Rent Strike

by

Gary Beck

 

We had managed to survive the two weeks without water,gas and electricity until our second appearance in
court, but it was difficult. The daily chore of carrying water upstairs was always strenuous,
especially to the sixth floor. But our biggest problem was the stress of the constant fear of break-ins. Late
at night when we were sleeping, any noise would bring us awake, ready for trouble. The street was always
noisy and we had frequent false alarms. We didn't sleep well, so it was a relief that things would be
resolved soon. The night before our court date I reviewed the plan one more time for the strike
committee.

"In the event the judge decides against us, we don't make any threats or demands in court. We'll return to
the building, mail the press release, make sure we have food and water, then barricade the doors and
windows. Whatever happens, we can't forget that we've got to practice peaceful resistance. This is your last
chance to change your mind and back out. No one? Good. I'm going to court with Steve, Barbara, Vanessa,
Leland and Maria. The rest of you can prepare things here. Howard'll be in charge."

"Why does it always got to be a white boy in charge?" James asked sulkily.
       
"Howard's a leaseholder and he set up the barricades," I said reasonably.

"Don't make it no race thing, James," Leland said. "These folk is my friends and I'm going to court with
them."

"You wanna serve whitey, that's your business, Leland."

"This building's my business. I live here. So you be cool."

James was unmoved by the appeal. "Whatever."

The People's Unification Resistance Effort was not as unified as we would prefer. Sheila had moved, to the
taunts of desertion. Some of the painters were wavering. James was a potential bombshell, waiting to
detonate and hurt all of us.

The next morning we met Hal, our lawyer, in the courtroom, Judge McNaughton presiding. The judge was
grossly overweight, red faced and looked like a booze hound. We waited for hours and listened to case after
case that he decided in favor of the landlord. Some of the Asian and Hispanic tenants didn't even speak English and the judge couldn't understand a word they said. It didn't seem to matter to the decision making
process. It wasn't reassuring to see the poor treated so harshly in the halls of justice. Just before the clerk called our case, our landlord walked in, accompanied by a seedy-looking man in a bright blue polyester suit. If that was his lawyer, he didn't compare favorably to our ivy league Hal.

Hal presented our case first and briefly summarized the facts. It seemed open and shut to us, until we noticed that Judge McNaughton was dozing while Hal spoke. When Hal concluded, Judge McNaughton opened his implacable lizard eyes.
       
"Do you have anything further to add?"

"No, your honor."

"Then let's hear from Mr. Sklarza."

Mr. Polyester stood up and we waited for him to make a fool of himself.

"Thank you, your honor. My client operates a good building on East 9th Street. A group of hippies moved in and started ruining the building. Then they brought squatters in and they broke into the empty apartments and vandalized everything. The place is crawling with drug addicts and criminals. We want them removed so we can renovate the building and provide decent housing for responsible tenants."

The judge nodded agreement. "Do you have anything further to add?"

"No, your honor."

"Then I find in favor of the landlord and order all tenants to vacate the building in twenty-four hours."

Hal leaped to his feet. "Your honor, I object to your decision."

"Objection noted and overruled. you are dismissed. Clerk, call the next case."
       
And just like that, weeks of discomfort and struggle were thrown away. As we walked out of the courtroom,
Steve remarked bitterly: "Well, Hal, that didn't take long."
       
"There's some quote about justice being swift, but uncertain. I think we've seen that, Steve."
       
"Is there anything more we can do legally?" I asked hopefully.
       
"Not really. The landlord will get an eviction notice from the court and get the city marshal to serve it."
       
"What if we refuse to leave?"
       
"Then the police will arrest you."
       
"Will you represent us if that happens?"
       
"That depends. What are you planning to do?"
       
"Resist eviction."
       
"I'll represent you, as long as you don't commit violence."       
       
"We've all agreed to peaceful resistance."
       
Hal was eager to get to lunch at the Yale club. "I hope you can do that. Sometimes things get out of hand. Well, you know where to reach me. Good luck."
       
