Well, I’ve had my day in court. Now that the records are sealed and a settlement has been reached, I can blog the fuck out of this.
For those of you just joining this blog/tirade, or blogirade, and for those of you who have been following it but are confused as to the details of what has led me to chronicle my fight with my landlady, Susan Blais, these are the broad strokes of what happened.
I moved in to this studio apartment at 1830 N. Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles in November after a couple of other options fell through and I need a place quickly. I was staying with my friend Tuttle up the street, and this seemed expeditious. The building manager, Dean, was this smart, sexy guy, another writer, with whom I hit it off instantly, so I chose this over other places. Dean and I became fast friends and drinking buddies. I was willing to overlook the fact this was a complete shithole the likes of which I had never lived in before, barely camouflaged with new cheap carpeting; I was sharing a wall with a new friend; Dean lived next door, so I was in and out of there daily.
There were chronic problems with the apartment from the start, the details of which are boring, but as long as Dean was around, I just went with it and was patient. His girlfriend, Judy, was general manager of all the Susan Blais tenements-slash-college dorms in Hollywood, so I thought, what the hell, this is reasonably priced, just what I need while I build up the new business in LA. Live with it for a while, then move. I liked Dean so much, I was willing to overlook Blais’s first trap: the year-long lease. Most leases in LA are six months. If you break it, they keep the security.
A couple of days after I had a colossal booze-up this past New Years Eve with Dean and Judy, the Wicked Blais fired both of them. At that point I was going to move myself because they were the only reason I was toughing it out here. After only two months, I’d had enough. But I was in a year-long lease, I would lose my security, and when you’re trying to build a new business you have other fish to fry.
When I first moved in, Dean told me I had until the fifth of every month to pay rent. At the beginning of February, I was waiting for a delayed wire transfer from a client, so I thought I would ride it out until the last minute. On the 4th, Ms. Blais served me with a 3-day notice to quit. This was a Friday, so I assumed this meant three business days. I didn’t know it was three calendar days. When I contacted the building manager to give him an update the following Tuesday, the 8th, before I thought the three days were up, he informed me that an Unlawful Detainer had been filed in LA Superior Court and I was being evicted. My rent wasn’t being accepted. This meant that it would go on my credit record for ten years, and if I were indeed to be evicted, I would also go on a landlord’s blacklist and never be able to rent anywhere in the US again.
Make no mistake about it, this was entirely vindictive, based on my friendship with Dean and Judy. After he was sacked and locked out of his apartment — apparently it was quite the argument between them and the Wicked Blais — I kept some of Dean’s stuff at my place and helped him move when the time came. This was seen and noted by Judy’s replacement, the new general manager, Anna Granucci. I knew we were headed for LA-LA-land weirdness when I overhead Anna recommend that the new building manager, Paul, “smudge” his apartment to get rid of Dean’s vibe. Smudging is a rather quaint old New Age term for burning sage, or some such silly-billy-ness, to get rid of bad vibes. I imagine a bonfire of the stuff will be kindled in here when I finally leave. I hope so because I’m slaughtering Satan’s favorite goat and spraying the place with juju realness on the way out.
The only way for me to clear my bad-ass name was to go to court, reach a settlement or prove without a shadow of a doubt, which I could easily do, that I was deliberately withholding rent until the Wicked Blais made this place habitable. Yes, this apartment is well-priced in terms of what I would normally spend, but it is by no means a steal for what it is. And the myriad problems with the apartment warranted withholding rent; had it not been for Dean, his liquor cabinet, his charm, I would have withheld rent long ago. Fortunately, all of this was well documented, and I had the mighty weight of sincerity behind me; I wasn’t just trying to prove inhabitability to avoid an eviction, this apartment really is a complete shithole. I won’t go into what it’s like to be a middle-aged writer living and working in a college dorm adjacent to the American Musical and Drama Academy; that’s my own fault.
