As of this week, we are homeless.  This is not in the desperate sense that we are living in a box under an overpass, but we no longer own a home.  We sold it several days ago and are living in a room at a friend’s inn for the next several months while our new townhome is constructed.  We chose to live at the inn because it allows us the total flexibility we need in terms of moving out.

 

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This wrinkle on the American Dream appeals to me.  Essentially, in the highway of modern life, we are parked temporarily on the shoulder.  My wife, Katie, is skeptical, but I strive to point out the myriad ways in which this brief break from responsibility is refreshing.  Much of the enjoyment, for me, is due to the absence of bills, including, but not limited to, the following:  water, sewer, electric, gas, trash, maintenance, landscaping, mortgage, taxes, insurance and homeowner’s association.

Selling this concept to Katie took a positive turn when she looked around our graciously appointed temporary home, and noted:  “If this bedroom were in Manhattan, we’d be paying thousands of additional dollars each month.”  Indeed, big city dwellers would look at our present situation as the lap of luxury.  Still, I admit, in many ways, it isn’t easy to give up that big, high-ceilinged slice of suburbia.

 

*****

 

We’d bought our house in Chapel Hill in early 2007.  Coming from New Jersey, North Carolina real estate appeared to be half-priced.  The prevailing mentality at the time was: “the more house you buy, the more money you’ll make whenever you choose to sell.”  While that may still (or once again) apply in locations like Manhattan or San Francisco, one is ill advised in much of the country to invest in a single family home with an eye towards making a hefty profit.  At present, a house is a place to live, not a gushing oil well.

 

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Marketing our home turned out to be challenging.  While the local market is “hot,” the golf community containing our former home is decidedly cool.  Whether or not related, demographics, the economy, and the decline of Tiger Woods have curtailed the cohort of buyers clamoring to hear the thwack of clubs in close proximity.

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Also, as the sensation of the reality show, “Tiny Homes,” attests, enthusiasm for six bedroom homes is in decline.

th-2.jpeg   We gradually changed our listing from six to five to four (!) bedrooms to garner more traffic.  Two of our bedrooms became “Flex study” and “Flex bonus room,” respectively.

The biggest factor in selling a home, as every real estate agent repeats, is price.  Following an exhaustive study of the local market our Realtor originally established a price that made complete sense – about ten years ago.  After only a month, and virtually no showings, we agreed to lower the price substantially.  After another month, we lowered it again and, as noted above, began to lower our bedroom count.  We could not affect the square footage and other attributes, however.  One prospective buyer noted, in what may be a first in real estate history:  “House has too many bathrooms.”

 

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*****

 

When our agent suggested a third, major price reduction, we balked.  It’s not (entirely) about the money (really, it’s not); we just felt if no one looked at our house, no one could possibly fall in love with it.  We needed traffic and some way to distinguish our house from the hundred other homes on the market in our community.  Thinking back to a tried and true New Jersey tactic, I suggested the following to our Realtor:  “Instead of lowering the price, let’s offer the selling agent a $5,000 bonus.”

“Oh, I can’t do that,” said our agent.  “It just feels icky.  Agents might show the house for the wrong reason.”

The reader can insert the most profane response imaginable to cover my thoughts at that moment.  Still, it being North Carolina, I responded politely:  “Well, I’d appreciate if y’all would just give it a little try for a week or two.  Let’s see if some folks’ll actually come out and see the house.”

 

*****

 

During the next two weeks, our house had eight showings, double the number from the two previous MONTHS combined.  Two couples came back for second showings and then fell over each other to schedule third showings on the same day to make offers.

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The passive-aggressive in me could not resist asking our agent:  “Do you think the bonus has had an effect?”

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “I think the price reductions have just finally sunk in.”

Whatever.  Readers can draw their own conclusion.  We contracted to sell to a couple who, I’m informed, prefer our community’s golf course to the one where they presently live.  Also, the gentleman is a toy train buff who will enjoy the 2,680 square foot basement for a major installation.  And what of the $5,000 bonus?  The buyer’s agent chose not to take it due to the “awkwardness.”   Instead, she suggested we use the money to bridge the gap between her customer’s offer and our counter-offer.  I LOVE these classy, unsullied southern real estate agents!

