors and Havel was also the first to receive Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience award.
I asked Joseph if he had read Havel’s book. I wanted to know what his thoughts were.
With that, Joseph became incensed. To his way of thinking, Havel was no hero. In fact, Havel was the worst thing that could have happened to Czechoslovakia, according to Joseph.
Some weeks later, Joseph saw me talking with a homeless man named Tommy. After Tommy had left, I chatted with Joseph about Tommy’s predicament, briefing Joseph on what I had discovered. Since Joseph was a long-time resident of the neighborhood, I figured he would have an idea as to how we could help Tommy. Instead, Joseph told me: “I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it. He can get a job if he really wants to.”
Joseph had asked me why I wanted to help Tommy. I told him it’s because I’m a Christian and I thought that’s what Jesus would have me do. You know: “Do to others as you would have them do unto you.”
Joseph scoffed at such a silly notion and asked, “Jesus? What Jesus?”
He then began to share with me a certain conspiracy theory to which he clearly subscribed. The Jesus we think we know today was all a fiction created by Constantine and his cronies in the early fourth century.
I shared with Joseph my knowledge of the alternate account of Jesus during the first three centuries: the Gnostic Jesus.
He was familiar with this and it became clear this was the version he believed. He referred to the Catholic church as “the best religion money can buy.”
I then put forth my view of the Jesus of the four gospels briefly and left the conversation at that.
Yesterday I saw Joseph outside shoveling snow. He was just about finished and had stopped briefly to have a rest. I walked over to say hi and wondered if I could help him finish up.
Gradually, the conversation wandered to a discussion of the building I live in. Joseph had tracked the many owners of the building over the years, as well as the price of the building and how it came to be a rental space. He shared that the most recent owner had gutted the whole building and had remodeled every unit in hopes of selling each unit off one by one. Instead, the economy collapsed and the owner was unable to sell so he was forced to rent each apartment.
He shared that the apartment on the lower level of the northeast corner was now occupied by tenants who must have struck a deal to work on the apartment in exchange for some months of free rent, since that apartment had been susceptible to flooding problems in the past.
I asked him if he owned the building he lived in. He said, “I own all of it”, emphatically, his eyes growing large.
I looked up and saw that it was a four-flat; quite a large building, so I inquired how many tenants he had.
He replied that he’d like to write a book some day about tenants and landlords. He said this in such a way as to indicate that, not only did he not have any tenants in his building, but he was quite happy about it because he’d gotten burned in the past.
Astounded, I asked, “You don’t have any tenants?”
“You own this whole thing and you don’t have any tenants.”
He then proceeded to explain: one April, many years ago, he had some prospective tenants look at one of his units for rental. One of them was a woman that wore a nice fur coat and made verbal notes as she went from room to room.
Joseph acted this out, pretending to be sophisticated: “And here we will put some designer curtains. And in this space, a designer sofa. And…” He rolled his eyes and became incensed as if the betrayal had just happened yesterday.
“They paid half a month’s rent when they moved in and that was the only rent I saw until they moved out in December.”
He told me of their moving day: all the junk they brought in. He told me how they had trashed the place and pried the mailbox from the wall with a crow bar for no other reason than to just ruin his life piece by piece. He put his thumb close to his index finger and said he came "this close" to killing them.
He took them to court. During the trial the woman dressed up like she was poor because she knew the court would favor her case if she looked destitute.
Joseph’s lawyer told him: “These are professionals. They go around from place to place doing this. They are professional tenants.”
Joseph was angered that tenants had all the rights, but landlords had none. He said, “There used to be a time when you could say, ‘Children? You got children? You can’t live here.’ There used to be a time when you could say, ‘I only want Jewish people living here’ or ‘I only want Gentiles.’ An owner should be able to choose who can or cannot live in the place he owns.”
I noted, “Yes, but these laws were created to protect people from being discriminated against. So, what can you do?”
Clearly, something needed to be changed. On the one hand, I could see Joseph’s point that there should be an easier way to deal with crooked tenants but on the other hand his view that a landlord should be able to choose who does or does not live in his or her property could give rise to much injustice.
That set him off. Joseph went on another one of his angry tirades as he turned into a conspiracy theorist. He pointed out that the politicians and the police were exempt from such policies; he explained that if a politician wanted only blond- haired, blue-eyed tenants they could have as such with no hassles. He went on to voice his opinion that the whole system was corrupt.
“F***ing motherf***ers,” he said.
More than once.
He was pacing around frantically now. Grabbing his broom, but not using it. Setting it down, grabbing his shovel and putting it back.
“Don’t get me going on this,” he spat. “F***ing mother***ers.”
Calmly, I observed that Yes, there likely were some corrupt politicians and law enforcement personnel.
My concession seemed to calm him down a bit so I asked, “What’s the solution, in your opinion?”
“Nazism. Neo-nazism. I believe in the rule of law. People need to be told what to do and it needs to be enforced.”
“Yes.” He explained that Spain never had it so good as when Franco ruled.
I asked him if he thought it was fine for Franco to have people arrested if they were seen walking on the streets on Sunday morning without intending to go to church.
He said that was a lie. Never happened. He explained that people said that in Czechoslovakia there used to be policemen stationed outside church doors but that too was a lie. Never happened.
We continued talking for another ten minutes or so. As I made my way to leave I told him that I hoped the rest of his day would go well. He commented that his day was just beginning and he added that he would be awake till four in the morning.
“You don’t go to bed till four in the morning? What are you doing all that time?”
He explained he stayed up till four because he had to give his old dog Haroz his medicine at regular intervals and his wife didn’t get home from work till one in the morning each day, anyway.
I told him to take care of himself, wondering if the next time I approached Joseph I should do so head-on or sideways. I'm not sure how to love my neighbor as myself when such neighbors form a trinity of kindly Rottweiler’s. Either way, I'm sure my next conversation two doors down will be anything but boring.