RogersThe enduring value of kind words

COLUMBIA, 1/30/13 (Remembering) -- I was scared witless when I saw John Rogers for the first time, as he got out of his city car and walked toward the front door of my first Columbia rental house.

Short and balding, John -- who passed away three weeks ago -- looked tough, like the building inspector from H-E-you-know-where. 

He had a clipboard and a serious, almost dour expression.  I knew I was in trouble on my first City of Columbia rental compliance inspection.

John surprised me with a smile.  He introduced himself with a voice that sounded as tough as he looked, shook my hand, and gave me a business card.  He ushered me forward with a wave of his hand, saying something deferential like "lead the way, sir."      

He looked pleased, but about what, I didn't know.

That rental house was a pit when I bought it a decade ago, beat on by tenants and neglected by owners.   I'd bought rough houses before -- I've been in property management for 22 years.  

But nothing prepared me for some I would buy in Columbia's then-struggling central city.   Former crack and meth dens; homes abandoned for years; houses so filthy even rodents and insects stayed away.

A Rogerian Inspection

Inside, John stopped near a large cold air return vent -- about 2 ft. by 3 ft. -- on the floor.   He looked down. Thankfully, he saw the vent as it was then, not as it had been.

For days as I repaired and cleaned, I'd pass the vent and look through the grate, first with unaided eyes, then with a flashlight, then with a larger flashlight. 

I couldn't figure out what was down there.   Inside were textures and shapes spotted with colors.  The grate wasn't easy to remove -- nothing is easy in a 90-year-old house -- but I was determined to check it out.

I reached into the vent with my gloved hand.  It was soft -- and surprisingly deep.  I lifted a handful of whatever I was feeling.  I thought it might be misplaced insulation, but up came a red sock, a pair of soiled underwear, an empty cigarette pack, and a tampon wrapper.

If you're thinking "eeee--ewww -- that's more than I needed to know" -- I'll suffice by saying it got worse, including a mummified something that was flat but still had a tail.  

There was so much garbage in that vent I filled a kitchen trash bag and heard the house gasp in relief.

The vent John Rogers was looking into wasn't only clean -- it was spit-shined.  I'd gone through half-roll of paper towels wiping it out.

Back to Life

Next, we went upstairs.   He checked the bedroom windows -- those old kind with pulleys and counterweights -- and said he liked the way I'd brought them back to life.   They had lost their wire moorings and the counterweights rattled inside the walls, so previous tenants had to use other stuff to keep them open.

A sagging Teddy Bear squatted under the weight of a window when I first saw the house.   To give Teddy a break, I attached tough nylon cords equipped with hooks to each window and threaded them through the pulleys.   As I demonstrated for John, you could raise the windows and with one clip of a hook, they stayed open -- at two different heights, no less.

"Nice," I remember him saying.

By the time we finished, John found only one violation, which he let me fix without a citation.  "I like the way the house looks," he told me as he left, referring to an exterior paint job.  "It looks a lot better than it did."

A depressing gray primer had covered the house for as long as anyone could remember.  I painted it with several gallons of a mis-mixed light sandy latex and multiple but complimentary colors on the porch.  I love to recycle mis-mixed paint.

Carrots, not sticks

John's complimentary reactions, meanwhile, were so out of the ordinary I cited him and his office as one of my "top ten things City Hall does best" in the Columbia Business Times.   If John were still with us, he'd be my nominee for this year's Ed Robb Public Service Award.

Here was a man who had given me carrots when everyone else carried sticks.

Central city preservationists -- landlords and homeowners alike -- occupy an uncomfortable niche, fighting to care for aging housing that will never be in great shape, in a wonderful part of town many would nonetheless like to demolish. 

An unabashed populist and child of the Sixties who served in Vietnam, John understood this as well as anyone, and we talked many times about the forces of politically-entrenched neglect.

We spoke for the last time a few months before he died. I called to ask about city codes that cover parking areas and we got into a favorite discussion: wacky slumlord stories.   These were rare events -- most landlords do the right thing -- so the stories made for standout comedy.

John had issued a citation to a notorious rental owner for having stairway handrails higher from the ground than code allowed.  The handrails weren't safe, since only an Amazon could reach them.

On a re-inspection, John took out his tape measure and found the railing suddenly in compliance.   He was scratching his head.

"I looked and looked at it -- the same old rusty nails in the same places," he chuckled. "I couldn't figure out what had been done at first, then I remembered who I was dealing with and started looking around for the cheapest alternative."

With a shovel, rake, and wheelbarrow, the fellow had brought a few loads of dirt from around back.  

Instead of lowering the handrails -- which required competent carpentry and maybe even new railings -- he raised the ground. It was letter-of-the-law compliant, so what was an inspector to do?   "I cited him again," John said.

I laughed so hard I was almost in tears -- you had to hear John, through his gravelly chuckle, telling this story. We spoke some more, laughed our farewells, and hung up.

It was a good last memory -- from a man who helped inspire me by handing out carrots instead of hitting with sticks -- and a great way to say goodbye.

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat