© Allen Forrest
Divorce, Florida and Me
by Bill Dixon
I guess the first time I came to Florida was in 1982, maybe 1983. My marriage had fallen apart, for which I (justly) blamed myself. I’d been a banker for about eight years, and done very well at it. Although I’d never taken a business course as a student at Ohio State, I’d gone from a “management trainee” to a vice president, to a CEO, then back to a regional senior vice president, over various employment terms at three different banks. I was also doing some work for the Federal Home Loan Bank, as a “Work-Out Man”. There were a lot of bank failures going on at that time, especially in states like Ohio and Maryland, where there were state deposit insurance companies instead of Federal Deposit Insurance, especially in the savings and loan institutions. The State Insurance outfits didn’t have the assets to be able to back deposits, and were collapsing.
Then the Fed took over, and used me to organize a failed Columbus, Ohio, savings and loan, and get it into salable condition. I did that over the course of about a year. It was a mess, but it was a job. The old Board of Directors at the bank hated me, because they had lost all power to me: they couldn’t do anything at all, without my authorization. The employees feared me, because they thought they might lose their jobs. The bank had been systematically looted by the previous owner, who was a step away from a trip to prison, probably to meet some old and some new friends: he hated AND feared me. I sifted through the debris and undestroyed documents, and reported to the Fed, regularly.
Once it was all straightened out again, the Fed found a buyer for the place in Cleveland. The new buyer, another financial institution, asked me to stay on to run the Columbus operation, and I agreed. We opened and staffed a second office in one of the suburbs. That whole process, start to finish, lasted maybe eighteen months. The bank that had just bought us had also purchased two more failed banks, both without doing their homework, and was starting to implode. The Columbus operation, now “clean”, was spun off, and sold to an outfit in Cincinnati, along with me. I knew the new Cincinnati buyers, and I knew that their operation was going to be in deep regulatory trouble, and soon! I bailed out fast.
A few months later, the new buyers of “my operation” were trying to explain some rather shifty behavior they’d been involved in to regulatory authorities, and some management folks there went out of the board room and into the pokey for a while, as a result. I resigned as soon as I heard who’d acquired “my” bank. I wanted NO part of the new ownership.
As a result, I was temporarily unemployed. I decided that what I wanted to do was start my own real estate management company, and then evolve it into a full service real estate company. I’d get out of the banking business, which had gotten tumultuous. I’d be my own boss, and if my new venture got into trouble, I’d have no one to answer to and no one to blame but myself. I was in my late 30s, had lots of business contacts, and lots of energy. Instead of driving a new Buick, I’d get a used pickup. Instead of tailored suits, shirts and silk ties, I’d be wearing jeans and t-shirts. It’d take lots of planning and a whole lot of work, but I was convinced it’d work.
My wife didn’t like the idea. For years, I’d been in great jobs, with rapid promotions and lots of pay and benefits. We hobnobbed with the well-to-do. I chaired civic and United Way organizations, and was invited to speak at various national conventions. We had a big home in an exclusive neighborhood. We had grand parties. At one affair, we had a former Governor, a Senator and a member of the Board of the Federal Home Loan Bank, among others, all sprawled around our living room, chatting and drinking martinis in front of the fireplace. All that would end, if I started my new business venture. We argued a lot about my newly planned venture, butting heads, squabbling.
As luck would have it, the phone rang just a few days later, while I was out. My wife answered. It was a senior bank officer named Chuck who I’d worked with at my first banking job. Chuck told my wife he wanted me to come to Annapolis, Maryland, and run a good-sized bank there, where he was the CEO. My first job would be to be the new CEO. Then, I’d move to Chairman of the Board in two years, when he retired. My salary and benefits would be generous, twice my highest salary ever, with a hefty expense account, a company car and a super retirement plan. I was thirty seven or thirty-eight, and retirement was a long time away. I thought that banking, as an occupation, was going to go through a thorough shake-out period, for who-knows-how long. It was already a pretty rough ride. I was leery.
