Penny For Your Thoughts: How My Big City Dreams Turned Into One Eviction Notice After Another

April 13, 2015  |  

I have a crush on the guy who works at housing court.

He has a scruffy yet groomed beard. He always keeps a pen or pencil behind his ear. He dresses like a cashier at a car rental kiosk: button-down Oxford (with or without a tie) and pleated khakis that would qualify as high waters (but that’s because he belts them about a half-inch too high above his waist).

I won’t say that I enjoy what have become just about monthly trips to housing court in lower Manhattan. But I’ve made the best of my visits to courtroom 523 by forming a crush on a cornily dressed dude who I probably wouldn’t look twice at on the street.

It’s just my attempt at finding a light distraction in a very bleak situation.

But the truth is, there are no real bright spots when you’ve been on the precipice of eviction, on and off, for five or so years.

Tenants receive eviction notices for different reasons: violating the lease or rental agreement; not paying rent, damaging property; using the property for illegal reasons. Statistically speaking, I don’t know which reason is the most common, but I would guess that not paying rent may be it. 

And not paying rent has been my problem.

Falling behind in rent payments is why I’ve received quite a few eviction notices (as well as pre-eviction notices and threats of pre-eviction notices) over the years. Nonpayment (or, more to the point, deplorably late payments) has been an ongoing issue for me. If you’re wondering why I’m so frequently behind when it comes to sending my monthly rent check, I don’t have a clear-cut answer for you. Or, at least, I don’t believe that my attempt at providing a clear-cut answer will sufficiently tell the whole story or be satisfactory. 

So, feel free to use your imagination about what may have led to me making late payments to the leasing company. You can call it whatever you wish. Call it unemployment/underemployment. Call it immaturity. Call it irresponsibleness. Call it unluckiness. Call it an illness. Call it do-nothingness.

Call it unacceptable, inexcusable and something that makes no sense. Whatever you call it, I certainly wouldn’t argue, and I would probably agree.

If you’ve ever been broke and not able to pay your bills, then you may know that there’s not necessarily a straightforward descent into moneyless-ness. The path to moneyless-ness can be, well…complicated. Tricky. Serpentine.

Not to mention that moneyless-ness itself has various manifestations: From living paycheck-to-paycheck and still managing to get your nails done every two weeks but dodging bill collectors while feeling paranoid about your cell phone getting turned off; to feeling straight-up poor, the kind of poor where you’ve already eaten every canned good in the house and your stomach’s growling but you don’t want to spend the $3 you have in your pocket because you need it for the subway tomorrow.

Still, whatever my moneyless-ness has looked like over the years, the fact remains that there have been many, many times when I haven’t had the money to pay my rent. On more than a few of these occasions, my landlord has taken me to court.

But what I know about eviction notices is that they aren’t necessarily death sentences. Is an eviction notice serious? Yep. Is an eviction notice shameful? Yep. Does an eviction notice have countless financial, social, and emotional repercussions? Yep.

Still, is an eviction notice the end of the world? No, it doesn’t have to be.

It will undoubtedly be difficult, if not impossible, for me to rent from another landlord if/when I voluntarily move out or if/when I’m ever legally kicked out of my apartment. However, I’ve bounced back from many eviction notices.

And, look, I’m not saying “bounced back” braggingly. I’ve received a lot of help over the years. A lot of help–financial and otherwise. Thinking about all the help I’ve received simultaneously makes my heart sing and my stomach hurt, which is to say I feel both grateful and guilty. So I have no proud sense of how-I-got-over triumph about my ongoing eviction struggle.

If anything, I feel like a failure. (Stubborn. Selfish. Stupid.) I’ve received many invitations to move in with friends and family around the country, but I keep choosing to stick it out in New York City a little while longer. I came to this city chasing a dream (to be a famous writer), and every eviction notice is a reminder of how painfully elusive that dream has been and how ultimately unattainable it may actually end up being.

Although eviction isn’t the end of the world, it can create one hell of a world ending identity crisis. Namely, it’s a drag on one’s financial self-esteem. I hate knowing that, at my age, I should very well be a self-sufficient adult preparing to take care of my parents, rather than making them fearful about my ability to take care of myself. I hate feeling like I’m hobbling through life, a sad excuse for a grown-up.

You know that Chris Rock joke about how so-and-so celebrity set black people two steps (or 20 steps or 200 steps) back? Well, I’m obviously not a celebrity but I worry about how a similar “you set us back” claim may apply to me in terms of my family’s financial progress. I always imagined that I would contribute to, if not advance, my family’s prosperity, becoming a shining financial symbol of my good black family’s name. Rather, I’m a child who hails from a good black family but has fallen from middle-class grace. (And, as it turns out, falling from middle-class grace is happening with a lot of black folks.)

Growing up, my family wasn’t rich, but as far I knew, we were solidly middle class. I say, “as far as I knew” because one can’t always know their true class of origin. Parents are nothing if not protective of their children, and they have ways of concealing their true financial situations from kids. In my middle-class upbringing, I never saw eviction notices on our door, but those letters from the marshal are an all-too-familiar sight on my own door.

These days, I’m working like hell to get out of the housing court cycle. It’s not the first time I’ve tried to reverse the trend or escape the pattern of near eviction, so I can’t help but be a little skeptical about my ability to do it for good this time. You know how you get used to peeling paint on a wall or how your faucet knob doesn’t turn the way it should? Well, and I know this sounds foolish, but that’s what eviction notices have become for me. They’re a nagging pain-in-the-a** problem, but I almost can’t imagine a life where the problem is fixed.

So I have a few questions for you today: Have you ever received an eviction notice? And can you relate to falling from middle-class grace? Do you feel comfortable with your financial state as it relates to how you were raised? (As in, do you worry that you’ve set your family back financially or do you consider yourself to be a proud symbol of progress moving your good family name forward?)

Also, are there any shameful money-related patterns (like my recurring eviction notices) that you’re trying to overcome?

Lord knows I want to break out of my housing court cycle.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat in courtroom 523 and the guy I have a crush on walked over to me carrying some paperwork. Before handing it to me, he offered instructions about what to do with it (mail one copy to the landlord, mail another copy to the lawyer, keep one copy for myself), but as he was in the middle of his spiel, I stopped him. I smiled and said, “I’ve been here many times. I know you know I’ve been here many times. You can just give me the papers. I know what to do.”

He nodded his head and sorta smiled back at me, then he turned over the paperwork and walked away. But before he made it back to his desk, he turned around and said, “No offense, Ms. Wrenn, but I do look forward to not seeing you here anymore.”

Oh, Cute-ish Guy Who Works in Courtroom 523, so do I.

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