House of Scams and Fog, Or How to Break Into Your Own Apartment

Manhattan is an island of unclean hands. We all hustle. Rationalization is the great leveler between rich and poor-the small ethical compromises we make to partake in the glittering sufficiency of New York City.

As a long-time B-list critic and junketeer, my conscience has long been inured to the petty scams of the Golden Globes voter shoving another complimentary cream puff into his craw. Peace is easily made with the sense of entitlement encouraged through the free drinks, chicken fingers and eBay booty necessary to afford a life of leisure with a freelancer’s salary.

But, of course, I am merely a margin against which the marginal lean, as I found out when I sublet my apartment to the front for a crime ring-illegally sublet, of course.

Tired of comfortable drudgery, and armed with an E.U. passport granted me out of Jew-exterminating guilt (yet another scam for both sides), I moved to Berlin, installing friends in my rent-stabilized apartment with enough of a profit to cover my flat overseas. But eventually the couple moved to Brooklyn, as couples do. I went on Craig’s List. The market was soft. There was one positive respondent:

The Con Artist.

He claimed he was up from Atlantic City to start a croupier school. Some advice: When searching for a subletter, don’t go for the one with novelistic color. I was online when he stopped payment on the check. I called his cell phone. “I’m having some trouble between my accounts,” he said. “I’m at the bank right now.”

I know you’re at the bank , I thought … stopping my check . He promised to give the money to my friend the next day. But when he met my intermediary, it was with half the amount. He wouldn’t let her in the building, and matter-of-factly informed her that we had a new deal. I phoned him and told him he would have to leave. He began shrieking, “What?!? I just spent two days cleaning the place! It was disgusting!! I have a sinus infection!!! You’ll have to call the cops to get rid of me!!!” Then he apologized, claiming that the stress of recent events-his school, his poor, sick mother-had gotten to him. He would leave, he said, at the end of January, which he’d pre-pay as an act of good faith.

His plan was to hold onto the apartment for a month, after which he could claim squatter’s rights-an ill-defined New York housing law oft-abused by the shifty, which allows legal tenancy to anyone who stays in an apartment for 30 days without a contract, regardless of circumstance.

So when I phoned my apartment in January, only to find a sleepy-voiced young man who denied all knowledge of the Con Artist, and when I reached the Con Artist on his cell phone, only to have him refuse to leave (as one might expect), claiming a newly dead mother and that, as he wailed, “I got no place to go!”, it was actually I who had nowhere to turn.

A stealth trip into town revealed that not only had the furniture been stolen, but someone had magneted to the refrigerator an amateurish “Guest Agreement” with a security deposit twice the amount of my lease. The Con Artist was listed as the “leasing agent.” The lessee was none other than Eileen Ford. The fridge was coated in rotting macrobiotic foods. Eighties-style sweater shirts filled my closet. The remaining bookshelf appeared to hold clown apparel. The Con Artist was renting my apartment to a model. And her juggler boyfriend.

In all fairness, the Model appeared to juggle as well. I contacted a night locksmith. The Con Artist had the locks drilled. He still refused to admit that he wasn’t living there-though he was willing to “move out” for a payoff. “I don’t appreciate the tone of your voice,” he’d tell me, Richard Widmark style.

Legally, there wasn’t much I could do. It was a civil matter. The theft of my furniture? A civil matter.

The couple was insufferably immature, but they were my only barrier between the Con Artist and my possessions. Through a Mexican Web site, I found that the Model was a current “It” girl who had grossed $300,000 in the last few months. The Juggler was passive-aggressive and manipulative, and he appeared to view the Con Artist as a Rain Man –esque, Runyonesque role model. As Eileen Ford had somehow found them responsible enough to secure their own lodging, the Juggler assumed that her lawyers were only a finger-snap away, repeatedly threatening me with his girlfriend’s employer’s attorneys (when he wasn’t promising to lie to the police).

At a time like this, the world clarifies. Everyone is a tick, pincers extended: the locksmiths who raised their prices upon arrival; the airlines whose discount fares promptly disappeared; the attorney who showed himself iffy, then petulant when he couldn’t squeeze a few more drops out of me; the apartment scammers themselves, of course. And me, too-my own attempts, at 37, to continue extending my adolescence off the apartment’s rent.

Lawyers could offer me no affordable recourse. The police became sick of my repeated requests for investigation. The Fox 5 Problem Solvers seemed interested for a while, then dumped me. Eventually, Eileen’s Infants did move out. The Con Artist phoned the next day to let me know that, having exhausted his revenue stream, he would be kind enough to relinquish my home “early.” I demanded my furniture. He retorted, “You’re a real dick!” and hung up. I returned home to change the locks.

But this was only a setup. He showed up a few days later, bracketed by a couple of police officers, canceled checks in hand, then stayed downstairs while they parroted his claims. I was thieving a man-with a dead mother!-of his residence. The police explained that I had two options: copy my new keys for him, or go to jail. Could I take my belongings with me? Just what I could carry on my back. I took my camera. As I hit sunlight, I began photographing the Con Artist’s triumphant mug. He didn’t much like it. Turning to the police, he launched his arm back, jaw clenched, and said, “I’m gonna hit him in the face.” Then he fled, without the keys. The police reprimanded me for provoking him.

Technically, he could arrive with the police at any time and attempt to evict me, a Groundhog Day of perpetual terror. I’ve asked a police detective what to do if he comes back. The response: “Be brave.” I’ve spent my entire adult life hiding from confrontation, from challenge, and there appears little honor among thieves.

When I went to court to answer a summons for illegal entry into my own apartment, a guard-gaunt as a desiccated Charlie Callas-asked me what I did for a living.

“I’m a journalist,” I replied, mostly believing it.

“Oh, you couldn’t find work in New York?”

When I asked if I might push up the date of the trial, his face darkened. “That’s the problem with you journalists: You think there’s a solution for everything. But there’s nothing that can be done. You may not like it, but you know what I don’t like? People who sublet their apartments and then move away from this country. Time to grow up, kid.”

And then he turned away.