My wife was employed by the Defense Department, and she knew that if she moved to the DC area, near Annapolis, she’d be promoted promptly. She was a budget analyst, and damned good at it. If she stayed in Columbus, it’d be either slow promotions or none: she felt dead-ended. I was out of a job, and one had just presented itself. We could move to a nice home between DC and Annapolis. It was all very logical, very timely and very tempting. In her mind, only an idiot would pass up that opportunity: it offered lots of money, prestige, plus vast upward mobility…. Enter the idiot! That would be me.
I reasoned that if I left Columbus, I would have lost all my community contacts, all my knowledge of the local real estate market, about all of my friends, and my new dream of running my own show. I suspected that would it take at least 60 hours of hard work a week, for years, to build my own new business. It turned out that I was certainly right about the 60 hours weekly, and especially right about the years. My subsequent decisions and subsequent behavior, would also cost me my marriage, when I refused to take the job offer.
Things started to come apart: we blamed each other for things little and large: cracks opened. Staying in the same house got progressively harder for us. I have to take responsibility for doing nothing to change the direction things were going. It really was my fault, and I’d declined a wonderful opportunity and wrecked almost twenty years of our very excellent relationship. Being pig-headed is an expensive behavior form, but I fit the definition, nicely. By mutual decision, I “temporarily” moved into a small campus area rental property we owned. I strayed. I strayed a lot.
One night I drove over to our home to talk, and saw a local barroom Romeo’s Cadillac in the driveway. I turned around and drove back to my “new” apartment, where I slept on the couch, which had been left by the previous tenant. I wished they’d left a bed and a table, but they hadn’t. I drove our second car, a beat-up diesel Volkswagen Rabbit, back to our home during the afternoon, a couple of days later, to gather up some of my clothing to take back to my apartment. The lock had been changed. I told my pals later that I’d gone to a locksmith, and had them alter my key so that it didn’t fit the lock any more. I could always change a sad situation into a lame joke, I guess.
Then, I went to my bank a day or two later to withdraw a couple hundred bucks a day, and discovered that our joint checking account had been closed. About twenty grand was history. I couldn’t complain: I’d made my own bed, or couch, I guess, and now I could lie in it. She’d seen an attorney, I supposed. I had about a hundred dollars to my name until the next monthly rent came in at the apartment building I was living in. In the meantime, I took the quarters out of the coin-operated laundry equipment in the building basement as operating capital. I bought a six-pack of whitey-tighteys and some socks. I started dining at TGI Friday’s: I could nurse a glass of draft beer, and fill up on the complimentary snacks.
I still had friends, several of whom were in the same unhappy circumstances in which I found myself, and I met with them in the evenings, here and there. We did some business with each other, and I began to make a little money, as a result. It was actually damned little money. I started fixing up the apartment building I was living in, to save money on the repairs that the management company that had been operating it charged me for their work. Then, I retired them completely and became the whole management company for the building. That saved all the management fees that I’d previously been paying them. There was an 80% mortgage on the eight-unit building, and I had to be very careful to be able to make the mortgage payments, while I was doing the fix-up work on the inside, and living free in one of the units instead of renting it out to a paying tenant.
My wife and I divided up the assets when the divorce went through. I never complained about the terms, and insisted that I be responsible for my son’s college expenses, as well. I refused to shake hands with her lawyer. She took everything except the building I was living in, and a larger apartment building in a crappy neighborhood over on the west side of town, that I’d bought a year or two before the rift at a Sheriff’s Foreclosure Sale auction. It was heavily mortgaged, and needed constant in-house management to keep it operating. I got the battered VW, and some of my books, clothes, and other minimal possessions, all of which fit in the back seat and/or trunk, as I wheeled out of the architect-designed, stone Cotswold Cottage we’d called home, in a prosperous Northwest Columbus suburb. With a puff of diesel exhaust, and a glance in the rearview mirror, I was starting over again.
