Thursday, August 11, 2011

Chapter 44 – Worms

Owen picked up Latasha’s grandson, Bryant, and then picked up Nola for 7:30AM. Nola jumped in the back seat of the truck. He took her for coffee at a shop on Jefferson Avenue and smiled to himself as he watched her breathe in the scent and relax the warm of the cup in her hand. Then they made their way to the first uptown house where Joe was waiting.
Nola got out of the truck and said, “Morning Joe. Thank you for coming with us.”
“You’re kidding right? I wouldn’t miss seeing you handle LeBlanc for the world.”
She smiled and said, “WE’re going to handle LeBlanc.” Then “Shall we get started?”
Joe nodded and he and Nola went off to walk around the property. Owen and Bryant took site measurements. It was a typical uptown shotgun double, strip of green space between the side walk and the street big enough for a crepe myrtle, citrus tree or fast growing fringe tree. There was a small front yard with enough room for a tree or small bush. There needed to be space for the incredibly large postKatrina garbage cans that wouldn’t fit down narrow walkways along each side of the house. There was a small, sad, empty back yard.
Joe looked at the back yard and said, “Not much to work with.”
Nola nodded and said, “Well, not much but something. Is this one of the houses you and Owen have worked on already?”
“Yes. How did you know that?”
“The A/C units are on the roof, right?”
“It’s a signature design feature of Owen’s that I personally like because it stops what little yard we have here from being completely taken over by the air handling units.”
Joe nodded, “And I always thought that Owen was a little silly to do it. But lots of people go for it these days so their A/C won’t be messed up by minor flooding. I never realized how it changed what you could do with a yard.”
“Here’s what I think we should do. Put up a privacy fence between the 2 halves. Leave a small bit of open ground on each side of the fencing and plant a flowering vine, jasmine is essentially evergreen. Then in each corner leave a slightly curved triangular area and plant a citrus – Navel Orange, Lemon or Satsuma. We can edge with blue daze or oregano and mulch like crazy.
On each side of the steps we can either go tropical with Elephant Ears or Mediterranean with Rosemary and Roses. Another option is to expand the steps lengthwise so they can be used for "stoop-sitting" and not interfere with traffic in and out of the house. I'll leave that for you and Owen to decide. Maurice can work his magic with a stamped and stained-like-brick concrete courtyard. The vine will make the yard feel green. The tree will be interesting and eventually provide some shade and the courtyard will make the small space useful.”
“I like it. Simple. Functional. Easy to maintain.”
“Ready to go up front?”
Owen and Bryant were making their way down the alleyway. As they squeezed by each other Owen put his hand around her waist and Nola smiled and said, “I'm seeing one of Maurice’s courtyards in the back. Make sure your measurements will satisfy the master.”
He hugged her lightly and said, “Ok, Chief.”
Bryant's eyebrows rose up and Joe nodded as if to say, Yep, they’re an item.
Nola was standing on the front porch looking things over. She finally said, “I think that the garbage cans can go on each side of the porch. They will discourage folks from heading down the side of the houses but can be moved easily enough if needed. We should plant some small trees between the sidewalk and the street. I think given the narrowness of the space crepe myrtles will have to do. Then here in the front area between the 2 sets of steps some simple Knockout roses. Lots of mulch and we’re done.”
“What do you think Joe?”
Owen and Bryant had come up the other side of the house and heard Joe say, “I think that you are too good at this. I think that it will make this house look better than any other on the block. I think it’s going to be crazy easy to maintain. I like it.”
She smiled at him. Why don’t you let Owen know what the options are for the backyards?”
Joe explained the plan to Owen and Bryant. Owen nodded and understood how easy it would be to pull off but also how it would significantly change the look of the property. LeBlanc would probably end up being able to charge enough extra in rent to cover any maintenance costs.
Nola said, “The plans should be too hard to draw up.”
Owen said, “Piece of cake.” And he and Joe went to the backyard to discuss the option of changing steps or just adding a courtyard.

