Thursday, May 27, 2010


My husband and I have been landlords for nearly five years. We have gone to great effort…and expense…to provide our tenants with a decent place to live at a reasonable rent. We spray for insects regularly, have a professional builder on call for maintenance, have installed solar water heating, new carpeting, and were honest with them about the property and its advantages and disadvantages at the time we showed it for rental. We have a “code of conduct” for our tenants so that they know what we…and their neighbours…expect from them in terms of behaviour (and actually evicted a tenant who was making life miserable for the others) and a nice, tight lease that is written to fairly spell out the legal obligations of all parties involved.

When general maintenance and repairs are needed, we always let the tenants know. The last thing we want is a tenant to die of fright upon seeing a stranger climbing up onto her roof, or a maintenance worker shot as he begins taking out a cracked window! We generally put the maintenance person directly in touch with the tenant who needs work and allow them to schedule work at their mutual convenience…then there is no concern for anyone’s safety or peace of mind.

For the past five months we have been tenants and, sadly, our experience has been one that illustrates the old saw “no good deed goes unpunished.” For as good a landlord as we have been, so our landlord is as bad.

As you all know, I am laid up with a broken foot. I saw the doctor two days ago and she declined the cortisone shot and told me “more anti-inflammatories, more pain meds, more elevating that foot.” The good news is that I am allowed to walk around some…the bad news is that I still have to spend the lion’s share of my time in bed with my foot propped up. It was from this position this morning that I heard a lot of strange mechanical noises outside my window and, when I went to check…at the insistence of my barking Yorkchop…that I discovered a man propping a tall ladder against the side of my house!!

After a moment of panic…the maid has the day off and she has gone shopping and my husband is out of town until tomorrow night…I looked down to see a drop cloth spread across the grass with a paint roller on it. In the grass nearby, however, was a hammer…why do you need a hammer to paint?? No arrangements were made with me or my husband for maintenance work to be done on the house and when the man with the ladder moved into my line of sight, I did not recognize him. He might have been the regular maintenance guy from next door, but from my angle on the second floor, I could not really tell.

Our landlord lives in Cape Town but this is a reasonably modern country and there are both conventional and cell telephonic communication between here and there. Even in the best of circumstances, I expect to be notified when people who do not live here are coming onto the property…I don’t live in an apartment building with a maintenance crew, I live in a private house with elaborate security systems…should I not be alarmed when a man I don’t recognize and am not expecting, props a ladder against my house?

So I called the landlord and said “Who is this person outside in my garden with a ladder propped up against the house near my bedroom?”

And he said “I don’t know.”

Which just freaked me out even more. Obviously the gardener let the guy in, but nobody knocked on the door, called me on the phone or even hollered up through the window to let me know there was work going on. Nope…my Yorkie starts barking like a loon, I go to check out what is fretting her, and find a ladder propped against my house where someone can peer in through the bedroom window and see me, in my skimpy nightie (I am still running my A/C during the day) with my foot propped up on the bed. And my landlord didn’t send the guy??

“I have a broken foot and I am laid up in bed,” I tell the landlord. “I am here alone…the maid has the day off. And this ladder is propped right where someone can see through the only uncurtained window in the bedroom and look right in at the bed. Nobody called me, nobody told me there was going to be work going on today!”

“Maybe it is Leo,” the landlord says, mentioning the handyman from next door.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t tell from up here. But if it IS Leo, he needs to make an appointment with us to come over to do work, and when he does, he needs to keep the appointments he makes. We kissed off an entire Saturday a few weeks back waiting for him and he didn’t show.” What I didn’t tell the landlord is that Leo told me that he works for our cantankerous neighbour as a man-of-all-work from Monday through Friday and can only do maintenance work here on Saturdays…and today ain’t Saturday.

The landlord tries to call Leo but there is no answer. He calls me back. “Try the gardener,” I suggest. “He’s here today.” The gardener is here on alternate Thursdays at the landlord’s behest, since our maid does the gardening for us and we refused to pay two people to do the yard work or to reduce the maid’s wages by cutting her gardening day. I wait a while, but the landlord does not call me back…I don’t know what is happening, if the guy outside is Leo or not, if he is authorized by the landlord to be here or not, if my growing fear for my safety is groundless or not.