We left the courtroom determined not to give in to the landlord. We mailed the press release on the way home. This made our resistance official. We assumed that the city marshal wouldn't serve eviction notices until the next day, but we knew it was important for us to be ready. We had enough surprises since the dispute started. The one bright spot was that we had a plan for this eventuality. It just might conceivably work, if we got some quick media coverage and if we were lucky.
       
We had organized the building to resist eviction to the best of our ability. The faint of heart had departed. We were aware of who might cause trouble and we were trying to monitor him. As in all good plans, once preparations were done and the plan was implemented, there was nothing else to do but wait. We settled in, prepared for an instant reaction from the city marshal, but the day went by without a visit. The next day also brought no response. An almost holiday atmosphere developed.
       
Martin started an art workshop for anyone who was interested. Since he was a realist painter, Sonia immediately counterattacked with an abstract painter's workshop. They competed for students, each one of them claiming their form of art was superior. Maria prepared an acting workshop which she urged everyone to attend, asserting that it would build self-confidence and self-esteem. I asked Steve if I should join the faculty.
       
"Should I give a talk on urban guerrilla warfare?"

"Are you crazy?" he asked, horrified. "Some of our people are too eager for violence. It might encourage them the wrong way."
       
Time almost seemed to be standing still. As the hours, then the days went by without a confrontation, we began to worry about what we'd do if the marshal didn't appear with eviction notices. On the third day, a reporter from the Village Voice showed up and told us that he was sympathetic to the struggles of the people. We let him in, hoping for media support. He wandered through the building, questioning people and taking notes. When he left, he told us to look for his favorable article in the next issue. Of course that would be too late to help us, but it might make an amusing epitaph.
       
A few minutes after the departure of the Village Voice, a city marshal's car pulled up in front of the building. Two well-fed marshals got out, walked to our front door and knocked loudly. They didn't look like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday. Howard was in charge of the front door group and talked to them.
       
"What can I do for you?"
       
"We've got eviction notices for the tenants."
       
"You'll have to mail them."
       
"I can't do that. You have to take them."
       
"I'm not authorized to take eviction notices."
       
"Then who is?"
       
"The tenant strike committee."
       
"Would you call them please."
       
"They're not available."
       
"I think you better open the door."
       
"I'm not authorized to do that."

"Who is?"
       
"The tenant strike committee."
       
"And they're not available?"
       
"That's right, marshal. You're very sharp."
       
"You're a real wise ass. Now open the door."
       
"No, thank you."
       
"What?"
       
"I said: No, thank you."
       
"If you don't open the door I'll have you arrested."
       
"What's the charge?"
       
"Interfering with a city marshal while he's trying to do his duty."
       
"I'm not interfering with you."
       
"You're not cooperating."
       
"That's true. I said that you were sharp. Would you like to discuss the difference between interfering and not cooperating?"
       
"No. What's your name?"
       
"Howard. What's yours?"
       
"Marshal Boroni. What's your last name?"
       
"Non-Cooperation."
       
"I mean your real name."
       
"That's the name I'm using. What's your badge number?"
       
"Why?"
       
"I always wanted to ask that."
       
"Do you realize that you can get into serious trouble if you don't open the door?"
       
"You're repeating yourself."
       
"If I have to break the door down, I'll arrest you."
       
"I don't think you can."
       
"Why not?"
       
"You don't have our permission."
       
"Are you nuts?"
       
"No. Are you?"
       
"I'm warning you for the last time. Open the door."
       
"No. What did the Japanese man say to the dishonest marshal?..." Howard asked in a fake Japanese accent.
"You're full of Boroni!"
       
"Stand back. I'm coming in."
       
Marshal Boroni kicked the door hard and hurt his foot. His partner rammed it with his shoulder with no success. They stood there cursing and complaining. Most of us had gathered by the windows, or were listening behind the front door. Maria talked to them in a child's voice.
       
"Did the marshal hurt himself?"
       
"Is your mother home, little girl?" Boroni asked hopefully.
       
"Yes."
       
"Would you call her?"
       
