Monday, February 12, 2007


Last weekend, my son and I were talking about my old roommate Charles.

When wife #2 and I decided to separate, I offered to let her keep this apartment. Since I was the one asking for the separation and ultimately divorce, I thought it was the right thing to do.

I had a feeling she'd turn it down-- buying something had been an issue with her. She'd been reading Suze Orman, and Suze had told her that every day she paid rent and not a mortgage, she was bleeding money. Never mind that even if we'd bought a condo, let alone a house, between mortgage, property taxes and assessments, not to mention moving costs, we'd be paying over twice what we were paying. Our three-bedroom apartment in one of the coolest neighborhoods in the city, close to great parks, a great library and the Old Town School of Folk Music, was a bargain. We even had a hook-up for our washer and dryer. And I my finances were in a shambles. I couldn't even consider buying yet.

But she wanted a baby and to buy something. She closed on a condo a few days after she moved out, in 2003. Just a few months ago, she and husband #2 had a baby and bought a house in Evanston.

In the meantime, I thought about moving to a smaller, more affordable place, but decided against it. I discovered that even a one-bedroom apartment in this neighborhood was now approaching what I paid for my three-bedroom place. My son had just dealt with the bruising, ugly, expensive custody fight I'd had with his mother, my ex-girlfriend, and I wanted to give him some stability. His mother, for unknown reasons, had decided to take up residence in a succession of apartments in a really bad neighborhood, which I was able, eventually, to bribe her into leaving. My son needed at least one of his homes to be stable. I paid my wife her share of the deposit, bought out her share of the washer and dryer, and decided to stay.

Fortunately, I had a roommate. Charles was a guy I'd met while I was working at a Barnes and Noble while I was student-teaching in 1997. He was 19 and had moved from California with his girlfriend a year earlier. He was intelligent and funny-- he seemed like a good guy. We became good friends.

Six years later, he was looking for a place to live-- he and his California girlfriend had broken up. He had moved into a studio apartment that was right on Ashland Avenue, and was tired of it. He liked the idea of living in a real apartment in a real residential neighborhood, with a backyard, a real kitchen and a washer and dryer. I asked him about his smoking-- I didn't want anybody smoking in the house because of my son. He told me that he was actually planning to quit, which he did. I helped him move in in March of 2002.

It all started with a bottle of olive oil.

I love to cook, and keep a lot of cooking supplies around the house. I'd bought a large can of olive oil, which I used to keep a bottle filled for use in cooking. I'd always told him to go ahead and use my cooking supplies-- I'd rather have someone use them than have them go stale.

One day, I went to cook something, and the bottle of olive oil was gone.

When I ran into him the next day, I asked him about it. He looked me in the face and told me he didn't know what happened to it. I asked if maybe he'd borrowed it and brought it to his new girlfriend's house to cook something for her. He said he had not.

I was annoyed. I knew that my then-eight-year-old son hadn't driven five miles from his mother's house, gotten in the house and borrowed it. I knew he'd been the one to take it, and was puzzled as to why he would lie about it.

When he moved in, he was working for a friend of his, doing IT work, making good money. The friend was also now dating Charles' former California girlfriend.

Things quickly deteriorated between he and I. I got a teaching job in Cicero, Illinois, and continued to work a part-time waitering job. I worked a lot. I was tired constantly-- if I wasn't working, trying to pay off debts left over from the custody fight, I was trying to spend quality time with my son.

Month after month, I had to remind Charles I needed bill money, and month after month, the landlord had to remind him to pay rent.

One day he announced that he was tired of working for his friend, and quit, with no job waiting for him. He was sure that he'd quickly get another job. This did not happen.

He was unemployed for over a month. He was able to borrow money from his mother to pay rent, and I covered the bills for that month. He finally got a job with Trader Joe's.

In the meantime, things continued to get worse. It got more and more difficult to get him to pay his share of the bills. Things began disappearing.

One day he announced that he'd been fired from Trader Joe's. I was not aware that it was even possible-- it was the ultimate slacker's job, and he could not even do that.

Fortunately, he was able to get a job with Larry, a restauranteur friend of mine, who'd employed him before.

I'd noticed some peculiar behavior. If he was on the computer when I got home, he hurriedly turned the computer off. I was puzzled. I thought maybe he was watching pornography.

