East on St James

by Rick Beck

Chapter 6

Home Sweet Home

"Keith, I want you to take me to where you were living. I'll need the address to find the paperwork filled against the tenants by the landlord. First I need to see what we're talking about in the way of real-estate.

"Rattling the landlord's cage will be the first move. He thinks he can do anything he wants and I intend to make him aware of the law. If he's neglecting the property to speed the evictions, I'll file a complaint to get repairs done.

"I don't know what is our best move yet, but the landlord doesn't know what I can do either. He'll need to hire an attorney if he wants to go toe to toe in court. I have a built in advantage there, my lawyer works cheaper than his lawyer," Dury said.

"It's easy to find. Go south on Jackson Highway, and east on St. James."

Once they turned on St. James, they passed shops along the street that were closed. There was no sign of life. They passed one last block of closed shops after a short stretch with nothing on either side of the street. The street ended where a large brick structure was on the right side.

"This is it," Keith said. "Let me run in and see if Lisa is still here. She knows all about what's going on. You'll like her. She's a nice lady," Keith said.

The neglect was obvious. Dirt surrounded the apartment building. It took years to get that way. The new owner would argue, not enough time to improve the property. Dury would insist on improvements being made in a reasonable period of time. The owner would need to start spending money or hire a lawyer to fight. The choice he made would tell Dury what he could do to improve things.

There was one surprise. The building was brick and as old as Dury. While the surroundings had been allowed to decay, the building looked like it was in good condition. It looked level and stood straight and tall. The entire street was in surprisingly good condition for being abandoned for the most part. Dury wondered what the story was.

What was once a thriving Charleston suburb, had fallen on hard times. What would cause an area that provided everything necessary for easy southern living to fail? The question remained on Dury's mind.

He sat in the car, jotting notes to remind himself of what he'd seen. The revulsion he expected failed to materialize. While he did feel the isolation, Dury wasn't put off by the location. He could see what St. James Avenue once was. He sensed a vibrant community from not that long ago.

Dury held his cell phone for a minute before pushing the speed-dial. He hadn't talked to Gary in a while, but he was the natural person to call while Dury took stock of what he'd found on St. James.

"Gary, Dury, what are you up to?"

"Sitting at my kitchen table eating a very nice sandwich Fran fixed for me, Lane. I was wondering last week if you might still be alive somewhere."

"I am and I'm sitting in front of an apartment building… circa… I'd say late forties, early fifties. It's off Jackson. Take a left on St. James. Two miles north of the city line. I want you to look at this place.

"Bring your sandwich with you and you can be here in twenty minutes. Take note of what you see after you make the turn on St. James. You aren't going to believe this place. It's a developers dream."

"What's the hurry if its been there over fifty years? I doubt it'll go anywhere before I finish my sandwich, Dury."

"It would be a shame if some other developer got here first," Dury said.

"What are the odds of that?" Gary asked.

"I think pretty good. Someone has just bought this building. It's the key to everything else on the block. I think he intends to tear the apartment building down, once he forces the tenants out. It's how I read it."

"I'll be there twenty minutes after I finish this marvelously moist roast beef sandwich. There are some things you can't rush, Lane. If they start tearing it down before I get there, tell them to wait until I arrive."

"I'll find a way to amuse myself. Check out all the vacant businesses on your way down here. It's like the shop owners all locked up one day and never went back. I've never seen anything like it."

"I'm putting on my jacket as we speak. I'll be there in a few minutes," Gary said.

Dury was standing in front of his car when Keith came back down the stairs.

"Lisa says her mom died right after I went into the hospital. It was that week they served her with an eviction notice. Her name isn't on the lease."

"What a classy thing to do. First I need to know if she'll talk to me," Dury said, jotting down more notes.

"I'm sure she will. She hasn't been working because of caring for her mother. She hasn't looked for a place to go. She just buried her mother. She doesn't have any money to go anywhere. They shouldn't be able to just throw her out," Keith objected, alarm in his voice. "She's a nice woman."

"Let's not get all worked up, Keith. I'll need to look at landlord-tenant law. It wasn't my specialty and I'll need to refresh my knowledge before I can do anything. There are ways to slow down highhanded landlords and she won't be moving anytime soon," Dury said. "Let's go speak with the woman and I'll see if I can reassure her."

"Wow! Thank you, Dury. I guess you didn't intend to put yourself into the middle of my problems when this all started. Thank you."

"I intended to do just that, Keith. Quit worrying about me. I don't do anything I don't intend to do. Let's go talk to the woman." "Come on. I told her I'd be right back. She knows everyone that lived here. She was the house mother."

Dury followed Keith inside. They walked up to the second floor and Keith opened the door and Dury followed him inside the apartment.