Not long afterward, I ran into a woman I knew who owned a run-down duplex, a block from my old Columbus high school. During our conversation, I discovered that the tenants in her building were driving her crazy. One had a motorcycle parked in his living room. and junk motorcycle parts stacked on the back porch. Nefarious characters were coming and going, day and night. Neither he nor the upstairs tenant were paying their rents on time. She wanted to get rid of the place, and because she knew me, she agreed to finance the sale to me with a tiny down payment, and a balloon payment for the mortgage balance due in five years. I wasn’t really financeable: no job, no credit, no cash, but she took the chance, and we drew up the mortgage. I booted out the motorcycle guy downstairs. I told him that I wanted the place cleaned out and vacated immediately, or that I’d be forced to notify the authorities that he was trafficking controlled substances out of my property. I gave him two days, and told him I’d track him down if he accidentally broke anything on his way out. I was a lot bigger and meaner-looking than the older lady who’d been his landlord yesterday, and he was out the next day, avoiding eye contact with me as I sat in my car in the lot next door and watched him move out.
A month of hard work, at least ten hours a day, got the place to the point where I could move out of my current Campus-area apartment, and into The Rebel Without A Clue’s former place. Now, I could rent out my old place, and start fixing up the new one. There wasn’t much to move in, but I was at least starting to have some small income. Progress was being made, but my attendant losses, financial and emotional, were heavy. I worked like a dog to keep my mind off the “what if” scenarios. It kind of worked after a while. I sanded the floor, patched the walls and painted everything, built a deck off the back porch, which overhung a very pretty ravine. I totally redid the kitchen, built a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in the living room, and put in a small wood-burning fireplace where there had been an old gas log fireplace. The bathroom was a blow-out: a new tile shower instead of an ancient tub, a new floor and vanity. I got everything done before Christmas, but I didn’t want to spend Christmas in Columbus that year. I figured I’d re-do the upstairs unit when I came back from wherever I decided to go, or when the tenant, who had suddenly become prompt with his rent, moved out. That’s when and where Florida came in.
I had an old OSU buddy and former Campus-area neighbor, who worked for the railroad, Paul Geiniman. He was assigned to do “the track end of things”, but somehow eased his way into doing track repair reports inside the office. As nearly as I could tell, they were all totally imaginative fiction more than anything else. He was assigned to account for the work that wouldn’t be taking place until the weather straightened up again in the spring, so he talked his supervisor into laying him off until that happened. That made him eligible for monthly railroad unemployment checks from his employer until he was called back for duty in the spring. He’d decided to go to Miami and rent a room, and spend the winter drinking beer in the sun. He’d gone down there the year before, and found a place in a run-down neighborhood near Biscayne Boulevard that was close to the beach, and also to a friend of his from our student days who ran a small jewelry shop in Coconut Grove. The friend, Laine Bream, was better known on the street in his student years as “Lame Brain.”
Paul was an outgoing fellow, and had met about all of the people on S.E. 22nd Ave. around his rental apartment. The street was only about a block long, running to a dead end. He got along well there, and intended to return again that year. He invited me to join him. I could rent a room from a pal of Paul’s, Hadi Alsaigh, an industrious Iraqui who had escaped from Saddam via a bogus student visa, eventually finding his way to Miami. Hadi worked as a busboy and server in a nearby HoJo, and was slowly buying up property on his side of the street, and making them into rooming houses. Hadi’s side of the street was all Hispanic. The other side of the street was all gay men, outside of Paul, and an elderly woman from Cuba. The principal landowner, and Paul’s landlord, was Gordon Forbes, a Canadian from Quebec. Paul had checked, and Hadi said that he would have a room for me, free, if I helped him with the work he was doing. That was about the limit of my price range, so I signed on for a three-week stay over Christmas. Compared to my former life, it seemed like I’d planned a voyage to Mars. Once I got there, it looked like I was right about that.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE VERY NEXT EDITION OF RAGAZINE!
About the author:
Bill Dixon is a contributing columnist to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
About the illustrator:
Allen Forrest is a contributor illustrator to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.