Nola stayed in front with Bryant and explained, “The key to maintenance will be pruning the trees so they grow up, keeping the weeds down with mulch and occasionally some weed killer like Round Up and trimming the roses only if they get too wild and high. The hardest thing in the first few months will be keeping the new plantings it properly watered. We’ll have to make sure that Owen puts that in the proposal he draws up for Mr. LeBlanc’s properties. We'll work hard on the properties initially, the prep work is everything, after that we let nature do most of the work. You’ll have to let me know when the plantings look a little rough and unruly and then I teach you how to prune."
“You are really going to let me have the maintenance work as a regular job?”
“Well if you want to Bryant. I know that’s what Owen thinks will happen. But if this is not what you want then that’s ok. We can find someone else.”
“Oh no. I want to do it. I hated cutting grass, but I like working with plants.”
“Ok then. For this kind of care the hardest part is watching the plantings and getting feel for how much tending, watering, weeding they need. You have to swing by or have Joe swing by to check fairly regularly especially in the beginning. Do you have a car?”
“Yes,” and he was a little embarrassed as he said, “a really old beat up car that my grandma helped me get. She knows how important transportation is to getting work.”
Nola smiled. “There are times when I still miss my very first beat up old pick up truck. I bought it for a dollar from my grandpa and sometimes it was hard to have enough money to pay the insurance and keep it in gas, but it definitely was worth the effort. We’ll make sure that part of the landscaping maintenance fees cover what you need for insurance and gas to get to your jobs.”
“Yes, I think that I can talk to Owen about working something out.”

Owen and Joe returned from the backyard and gave them a thumbs up. Nola said, “Well, fellas, shall we head to the next house? I’m hoping that they are fairly similar in layout and that we can do these quickly.” Nola made her way down the steps to the gate and looked back at them smiling, “Coming?”

Nola rode with Owen and Bryant rode with Joe. This gave Nola a chance to talk to Owen about Bryant and transportation. Owen was amazed at how sometimes she got to where he was going faster than he did. The other uptown houses were essentially the same as the first. Owen had already worked on half of them. Nola insisted that Owen put moving the A/C to the roof into the landscaping plans for the other houses. They finished up early and were able to take a look at the Lakeview house. This was a bit more interesting because the yard was much larger. Nola wondered out loud. “Is this a rental or is he looking to sell this one?”
Owen said, “I don’t know. We’ll have to ask.”
“Well I have ideas but I need to know what he plans to do with the house before I make any significant suggestions.”
“Oh well, then I’m hungry. Let’s eat before we see LeBlanc.”

Owen took the signs off his truck and then they swung by the house where they were supposed to meet LeBlanc at 1PM. There were no cars in the driveway and there was no fence around the yard. There were a significant number of empty lots. While they were at lunch Nola laid out the plans. She wanted to go to LeBlanc’s front door by herself. After all LeBlanc was only expecting her. She wanted Joe to come by a few minutes later and ring the door bell and Owen and Bryant to show up a little later.

Owen said, “I don’t like it.”
Joe agreed, “Neither do I.”
Bryant kept his mouth shut and watched. He was just waiting to see what Nola would come up with next.
“Look I know it’s a bit sneaky. But from where I sit LeBlanc is trying to back me into a corner. Turnaround is fair play. We’ve done the site assessment work. We didn’t skimp on the ideas or the plans. I think they are good and will improve his properties. I’m not suggesting you cheat him. I know that if he gives you the jobs you all will do the same excellent work you’ve done every other location you’ve ever touched. But I want him to realize once and for all that I’m not interested and that we don’t play around. NO Lawnmower Landscaping does professional dependable work. He needs to fish for his creepy, controlling fix in another pond.”
“Woman, it’s not LeBlanc I’m worried about it’s you!”
Joe smiled discretely and nudged Bryant. They had talked about how protective Owen was about Nola as they rode in the truck. Joe had shared the LeBlanc Pool Party story with him.
“Owen, I’m a big girl. I know how to handle myself. You all will be right there as my backup. I just need you to come in about 15 minutes after I’ve go into the house. I think that Joe should knock on the front door and you and Bryant should be at the back yard, measuring.”
Owen looked at her and insisted, “I don’t like it.” Then he looked to Joe for support.
Joe looked at Owen and said, “Look man, Nola does the assessments. I trust her. The whole landscaping thing is her show. I say let her do it her way. I think she can handle LeBlanc.”
“Thank you Joe.” Nola smiled.
Owen looked at her and insisted, “I still don’t like it.”
“That’s why Joe will knock on the front door and you and Bryant will be in the back yard.” Owen looked at her and Joe could see that Owen was going to let her have her way and God Help LeBlanc if he did anything Nola didn't like.
Joe said, “Nola, You can ride with me. LeBlanc probably knows Owen’s truck. I doubt he’ll know mine. We’ll go first.” Then he turned to Owen and Bryant, “Give us 10 minutes head start before you leave here. Bryant, check out your watch. Start counting when Nola & I hit that door. OK?”
Bryant looked at his watch and said, “OK.”
Owen said, “Last time I checked I was the boss.”
Joe said, “Sorry boss, but this is Nola’s show.” And he stood up nodded to Nola. Owen stood up to let her out of the booth. She saw his worry and leaned into him and he put his arms around her. She stood up on her toes and hugged him back and whispered in his ear, “I promise to be careful.” then left with Joe while Owen paid the lunch bill.

