Juntas and Baksheesh

“This country is like a perfect garden,” the passenger next to me cupped his hands as if this garden was some kind of a jewel or he approximated much larger and perhaps celestial hands holding this garden. “This garden needs to be constantly tended. I you are born in the garden, it is all you know and perhaps you don’t know the work it takes to tend the plants and flowers. You may make a choice and choose to just sit on your couch, have your beer, not worry about this garden. When you get up, however, you will see that the weeds have taken over, you will see the flowers have wilted and you will say ‘oh my, what happened?’ Or you can choose early on to help tend the garden to learn from those who have done it before you.” The older man looked up for his hands. “When I was done telling this young man – as I said he was a drunk student – he was in tears,” he laughed, “he said, ‘I am such a fool, I am such a fool’ to which I said, yes, yes you are.” This was when the man was new to Chicago and driving a taxi in the early 1980s not long after he had fled Iran. He said so many people then told him to go back to where he came from, but he said, for me, there is no going back.
The flight was going through a horrible storm and jounced and bounced about, but he paid no mind.
He continued his original story.
He was in the middle of telling me a story about a property he bought in a city north of Chicago some years ago. The house had been foreclosed upon and he had picked it up for $50,000. A 5 bedroom house with a two car garage just two blocks from the shore of Lake Michigan. He had meant to get right to work bringing the property up-to-date but the economy worsened, his job was outsourced, for the second time. He had come here from Iran, he said no one knew the story of why he was driven to leave, but he assured me under a dictatorship you know exactly what you are dealing with. Not so much with the American system since we do not admit those areas where our system is under the hand of corruption. After all, four of five Illinois governors were in or had been in jail.
One day I got a letter from a lawyer saying that I was being sued for damages my property had caused someone else. This was strange, I thought, the house was just sitting there. The daughter of the lawyer, she also was a lawyer, spoke to me on the phone and I told her that I did not understand what this was about. She claimed she was interested in the community, that she wanted to clean it up, and let me know that the fees for the hour would be $150 and that I was already needing to pay $2500 in legal fees. I said, I did not hire you, but she said she worked for a man suing me, and that the fees associated would be mine to cover.
In Illinois there is a law that anyone within 1200 yards of a property can sue the owner for neglecting the property. This makes sense, I mean if there is a house with no door and children walk past it on the way to school… there may be a man taking drugs, maybe a criminal lure a children into the house or the children use the house for play and get hurt or the floor collapses. But, my house was in OK shape, all they found was missing gutters which the thieves had stolen, a missing hand rail someone cut off and took, and a place where a tree had bent the fence. What the lawyers had done was to find a person who would be named in the lawsuit. He pretends to be caused damage by my property but he is just given some money under the table. The lawyers then sue to collect their fees, even to get the property. I researched and saw that they had done this 500 times in the past four years. I think the word for this is extortion.
The man went on to describe his fight with the lawyers, his time spent in filling out responses, taking pictures, making repairs, and the lost sleep over his troubles. He went to sell the house but by this time more houses were going vacant in this town and he placed the house on the market for $36,000 then $24,000 then $18,000. Buyers were frightened away by this ongoing lawsuit that he continued to fight. The lawyers reached out to make a deal. If he donated the house to the non-profit the plaintiff ran, he could just walk away. But he continued to fight and continued to be threatened with higher and higher fees for the lawyers he did not hire, for damages not to property or person such as injury but by those damages allowed by a money-for-nothing culture where we sell hamburgers, trade papers, and sue each other in order to gain some crumb of the American Dream. The Iranian man sighed. “I finally settled with them for $1700 just so I could sell the house and be done, but at the last minute the buyer said not $18,000 but $10,000! I wanted to be done so I said, OK, if you buy it for $11,000 we are finished. Then, at closing, it cost me $8000 for just the title insurance. I walked away with $1300 after all that…..
The plane was buffered about by the winds and jumped up and down, passengers groaned and I clutched hard to the seat – as I that would do anything. The man looked at me and dismissed this goings on and waved his hand, “I look at it this way, either we land… or we don’t.” A violent wind banked the plane a hard right then left tossing the stewardess on to the lap of one passenger then another, someone in the back of the plane yelled out “I’m going to die!”
He was on the flight because he was moving from Chicago after 27 years to Houston, Texas where he had bought a house. He was having a delay in selling his house in Chicago and was already having difficulty with his property in Houston. I could tell by his eyes he was serious, he was ready if need be to go if it was his time. I was not so ready and fear bubbled up from my stomach into my throat.
“This country is becoming mean. It is becoming unfair and corrupt.” I acknowledged that things were indeed getting more difficult and people somewhat meaner if not more suspicious of their neighbors.
“Have you heard of a Homeowners Association?” he asked me. I admitted I was largely unaware of the particulars.
The plane started a steeper than usual descent and bounced up and down as it hopped from one cloud to another.
Homeowners Associations are all over Houston, not just the fancy communities with gates, he told me. These people send out someone who goes about looking for problems – things to fine you for. They first sent me a letter saying I had to replace a slat on my mail box. This was a house that the bank owned for years, the grass was three feet tall, the house had fallen apart, but I spent months fixing it up and hauling away grass clippings and brush, and now they were saying that a slat was missing on the mail box and they would fine me if I did not replace it?
In Chicago there is corruption, we all know the unions and how they work… but, in Houston the unions are weak, I did not know anything about Homeowners Associations. In Chicago, you have to join a union if you so any service. In Houston you have to join a Homeowners Association, it is mandatory. For $350 a year, but for this you get nothing. They do not pick up the trash. They do not provide police. They do not handle the water when it doesn’t drain from the street. But they pay some guy to drive around and come on your property looking for things to fine you for. If you think about it, each association has maybe 1000 houses, that is a lot of money. So, I fixed the slat on the mail box, but then they send me a new letter that there are weeds growing in the lawn. Then another letter about the pool in the back has frogs in it and is dirty. OK, I know I need to fix the pool, and I make plans to do this but then I get yet another letter about some trash behind the back door and more threats that I will be getting fined. I say, after all I went through in Chicago, I need to just get on a flight to Houston and stay as long as it takes to fix these problems.
Clearly real estate was not this man’s lucky streak. However, from what I saw of Houston, I can believe there are as many pay-to-play schemes as people can come up with. Driving about Houston there area a lot of fences not just about the yard, but in front of the house. A lot of houses are cut off from the street by some barrier, a fence, a fence and hedge, a gate across the driveway with some cloth ziptied in order to keep prying eyes. A great many gates leading into housing developments. I thought this was to keep out some dangerous criminal element, but perhaps it is also to prevent the Homeowners Association from creeping up and finding that you have not sorted your glass from you papers.
The airplane came in for a final landing and touched down without issue. The old Iranian man became silent. He had spoken of a great many things, but his stories of property ownership and the many issues he faced as he learned out ways was especially interesting. We shook hands and parted ways off to make our connecting flights as if nothing had happened.

2 thoughts on “Juntas and Baksheesh

    • Thanks. My airplane friend had more to say but I need let it sit in my head a bit more before I can set it down.

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