The Mystery of
Quercus Gardens Apartments
                      by Patricia Hilliard - Copyright June 2017

Chapter 15 – Letter for the Better (2508 words)

The next day, Beth was still feeling burned by the tenant walk-out that ended the last meeting. She had stuck her neck out for these tenants and they had rejected her. Simply because she had decided to protect a child whose parents didn’t seem to realize the danger of black mold. Maybe she should have talked to the mother more, made her understand the danger. Beth replayed the whole event in her mind. Yes, maybe so, she should have tried to convince the mother to call the health board and report the mold to the landlord. Maybe Beth hadn’t handled it well. Maybe that’s why their rejection had hurt her so much.

Forget about it! What had been done had been done. But it was a lesson. There were always mistakes made and lessons to learn with this kind of activity.

Beth looked at herself in the mirror. “Squealer! You ran to the landlord and squealed, told the landlord all the naughty things tenants are doing!” Beth looked deeper into the mirror. It was time for a haircut. Good idea. She call her regular salon and made an appointment.

The date of the appointment arrived. Beth walked to the salon and entered. She liked the place. Jeanette always had the nicest music playing while she cut and styled people’s hair, all instrumental and calming. Jeanette washed Beth’s hair then gave her a head massage. Beth then moved to the seat in front of the mirror. Beth watched in the mirror as Jeanette combed out her hair into different sections that she fastened aside, then reached for her scissors and began cutting one of the sections. 

“Beth, what have you been up to?”

Beth thought for a moment. She had spent the last month running all over Quercus Gardens putting meeting announcements under doors, talking to Alice and John, holding late night and early morning discussions with Bob about what the tenants should do next. But Beth didn’t want to talk about any of these things.

“I’ve been looking for a job…still,” Beth said. “It’s such a bad economy. If it weren’t for Bob and my unemployment checks, I don’t know what I’d do.”

“Oh, that’s terrible. I have a few clients that are having a hard time. I’m hoping for the best for them. I try to make them look nice for their job interviews.” Jeanette continued to divide Beth’s hair and snip the ends.
Beth looked down into the black cape that Jeanette had wrapped around her. It would be nice to live in a society where you could be honest with people. Beth would like to consider Jeanette as a friend. She had cut Beth’s hair for years. But aside from the haircuts, Beth didn’t know what Jeanette would think of her for doing tenant organizing. What if Jeanette or her family were landlords? Jeanette might hate Beth, might refuse to cut her hair or might deliberately cut it badly. 

As Beth watched in the mirror, more bits of hair fell to the floor. Jeanette’s assistant came in.

“Hi gals, how we doing?”

“Good, good,” said Suzette. “I’ve got a two o’clock coming in. Her name’s Eileen.”

It wasn’t long before Eileen showed up. Suzette gave her a wash then pointed to the chair for Eileen to sit. Pulling a comb out of the drawer, Suzette began cutting Eileen’s long gray hair.

“What’s happening with you?” Suzette asked.

“I’m in a fight with my landlord,” Eileen said.

Beth’s ears perked up. Could there be another tenant doing what she was doing in this very same town? This very same neighborhood? 

“Yeah, she wants to raise my rent. I’m telling you, the place is nice, but it’s not that nice. But it will cost so much more to move. I’m over a barrel and she knows it. I looked on the internet and found this group called Tenant Action Network. They’ve got a lot of interesting ideas, but I just don’t want to get caught up in a fight.”

“No, no, you don’t want to do that,” Suzette advised.

Jeanette began cutting Beth’s bangs. Beth reached up to remove a bit of hair from her nose.  

“Can’t you go to City Hall and get them to do something?” Jeanette asked.

“What could City Hall do for me?” Eileen asked.

Jeanette reached for the blow-drier. Beth closed her eyes and felt the hot air rushing around her head.