"Dury, this is my friend Lisa. Lisa, this is Dury."

"You are a good looking man," Lisa said.

"Lisa!" Keith interrupted. "That wasn't for repeating."

"Well he is. Keith knows a good looking man when he sees one. We go out together to cruise the guys," Lisa said. "Every time I meet one with possibilities, he looks past me and smiles at Keith. I'm beginning to think everyone is gay."

Lisa stood up to shake Dury's hand, seeming to gain strength as she talked.

"He says you might be able to help me. I don't think I've got long in this place. Any help would help. I've never been evicted before."

When she sat back down, she pulled some needlework onto her lap. Her eyes went from Dury to Keith and back to her deftly moving fingers. She spoke at the same time.

"I'm Sorry. I'm a nervous wreck. I have to keep my hands busy or I'll fall apart. I'm working on this for Tom Tom, Keith. He and Raymond have been really sick. I think it's the flu. I've tried to get a little soup into them," Lisa said. "They won't let me call 9-1-1. Can't afford to run up any bills. It's no way to treat people because they're poor. The boys think if they run up hospital bills, no one will rent them an apartment. As sick as they are, they've got to worry abut being put out on the street. I'm sorry. I can't help it."

All the time she spoke her fingers moved faster than Dury thought it was possible to go while carrying on a coherent conversation. Lisa was an amazing woman.

"They have AIDS," Keith said. "There were a dozen men with AIDS when I moved in here. The old landlord was gay. He encouraged people with AIDS to move over here. He discounted their rent and took them to their doctor's appointments. He was a nice old man. He had it too," Keith said. "When the new guy took over, he wanted everyone out. Mr. Corum, the old owner, went into hospice care. I guess he had to sell the place."

"Keith, that's not something we talk about," Lisa said. "The landlord finds out they have AIDS, he'll quarantine the place and have us all on the street."

"No he won't. AIDS isn't a quarantined disease. I do know the laws concerning AIDS. The fact the other boys are sick means they aren't likely to be evicted. If there's no way to stop the evictions, I'll call Live 5 News and have them out here to film the sick men being put out on the street. Not a landlord in this country wants that publicity. There are ways to slow this guy down. That's what I came here to do," Dury explained.

"I'm going down tomorrow to get educated on what the laws are. Then I'll know what I can do for you."

"I've got it, Lisa. I was diagnosed in the hospital. I have a liver infection that's connected to AIDS. I'm going to be okay though."

"Oh, Keith, I'm so sorry," Lisa said, reaching out to touch Keith's arm. "I hate hearing that. Why is it good people who get sick?"

"I'll be okay. I'm feeling better. I saw an AIDS specialist. He says if I take care of myself, I shouldn't die from it."

"That's wonderful to hear."

"Do you have contact with the men he's already evicted?" Dury asked.

"I try. They just don't have anyone who cares what happens to them. I can contact most of them. This was such a friendly place for them. They could help each other."

"That's quite lovely," Dury said, watching Lisa work. "I see you do a lot of different things. Some of it qualifies as art, I'm sure."

Dury picked up another piece from the back of the sofa. It was alive with a colorful design.

"My wife did similar pieces. Very nice work."

"Thank you," Lisa said. "I had a small shop with a woman who paints. I could make a living in Charleston. I gave it up to move here. I didn't give up working but I gave up selling at the shop."

"We can talk about you doing some pieces for me. I packed up my wife's pieces. It was too hard remembering her working pieces for our house. Painful memories. Her mother wanted most of them."

"Your wife died?" Lisa asked. "I'm so sorry."

"Yes, almost ten years now. It's time I took an interest in the house again. What I need to see right now is your eviction notice, any legal paperwork you've received. I'll get busy and put some obstacles in the way to slow him down.

"Putting Keith's things out after he went into the hospital can't be justified," Dury explained.

"I can't afford an attorney," Lisa said.

"We'll work something out. I just happen to have a little time on my hands and I don't like seeing people pushed around."

"It's very nice of you," Lisa said. "I can certainly make you some special pieces for your home."

"I'd like that. Tell your friends someone is on the job. It may make them feel better," Dury said. "Keith, I have what I could rescue of your things back in Mama's room. I couldn't carry the bigger things but all your papers and smaller personal things are here."

"Thanks, Lisa, you're a doll," Keith said, leaning over to hug her and kiss her cheek.

"I'll get back to you as quick as I know more," Dury said.

"You're a blessing," Lisa said, as Keith led the way out of her apartment.

"Keith, can you show me the rest of the building?"

"There's one floor above this one. All three floors are pretty much the same. Single bedrooms on the first floor, two bedrooms on floor two, and three bedroom on the third floor."