Finally, Hubby calls me. He has called the landlord on my behalf and the news is 1) the guy with the ladder is Leo, 2) the landlord did not send him over here today, 3) the landlord has told him to leave, and 4) I, gimpy foot, nightgown and all, am supposed to go down the stairs and make an appointment with Leo to return to do the work, whatever it is (even the landlord doesn’t know!). I decline this last bit because 1) I am in my night clothes (I am in bed, after all), 2) my foot hurts and I have just taken a pain pill, 3) the last time I did this, Leo simply didn’t show up at the appointed time, and 4) I am not even sure he understands my American-accented English…or if he is particularly sharp with any brand of English at all.

I don’t want to deal with all this confusion. I barely slept last night and this insomnia and its aftermath are very new to me…I have never EVER had trouble sleeping before this foot thing and in the past two months I’ve had only two or three nights of more than 4 hours sleep at a pop. I’m tired, I’m getting cranky, and the last thing I need is strange men climbing up ladders to my bedroom window and scaring the willies out of me! I just want to sit here with my foot propped up and wait for my pain pill to work, and not have to worry about strangers propping ladders up against my house and climbing in through a window or over the balcony railing.

Most of all, however, I want my landlord to get his act together and behave responsibly and with concern for something more than having the rent arrive in a timely manner (which it always does). We were mislead about this house from the beginning: it is smaller than we were told (sorry, but the patio, balcony, and garage are not part of the square footage of the house), it was infested with vermin when we moved in and the landlord knew it, the front security gate malfunctions regularly, something else the landlord was aware of (revealed to us by the gate repairman on one of his many, many visits). The landlord knew that the electricity supply to this street was unreliable…the neighbour across the road told us it was notoriously unreliable and the landlord lived in this very house until just this last December. We’ve had the exterminators out here more than once but we continue to have evidence of rats, I’ve seen fat, happy cockroaches gambolling in my cupboards, and if you want to have meat in this house, get out the Raid and lock all the doors and windows because the minute so much as a piece of lunch meat comes out of the refrigerator, the flies show up in swarms…even after the house and grounds were sprayed.

I would not allow my tenants to live this way, and I go out of my way to make sure their homes are comfortable, clean, safe places to live. When our hot water heater went on the fritz, the landlord would not even take our phone calls after the first one! Steaming water poured down the chandelier in the stairway and cascaded down the stairs like a water fall, a sheet of hot water poured out of the eaves and blocked access to the front door , scalding the plants on either side of the door, and our landlord would not respond to our SMSs or voicemails. We had to call his mother , who authorized a plumber to come out.

Add to this the local infrastructure problems: five water main breaks in four months, each one leaving us without water; two trash collector’s strikes; weekly power outages; and last Friday night someone set the vacant lot behind my street afire, menacing the entire neighbourhood, and the fire brigade, when my husband tried to call to report the fire, put him on hold!

Joburg is no fun. Aside from movies, one casino, and malls, there’s pretty much nothing to do here, and the infrastructure is totally unworthy of a city that thinks it is the be-all and end-all of Western civilization on the continent of Africa. There are pot holes in the posh sections of town you could easily lose a wheel in (no exaggeration!), the traffic lights are so notorious for not functioning that one of our car insurance companies has hired and trained “pointsmen” (non-police traffic directors) to put in intersections when the lights aren’t working to reduce traffic accidents…apparently it is cheaper to train and pay these pointsmen than to pay for collision damage! Street lights don’t work, malls shut down at 5 or 6 pm on weeknights, and few are open after 2 on Sundays or at all on public holidays.

I still don’t like it here…it is a crappy place to live…but it would be improved if I wasn’t stuck with a landlord who is barely one cut above a slumlord. This guy cares about the property looking good, but seems not to give a fig for its functionality or the well-being of those of us who must live here.

I want to go back to Cape Town. I really, really, do.

Friday, May 21, 2010

I am feeling a bit down today

I don’t know if it is chemical…a result of the meds I’ve been taking for what seems like forever…or I’m finally succumbing to the boredom and restlessness of being so immobile for so long, or if I’m starting to miss my husband who, as a result of a temporary promotion and a control-freak boss who has no perspective, has barely had the time to say two words to me in a whole week. Earlier in the week he had to go to Polokwane, which is about a four-hour drive into desolation, attend a meeting, then drive back home. He got up at 4 am, left here at 4:30 to go pick up the three colleagues who were also attending the meeting (he took my large, comfortable SUV because it was a trip out into the bundu), did not return home until after 6 pm and before he could get settled for a meal and some rest, got embroiled in a patently ridiculous (as in, a little common sense on the part of his boss would have prevented the entire problem) brouhaha that kept him on the phone and working until 10. I’m sorry, but that is just not acceptable to me…not only is that kind of a work day…18 freaking hours!...unacceptable, the man has a life outside of work and I have not given his boss permission to usurp my time with him!