*****

I’ve assured Katie I won’t want to live in a furnished room forever.  After a few months, I’m sure I’ll be ready to ease back into the traffic jam of residential real estate.  But following thirty consecutive years of homeownership, and the recent stresses of selling, I’m happy to take a break.


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WALK-THROUGH SURPRISE

 

“Jeff Sherman’s calling from the walk-through,” said my assistant, transferring the call into my office.

“Great,” I said, rolling my eyes, “that’s just what I need this morning.”

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During my career as a real estate closing attorney, receiving calls from clients at their final inspections was among my least favorite tasks. No one ever called to say: “The house is beautiful; the seller left it spotless.” Rather, I expected a recitation of some or all of the following common complaints:

  1. The seller isn’t finished moving;
  2. There’s a carpet/floor/wall stain we never saw before;
  3. The seller mistakenly took the washer/dryer/chandelier;
  4. The leaves have not been cleared.

There are hundreds of such gripes; over the years, I thought I’d heard them all. Each such item required me to spend time and bile arguing with the seller’s lawyer at the closing for no additional pay. Sometimes, the problems were resolved relatively amicably and sometimes not. In either case, I roused righteous indignation on behalf of my clients, regardless of my personal feelings, which usually involved a mixture of “why are they making a big deal out of this?” and “how much arguing do I need to do to make it look like I really care?”

 

*****

 

Jeff Sherman and his wife, Wendy, were first-time buyers of a modest home in Waldwick, NJ. They were moving to the suburbs from an apartment in the Bronx and presented themselves unexceptionally. When I’d met them six weeks earlier to review the contract, they made no effort to ingratiate themselves. They barely smiled at me and didn’t hold eye contact. Wendy, a freckle-faced blonde and Jeff, a paunchy redhead of medium height, offered identical limp handshakes.

“This meeting isn’t adding to our fee, is it?” was Jeff’s first question.

“We only owe seven-fifty, right?” added Wendy. “There won’t be add-ons, will there?”

“Just $750 to me,” I said, fighting against a fairly common surge of suspicion. Lawyers, I understood, are not always the most popular service providers. “I’ll also collect from you to pay the surveyor, title insurance, county clerk, etc. It’s all detailed in writing.”

 

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I handed each of them a letter I’d prepared for all my clients explaining the procedures and likely costs of a closing.

Sitting across the desk from me, Jeff peered at the paper through thick glasses. Like many a husband in this circumstance, he felt compelled to ask several questions. I answered as cheerily as possible, hoping to put the young couple at ease, but was unable to elicit a smile from either of the Sherman’s. Still, after our meeting, the transaction proceeded as usual. Wendy called with occasional inquiries. They lined up their loan, and the closing was scheduled without notable stress. Despite my initial concern, though the Sherman’s were not among my favorite clients, neither were they exceptionally difficult. They simply were no “fun,” and I could live with that. From representing several hundred clients a year, if nothing else, I knew “everyone is different.”

*****

“Good morning, Jeff,” I said into the receiver, with as much hearty good cheer as I could muster. I had a pen and notebook ready to jot down what I assumed would be complaints. First-time homebuyers were particularly picky, in my experience. The slightest thing could make them angry. I was only half-heartedly listening while standing and gazing out my second floor office window.

Without any pleasantries, Jeff said: “There’s a body in the bathtub.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, coming to full attention.

“The seller, Mr. Brown. He stabbed himself in the main bathtub. I think he’s dead,” said Jeff.

My thoughts exploded in several directions at once, like the finale of a fireworks display. “Is he joking?” I wondered for an instant. “No way, Jeff Sherman is not a man who jokes.” I proceeded to: “This is a disaster. Who is there with Jeff? The police? The seller’s wife? Will the Sherman’s cancel the deal? Is this the basis for cancellation? Who can I ask? They need a lawyer. Wait a minute, I’m their lawyer.”

All I could think to say aloud, however, was: “Uhhhhhhhh.”

Thankfully, Jeff filled in several of the blanks: “We arrived ten minutes ago and were walking through the house with Mrs. Brown, but when we got to the main bathroom, she gasped and shut the shower curtain. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me not to look.”

 

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“So, like, this just happened?” I asked.

“Yeah, she said her husband didn’t want to sell the house, so he killed himself,” said Jeff.

“Okay,” I said slowly. “So he stabbed himself during your walk-through?”

“Appears that way,” said Jeff. “I think the police and an ambulance are on the way.”