Dury followed Keith as he led the way to the third floor. There was no sign of life and not a sound besides their footsteps. They came downstairs and walked around the first floor and stood on the stairs to the basement, where there were no lights to see the damp remains of what was once a washroom for laundry and a storage area.

Dury was testing the stairs and checking the walls for signs of major deterioration. While the residential building hadn't been maintained for some time, the neglect hadn't compromised the solid construction.

When they came outside, Gary was stopped on the next block. He was trying to see in the windows of one of the shops. Gary waved to Dury before getting back into his car and driving the last block.

"What do you think?" Dury asked as Gary was getting out of his car.

"It looks like a movie set from Mad Max or one of those apocalyptic movies. it's great I want one. How'd you find this place?"

"Keith, this is my friend, Gary. He's the contractor who built my house. Gary this is my friend, Keith. He keeps me well fed."

"You have a cook? You eat like a fly, Dury. What are you doing with a cook?"

"Long story. He's a chef, not a cook, and he's very good. He once lived here. That's how I found my way here."

Keith blushed, being unsure what he was to Dury. Feeling flattered was fine with him. Having a friend was good too.

"What do you think?"

"I know better than to play that game with you, Lane. You called me to come down here. What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking I only know one contractor-developer. Why do you think I called you?" Dury said, as Cary turned in a circle to get a feel for where he was.

"It's deserted for a reason Dury. Whatever was here couldn't sustain itself. While it was nice of the former residents to leave it for someone to discover, what makes you think taking it over is a smart move? Once we have it, what are we going to do with it?"

"As I said, I only know one contractor-developer. I wanted your impressions. Since you already have us developing it, I'll let you think about that for a while."

"The last of the shops closed about a year ago. That's when I was moving here," Keith said. "Lisa's mother said there was a bakery, cleaners, grocer, and lots of craft shops."

"What's that?" Gary asked. "This place just keeps getting better," he said, walking the few feet to the end of St. James Avenue's pavement.

Gary stood staring at a building that had seen its better days. It too was brick and only some seriously thick blocks of glass on the façade were still intact. The rest of the windows had been broken out. Even a few hundred yards away, it was a big structure from the same era as the apartment building.

"A factory," Keith said. "I've walked back there. There are three of those buildings. Nothing identifies what they were. Lisa says the employees once lived in these apartments and they shopped at businesses along St. James. She didn't know what was made there."

"Let's see what we're looking at," Gary said.

Sitting in the front seat of his car, flipping open a computer, he typed in his location. He was able to access the city planning and development that went back over fifty years.

"St. James Avenue," Gary said. "Let's see what we have here, and they said spending twenty thousand dollars on this gismo was a waste of money. It'll talk to me if I want but it has an annoying voice."

Gary read what was on the screen, typed in some more information, and closed the computer after reading the information he found.

"Kurtz Door. They moved the majority of their operation to Cleveland in 1983 and closed this site in 1989. No information concerning the current owners of the Kurtz property. I'd guess the State of South Carolina is holding tax lien on it," Gary said. "Since Kurtz Door was the reason St. James Avenue existed, once they left St. James went into decline.

"Why call me to see all this, Dury? You've got to have something on your mind besides sightseeing the near past ruins of an old Charleston suburb. Give me a hint anyway."

"Listen," Dury said, as the three men listened together.

"What?" Gary said. "I don't hear anything."

"They're evicting the people who live in this building. They're going to tear it down to build townhouses is my guess. You probably know better than I do what they're after. Maybe build a golf course or a stable?"

Gary listened to Dury, continuing to survey his surroundings. It was a relatively clean open space. Everything Dury mentioned was a possibility. Perhaps a sports complex, a race track, or an indoor arena.

"I came here to keep them from running the current tenants off without a fight. I expected to find a dump. I called you because I wanted your opinion. I think if I start making this guys life miserable, he'll let go of the idea of throwing these people out of their apartments," Dury said.

"That's as far as I've gotten at the moment. You're free to jump in any time you like, Gary. Can we let a bunch of rich folks take over the set of Mad Max?"

"Tear this building down?" Gary said, backing up to look down both sides of the structure. "That's crazy. Why not tear one of those factory buildings down? Why not level one of those blocks of shops nearer to Jackson Highway?"

"My bet is they don't own the property the factory building is on," Dury said. "The key to what they want requires they tear this structure down."

"Makes more sense to put townhouses up there at the top of Jackson. They don't make buildings like this anymore. I don't like the idea of tearing down a perfectly good building. It's a terrible waste. People are living here?"

"Yes they are. We're on the scene and I don't intend to let them throw these people out on the street. Whatever they've got in mind, we're not going to let them do it," Dury said. "Are we?"

