My name is Malathi, nicknamed Smallathi, always in the front row in group pictures. Back home I was considered average height. Here in the States, just cute.
I sit in my living room watching the snowflakes as they whirl and descend on the branches; hear the nerve wracking noises of the snow plow from below my unit. They seem to highlight the anomaly in my little world. Up until now the jarring noise from the snow plow has been music to my ears.
It’s ten years today since I moved in. I’ve been watching the snowflakes gracing the window panes, some balancing on the bare branches of the trees on the lot line, and flocks of birds forming a sharp cone and heading south. A strong urge for hot tea springs my head. I go to the kitchen, fill a cup with water from the faucet, and put it in the microwave.
Flop, flop … drops of water trickle from the faucet to a beat. Probably it’s not shut it fully. I push the handle down, swing it left and right. The trickle stops. Ha, my mistake. I drop a teabag in the cup, and return to the dazzling sight of the rising sun. The whiteout cloaks the branches.
I recall my realtor’s words when I started looking for a house. “For you, condo is the way to go,” she, Jenny, said. ”You can own a home without worrying about shoveling snow or mowing lawn. Trust me, that rattling of those machines will be music to your ears. You may even enjoy watching ’em with a book in your lap. … It’s a small complex you see, just four buildings, thirty-two units, just like your home in India, the extended family and all …”
I could see that she was trying to impress me with her knowledge of my culture. I turned away.
“Beautiful view of the trees and the lake farther up there,” she said.
I strained my eyes to see the water glistening through the branches.
I had nothing to say. Sold! I moved to my own place the following month.
A car pulls out from the garage across from my unit and stops. A lady gets out of the car, goes into the garage, returns with a shovel, and starts clearing the snow that piled up in front of her garage entry. That means I have to do the same. I go out and shovel the snow in front of my garage. She sees me and smiles, I smile back. No big deal, shoveling a little snow is not all that bad.
But the faucet is another story, it is erratic, sometimes drips and other times doesn’t. I can’t decide whether I should call a plumber or not. Maybe the manager can help me. It seems such a small problem.
I call the manager.
“Hello, this is Malathi.”
“Who? Monica?”
“No, not Monica, Malathi. I am in South Oaks complex.”
He doesn’t remember, which is understandable. He manages three complexes.
“Sorry, what’s your name again, Molina?”
I waddle through the spelling. “No, not Malina. Malathi. Em as in mother, A as in …” I go blank.. I can’t think of a word that starts with A.
“M as in Mary, A as in Adam?”
“Yesyesyes, sir. Adam. And then L as in lost.”
“N as in Nancy?”
“No, L,” I yell, almost. Better be careful lest I should offend him.
I get through my name. Now, to the real problem.
“My kitchen faucet is leaking?”
“Leak … uh …Faucet. The faucet leaking.”
“Ma’am, you’ve to speak slowly. Tell me again. Start with your unit number.”
I start all over again. Like English composition class. Spellings, similes, metaphors, …
“The problem inside your unit is your responsibility. You need to call a plumber.”
“Okay,” I hang up. I don’t know any plumber. I was hoping the manager could find a plumber for me. I’m wrong, hum. What the heck, maybe easier to live with an occasionally leaking faucet than finding a plumber. I decide to postpone the call until the faucet gets real bad.
It has not always been like this. At the beginning there was no professional manager. The unit owners formed into an association in my third year. Everybody pitched in, yard work, gardening, little repairs, suggestions for improvements … we worked together. We hired professionals for snow removal, mowing the lawn, and trimming the trees, etc. We all felt the pleasure of living in a condo, pride of home-ownership. For over four years now, we have a board of directors, a manager; and things are changing fast.
The board calls for a meeting. The president looks around, counts the heads, twenty-three, “We’ve quorum.”
President’s report, Secretary’s report, Treasurer’s report. President speaks of a brilliant idea suggested by the manager; he says his plan helps our units to appreciate in value. He suggests to buy the piece of land between our complex and the lake and build more units. A great investment opportunity, he says. The board of directors agrees. A couple of unit owners disagree. Who owns the building? We all own, we’ll be shareholders Who’s got the money for such a big project?
“I can advance the money,” the manager says.
Somebody from the back row says, “We thought all units are owner-occupied.”
“We’ll offer the units with a rent-to-own option. In a few years, we can convert them to owner-occupied. Since there is a lake, the units will be sold as lakefront properties. The entire complex appreciates in value.”
There is one more glitch. Before we embark on that project, we need to make improvements on our lot. Chop the trees and put something contemporary like a rock park.
“No, we like the trees. They serve as a barricade shielding our buildings from the street.”
“The trees are old and rotting. They’re going to come down soon enough. You don’t want that kind of problems.”
He has ready-made answers for every question raised. Every rule has loopholes, only you have to find them …
The discussion is over. A unit owner in the front row makes a motion and another seconds it. The secretary counts the votes – eleven ‘yeah’s, eight ‘nay’s and four abstain. The motion carried.
What a crock, my heart moans. Look at the numbers. In a complex of thirty-two owners, a board of five draft a proposal and six more approve it. Just eleven, that is 33%, and they succeed in getting a proposal put in place. Put it another way, twenty-one unit owners – nine unit owners who did not care to show up, eight nays, and four abstentions – do not support this proposal. Still the motion carried.
My pleasure of home-ownership starts to fizzle. A white hair gleans on my dark sleeve. Am I losing my hair? Am I going to lose an arm and a leg, and a piece of my mind too with all the new things that are being proposed to help the complex appreciate in value?