Nola knocked on the front door. There was a car in the driveway so LeBlanc had to be here now.
LeBlanc opened the door and smiled, “Hello, Nola.” He looked at the truck on the street. Joe was hiding in back seat area.
“Hello Mr. LeBlanc.”
“Jeff. And thanks for coming.”
“I’m happy to, Jeff.”
And LeBlanc thought that perhaps she preferred privacy instead of a party for making the connections he intended. And as he closed the door he put his hand on her back and said, “Let’s go into the living room.”
“Do you live here?”
“But it’s furnished.”
“Well it’s an old family house. I keep it, in case I need it.” He waved at the sofa.
“Oh.” And Nola sat down and put the folder with all the plans on the table. “I’ve had an opportunity to look at your other shotgun double properties in Uptown and MidCity. I assume that those properties are all rentals?”
“Yes. You’ve looked at them already?”
“Yes, Jeff. You gave Owen the list of all the properties so I took a look at them this morning in preparation for this meeting. I think that we can landscape the properties so they will be more appealing than they already are to your renters. The plan is that the changes should essentially pay for themselves by attracting higher quality renters and higher rents. Here take a look at a sample of what we can do.”
And she pulled out a quick sketch Owen had made of her ideas on the first uptown house. LeBlanc moved closer to her and looked at the plans and Nola let him look and get closer to her than she preferred then continued, “Most of your properties have similar layouts. The A/C units on the roof make for a much nicer back yard. I’d encourage you to let OA move A/C units on the rest of the properties as part of the landscaping work. It makes a huge difference in how appealing we can make the landscaping.” She intentionally leaned into him and said, “What do you think?”
LeBlanc was actually impressed and as she leaned into him, a little flattered. This was more like it. She would probably have been willing before she just hadn't wanted an audience. He put his hand on her leg and said, “I like the ideas. Simple. Efficient.”
And Nola laid her hand on his knee and said, “And easy to execute and easier to maintain long term and appealing to your renters. Now what I need to know is what do you want to do with your Lakefront properties?” And she stood up and started to walk toward the back of the house. LeBlanc got up. Nola continued. “Are you looking to do some quick landscaping to help you sell or to make this a place where you can have guests or are you landscaping for yourself?”
And LeBlanc thought, is that code for a quickie or a longer term arrangement?
“Well Nola” and he moved in a little closer, “I hadn’t decided yet.”
“I see. Well then my suggestion would be that you consider landscaping for minimal curb appeal for now and maybe a little strategic shade and then wait until you decide how you are going to handle the properties longer term.”
“Well, that’s very practical of you.” And he put his hand on her back and said. “There’s a great view of the back yard from second floor. Why don’t we go upstairs so you can get a better look at the property and decide how you want to lay it out?”
Nola was pretty sure that a suggestion for more than landscaping services. And thought, Joe should be ringing the bell at any minute. What she said was, “Do you only have one lot or did you buy any of the surrounding property via the lot next door program?”
“As a matter of fact I’ve added half of the lot next door on 3 sides. I’m assuming that larger yards will sell better in the future.”
Where the hell was Joe? “That’s probably very smart. Did you do that on both Lakefront properties?”
With his hand around her waist he started to walk them toward the stairs, “Yes. Let’s go upstairs to the bedroom and take a look.”
She was going have to sound like she was actually willing to go where he was thinking this was headed, “Ok, Jeff. Getting a view from upstairs would probably be very helpful.” And the doorbell rang. Nola looked at LeBlanc.
LeBlanc looked frustrated and said, “I’ll be right back.”
Nola nodded and walked back to the table in front of the sofa to pick up her folder, then walked to the hall she could see the front door. LeBlanc opened the door and there was Joe.
“Hello, Mr. LeBlanc.”
LeBlanc just stood there. From behind him Nola said, “Hello Joe.”
LeBlanc turned and looked at her and she said, “Joe is working with me on the site assessments. He’s the reason I was able to complete the site assessments on all of your other properties today. Come on in Joe. We were just going upstairs to take a look at the back yard.” And she turned and started toward the stairs. Joe smiled and shook LeBlanc’s hand and headed toward Nola. LeBlanc had no choice but to follow them up the stairs. They went through the bedroom past a king size bed to get to the large balcony. They were standing on it when Owen and Bryant showed up. Nola waved and then turned to LeBlanc and said. “Owen and Bryant are here to take measurements so he can draw up the plans. We’re hoping that you will be interested in a NO Lawnmower maintenance plan for your rental properties. Bryant does the maintenance work.” LeBlanc could do nothing but nod. Nola said, “I think I have the layout and some ideas. Shall we go downstairs and discuss them?”
When they got to the backyard Owen did his best not to look pissed. LeBlanc could see he was out numbered. Now that all the troops were here Nola took LeBlanc’s arm and walked around the property with him from the back yard to the front and made some suggestions. Nola handed Joe her folder and he followed pretending like he was taking notes.
“I think that the first thing to do is put up a fence. Then we can set some medium sized trees between the sidewalk and the street. I’d put in a water oak on this south side of the front of the house. It’s a fast grower and will make great shade over the sidewalk and on the side of the house that will get the most sun. It will help with energy efficiency. After you get the fence and a few trees in we can decide how you want to landscape the front of the house. You'll probably want a walkway from the driveway to the front door. Since the front yard here is fairly large I’d suggest a walkway similar to the one in Owen’s yard that looks like it winds but that is actually a straight shot if you don't meander around the curves. This can make the front yard more interesting to look at and will allow us to put in more roses and other easy maintenance bushes. The back and side yards are so large that I’d suggest not spending too much money on landscaping because I think anyone looking at buying a property this large and fabulous is probably going to consider putting in a pool.”
LeBlanc just nodded and said, “I do like the ideas.”
She had walked them to where Owen and Bryant were standing when she asked, “Well Jeff, I think with these suggestions Owen has enough to finish drawing up some plans and estimates. Owen will have to let you know how soon his crews can start.” And she discretely looked at Owen to make sure that he got the message, “I’d suggest doing the rental properties first, more bang for your bucks. While the path work can be done right away at the larger Lakefront houses, it would be better to wait until September to plant these larger areas. They would be too expensive to keep watered and plantings would be a risk. You don’t want to waste your money.” Then she turned to LeBlanc and asked, “What do you think?”
Jeff LeBlanc thought, I’m not getting the bang I thought I would. But the ideas are good. “Sure, Sure. Why not.”
“Excellent Jeff. I look forward to working on your properties. I’ll let you and Owen chat about timing and specifics.” And she turned to Joe and said, “Joe shall we go and take another look at the other Lakefront house? Owen and Bryant can meet us there once they finish up with Mr. LeBlanc,”
Then she held out her hand to LeBlanc and said, “It was a pleasure.”
What could he do but shake it and nod?

