Dear Ms. Shednails

October 2012

In another lifetime I will solicit complaint letters that people have written to airlines, banks, hospitals, electronics companies, landlords, . . . I’ll make a book. Not of letters that have “worked” or that haven’t; my goal will be to present a portrait of our times by means of this particular literary genre. Back in the day, when I was between about 20 and 45, I was a champion complaint-letter writer. My letters were frequent, long, witty and effective (if the goal is to get money back or free stuff). Nicely I had a brief slump after reading an article in a financial-advice magazine about how to write a good complaint letter. The author, who probably was so busy earning a living writing advice columns she didn’t have time to explore any of the subjects she was giving advice about, proposed that at the end of the letter one should specify the redress sought—$100 refund, free tickets or whatever. I had never done this, and the moment I started doing it I stopped getting refunds and free tickets. I did, however, learn a valuable lesson about advice, and, as I will touch on again below, I think I learned how to write in part thanks to all the practice I got complaining—a.k.a., beating my head against the wall. (Those who like there to be logics, explanations, may have already found one here. If a letter asks for a specific compensation for claimed abuse, the letter may appear to have been crafted just to get the compensation. When no request is made, the letter writer may appear to be genuinely upset and thus more deserving of compensation. It is also the case—first rule of complaint-letter writing: Don’t bother writing to anyone but the CEO. A letter to “customer service” is a waste of a good stamp.)

I return to this subject now, 57 years old, because, after a very long hiatus, I have finally written another complaint letter. I can well imagine that were I to send this letter I would get back the $50 in question, but it is precisely for this reason that I do not want to send the letter. The company in question owes my wife and me something on the order of $100,000 (and they owe similar amounts to the leaseholders of 4,400 other apartments). I realize that it may be un-American to try to hold a human being, even a CEO who was involved in the formation of the company in question, accountable for the thievery of (or environmental degradation caused by) the “corporate person” of which s/he is only a temporary employee, however replete with stock options, private jet and golden parachute. Nor am I unaware that solidarity involves accepting that many people these days, CEOs included, have to do nasty or absurd tasks in order to earn their livings. Nevertheless, I would not like to give a Ms. or Mr. Shednails an opportunity to feel “nice” or to feel that the score was somehow settled because s/he had forgiven a $50 charge for a mistake I made (and then quickly corrected). And, again, I am now more interested in the complaint letter as an artifact. It offers a glimpse of the relationship between individuals and institutions, and among individuals, in our complex society. It calls attention to the extent to which, living under capitalism, we are tangled up in money.

’Nuff said. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

1 October 2012

Polly Shednails
President and CEO
Rock on Top of Rock Real Estate
Rapacio, US

Dear Ms. Shednails,

In middle age I have given up writing letters of this nature, for all they were one of the great occupations of my youth and a great means of developing my editorial skills. But your company’s letter of 25 September last, announcing a $50 charge for a rent check of mine (“returned by the bank as an unpaid item”), is so precious, let’s call it, that I cannot refrain from the following response.

  1. The date on your letter indicates that it was written after I, realizing my mistake, submitted another check for the rent. (Would this constitute an error on your office’s part for which your company would owe me $50 for my inconvenience?)
  2. As a court has ruled, and an appeals court confirmed, over the course of many years the landlords for my apartment, and for the apartments of thousands of other people, were charging rents to which they were not legally entitled. As my wife and I were renting two apartments, the amount of the overcharges for the four years covered under the statute exceeds $75,000, and the interest alone on this sum is rather north of $50. However, and although the ruling was handed down some years ago now, we have yet to receive a penny of compensation. (Perhaps the $50 charge could be subtracted from this larger sum?)
  3. Some years ago the state legislature, many of whose members get more money from the real-estate industry than from any other interest group, set a statute of limitations for overcharges by landlords. As a result, the owners of my wife and my apartments (and of the thousands of others in the complex) are liable only for the last four years of overcharges leading up to the court decision, when in fact the overcharging went on for something like eleven years. With your business school training, and given that you may well have been connected  to one of the landlords and state-legislator bribers referred to above, you are well positioned to appreciate that the $75,000+ my wife and I are now owed is quite a few tens of thousands of dollars short of the amount we were illegally overcharged.
  4. I recently received a letter from the new managing agent informing me that, even during the past few years, after my rent had supposedly been recalibrated to accord with the law, I was being overcharged. The amount involved was relatively small, about $1,500, and it has been refunded to me, though again without penalty or interest. (In this day and age when banks get to borrow from the government interest free and also pay no interest to their depositors, perhaps I should accept that $50 is a reasonable fee for having, albeit unwittingly, allowed my landlord the use of $1,500 of my money for a year or two.)
  5. As you may recall, your company, or one of the companies you or someone else formed or worked for previously, before names were changed and various deeds and bonds were bought and sold and dragged through the courts—this company offered a promotion: If I, or one of my fellow tenants, found someone new to sign a lease, both we and the newcomer would get $500. When I indeed found a new tenant, however, the $500 was not forthcoming, either to me or to the new tenant. The new tenant and I had, over the course of several months, to send a series of e-mails and place a series of phone calls—to the managing agency, the tenants association and the local city councilperson’s office—before the money was produced.
  6. It so happens that the day on which I received your letter was also the day I realized that my son’s bike had been stolen from the storage area. When I called the security staff to report this theft, I was impressed (a) by the fact that the officer did not seem to know what is generally known, that there has been a rash of bicycle thefts from storage areas in my vicinity; and (b) by the evident disinterest of him and his colleagues in addressing the problem.

If at any point in the future you should find yourself wondering why the tenants of the property so mistrust and scorn the management, or why, more generally, landlords and people who work in the real-estate business are held in such low regard, perhaps this brief letter will prove of some use.

Yours sincerely,

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