Tenemental: Adventures of a Reluctant Landlady

Tenemental: Adventures of a Reluctant Landlady

by Vikki Warner

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A heartfelt coming-of-age memoir about taking the unbeaten path, owning a home, and holding it all—including yourself—together.

Detouring from the traditional timeline of marriage-kids-house, twenty-six-year-old Vikki Warner skips straight to homeownership. She buys a downtrodden three-story house in Providence, Rhode Island, and suddenly finds herself responsible for a rotating cast of colorful tenants. Adulthood comes with unforeseen challenges: backed-up sewage, gentrification, global economic downturn. A candid portrait of how sharing space profoundly reshapes our lives, and forces us to grow into ourselves.

“Forget the marriage plot; 26-year-old Warner is after a plot of land…. [An] ebullient memoir.”—O, The Oprah Magazine

“Refreshingly original reading.”—Kirkus Reviews

“A thoughtful meditation on communal living and urban identity…. Quirky and fun.”—The Providence Monthly

“Wry, smart, personal, and pretty damn punk rock.”—Kate Schatz, author of Rad Women Worldwide

“Cheers to Vikki Warner, whose tenacious and inspiring coming-of-age story gives voice to a new generation of independent women and grown-ass boss ladies.”—Margot Kahn, coeditor of This is the Place

“Full of color, life, and that special type of real, earned wisdom that only comes with taking risks and trusting completely in your own young self.”—Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own

“An ode to the messiness of life, Tenemental is the incredibly raw, touching, and laugh-out-loud story of a woman figuring out how to get by in the world.”—Emma Ramadan, co-owner of Riffraff Bookstore

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781936932221
Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
Publication date: 06/12/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 949,261
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Vikki Warner is an acquisitions editor with Blackstone Audio and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in BUST, The Boston Globe, and Zagat, among others.