Nola and Joe walked to his truck and waved as they drove off. When they were a block away Nola turned to Joe and he busted out laughing. She did too and then said, “Boy I’m glad that’s over. I was beginning to think I was going to have to let him take me upstairs to the bedroom alone. You rang the doorbell just in time.”
“You were so smooth. You should be an actress.”
“Thanks Joe. The trick is to keep thinking about the actual job of landscaping and then to gently layer on the flattery. He’ll thank us eventually.”
Joe said, “It’s a shame Roger couldn’t have seen you in action.”
Nola smiled. “You were pretty good too. Nice touch, looking like you were taking notes on the folder.”
Joe smiled, “I’m a quick learner. You’re a good teacher.” And then added, “I hope Owen will keep it together.”
“Owen will be fine. He knows what he’s doing. He is a natural charmer.”
“Well usually. But he is also protective and a little touchy when it comes to you and making sure you're Ok.”
“He’s a gentleman Joe. He’ll be fine. He needs to stop worrying about me. I've been taking care of myself for a long time."

Owen and Bryant drove up about 15 minutes later. Joe and Nola were sitting in the shade on the front porch steps of LeBlanc’s other lakefront house. Owen was out of the truck first. Bryant followed smiling. Owen had dratted and fumed worrying about Nola on the way to LeBlanc’s and then sputtered in amazement after they finished up with LeBlanc at how smoothly she had handled him. From what Bryant could tell they would start working on LeBlanc’s rentals in less than 3 weeks and a minimally LeBlanc had agreed to let them fence both the Lakefront yards. It had been pretty impressive to watch.

Nola said, “Well, boss?...”
Joe laughed and then looked with mock seriousness at Owen.
Nola finished, “… when do you start?”
Owen shook his head and said, “in 3 weeks landscaping the rentals. We’ll be moving the A/Cs just like you wanted on 2 of the properties that are empty. We’ll eventually move the other one as well. And minimally we’ll be fencing the Lakefront properties now and doing curb plantings in the fall but I think that he also wants to add the walkway. So I'll be putting that in the quote.”
Nola raised her eyebrows, leaned back on her elbows looking satisfied and smiled.
Owen said, “Ok, you were right.”
Nola got up from the steps and she took Owen’s arm and said, “Let’s go, Big Man. Take me home. I’m sure Bryant has more interesting things to do with the rest of his weekend.”
Bryant what thinking, Nope…. I don’t, just homework. This was fun!
As Joe got up from the steps she gave him a hug, “Thank you, Joe. I couldn’t have done it without you. I know you’ll give Roger and Maurice a full report.”

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