Maestro Keys — Chapter 3

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THREE

The intercom buzzed. BK&S still had Nineties-vintage desk phones with clear plastic squares that lit while lines were in use.

“What?” he barked.

“Shipler want to see you right away.”

“Did you tell him that I’m with a client?”

“Oh. I tell him that.”

Darlene. Arnold suspected the partners ordered the office manager to assign her to him to hasten his departure. It was almost working. Her cubicle was outside his office door. She must have seen or heard him go into his office with the client. Even if she hadn’t, a glance would have told her that his door was shut, which meant he was with someone. But no. That was too much to ask. Just as it was too much to ask that she type a three-page letter in an hour or send copies of a motion to everyone on the service list without forgetting anybody or transcribe his dictations without spelling errors.

He complained, but Sonya the office manager couldn’t do anything unless Arnold gave Darlene three bad evaluations in a row. Secretaries are evaluated only once a year, Arnold protested. “Those are the rules, if you don’t like them, talk to the boss,” Sonya, an otherwise helpful type, said with a hint of impatience.

So Arnold did. Shipler said they couldn’t fire Darlene, she had seniority, and besides, this was Oakland, they had to keep one black person on staff. But why under me? Arnold persisted. Because your section’s not as busy as the others, and because landlord-tenant cases are lower stakes so she can’t do as much harm there, Shipler answered in that smug way of his.

The portentous opening bars of Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead murmured from his office radio, which he turned off. He had to focus on the here and now, on the man Darlene’s intercom buzz had interrupted.

“I’m sorry. What were you saying?”

The client, a new one named Cormick Albera, stared at him through thick glasses clouded with fingerprints and grime. He was a nervous, older man who compulsively drew back his upper lip in an unsettling half-grin, half-scowl. His thick, dull hair looked full of sawdust or dandruff. Arnold had no intention of getting close enough to discover which.

“I was saying that when I bought the building — “

“What year and month, exactly?”

“Maybe June, I think, oh-seven or oh-eight.”

“I need to know the exact date. Bring me a copy of the deed. It’s important to establish exactly when you took possession of the property because the rent regulations in Berkeley change with some frequency.”

Arnold liked to give his clients assignments, and they liked it too, even though they were as slow as Darlene about completing them. It got them doing something about their case. It gave them something to talk about with friends (which, Arnold admonished, was okay as long as they didn’t discuss strategy or otherwise violate attorney-client privilege). Best of all, it confirmed that someone more capable was in charge, which they desperately wanted.

Albera droned on like Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastien. It amazed Arnold how few people could tell a story. Instead of getting to the point they meandered this way and that, free-associating until they completely lost track of where they were heading. Sometimes Arnold let them go on. These were billable hours, and if clients wanted to pour out their life stories, who was he to tell them seeing a therapist would be cheaper? But on busy days he had to interrupt and, without sounding brusque, get the information he needed.

He let Cormick Albera go on.

Albera’s fifteen-unit, three-story, Beaux-Arts building had an ancient boiler that sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t. When it didn’t the tenants called him at home and insisted he fix it immediately. But it wasn’t enough that they dragged him from his dinner and sometimes his bed; they petitioned him to either overhaul the boiler or put in a new one.

Albera was surprised by the tenants’ audacity but endeavored to please them. He ripped out the boiler and the clanky radiators in each unit and installed an electrical heating system the tenants could control from their living rooms. In exchange, they agreed to a seven percent rent increase each year rather than the lesser amount the rent board authorized.

“You never petitioned the rent board for individual rent adjustments?” Arnold queried.

Albera looked stunned. His upper lip slid over his teeth in that compulsive tic. “The tenants agreed to it.”

“So you didn’t go to the rent board?” he rephrased.

“There wasn’t any reason to when the tenants and I worked it out between ourselves,” Albera said a little hotly.

Arnold calmed his client with an understanding nod. Albera had done a perfectly commonsensical thing. Unfortunately the rent board, like every Marxist tribunal, had criminalized common sense, denying people the right to strike their own deals. Since this was exactly the sort of technicality on which landlords were hung, Arnold’s first job was to figure out how to hide or mitigate it. He scribbled a note on his yellow legal pad. “You have a copy of the agreement with the tenants?”

“I don’t know where it got off to.”

He sighed and made another note: No docs on rent. “All right. If your rent levels are challenged we’ll just say you didn’t understand the law. I had a case recently where we argued that, and the client was able to keep his rent structure two hundred bucks a unit over what the board said was the legal maximum.”

Albera raised an eyebrow approvingly and went on with his story. Everything was hunky-dory until that cold snap a couple of winters ago. Twelve of his fifteen tenants said their electric heaters didn’t work. He inspected each heater and found them in sound condition. He expressed sympathy and suggested the tenants use space heaters until the cold front passed.

Several of the malcontents moved out, but not all. The next winter those who stayed complained again, and were joined by some of the new tenants. Again he checked each heater and found nothing wrong. The tenants threatened to call a city building inspector, but he refused to be intimidated. More of the whiners moved, until only four were left.

