Red the Rent Man

By Tom McGowan

In 1978, Malinda and I moved into Grant Park, a Victorian neighborhood in Atlanta. It had seen better days, but we had the sense that it was going to come back. This has come to pass, but we miss some of the local characters who were our neighbors in the early, scruffier days.

One of these colorful denizens was called Red. He lived on Pavillion Street, two doors down the hill from us. He was known to all as Red, but his full name was “Red the Rent Man.” He collected the rent for a landlord who owned 30 or so houses in the area that had been subdivided for single-room occupancy. Red’s secondary duty was keeping peace among the tenants, many of whom had substance abuse problems and characterological quirks that sometimes interfered with their exercise of social skills.

A big man, Red was about 6’2″ and well over 200 lbs. His normal attire was a pair of square-back overalls with one strap hanging loose. We got along well as neighbors, although his southern accent and my northern clip complicated our communication. It must also be said that Red’s lack of teeth didn’t help matters.

Was his hair red? No, and there was not much of it. He had rosacea, an inflammation of the skin which resulted in his florid complexion, a condition perhaps exacerbated by hot coffee or other drinking.

He was an entrepreneur of sorts. At one point he had several businesses going in the collective back yard of several rental houses down the hill from our place, the centerpiece of which was a full-sized used school bus. But the bus finally had to go in order to make way for his brick-recycling operation. He hired local pensioners to chip mortar off bricks that had come from demolition of old houses. They could then be sold for new construction. He had thousands of bricks and lots of workers, chipping, chipping, chipping away.

One day I was in our back yard and looked down into Red’s work yard. Red looked up and called to me, “Tohm, wannbahsmbreehs?” “Red, what was that?” I yelled back, baffled. More loudly, he repeated, “Wannbahsmbreeahs?”

His lack of teeth and accent were really making this a tough one. I said, once more, “Red, I don’t understand you.” An even louder repetition of WANNBAHSMBREEEAAHS? did not fix the problem. So I sauntered down so I could be face to face with him.

By lip reading and context, I found that this was a business offer: DID I WANT TO BUY SOME BRICKS? It turned out the city had gotten on his case about running a brickyard in a residential area, and he had to get rid of the last batch of 500. Home they came. They are now part of two chimneys and a brick wall on Pavillion St, a reminder that communicating with your neighbors, even when it’s hard work, is always worthwhile.

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