Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun
Way back in the distant recesses of time when my children were in grade school, we lived in a small HUD Family Housing complex in Fort Atkinson, WI while I was going to college in Whitewater. The horrors of the almost white glove inspections that the female half of a husband and wife management team used to put us single Moms through are responsible for my recent angst and near panic about getting my current apartment ship shape for the yearly inspection. Shirley (names have NOT been changed to protect the guilty) was a bit of a harridan—no, I take that back, she was a full blown harridan.
Shirley never called me by name. Not once in four years. When she talked to me, she called me and the rest of the single Mom’s who lived in her little fiefdom, “you people.” It was pretty obvious that she didn’t have much respect for any of us and openly despised most of us. I think she and her husband saw themselves as the keepers of our flagging morality brought on by the scourge of divorce. The most horrible thing had happened to us. We had no man in our lives to take control of matters.
She was certainly not impressed with our housekeeping skills. As far as I know, none of us ever passed her inspections the first time around with the possible exception of Frankie’s* Mom and she was even scrubbing Frankie down with ammonia. (I’m serious. Frankie’s Mom had issues with germs, the poor lady. More importantly, poor Frankie.) Shirley always gave us a list of things we had to have fixed on her return visit which would be a surprise visit. There could be no dirty laundry, furniture had to be one inch away from the walls, no dishes in the sink waiting to be washed, and even the window channels had to be absolutely spotless.
I personally think that was just an excuse for her to get back into our apartments to find out if we were doing something else she and her husband disapproved of. Specifically, whether or not we had a boyfriend who may or may not have been sleeping over. Shirley and her husband, Dick (a more appropriate name for that jerk could not have been invented), disapproved of boyfriends in no uncertain terms. When she gave me the keys to my apartment, she casually said “Of course you know that you are not allowed to have overnight guests.”
Silly, naive me, gaped in surprise and said something to the effect of “You mean my kids can’t have their friends over to spend the night?” “No,” she snapped, “I mean that you can’t have a man spend the night. Of course your children can have friends over to spend the night.” oh…
I was pretty sure that there were no such rules for HUD housing in general and that Shirley and Shirley’s husband, Dick, couldn’t actually make rules like that for this complex in particular but I was desperate for affordable housing and had no man in my life that I wanted to spend the night with at the moment anyway so I just filed that away for future reference. I did wonder if it would be OK for me to have a female spend the night and if it would matter if I was entertaining a lesbian lover but for once in my life, I opted not to make waves and bit my tongue. Besides, I didn’t have a lesbian lover either. Rebellion would come later.
I made sure I re-read my lease to check if I had been foolish enough to sign something that had put such a ridiculous restrictions on my non-existent love life though. You never knew when I might get a lesbian lover after all. I wanted to be prepared. I hadn’t.
Rebellion came closer not long after I moved in when I realized that Shirley and Dick were cruising the parking lots after 10pm and again before 6am every morning to check for strange cars and asking certain neighbors whose apartment those strange cars were visiting. How did I discover this? Why Shirley asked me about a strange car that was in MY parking lot, that’s how. She TOLD me it had been there at 10pm and still there at 6am.
My reply that I didn’t make it a habit to check whether any of my neighbors was being naughty and had no intention of snitching on them if I did find out they were might have been a bit rebellious. Shirley was not happy. I suspect I went onto the potentially naughty list after that conversation. I Certainly made the not cooperative list.
Rebellion came even closer when one day while I was talking on the phone, I opened my front door for some reason to find Dick standing outside it in an attitude of listening concentration. I can’t remember who I was talking to or what the conversation was about but I certainly remember the guilty look on his face as he scurried away.
At that point, I went and asked my new neighbors what in hell was going on with the management. They knew all about it. They advised me that if I wanted a boyfriend to spend the night I should tell him he needed to park on the street. Preferably a block away. What’s more if I wanted to talk about anything that was happening with my neighbors or some rule I was personally breaking, I should check to be sure Dick was not lurking around somewhere.
