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A Man of Great Principles
By Todd Levin

Bill Cobb was a redneck son of a bitch. He was also my first landlord, in my first apartment, and meeting him marked my first lesson in learning how surprisingly rewarding it can be to shrug off responsibilities until the very last minute.

I think I've always had a lot of ambition, but I've never really been much of a go-getter. A lot of people mistakenly believe there is no difference between being ambitious and being a go-getter, but there is. Here's an example. A go-getter is that teenager with a part-time, after-school job at Hot Topic or The Mayor of Pretzelville or some other soul-chipping shopping mall kiosk, where he swallows his pride to sock away enough money for a used Hyundai. An ambitious person will slave away at the very same part-time, after-school job, perhaps even for that very same Hyundai, but then he'll get distracted and squander all of his money on the world's largest Nestlé Crunch Bar. I remember reading a story about a man in Germany who placed an ad in a local paper, seeking someone to murder him and then eat him. The guy who placed that ad was extremely ambitious. And the guy who answered it? He was a real go-getter.

At my small town college the off-campus housing was very limited, which meant the go-getters got bragging rights on all the great apartments while the ambitious-yet-lazy people, like myself, were saddled with the dregs. But who cares, because the shitty apartments come with all the great anecdotes. Think about it: when someone tells you how they lucked into a cheap, rent-controlled apartment in the West Village with a working fireplace, located above a delicious free pie shop and kissing booth, you don't want to hear the story, mostly because all you can think about is how much you hate them and their good fortune. But when someone tells you they found a family of possum living in their ventilation system and their horrible landlord insisted on removing their rotted corpses with a plastic shopping bag and a Rubbermaid spatula, suddenly you're all ears.

By the time my friends and I finally got around to hunting for living arrangements, most of the apartments still available were either several miles from campus, or built over Indian burial grounds. The ads for these places were pathetic, as they tried to compensate for their egregious shortcomings with impossibly Pollyanna sentiments. The ads would include statements like, "No windows. Perfect for Draculas!" or "Great neighborhood. Almost no one is old enough to remember the child murderer who used to terrorize this block." Some of the apartments had even less to recommend, but that didn't stop the crooked landlords from trying. For instance, an ad for one place we looked at just said, "Toilet!!!" followed by three exclamation points, without bothering to qualify the subject.

Finally, after a dismal search, we found a place that wasn't prohibitively far from campus and, more importantly, its ad was refreshingly free of bullshit. This is how we met Bill Cobb. Bill was a wiry little guy, maybe in his late 30s, though it was hard to tell as most of his face was hidden behind a full, ginger-colored beard. His eyes were intensely blue, and danced around in the sockets like a couple of tabs of ecstasy. And he greeted us with a beer in one hand, and a cigarette in the other. We'd learn much later that the presence of these items was not a coincidence - they were Bill's permanent accessories, and were sometimes worn in combination with a handgun tucked into the waistband of his blue jeans on what I suppose was Bill's version of "casual Fridays."

Not surprisingly, the apartment was a dump -- a ground-level add-on with construction paper walls, attached to the back of Bill's residence, where he lived with his wife and three young daughters. As Bill walked us through the apartment, he spoke very little, motioning with his cigarette to a sink or the Salvation Army couch that came with the place, whether we wanted it or not. And, after our quick tour was complete, Bill tugged at his beer and said only this: "I'll be honest. You guys seem like a decent bunch of shits. So if you want the place it's yours." I loved this man. He made me hold his beer while he co-signed the lease.

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