Read an Excerpt

In August 2004, when I was in my mid-twenties, I bought an abused hundred-year-old three-family apartment building on Penn Street in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island—New England’s second-largest (and first freakiest) city. I’ve lived on the third floor, and rented out the two apartments below, ever since. It’s a standard triple-decker, that dime-a-dozen housing paradigm first built to shelter immigrant mill workers, visible everywhere in urban New England, and by the hundreds in my own neighborhood.
Between endless repairs, unruly tenants, a trashed, party-heavy neighborhood described as “troubled” on the local news, break-ins, serial neighborhood house fires, accidents, and just paying the bills, the house has been a needy bitch. And while the two of us are still standing, maintaining our uneasy partnership has been a struggle from the get-go, often hindering my other relationships, and causing me to question the very trajectory of life. Is it all worth it, just to have this big, unwieldy house? Just to stick with this maddening yet adorable friend who is the very definition of high-maintenance? Exactly which of my life goals am I fulfilling by ignoring the mile markers other people use to measure their lives, and opting instead to coddle a cranky and battered apartment building in a downtrodden neighborhood of a small post-industrial American city? And why, WHY do I find it acceptable to rent apartments to people who smoke crack and break bathtubs with sledgehammers?
That’s right, this story’s not just about me and my crumbling, ancient house. It’s about me, my crumbling, ancient house, and a host of other disoriented humans stumbling through their third and fourth decades herewith. I may not have siblings, a spouse, or kids, but who needs such fetters when I have the volatile frisson of living with renters? Their cumulative comings and goings have shone a light for me into the reaches of the modern young male’s brain. It’s dry kindling in there, and I’m just trying to keep it from sparking up.
I find myself attempting to predict my tenants’ next erratic moves, hoping against hope that they’re not trashing their apartments, and living in a state of low-simmering paranoia that something may catch fire or explode at their hands. I do not exaggerate when I say that a tenant’s late-night burnt toast once brought me to engage in a militaristic sweep of the house.
Over the decade or so since this behemoth of a house has been in my name, I’ve filled it with an outlandish array of people (80% male) and animals (60% feline)—punk farmers, herbalists, body piercers, musicians who play metal, punk, country-rock, psych, and folk, or some combination thereof, chefs, bike mechanics, angry straight couples, boisterous gay couples, couch-crashers, geeks, losers, insomniacs, hippies, alcoholics, artists, pitbulls, Dachshunds, chihuahuas, ferrets, and a bona fide cat parade.
You can smell the reefer a mile away.
One guy has stayed for ten years and counting; another took off unceremoniously a week after his lease was signed. Another destroyed his apartment under the guise of “renovation,” then skipped out when he realized he could neither fix it, nor pay the rent. One guy tried to have his baby grand piano professionally moved into his second-floor apartment. And a couple of pyrotechnically inclined tenants had a short but fervent stint of lighting fireworks in the driveway right around 3 AM. Some of us have combusted less spectacularly, being unmoored and at confusing moments in our lives.
As I age, my tenants get younger. As I get more settled in life, they become more erratic. It’s all very My First Apartment around here, a dude-centric assemblage of cigarette butts, beer cans, Black Sabbath, and Rock Band.
I haven’t set up camp exactly where I thought I would. I’m stuck in an internal tug-of-war that one minute tells me I’m a champ for maintaining a house and treating my tenants well, holding down a fulfilling job, nurturing creative pursuits, and adoring my friends and family; the next, that I’m an aging loser with no partner, no kids, no map for the path of life. I’m proud on some level that my idea of what life should look like doesn’t cling hopelessly to outdated institutions, but I’m not entirely solid on hanging my hat where I’ve landed, either. The middle ground is decidedly squishy, as it turns out.
I bought PennHenge (as I’ve nicknamed the house—why should only country estates get names?) in the summer of 2004, at just about the most bloated moment of the real estate bubble, and in those days even an insipid fixer-upper built in the Stone Age was almost over my head, financially. Rather than seeing that as a reason to wait, be cautious, save more, I dove in with abandon. It shouldn’t have worked. I should have been tossed out in the street with the hordes of foreclosed McMansioners. The only reason I’m still doing the backstroke in this particular pool is because I bought a three-family building. The proverbial envelope of rent money slipped under the door, plus occasional credit overuse, has saved my ass during the lean times of frantic money-shuffling.
Driving to work in my rattling stick-shift Toyota in 2007, getting my NPR on, I remember that the news about the economy was starting to sound bad; on subsequent days that news got worse, and then still worse; and then the NPR guys were suddenly referring to something called the Great Recession. “Don’t give it a name, you assholes, you’ll only make it worse,” I demanded of my car radio. Now that I was going to have to dodge not just a diminutively named “downturn,” but a massive, looming, capitalized “Recession,” my anxiety notched quickly upwards. I had a sickening feeling I’d only get by on incredible luck and offloading collectibles on eBay. I was working for a small audiobook publisher, and as my coworkers and I wondered how stable our jobs were, I’d yelp, perhaps a bit dramatically, “Who needs freaking audiobooks at a time like this?”
