August 5, 2014 | by Timothy Leonido
A panda painting, small-claims court, and the perils of communal living.
Of the many collectives in West Philadelphia, the Mitten was widely held to be the ideal model. Founded by six young progressives from the Inter-cooperative Council in Michigan, it hosted workshops on social justice and fundraised for local nonprofits. And it was a staple of the queer-arts scene: punk bands played in the basement and drag shows filled the living room, with performers grinding on audience members and audience members grinding on banisters. In the adjacent lot they had grown a lush garden with six raised beds and a chicken coop.
When I first moved to Philadelphia, I was eager to join a house like this one—but brimming with collaborative energy, they were in high demand, and the ones I found lacked the character and spirit that’d drawn me to communal living in the first place.
I was impatient, though, and took a room in Cedar Park, aka “University City,” at an A-frame Victorian with a huge mulberry tree. The quaint facade hardly matched its sterile interior: overhead lighting reflected off marble countertops, the white walls were bare, and there was La-Z-Boy furniture in suburban quantities. This collective included five members, young professionals who, surprisingly, spent the majority of time away from the house, staying often with their partners. A math teacher, a product engineer, a classical vocalist and a software designer—they were mild and even a little shy. But one of the members, Jeff, maintained a particular enthusiasm for the house. He spoke in an affectedly deep voice, noticeably straining as he described the order of things: regular meals “kept costs down”; adherence to the chore wheel “kept everything running smoothly.” He appeared to be the oldest by a significant difference; his skin had a jaundiced tint, and his goatee was visibly grayed. A baseball cap covered his bald head, and in his beige clothing he nearly blended with the plush chairs in the living room.
Wandering the house one morning, I noticed a decorative theme: a series of paintings in which different animals—horses, peacocks, pandas—were foregrounded by a green watercolor mist. Most of these hung in the hallway, but the one featuring pandas was leaned against the wall near the recycling bin. These pandas floated in a green haze, grazing and chewing at obligatory bamboo. The rightmost panda appeared to be returning from a pleasant jaunt, with a subtle smile forming in the corner of its mouth.
In the kitchen one afternoon, I found Jeff opening a bottle of San Pellegrino. “Hey, roomie, check this out,” he said, retrieving a bottle opener from the drawer and demonstrating a “fun fact”: women and men hold bottle openers differently, he explained, women by the handle and men by the head. “Funny, these … scientific differences between sexes,” he muttered, moving to the sink, where he ran hot water over the opener. “Gotta wash this now.”
Details of Jeff’s life seeped in sporadically through the thin walls. His software team, for instance, was struggling to find sponsors. As a result, he’d filed for unemployment. I often overheard him talking on the phone, complaining about the conditions of the house: cooking responsibilities had been ignored and silverware had been improperly washed. Later, I began to receive text messages about the caps on various condiments. “The olive oil was loose. I almost spilled it all over,” he wrote, “mad, etc … ”
The collective’s atmosphere was tense, so I struck up a friendship with my neighbor, H—, who wore pencil skirts and had big frizzy, flowing hair. She’d invite me in for whiskey, poking me hard in the sternum for emphasis. On Halloween, she invited me to a costume party and came over beforehand to paint my face. She asked how I was finding the house. “It’s okay,” I said. “But it would be nice to decorate a little more.”
I must’ve had one too many whiskeys—moments later we were dragging the panda painting out from behind the recycling bin. Using the paints in her bag, H— added a party hat to one panda and a monocle to another. The formerly grazing panda was made to eat a cupcake. Because I lacked artistic skill, she helped me give one of the pandas a convincingly dimensional party hat. I began to picture Jeff returning home and, discovering the alterations, flying into a rage, so I hid the painting behind the door to my room.
The disappearance of the painting went unnoticed for six months. Siting at my desk one Sunday, I heard heavy footsteps coming toward my room. In walked Jeff with two scowling police officers, their sleeves rolled back to reveal thick, faded tattoos. The door was pushed aside to reveal the dusty, nearly forgotten pandas. The first officer observed the painting with a furrowed brow. “Party hat wasn’t on there before?”
“No, officer,” Jeff confirmed, “no, it wasn’t.”
The smaller, mustachioed officer interrogated me. “When was this painting damaged?”
I thought about it. “Six months ago?”
The officers turned to Jeff. “And you’re calling us now?”
Jeff clenched his jaw in impotent rage. He barked at the officers to do their jobs.
“Sir,” they said, “you better calm down and talk to us outside.”
Outside, another police vehicle arrived. Jeff had called for the sheriff, a short, frog-faced man with a protruding stomach. “I want your badge number!” he yelled from the porch.
Displeasure swept over the sheriff’s face, down to the loose skin gathered around his collar. “You know, I don’t like it when someone asks for my badge number, because it usually means they’re gonna complain about me. Now, I’m already in a bad mood because you wasted their time”—the two officers held their belts in austere, identical postures—“and now you’re wasting mine.”
Jeff insisted that the necessary evidence was in my room. “Arrest him!” he demanded. But the sheriff explained that I wasn’t obligated to divulge any information. I could simply say the matter was “beyond my knowledge.” He turned to me and asked, “Who destroyed the painting?”
“That’s beyond my knowledge,” I said.
