For many poor Americans, eviction never ends.
Arleen Beale’s latest eviction began with a snowball fight. It was January of 2008, and Milwaukee was experiencing its snowiest winter on record. Arleen’s son Jori and his cousin were cutting up, packing powder tight and taking aim at the passing cars on Arthur Avenue. One jerked to a stop, and a man jumped out, chasing the boys to Arleen’s apartment, where he broke down the door with a few kicks. When the landlord found out about the property damage, she decided to evict. Arleen had been there with her sons—Jori was thirteen, Jafaris five—for eight months.
The day they had to be out was bitterly cold, but Arleen knew what would happen if she waited any longer to leave. Her first eviction had taken place sixteen years earlier, when she was twenty-two; she figured that she had rented twenty houses since turning eighteen. First, the landlord would summon the sheriff, who would arrive with a gun, a team of movers, and a judge’s order saying that her house was no longer hers. Then Arleen would be given two options: “truck” or “curb.” “Truck” meant that her things would be loaded into an eighteen-footer and checked into bonded storage. She could get everything back after paying three hundred and fifty dollars. Arleen didn’t have the money, so she would have opted for “curb,” which meant that the movers would pile everything onto the sidewalk: mattresses; a floor-model television; her copy of “Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline”; a nice glass dining table and a lace tablecloth; the meat in the freezer.
When Arleen was evicted from her apartment on Arthur Avenue, she was receiving a stipend from Wisconsin Works, a family-aid program—a reduced amount, because she wasn’t working. The sum, in 2008, was the same as when welfare was reformed more than a decade earlier: $20.65 a day, $7,536 a year.
Arleen took her sons to a homeless shelter, where they stayed until April, when she found a house on Nineteenth and Hampton, in the predominantly black inner city, on Milwaukee’s North Side, where she’d grown up. There was often no running water, and Jori had to bucket out what was in the toilet. But Arleen loved that the rent was only five hundred and twenty-five dollars a month, and that the house was set apart from others on the block. “It was quiet,” she remembered. “It was my favorite place.”
After a few weeks, the city found the house “unfit for human habitation.” Arleen moved into a drab apartment complex deeper in the inner city, on Atkinson Avenue, which she soon learned was a haven for drug dealers. She feared for her boys, especially Jori, who was goofy and slack-shouldered and would talk to anyone. They endured four summer months there before their caseworker at Wraparound, a social-services agency, found them a bottom duplex unit on Thirteenth Street and Keefe.
To avoid embarrassment, Arleen and the boys walked their things over to the new place at night, pushing the larger items, like the sun-faded floral-print love seat, on top of a wheeled garbage can. At the house, she held her breath and tried the lights, smiling with relief when they came on. She could live off someone else’s electricity bill for a while. There was a fist-size hole in a living-room window, the front door had to be locked with an ugly wooden plank dropped into metal brackets, and the carpet was filthy, the dirt ground in. But the kitchen was spacious and the living room well lit. Arleen stuffed a piece of clothing into the window hole and hung ivory curtains.
The rent was five hundred and fifty dollars a month, utilities not included—the going rate for a two-bedroom apartment in one of the worst neighborhoods in America’s fourth-poorest city—and would take eighty-eight per cent of Arleen’s six-hundred-and-twenty-eight-dollar-a-month welfare check. Maybe she could make it work, at least through the winter.
There was a knock at the door. It was the landlord, Sherrena Tarver, a short black woman with bobbed hair and freshly done nails, loaded down with groceries. (Names have been changed.) She had spent forty dollars of her own money on the food and picked up the rest at a pantry. She knew Arleen needed it. Arleen thanked Sherrena and closed the door. Things were off to a good start.
Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare enough to draw crowds. Eviction riots erupted during the Depression, though the number of poor families who faced eviction each year was a fraction of what it is today. In February, 1932, the Times published an account of community resistance to the eviction of three families in the Bronx, observing, “Probably because of the cold, the crowd numbered only 1,000.”
These days, evictions are too commonplace to attract attention. There are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. Some moving companies specialize in evictions, their crews working all day long, five days a week. Hundreds of data-mining companies sell landlords tenant-screening reports that list past evictions and court filings. Meanwhile, families have watched their incomes stagnate or fall as their housing costs have soared. Today, the majority of poor renting families spend more than half their income on housing, and millions of Americans are evicted every year. In Milwaukee, a city of fewer than a hundred and five thousand renter households, landlords legally evict roughly sixteen thousand adults and children each year. As the real-estate market has recovered in the wake of the foreclosure crisis and the ensuing recession, evictions have only increased.
