By Greg Clark, June 5, 1943
“If you’ve nothing to do,” bitterly came Jimmie Frise’s voice over the telephone, “walk down here and lend me a hand.”
“What’s gone wrong now?” I inquired.
“By a typographical error in the want ads,” said Jim, “my house is supposed to have a room for rent.”
“What can I do about that?” I asked. “I’m hoeing the potatoes right now.”
“Listen,” said Jim, “I’ve warned you before. Leave those poor potatoes alone. They’ll never grow if you keep niggling at them. Come on down and help me sit on the front steps and steer the crowd to the right house.”
“Crowd?” I inquired.
“Ever since three o’clock,” declared Jim, “an endless procession of excited house hunters have been swarming up our walk. You never saw such a mob. Young, old, male, female, rich, poor. By the time I got home for supper, my family was exhausted answering the door bell. So I’ve taken over. I’m sitting on the front steps. Before they get out of their cars, I just yell at them that it’s a mistake. It isn’t Humbercrest. It’s Humbergarden avenue they’re looking for.”
“Aw, well, Jim,” I said, “you don’t need me for that. I’ve got one row of potatoes hoed. I’m just starting …”
“Look, I was born and raised on the farm,” said Jimmie. “I have hoed enough rows of potatoes in my life to reach from here to Duisburg. And I tell you that silly little patch of potatoes you have planted, about the size of a dinner table, will die of worry if you don’t leave it alone to grow …”
“I beg your pardon, Jim,” I informed him. “It is 18 by 11 feet. I expect two bags of potatoes …”
“I’m telling you,” stated Jim. “you want to come down here and see this phenomenon. Dozens, scores, hundreds of people trying to rent a room that doesn’t exist. I yell at them as they stop their cars out in front. I call to them as they start up the front walk on the run. Poor old ladies, utterly exhausted and perspiring. Young men newly married or just about to be married. Kids of 15. Old men of 90. All streaming down the street on a vain quest. And even when I warn them that there is a mistake and it’s Humbergarden, they keep coming right on up the walk. They won’t give in even when I explain that there is a mistake. They insist on seeing the room. So now I am simply yelling out that the room is rented. Even if there isn’t a room.”
“I’ll come down,” I said, “I’d like to see this.”
“You’re Holding Out!”
So I went and gave the potato patch a few farewell and loving pats with the hoe and then walked down to Jim’s.
As I hove in sight, I could see Jimmie sitting on his steps arguing with couple of ladies.
As I drew near, a car rushed up and drew to a stop with a man leaping out waving a newspaper.
“Hey,” he shouted, as he ran up the walk, “I’ll pay 50 bucks for the key!”
“Sorry,” said Jim, “the place you are looking for is on Humbergarden avenue. It’s a typographical error in the ad…”
“Come off that stuff,” said the man, placing himself in front of the two women who were also loath to depart. “Let’s see the room, mister. I’ll pay 50 bucks for the key, see?”
“Look, stated Jim angrily. “I tell you there is no room for rent here. It is a mistake in the paper, see? You’re wasting your time.”
“Seventy-five bucks for the key!” said the stranger insinuatingly. “Seventy-five. I like this district, see? I’ll pay a hundred bucks for the key. Come on, show us the room.”
“I tell you,” announced Jim, standing up and bristling, “there is no room for rent here. It is on another street, about a mile from here. It’s a mistake.”
“Aw, I know you guys,” the stronger snarled. “Holding out. I’m on to you. Holding out. How much do you want for the key? Name your price.”
“There is no room,” shouted Jim.
“Oh,” said the stranger. “Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
And he rushed down the walk and leaped into the car.
“Humbergarden, did you say?” he yelled. And away he raced.
“You’re quite sure, sir,” said one of the two ladies, softly, that there isn’t a room for rent here? You live here, do you? This is your residence?”
“Ladies,” said Jim, raising his hand in a kind of Nazi salute, “so help me, Hanna, there is no room for rent here.”
Sadly, reluctantly, the two ladies turned and walked away.
“Can you beat it?” Jim whispered jubilantly.
“What’s all that stuff about seventy-five bucks for the key?” I inquired.
“The law says you can’t raise the rent of a room from what it has been,” explained Jim. “So they try to get around that by offering a bonus, a cash bonus. They buy the key.”
“Aha,” I saw. “But isn’t that illegal?