I gritted my teeth and avoided the headlines about plummeting home values. I didn’t lose my job—my company was headquartered in the UK, which perhaps helped to keep a lid on things—but I did watch as a number of the houses on my block were boarded up or burned down. (The population of my census block decreased by 18% from 2000 to 2010.) In the past five years, as the worst financial hangover in modern times has lifted ever so slightly, everybody in Providence seemed to simultaneously have a trailblazing business idea—due equally to their own resilience and drive and the utter dearth of jobs in Rhode Island, a little epicenter of extreme unemployment during the Recession. The city’s precipitous nosedive was cut short by this slew of individuals and small businesses doing their own thing just at the moment that “Shop Local” became a bumper sticker nationwide.
In some neighborhoods of the city, and prominently in the square mile or so around my house, the past half-decade has seen cheap foreclosed or damaged properties being snapped up, fixed up, and resold to absentee landlords; now, rents are climbing. The sounds of construction bounce between the houses on nearly every street. The goofy, crooked, idiosyncratic little buildings on the streets of the West End—once home to lunch counters, social clubs, and taverns, and long since vacant—have given way to their modern equivalents: hipster chicken shacks, cocktail bars, coffee shops, and boutiques. Just about every space is in use again, or on its way there. Well-heeled people drive in from the suburbs to eat and shop in parts of the neighborhood that inspired heavy purse-guarding a few years ago.
Now, I love small businesses; I love good coffee; I love adzuki and oysters and botanical gin! I don’t begrudge new business owners their chance to reach for the damn stars. But it’s happening so fast, and it’s already changing the character of the neighborhood. Where there is success for some (mostly White) people, for others (mostly people of color) the neighborhood is creeping toward untenable cost. I have to make sense of my own possible contribution to the change, whether—having paid too much for my house in 2004—I somehow helped to boost the financial outlook for the block, the street, the neighborhood.
Though the upmarket niceness is closing in around us, Penn Street is still a strange jumble of lawlessness and grime within this illusory bubble, which gives me a counterintuitive little thrill. Some places are insulated against attempts to gussy them up. Those of us owner-occupants who have been here awhile stay quietly in place, taking our trash out on Thursdays and giving the side-eye to abandoned mattresses that stick around a little too long. Though we all make our small improvements, they don’t tend to last, and in the meantime more litter and graffiti and broken stuff appear.
Stay nasty, Penn Street, you gem.
I won’t make excuses for the landlords of my neighborhood or anywhere else—especially those who don’t live in their “investments.” Every renter has a nearly implausible story about her shadiest landlord(s) ever. From what I’ve seen, many of my rental-property-owning colleagues are short-sighted, cheap, greedy, hardened, ruthless corner-cutters—including most of those I rented from before I joined their shadowy ranks. Some landlords own so many buildings they can barely recall them all. Here in Providence, the average landlord is one part blowhard boor, one part petty miser, and one part used-car salesman. Nice people put up with being strong-armed, ignored, ripped off, and cajoled by their landlords. The promise of a really stellar apartment is just about the only thing for which Americans will hold their tongues and take such abuse.
It’s no mistake that I’m referring to land “lords” and not “ladies” here. What reasonable single woman would sign up to do this job? Especially when our culture’s perception of a landlady (hairnetted, lonely, overreactive, spiteful) is decidedly less flattering than its idea of a landlord (prosperous, shrewd, in control)? The women I know who rent to tenants are fairly young, dangerous with a spreadsheet, and firmly in charge of their homes and lives, so we might want to update the accepted shorthand “generic landlady” image of an angry, broom-wielding old lady.
When I lose myself in overwhelming thoughts about the house, about where it’s all going, a guilty urge erupts to the surface: “Go,” it whispers. “Take refuge in a neat, sturdy cape in the nearest upper-middle-class suburb, one with precision-cut lawns, shiny late-model cars, and aggressively ordinary families.” But that fantasy is largely based on fear: fear of the disorganization, dirt, and unpredictability of my current situation. Something else drives me to stay here—and it’s not just that I may be slightly underwater on the mortgage.
You’re soon to learn why this house embodies the framework of every good and bad decision I have ever made. In over a decade of life here, things have gone way right and way wrong, and somehow it’s all connected to the bricks and horsehair holding this outfit together. It’s solace, it’s stagnation; it’s the high of love and the grief of watching it fall apart. It’s ugly, it’s adorable; it’s an anchor, it’s freedom.
Put your stuff down, and let me show you around.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
1. Anchor Down
2. Buy High, Sell Never
3. Three of Everything
4. Renter-Go-Round
5. The Wolf of Penn Street
6. Digging Down
7. Couples, Retreat
8. Title T. P.
9. Burn Plan
10. People My Age
11. Minor Earthquakes
12. Baby Grand
13. An Ending
14. Record Odds
15. Thrillingly Optimistic
16. Closing the Circle
17. This Must Be the Place

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