But there are other ways, cheaper and quicker than a court order, to remove a family. Some landlords pay tenants a couple of hundred dollars to leave by the end of the week. Some take off the front door. Nearly half of the forced moves of renting families in Milwaukee are “informal evictions,” which, like many rentals, involve no paperwork, and take place in the shadow of the law. Between 2009 and 2011, more than one in eight Milwaukee renters were displaced involuntarily, whether by formal or informal eviction, landlord foreclosure, or building condemnation. In 2013, nearly the same proportion of poor renting families nationwide was unable to pay all of their rent, and a similar number thought it was likely that they would be evicted soon.
For decades, social scientists, journalists, and policymakers have focussed on jobs, public assistance, parenting, and mass incarceration as the central problems faced by the American poor, overlooking just how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty. Not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors. But nearly everyone has a landlord.
A few months before Arleen moved into the Thirteenth Street duplex, Sherrena Tarver wound her way through the North Side, listening to R. & B. with her window down. Most middle-class Milwaukeeans zoomed past the inner city on the freeway. Landlords took the side streets, typically not in their Saab or Audi but in their “rent collector,” some oil-leaking, rusted-out van or truck that hauled around extension cords, ladders, maybe a loaded pistol, plumbing snakes, toolboxes, a can of Mace, and other necessities. Sherrena usually left her lipstick-red Camaro at home and visited tenants in a beige-and-brown 1993 Chevy Suburban with twenty-two-inch rims, which belonged to Quentin, her husband, business partner, and property manager. He used a screwdriver to start it.
Some white Milwaukeeans still referred to the North Side as “the core,” as they did in the sixties, and if they ventured into it they saw street after street of twenty-four-hour day-care centers, fading murals, and corner stores with “WIC Accepted Here” signs. Deindustrialization had crippled cities across the Rust Belt, and Milwaukee was among the hardest hit; by 2000, its population had fallen below six hundred thousand, down from more than seven hundred and forty thousand at its peak, in 1960. It showed. On a typical residential street on the North Side, a few single-family homes remained, owned by older folks who tended gardens and hung American flags. But most of the other dwellings were sagging duplexes or four-family apartment buildings with chipping paint and bedsheet curtains, next to vacant lots and empty houses with boarded-up doors and windows.
Sherrena saw all this, but she saw something else, too. Like other seasoned landlords, she knew who owned which multifamily house, which church, which bar; knew the neighborhood’s vicissitudes of life, its shades and moods; knew which blocks were drug-soaked and which were quiet. She had a keen sense of the ghetto’s value and how money could be made from a property that looked worthless to people who didn’t know any better.
It wasn’t easy. Once, an evicted couple shoved socks down the sinks and turned the water on full blast before moving out. A disgruntled mortgage customer tossed a homemade bomb through Sherrena’s office window. The month before she met Arleen, someone had been shot in one of Sherrena’s buildings. A few days after that, the city shut down one of her properties because a tenant had been caught stealing electricity. Sherrena remembered meeting the woman, who had said she was fleeing an abusive boyfriend. She had decided to rent to her and her children even though the woman had been evicted three times in the past two years. There’s me having a heart again, she thought.
When people asked why she went into real estate, Sherrena talked about “long-term residuals” and “property being the best investment out there,” but there was more to it. She shared something with other landlords: an unbending confidence that she could make it on her own without a company to fall back on, without a contract or a pension or a union. She had an understanding with the universe that she could start out with nothing and, through her own gumption and intelligence, come back with a good living.
Sherrena had bought a home in 1999, when prices were low. Riding the housing boom a few years later, she refinanced and pulled out twenty-one thousand dollars in equity, then refinanced again. She used the cash to buy her first rental property: a two-unit duplex in the inner city, where housing was cheapest. Rental profits, refinancing, and high-interest loans from private real-estate investors helped her buy more. She learned that the rental population comprised some upper- and middle-class households who rented out of preference or circumstance; some young and transient people; and most of the city’s poor, who could not buy a home or gain access to public housing, because there wasn’t enough of it. Landlords operated in different areas of the city, focussing on certain kinds of tenants: whites or immigrants, poor families or college students. Sherrena decided to specialize in renting to the black poor.
