City Tales: My Lovely Landlord, 1

Every day, roughly 150 people move out of the city. Some leave because old dreams have died. Others, because new dreams are born. Some lose their jobs. Others accept new positions. Some have lost love, or found love, or grown bored, or developed new interests. Some move to forget themselves, others to find themselves. Whatever change has happened, it takes them away.

These aren’t their stories. These are the stories of four of the roughly 145 people who move to the city on any particular day. And the reasons that bring them are much the same as the reasons that eventually will take them away.

CT surveyed her dank apartment, trying to hold in her mind her purpose for being here. Any recent MFA grad would consider herself lucky to have found employment within a few months of completing her degree. And to find employment that actually ties in with that degree would be even luckier.

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So when newly graduated CT came across the advertisement for arts critic with an online city magazine, she knew she had to apply. And when she was offered the position, she knew she’d be foolish not to accept.

She didn’t allow herself to consider commuting. Sure, the towns across the bay promised bucolic charms, but if she was gonna rock the talk, she’d have to rock the walk: commuting wouldn’t cut it.

She traded her old car for a bike and walking shoes, and reduced her footprint by a good 50 percent or more.

She just hadn’t realized that the city would be so much of a city. She counted all of two trees on her block, and those were spindly, suffocating things without enough leaves for the sorriest of house sparrows.

She could barely see the sky over the ugly faces of brick and concrete.

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Buck up, she told herself. The job was one-in-a-million, offering time for her own painting, music, and writing, with a salary that would keep her in oil paints and maybe, in a year or two, let her save up for a half-way decent violin.

If only the apartment held a bit more color. Think of it as a blank canvas, she thought, and her first night, she pulled out her spray paint and covered the stained, frayed carpet with a mural of rivers and stones.

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It would do, she realized, before she turned in on her first night in the city. After all, think how many people would give anything for this opportunity. Least she could do was give it a chance. Maybe she’d find a vacant lot somewhere where some wildflowers grew. Or dandelions, at the very least.

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The job kept her busy. Chasing down art shows, checking out buskers, and frequenting festivals got her out of the apartment. She had to admit, with scents of cinnamon, chocolate, and coffee, sights of rich Indian hues, and music from every country, the city had charms of its own.

Late one night, leaving an evening tea festival, she ran into the man who lived next door.

“I know you!” she said.

He raised his left eyebrow. When she explained they were neighbors, and she’d seen him getting into or out of the elevator a few times, he sighed heavily.

“I suppose this makes us friends of a sort,” he said.

“Well, acquaintances, at least!” she answered.

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She wondered sometimes if the lack of green, growing things made people grumpy. Hardly anyone smiled, ever. She hadn’t lost her country habit of walking with a grin on her face, greeting neighbors, friends, and strangers alike with a cheerful hello.

But it slowly began to occur to her that, maybe, friendliness wasn’t a trait native to the city.

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She didn’t mind. Just because she worked and lived here, she didn’t have to belong here.  She could keep her country ways so that when, at last, she followed her career out of the city, she would still remember the warmth of a smile and a friendly word.

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She found nature where she could find it: in the garden plots surrounding the squares, in the planter boxes lining the sidewalks, in her container garden on the patio, even in the cracks in the sidewalks where she might find a willow shoot or a mahonia seedling struggling to grow.

Her first response when the brown rat scampered out of the hole in the floorboard in her living room was to welcome the four-legged furry creature. But it didn’t look all that healthy. And she supposed it would find its way to the pantry, eventually.

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She dialed her landlord’s number.

“I really am not even sure if I should be calling you,” she said when he answered. “Maybe it’s something I should take care of myself? I mean, I don’t want any poison used or to have it killed, but I also think I probably shouldn’t just let it keep running around here. It might eat the wires, right? Or get into my oatmeal? Though I could feed it.”

“I’ll be right over,” said Atharv Kumar, her landlord. “No need for concern!”

When he came, he explained his methods. “This is a green zone apartment!” he said. “No poisons, no chemicals! Everything natural! No kill! No worries!”

He explained that he belonged to a capture-and-release program for mammals and birds. He and the other members of the group had been trained in using live-traps and nets, and then once the creatures were captive, they were transported to wildlands near the park, where they were released under the park manager’s supervision.

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“This is wonderful!” she said. “And you don’t mind having come over to take care of this?”

“Of course not!” replied Atharv, who suddenly leapt up, tossed his canvas work bag onto the floor, and cried, “Got it!”

Then ensued squeaking.

“Don’t hurt it!” CT yelled.

“I won’t!” said Atharv. “Can you get me a towel?”

All the towels were in the wash, but CT grabbed an old T-shirt. “Use this.”

And Atharv gently wrapped the T-shirt around the rat, who stopped squeaking and looked out at them with bright eyes. “See?” said Atharv. “I didn’t even need to use the trap.”

CT didn’t know who he was talking to, her or the rat.

“Tally-ho, then!” said Atharv, and off he and the rat went, to the wildlands beside the park.

Her heart still beating quickly from all the excitement, CT stepped out onto the balcony. A cool breeze blew in from the bay. She could see the water, if she leaned over the railing. And there was a little corner of sky, right above those hills that called to her every day.

Maybe it wasn’t home, at least not yet, but at least, from out here, she could see home.

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She thought of Atharv in his truck, with the brown rat in the canvas work bag on the passenger’s seat next to him, driving to the wildlands. At least someone is getting a new green home today! She hoped the meadows would welcome him.

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