CONFESSIONS OF A CENTER CITY REALTOR
(Edward T. Gay, who died recently at age 81)
I received a curious email last week. It was from Martha Gay, who told me that her father-in-law, Edward T. Gay Sr. of Center City’s George Gay Realty, had died. This fact unleashed a lot of memories, since my interview with Ed Gay in the Center City Welcomat in the 1980s was one of the most unusual interviews I’ve conducted as a Philadelphia journalist. That piece, entitled Ed be nimble, Ed be Gay, Ed found another corpse today, was also one of my most popular Welcomat columns.
The column was unusual in that Ed Gay, who talked to me about his experiences as a Center City realtor, didn’t flinch when it came to telling the truth. Realtors today, some of whom who have become a new breed of celebrity, wouldn’t dare to open up and talk about what goes on behind-the-scenes in Center City apartment buildings: What happens when a tenant dies; what’s it like to discover a body weeks after death, when you discover that a tenant has committed suicide, or when a renter goes crazy and has to be evicted. In these overly litigious times, when “off the record” comments sometimes account for the most interesting part of any interview, you’d be hard pressed to find a 2010 version of Ed Gay who’d be willing to sit down and really open up about what he or she has seen over the years. But Ed Gay was different. Ed Gay couldn’t wait to tell his story.
Considering that I’d lost my only copy of the column and there was no chance of retrieving it online (no newspaper in the 1980s had online editions), I’d given up rereading the piece or including it in an anthology of my unexpurgated tales of the city. That ended when Ms. Gay mentioned that she had a copy of the column and just wanted to know when the piece was published. We both surmised it must have been 1987, give or take a year. Ms Gay then sent me a copy of her copy, in honor of her father-in-law.
(From Different Strokes, the Welcomat, 1987c)
One need go no further than Ed Gay (of George Gay Realty fame) to get the unexpurgated tales of the city. This real estate curmudgeon has seen it all—and then some.
The family business was started by George Gay, Ed’s father, in 1926. For 50 years the offices were located on the ninth floor at 1701 Walnut Street. Ed assumed control in 1962. Today, Ed works with his son Ted. The firm has been at its 2029 Walnut Street location for about 11 years.
Gay’s role as landlord enables him to observe hundreds of lives. He’s watched tenants grow into incapacitating old age. Fathers have come to him concerning their errant, sexually promiscuous daughters. In the 1960s, he met people like Ira Einhorn. Cathy Alessi, the Schmidt’s heiress who died of a drug overdose in the 70s, was a tenant of his. “A nice woman,” Gay recalls, “she just got mixed up with the wrong people.” (He shows me a National Enquirer article which mentions Alessi’s involvement with a MOVE member at the time of her death.)
Gay has seen his share of death and tragedy. When he and a young employee went to investigate an old lady’s apartment—there was some concern because neighbors hadn’t seen the woman in ages—his worst suspicions were confirmed when he smelled the stench of death.
“Let me go in first,” he said to his young assistant who, eager to prove his bravado, begged to take the lead.
“So I watched him enter…I heard him gasp, cough and wheeze. Suddenly he was running down the fire escape with his hands over his mouth. He stopped dead in the alley behind the building and threw up. I didn’t see him for three days.” When at last the kid phoned work he said he had never seen “a dead body look like that before.” What the kid saw was a corpse split open down the middle, a bevy of flies over the rotting entrails. The skin was every color in the rainbow: black, purple, green, yellow, blue.
A meticulous record keeper, Gay has kept crime report files concerning his properties since the mid-60s. The files document thefts, rapes, fires, attempted holdups. In a 1970 report, for instance, you can read that a Miss Potts of 1812 Pine had her Motorola TV stolen, or that Mr. Janis, a physician at 1600 Lombard Street, was robbed and left tied up in his office for three days.
Gay remembers renting to a felon on the FBI’s most wanted list. The tenant, a former Navy SEAL underwater detonation expert, sociopath and crack addict, was in the business of converting semi-automatic weapons. When officials from ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms) searched the apartment, they found it filled with industrial machinery.