Four years after buying her first rental property, she owned thirty-six units, all in the inner city. She began carrying a pair of cell phones with backup batteries, reading Forbes, and accepting appointments from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. She also started a credit-repair business and an investment business. She bought two fifteen-passenger vans and launched a company that, for twenty-five to fifty dollars a seat, transported girlfriends, mothers, and children to visit their incarcerated loved ones upstate. Sherrena had found her calling: inner-city entrepreneur.
Arleen didn’t mind Thirteenth Street. There was a bodega owned by Arabs on one end of her block and a bar frequented by old men on the other. She could walk Jafaris to school. She could have done without the crack addicts who’d recently moved into the abandoned house next door, but a little farther down the street a girl was learning to play the violin.
Arleen’s house was built in the Greek Revival style: two stories of sandstone block with twin columns supporting an awning over the front door. A pair of picture windows, adorned with peaked pediments, faced the street from above the porch. But the house had deteriorated over the years. One column base was settling, causing the awning to slope sideways. The columns, the porch, and the window pediments had been painted ash gray, and an imposing iron-barred outer door had been installed.
But, inside, Arleen’s new apartment was coming along. The previous tenants had been evicted and had vacated in a hurry, leaving behind a large armoire, a dresser, a bed, and a refrigerator. There was even more in the basement: dishes, clothes, an upholstered chair. Arleen put it all to use, rearranging the furniture and stacking the dishes next to her nice porcelain plates, which she’d been given long ago by a domestic-violence shelter. She unpacked a stereo and listened to old-school hip-hop tracks—her favorite being 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up”—while she worked on the apartment. In the kitchen, she hung a drawing of black farmers hoeing a row. In the basement, she’d come across rollers, brushes, and a five-gallon container of white paint. She lugged everything upstairs, tied a wrap around her head, and gave the walls a fresh coat.
Jafaris scavenged the basement, too, transforming mop handles, discarded tools, and dog leashes into tanks and helicopters locked in battle. He and his brother had grown used to churning through different apartments, neighborhoods, and schools. In the seventh and eighth grades, Jori had attended five schools; when the family was homeless he often skipped class to help Arleen look for a new place.
If Arleen had a housing voucher or a key to a public-housing unit, she would be spending only thirty per cent of her income on rent, which would mean the difference between stable poverty and grinding poverty, between planting roots in a community and being batted from one place to another. Two decades ago, when she was nineteen, she had rented a subsidized apartment for a hundred and thirty-seven dollars a month. She was grateful to be out of her mother’s house, making decisions on her own. But, when a friend asked Arleen to give up her place and move in with her, she decided to say yes, walking away from the subsidized apartment and into the private rental market, where she had remained ever since. Once she left public housing, it was next to impossible to get back in. “I thought it was O.K. to move somewhere else,” she recalled. “And I regret it, right now to this day. Young!” She shook her head at her nineteen-year-old self. “If I would’ve been in my right mind, I could have still been there.”
The list of applicants for Milwaukee’s rent-assistance program was notoriously stagnant. One day, Arleen stopped by the Housing Authority and asked about it. “The list is frozen,” she was told. On it were more than thirty-five hundred families who had applied for assistance four years earlier and were still waiting for placement. It could have been worse. In larger cities, like Washington, D.C., the wait for public housing was counted in decades. Three in four American families who qualified for housing assistance received nothing: the amount of government aid didn’t come close to meeting the need.
If Arleen wanted public housing, she would have to save roughly six hundred dollars to repay the Housing Authority for having left the subsidized apartment years before without giving notice; then wait two to three years until the list unfroze; then wait another two to five years until her application made it to the top of the pile; then pray that the person with the stale coffee and the heavy stamp reviewing her file would somehow overlook the eviction record that she’d accumulated while trying to make ends meet in the private housing market on a welfare check.
“Press 1 to leave a voice message.” Sherrena pressed 1. “Arleen, this is Sherrena calling. I’m calling to find out if you had your rent. Remember we agreed that you were going to pay a little bit over to get caught up with the three-twenty you owed for—” Sherrena stopped herself from finishing the sentence with “your sister’s funeral costs.” She went on, “Um, I will be expecting the six hundred and fifty. Go ’head and give me a call.”
Arleen didn’t regret what she had done. Usually, when there was a funeral, she couldn’t even afford to buy Jafaris new shoes and would just polish his best ones. But this was her sister—in the spiritual sense, if not the biological one. She would have been ashamed of herself if she hadn’t pitched in. She split her welfare check between Sherrena and New Pitts Mortuary.
