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Mr. A and the Housing Commission by Launa Taylor
 

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  • If I’d only known my full rights – when the eviction notice came I could have sued for millions.

    I met Mr. A while out dancing with a friend. I’d been working as a cashier at the lumber yard for a while. Dad and I had developed an easy do as you please relationship. After all, he was out in the dating pool too.

    Ms. S and I decided to go to the big city of Seattle and see if we could get past the ID guards at the door to the Top of the Hilton hotel. The club there was one of the best places to dance. And the view in those days couldn’t be beat. It had a higher cover charge than some of the other clubs, but worth it.

    The club was hopping that Friday night and the crush of people waiting to get in was impressive. We looked ahead at what the gate keepers were doing, and sure enough they were asking everyone for ID. Some people, mostly guys were turned away. We shrugged. We were there and might as well give it a shot.

    My heart was pounding to the beat of the music when I handed my ID to the guy sitting on a stool at the doorway to dancing heaven. He glanced at it, raised an eyebrow, looked back up at my relaxed smiling face, took my money and stamped my hand. Ditto for my friend.

    We were in. And quickly worked our way toward the back of the club where we found a couple of chairs at a table. The place was soon jammed to capacity. Those in line behind us were left to wait for people to leave.

    While there we met two guys who were out together. While my friend wasn’t really into black guys, we ended up having a good time with them at the club. G had initially asked me to dance, but A and I really hit it off and G spent time with Ms. S.

    A was simply the best dancer I was ever going to meet in my life. He was charming tall and well built. We stayed the night at G’s house, A and I on the floor of the living room. Me refusing his gentle but insistent advances. Eventually I slept on the sofa. Alone.

    I liked him. And experience had taught me that first night bedrooms didn’t equal long term dating.

    He was a sous chef. As a member of the Seaman’s Union he was called out on jobs for months at a time, then home for months.

    He told me he had grown up in St Louis, that his father was a detective there. He’d been the lead singer for a couple of jazz groups in the area, but tired of not making enough money, had joined the Union. He lived in a small one bedroom third floor walk up in a brick building on the nice side of Capitol Hill.

    When he sang… oh when he sang… the man’s voice could tear the panties off a nun. His smile, white and wide in a perfectly proportioned face, beckoned happily married women to want his child.

    I was 19, he 26. He introduced me to all the great jazz musicians and singers. Leana Horn, Nat Cole, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and so many others.

    Soon, he wanted me to move in with him. I was spending all my time there anyway. Plus, Dad had met some woman and was thinking about getting serious. His apartment was no longer going to be my crash pad.

    Meanwhile, I found a new job in an office in Seattle. The pay was slightly less to start, but the location on Queen Anne Hill and the proximity to Mr. A were perfect.

    Problem was, his apartment was just too small for the two of us. I had stuff and friends and so did he. There was no onsite parking and with two cars to park every night in the neighborhood we often walked long distances in the rain to get home. We needed a better situation.

    We took to spending our weekends looking at apartments I found in the paper. And discovered an area l liked: Bellevue. It was across the bridge from Seattle – a bit of a schlep from my job – but clean, pretty and offered great apartments. I wanted to live there.

    Mr. A, seven years my senior and far more experienced in life as a black man in Seattle was skeptical. You sure about Bellevue? He asked.

    I was.

    After several trips to see apartments that didn’t meet my list of requirements, we drove into the perfect complex. Lots of trees, tennis courts, swimming pool… you know, nice. We had an appointment to view a two bedroom two bath apartment overlooking the tennis courts. I was excited.

    The manager came out from behind her desk to greet us.

    I’m so sorry. She said. We just rented the apartment.

    I was crushed. Not only had we driven all that way to see it, but I truly felt it was where I wanted to live.

    I left my number. Please call us if something else comes up. I said.

    She nodded.

    As we drove out of the area, I lamented the luck of finally finding a place we liked too late.

    That apartment wasn’t rented. Mr. A said.

    What do you mean? She just told us –

    Yeah, well… she lied. It wasn’t rented.

    Wait –

    It’s because I’m black. He said.

    What?

    I didn’t want to tell you this but Bellevue is famous for not wanting black people. He said. Almost no black people can rent apartments here.

    I was stunned. Are you kidding me?

    No.

    Stop the car.

    What?

    Stop the car. I see a phone booth. Pull over.

    Mr. A looked at me funny. What are you going to do?

    I’m calling her.

    I was furious.

    I’m calling her. I said. And if that apartment is still available, we’re going right back to see it.

    L… Mr. A said, slowing down. You sure you want to do this?