It was during one of the get-togethers inspired by my questions that someone (it might have been me) said they felt like they were living in “Shirley’s House of Recycled Virgins.” Soon we (okay, *I*) had composed a song sung to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun” which has since been lost to many years time and moves to several other apartments. I made it a point to be singing it whenever I noticed Dick lurking about the building trimming hedges he had trimmed less than a week ago. LOUDLY and with gusto.
We plotted about how to bring this matter to a head and prove to Shirley and Dick that treating us like wayward teenage sluts was going to cause them more pain that it was causing us. We began discussing Dick and Shirley when we suspected one of them might be listening, saying the most outrageous things we could think of to say. A couple of us even tried to set Dick up into making a pass at one of us by talking about how hot we thought he was. We were out to make Dick and Shirley’s lives as miserable as they made ours.
I offered to have some guy come over and spend the night a few nights and make it more than obvious that he was at my house but the problem was I didn’t know any guys I wanted to invite for overnight pajama parties. I was such a party girl.
Outright rebellion came the following summer when Shirley finally accused me of having an unauthorized overnight male guest. I must confess that I, in fact, did have a male guest over night. He just happened to be my brother-in-law’s happily married brother-in-law who spent the night at my place with me chaperoned only by my two young children as we were traveling from Florida to Nebraska. We had stopped by to dump off most of the junk I had dragged to Florida with me, buy a new tire since we had had a blow-out somewhere in Georgia and deposit my check into my bank account. And sleep.
The ONLY way she could have known this is that someone tattled. We were traveling in MY car and had arrived at 11pm and left before noon the next day. To add insult to injury she waited three weeks for me to get back from Nebraska to confront me with this indiscretion.
She was also not happy that I had “abandoned” my apartment for three months while I was in Florida and Nebraska visiting relatives and had shut off the refrigerator. Not only that, I hadn’t bothered to put anything away when I made that flying visit to Wisconsin. I had simply unpacked the car and left everything sitting in the middle of the living room. In an untidy pile. I hadn’t even made one of the beds when I left the next day—my son’s bed which only got made when I KNEW Shirley would be there to point out my sloppiness and moral ineptitude and I just wanted to get through the damn inspection without making waves. How could I be such a pig?
AND, and, and how could I afford to go running off to Florida and Nebraska for such a long vacation. She had half a mind to report me to the authorities. That’s when I started laughing
How did she know all this? Because I didn’t answer the door for several days in a row when she came to talk to me about my unauthorized male visitor so she let herself in and investigated and she asked the neighbors where I was since it was obvious someone was watering my plants. By then I had done a little sleuthing and knew she couldn’t legally do what she was doing as far as guys spending the night and a bunch of other crap she and Dick were pulling and was in the process of gearing up to complain to HUD about them.
I gave Shirley a piece of my mind and told her that she couldn’t make the rule about guys spending the night stick and if she ever came into my apartment again for any reason that was not specifically stated on the lease, I would file a complaint to HUD if I didn’t do it based on this particular incident. Furthermore I didn’t give a rat’s ass if she called the welfare office. They couldn’t tell me how to spend my money or where I spent the summer either as long as my kids weren’t being neglected.
She tried to claim she did indeed have the right to ban men from the apartment and that she also had the right to come in for maintenance reasons. I invited her to start eviction proceedings because I intended to have as many male visitors spending the night as possible and maybe even a female lover or two but advised her she better call a lawyer because I intended to own her new car and anything else of value she owned if she tried to do that since I knew it was illegal. I asked her who had complained that something wasn’t working in my apartment or what she was specifically looking at that needed maintaining that wasn’t covered by the yearly inspection and would not require a 24 hour written notice. She glared at me, harrumphed and turned heel to leave. I never heard another word.
I was fed up though and did indeed write that letter of complaint to HUD. It was 3 or 4 pages long and included every egregious bit of crap she and Dick had pulled on any of the residents that I knew about. I also proceeded to go door to door within the complex and got more than half of the 32 tenants to sign it. Within a few weeks HUD sent letters to everyone living there and advised us all that the management had been advised that most of what they were doing was illegal.
That was the beginning of my life long interest in political activism ever since. I never made my son make his bed again when it was time for inspections. I never found myself a lesbian lover either.