This winter they handed him a written ultimatum: fix the heaters or they would stop paying rent. There was nothing wrong with the heaters, he repeated until he was blue in the face, but someone from the tenants’ union must have gotten to them because they wouldn’t listen. He sent notice of their annual seven percent rent increase on December 1, as always, but their January checks never arrived. Now it was February and they were holding back a second month’s payment.

“You mean this has gone on for more than a month? Why did you wait so long to come to me?” Clients loved to be scolded. What they wanted in a lawyer more than anything was a surrogate parent, and Arnold seized that role from the outset. It ensured his clients’ obedience through the early stages of their case.

Albera shrugged feebly, just as every client did when asked that question. What they didn’t know was that there was always an earlier point at which they should have sought legal advice.

“All right, then, here’s what we’re going to do. I want you to bring me your rental agreement with each of these tenants, plus the notices of rent increase you gave them in December. I need them right away, by tomorrow morning at the latest.”

“You want the deed, too?” Albera asked, hoping to impress Daddy that he’d remembered.

“And the deed. What I’ll do is send them a letter demanding they pay the rent plus any penalties specified in their contracts.”

“They’ll tell you the same thing they told me. There’s no heat.”

Arnold smiled. “This isn’t a mother-may-I request. I’m warning them that if they fail to comply, they’ll be evicted.”

Albera stiffened. His lip went back. “I never evicted anybody before. Not using a lawyer, anyway. How much will it cost?”

Ugh. The worst part about being a lawyer. Not a client in the universe understood why legal fees were so high. And they all thought Arnold got the money, when after taxes he saw barely a fifth of what he billed. But that didn’t matter to the clients. As far as they were concerned all lawyers were leeches, including the one who lost sleep night after night guiding their case to a successful resolution.

“If they pay up right away, all it’s going to cost is my time for this meeting, plus another hour or so to review your documents and write the letters.”

“And if they don’t pay up right away?”

“For a simple eviction we charge a flat fee of two thousand bucks.”

“Two thousand bucks!” Albera jumped out of his chair.

“There’s a discount for multiple evictions,” Arnold offered quickly.

“I can go to Jacoby & Meyers and pay a lot less than that!”

“They’re personal injury lawyers, not landlord-tenant attorneys. They might take your case, but the old saying that you get what you pay for applies to law as much as anything.”

Quaking slightly, face red as marinara, Albera looked down at the faded brown linoleum floor and considered. “Let’s hope the letters are enough,” he said.

“Everything will be fine. You have insurance, right? Depending on your deductible, that should pay most of it.”

“I guess you’ll need a copy of my insurance policy too, right?”

Arnold nodded. “It’s normal to worry. I’d worry too if I were a landlord. But tenants haven’t won a significant battle in Berkeley for years. Twenty years ago I’d have said you had a real fight on your hands. And you still may, depending on how obstinate the tenants are. But based on what you’ve told me, this sounds like a quick win.”

He stood up, circled from behind his gray metal desk, and escorted Albera from his office, past Darlene’s cubicle (she wasn’t there), and through the tan-carpeted lobby until they reached the thick glass wall insulating BK&S from the dings of arriving elevators. “I hope you’re right,” pouted the landlord. He pushed at the door in complete obliviousness to the sign by the handle that said pull.

Arnold waved goodbye. This one will stick around, he thought confidently as he remembered Shipler’s summons and strode toward the corner office. Clients always grumble about fees. You can be defensive about it or you can accept that it comes with the territory, broach it quickly and calmly, and free yourself to handle more important things.

Mary Jean, Shipler’s bent, osteoporotic secretary who’d been working in law since before Arnold was born and was the most efficient person on the staff, sent Arnold straight into the sanctum sanctorum.

From behind his huge mahogany desk Shipler invited Arnold to sit down. Shipler was hardly one for egalitarianism — or subtlety. His office was three times the size of Arnold’s. By the west-facing windows he had a circular mahogany table that matched the desk. By the south-facing windows he had a long black leather sofa. His low wooden guest chairs contrasted with the luxurious black leather throne in which he reclined, its top a full foot higher than his head. Arnold had neither windows nor sofa nor throne, nor did his tiny table seat six or have a genuine Tiffany lamp on it.

“You probably know we still haven’t been fully paid for the Elliebeth Williams case,” Shipler said.

“Well, no, I don’t.” Although he had suspected.

“She didn’t send us one red cent last year. She still owes us ninety-seven thousand dollars, not including late fees.”

Arnold wasn’t responsible for his clients’ financial relationship with the firm. No non-partner was. If the bill went unpaid it wasn’t his problem. Shipler had no business sounding so accusatory.

“We checked into her estate,” Shipler continued. “Her only asset worth that much is the house.” He tossed aside the pencil he’d been batting against the webbing between his thumb and index finger. “I want you to get it.”

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© 2022 Andrew Goldblatt. All rights reserved. This work may not be used in part or in whole for any purpose without the author’s prior written consent.

The 1880s painting Isle of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin.
Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, 1880s. A black-and-white reproduction inspired Rachmaninoff’s composition.

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Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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Andy Goldblatt

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.