Beth sat patiently and thought. Why was it people never wanted to do anything about the situations they found themselves in? Eileen had seen the same information that Beth had seen on the TAN web site, but she talked herself out of doing anything. 

“How many apartments in your building?” Beth asked, still sitting with her eyes closed.

“Ten. It’s a small six story building. I love the location. I’m close to all the stores and services I need. And I get a parking space for my car.”

Beth still didn’t want to divulge the fact that she was presently trying to organize a whole apartment complex with over two hundred apartments. She wasn’t ready to take the flack that she was sure she would face from the rest of her community.

But then again, maybe Eileen was more involved than she pretended to be. Here in this hair salon with Jeanette and Suzette, a person might not want to go into details. You just never knew where your words would be repeated. What if they were in some way connected to the owners of the properties? At least Eileen had found the same helpful organization that Beth was turning to. 

“Someone should write a letter to the editor of the local news and bring up the issue of high rent and low pay,” said Jeanette. 

Beth was surprised to hear such a suggestion from Jeanette, the very one who owned this salon.  

Jeanette continued, “I have two landlords, one for my apartment and one for this place. I know it can be difficult to make ends meet. I put in plenty of hours. Sometimes, I make just enough to come up with what I need to stay in business.” 

“If it wasn’t for my weekend job and this job, I don’t think I could make it through school,” Suzette said. “The greedy landlords are ruining our lives. Just so they can live in luxury.”

“You are working two jobs and going to school?” Beth asked. How could it be that one person had two jobs and she couldn’t find one? There was something clearly wrong with this society. Beth now felt confident. Here were three women that all rented and knew what it was like to put up with picky, demanding, greedy landlords. 

“I saw that web site also,” Beth admitted. “I signed up, paid the dues, and I’ve been talking to my neighbors about it. We had no heat, no hot water, I had a neighbor whose bathtub was falling through the floor. Can you imagine? We used the repair request and sent all our complaints to the landlord.”

“Oh my, you used the repair form and sent it?” Eileen asked turning her head toward Beth. “What happened?”

“Eileen sit still,” Suzette said, tapping her on the head with a comb.  
“All of a sudden, we got repairs,” Beth announced. It felt good to say. “The landlord sent some companies out and they made all the repairs for those tenants who had put in a request. I must say though, our superintendent was not happy at first.”

“I guess not, but you got repairs made?”

“Yes and the heat and hot water fixed too.”

“But what can you do about rent increases?” Eileen asked. “I looked all over the TAN web site and I didn’t see any real way to fight those high rent increases.”

“I know, that’s a tough issue,” Beth said.

Jeanette removed the sheet from around her and Beth looked at her haircut in the mirror. “Looks good again as usual,” Beth said. “How much?”

“Same price as before,” Jeanette said.

Beth was relieved that the cost had not gone up even though she now had a different understanding of Jeanette’s situation. “I’ll give you a little extra as a tip,” Beth said.  

Who was she to be so generous? A woman with no job!

Beth walked home. Their conversation kept playing back and forth in her mind. They were all in this dilemma. Wait, didn’t Jeanette say something about writing a letter to the editor. That was an interesting idea. What if, just what if, not that she could do it, but what if Beth wrote a letter like that to the editor? She would talk it over with Bob when she got home.
Beth strolled along, looking at the trees and watching the squirrels running up and down the branches. Suddenly one took a leap from a tall tree and landed on the roof of one of the apartment buildings. Beth laughed. Squirrels were just so cute!

Back inside her apartment, Beth sat down and tried to think about what should be said in a letter. It would be two more hours before Bob got home so she had some time. Hmm, say something about low pay, how rents are beyond the means of the tenants. What were we to do? Bring in extra roommates to share the cost? 

Then everyone would be packed together. It would be like the 1800s when immigrant workers took turns sharing the beds. The night shift worker slept in the bed in the day. The day shift worker slept in the bed at night. Finally the words began to pour out of her. Some of them were quite good. She rearranged a few sentences, did a little research, popped a few statistics in and finalized with a plea for realistic rents. The letter looked good. She hoped Bob would like it. Then she would send it off to the local media’s opinion page.

