We rented our store space from Max for twelve years. Max was an absentee landlord, his wife having inherited the aging shopping center years before. It was obvious from the outset that this was to be a one-way relationship, with me paying the rent and Max taking it. He made it clear that the party of the first part (that was me) was responsible for any and all costs involved with maintaining a business in his building. What wasn’t so clear was what the party of the second part (that would be Max) was responsible for. I think I’ve mentioned the great floods of 1986, all descending from above, not the other way around as floods often do. The mention of lawyers was sufficient to remedy that little disaster, but there were a few other situations which defied clarification.
For a good number of years, things went swimmingly. We didn’t have much cause to complain, although business could have been better, but the shopping center was great. On one side of us was a hardware store. We never had any problem with them, since there was a concrete block wall between us to act as a barrier to noises and odors. On the other side of us, for those first few years, a great couple ran first a catalog store, then an appliance store. Although there was just a sheet rock wall between us and the material didn’t even go all the way to the roof (more about this later), it was never a problem. These folks were great neighbors who probably had more to complain about with us than we with them.
Being the kind of guy who thinks that periodical change is not a bad thing, I wasn’t unhappy when they told us that they had purchased a building and were moving. Silly me, I thought that life would always be this good; polite proprietors, quiet activities, no noxious odors. Well, live and learn, is the only appropriate remark that comes to mind. The parade of unsuitable businesses would begin very soon.
It started with a used furniture business. While the owner was nice enough, the products which arrived on a sporadic schedule weren’t. It seems that the fellow didn’t have much working capital, so the furniture was purchased from some fairly seedy locations. We soon had an infestation of roaches, under shelving units, in pianos, and any nook and cranny they could find. Not having an aversion to pesticides, we soon took care of the bountiful crop of creepy crawlies, but new ones arrived on a regular basis. Fortunately for us, the would-be entrepreneur in the furniture business ran out of money and decided to enter a different line of employment, so the critter-infested “gently-used” items found a new home somewhere far away. We breathed a sigh of relief, but the day was not far off when we would wish for the not-so-beautiful furniture to grace the premises once more instead of its replacement.
Within a few weeks of the home furnishings’ departure, a flat bed truck backed up to the front walk and we watched as thousands of pounds of dumbbells and barbells, benches and weight machines were moved into the space. Never having been in a weightlifting gym, I was optimistic. This had promise! What could possibly be bad about having a gym next door? The next day, that question was answered resoundingly. As the whole building vibrated and reverberated with the sound, we found that when these men were finished with a particular weight apparatus, they didn’t gently replace them on the floor, but they dropped them onto the concrete below them, seemingly from a great height. And, the thin walls were no match for the guttural groans and grunts emanating from the throats of the fellows when they were straining with the great load, making for some strange breaks in our conversations with potential guitar and piano customers. Of course, that was immensely preferable to the noises which came from those same throats when the weight proved too much for them, or someone was hurt. Those noises turned the air blue with unrepeatable phrases and curse words which came through the walls as if they were made of paper. One day the expletives were especially objectionable and continued unabated for some time, and I lost my temper. Well, not so much that I lost my good judgment and tried to face down a ripped and angry body builder, but I walked over to the wall and pounded on it so hard that I broke a hole in the sheet rock. This result wasn’t what I had planned, but the noise did stop for the day, so it wasn’t a complete loss.
The best part of having these prima donnas next door was the advent of the beauty pageants which occurred on a regular basis. Since the owner hadn’t installed mirrors inside, the muscle bound contestants would all troop outside and stand in front of the huge plate glass windows to flex and pose. I assume this was to check their regimen and assure that they were working on the right muscle groups, but some of them enjoyed it way too much for it to be simply instructive. I never knew who won the pageants, but after a few moments of doing this, they would crowd back inside and the grunts, groans, and curses would resume. After we had suffered this situation for some time, we had all we could tolerate and a call to Max seemed to be in order. In his quiet, unflappable manner, Max let me know that he was sorry for my trouble, but the gym had a lease too and he couldn’t do anything about it. We gritted our teeth and endured the tumult next door for most of a year. Then one lovely afternoon, we calmly listened as the owner of the gym told us that he had to have a space that cost less and would be leaving soon. After he left, we were almost delirious with joy! Surely there was no way to go from here but up. The next neighbors had to be better.
The meat market opened up within weeks. Their building had burned down (which possibly should have been an indicator of what the future held) and the city wouldn’t allow them to rebuild, so they would be hawking their wares from our neighborhood. We didn’t see how this could be a problem. A few days later, the smoker arrived. The noisy saw cutting through the roof to enable a flue might have started us thinking, but we were happily ignorant. Within a week, the first fire was built. Inside of a few days, everything in our music store stunk of hickory wood smoke. Pianos sold in that era still emit a smoke smell when the felt hammers strike the strings. All the books (paper is absorbent too) stunk as they left the store, the tee shirts we sold wafted the not-so-pleasant odor of stale wood smoke to the nostrils of shoppers. We had assumed that the walls would seal out any fumes and smells, even if they had not helped with the noise pollution of the last fiasco. What we found was that the sheet rock ended just above the false ceiling. Between that point and the roof, there was only a steel mesh which kept humans from passing between the two spaces, but obviously not this smokey stench. We wished that the body-builders would come back and pose out front again.
Fast forward another miserable year and the butchers left for greener pastures. We were not optimistic about new neighbors, but didn’t await our fate quiescently. It was time to take matters into our own hands, since Max pretty obviously wasn’t in our corner. Before the little Hispanic grocery store opened, we had started looking for a place to purchase. There were some minor problems, but before events could get the better of us, we found the perfect building in a great location and purchased it. At last we were masters of our own fate. Never again would we have to sit by as our business was damaged by an insensitive, absentee landlord. Our troubles were over!
I’m not going to fill more pages with more words to describe the ways in which that statement proved false. Suffice it to say that it didn’t take into consideration the expenses of owning our own commercial property. Parking lot repairs, a new roof, ice damage, replacement of an almost new air conditioner compressor; the list could go on and on, ad infinitum. What I will say is that I’m learning to enjoy all my days, even the bad ones. There will probably be more of those to come. That won’t alter the fact that among the dark, dreary things we wish we could forget, there are some amazing, wonderful times; times that light up the memories, making those bad intervals fade into inconsequential footnotes. I will tell you in all honesty that those years when the music store suffered through bad neighbor after bad neighbor, those years were actually some of the best in my memory. We enjoyed our children as they grew up through that era. Good friends drew even closer and we matured ourselves. What a wonderful season in our lives. When we talk about the hard things, like those above, it’s to laugh about them, knowing that even those events were blessings of a sort. They are part of what helped us to mature, to grow stronger. Funny how that works.
Masters of our own fate? That’s preposterous, if not downright stupid. I’ll take the hand of God and the presence of His gifts any day. I’ve said it before and will say it again; Life is good, because He is good.
“Fate is not the ruler, but the servant of Providence.”
(Edward G Bulwer-Lytton~British politician and novelist~1803-1873)
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”