I was curious to see which of the items on my Christmas gift list would prove to be most popular. I thought the most popular item would be the electric scooter, but I was wrong. By far, the most popular item was the iPad. I gave away a lot of iPads. I think that’s because nearly all my tenants already have bicycles and also possibly because Berkeley and Oakland streets are in terrible condition and full of potholes. I got an unusually large number of emails from people who I don’t know regarding my tenant gift list. The email exchange below was my favorite.

Dear Mr. Tarses:
Are you the Berkeley landlord who is giving tenants free electric scooters? I read about you on Facebook. I think what you are doing is great!

Dear XXX:Yes, I’m the guy.

Dear Mr. Tarses:Great! My roommates and I are Berkeley tenants. There are 3 of us, and we would all like free electric scooters. We rent a house on Benvenue Avenue. If you want proof that we are Berkeley tenants, I can send you a copy of our lease. What color are the scooters? I’d like a red one, but I’ll take any color you’ve got.

Dear XXX:
I am afraid you misunderstood my offer. I am only giving away electric scooters to my tenants, not all Berkeley tenants. I don’t own property on Benvenue Avenue, and you are not my tenant. If you want a free electric scooter, you will have to get it from your landlord, not from me.

Dear Mr. Tarses:
I was afraid you were going to say that. Our landlord isn’t giving away free electric scooters. He doesn’t give us anything. He wouldn’t even buy us a new shower curtain, and ours has a big hole in it. Do you have any extra electric scooters that your tenants didn’t want? There are 3 of us, but we will take anything you’ve got.

Dear XXX:
Sorry, but I don’t have any extra electric scooters.

Dear Mr. Tarses:Do you have any leftover iPads that nobody wanted?
I didn’t reply to this last email. I didn’t want to continue with this conversation.

THE ALAMEDA SPITE HOUSE.Exactly what is a spite house? A spite house is a house that was built for the purpose of annoying or frustrating a neighbor. A spite house is intended to create a problem for the neighbor, such as blocking views, sunlight, or access to a street or driveway. Because spite houses are built for revenge, not for long term occupancy or resale, spite houses often have strange and impractical shapes and designs. They are often built on small or oddly shaped lots. Bona fide spite houses can be found scattered around the United States and Europe, but there aren’t many of them. That is because because modern building codes prohibit the construction of houses that block a neighbor’s access to sunlight, sidewalks, drainage, etc. As a result, most spite houses are over 100 years old. Spite fences and spite trees are far more common than spite houses, and there are lots of them around. Spite trees are trees that are planted for the purpose of blocking a neighbor’s view or sunlight. I have seen quite a few spite fences and spite trees, but I know of only one true spite house in the San Francisco bay area. It is in the city of Alameda. The Alameda Spite House. In 1908, Charles Froling built a now-famous spite house at 2528 Crist Street at the corner of Broadway on Alameda Island. Mr. Froling owned a lot on Broadway, which was at the time, the city’s most prestigious residential street. Mr. Froling intended to build a fine house on this lot. However, the city of Alameda took away the bulk of Mr. Froling’s land to build Crist Street. The building of Crist Street had the strong support of the the owner of the house next door to Mr. Froling’s lot, a wealthy and politically well-connected woman named Annette Westerdahl. We don’t know why Mrs. Westerdahl didn’t like Mr. Froling, but she did not want him as a neighbor. When the city created the new street with land they had taken from Mr. Froling by eminent domain, Mr. Froling was left with a lot measuring only 10 feet by 100 feet, too narrow a piece of land on which to build a house – – or so they thought. Mr. Froling was enraged by what Mrs. Westerdahl and the council had done, and so he plotted his revenge. Froling built a 2-story house on his 10 foot wide lot, right up to the property line. The house is still there and is still occupied. The Westerdahl house is also still there. You can see it was built for somebody with serious money. All of the rooms in the Westerdahl house facing the Froling house are now in perpetual darkness because the 2 houses are only 3 feet apart.

JOHN TYLER’S GRANDSONS.If you have been reading my newsletter for a while, you know that I like strange history stories, like the one above. I think this story is even stranger. John Tyler was the 10th president of the United States. He was born in 1790 and died in 1862. Tyler was elected governor of Virginia after making a reputation for himself in the War of 1812. John Tyler was elected vice president in 1840 as the running mate of William Henry Harrison. Their slogan was ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too.’ President Harrison died only 1 month after his inauguration, making Tyler the president. Even though John Tyler was president for almost 4 years, he didn’t accomplish much. He irritated both the Democrats and his own party, the Whigs. The only really significant thing he did as president was sign into law the formal annexation of Texas, which triggered the Mexican War. John Tyler has 2 living grandsons. One of them recently gave an interview about his famous grandfather on CBS News. But wait a minute! How could somebody who was born 230 years ago have 2 living grandsons?! How is that possible? Here is an article that explains it. John Tyler’s Grandsons. The trick, it appears, is to live a long time and marry women much younger than yourself. 

TEMPORARY TAXES.I am very suspicious of temporary taxes. I think that comes from teaching history for a long time. Whenever I hear politicians talk about creating a temporary tax, I think about the federal telephone tax. In 1898, the United States declared war on Spain, but Congress didn’t have the money to pay for it. This war was fought before the Constitution was amended to allow the federal government to collect income taxes from individuals and corporations. To finance the Spanish-American War, Congress passed a temporary tax on long distance telephone calls. The tax was considered a luxury tax because back in those days, only rich people and businesses could afford to make long distance phone calls. A 3-minute phone call from New York to San Francisco cost more than a week’s wages for a typical factory worker. In the law that created this tax, it states that the telephone tax was to be a ‘temporary tax’ and that it was to be repealed when the war with Spain ended. The Spanish-American War only lasted a few months, but the telephone tax continued to be paid by Americans for over the next one hundred years. The telephone tax was finally abolished in 2006. By that time, cell phones had made collecting the tax impossible. Think of it – until 2006, Americans were still paying a temporary tax created to finance the Spanish-American War. The telephone is not unique. There are many other ‘temporary taxes’ that never got repealed.

The St. Louis Rams. Most really big temporary taxes these days are created to pay for building stadiums to attract or keep professional sports teams, but these temporary stadium taxes rarely get repealed or expire. That’s because most taxpayer-financed professional sports stadiums lose money, and sometimes the team a stadium was built for moves away. For example, in order to get the Los Angeles Rams to move to St. Louis, the city built a huge domed stadium in the heart of the city at taxpayer expense. The Rams moved to St. Louis and played football there for 21 years. Then the Rams moved back to Los Angeles in 2015, leaving St. Louis with a football stadium but no football team. Taxpayers in St. Louis have already paid over $300 million in stadium construction debt but are still on the hook for over $150 million more. The 80,000 seat stadium is occasionally rented for events like professional wrestling and monster truck rallies, but the income from these events is far less than the stadium’s annual maintenance costs, and those maintenance costs are rising due to the age of the building. There are huge vacant stadiums like the domed football stadium in St. Louis all over the United States.