After dinner, Beth showed her letter to Bob. He suggested a few changes. Beth agreed and change the letter. She prepared to send it by email. Taking one last breath, she hit the SEND key. Off it went for publication—she hoped.

She and Bob watched a sci-fi movie then headed for bed.  

Beth could not get to sleep. It wasn’t the monster from the sci-fi movie. Thoughts kept running around in her head. On the one hand, Beth was eager to see what would happen as a result of her letter. Would the mayor, for instance, see it and decide to do something? Or would one of the local charities take up the issue and offer help to tenants who feared they may become homeless? On the other hand, Beth feared what she had done. She tossed and turned, thinking that somehow she would embarrass herself, make a fool of herself. She watched the news website to see if there was any support or rebuttal.

After her letter appeared, the first day passed without response.

The second day showed a letter of support for Beth’s opinion and suggested that City Hall should do something. A few days later, another letter was posted in response. It suggested that landlords were fair and Beth was just a complainer. This made Beth angry. 

Driven by this anger, she looked on the city’s web site to see if she could address this issue in some way. The next day, Beth got an email explaining the procedure for addressing City Hall. Without thinking, Beth filled out the request form to speak. She hit SEND then retreated to the sofa to think.

She was stunned and scared. She had never made a speech before. Besides, hadn’t she just said everything in the letter? How much more did they need to hear? Sitting at home on the computer was getting her into a whole lot of mischief. When Bob got home that evening, she told him what she had done.  

“You opened a worm-hole in the universe, Beth,” Bob chuckled, “You might as well dive in. What do we have to lose? Just go tell them again what the problem is. Maybe some politician will want to try to make a career on it.”

When Alice heard about what Beth had done, she was excited. “I’m coming to City Hall to hear your speech,” she told Beth. “You have an opportunity to really make your case.”

Beth felt awkward. She worked on her speech, running it past Bob, Alice and John, making changes, adding more information. Would this speech really do anything?

Finally the night of the city council meeting came. They put Beth first on the agenda. Good, she would blunder through it and be done with it. Then she and Bob could begin looking for a new apartment in another town. Why had she gotten into this in the first place?

Now they were sitting in the benches at city hall.  

“Good luck, Beth,” Bob said. He looked at her with pride and excitement. Alice cheered her on. Beth rose and went to the podium.

“My name if Beth Murphy. I’m president of the Tall Trees Tenants Association. I would like to talk about the problems that high rent causes for tenants in our community.”

Beth looked down at the speech in her hands. The words started to flow out of her mouth but her mind was somewhere else. She paused to look up at the city council people. They actually looked bored. Finally she reached the end of her speech. She looked up again. This time she started talking to them off the top of her head. It was scary. Her tongue was doing a pretty good job but her mind was trying to catch up. Then she stopped and looked at them. “Can you do something to help us?” 

They looked at each other. They talked back and forth, but Beth could not hear their words. Someone made a proposal to the others. “Yeah, we can do that. We’ll look into it.”

Beth strained to hear more.

“Thank you Ms. Murphy for informing us about this issue. We will take it up in closed session. Next on the agenda?”

Beth walked away from the podium. There was Bob and Alice. John Oldham had joined them late. They were all smiling.

A young man ran up to her, “Ms. Murphy, I’ve never heard anyone speak about a problem that was so close to my own life in such a way. That was incredible. You told it exactly like it is. Rent too high, pay too low. I’m amazed at what you did.”

Beth was amazed that this young man had come up to her with such enthusiasm. He looked so happy simply because someone had declared the problem right out in the open. Someone had said, yes, this is a problem. We’re not imagining it.  

Now Beth wondered what would happen from speaking out. Would there be any kind of repercussions?