    I looked at Mr. A. This is 1977! I said. We are not going to put up with this kind of treatment. We’re going back.

    Mr. A pulled over.

    I got on the phone.

    The manager answered.

    Hi. I said. I’m calling about your 2 bedroom apartment for rent.

    Oh yes, she said. It’s available.

    My heart just burned. This was not happening.

    Great. I said. I’d like to see today. Can we come over in about ten minutes?

    Sure. I’ll be here.

    I got back in the car and slammed the door.

    Mr. A looked at me, silent.

    We’re going back. I said.

    Mr. A got a small smile on his face, shook his head.

    Little L. He said with some admiration as he turned the car back toward the apartments.

    Mind you, I was barely 19 at the time. Fired up and full of righteousness.

    We pulled into a parking spot at the apartments. The manager was some buildings down, talking with a tenant. She watched us pull in and as we got out of our car, she yelled up to us. I already talked with you two.

    I yelled back. You’re darn right you did. I just got off the phone with you and I want to see that apartment. Now.

    The manager turned white, excused herself and raced up the lot to us.

    We saw the apartment, we rented it.

    It was an upper story in a two story building. The woman under us was not friendly. She gave Mr. A the evil eye and avoided talking with us. She had a young daughter who wanted to be friendly, but she pulled her away from us every time we were outside with them.

    Never mind. It was a beautiful spot. Cathedral ceilings, well appointed, quiet and plenty of parking. Seventh heaven.

    Turned out there were two employees from my floor at work who lived nearby: the sales manager and the general manager. We decided to form a car pool.

    My little four on the floor sports car was too small to accommodate the car pool so on my day, Mr A lent me his automatic Camero Z28, a zippy car with a small back seat.

    We had to cross a toll bridge over Lake Washington.

    The guys were all excited to be out of their stodgy sedans and in a fun car. I was nervous as these were my bosses bosses and well, I wanted to impress them with my maturity and responsibility.

    All was going just fine. We met at the designated spot. The guys flipped to see who would sit in the front. It was 5AM and there were no cars on the road. We were way ahead of our time then with car pooling and a 6-3 work day to beat the traffic.

    I felt so great. We were all talking along, the general manager had lost the flip so he was sitting in the back, no seat belt, leaning into the front laughing and joking. It was like I was a member of some private club, listening to these two power houses chatter and include me in their conversation.

    We were the only ones on the road approaching the toll gates. Naturally, I put my foot on the clutch to down shift…and hit the brake full force.

    Tires screeched, we doughnuted , smoke from tires, general manager in sales manager’s’ lap, me screaming, men cursing, toll takers leaning out of their windows to see what was going on.

    As the dust settled and quiet returned to the roadway, the guys disentangled themselves from each other, laughing. I was crying, sure I was about to be fired on the spot.

    I thought it was the clutch I stammered. My car-

    We know. We know. Said the GM. It’s OK, no one’s hurt.

    We could hear the toll takers chuckling – even at that distance.

    It was a two car car pool for a while. Humiliating when the guys gleefully told the story at the office. Their near death brush.

    The GM had a black eye for two weeks. Eventually he decided to drive himself. Me and the sales manager kept a car pool going and we went back to two cars.

    Not long after, Mr. A was sent out on his regular two month run. He went to Japan and when he came home, he gave me the clap. Now, I was too naive (can you believe it?) to realize that he’d gotten it from some floozy in Japan. We both had to be treated.

    Later of course it would come to me…but at the time, I just got treated and forgot about it. I’m sure Mr. A felt he’d gotten a golden fleece of forgiveness on that one.

    While he was home for months straight, life was perfect. He came often to pick me up for lunch: a picnic at our favorite park, he’d serenade me with jazz songs, the house was always immaculate. We entertained friends for dinner parties.

    Our downstairs neighbor would never accept our invitations. She was more friendly though when he was out of town. Asking how long he’d be gone, how I was.

    On his next trip away – to Alaska for three months – I discovered I was pregnant. Morning sickness was more like all day sickness and I was barely able to work, come home and crash. I had taken to sleeping on the sofa bed in the living room. Sleeping in our big bed in the back of the apartment and listening to every creak of the house while I was sick scared me.

    This particular boat he was on had a difficult ship to shore phone system and it took several tries over several weeks before I could contact him. The call was not private as the operator had to stay on the line to keep the connection open.

    I told him I didn’t want to stay pregnant. My doctor had recommended termination due to my 15 pound weight loss. It was that or hospitalization. I couldn’t keep anything down. And I felt so alone without him.