“Um, is Mrs. Brown able to function?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Jeff. “She seems sort of okay about it, actually.”

I was trying to process this situation. For sure, I imagined, Jeff and Wendy would want their money back, or a credit for the trauma, or a new bathroom, at a minimum. For a moment, I tried to picture the degree of agony that had led Mr. Brown to stab himself. Awful.

But then I turned to my own relatively minor agony. I realized my entire day would be dominated by this situation. Perhaps my entire week. Also, I thought, even though Mrs. Brown may be calm right now, she’s going to be overcome by shock at some point. Perhaps, she won’t be willing or able to negotiate a settlement. She’ll be too upset to proceed.

“What do you want to do about this?” I ventured, tentatively.

“We want to close today,” said Jeff.

“You do?” I said, feeling a mixture of bewilderment and relief. “What about the   body? What about Mrs. Brown?”

“She said she’d have the body taken away as soon as the police check it out,” said Jeff, sounding as calm as though a lamp or a couch had to be removed.

“And that’s okay with you?” I asked.

“Wendy just wants to make sure there are no stains,” said Jeff.

 

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“That’s certainly reasonable,” I heard myself say, then shook my head in amazement.

*****

 

Two hours later, Jeff and Wendy arrived at my office to close, as scheduled. In the meantime, the police had arrived at the house, concluded Mr. Brown had, indeed, stabbed himself in the chest with a kitchen knife, and committed suicide. The coroner had removed the body and Mrs. Brown had scrubbed the bathroom.

“Is everything else okay at the house?” I asked Jeff.

“Yeah,” he shrugged, as though he experienced something like this every day.

“Will Mrs. Brown come to sign her paperwork?” I asked.

“She said she’d follow in about ten minutes,” said Wendy. “She just had to gather a couple of things.”

“You know, nothing like this has ever happened before,” I said.

“Pretty unusual, I guess,” said Jeff. He turned his attention to the pile of mortgage-related papers on the conference table and indicated they were ready to sign.

While we were reviewing documents the new widow arrived. She was a thin, athletic-looking woman of about forty. She wore a sweatshirt over jeans, standard moving attire, and acted as though she were under no stress at all.

“Sorry I didn’t dress up,” she said. “It’s been a busy morning, and I have a long ride this afternoon.”

“I’m so sorry about your loss,” I said.

“Thanks,” she said. “It’s for the best.”

I’m not sure what I expected Mrs. Brown to say, but “it’s for the best” was not among the choices. I nodded as though I fully understood what she was thinking, but I was confused.

She continued: “I told my husband last night I wouldn’t live with him anymore, and I wanted a divorce. I’m moving back near my family in Canada. He obviously didn’t take it too well,” she added.

We sat in awkward silence for a moment, taking in the truth of her last comment. She broke into a smile, and added: “But this way, I’ll save a ton of time, not to mention the legal fees and stuff.”

There was nothing to do but nod again in agreement. Before this transaction, I considered myself nearly infallible at predicting human behavior and reactions in the realm of real estate closings. Wrong!

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TABLE TENNIS TRIALS & TRIBULATIONS

 

 

I arrive early and the place is empty except for two middle-aged Chinese men sitting on a bench chatting in English.   I ask if either would like to hit, but both shake their heads “no.” In Chinese, they call over a younger man who has just entered the Triangle Table Tennis Center, a 30,000 square foot facility near the Raleigh Airport.   With forty tables, ball machines, a pro shop and coaching staff, it’s the largest such center in the nation. The men converse with him for a moment, then motion to me.

 

 

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“He will hit with you,” says one, a mischievous smile crinkling his eyes.

The pained expression on the face of my hitting partner indicates a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Basically, he’s been dragooned by the older men and thinks he has to waste his time for their amusement. Without speaking, he takes his spot across the table and serves a ball. Initially, I confirm his worst fears. My first three practice shots fly long. Each time, he trudges six or eight steps back to retrieve the ball as though he is walking through quicksand carrying a boulder.   I over-compensate and hit the next several shots into the net.

“You don’t hold the racquet right,” are his first words.

“No?” I say.

He shakes his head.

“You must have just started to play,” he says, miserably.

“Not really,” I say. “I’ve been playing for over fifty years.”

“Over fifty years holding it like that?” he says. He looks disgusted.