“There are loopholes in most laws,” said Jim. “But the government is now plugging loopholes in wartime laws by sticking its finger not in the loophole but in the offender’s eye.”
Wham came another car to a violent stop and out jumped three men.
Up the walk they ran.
“Room for rent here?” panted the leader. “I’ll take it.”
“It’s gone,” said Jim.
“Who took it?” panted the leader. “What’s his name? Is he in? I want to speak to him.”
He started to push past Jim up the steps.
“Look,” said Jim, “it’s gone. The guy who took it wouldn’t let it go for anything.”
“Who are you?” demanded the leader darkly. “What business is it of yours?”
“If you want to know,” said Jim. “I’m the householder here.”
“Okay, then it’s none of your business,” said the stranger. “How do you know the guy doesn’t want to rent? I want to see the guy that rented it?”
He marched past Jim and rang the door bell.
“Look,” said Jim, “he’s not in.”
“What’s his name?” inquired the stranger.
“I don’t know his name,” stated Jim. “He just rented the place and said he would be back later.”
“Okay, Bill,” said the stranger to one of his friends. “You sit here while I go on around the other numbers. If the guy turns up, make him an offer. Any offer. But get the room!”
“Suppose,” said Jim. “I don’t want you for a tenant?”
“Oh, is that so?” sneered the stranger. “Since when are you offering a room for rent and then choosing who’ll take it?”
‘Well,” said Jim. “I can tell you one thing, I won’t have you for a tenant, at any price.”
“Aha,” cried the stranger, to his companions, “You hear that? The guy don’t even know he can’t raise the ceiling! Listen, mister, I get the room and I get it for the same rent you was charging before, see?”
Jim took a deep breath.
“Listen, you, mister,” he said. “There is no room for rent here. This is a private home. Due to a typographical error in the paper, a room for rent on Humbergarden avenue was mistakenly represented as my house. To save time explaining to a lot of lunkheads who wouldn’t believe me when I tried to tell them it was a mistake, I have merely been telling the stupidest ones that the room is gone.”
The stranger listened intently to Jim.
“Now,” he said, “I don’t believe you even rented the room. Come on, mister, show us up to the room.”
“Will you get out of here,” demanded Jim, or will I call the cops? One, two, three, four …”
“Oh, well, if you want to get tough,” said the stranger.
They went and sat in their car, discussing the matter for a moment.
“Humbergarden, did you say, mister?” called out the leader.
“That’s right,” said Jim.
It’s a Parade
But just as they were about to drive off, another car pulled up and two girls got out and hurried up. So the first car paused and waited to see whether the girls got any farther than they did.
Jim showed the girls the paper and explained the error. They accepted the facts at once and hurried back to their car. And the car with the three fatheads rushed off to beat them to the next stop.
“The world, Jim,” I submitted, “is coming to a pretty pass when a man can scarcely keep strangers from invading the sanctity of his home.”
“Look who’s next,” muttered Jim.
Up the walk came a short, thick-set woman of extremely foreign appearance.
“Room?” she demanded, holding up the newspaper.
“Gone,” said Jim, shaking his head.
“How much?” said the lady.
“Gone,” said Jim, emphatically. “Taken.”
“Aw,” said the woman bitterly. “I know. You don’t like foreigners. You don’t want me, eh? Well, I show you some day.”
And she turned and strode with excessive stiffness down the walk.
Two more cars pulled up and then drove on as soon as Jim called the news to them. Then came, on foot, slowly down the block, an elderly and charming lady.
“Pardon me,” she called from the street, “but is this the house that has the room for rent?”
Jimmie and I both hurried down to explain the situation to her. She was the sweetest old thing.
“Oh, dear,” she said wearily. “I have been to so many places today. When I turned down your lovely street, something told me I had come to the end of my search…”
“Come and rest on the veranda,” suggested Jimmie. “I’ll get a chair…”
“Oh, no, thank you,” said the old lady, pleasantly. “I must keep on. If I don’t get a place by tomorrow night, I will have no home at all.”
“But surely,” I suggested, “your family …?”
“My only son,” smiled the old lady, “a bachelor, not young either, has gone to war. He is in Halifax. On his way over. When he left, I gave up our apartment, thinking it was selfish for only one person to keep a big apartment of five rooms. I thought I could pick up a room, very easily…”
“My, this is bad,” said Jim. “Surely, your friends …?”
