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Locked Out of Our Connected World

A week or two ago I was locked out of my house.  Here’s the story of what happened and what I did, in case any of you find yourselves in a similar situation.

I was outside digging an underground pipe and dry well for my new gutters.  The ditch was out-of-sight of the back door and on the way from the back door toward the street.  My back door is always locked except when I’m working outside, when I leave my keys, wallet, and phone inside.  I leave those inside because when I’m using power tools, like the diamond saw I used to cut through my patio, I don’t want things in my pockets making it hard to move or squat.

My brother, who lives with me, and his fiancé, who was visiting, came out of the house.  They walked into view and we chatted about the ditch, then they left to get on with their day.  Normally, the conversational ritual is like this:

My brother: “I left the door unlocked.”

Me: “Okay.”

That day, however, his fiancé left the house first.  She opened the back door — the fact of it being already unlocked indicating no special procedure to her — and my brother’s muscle memory led him to lock it as if that’s how he had found it.

Two shovelfuls after they left I realized the frightening truth.  The door was locked and I didn’t know when they’d be back.  I ran into the street looking for their car, saying “Shoot shoot shoot” (equivalent).  But they were gone.

Shovel digging in dirt.

Traveling Salesman 101

“Hi there,” I said to the neighbor as I walked up her driveway.  “I’ve been locked out and I was wondering if I could borrow your cell phone to look up a number.”  I should remember my brother’s number, but he’s on speed dial, so I’ve never had to remember it.  I tried to think of the hundred or so other numbers I have saved in my Contacts, but none of them came to mind, either.  Panic causes amnesia.

My neighbor was not impressed.  I offered $10 to refund the 411 fee.  “Is 411 like the operator,” she asked?

Cell phones are generally unlisted, so we tried Labcorp in Westborough, MA.  A friend of my brother works there and would have his cell number.  The 411 computer suggested some car dealerships.  I dialed 411 again, thinking it had misheard me.  We got the same result.  I stood in silence thinking about my options, and then the computer offered an operator, to which I said yes.  The operator found Labcorp’s number and dialed it for me.  On the other end of the line, a fax machine picked up the phone and started making all those noises.  I hung up and thanked the neighbor.  I said I’d pay her back.  Then I wandered searchingly back into the street.

I started to walk towards downtown Worcester.  I thought if I could find Sandra Katz, she would have a computer and a phone I could use to look up and find some number that would get me to my brother.  I thought it was more than a mile to her office (it’s actually 1.5 miles).  That didn’t seem as close as NU Cafe, which was seven minutes in the other direction, so I went there instead.  I’m there regularly, so I figured they’d let me use the store computer.

It was lunch time when I walked through the door.  I was unshaven, covered in dirt, and looking pretty wild.  A concerned looking patron glanced up at me from his table.  I saw him and thought it would be better to talk to him, who obviously had a computer right there, than it would be to wait in line for the cashier, who might not be allowed to let me use the store computer.  So I started walking towards him.  He concentrated very hard on his laptop, trying to make me disappear.  But I introduced myself, and before long he was less afraid than when I had first burst onto the scene.  I sat down across from him.

He helpfully Googled and dialed some numbers for me but we couldn’t get anywhere.  Cell phone numbers really aren’t listed, and we confirmed that Labcorp’s listed number was definitely a fax number.  I really needed some time to work at a computer, but to ask the man to quietly eat his panini while I spread dirt all over his keyboard was too much to ask.  So we pulled up qpmservices.com and dialed Sandra Katz.  Before long I was in Sandra’s car heading to her office.

(It’s worth mentioning that I keep all of my phone numbers in Google contacts.  In principle, I should have been able to access these from the man’s laptop in NU Cafe.  The problem is, I use Google’s two factor authentication.  So when I tried to log in from an unrecognized computer, Google treated it like a criminal enterprise and sent a text message to my cell phone.  I needed to use the content of the message to log in from the man’s computer.  Without my cell phone, I couldn’t log in.)

Numbers, Numbers Everywhere

As it turns out, a great many phone numbers are available online.  When you’re locked out of your home, most of them are not helpful.  You can, in certain circumstances, find office numbers or other work numbers for people who know the person you need to reach.  I left a couple voicemails like this.  “Hi, this is Doug, can you call my brother and tell him he needs to go to 90 Madison St, 4th floor…”

What eventually broke the logjam was a little bit of an exaggeration.  I found a corporate headquarters’ number for the workplace of someone I knew who knew my brother.  I used a deep, measured voice and told the person who picked up that I had a family emergency to report and that I believed the message needed to go to an employee in that building.  Could she use an internal company directory to look him up?  She connected me right away.

From there it was all quickly resolved.

“Locked Out” Lessons Learned

  1. Digging ditches, like everything else it seems, now requires that you have your cell phone with you.
  2. A winning smile and deferential tone of voice get you access to other people’s phones and computers, even when covered in dirt.  People are basically good.
  3. It pays to know local folks who can come give you a ride.
  4. In an age of concern over privacy and security, a great many things really are private and secure.


The Most Overlooked Part of a Rental Agreement or Lease

Nails at Pharmacy
The local pharmacy wants to sell your new tenant nails to put holes in your walls! Help them to make better choices by including useful information in your rental packet.

Every experienced landlord has a good rental agreement or lease with all of their favorite protective clauses.  But most landlords forget the most important protection of all:  the other stuff you give to your new tenant or resident along with the lease.

Just look at the above picture of a local pharmacy.  They’re selling nails.  Your new resident will walk in and buy those to hang pictures.  If you have plaster or sheetrock walls, that’s bad news for you.  The nail is going to rip out a chunk or a gash, especially if what they hang is too heavy.  Just below the nails are sticky hooks.  Those can be just as bad.