Sherrena felt bad when she heard about Arleen’s sister. It was November, and Arleen had been living on Thirteenth Street for less than two months. She made her tenant a deal. Arleen could stay if she paid six hundred and fifty dollars for three months to make up the lost rent. Even if Arleen signed over her entire welfare check each month, she would still be short. But Sherrena was betting that Arleen could put in a few calls to family members or nonprofit agencies and ask for help.
Sherrena and Quentin were in the Suburban when Arleen called at the beginning of the next month. After a quick conversation, Sherrena hung up and looked at her husband. “Arleen said her check didn’t come.”
Quentin kept his eyes on the road. “Story of they life,” he said.
Arleen had told a half-truth. She had received a check, but not for six hundred and twenty-eight dollars. She had missed an appointment with her welfare caseworker, having forgotten about it. A reminder notice was mailed to Atkinson—or was it Nineteenth Street? When Arleen didn’t show up, the caseworker “sanctioned” her by decreasing her benefit. Arleen could have given Sherrena her reduced check, but she thought it was better to be behind and have a few hundred dollars in her pocket than be behind and completely broke.
Sherrena saw herself as a charitable businesswoman, providing housing to the destitute. “I don’t discriminate against crackheads, because those crackheads need a place to stay,” she’d say. Still, evictions were a regular part of her job. She didn’t hesitate, but she also didn’t reach mechanically for the pink papers. “It’s kind of hard to put somebody out,” she admitted. In September, Sherrena had learned that one of her favorite tenants—Lamar, a double amputee and a single father—had fallen behind. “I’m gonna have a hard time doing this,” she told Quentin, when eviction began to seem necessary. “I love Lamar. But love don’t pay the bills.”
After thinking things over, Sherrena decided that the funeral and the subsequent welfare sanction had put Arleen too far behind: eight hundred and seventy dollars. It was time, she said, to “let go and move on to the next tenant.” She filed the eviction paperwork and received a court date of December 23rd. It was the last eviction court before Christmas, and Sherrena knew the Milwaukee County Courthouse would be packed. The court used to take a break from evictions at Christmastime, but that was discontinued in 1991, after a landlord persuaded the American Civil Liberties Union to argue that the practice was an unfair religious celebration. Many parents chose to take their chances with their landlords rather than face their children empty-handed on Christmas morning. A new tenant had already asked Sherrena if a portion of her rent money could be returned so that she could buy gifts. “You gotta have a house to put the Christmas tree and presents in,” Sherrena told her. “You’ve been knowing Christmas was coming eleven months ago.”
Eviction proceedings took place in Room 400 of the Milwaukee County Small Claims Court, the busiest courtroom in the state. Sherrena scanned its long wooden pews for a seat, waving at landlords she recognized. At the back of the room, landlords were offering tenants stipulation agreements: they wouldn’t be evicted if they caught up on the rent. Toward the front, where the bailiff sat, lawyers in pin-striped suits and power ties waited in a reserved space. They had been hired by landlords. Everyone in the reserved space was white.
Two clerks at a large wooden desk announced the day’s cases and took attendance. Most of the names called went unanswered. Roughly seventy per cent of the tenants summoned to Milwaukee’s eviction court didn’t come. The same was true in other major cities. Some tenants couldn’t miss work or couldn’t find childcare or were confused by the whole process or couldn’t care less or would rather avoid the humiliation. When a tenant didn’t show up and her landlord or a representative did, the clerk applied three quick stamps to the file—indicating that the tenant had received a default eviction judgment—and placed it on top of a growing pile. The sound of eviction court was a soft hum of dozens of people sighing, coughing, murmuring, and whispering to children, interspersed with the cadence of a name, a pause, and three loud thumps of the stamp.
Sherrena wondered if Arleen would come. Most of her tenants didn’t, and she preferred it that way. She had learned that it didn’t matter how much kindness she had shown a tenant: “all that stuff goes out the window” during a hearing. Still, Sherrena had called Arleen that morning to remind her about court. She didn’t have to, but she had a soft spot for Arleen.
The courtroom was full of black women, surrounded by children of all ages. In a typical month, three in four people in Milwaukee’s eviction court were black, and three in four of those were women. One female renter in seventeen from the city’s poorest black neighborhoods was evicted through the court system each year, twice the number for men from the same neighborhoods, and nine times that for women from the poorest white areas. Women from black neighborhoods made up less than ten per cent of Milwaukee’s population but nearly a third of its evicted tenants. If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.
