Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Mrs. Badvibes

And it was such a peaceful summer...

But now the apartment across the hall is occupied, and anyone who knows me knows what that means: Mrs. B is back. Of course, it's her apartment, so it's not exactly unusual that she'd be living there, but things are a whole lot nicer when she's not.

She's my landlord's mother. She was all smiles, cheery, effusive, and even helpful, when I first moved in. At the time, the whole family was involved in the ongoing renovation of the house, since they seem possessed by Winchester Mystery House Syndrome. The sound of pounding, sawing, and people shouting at each other over the din went on from 7 in the morning until about 4 in the afternoon, when the older Mr. B would go off to the store, buy a little bottle of something, and start getting pickled. He was a nice enough old geezer, and thought it was pretty comical that I was so unhandy with tools. He and the Hausmeister, the handyman-cum-property-manager who lives in the house across the courtyard, really got a kick out of that.

Then Mr. B died of liver cancer. The family actually lives in suburban Düsseldorf, so that's where she went to mourn. Her son, my actual landlord, showed up from time to time to deal with new tenants, various crises with the plumbing, and so on, but mostly the apartment was empty. After a while, though, she apparently missed the place, and so she came back, This was when things got bad. She'd stop people in the halls and lecture them. As an American, I got to hear her opinions on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. "Think of the children!" she shrieked. "Think of the children!" She'd have me backed up against the wall, jabbing with her finger. Nor did she restrict this to the residents of the building: friends of mine who came over would get trapped by her, too, and apparently to Germans she espoused some particularly ugly right-wing political positions.

This makes a certain amount of sense. Her family, she once told me, was from Radeberg, a suburb of Dresden known for its famous beer, which was the only one in the entire Deutsche Demokratische Republik considered good enough to export to the rest of the world. There, her family (or maybe she and Mr. B) owned a mill, but when the communists came, they kicked them out of the mill. How they wound up in suburban Düsseldorf I don't know, nor do I know whether it was just Mrs. B who was the Radeberger, but apparently when the records were opened and searched after reunification, the family discovered they owned an apartment building in Berlin, and so, fired with Winchester Mystery House Fever, they came, they stayed, and they renovated.

When there was no renovation to do, in the days after Mr. B Senior's death, she got restless. She has a bike, which she rides all over town, and she also has friends who come visiting and make whooping noises, and giggle and talk very loud, doubtless because they're old and some of them are deaf. Anyway, one day, she showed up at the door and asked if she could come in, not giving a reason. I hesitated and she pushed me aside and came in anyway. I'd been away on various assignments, since this was when I was travelling every other week for the Wall Street Journal Europe, so the place wasn't in very good shape. This she acknowledged by walking around, her hands raised to the heavens, shrieking at the top of her lungs "FURCHTBAR!! FUUUURRRCCCCCHTBAAAAR!!!" ("Terrible, awful, dreadful," says my dictionary). She then started coming at me, her finger cocked and loaded. "You have to clean! You have to spend at least two hours a day cleaning your house, every day! You have rats!" (This was a pure product of her imagination). She then stomped out.

I was shook. I called a friend, who informed me that Mrs. B had just violated one of the most basic landlord-tenant laws. If someone like the landlord wants to inspect the property, they have to give you written notice, and a very good reason. You can also, under some circumstances, deny them entry. And she wasn't even my landlord. But, of course, he got in touch. I wrote back a letter telling him that I had been away, and that I had cleaned up since her visit, and that she hadn't been given permission to enter the apartment.

That did it. The next time she visited, she got me against the wall again. "You lied! You lied to my son! You should be ashamed of yourself for being a liar!" She was howling at the top of her lungs. After about 20 minutes of this -- I'm not kidding -- I got away.

From that day onwards, she's made it a point to make a horrible grimace at me every time she sees me, and to tell everyone she can corner what a horrible human being I am -- so dirty! And this has now been going on for at least five years. She comes here, messes around in the garden, and snarls at me. It's impossible to avoid her, and it's not a whole lot of fun being around someone whose face twists into a rictus of disgust every time they see you, who heads back into her apartment if we're leaving at the same time and slams the door, waiting until I've gone. I've also stopped planting things like basil and coriander because she steals the pots. Apparently, although the garden is allegedly half mine, everything in it belongs to her.

How a saint like her son sprung from her loins -- he's spotted me rent during all of the horrible times here, and I've been up to a year behind at times -- I cannot say. (Nor can I converse with him because he never opens his mouth when he talks and talks very, very quietly: I can't understand a word he says, and never have been able to). But when she's here, I try to get out of the house as much as I can. You can feel the hatred burning through the walls. The one thing we have in common is we both can't wait for me to move away from here.

The good news is, she's rarely here longer than a week, and she arrived on Friday. Other good news is, leaving the house, I've taken the camera, and there will be some photos and stuff, both here and on Flickr as soon as I get around to it.

Oh, you read the headline and thought I was going to write something about Angela Merkel? Well, not only did Jane Kramer scoop me some weeks back in the New Yorker (sorry, but the story doesn't seem to be online: it was in the Sept. 19 issue, and it was, unsurprisingly, very, very good), but I must say that Frisco Mike has a much better comment than I could make.

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