* * *
Later, Jeff attempted to explain the severity of my actions. Years ago, after months of courting, Jeff had finally convinced a special someone to join him for dinner at his favorite restaurant downtown, Kingdom of Vegetarians. They shared a mutual fondness for the decor: “We were … mystified by those paintings.” To commemorate the date, she made him a miniature replica of the pandas. After the relationship ended, Jeff struck up a deal to purchase the originals from the KoV owner.
Though the story didn’t exactly clarify matters, I understood that I had touched a nerve. Jeff gave me three options to rectify the situation. I could either (a) clean the painting myself; (b) take the painting to an appraiser and pay the estimated value; or (c) get my “artist friends” to create a new panda painting in the appropriate style.
I promised to pursue one of these routes, but my remorse ebbed with each passing week. I avoided Jeff while trying to move out as quickly as possible. We only crossed paths once, at which point I assured him that a near-perfect replica was on the way. Meanwhile, a room had finally opened at the Mitten, and I took it.
By the time I had settled into the Mitten, things were calm. I received occasional threatening emails from Jeff, but this problem was solved when I wrote a filter to trash them automatically. One morning, I found an envelope bearing the insignia of the court television show Judge Joe Brown. Inside, a letter addressed to me read, “You probably already know you’re being sued.”
The next day, a thick bundle of papers came through the mail slot. Stapled together were accusations of vandalism, printed copies of email correspondence, and a lengthy appraisal from an arts conservator in Manayunk, who wrote that the painting’s “classic” style priced it at four thousand dollars. In the final pages were negative scans of each panda, the lush mist reduced to a dark void.
* * *
H— and I met at the downtown office of Community Legal Services, just above Wendy’s, its waiting room full of sullen faces. The director, Richard F—, read over my papers with an expression of sharp annoyance. “C’mon!” he said, waving me down the hall with a dismissive hand.
At his desk, surrounded by degrees and copious family photos, Richard’s initial surliness subsided into a relaxed humility. As I described the events, I omitted the details concerning my own alterations of the painting, instead focusing on the damage dealt by an unnamed “guest.” Richard encouraged this version of the story. “In no way should you be responsible for another party! All you have to say is one thing: prima facie,” he assured me,“the evidence is insufficient.” I mouthed prima facie silently as Richard reviewed the papers.
The following month I rose before a judge in small claims court, sweating profusely in a drab gray blazer. Jeff described his side of the case, regularly referring to me as a “vandal.” On this matter, it appeared that the judge wasn’t convinced, but I fell out of his favor when Jeff raised the issue of “house rules”—i.e., the rule against damaging property.
“Did you agree to this rule?” the judge asked.
Such a rule seemed to be common sense. “That’s a rule I generally follow…”
“Did you agree to this rule?” the judge repeated.
“But this is a rule that I follow in any case, I—”
“Yes or no?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, now, I am a fan of Antique Roadshow,” the judge said, “and there are quite a few diamonds in the rough out there.” For a moment he struggled to remember the details of an episode. Then he promptly ruled against me.
* * *
Richard was irate. “Appeal!” he said. “File it!” I did. Before the appeal date, the court encouraged us to meet with mediators. Though Richard was opposed, I thought the perspective might be helpful. Later that week, we found ourselves—Richard, Jeff, two UPenn law students, their professor, and myself—in a humid mediation room above the downtown municipal court. The professor observed from the corner while the rest of us gathered around a small table.
Jeff told his story, this time evoking even more sympathy—at several junctures in his retelling, the mediators sent appalled glances in my direction. Finally, he leaned forward with a threatening pulse in his brow. “Even if you successfully appeal,” he said, “I’ll just take you to a higher court. You’re going to pay for the damage.” This cold, stubborn statement was convincing enough. I was reeling. The little red spots atop Jeff’s bald head seemed to circulate. Richard called for a break.
“You shouldn’t pay anything!” he said as we stepped into the hallway. But I’d reached my limit. I resigned to draw up a settlement. When we returned, Jeff and the mediators were sharing snacks from the vending machine. A temporary praecipe was drawn up: I signed in agreement to pay a thousand dollars. Far worse than the monetary fine, though, was when Jeff extended a clammy hand my way. “Happy we can move on,” he croaked. Everyone huddled around as I put my hand into the grip.
I went straight to H—’s place, where we argued about fines and responsibility. We compared the artistic labor of party hats against cowboy hats. We cooled off, fought more, and then calmed down with a whiskey. The case had, I thought, instilled in me a more careful consideration of the objects in my environment. I would no longer make assumptions about property, even if it appeared abandoned. While settling into the Mitten, I took every opportunity to be conscientious.
But had I learned anything? Not long afterward, I was working with two of my most industrious housemates in the garden, painting the chicken coop, a task for which one of them loaned me a pair of boots. I caught the boot on an exposed nail, pulling the sole away from the base, and decided to fix it later and return it as though nothing had happened. It must have slipped my mind. I left the damaged boots in a shared closet for days until, one morning, I received a reminder on my door: a tube of shoe goo had been jammed through the small hole left by a missing doorknob. Just outside my room was the damaged boot, looking as though it had been flung angrily to the ground.
Timothy Leonido is a writer based in Philadelphia. Other work can be found in Gauss PDF, and is forthcoming in Triple Canopy and Lateral Addition.