Tribute to a departed neighbor

Sharing my personal memory and tribute to Frank P. Heckman, my neighbor and former landlord, who passed in September 2023 at the age of 91.

Frank was what I might call one of the last of the old-school landlords.

Pardon the rambling personal background, but it becomes relevant to the story.

I moved to Florida in 2010 from Austin TX, where I had been living for 15 years. For the last 10 of those years, I had been living in a 10-foot travel trailer in a cute little mom & pop RV park. Nestled under the oaks of South Austin, just a stone’s throw from downtown Austin. And the rent was still under $400 when I left. (That RV park’s landlord was, and is, one of the last of the old-school landlords too, God/dess bless him!)

Although I had a wonderful life in Texas, I had strong, solid reasons for moving to Daytona Beach. That’s a story for another post.

For my first 3 years in Florida, I lived in Ormond by the Sea. That was fun at the time, as OBTS felt like a cute little surf town back then, and I was emotionally recovering from a bunch of stuff, including a business failure (which turned out to be temporary but was nonetheless catastrophic) and my Dad’s sudden passing (which was even more catastrophic). And, I got to be very close friends with the amazing lady of the house where I ended up renting a room in OBTS. (hi Roseanna!)

But ultimately, as a city girl at heart, I was drawn to the more urban environment of Daytona Beach. In the summer of 2013 I got a part-time job as a pedicab driver (the pedicab garage used to be conveniently located on East ISB), and then I walked around the neighborhood seeing if there were any nearby apartments. I stumbled right onto Frank’s place on the corner of Harvey and South Oleander.

There was a sign saying “apartment for rent,” and there was a man sitting out on the porch. He was friendly and turned out to be the landlord. I asked him how much is the apartment. The price was right ($500, the kind of rent that doesn’t even exist anymore around here, or maybe most anywhere in the USA).

And there were no security deposits or background checks or anything. He only charged me a tiny deposit for Starshine, my sweet and adorable feline roommate.

I know I’m going to catch a lot of flack from some people for saying that not charging a security deposit or background check was a good thing. But if you’ve ever been a financially precarious renter, or somebody with a crime who has served their time and is just looking to move on, you understand that this is a reality for many people. (I myself do not have a record, but I have every sympathy with those who do, and who have served their time and are just trying to get back to normal life.)

And I know too that I will catch some flack from the same people for saying it was good that Frank charged such modest rents. I actually had some acquaintances say out loud to me that landlords needed to charge at least $800 for a one-bedroom apartment, because any tenant who couldn’t pay that much was a “lowlife” and you wouldn’t want that person in your neighborhood.

(To which I would silently cringe, and start to go along with their assessment, beat myself up for being a “lowlife” who has made “bAd lIFe cH0iCeS.” Because if I made good life choices I would be middle-class wealthy, right? Took me a while to keep myself from going down that rabbit hole when somebody would say something like that.)

Financial precarity and the essential role of old-school landlords aside …

The fact of the matter is that some of Frank’s other tenants were at times challenging to deal with. People were drinking dangerous amounts, and doing some illegal drugs, and maybe in some cases not being on the meds they’d been prescribed.

But, I always thought of that more as an indictment of our society’s lack of mental-health services and safety nets than of those people themselves. And, at heart, they were good people and at the end of the day I enjoyed having them around regardless of the disruption.

Years later, living in a nice sturdy concrete-block house across the street that I was able to purchase through no achievement of my own, I still am strongly supportive of old-school landlords, and still a strong advocate for renters. And always will be!!

Sometimes in a neighborhood, the renters have been living in the same place for 15 or 20 years or more! If a renter is fortunate enough to find a good place and a good landlord, the renter can actually sometimes give more stability to a neighborhood’s social fabric than soi-disant “solid citizen” homeowners who have multiple options and maybe multiple houses.

And although some of my fellow tenants and their guests were sometimes scary or otherwise problematic (such as one time when one of the next-door unit neighbors’ “houseguests” barged into my apartment in the middle of the night, and I ended up brandishing a chair at him to shoo him out), I always felt more of a kinship with them than I did with the “respectable citizens’ brigade” who tried to shut down Frank’s fourplex to get us “disreputable people” out of there.

(The members of the respectable citizens’ posse didn’t end up having much longevity; they sold their houses and left the neighborhood. Lightweights! Meanwhile most of the renters I knew back then still live in the neighborhood. Other than those who have passed, which unfortunately are quite a few. Mainly casualties of rough living on the margins.)

Back to Frank though. He was fond of saying, if I can’t look into someone’s eyes and tell if they’re a good tenant or not, then I’m not much of a landlord. And you know what, those somewhat challenging people notwithstanding, Frank was actually mostly right. People at least mostly paid their rent on time, and because most all of us were in a precarious economic position, there wasn’t much tenant turnover so from a landlord standpoint it wasn’t so bad.

I always did my best to be a good tenant, was always on time for the rent except for one month when I just barely could get out of bed and I had to give myself some kind of shot of ambition just to finally pull it together.

(OK now let’s tell the full truth. If you will further indulge me for a side story. It wasn’t me who gave myself a shot of ambition. It was a total stranger who just happened to come to my door, and we started chatting and she offered me a job at her highly popular and successful, quintessentially Daytona Beach business, and even though she had no reason to trust me, she fronted me the late rent that I owed so I could immediately set things right with my patient and/or forgetful landlord. (Just like there are old-school landlords, there are also old-school employers, like Barbara with her motorcycle-patches-and-sewing shop. And underneath the veneer of proper official correct life with its background checks and its written leases and its job application forms, the world runs on the unofficial, rogue beneficence of these two undervalued and unsung occupational categories.))

Frank was always cool about letting me have a roommate. I had a succession of several different roommates helping me share the rent during my time renting from Frank. Most of us were people who were maybe students, working part time so they could do their art or their small business, people on disability who had fallen on hard times, etc. So being able to split even the low rent was pretty much a necessity.

Frank was a friendly sort, who always welcomed people, including his tenants, to come sit on his porch and drink a coffee with him, or later in the day, a beer.

Back when he was still driving, he was generous with his vehicle, offering tenants rides to the supermarket and so on.

Even after his dementia started to get noticeable, and he was no longer able to drive or get out much, Frank remained a major figure in the neighborhood. He was always the guy calling hello and having that ever-inviting porch. So many people in the neighborhood miss him.

As his dementia progressed, Frank was assigned a county-appointed guardian, who were lovely people who collected the rents and kept up the place, and quickly fell every bit as much in love with Frank as all of us had.

And, in the last few weeks of his life, when he was in hospice care (getting to be at home as he had wished), all of the caregivers were charmed by him.

Any of us should be should be so lucky as to make so much of a difference in the lives of our community.

And, we should never underestimate the value and importance of neighborhood cohesion. A lot of the evil in the world could be greatly eased if there were more truly caring neighbors like Frank Heckman, spending time on their front porches and keeping an eye on things and saying hello to everyone, friend and stranger alike.