At first, we thought our new landlady was just a bit eccentric.
"It'll be kind of like a sitcom," I told my roommates after we met her. "She's just a real New York character."
In retrospect, we were prepared to overlook everything but the reddest of red flags. Our previous landlord had given us 30 days to vacate the crumbling but also cheap and massive apartment where we'd been living, so that he could renovate and, presumably, charge at least twice what we'd been paying.
Our criteria was admittedly tricky: We wanted a true three bedroom close to transit for less than $3,000 a month in our neighborhood, which was appearing on all the "most rapidly gentrifying" lists. After visiting a series of appalling apartments on our own, we finally caved and hired a broker, who brought us to Mary (names, including the author's, have been changed to preserve the anonymity of the parties involved).
The apartment on the third floor of Mary's building ticked all the boxes: It had actual living and dining areas, a kitchen with new floors and appliances, and one and a half bathrooms, in addition to three real bedrooms with closets and windows. It was a 10-minute walk from the train and right around the corner from our favorite dive bar. And Mary lived downstairs.
From the get-go, she was more involved than most landlords tend to be. At our first meeting, she questioned us at length about our jobs, our habits, and our lifestyles, and seemed to expect us to lavish praise on her home.
"Looking back," my roommate Rebecca recalls, "the amount of detail we had to provide about ourselves and how much we were expected to gush about the place were warning signs."
I resisted my usual inclination toward negativity, though, and decided there was a silver lining to all this: There was no way that Mary could ignore us when there was an issue in the apartment. And, when we asked if she'd be willing to shave $100 a month off her asking rent, she immediately agreed.
The strange requests begin
Before we even signed the lease, there were more hurdles to clear. She requested a private sit-down with my other roommate, Diana, about her credit score.
Diana had some student loan debt that affected her score, which she explained to Mary.
"I had already provided a reference letter from my previous landlord of 11 years but she was still suspicious," Diana says. "I got the sense I was being auditioned."
There was more. I couldn't make our lease signing, and when Rebecca and Diana went, our broker had a strange question for them.
"She said, 'Mary's been in contact with me and I guess she had some problems with the last girls who lived there and she wanted me to let you know she's very sensitive to sound. Do you make a lot of sounds?'" Rebecca says. "We said, 'We're pretty quiet people.' She was like, 'The last girls had a lot of different men over. Do you have boyfriends and make a lot of noise?' It was such a violating question."
"You can't make someone sign a contract that they won't make sex noises," Diana points out. Despite this now bright, glaring warning sign, we decided to forge ahead, as at that point there was no time to find a different place.
And then the fun really started.
Over the course of our year-long tenancy, Mary's demands grew increasingly unreasonable. A week after we moved in, she texted Rebecca that she expected us to remove our shoes and wear slippers in the house. Bare feet were too noisy, she said.
Then we started to hear her yelling out her window at delivery people. She texted us that she'd had a terrible experience with a mailman, and so she would be putting a note outside requesting that they ring all doorbells so that she wouldn't miss a package delivery. We said we'd be happy to take in her packages if we were home.
She didn't return the favor, though.
"I had a delivery from some small company. A woman called me—she was frazzled and said she couldn't get in," Rebecca says. "I said, 'Try Mary's buzzer, she's usually home.' She said, 'I tried that and she just yelled at me.'"
The garbage chronicles
It was frustrating, but the mail issue didn't put us in direct conflict with Mary. What did was the trash.
We forgot to take out our garbage for pick-up one day, so I put it in the outdoor trash can later that afternoon. This prompted a flurry of messages from Mary, who insisted that not only should we never make this mistake again, but that we should take out our garbage every single day.
When Diana bumped into her that evening—her arms full of groceries—Mary stopped her on the stairs, demanding again that we throw out our garbage daily, lest it attract pests. We'd never had any bugs or mice in our apartment at that point, and often didn't generate enough garbage to warrant taking it out more than the usual twice a week for pick-up.
Later that week, I ran into Mary on my way to the laundromat.
"Did you cook breakfast this morning?" she asked. "I smelled food cooking when I was in the hallway."
"Um, no," I said, unnerved by the image of her standing outside our door, sniffing the air.
"Did you take out the trash after you cooked?" she said.
"Yes, we took it out yesterday," I responded.
"No you didn't," she snapped.
I turned and continued to the laundromat, unwilling to battle it out with my landlady on the street.
"Don't walk away when I'm talking to you, missy!" she shouted after me, like a cruel headmistress from a Roald Dahl novel.
Shortly after our public spat over the trash, we began to suspect that Mary was snooping on us. Another grievance she had was over my cat's food. At one point she asked Diana whether I was "still" keeping it in a bag rather than in an air-tight container.
Another day, she texted Rebecca asking her whether she was using a space heater in her room and claiming that space heaters are illegal in New York apartments. They aren't, and Rebecca hadn't been using one. We did, however, have a space heater sitting in our closet.
"It interests me now to think about that," Diana says. "Maybe she saw it. I think she would snoop around when she would come up to let the plumber or electrician in."
She certainly eavesdropped. On occasion, we'd get a text about something we'd been discussing recently in the apartment. It happened too many times, I think, to have been purely coincidence.
One morning, Diana woke up to find she'd been bitten—and saw in her room what looked like a bedbug skin. She'd had bedbugs in a previous apartment, so she was particularly on guard for signs.
She told Mary we needed an exterminator to come and assess the apartment to confirm whether or not we had bedbugs. Mary reacted in operatic fashion: She accused Diana of bringing them in (those who've had bedbugs know they can originate anywhere—including neighboring apartments), said that hiring an exterminator would bring her financial hardship, and said that she would have to cancel a family celebration due to the expense.
Once the guilt trip was complete, she hired an exterminator. He barely glanced at any of our rooms before commencing spraying. When I asked him if we should wash all our clothes and fabric, as I'd been told to do by friends who'd had bedbugs, he told me just to wash my bedding. And when Mary refused to let him inspect her own apartment, he shrugged it off, even though bedbugs are notorious for their ability to travel through walls.
Despite the exterminator's casual approach, we took every precaution, washing, cleaning, and sealing up our belongings for weeks until we were sure that we and the cat were the only living creatures in the apartment.
We might not have had bedbugs at all, but several hundreds of dollars in laundering and cleaning later, we'll never know for sure. (See our Bedbugged! series if you want to go down the bedbug rabbit hole.)
With our lease finally coming to an end (and what a long year that was), Rebecca, Diana, and I are all going our separate ways, to larger apartment buildings, with no landlords in sight. When we told Mary that we would not be renewing the lease, she agreed that that sounded like the best plan for everyone.
We wish her the best of luck finding tenants who always wear slippers in the house, take the trash out every day, never have sex, don't use space heaters when it's cold, and are comfortable being spied on.
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