Then comes my heating bill. A whopping one hundred and fifty percent higher than the preceding season, a shocker. I always kept the thermostat setting at the same level. I get online and check the degree days in Wisconsin which gives me a comparison of heat for the past three years. There numbers seem to be fairly the same, there is nothing to show that this year temperatures are much higher than in the previous years. And I certainly did not leave the doors and windows wide open. How is this possible? I don’t remember ever seeing heating bills like these – for five months in a row the amounts are $72, 53, 75, 53, and 75. Strange sequence, unbelievable. Somebody should rewrite the old adage that women and weather are unpredictable, I guess. I return the bill to the manager asking him to see if he made a mistake.
Six months go by, no word from the manager. Maybe too busy for small things like my heating bill. For someone who could advance money for an eight-unit building, $200.00 is probably lunch money. Or, is it just me?
Finally, I receive a letter from the manager. There is no explanation for the ridiculous hike in my bills; just a reminder, a “past overdue” notice. It ticks me off. What happened to my request to check the bill for accuracy?
I sit down to write another letter reminding him politely of the contents in my previous letter. I know they, the board and the manager, prefer a phone call but I am not a phone person. We in India are used to be around each other, sitting in the same room, eating in the same kitchen, and sleeping in the same room most of the time. Even after thirty years in the States, I haven’t gotten used to the phone. It feels like talking to a wall (come to think of it, I do stare at the wall while on the phone). Besides, in a case like this it is hard to explain a lot of things on the phone. I can’t. When I write, I can think, edit, rearrange my thoughts and present them clearly.
Anyway, I start writing again, giving all the details why I thought the bill was a mistake. Once again, no response.
A few weeks go by, and a third bill arrives with the amounts showing past overdue. What is he doing with my letters? Is this his way of telling me that I must call if I want his attention?
Frustrated, I write to the board. I don’t hear from them, but the manager shows up.
“Let me check your thermostat,” he says.
“It’s working fine. It’s new. I installed last year.”
“Let’s see. That’s a start.”
I say okay. After a few minutes he tells me the thermostat is working fine.
“What next?”
He says he’ll be back next week and leaves.
A month goes by. No sign of the manager. Time for the next billing cycle. I get the bill for October. I did not notice that the heat was on in October. Nevertheless I got the bill showing my usage and the amount due. My anger reaches a new level.
I ask my neighbor about their heating bills. Nothing unusual in his bill. I tell him my sad story.
“Well, the manager has no time to look into all the details,” he says.
Details? I don’t understand. I am not talking about a twenty or thirty dollar hike; two hundred dollars is big enough amount, a cause for concern for me at least. If I let it continue, this year my heating bill will exceed my mortgage. My blood boils. Somebody has to account for this atrocity. Manager is not giving me answers, nor the board president or the secretary. And I can’t expect answers from the other unit owners.
I find an attorney and try to explain the problem. He shakes his head, “No, you don’t want to involve me in this. Try to work it out with the management.”
“Can you send the manager or the board a letter at least?”
“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Let’s see what the manager says.”
I am losing it on the double. I turn on the TV. Peoples court is on. A tenant suing the manager and the manager counter-suing the tenant. The case is about the plaintiff blaming the manager for not taking care of repairs and the manager, claiming he never got a phone call from the tenant.
Amusing, almost similar to my situation. I pull up my chair and turn up the volume.
I go over various scenarios in my mind, what if I drag my manager and the board of directors to the court.
The judge on the 24″ screen delivers the verdict, “It is your word against his. You say you’d written to him and he says he never received your letters. You don’t have his replies to show that he had received them. I feel sorry for you but I need evidence. Without evidence you have no case.”
I slouch in my couch and let the steam out. I hate the judges who say “You have a case but you did not prove it.” In disgust, I flip the channel.
The president is delivering his weekly speech, clutching the dais tight.
“We are winning.” Really? Why don’t you talk about the soldiers who are being killed every day and the families that depended on them?
“We are making progress.” What progress? Where are we heading?
“The economy is booming. We have created 150,000 new jobs.” People are taking low-paid jobs with no benefits. Does that count? You call that economic boom?
The president throws his arms into the air and says with a plastic smile, “You should look at the big picture.”
The big picture – that throws me off. Next president, next war, next disaster – the same argument, the big picture … the greater good. There lies the crux of the problem. You look up, look at the big picture, and you lose sight of the little people at the ground zero level. They don’t mean a thing for those who are looking up and looking at the big picture.
I get the message. This complex is growing big and I am too small for the big picture. Something inside my head snaps. I am not going to go away without letting the big picture folks feel my existence.
I sit down to write my last letter to the manager.
“I haven’t heard from you in a month. I’m not going to wait for one more season, go through the same rigmarole one more time, and let you blame it on the power company and the hurricane Katrina for the big hike in my next heating bill. If you don’t or can’t do it, I’ll arrange for an inspection by a professional heating system inspector myself and deduct the cost from the condo fee.”
This time the letter goes by registered post, requesting for acknowledgement.
“Don’t hold your breath. You know you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip,” my neighbor says.
I see her point. I pick up the phone to call Jenny, my realtor. “Let’s meet. I want to move out.”
She comes in that evening. “Where do you want to move?”, she asks, with her eyes gawking the lot across from the street.
I see the big picture again, writ large on her face.
(Published in, September 2006 and, October 2006)