I suppose the fact that he is going to Cape Town next week…and I am staying here…doesn’t help. I miss Cape Town, I miss my home there, I miss my friends, especially Sally. I’ve been up here for four months now, and so far nothing has happened to recommend it. I don’t like the weather, the crap infrastructure that keeps putting the power out, the water not running, the roads full of holes, the traffic lights that never seem to work, the continual public worker’s strikes…and I hate this house. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I haven’t detested a place this much since I lived in a tenement in Boston…even the old adobe out in the desert with no hot water and no refrigerator didn’t try my patience as much as this place does! Out there you expect vermin and trying conditions, especially since the place was practically free…here, we pay a premium rent for what we expected was premium digs, only to find it vermin infested and owned by someone who can’t be bothered to make sure the place was free of such nasties as roaches and rats before his tenants moved in. And who, after all, expects to pay high rents in a “posh” neighbourhood and share the premises with rats and roaches and find their lights and water cut off on an irregular but frequent basis? Not me, I can tell you that!

I am still having trouble sleeping…that could be a factor in my present melancholy. It has been getting better, but last night I woke up at 1 am to take my meds and couldn’t get back to sleep for an hour. An improvement over waking up at 3 and being unable to go back to sleep for the pain, of course, but still…what I wouldn’t give for six hours of uninterrupted sleep! It would have to improve my mood, wouldn’t it?

I have barely cooked in the last month and takeaways and prepared meals from the freezer section of the market are getting tiresome. My diet has changed dramatically…much less fruit and veggies simply because I can’t stand up long enough to prepare a full meal. Give me more than 15 minutes standing up and the foot starts to throb, especially in the three swollen spots that I assume are the places my tendons are inflamed. Sitting helps, but we had to leave a child’s birthday party early last week, even though I was sitting and my foot was propped up on a stool. Being unable to cook much…and the fact that the kitchen is down a daunting flight of stairs…has had a positive effect on my waistline, but I’m thinking the dearth of veggies and minimal fruit consumption probably has not had an equally salubrious effect on my nutrition and digestion.

The Yorkchop has been a terrific distraction and companion, but as cute and sweet and engaging as she is, she’s still just a dog and her attention span is limited as is her ability to engage in two-way interaction. Once she gets tired of playing tug or fetch, it’s over until she’s had enough of a snooze to recharge her batteries and refresh her attitude.

And so I’m bored and tired of being bored, I’m a little down because…well, I’m just wanting to have/do/get/experience more than the four walls of this room and the occasional foray down the mountainous stairs to the kitchen. Pity party? Yah, probably. It could be a whole lot worse…Hubby’s cousin, who is only 45, sneezed and blew out a vertebra in his lower spine a few weeks back. The doctors at the hospital said it was too severe an injury for a simple sneeze in a man his age and ran additional tests: he has bone marrow cancer. Like me, he has been laid up in bed for a month, but he’s also had to deal with radiation and chemo, as well as surgery for the vertebra and now he, too, is stuck in bed and bored. So, I acknowledge that it could be worse…a lot worse…but somehow contemplating the misfortunes of others just doesn’t lead me to a more upbeat mood.

I’ll get over it…I always do. But for today, I am feeling a little bit down.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Old age ain’t for sissies

I have been in near-constant pain for almost two months…on bed rest for nearly half of that now, and it is really, really getting old!

It all started on 12 March...Hubby and I went out for dinner and while awaiting dessert, I decided to make a trip to the loo. It being a balmy night (March is the end of summer in South Africa), we were sitting outside on the patio; the loo, however, was inside and, from the server’s directions, apparently at the back of the dimly lit dining room.

The floors were tile; there was a raised dining area to the left, accessed by two or three steps, also tile. They were also the same colour of tile as the main floor, they had no edging to indicate that there were steps there, and in the dim light, they blended right into the floor. I hit the steps with my left foot…which had only the flimsiest of sandal on it…and fell up the steps…leave it to me to find a way to not only fail to see some steps, but to manage to fall up them!