"I can remodel this place. I can build a dozen like it all in a row, but I can't stop the owners from doing whatever it is they want to do with it, Dury."

"No, but I can. You come into the picture after I put the brakes on their project. This guy bought the property thinking he was going to make a quick turnover on his investment. There's no other reason to start throwing people out of their apartments right away. Once he finds out it isn't quite as easy as he thought, he might sell it to you."

"Me? I'm supposed to guess what you're after? Why are you letting this bee loose in my bonnet? I'm retired, you know, Lane. "

"Legally, all I can tell you is, I'm here to protect the rights of these renters. Right now they're this guy's tenants. If we wanted to really be a couple of nice guys, they could be our tenants. I'm just saying."

"Yes, I get that. What I don't get is what comes after we… I own this place. I'm not sure how that works."

"I called you because of what I saw when I came down St. James. It has potential that goes far beyond protecting the rights of these renters. I'd have been satisfied with that, until I saw the layout. This place has possibilities. Don't tell me you can't feel it, Gary?"

"Sure but I don't see a big picture here, Dury. We're here now. This place is from the past."

"Let's start with the premise we aren't going to let a bunch of rich old guys have all this to themselves?"

"We are rich old guys, Dury. You want to be a knight in shining armor. I've seen you in action. I'm a result of your concern for fairness. I'll follow you to hell and back, but I'd like to know why we're making the trip."

"We've got more than we'll ever need, my friend. Why not create something for someone that doesn't have quite as much as we do? Lord knows we've got nothing but time on our hands. What is the rest of your life going to be about? I've been trying to answer that question for weeks now. I think I'm standing on the answer.

"I couldn't build this for three million dollars today. Bricks don't come cheap, you know, and bricklayers, oh man, do they make the money." Gary explained, looking down one side of the building to check the angle. "What's the inside look like, Dury?"

"The apartment I was in had good wooden floors. They could use refinishing. All the staircases are structurally sound as far as I could tell. No holes in the walls. It needs a serious coat of paint, some landscaping. If someone spent the money on this building today, we could come back in fifty years and it would still be standing," Dury said.

"You can come back in fifty years. I've got a feeling I'm busy that day. We're talking replacing the plumbing. They used metal pipes back when this was built. They may have replaced some of it. Electrical system is outdated. Wiring has to be deteriorated. Those are the two biggest drawbacks.

"Replacing all the window casings would be smart. Beef up the insulation to three times what was originally used. Put in new doors to keep the heat inside in the winter and the heat outside in the summer. One million two hundred fifty thousand for everything, landscaping included, and a nice sidewalk to boot. Those stairs have to go. We could build up the yard and terrace it to allow easier access," Gary explained, seeing it as he made the plans in his head.

"See why he's my contractor?" Dury said to Keith. "You de man, Gary. That's exactly what we'll do."

"Are you really going to do all that?" Keith asked.

Dury turned and stood looking at the ruins of the door factory. He was seeing the possibilities Gary opened the door to.

"Oh, no. You don't even want to go into the door business. It would make the question of where to get our doors a no brainer," Gary said.

"Not today, but one day, when I have some idea how long it'll take to get ownership of this building, go look that building over. Let's see what we have there. That's an interesting looking building. I bet a decent contractor could make something out of it."

"It's a wreck, Dury. That would have to come down," Gary said. "It's been sitting vacant for thirty years. It's decaying out in the elements."

"No one promised you a rose garden, Gary. Just look."

Gary's attention shifted back to the ruined structure.

"I bet it was built the same time as this building. If my hunch is right, the same builder probably built both of them. I'll look it over and see what we can do with it. We'd have to get ownership of the Kurtz property to get the access I'll need."

"Okay, we've got plenty to do. Put your finances together so once we know who the owner is, we can give him something to think about."

"Not bad for two old retired guys. Everyone needs a hobby after they retire," Gary said. "Spending money is kind of a hobby. Why am I the one getting to spend the money?"

"Wouldn't be ethical to have a business interest in the property while I'm fighting the eviction of my clients. You'll buy it and we'll work out how you approached me for legal advice and we'll end up creating a partnership. That sounds legal, doesn't it?"

"In my opinion it does. If it sounds good to you it sounds good to me," Gary said. "Do you know what's back there, Keith."

"Three buildings all the same. I'd say they are a quarter of a mile apart. It's a lot of property. On the other side of the depression beside the first building is a forest that runs east for maybe three or four miles. I've walked all of it. It's a peaceful place and perfect for a relaxing walk."

"Three of those puppies," Gary said. "This must have been quite a place once."

"Might be quite a place again one day," Dury said.

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