Gay recalls a naked young man who ran screaming throughout his apartment complex, writing on the walls with crayons. When Gay questioned him about the incident, the tenant said, “Look, I have a valid lease. I pay my rent—there’s nothing you can do!” Gay said, “Watch this,” and ripped the lease in half.
Mr. Woo, another of his tenants, was a neat, quiet Chinese man who led a double life as an illegal exporter of goods to Red China.
In the days when physicians used real skulls and skeletons for anatomical studies, one Walnut Street doctor/tenant boxed six human skulls and stored them under his cellar staircase. One night a thief discovered the box and, thinking it contained valuables, undid the lock. One look was enough: He dropped the box and fled as heads rolled in different directions across Walnut Street. Soon, the coroner’s office, police and forensic scientists were looking at the possible work of a serial killer.
Gay’s son Ted recalls checking out a property at 20th and Walnut in the early 70s. Describing the renter as “a leftover flower child,” Ted says his father had reason to believe the apartment was being trashed. Ted, only 15 at the time, found the place filled with candles, spoons and cocaine but no tenant. “Suddenly this guy comes up behind me and pushes me against the wall. He said he was a cop and wanted to know who I was. When I told him, he said the tenant had just killed his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s lover.”
The ‘60s and ‘70s, Gay says, were not as violence-prone as today. “Most hippies, even the drug dealers, were peaceful creatures who tended to vegetate in their apartments. Today’s crimes are horrific, even demonic. People kill for the thrill of it, for no reason at all. A thief, for instance, will hit the same residence repeatedly. That’s because they know the owner is able (with insurance) to replace everything that was stolen.
“Look, if somebody really wants to rob a place, they can. Locks, safety devices, these just make it more difficult.” Gay recalls the home of a jeweler whose well-locked door wouldn’t budge, so thieves demolished the walls with sledgehammers. Gay says that the untouched door “standing alone in space” was an odd sight.
Over the last 32 years, he has discovered 32 corpses. Spruce and Pine Street residences top the list of property tragedies. He recalls a twentysomething couple on Spruce Street—art school students—who decided to commit suicide together. They took pills, got into a double sleeping bag, and waited. She was the only one to wake up. “I didn’t know he was dead till I yanked him by the hair,” Gay says the woman told him later.
One young man, fed up with life, threw himself out his 17th story living room window. A neighbor telephoned Gay. “Will you please send somebody over to clean up the blood of a guy who jumped out of his apartment!”
Lovers’ quarrels on Spruce Street have ended in lovers murdering their significant others. One man threw his lover through a picture window to the street below. In another apartment, a young European woman decided to ditch her American boyfriend because she wanted to return to Europe and marry someone else. “Her American lover came back and whacked her 18 times with a knife. There was so much blood it even got into the refrigerator,” says Gay.
Gay says that cleaning up after a death takes time. “The apartment has to be fumigated. The best thing is to get a five-pound bag of moth ball flakes and sprinkle them around. This kills the stench right away. It makes breathing near a corpse possible.”
People have jumped from the top of the Medical Arts building on S. 17th Street and crashed through the roof of another Gay property. One woman, a psychiatric patient, crashed a third of the way through the roof and was wedged inside. “That was a real mess; she was caught in an upright position like a stand up bullet,” Gay reflected. The oldest corpse Gay’s ever discovered had been dead anywhere from five to seven weeks. “Not a pretty sight by any means,” he says.
Gay remembers a young male tenant, a professional with a good job. “One day he started bringing pigeons into his place and nursing them back to health. Soon he was claiming to be half blind; he was also canvassing the city with a shopping cart. I called Social Service and Mental Health agencies, but there wasn’t anything anybody could do. He hadn’t committed a crime. Eventually the kid died.”
Ed says the last name of “Gay” has brought him and his family some grief over the years. College kids, mostly guys (perhaps the ones from a certain Center City art school he’s not likely to rent to) will leave prank messages on his answering machine. “Maybe they’re bored. It’s usually a drunk, lonely guy on a Saturday night. Often I hear lots of giggling in the background—dumb, stupid kid stuff, you know…:
Ed Gay prizes some students, however. Curtis Institute music students get first dibs on any of his properties, anytime, anywhere.
“Music,” as Confucius said, “is the blossoming of virtue.”
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