I really didn’t think I was badly hurt. OK, I had two small scrapes where my ankle and the top of my foot impacted the leading edge of the steps, but I neither reported it to the restaurant nor told my husband. I felt foolish, after all, tripping over steps because I was more focussed on finding that elusive ladies room than looking for virtually invisible obstacles in my path.

When I first started feeling pain, it wasn’t in my foot or ankle. Two days after I managed to embarrass myself in the restaurant, I awakened with what I thought was a sciatica attack. I’d only had sciatica a couple of times before and it had always resolved within 24 hours, following a good sleep, so I was puzzled when I awakened the following morning and not only was the pain still there, it was moving down my leg. Sciatica is the inflammation of the sciatic nerve which goes from the lower spine through the buttocks and down the back of the thigh. Not only was the pain still burning from my back, through my bum and down my thigh, it was moving further down my leg than any sciatica attack had ever gone before, and the pain was more diffuse than I remembered it. But, true to form, I just assumed it would get better in a day or two, as my aches and pains generally do, and ignored it. That, as it turns out, was the wrong thing to do.

Pretty soon the pain had gone down my leg to my foot, and from there, into my big toe. I knew it wasn’t gout…I’d been tested for gout and DVT (deep vein thrombosis) only a few months back. The foot started to swell up…and before long I was having pain so acute I couldn’t stand even the weight of a sheet on the skin. It burned, my skin was tender to the touch and just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse and I had to see a doctor about it, I caught the flu and my entire body ached so badly I couldn’t isolate the leg pain from the flu pain. I was a mess!

Slowly, the flu symptoms subsided, leaving me with the pain from my lower spine down to my big toe, but with a new twist: it began to spasm at night. Now, even with OTC codeine-and-paracetamol, I couldn’t sleep more than two to three hours at a stretch. Then one night Hubby woke up and found me sitting in the big chair in the bedroom, quietly massaging my foot and ankle, where the pain was the most acute, and silently crying. The following morning, after learning that the doctor wasn’t able to see me, we walked…well, he walked, I hobbled…into the ER at our nearest hospital, ready to put my misery out of me.

It was the 9th of April, nearly a month since I lost the skirmish with the stairs…but we still had not made a connection between a pain that seemed to start in my spine, radiating down my leg, to my klutzy moment at the restaurant. During this month we had driven down to Durban and back, viewed a dozen or more houses, tramped through several malls, and generally lived our normal life, sore leg and all. Every night I had gone to bed, expecting the “sciatica” to have taken its leave while I slept, and each morning I would awaken to the burning pain running down my leg, now with the addition of hot splinters of pain throughout my foot, ankle and great toe. It was time to get a proper diagnosis.

I’ve always felt quite comfortable in South African hospitals. I have never received anything less than first rate care, and usually more promptly than in American hospitals, too. The ER doctor was a pretty young blonde who listened well and asked the right kinds of questions. When I pulled up my jeans so she could see my foot, I saw the healing wounds caused by the stairs and, on the spur of the moment, told her about my clumsy meeting with the stairs. She duly noted it but, like me, was focussed on the pain radiating from my lower spine. She ordered a series of hip and back x-rays and, as an afterthought, ordered a couple of x-rays of the foot, “just in case,” she said.

At this juncture, I have to warn you about those automated blood pressure cuffs…they kept trying to get a blood pressure on me and the readings were stroke level! Now, I’m 63 and I’m fat…nobody expects my BP to be 120/60 any more…but they were getting readings in the 240/190 range and I knew that had to be wrong…over the past five years of so, I have consistently had readings in the 135/80 to 145/85, depending on how stressed I was at the time of my doctor’s visit. I almost titled this entry “Near Death by Sphygmomanometer” because I swear to you, that machine was out to kill me!

The nurse wrapped that cuff around my arm, switched on the machine and I knew almost immediately that something was wrong because it didn’t stop inflating until I was holding my breath and squirming against the pain. It started deflating, automatically searching for the arterial pulse that would give it its first reading but apparently is couldn’t find it, and the thing began inflating again! My fingers began to turn purple, my hand started to swell up and I could feel my eyeballs start popping out of my head. I cried out a couple of times and when nobody seemed to think anything of a patient writhing in pain and turning blue and purple over a blood pressure reading, I began to yell “Take it off! Take it off me!” Tears spouted out of my eyes and just as I was about to frantically claw it off my arm, one of the nurses announced a reading of 240/190 and the doctor nearly stroked out! Once the feeling came back into my hand I suggested that the reading was that high because the machine had nearly amputated my arm and the doctor suggested that maybe we should let the pain shot she had given me take effect and we’d try again after the x-rays.

