He was playing the violin, standing in the gridlock of cars on Highway 50 in California, the sky behind him an ugly orange.
Traffic was at a standstill, refugees from South Lake Tahoe stuck there, forced to evacuate Monday from the Caldor Fire roaring toward their homes. So he got out of his car and fiddled as homes burned.
The image was so good, the metaphor so on point, that at least two newspapers ran with the photo, which then popped up across social media.
Similar images of people leaving home, perhaps forever (and perhaps sans the violin), have played out across the world, from those who escaped the watery, windy wrath of Hurricane Ida this weekend to the last people aboard the last cargo plane out of Afghanistan on Monday.
To people who have struggled to stay in their homes during the pandemic who now face losing those homes in some parts of the country now that the federal eviction moratorium has been lifted.
Home defines us. It’s where we hang our hats. It’s where the heart is. It’s sweet.
I’ve thought a lot about home lately, the importance of it, the need of it, the ephemeral nature of it these days for both those forced to leave with what they can carry and those who cannot leave at all.
For whatever reason, the Journal has received several emotional messages from people who find themselves in the latter category. Complaints have included not being allowed to keep a service animal at an apartment complex, not having air conditioning fixed for weeks at another, and not being accommodated when the tenant’s apartment at a fourplex was damaged by an explosion in the unit directly below.
And then there is Brittany and Derek Hernandez, parents of two boys ages 6 and 8 and a 2-year-old daughter. Brittany, a house cleaner, and Derek, a roofing salesman, have worked hard to keep a roof over their family’s heads. The owners of the home they were renting recently decided to sell the property, so they were forced to find a new place in a hurry.
They decided on The Towers, a towering – by New Mexico standards – seven story, two-building complex on Montgomery east of San Mateo NE that boasts “welcoming and stylish” amenities including indoor and “shimmering” outdoor pools, sauna and hot tub, social center, fitness center, ample balconies, gourmet kitchens and spacious wall-to-wall closets.
Or so its website promises.
Of all the places he looked at, Derek said, The Towers had the roomiest units. For $1,000 a month, he could rent a three-bedroom, three-bath luxury apartment “home,” as the units are called.
“There weren’t many places available like that and we needed a place fast, so we signed the lease,” he said.
That was in March. The Hernandezes said their unit was undergoing renovations but were told the fixes would be finished after they moved in.
Six months later, those fixes haven’t happened and the problems have grown worse.
Two of the three bathrooms have large holes in the ceilings, exposing pipes, rotted wood, soggy sheetrock and mold.
Since July, the holes have been leaking, presumably from the bathroom on the fourth floor above their unit on the third floor. The Hernandezes say they’re afraid to know exactly what it is that is leaking.
Derek said he can see mice crawling inside the holes.
“If I don’t see the mice, I hear them, fighting, chewing something,” he said.
In one of the bathrooms, a light fixture dangles from electrical cords. Closet doors have yet to be installed in bedrooms and a hallway. Roaches abound.
That shimmering pool? The Hernandezes said it never opened this summer, and the indoor pool has been closed awaiting some sort of inspection.
But it gets worse.
Starting about Aug. 15, the unit lacked hot water, and the Hernandezes said they believe their entire building is without hot water. They say the apartment management won’t pro-rate their rent as a result because tenants still have access to hot water by signing up to shower in an empty unit in the other building or waiting in line for a shower in the pool locker room.
“Well, first of all I have children and I’m not putting them into that type of situation for a shower,” Brittany said.
And second of all? The entire Hernandez family has COVID-19.
“There’s no way that we would be able to use any type of outside amenities even if we wanted to, which we don’t,” she said.
Brittany was the first to get sick. Then down went Derek. Then each child. They tested positive earlier this month, still don’t feel well and are in quarantine. Neither adult had been vaccinated.
The property is managed by Chamberlin and Associates of Chandler, Arizona. After repeated calls and messages, a woman named Hope finally called me back and explained that her company took over management of The Towers in June and that she was not aware of any complaints but would look into them. She said a lawyer would call me for further comment. So far, he hasn’t.
But, a day after I spoke with Towers management, the hot water was restored and the Hernandezes finally heard from managers as well about the status of their rental.
“It’s a little crazy how fast we had water yesterday,” Brittany said.
She’ll take it.
For now, for better or worse, this is home. May they find happiness there soon.
And may all those who are displaced find their place to hang their hats and hold their hearts.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.