He serves a ball and, thank goodness, I return it onto the table and begin to sustain a rally. After half a century of play, I’m categorized as an “advanced beginner;” although a star against the general population, I’m but chopped liver against “serious” players.

 

 

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*****

 

If my game lacks proper technique, the fault lies with my older brothers, Barry and David. They taught me to play in our cramped basement sometime during the Kennedy administration. Any missed shot found it’s way behind lawn furniture or plumbing like a hide-and-seek professional. Spiders lurked in the corners amidst award-winning webs.   I suppose you could say there was a strong incentive not to miss. Owing to the fact I was about a decade younger than both of them, I never won. It all sounds miserable. Yet, I was thrilled when one of them agreed to play even though they repeatedly sent me into those awful corners chasing errant shots.

 

 

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Barry had a particularly annoying style. He played with a sandpaper paddle that made an unpleasant thwack with each shot. All of his serves went down the side of the table to my backhand so near the table edge that the ball often glanced off it, untouchable. Even knowing exactly where his shots would go, I couldn’t return them. David played with a conventional, rubberized paddle and clobbered me more conventionally.

By the time I was eight they were both away at college, and I practiced alone against the wooden wall of the closet adjacent to the table. Unfortunately, the top of the closet was open for a foot at ceiling height and high shots often disappeared into it. Once inside, they nestled amidst ancient household items that NEVER ONCE emerged, such as canvas awnings for the exterior of the house. There were also paint cans that had been fresh when the house was constructed thirty years earlier, dust and, presumably, more spiders. I rarely had enough courage to open the closet and retrieve the balls. Instead, I expended some of my miniscule baseball card budget at Woolworth’s for new balls. If only I’d thought to block the opening with cardboard. My father, who NEVER played ping pong, had an expression for such a lack of initiative: “Smart, smart, smart and then stupid.”

 

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*****

 

My opponent, who still does not tell me his name, suggests we play a match consisting of best-of-five games up to eleven points. After beating me, he will then be free to play with worthier opponents. He wins the first game 11-3, and appears relieved to be so near the end of his involuntary good-deed-of-the-day.

 

*****

 

Shortly after I learned about the Center last winter, I began to attend regularly. I play one or two mornings a week against opponents of similar ability. I played in a “beginners” league one night a week and did quite well. My strange, outdated grip and one-side-of-the-paddle style flummoxes fellow bottom feeders. I enjoy playing so much I break from my usual tendency to spend no money on myself and resolve to take lessons from a pro.

 

*****

 

A J is twenty-eight-years-old. His body is lean and sinewy. He’s made for speed and precision more than brute strength. Among the highest ranked of American-born players he makes his living as a table tennis coach. How often does the IRS see THAT on a tax form? First, he examines the paddle I’d been playing with for several years. As he holds it, his facial expression suggests he’s swallowed sour milk.

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“What is this?” he asks.

“My paddle?” I say, unsure.

“What rubber is it?” he asks.

“Um, the kind they put on at the factory, I guess,” I say, trying to be respectful but wondering about how to answer such a question.

“You can’t play with this,” he says.

“It’s illegal?” I ask.

“It’s just, you know, dead,” he says.

My silence indicates to him that I don’t “know” what “dead” means.

“We’ll get you fixed up with a real racquet,” he says. “Let’s just hit a few balls so I can figure out what you need.”

As a sports participant and fan, I’ve always been skeptical of the validity of improvement via equipment. If a golfer, for instance, buys a newfangled, over-sized driver and, as a result, can hit thirty yards longer, is he a better golfer? If a tennis player buys space-age string that increases the spin or speed of his shots by twenty percent, is he a better player?

Due in part to my moral ambivalence and also to my frugality, I’ve never focused on equipment. Unlike my buddies who dissect the relative merits of one tennis string versus another ad nauseum, I’m proud to adjust to even a borrowed racquet after just a few swings. My racquets are usually bought on-line and arrive, already strung with basic material, via UPS.

But ping pong is different, according to A J: “You can keep your weird grip,” he says, as we gently rally. “It might even be an advantage against people who have never seen it before. But your skins will have to be better, as well as your blade.”