The Wicked Blais is an old hand at this slumlord thing, clearly. She is right to want get me out; I’m a producer, an old hand at sussing the long con myself. I’m normally a pussycat, but can be a troublemaker if forced, just by being myself and saying, No, you can’t have faulty wiring that crackles outside my window all night long, every night. What if we all burn down? She rents to kids piling off the bus at the Greyhound terminal two blocks away, who come to Hollywood horse-blinded by their dreams and end up meeting their first dead end: The Wicked Blais. The last big stunt she pulled, she apparently fumigated this building of half its tenants by not fumigating the building of fleas and bedbugs for six months, according to a young current resident who survived that ordeal. And she probably kept their security deposits.
I was hoping to be facing the Wicked Blais herself yesterday. She had already attacked me once in front of Paul, the new manager, in such a ferocious, inappropriate manner that I simply turned and said, “You need to settled down, Susan.” I had a garbage bag in hand, so I punctuated the end of her wig-out by opening the trash container by the side of the building and jettisoning it as if clearing myself of her as well. Paul later told me that Susan had said that she “had never spoken to a tenant like that before.” I guffawed. The woman lies as easily as she breathes. But it was that encounter that presumably put her on the warpath that led us to this conclusion, where she caught me in her spider’s web on a technicality and booted me out.
All I wanted going into court was to get the damned trumped-up eviction thing off my record. I was ready to settle up and move on. Little did I know just how in the right I was. While the end game for both sides was that I should move, they didn’t appear to know that’s what I wanted as well.
The judge gave the entire court room packed with litigants (we are still in a bad economy, after all) a lecture about eviction law, which included how the most minor technicality on how notices were served or papers were filed could get the case dismissed. I knew that there was at least one glaring one — my lease was improperly filled out with an incorrect address — but that would mean I might not get out of this lease, that it would continue, that I might get baked in a pie like the other wayward children in the Wicked Blais’s gingerbread house. I just wanted a settlement and my name cleared.
Even though you’re in court, they don’t want you to go to trial unless absolutely necessary. You stand, state your name when called, and are told to go out and try to reach a settlement. So the Wicked Blais’s attorney, the imminently likeable, Vuitton wallet-tanned Duane, marched me, Paul the manager and Blais’s familiar Anna Granucci up to the cafeteria to settle. Paul and I shook hands — I had no beef with him, he’s an out-of-work actor who has taken a job with the nastiest employer west of Tripoli, and I am a compassionate man under it all — but I could tell Ms. Granucci was pawing at the ground when she shook mine. She stared daggers at me. I was four days late with my rent that was due on the fifth. No, three if you don’t count the first of the month. I deserved to be hung, drawn and quartered. Ms. Granucci herself is an unemployed music supervisor — a person who generally advises on the music for a film, secures licensing for existing pre-recorded tracks, etcetera—who has also taken a job pitchforking souls into the deeper abysses of Hades out of necessity, except she was out to prove how worthy she was to her Lady Beelzebub.
Clearly her first court case of this kind ever, Ms. Granucci kept jerking back and forth like a bobbing head doll in agreement with what Duane was saying to me, muttering under her breath, “Yes, that’s right. Mhmmm. I know all about that.” A surefire indication that she didn’t know all about that. As the specialists say, when we talk to ourselves, it’s a reflex from when we were children teaching ourselves about the world through repetition. By repeating the mantra, “Yes, that’s right. Mhmmm. I know all about that,” Ms. Granucci was assuring herself that she knew what was going on.
There is a phenomenon in our culture that I like to call the American Gargoyle. As I’ve mentioned before, I was raised in Europe, so I grew up seeing my compatriots through the eyes of others. The world within the walls of my house growing up was very different from the Italian ones outside. Americans are big, loud, somewhat sexy when we aren’t smothering ourselves in fat, but above all very scary. There is truth in the oft-repeated DH Lawrence quotation, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” I believe that the savageries of our social interactions, the institutionalized inhumanity of our governance, the relentless unforgivingness of our culture in general creates a disproportionate amount of mental instability and unhappiness. You beat a dog enough, he’ll turn vicious. You beat an American enough, he goes gargoyle.
Regardless of my understanding and empathy for this phenomenon, at a certain point I had to ask Gargoyle Granucci to stop it with the head-bobbing and the interjecting. I was trying to negotiate here.