"What should I call her?"
       
"Mother. Call her mother."
       
"Why?"
       
"Because I want to talk to her."
       
"Then you call her."
       
"What's her name?"
       
"Mother."
       
The marshal turned to his partner. "This place is a loony bin. Let's go to the precinct and let the cops take care of this."
       
The entire building rocked with laughter as the marshals left. We had won round one fairly easily. About thirty minutes later we heard sirens and we got ready for round two. Five or six squad cars pulled up, sirens blaring, lights flashing. The cops piled out, led by a big-bellied older Sergeant, who pounded on the door.
       
"Open up in there."
       
Howard said in a falsetto voice: "Not by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin."
       
We all laughed. Howard was turning out to be the right choice.
       
"I said open up!"
       
"You have to say it the right way."
       
"What are you talking about?"
       
"You have to say: open up, or I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow the house down."
       
Maria laughed so hard she almost fell out the window.
       
"This is your last warning."
       
"But Sergeant. You didn't give us the next to the last warning."
       
The marshals, who had been standing behind the squad cars, walked up to the Sergeant.
       
"Do you see what I mean, sarge? I told you they was nuts."
       
While the cops were conferring, a crowd slowly began to gather, drawn by the flashing lights and the growing confrontation. Young sympathizers who knew about our rent strike joined the crowd and they yelled encouragingly. The Sergeant decided to take action to resolve the situation, before it got out of control.
       
"Clanton. Get an ax. Berkowitz. Set up some sawhorses and move those bystanders back. Molloy. Cut off the
traffic at the corner."
       
This was more like what we expected. The police sprang into action and the Sergeant led his men to the door
and directed Clanton to chop it down. Clanton hacked away for a while, then someone else took the ax. They
finally got through the door and were surprised to discover a solid barrier of metal and wood behind it that wouldn't break. They chopped at it for a while and finally gave up.
       
The crowd had grown larger and larger. A lot of young people gathered, attracted by the police presence. They were eager to defy authority, as long as it was just talk. Our rent strike signs made it clear to everyone what was going on. The crowd kept trying to move closer to show their support. The police kept trying to move them back. Although there was some shoving and name-calling, the crowd was good-natured. They weren't looking for a confrontation with the police. The Sergeant ordered his men to stop chopping at the door and all of us in the building let out a cheer. The crowd cheered back without knowing why. It may have been temporary, but victory was sweet.
       
The Sergeant went back to his squad car and got on the radio to confer with his superiors. He didn't look happy about his orders when he came back to the door.
       
"Can you hear me in there, Howard?"
       
"Yes, mon sargante. I wish to report that Fort Zinfandel still stands."
       
Howard was getting funnier and funnier, but the cop was bewildered. "What are you talking about?"
       
"I guess you wouldn't understand."
       
"I've been ordered to withdraw my men."
       
Howard yelled triumphantly: "Did you hear that, people? They're leaving."
       
Everyone cheered again. Maria leaned way out the window, flashing the V for victory sign to the crowd.
       
"I've also been instructed to inform you that we'll return in the morning. If you don't open the door when we arrive, we'll force an entry and arrest everyone on the premises."
       
"But that's what you said today. Aren't you a man of your word?"

"This is serious business. You shouldn't be joking."
       
"I can't help it. Now if you don't show up tomorrow, how do we resist without you?"
       
"Don't worry. We'll be here."
       
"I do worry. I've gotten used to your clumsy ways."
       
"You won't be so quick to joke tomorrow."
       
"I'll get a stopwatch and we can compare my speed to today. Do you want me to pin a name tag on your uniform, with our address, so you can find your way back here?"
       
"I'll see you in the morning."
       
The Sergeant stalked back to his car, obviously insulted by Howard's remarks. He issued orders to remove the sawhorses. The crowd recognized that the confrontation was over and started to disperse. Then the shot was fired. It hit the ground near the Sergeant's feet and ricocheted into the squad car door, tearing into the metal with a loud bang. Everyone stood frozen for a moment in an ominous urban tableau. The sound of the shot was followed a second later by yelling and screaming. The crowd began to stampede. The police leaped into action, herding people away from the line of fire. Then they drew their weapons and ducked behind their cars, looking for the shooter. The Sergeant rushed to his radio and reported they were under fire and requested back-up.
       