Things got worse and worse. He was no longer paying any of the bills. He was no longer paying the rent. His behavior had gotten more and more bizarre. He'd leave the basement and garage unlocked and open. The landlord's daughter's bicycle disappeared from the basement. I realized that he needed to leave. Then, my brand-new mountain bike, which I'd only ridden a half-dozen or so times, disappeared out of the garage. The garage had not been broken into. I talked to my landlord, and much to my relief, found that he'd already decided to put him out. I really didn't want a confrontation. With my new teaching job, I could afford to keep my place without him. I needed him out-- my child lived here with me, and he was becoming unpredictable.

The next afternoon, I was driving home from work and got a call on my cell phone from my friend Larry. He asked me to stop by his restaurant. I sat down with Larry and he explained to me that he'd caught Charles stealing from him, and had to fire him. I told him what was going on at my house, and that he had my blessing. I told him about the latest thing, the disappearance of my bicycle.

Larry looked puzzled-- "Wait, was it a really new black and red Trek bicycle?"

I was aghast. Not only was the fucker stupid enough to steal my bike, but he paraded it in front of one of my friends. And stole from him, as well.

A few weeks later, Charles moved out, and I have never seen him again.

A couple of weeks after that, I ran into his ex-girlfriend, and told her what had gone on. She had her share of bizarre stories.

Shortly after that, they started arriving in the mail-- comps for online gambling. And it hit me where his money had gone to, and why he had been shutting the computer off suddenly. He was addicted to online gambling. Even when he was making a thousand dollars a week, he had no money because he was losing it gambling. As his life spun downward, as he began to steal from friends and employers, to use his family, there was never a realization that his life was out of control.

Last weekend, my son and I were talking about Charles. My son pointed out that Charles' strange behavior coincided with him quitting smoking. Could it have been that simple? That he'd substituted one addiction for another?

About an hour ago, I ran into my landlord's wife, when we both went out to get the mail. There was a bill collection notice for Charles-- he'd left owing money, among many people and businesses, to our little neighborhood "mom and pop" video store. My landlord's wife told me that they'd had a recent spate of calls looking for Charles-- apparently he was using them as a reference, and he'd burned a whole new round of people.

In May, he'll turn 29 years old. I'd had some hope that maybe he'd figure it all out and get his life together. He was someone I'd liked at one time in my life. He's approaching 30 and apparently has still not gotten a clue. It made me sad.


Aunt TA said...

I love reading your posts's like I'm still at Jury's with you!Keep them coming!I actually remember you talking about this guy.
Be well.

Bubs said...

I was always pretty lucky with roommates. I only had one crazy one, a long time ago. Only lived with him for about 6 or 7 weeks, but it seemed like forever. Let's see...we moved into a partially renovated apartment in Rogers Park. A week or so later, around sundown, we noticed some writing bleeding through the layer of landlord white paint in the living room. Turns out we were seeing the suicide note painted on the wall by a former tenant. The cat I owned ran away, the roommate ended up bringing home scary street characters named Spider and Misty, and I came down with a horrible intestinal infection that put me in the hospital.

I moved out a little while after that.

Glad you put your roommate troubles behind you, too.

lulu said...

I had a speed freak, klepto roommate who "borrowed" my alarm clock ad gave it as a gift to another person. She also took my clothes and sold them at the local clothing exchange. She also used to bring home strangers from raves and allow them to stay at our house for days on end. Ahhh San Francisco.

Johnny Yen said...

Good to hear from you!

Yes, you remember how much stress the situation caused me?

I've been lucky overall too. I had one roommate in Rogers Park in 1986 who had obsessive compulsive disorder-- he'd spend hours at a time in the bathroom cleaning himself. He would spray himself with alcohol to disinfect himself. I'm not making that up.

Jeez-- that suicide note is right out of a horror movie.

BTW, speaking of horror movies, I finally saw Evil Dead. Found out it was filmed in Morristown, Tennessee, less than 20 miles from Maynardville, Tennessee, where my parents live.

How special. I had a roommate who had a friend who suddenly took up residence on our couch. A few weeks later, I came back from a trip to find that they'd moved out, actually leaving a television and some other things. I guess that was their way of apologizing for moving out without letting me know in advance.

Splotchy said...

Nice story.

I guess I could see him fencing the bike at a pawn shop, but what the hell is the resale value on a bottle of olive oil?

Johnny Yen said...

I don't think he actually had the ambition to sell it-- we figured out that he'd grab a bike, and at some point leave it somewhere unlocked "for just a minute" and it would get stolen. I think he actually took the olive oil to use. It was all about convenience to him-- he was too lazy to actually go out and buy stuff.

One good thing about his laziness--I discovered that if I didn't want him to use something, that if I put it above his eye level, he wouldn't actually bother to look up to find it. He was so lazy, it took work to be that lazy.