Well, the x-rays were a revelation…they indicated I had some damage to some spinal joints…fairly common at my age…and there was narrowing in a couple of nerve channels in my lower spine, which surely explained my occasional bouts of sciatica. But the surprise came when they looked at the x-rays of my foot…not only did I have a seriously arthritic big toe, I had broken a bone in my foot, and that was likely the primary source of all my pain!

Well, as it turns out later, that was only part of the problem…the ER put a “backslab” half cast on my foot, told me to keep it elevated, and gave me a referral to an orthopaedist. Before they would let me go, however, they had to assure themselves that my blood pressure wasn’t going to make me keel over from a stroke in their hospital, so one of the nursing sisters began to wheel that monster machine over me and I felt myself go all balky. Shaking my head, I told the doctor I wasn’t going to submit to its not-so-tender-ministrations again. “I’m kind of afraid of it, after what it did to me earlier!” I told her. “Don’t you have an old fashioned hand pump one somewhere?” That send the staff scurrying around but sure enough, a manual sphygmomanometer was scrounged up and everyone heaved a sigh of relief when the doc gave my reading as being only slightly elevated, most likely because of the continuing pain, the shot they had given me having had no appreciable effect.

By the time I was able to get in to see the ortho, another two weeks had passed, weeks in which the pain in my leg and hip had pretty much subsided, but during which the pain in my foot and ankle had intensified. I was now unable to sleep more than a couple of hours at a stretch, despite the pain meds the ER doc had prescribed, and was in some degree of pain 24/7. The ortho said the bone was healing well…it was now about six weeks after I had had my losing altercation with those steps…and he took the back slab off, ordering me to buy a pair of athletic shoes with a sturdy arch support and to wear them when I was out and about. He further told me that I should be walking around…not too much…but to start exercising my foot and ankle with mild walking so that I didn’t develop thinning bones. And he gave me what he said was a stronger pain prescription and told me to come back in two weeks if I was still having pain.

OK, this guy is a specialist…a very expensive, Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh kind of specialist, who charges significantly more than our medical covers. When the two weeks was almost up and 1) the pain meds were essentially useless and 2) my foot hurt even worse and 3) I figured out for myself what was wrong with me and now knew what my course of treatment needed to be, we made an appointment with our new GP and took my aching foot and ankle for her to take a look at.

On 3 May I hobbled into her office, gave a brief rundown of my condition to date, then told her I thought I had a bad tendinitis, something I had suffered before…but not in my foot. My symptoms…including the “worse at night” phenomenon…were consistent with tendinitis and, when she saw and probed my foot, she agreed. But, before I could ask for the magic bullet that cures tendinitis in a matter of days…a cortisone shot into the affected area…she announced that, because my foot was still tender over the broken bone, cortisone was out of the question at this point in time. Cortisone, apparently, retards bone growth, as does aging, and so the bone needed a little more time to heal. But she seemed to have an idea of what had caused my various…and seemingly unconnected…pain experiences. She felt I really did have a form of sciatica, but one caused from the trauma of slamming my foot into those steps…the wounds, after all, were still visible six weeks later! The shock of connecting, full force, with those immovable steps (and tile over concrete is very unforgiving) probably sent a shock up my leg, causing some kind of trauma to the nerve, which explains why the sciatica didn’t go away overnight as usual. The way my foot connected with the steps caused it to violently snap back into an exaggerated ballerina’s “en pointe” position, aggravating the tendons in the ankle and top of the foot. One of those tendons anchors near the base of the big toe, which is already inflamed from arthritis, causing even more pain. Don’t ya just love hindsight? Three more weeks, she told me. Three weeks of anti-inflammatories, pain meds, and “keep that foot elevated!”

That was two weeks ago. My next appointment is 25 May, and I’m keeping that foot elevated. Unfortunately, however, either I’m resistant to the pain meds that have been prescribed for me or I’m just a wuss because the best I get is a dull throb and the other night it was so bad that it the pain woke me from a sound sleep and I sat up for over an hour, massaging the sore tendons, waiting for the next dose of the pain meds to throttle it back down to that dull throb, and trying to cry quietly so that I didn’t wake Hubby…it’s not his foot, it’s not his pain, and he has to go to work in the morning!

So, that’s what I have been up to for the last few weeks…hope you have been doing better!