Steve and I raced for the roof. We already knew that we would find James with the rifle that he supposedly got rid of. We threw open the door to the roof and looked around. James was leaning over the edge of the roof, taunting the cops. He spun around and pointed the rifle at us.
       
"Welcome to the party. Whatta you boys want?"
       
"We want you to put down the gun," I said firmly.
       
"Does it scare you, Carl?"
       
"Yes. We don't want anyone to get hurt."
       
"Well, that's too bad, 'cause I'm gonna get me some roast pig."
       
"We all agreed there wouldn't be any shooting."
       
"That's what you said. I didn't say nothin."
       
We could hear the police yelling back and forth down below in the street. One of the cops yelled that there
was a sniper on the roof. The sergeant ordered men to the nearby roofs. Then he ordered the crowd moved further back. James leaned over the edge of the roof and fired another shot. It sounded louder than a cannon. The cops fired back, emptying their revolvers at the roof. Dozens of shots sailed all over the place. Most of them went nowhere near the roof. The Sergeant hollered at his men, trying to bring them under control.
       
"Hold your fire. Cease fire."
       
It took a while for all the cops to stop shooting. Some of them were panicky at being under fire and just kept banging away. The Sergeant finally restored order.
       
"I'm calling for SWAT. Stay under cover and keep people off the street."
       
We had a situation. James was peering over the edge, looking for another target. Steve gestured with his head, asking if we should rush him. I nodded yes. We took a deep breath and leaped at him. He spun and fired at us. The bullet hit me in the arm and knocked me down. I was stunned. Steve grabbed James and tried to get the gun away from him. They wrestled for it on the edge of the roof. I tried to crawl towards them, wanting to help. I didn't get very far. Fortunately, Steve was much bigger and stronger than James. Steve was forcing his arms down, when with a burst of strength James pulled away from him. He lost his balance, slipped and fell to the street below. As he hit the ground, the rifle went off with a bang. The cops started shooting like wild. Some of them shot James's obviously dead body. Others shot at us on the roof. Bullets were flying everywhere. The Sergeant yelled as loud as he could, trying to be heard over the commotion.
       
"Stop shooting. Cease fire, god damn it. The next man who fires a shot will be walking a beat in the Bronx for the next ten years. What's the matter with you guys? You're acting like rookies. Berkowitz, you're a veteran. I expected more from you."
       
"Sorry, sarge. I just got carried away."
       
"Well, control yourself. You gotta set an example for the younger guys."
       
"Okay, sarge."
       
We heard more sirens approaching. We peered cautiously over the edge to see what was going on. SWAT had
arrived. Men in dark uniforms and bulky body armor poured out of two vans. They rapidly deployed in the street. They looked like deadly insects in their plastic masks and shells. We watched for a moment as the Sergeant described the situation to the newcomers.

       
"How are you feeling, Randy?" Steve asked worriedly.
       
"Lousy. Everything feels numb, but it also hurts like hell."
       
"You're bleeding like a stuck pig. We've got to get you to a doctor."
       
"How do you intend to do that, Pappy? On your flying carpet?"
       
Steve thought quickly. "We can cut across the roofs, until we get far enough down the block. Once we're past the police lines, we'll head for the street."
       
"What about our friends?"
       
"There's nothing more we can do for them now. I could let you bleed to death, but I don't think we need a martyr yet."
       
"I don't want to abandon everybody."
       
"I know. But we won't make a difference. SWAT's bringing up some kind of battering ram. They'll get in the door and that'll be the end of our resistance. They'll arrest all of us. Once they check start checking our identities, they'll find out who you are and you'll go to jail."
       
I didn't want to leave my friends. "What should we do?"
       
"Come with me right now, while we can still get away."
       
