FRESH YARN presents:

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.

Bill and his family came to dominate our lives for much of the school year. He was unquestionably a guy's guy -- a former member of an Arizona biker gang -- whom God decided to teach some hilarious cosmic lesson by banishing him to a house full of women, with no male heir. As such, Bill enjoyed the social company of other guys, and didn't seem to mind that my roommates and I barely filled this requirement. Bill also possessed an irrational belief that his family needed round-the-clock protection for his girls, and part of our arrangement as his tenants was an implicit understanding that we would serve as protectors of his wife and girls in Bill's absence. Though we never spoke of it, this was a task my roommates and I were absolutely not up to. I used to tell myself, if there is an intruder while Bill is away, I hope he's armed and I hope he kills me first so I don't have to explain my failure to Bill Cobb.

My self-assured incompetence as a guard dog hardly mattered, anyway, as Bill's wife was perfectly capable of protecting herself. Bill had bought her an assault rifle for their one-year wedding anniversary, explaining that this was the best possible weapon for a woman of her size and skill. She wasn't a great shot, Bill told us, but she didn't really need to be, as the gun had a 10-foot spray radius up to 25 feet. My father doesn't even know my mother's bathrobe size.

A single year of living below and behind Bill Cobb produced a wealth of evidence to establish his character but I think there are three Bill Cobb incidents that can do the job much more efficiently, should I ever be called upon to testify.

The Madonna Incident
Bill would frequently knock on the door between his home and our apartment to "hang" with us. It was usually late at night, during the week, and he was always drunk. When we heard his knocks, one of my roommates would grab the TV remote and change the channel from A&E or Lifetime or whatever we were watching, to MTV. Because MTV had girls on it, and girls have tits. And I once read a Masters & Johnson report that provided research indicating men often appreciate the presence of tits when grouped together socially. When Bill would spy the TV screen -- and it could have been Whitney Houston or Angie Dickinson or Barbara Bush -- he'd identify whichever woman was featured on it and deliver a variation on this signature line: "Hmmph…Madonna. I'd do her…AGAIN!"

The Treehouse Incident
Toward the end of the school year, I found Bill in his backyard in the middle of the night, tearing away a section of two-by-fours from his daughters' tree house. He was armed -- the handle of a police issue handgun peered above his waistband - for reasons I still cannot understand. I asked Bill what he was up to, and he told me he'd been meaning to make some improvements on it for a while. Specifically, he was making modifications to create a clear line of sight into the tree house from his bedroom.

He could see that I was puzzled by this, so he provided an unsolicited explanation. "Here's the deal. I want to be able to see what my kids are up to. My oldest, Rhiannon, has been hanging out with boys lately and you know how it is. She's at that age where she's getting an itchy snatch." Rhiannon was nine years old.

The Town Meeting Incident
It has probably already become obvious that Bill and his family were considered a scourge on our quiet, historically preserved college town. Bill came down to our place one night, clearly distraught. Earlier that evening, in front of a full town meeting, the mayor publicly referred to Bill as a second-class citizen. We all pretended shock, making sure to sprinkle in a ton of swear words, in another example of our constant effort to convince Bill we were supportive men, and not just the tremendous bunch of pussies we appeared to be by all outward appearances. "Why, that peckerhead!" I roared, dribbling some Seagram's Red Wine Cooler down the front of my Edie Brickell t-shirt. "What did you do when the mayor said that?"

And this is exactly what Bill did, in our kitchen: grabbing himself by the crotch of his jeans, he said, "I told him, 'second class citizen' this!"

Yes, Bill, that ought to show them.


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