“Sherrena,” someone whispered. Arleen had poked her head into Room 400.
Sherrena stepped into the hallway and walked up to Arleen, who was wearing a red hoodie. “Girl,” Sherrena said, “I got to get you up outta this house or get my money. Genuine. . . . I mean, ’cause I got bills. I got a bill to show you right now that’s gonna take your eyes outta your head.” She reached into her files and handed Arleen a tax bill for a property of hers that the city had condemned. It listed delinquent storm-water and sewer charges, fees for the board-up, and additional charges, totalling $11,465.67. Arleen stared blankly at the bill. The amount was more than her annual income.
As Sherrena reclaimed her seat, she remembered her first eviction. Nervous and confused, she had gone over the paperwork a dozen times. Everything went her way, giving her the power to have sheriff deputies remove the family in question within ten days. Soon afterward, she filed another eviction suit, then another. When filling out the court papers, Sherrena learned to put “et al.” after a tenant’s name, so that the eviction judgment covered everyone in the house, even people she didn’t know about. She learned that commissioners frowned on late fees in excess of fifty-five dollars, and that dragging slow-paying tenants to court was usually worth the $89.50 processing fee, because it spurred many of them to find a way to catch up. Plus, she could add the processing fee to their rent bill.
Time passed. The lawyers had gone home; their cases were called first. Finally, two hours after arriving at the courthouse, Sherrena was summoned. She had drawn Commissioner Laura Gramling Perez, a white woman in a dark pants suit and pearls, with a military posture and a broad, open face. Arleen waited while she and Sherrena settled another matter in her office.
“Any luck with that invoice?” Gramling Perez asked.
The day before, Sherrena had asked Gramling Perez to approve a claim of five thousand dollars which she had brought against an evicted tenant. Each eviction case had two parts. The first “cause of action” dealt strictly with whether a tenant would be evicted. Next came the second and third causes of action, which dealt with what was owed to a landlord: unpaid rent, court fees, and other damages. Most tenants who were sued for eviction were taken to court twice, once for the eviction and then for the debt. But even fewer tenants showed up for their second hearing, which meant that landlords’ claims for what was owed them usually went unchallenged.
Suing a tenant for back rent and court fees was straightforward. Landlords were allowed to charge for unpaid rent, late fees that the court found reasonable, and double rent for each day that tenants remained in the home after their tenancy had been terminated. Things got murkier when tallying up property damages. Sometimes Sherrena guessed an amount on the ride over to eviction court: “How much should I put for the back door? One-fifty? Two hundred?” Sometimes she added on an extermination fee, even though Quentin would take care of it himself. Gramling Perez was now asking Sherrena to provide evidence that would justify suing an ex-tenant for the maximum amount allowed in small-claims court.
“What I’m trying to get from her doesn’t even scratch the surface of what she did to the property,” Sherrena replied, presenting photos of a trashed unit and the same bill she had shown to Arleen.
“I need something else,” Gramling Perez said.
Sherrena pushed back but got nowhere. “I’ll never get that anyway,” she said, finally.
Gramling Perez reduced Sherrena’s charges to $1,285. That money judgment joined those of eight other eviction cases that Sherrena had initiated earlier that month, which totalled more than ten thousand dollars in estimated lost rent and damages. Sherrena, who netted an equivalent amount each month after her bills were paid, knew that receiving a money judgment and actually receiving the money were different matters. Beyond withholding tenants’ security deposits, landlords had limited recourse when it came to collecting. Sherrena could try to garnish wages, but only for former tenants who were employed and living above the poverty line. She could garnish bank accounts. But many of her former tenants did not have bank accounts, and, even if they did, state benefits and the first thousand dollars were off limits.
When her turn came, Arleen decided to sit next to Sherrena at the commissioner’s desk. The two women looked for a moment like old friends or even sisters, with one reflecting life’s favor. Without lifting her eyes from Arleen’s file, Gramling Perez said, “Your landlady is seeking to evict you for unpaid rent. Are you behind on rent, Ma’am?”
“Yes,” Arleen replied.
Gramling Perez looked at Sherrena and asked, “Are you willing to work something out?”
“No,” Sherrena answered. “Because, the thing is, she’s too far behind. See, I let her slide when the sister passed away or whatever. She didn’t pay all her rent that month. And now it’s another whole month has passed.”
“Do you have minor children at home?” Gramling Perez asked Arleen. She was one of the commissioners who sometimes subscribed to the court custom of giving tenants two extra days in the home for each dependent child.
