I always called him Mr. Bumann, and he always called me Miss Rah. I used to rent the little duplex across the street from his house. Mr. Bumann was my landlord, but he treated me like a queen. He'd bring me big glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice, wrung by hand from oranges from his beloved Florida. He kept a border of fresh pansies blooming around my front door. He mowed the yard meticulously, pushing his old-fashioned mower in perfect geometric squares.
I always marveled at how the newspaper delivery person tossed the paper to the exact same spot on my doorstep every day. Later I found out that Mr. Bumann walked over every single morning, picked the paper up off the lawn and deposited it neatly right outside the door. All this for below-market rents.
Many days we'd chat, standing outside on the lawn, as he planted a tree or fixed the fence. Mr. Bumann liked to chat--he liked a good long visit. He knew the neighborhood inside and out, every street and every house. He'd gotten to know Durham's streets and sections in the days when he worked a paper route to make extra money, and later as a collections man for GTE, as well as in mortgage lending at a savings and loan. "You wouldn't believe how many people have become millionaires from paper routes," he once told me.
Real estate was his passion. Even while I rented from him, he always encouraged me to buy my own house. For the past year or two he has been teaching me the basics of real estate investing--how to find good properties, how to pick your tenants, how to avoid bank fees through seller financing. "You learn so much with your first property," he'd always say.
Just last week Mr. Bumann and I drove around Durham in his green sedan for a couple of hours so he could point out the kinds of properties one might consider owning. We drove through an old mill-house neighborhood. Lots of duplexes, some modest single-family homes. He thought back to the days when the mill still operated. "Some of the people here, they'd never been out of Durham County in their lives," he said. "That's how they lived."
He was reminiscing last week about the old Piggly Wiggly store on Gregson Street, just across from Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church. It's boarded up now. Ladies from the neighborhood would call in their orders to the grocer, he said, and the grocer would go down to the Raleigh Farmers' Market early in the morning to pick them up. Then he'd deliver to his customers. "It was personal back then," Mr. Bumann said.
Even after I bought my own place, a condo on Minerva Avenue, I'd ask his advice about how to fix the windows, how to improve the insulation, which electrician to call. Mr. Bumann always had a name for me. Call Brown Brothers Plumbing, he'd say: "Make sure you use my name." His Rolodex of tradesmen was gargantuan.
He did much of the work on his rental houses himself. He painted, he fixed plumbing, he did yard work. More than once I saw Mr. Bumann in a threadbare plaid shirt, a cap bearing the Caltone paint logo, paint-spattered blue jeans and battered workboots. He'd be picking out a loaf of day-old bread at the Ninth Street Bakery downtown, or buying lunch at the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. cafeteria, where a good Southern meat-and-three costs $4.
Mr. Bumann appeared to the neighbors in the summer as the Ice Cream Man. He'd ring my doorbell and there he'd be, a mock frown on his face, the trunk popped on his green sedan and an ice cream machine sitting inside. "Do you like peanut butter?" he'd say, filling up a tall Styrofoam cup and handing me a spoon. When the first spoonful came out of my mouth, he'd break into a wide grin. His other ice cream specialties were banana, blueberry, and even fig.
Often he'd pop by my workplace, first at The News & Observer Durham office and later at a local nonprofit organization, to say hello. If I wasn't there, he'd leave a banana as a gift. I always knew it was him. (He liked to go to Triangle Produce, in the old Liberty Warehouse downtown behind the YMCA, and find the things that had fallen off the truck but were still good to eat.)
Mr. Bumann was hard of hearing. You had to talk loud, especially on the phone. He'd smile politely and cock his head when he was trying to hear you. He said he grew up with two deaf parents. Later he went to prep school--a fact he often repeated. He identified with me and my sister, who he also knew, because we attended a prep school, also. "You know what it's like," he'd say.
He was a devoted member of the Exchange Club of Durham. He once persuaded me to write a story on the Exchange Club Industries, which employs disabled people. On his way to an Exchange Club meeting last month, he showed up at my doorstep to hand me a letter about a real estate auction he thought I should attend to "learn some things." I complimented him on his corduroy jacket and his tie. "I believe in looking nice for the meetings," he said. "It shows respect."
He was a saver of money and a saver of artifacts--things of value or beauty. Once he showed me a collection of beautiful glass and crystal doorknobs salvaged from old houses that had been torn down. He kept them in a box in his basement.
He loved order. On our tour of rental properties last week, he showed me his Club Boulevard apartment--the one he was forever calling me about in search of renters--and insisted I come look, in the freezing February afternoon, at the goods neatly arranged in the basement. Lengths of iron pipe lying in a row. A stack of cans of oil--from before the oil crisis in the 1970s, he said. Mr. Bumann was fully engaged in taking care of his houses, and the people in them, and he managed his supplies and tools as proudly and carefully as a pre-industrial craftsman.
He had a sense of humor, too. Once, a rejected suitor showed up on my doorstep. He had been rejected so often that he had decided to resort to desperate measures. He had gotten himself dressed up as a knight, wearing chain mail armor, a tunic, long boots and a visor. He was perched on a tall white horse--and the horse was walking, like something out of a movie, right up my front steps. (The horse trailer was parked around the corner, discreetly out of view.) I was incredulous. Just as soon as I gathered my wits and opened the door, Mr. Bumann was standing on my doorstep, snapping pictures with his pocket camera, laughing his head off. I still have the pictures.
That was a good one.
Ed Bumann died unexpectedly on Feb. 15, 2004. A memorial service was held Feb. 28 at Howerton & Bryan Funeral Chapel in Durham. He was 68.
Rah Bickley is a writer and fund-raiser who lives in Durham's Trinity Park neighborhood.