Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 10, 2007
This couple is about to have a baby and there’s no room for me — but it’s my place!
About three years ago, a good friend of mine from college needed a place to live … fast. As it turned out, I needed a roommate. I was living in a really nice apartment I could not afford on my own, so it seemed like a perfect solution. He has been a great roommate; we’ve had a ton of fun; I thought things were going well.
Earlier this year, he told me his girlfriend was pregnant and he wanted her to move in with us so they could cut expenses, save money for the baby, etc. I agreed. The girlfriend was a good roommate as well and I tried to be as supportive as possible while she was here. For example, my roommate came down with a bad flu. I let him sleep in my room (so she wouldn’t catch it), and I slept on the couch for a week. I even drove her to a couple of her appointments while he was down. It wasn’t a big deal, I was very happy to do it and I never felt inconvenienced by it, so I didn’t really expect a great deal of thanks. Again, I thought things were going well.
The baby is due in less than a month. I’m no expert, but looking at the girlfriend it seems to me she could go anytime now. Last week they sat me down because they wanted to “talk” about how things were going to go after the baby arrived. I told them I was pretty sure I could live with a baby in the place and did not anticipate any major problems. That’s when they told me I misunderstood their meaning and that they wanted me to move out, preferably before they brought the baby home.
I was stunned. They assured me it wasn’t because of anything I’d done, but now that they were a family they didn’t think it was appropriate for me to be on the scene. I told them that if that was the case, perhaps the solution was for them to move. They made it clear they did not consider that an option. I asked if they intended to defer any of the costs I would ring up moving on such short notice. They said they would help as much as they could, but with the baby on the way, things were tight. I didn’t need to ask what that meant.
I don’t know how to think about this rationally, let alone formulate a solution. I feel completely betrayed. My dad used to always say, “No good deed goes unpunished,” and now I know what he meant. Part of me wants to say “Tough luck” and stay. The other parts of me feel like that sort of tension and conflict would be bad for the kid, and I really don’t want to do that to the baby. But I don’t want to feel my good nature was taken advantage of to get me out of my own home.
Opinion is divided in my immediate circle of friends. Some think I should tough it out. The others think whether the request is reasonable or not, I have to leave and that it makes no sense to dwell on it (easier said than done). One friend had an interesting take. He thinks my mistake was letting her move into the apartment in the first place. By letting her move in, letting him sleep in by bed, driving her about, etc., I’d signaled I’d agree to any request they made, and only now have they gotten around to making one too unreasonable for me to go along with.
I suppose I’ll have to go, but I hate the way this all feels. Any thoughts, advice, perspective I haven’t considered?
Dear Almost Homeless,
What I really want to say is that this is outrageous. It is wrong. It is offensive. I want to say that you should kick these folks out and let them find their own place to have a baby and raise a family, that this is your apartment. You have done everything for them, and this is how they repay you?
I want to say that these folks obviously conned you, maneuvered you into a corner, took advantage of your kindness, and that you should kick them out.
But I don’t think I can say that. Instead, it looks like you are going to have to find a new place.
I hate to say that. It doesn’t sound right. But I’m no landlord-tenant attorney. I’m just a guy who thinks he knows what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s outrageous. So I called somebody who is a landlord-tenant attorney. He groaned. He gnashed his teeth. He cursed the gods. And then he, too, said it: The best thing to do is probably to go.
How can this be? Where is the justice in this world?
Well, without venturing into the troublesome area of possibly appearing to give legal advice, I will just say that throwing a mother and infant out on the street never looks that good. You knew the woman was pregnant when you let her live there. That’s not going to look so good either if you have to explain to anyone why you threw them out on the street. Finally, I will just say some words that the landlord-tenant attorney said to me: “Housing discrimination against families with children.” I’m not sure exactly what those words mean in your case, but they have a certain ring to them, don’t they?
Now, I don’t know what laws govern your situation, and I’m not giving legal advice. I’m just saying that throwing mothers with infants onto the street does not play well in front of any kind of audience, and living with a squawling infant and the squawling infant’s cranky parents in cramped quarters that used to be yours alone — out of which you increasingly feel squeezed and displaced! — could drive you to alarming extremes of rage and despair.
So I think you’d better start looking for a new place. (If you really want to fight them on this, talk to a lawyer before you do anything.)
When disputes arise over housing, primal emotions surface. The milk of human kindness mysteriously evaporates and is replaced by poisonous venom. This is not so hard to understand. When you start wondering where you will shelter your head in the rain, you get in touch with deep survival fears. Watch a lifetime of socialization fly out the window. It’s “Lord of the Flies” time.
And you, my friend, got yourself into this. I don’t see any way out but to find a new place — unless you could somehow demonstrate to this new family that their best interests are served by moving. I don’t have any idea how you could do that, but it’s worth a thought. If, for instance, there were to be free childcare available to them somewhere, or … I dunno. You say this is a great place. It probably is. You’re just going to have to find another great place. Maybe you have great instincts in this regard. If you did it once, you can do it again.
So go out and get yourself a new place. Use whatever skills you used the first time you got a place.
Here is something else the attorney said to me, in a more general way. He routinely advises tenants to watch for and avoid a couple of situations: Do not live in the same building as your landlord. And avoid tenancies where you are the obvious underdog. That would include situations in which you are outnumbered by people with different views or strong interpersonal connections, or in which, as in your case, you find yourself ceding privileges to others because of their presumably greater needs, and you end up in the role of a caretaker. This is sort of what your friend was saying to you. You placed yourself in a situation in which they were almost invited to take advantage of you.
In a larger sense, you may want to think about the caretaking role that you have played in this situation. Try to become conscious of the motives and personal history that bring this caretaking behavior into play. Query yourself about the assumptions you may have made that justify it, the situations in which this behavior arises. You say it was no trouble to sleep on the couch for a week, and perhaps it wasn’t. But think about the message it sent. Who sleeps on the couch? A person who is moving out! So perhaps to them, unconsciously, it was as though you were already moving out. Ask yourself what you wanted from this friend of yours that you would give up so much for him. Were you perhaps trying to replace something lacking in your own life, perhaps trying to re-create a happy family? If so, this is a sad paradox, that by seeking a family through kindness you would find yourself displaced. But think about it, in reference to your own history. Maybe there is something significant there.
And consider this as well: It is not always good to be kind. It is not good to be kind, for instance, when being so gives people the wrong idea. Your friends evidently got the wrong idea — that you would do whatever you needed to do to take care of them. They should have had the personal strength to resist such an impression, to see that you were simply a little weak in the area of saying no, that you would say yes even to your own detriment. But they didn’t resist. They took your kindness for granted. And now look where you are.
So kindness is not always so good.
Try some blatant unkindness. You might be amazed at the results.