“I’ll be out before the first,” Arleen said. “New Year’s at the latest.”
“But, see, that goes into the beginning of rental period again,” Sherrena interjected.
“So you’re willing to do a stipulation if she’s gone before the first?” Gramling Perez asked. She knew that Arleen would have to leave, but she was trying to spare her the blemish of another eviction. The Housing Authority counted evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications, and landlords turned away applicants with recent evictions, which were displayed free of charge on a government Web site. But Arleen’s record was not as extensive as it should have been. Through the years, she had given landlords different names; nothing exotic, just subtle alterations. Now “Arleen Beal” and “Erleen Belle” had eviction records. The court clerks, like many landlords, never stopped to ask for identification.
Gramling Perez asked Sherrena if she would dismiss the eviction if Arleen moved out voluntarily by the thirty-first.
“But what about the other money that she owes me?” Sherrena asked. A dismissed eviction judgment could mean a dropped money judgment as well.
“Well, my point is that you maybe give up a couple hundred dollars so you don’t lose these tenants who are coming in January.” Gramling Perez knew that Sherrena could pocket Arleen’s security deposit, leaving an unpaid rent balance of around three hundred and twenty dollars. Turning to Arleen, she said, “In exchange for an agreement that she won’t go after you—”
Arleen interrupted: “I’m not trying to be in her money.”
Sherrena leaned forward in her chair. “I don’t want to dismiss anything. I really don’t. . . . I mean, I’m tired of losing out on every single—” She began slapping the table with each word.
Arleen looked at Gramling Perez. “I mean, I’m not trying to stay. I mean, I understand what she’s saying. That’s her place.”
“I understand,” Gramling Perez said.
“I’m not trying to be there.”
“I understand.” Gramling Perez shuffled the papers in Arleen’s file and said nothing more.
Arleen thought of all the problems with the Thirteenth Street apartment: the broken window, the sporadic hot water, the grimy carpet. “I would say something, but I’m not even gonna go there. I’m all right,” she said. That was her defense. A lawyer would have fought much harder, likely to a different end. When tenants have legal representation, their chances of keeping their homes increase dramatically. A program that ran in the South Bronx from 2005 to 2008, for example, provided legal assistance to more than thirteen hundred families and prevented eviction in more than eighty-five per cent of the cases, saving New York City hundreds of thousands of dollars in estimated shelter costs. But, unlike in criminal court, in civil court the poor have no right to appointed counsel. Arleen was on her own.
Gramling Perez looked at Arleen. “Here’s the deal. Ma’am, you’re getting to move out voluntarily by January 1st,” she said. “If you don’t do that, if you don’t move out, then your landlord is entitled to come back here without further notice, and she can get a writ of eviction. And then the sheriff will come.”
Outside the courthouse, a gentle snow was falling. Sherrena had agreed to give Arleen a ride home. In the car, Sherrena paused to rub her neck, and Arleen lowered her forehead into the palm of her hand. Both had splitting headaches. Sherrena attributed hers to how court had gone. She was still fuming that Gramling Perez had reduced her money judgment. Arleen’s was from hunger. She hadn’t eaten all day.
“I don’t want to be putting you and your babies out in the cold,” Sherrena told Arleen as the car moved slowly through the slushy streets. “I wouldn’t want nobody to do me like that. . . . Some of them landlords, they get away with murder down there. But there’s some like me, who get in front of the commissioner, and she say whatever’s on her mind, and that’s the way it’s gonna go. . . . She knows this system is screwed. It’s all one-sided.”
Arleen stared out the window and watched the snow settle noiselessly on the iron lampposts, the ornate dome of the Public Library, the Church of the Gesu’s Gothic towers.
“And some of these tenants,” Sherrena was saying, “they nasty as hell. They bring roaches with ’em. They bring mice with ’em. And who gotta pay for it? Then you pouring grease down the sink from your fried chicken, you pouring the grease down the sink, and I gotta get a plumber out again.”
The car turned down Center Street, passing a church where Arleen sometimes picked up gift baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas. She had always aspired to have her own ministry like that, to be the one handing out food and clothing.
“So, Arleen,” Sherrena said as she pulled up in front of the house on Thirteenth Street, “if you ever thinking about becoming a landlord, don’t. It’s a bad deal. Get the short end of the stick every time.”
Arleen stepped out of the car and turned back to Sherrena. “Merry Christmas,” she said. ♦