“I am afraid,” said the old lady sweetly, “we have been the kind of people who didn’t bother about making friends… I guess people should always go to church, shouldn’t they? But my son did not care for church. He preferred to take me into the country on Sundays. Dear, dear. Now he is gone to war. And I am so anxious to have a nice little place for him to come home to. I had the notion that if you let me have the one room, I could become friends with you, as time went on, and when he returns, you might let me have an adjoining room . . .?”
“But, I’m sorry,” said Jim.
“Oh, yes, yes,” she sighed. “You have not even the one room. Of course. Well, gentlemen, I must keep on.”
And she walked slowly up the street, heading back for the bus stop.
“Hang it,” muttered Jim. “We can’t even offer her a lift in the car.”
A screech of tires rounding the corner drew our attention as we returned to Jim’s front steps. Two cars, one almost touching the tail of the other, raced down and drew up with a rush and a bump. And out leaped a man from each.
Neck and neck they raced up the walk.
“Hey,” began one.
“No, you don’t!” grunted the other, giving the first a shove.
And before another word was said, they were swinging.
Haymakers, clinches, short swings and jabs, they batted each other furiously and wordlessly. One tried to get his foot on the lower step of Jim’s veranda and the other grabbed him and dragged him down.
“Here,” I shouted, stepping in to part them.
“Look out,” warned Jim.
“Keep out of this, you little rat,” muttered one of the battlers, giving me the fairest punch so far in the fight – an elbow to the chin.
“Gentlemen,” chanted Jim, from the top step, “gentlemen, I don’t know what’s the matter, but if it is the room for rent you have come about, I want to tell you there is no room. Owing to a mistake…”
And while the two grunted and punched and swung and sweated, Jimmie slowly and loudly outlined the whole circumstances surrounding the typographical error.
Finally, in a clinch, the two exhausted fighters paused and looked up at Jim.
“What’s that you say?” panted one.
Good Luck Omen
So Jim repeated the whole speech. The two still clung firmly to each other until Jim had finished. Then they let go of each other and dusted themselves off and straightened their ties.
“I’m sorry, brother,” said the one who had clipped me on the pin.
“My own fault,” I assured him. “You should never try to stop a fight.
They glared at each other and then grinned sulkily.
“What’s the matter?” inquired Jimmie.
“Well, we apparently have the same list,” said one. “We’ve been running neck and neck for the past five places. I guess we got excited.”
They wiped their brows and necks with their hankies and turned slightly aside and each drew a list from his pocket and consulted it furtively.
“Look, boys,” said Jim, “just up the street, see, is that elderly woman. She’s on foot. She has been all over the city, at her age, trying to get a room. I tell you what. I’ll give good luck to whichever of you gets to her first and gives her a lift.”
“How do you mean?” muttered one.
“Well, getting a room is a case of luck, isn’t it?” said Jim. “And anybody that helps that old lady find a room first is going to have luck…”
The two turned. One leaped in his car and took a short turn into Jim’s side drive to get faced the other way.
But the other just backed. At about 40 miles an hour, he backed up the street and flung the car door open before a very astonished old lady.
And just as the other car came racing, with horn blowing, the old lady stepped into the first car, very gratefully.
“Okay,” said Jimmie, “wish them all luck.”
So we went in and got a large piece of cardboard and Jim lettered boldly on it –
“Sorry. Room rented.”
Which he put on the front steps.
Editor’s Notes: During World War Two, as housing construction was reduced considerably, and there was less construction in the Great Depression that preceded it. As demand increased because of War work, there was considerable housing shortages in major cities and other locations of wartime factories or activity. Renting rooms in private houses, and the creation of boarding houses was common. The story outlined above could have really happened given the situation.
There really is a Humbercrest Boulevard in Toronto near the Humber River, but no Humbergarden now. It may never have existed as I don’t see it on old maps in the area, and I could believe that an editor at the time insisting on a fake street to avoid the slight chance that someone took the story seriously and ended up looking for a room for rent. Many of the Greg-Jim stories implied that they lived near each other (at least a short walk away), and for a time, they really did. Greg lived on Baby Point Road in two different houses during this time. As mentioned in other stories, Greg was a renter while Jim was an owner, so it is possible Jim really lived on Humbercrest at the time of the story.