It is rent collection day in the buildings my neighbour Fernando owns in the nearby town of Kingston, New York. For some time Fernando has been urging me to join him on his rounds. He takes a protective but also frankly spectatorial interest in the lives of his tenants, following their dramas with the fascination of a soap opera addict. Most of them are on Welfare or Disability or Social Security, and are too sick, too illegal, too dysfunctional or too recently out of jail to be employable. Their rent, in many cases, is paid by the Department of Health or some other agency, with the cheques made out directly to their landlord. This makes them a surprisingly sound proposition, and there are enterprising people in every upstate town who earn a good living from the business. ‘Welfare warehousing’ is one of the politer terms for it.
As we drive through the dusk from his house, Fernando fills me in on the stories currently unfolding: the mildly retarded woman whose 11-year-old daughter has had to move in with her, following the death of the grandmother; the old man who ‘wears’ his food; the three room-mates who have been evicted but won’t leave; the level-three sex offender (the worst) who has been hanging around trying to get Fernando to rent him a room. A familiar vague uneasiness comes over me: I haven’t quite settled where the legitimate pursuit of ‘material’ ends and voyeurism begins.
It is dark by the time we reach Kingston. The town was once the state capital and has a few streets of fancy brick buildings to show for it. Otherwise it’s a more or less typically dispirited upstate town, its old clapboard neighbourhoods marooned between strip malls, overpasses and half-vacant industrial parks. Fernando has been buying up properties, convinced an upswing is on its way. A Puerto Rican who grew up in the Bronx, he has the intoxicated optimism the American success story encourages. He believes fervently in redemption, and sees himself as a provider of second chances – whether to derelict buildings or broken lives. It doesn’t trouble him to be making money in the process; I am not quite clear why I think it should, though it seems I do.
We stop at Washington Manor, an adult care facility that Fernando acquired recently at a foreclosure sale after its previous owner was arrested for stealing from his tenants. We enter at the back of the ramshackle wooden complex. A man’s voice is audible in the darkness. Coming closer, we see him sitting alone on the porch, lost in a reverie of what turns out to be incredibly foul-mouthed malediction against an array of phantom antagonists. I feel a little nervous stepping into his livid aura, and wonder briefly if Fernando might have had other reasons than he let on for wanting me to accompany him. But on noticing us, the man surfaces with a blink, mutters a greeting, and slopes off down an alley to resume his vendetta in private. We go on in, entering a cavernous and dimly lit room, empty except for three elderly, genteel-looking ladies watching Hugh Grant on a large TV. They seem delighted to see Fernando, whose suave gallantries set them gently aflutter. As we move on – it turns out we are only here to see one particular set of tenants – I remark that it must be hard on the ladies to have to live with someone like that man on the porch. Fernando tells me that one of them is having an affair with him, and assures me they all get along very well.