    He said OK, but he couldn’t get leave from his captain to be with me. A woman from the office that I barely knew took me in for the procedure. I was home sick for days after – partly as a reaction to the sedatives, partly at just the whole thing.

    I came home from that first day back at work to find a notice taped to my door. Eviction. 20 days to move.

    Eviction? I was dumbfounded. Why?

    The next day, I brought up my confusion over the situation to the sales manager who had become a good friend of Mr. A.

    They know he’s out of town. Sales manager said matter of factly when he heard my whole story.

    Huh?

    They never wanted you guys there to begin with. You’re young, they’re taking their chance to get you out.

    Oh boy. I thought. I’m going to fight this.

    What can I do? I asked. How can I fight this? We can’t afford to move. I don’t want to move.

    Well…he said… you could go to the Human Rights Commission. They’re supposed to mediate this kind of thing.

    I made an appointment. Told my story to the black guy who was the head of the fair housing commission.

    He told me my best option was to file for mediation to see if we could avoid the eviction based upon racial discrimination. He instructed me to get as many of my neighbors as possible to sign a letter stating that we were not problem neighbors and to bring that with me to the meeting.

    I wrote out a letter and went to my neighbors, including the woman below us. I asked her if there was anything I/we were doing that disturbed her. She said that every night around 9 there was a loud thump from upstairs.

    I asked her if we could experiment to see what the sound was. We figured out it was the hide a bed. It was old and heavy and I often let it drop the last six inches or so to the ground, especially when I’d been so sick.

    I promised her that I’d do everything to not let that happen again. I begged her to sign the letter that we were not a disturbance. I told her I was desperate not to have to move and wanted to be a good neighbor to her. She signed it.

    By some miracle, Mr. A was able to get let off the Alaska ship to come home for the hearing.

    The apartment complex was represented by the manager, her boss – whom I’d met and seen several times in the apartment office - and an attorney. I sat with Mr. A on the other side of the long conference table. The mediator sat at the head.

    The mediator began by asking the apartment folks why they were evicting me. They said they’d received numerous complaints from several tenants that we were loud, had parties and generally disrupted the place for months. The attorney piped in to say they had plenty of evidence that the eviction was warranted.

    I just sat there, eying down the manager who had tried to deny us the apartment in the first place. She wouldn’t look at me.

    Everyone was a little nervous. This type of procedure was new and none of us had ever participated before. The Fair Housing Commission was in its infancy regarding racial discrimination with more power than anyone had imagined. Even though it was against the law, landlords were accustomed to evicting at will. Tenants were accustomed to moving when forced. We were bucking the system.

    When it came my turn to speak I pulled out first the letters from our neighbors. I presented them to the other side one by one.

    The first one was simply laughed at by the head manager.

    These guys, she said, are among our worst tenants. Their opinion of what is quiet or acceptable is a joke.

    Why then, I wondered to myself, were they not being evicted? They were three young white guys.

    Then I gave them the letter from my downstairs neighbor.

    The managers both went white.

    She, they said, holding the paper with trembling hands. She was the worst complainer of all. She called nearly every day to complain about you two.

    Do you have documentation? The mediator asked. Any written complaints?

    They did not.

    Their attorney shuffled nervously, gave me a quizzical look.

    Mr. A sat silently, holding back a smile. He knew who they were up against.

    Then I pulled out a statement I had written describing our rental process, how we had been initially denied and so forth and also, without saying I had been pregnant, talked about my illness during the times of our alleged partying activity. I said I could produce if required documentation from my physician to corroborate my illness. There was no way I could have held one party during the time in question. I was simply too ill.

    I also mentioned that there was one other black man in the complex. He asked us how we got in. He said that the only way he got in was because his white wife rented the apartment without him present. Assuring they didn’t know until it was too late that he was black. He said this complex was well known to have a policy of not renting to minorities.

    All during my speech, the attorney became more and more uncomfortable.

    When I’d finished, the manager loudly denied my version of the rental story. But her denial rang flat.

    I’d like to talk to my clients in the hallway. The attorney said.

    You may. Said the mediator.

    They returned in a few moments.

    We’d like to offer to allow you to stay. He announced. The two women clustered behind him, wide eyed, flat-lipped and waiting.

    We accepted with some relief. Mr. A hadn’t had to say a word. He just sat back and watched me do my thing.

    Their attorney acted as if they had won as well. Guess he knew some things we didn’t.

    If only we’d realized we could have sued them… ah hindsight.

    City of Bellevue now administers its own Housing Rights agency.

    On his next trip away, it finally occurred to me that Mr. A was not denying himself female companionship while he was off the continent.

    By the time he returned, I had met someone and gave him my notice.
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