That’s why I give my residents wall anchors.  I say, “Go ahead and drill a hole, then tap this anchor in.  If you need me to come drill the holes for you, just mark out where you want your pictures and I’ll come in to drill them for you.” During the lease, pictures stay secure.  At the end of the lease, the anchors pop out and the holes are quickly spackled or mudded over.  Savings: $30 per patch.

Other things you should give a new resident:

  • A bedbug brochure:  Show them a picture of a bedbug with some information about how they act and what the warning signs are.  Make it clear that bedbugs affect clean people so there’s no shame.  Tell the resident that they should notify you immediately if they suspect bedbugs so that you can call an exterminator.  In a building with apartments above and below, you can save $6,000 by not having to treat the neighbors, as well.
  • Move-out and cleaning fees: This itemizes the costs of leaving things dirty upon move-out.  Not only is this required before a security deposit can be withheld, but also it motivates people to clean for you.  Savings from not having a professional come in to clean the apartment: $300.
  • Trash brochure:  Tell the resident how they get rid of their trash, where they can buy the right bags, and how they can save money and/or help the environment by recycling.  Clean apartments don’t attract mice or cockroaches, which if you need to exterminate, might cost you $1,000.
  • Fuel assistance and insurance forms: Tell your new resident how they might qualify for a government subsidy for heating.  Also, tell them how cheap renter’s insurance is in case anything gets stolen.  More money for them means more assurance to you that the rent will be paid in full and on time.  Savings: from $0 to one month’s rent, depending on what kind of bad luck your resident has.
  • Tell them it’ll be all right:  Everyone at some point runs tight on cash.  Tell them you won’t be upset as long as they let you know in advance that they’re going to be late paying rent in any given month.  Savings from avoiding “where’s the rent?” worries: priceless.

What else do you tell your new residents?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

How Many Landlords are Good at Customer Service?


Here’s an interesting, true story with a moral.

I went into a tenant’s apartment to examine their garbage disposal, which had stopped working.  It was just a piece of broken glass wedged into the grinder, so I removed that, reset the trip switch, and said, “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do!”

The tenant said, “Actually, the toilet is very slow.”

I thought to myself, “Oh, the previous folks had troubles with this thing…  I guess cleaning out the jets only fixed it temporarily.”

I said, “Let me take a look at it.”

It was clean, like the rest of their apartment.  I flushed it.  It seemed to work.

The tenant volunteered, “We can’t put paper down it.  It clogs.”

I said, “What?  What do you do with the paper?”

The tenant said, “We put it in that can there.”

I looked in horror at the small trash can sitting beside the toilet.

I said, “That’s horrible!  Why didn’t you say anything?!”

The tenant said, “Oh, it’s not a big problem.  We didn’t want to bother you.”

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t rent an apartment like that.  What kind of landlord have they had in the past, where they were afraid to mention that one of the most basic services — a toilet — was hardly working?

I arranged to replace the toilet that very afternoon.  I bought the one in the picture because I wanted to make sure that if they decided to flush a bucket of golf balls, it would handle it.  They were so grateful they gave me a plate full of rice and beans and a pork rib.

Two lessons to share:

1.) Use wax rings on toilets.  When I removed the old toilet, I saw a plastic flange that had been used instead of a wax ring.  I think they don’t even sell these anymore.  This flange was constricting the siphon trap exit and reducing the flow rate.  I probably didn’t need to replace the whole toilet so much as just the interface with the abyss.

2.) Tenants are people too.  Whether you tend to be a forgiving landlord or a strict martinet is up to you, but you can easily go too far to either side.  Don’t let folks walk all over you, but at the same time, don’t cow them into throwing toilet paper into the trash.  Think about it this way: if they can flush an entire bucket of golf balls, then your life will be better, too.

Have you had a similar experience?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Who gets to choose their customers?

Well, pretty much every service or knowledge business.  Let’s look at landlording, manufacturing, and small business consulting as three examples.


Landlording is one of those embarrassingly interpersonal businesses:  “Hello? I’m here to unclog your toilet.”  “I’m not dressed!  Just take care of it please!”  Even with toilets that flush buckets of golf balls and other modern housing marvels, you’re trusting a breakable piece of a very expensive asset to a relative stranger.  If they stop paying you or start causing problems, it’s very expensive and time consuming to end the relationship.  After all, their basic home and shelter are at stake, so third party mediation (e.g., the courts) usually comes into play.

Different troubles await manufacturers, especially those offering fixed-price contracts.  If you’re going to accept a job to make 100 of a new kind of widget, you want to feel warm and fuzzy about having the right drawings and knowing that they’re not going to change quantities or specifications once you start the run.  In this case, you have to negotiate for up-charges, or offer concessions, or arrange a (hopefully) peaceful walk-away.

And for small business consulting, where you might feel you want every client you can get, you really want your customers to sing your praises and give you word-of-mouth traffic and their own repeat business.  You definitely don’t want to try to please a habitual grouser, or to keep quoting a lookie-lou, or to otherwise commit to helping someone forever dissatisfied.

So What Can be Done?

Good landlords have a rigorous screening process (never discriminatory, always based on economics!) and so might lots of other businesses, except I very rarely see open communication about customer screening.  As a potential customer for a lot of different services, sometimes I wish I could get feedback:

Dear Prospective Client:

You have had us requote variations of the same thing for the last three months.  We’ll be happy to continue working with you after a one month hiatus, or you can sign and return one of our quotes and we’ll get started right away.


But when does that ever happen?

The best general advice that I can give is that sometimes it’s okay to say no to a prospect.  As soon as you do, you’ll be thinking about the next prospect.  Much better than wishing you weren’t locked into a bad situation.