Now, there is no business transaction more delicate, nothing that requires more finesse than closing a film deal. It’s not just about money, it’s about egos as well. As one businessman said to me about film financing as he was backing away from the table, “There is no financial reward in film. The reward is entirely psychic.” And that is a very difficult proposal to sell: that the person giving the money for the project is only going to get emotional satisfaction from his investment, otherwise he’d be better off building a new house in Aspen for what he’s going to spend on an independent film.
What we were talking about with this silly apartment is a few thousand dollars. But what was really at stake was the fact that if I lost this, my credit report would forever reflect that I had been evicted, and I could possibly go on a nationwide landlord’s blacklist. Again, all of this for being three days late when I thought the rent was due on the fifth and wasn’t late at all.
During the negotiation settlement, they had no evidence on their end other than certificates showing ownership of the building and a copy of my lease. Other than being slightly late with the rent, I have been a model tenant. However, I had plenty of evidence. The Wicked Blais was supposed to have replaced my windows, the electricity throughout the building is faulty, and probably dangerous … on and on, it’s boring.
The Gargoyle Granucci kept insisting that because I hadn’t put any of this formally in writing to her lady and mistress, it wasn’t valid. “I know this, I know this!” She also accused me of lying on my rental application, “I looked it up, and that place you said you lived at in London doesn’t exist.” This took me so by surprise that I laughed and told her that where I lived in London was a matter of public record (my production company Pure Film was based out of there) and to Google Earth it if she thought it didn’t exist. Duane the lawyer reminded his client that this was inadmissible in court even if I had lied. Boy, were they scraping the bottom of the barrel here.
Indeed, my relationship was such with the old manager Dean that I figured they would get around to honoring their commitments to fix this shithole eventually, which is why I never put anything in a formal document. The Wicked Blais herself had made personal assurances to me about changing my windows, and had asked me “to be patient.”
Duane the attorney began to point out that unless these problems and requests were noted in my lease, that under Item 24 on page two …. Then he stopped when I produced my receipt for the December 2010 rent (paid on the first of that month, thank you very much), which showed that I had received a reduction in rent in consideration for “heating and electrical issues.”
“I believe this supercedes whatever is in the lease agreement, and ratifies our understanding that there are major issues with the apartment,” I said.
“No it doesn’t! No it doesn’t! It has to be in writing, in a formal letter!” fizzed the gargoyle. “I know these things, I know these things!”
“Actually, yes it does,” Duane the lawyer said.
“You’re just the perfect minion for the Wicked Blaise, aren’t you?” I said to the frothing Granucci. It pays to rehearse your lines.
I then asked what the deal was, and it was so much more favorable than I had anticipated that I shot my hand out and shook Duane’s without further thought. “Deal.”
“Wait! No! I’m not agreeing to this!” Gargoyle Granucci screeched. “And we want the records unsealed! We want this eviction to go on his record!”
“Whoa, no way. That’s a total deal breaker,” I said. If I was going to have the eviction on my record, I was going down fighting and going to trial. The rent receipt from December wasn’t the only bazooka in my arsenal; pages of transcripts of texts with Dean about problems in the apartment were on the table too.
“Would you excuse us, please, James?” Duane asked, as he tried to hold the Gargoyle back. Again, let me remind you of the cause of her wrath: three days late with the rent. She even told me at one point that I wasn’t a “gentleman” because I was so horrendously late with the rent. Ooooo, this was personal!
It took Duane half an hour to calm her down in private, and when they came back, their deal was even sweeter than the one I had shook on.
I won’t go into details, but part of the settlement is that I have to be out of here on April 1 (YEE-HAW!); I couldn’t move earlier because of the case, otherwise I would have. And the records are sealed, I won’t have the mark of the Wicked Witch on my life for good.
But, Susan, there is now another record out there, living in eternity, in the sanctified ether of online, presided over by Our Lord Google, God of Everything and Everything Else. This is that record. May you never do anything similar to anyone else again. However, peace be upon you, Susan Blais, for you drove me to blog about you, and this has been an amazing addition to my life.
So ends the parable of the Wicked Witch of Cahuenga from the Book of St. James the Menace. Please join me for cocktails in the rectory after the service.