"That's how I escaped after the bomb factory exploded. Fleeing across the roofs is getting to be a habit. It would be a lot more romantic if this was Paris."
       
"I regret that all I can offer you is the lower east side. Now let's get out of here while we can. If we get away we have to get you to a doctor. The only problem is they report gunshot wounds to the police."
       
"I know a doctor who's sympathetic to the Cause. He won't know any details about the bomb factory. I'm sure he'll treat me, but we can't go there until after dark."
       
"Can you last that long?"
       
"We don't have a choice."
       
"I'd rather see you in jail than dead."
       
"Help me up. I can make it."
       
"Let me bandage your arm, before it falls off."
       
Steve tore a piece of his shirt off and wrapped it tightly around my arm. I asked him how it looked and he shook his head doubtfully. I was light-headed and barely functional. If Steve didn't help me along, I might not have made it. We went across five or six buildings, then paused to rest. Two buildings behind us, we saw a SWAT team quietly take cover facing our building. We could see other cops on the roof across the street. We were lucky. We had managed to get past them with only a minute to spare. If we had discussed things just a little while longer, we'd have been captured. Perhaps they might have shot us, if they thought we were armed.
       
We didn't dare move as long as SWAT was on the roof. So we found a hiding place behind an unused pigeon
coop and settled down to wait. We couldn't see anything. But we could hear the sounds of an assault loud and clear. We heard the thump of the battering ram pounding at the door. It was like an attack on a castle in the middle ages. This time the defenders had no chance. I heard shots and tried to get up and look. Steve held me down, peeked around the coop and said they were firing tear gas in the windows. A few moments later, smoke drifted up and covered the roof. The SWAT team moved carefully to the stairway and entered the building. They left two men to guard the roof.
       
It didn't take long after that. All the tenants surrendered without any further resistance. It was the only sensible choice. There were no resources left to fight with. Within a few minutes everyone was removed from the building. When the police brought the tenants out in handcuffs the crowd cheered their defiance of authority. The police vans drove off, sirens blaring. And that was the end of the People's Unification Resistance Effort.
       
We waited another two hours, until it started to get dark. We hid behind the pigeon coop, bitterly disappointed about how badly things had ended. We were both fugitives. We had abandoned our friends. We lost all our belongings. And we were responsible for James' death. It wasn't murder, but it felt that way. I hoped Maria was all right. We left the roof, then headed uptown to the doctor. He treated my arm then hustled us out. I had no idea where to go after that. Neither did Steve.
       
"Let's go home to Connecticut," I said dreamily. "We can hide out in the guest house. Dahlia will take care of us."
       
"I don't know whether you're groggy from the shot the doc gave you, or if you're a complete lunatic. That's the first place they'll look for us. Do you want your family involved in this?"
       
I wasn't making sense. "No. No way. I just don't know where else to go."
       
"I'll think of something. If worst comes to worst, we can sleep in Central Park until we plan our next move."
       
Steve led me away from the doctor's office. I followed him blindly. I was definitely out of things. Connecticut was a distant myth, safe and secure, with all the comforting memories of childhood. The chaos of the battle of East 9th Street was fading away and I cold barely remember any details. I was so tired that all I wanted to do was sit down somewhere. I tried to tell Steve that I had to rest, but he insisted we keep moving, until we got to the park. I felt awful. As we entered the temporary refuge of the park, one thing was certain, we didn't have anywhere else to go. We sat on the grass and I leaned back against a scraggly sycamore tree, dizzy, flickering in and out of consciousness. All I could think of was that events didn't turn out the way we planned.
 

Copyright 2006 Gary Beck

All Rights Reserved


 

Gary Beck's recent fiction has appeared in 3AM Magazine, EWG Presents, Nuvein Magazine, Babel, Vincent Brothers Review, L'Intrigue Magazine, The Journal, Short Stories Bimonthly and Bibliophilos. His poetry has appeared in dozens of literary magazines. His plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes, and Sophocles have been produced Off-Broadway. He is a writer/director of award-winning social issue video documentaries.

 

 

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