Tales From the Keystone State: My Father The Landlord (and The Man Who Lived Under A Psychic Shop)

My father inherited a couple apartment buildings from my grandfather when he died a few years before I was born. One was in a borough called Dormont where my father grew up, and the rest were located in downtown Pittsburgh.

Taking care of these buildings was my father’s career and as a child, I’d sometimes accompany my dad to work on building maintenance.

The first building in Dormont was only a street away from my father’s old home. Directly across the trolly tracks, it was a grand red brick structure that stood three floors high. On the bottom there was an entryway and a patio, both painted a light grayish-blue.

The interior of the building had light gray walls with a black and white checkerboard floor. It wasn’t exactly rundown, but it was an old building that had seen better days. My father and I had to venture deep into the depths of the basement to grab the salt and snow shovels in the winter and to check the building’s boiler.

The boiler room was something straight out of the film Eraserhead, or perhaps even the scene at the end of Silence of the Lambs when Clarice is being chased in the dark by Buffalo Bill. It was very industrial. There were never any lights on, except for a small lightbulb in the room that dangled from a cord on the ceiling. The only sounds were the low humming and hissing of the boiler. I could never quite shake off the feeling that someone was down there with us.

One of the apartments was home to Tom and Sandra. They were an older couple that had been there before I was even born. They remembered when my grandpa had died. Tom and Sandra would greet my dad and I on the front step when we were clearing the snow or sweeping the dirt off the sidewalk. They would reek of cigarettes, and a calm wisp of smoke could be always be seen floating off the ashtray that rested on the patio’s overlook. I remember going into their apartment’s living room once or twice, which laid mostly bare except for a couch, a recliner, and an old television that sat in the corner of the room. The slightest light would come in through the blinds, giving the room a light brown glow.

Behind the building was where Dale lived. Dale was a tall, skinny man with a weathered face and glasses. He was in his late forties or early fifties. He had been renting there for a decade or two. He was funny and a little odd. His apartment was something of a hole in the wall; a ground floor apartment with a shady little patio looking out towards the makeshift gravel parking lot that was filled with overgrown plants and vines. He seemed like he mostly kept to himself.

In downtown Pittsburgh, there were three small business properties my dad owned. The first was a tall two story building, which had a large open space on the bottom and a loft apartment above it. The loft was always exciting because you could slide the giant door on the one side and have a nice view looking out towards the city’s South Side.

Damien was the first person I remember living in the loft. He ran a graphic arts and printing company. Before he moved to a different part of the city along with the business itself, the company was located right around the corner in the second building my father owned. Once Damien moved out of the loft apartment, a couple moved in and ran a photography studio there.

On the bottom there was a beer distributor. It was always an interesting site to behold as a kid. There were mountains of cases of beer that lined the walls and stacked high nearly touching the ceiling. There were a multitude of employees loading cases of beer onto trucks. The place had a distinct sour smell of cigarettes and beer soaked cardboard.

Currently, the building where Damien’s business was is a thrift store, and the beer distributor is now a drug rehabilitation office.

The third and final building was home to a Psychic Shop, which sat empty in purgatory for quite some time.

The Psychic Shop always had an unsettling aura. The store was rented by a couple that lived in Louisiana. The tenant would pay her rent, but never visited or terminated the lease. At one point the tenant, her husband, and her daughter lived there since the building doubled as both a business and an apartment.

When nobody was there, it felt deeply uncomfortable. It was very quiet. The antiques and marble statues in the windowsill would start to gather dust. Like the boiler room in Dormont, it felt almost like I wasn’t alone. And perhaps I wasn’t.

In the basement was an entire array of tools, woodcutting equipment, and a personal workshop that my dad used occasionally. There was even at one point someone who lived in the rooms towards the back of the basement who maintained the building and used those tools. His name was U.J., short for Uncle John. U.J. was my dad’s uncle, and my great uncle.

To this day, U.J. remains a mysterious figure; someone who I would see infrequently and whose life I still don’t have a clear picture of. He had a wrinkly face, a rough stubble, and a deep gravely voice from smoking too much. He too, like many people in this story, reeked of burnt nicotine.

U.J. was something of a bachelor. He was a former Army veteran. He was a great handyman. He loved to go out dancing. He had multiple partners in his life. He was very funny. He loved his cigars and his alcohol. He was smart and always thinking of a way he could earn his next couple of bucks.

U.J. though also had his flaws. As he approached old age he had heart problems. He would make money but lose it very fast. He took part in running a local cemetery, but had to declare bankruptcy due to mismanagement of finances. He liked cigars and alcohol maybe a little too much. He went through multiple divorces and had kids with multiple women. He wasn’t very close with those children.

My grandpa loved his brother U.J. very much and did everything he could for him. My grandpa bailed him out of jail a couple times, gave him money, and let him live in the basement of the Psychic Shop at no charge because at the toughest point of his life U.J. simply had nowhere else to go. My grandpa assigned him to work on the building’s maintenance, set up a living situation there for him, and bought him all the possessions that he needed to live there for the rest of his days.

I was never sure what U.J. did all day. I always thought he just walked around the city and found something to do or someone to dance with in the evenings. Occasionally, U.J. would visit us at our place and join us for dinner. He would humor us with his stories. U.J. was one of those people that you wish you got to know a little better or at the very least understand who they really were. Unfortunately, long before I could get to that point, his health started catching up to him.

U.J. broke his hip one day, and had the option to get surgery. U.J’s heart was bad though, so he was prone to death by anesthesia. Miraculously, U.J. lived through the surgery. From then on, stairs gave him trouble and he had to be put on oxygen occasionally and when he slept. Thankfully too, his health care was covered by his veteran status and my father would help him as much as he could.

One day, the veteran’s hospital called my father to say that they hadn’t heard from U.J. in a while and it might be a good idea to check on him. My dad had the bad feeling on his way driving to the Psychic Shop that U.J. had died. He was correct, and found U.J. lying peacefully on his bed with his oxygen mask on, dead due to a possible heart attack.

Afterwards, that basement and the entire building when it was empty didn’t feel right and sat in an uncomfortable silence. Every time I walked through the empty upstairs hallway or had to grab something downstairs, there was a force emanating from the back rooms I couldn’t quite explain.

I later talked to my father on the phone to fill in the blanks about U.J. There were many things I got right and many things I didn’t. Although it happened many years after his death, it felt right to humanize and learn more about someone I really didn’t know too much about.

In learning more about U.J., I have come to the conclusion that perhaps we don’t know the people around us as well as we think. Sure, to us the people in our lives are referred to as our parents, our friends, our neighbors, our teachers, or our father’s tenants.

It is only we when become older do they start to transform into actual people. We start seeing past faces and instead start seeing separate human beings that have their own consciousnesses, problems and thoughts like ourselves.

What I find especially fascinating about me reconnecting with someone who I knew that passed away is that the finite nature of our lives may not exactly be finite. U.J’s spirit radiated far and with a powerful enough connection that it reconnected with me years later and gave me the desire to know more about him.

U.J.’s soul is proof that even after death there is still the opportunity to learn more about one another once we’re gone. Our souls are always radiating through the cosmos due to the lasting impact we have on those we know during our time here.

It is through those people that we gain immortality.

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