Skins? Blade? Yes, skins are what real players call the black and red rubber surfaces on opposite sides of their paddles. Before I arrived at the Center, I didn’t know that the two sides could be different. Naturally, real players don’t call a paddle a paddle but, rather, a “racquet.” And they don’t call a handle a handle but, rather, a “blade.” And when they refer to skins, they don’t mean the pimply rubber surfaces that come in a set from Walmart but, rather, highly specialized, customized surfaces that range from $50-$200 a skin. By the way, these “skins” must be replaced every several months for optimal performance.

 

 

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After hitting with A J for a few minutes, it occurs to me he never misses. Whatever random shot I hit, he calmly returns at the same pace and location. It’s uncanny. It’s impressive. I think to myself: “I’d like to be A J – still in his twenties and terrific at what he does.” At that moment, he says: “It must be great to be retired and have time to do whatever you want. I’m jealous.”

I suppose the grass is always greener….

 

*****

 

In the second game I realize my opponent’s backhand, whatever his name is, is much weaker than his forehand. Also, the new “anti-spin” skin that A J had recommended for my red side is ruining his timing, just as A J promised it would. When I remember to use it, the livelier skin on my black side creates enough spin to frustrate him. When he swings and misses for the second point in a row, I’ve won 11-9. I repeat the result in the third game. My opponent is now sweating profusely. He curses in Chinese. His friends say something to him and laugh. He is stone-faced.

 

*****

 

Ping pong actually figures in family history prior to my brothers and me. I’m told the school nurse circa 1935 thought my mother had a weak heart. As a result, she couldn’t partake in strenuous activities and spent gym classes playing ping pong. I rallied with her in my basement five years ago. She hit pretty well! And she’s still alive and well – you do the math – the nurse was wrong.

 

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*****

 

I lose the fourth game. My mind is cluttered with doubt that I can win the match against such a strong opponent. I certainly have his full attention now. “It’d still be a moral victory,” I think, as the fifth and deciding game begins. “Forget that,” I correct myself. “Don’t settle for a moral victory. Do what A J would do. Batter his backhand. Stay calm. Concentrate. Don’t concentrate too hard. Relax. Don’t relax too much. Move your feet. Follow through, etc.” The mind can harbor a lot of thoughts, some contradictory, at the same time.

 

*****

 

In an early lesson, except for my grip, A J criticized every aspect of my game. It turns out I’d been improvising every shot I’d ever hit. “You have to have a consistent swing,” he said. “Don’t worry about the result,” he continued. “Do it properly.” He’s retraining me against numerous long-developed bad habits and several habits that are good, if only I were playing tennis. It surprises me to realize that the two sports, though similar on the surface, require distinctly different swings.

At one point during my first lesson, I recall, I said to A J: “There are twenty things I have to remember on each shot. This is almost as bad as golf.” At the time, he didn’t respond. During this morning’s lesson, A J told me what I can expect after several more months of lessons and, in so doing, used the terms “hook” and “slice.” A cold shiver ran down my spine.

*****

 

The fifth game goes back and forth. I’m ahead 4-3, then behind 7-6. A late string of good luck treats me to a Hollywood ending, albeit low budget. I win 11-9. I expect my opponent to be angry. Instead, he puts down his racquet and comes to me with sweaty hand out-stretched. “Good game,” he says. “My name is James. Let’s play again now.”

I’m honored. I’ve passed a test. I can’t wait to tell A J.

 

 

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THE PLANE TRUTH

 

 

It’s not news to report that air travel today isn’t the pleasure it used to be. Throughout my adult life it’s been my impression the experience is becoming increasingly miserable. I suspect the positive excitement of air travel began to seep away when the spate of late-60’s hijackings to Cuba introduced the first metal detectors. It’s become more joyless at an exponential pace with the depredations wrought by terrorists in the intervening decades. It’s hard for me to believe that in one of my earliest memories, my grandfather took me to the Philadelphia Airport to WATCH planes take off and land. You could do that around 1961 – just walk into the terminal, go to the windows, and watch.

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Along with terrorists, the experience has been shaped, and not in a good way, by accountants. Airlines strive to squeeze revenue from each seat and I do mean squeeze. Being tall is advantageous when visiting a crowded museum or movie theatre, but whenever I fly I wish I were the size of a jockey. And it’s probably just my imagination, but it seems whoever sits around me in a plane is afflicted by one or several of the following: extra girth; bad breath; a tubercular-like cough; a pneumonia-like cold; restless leg syndrome; and, perhaps worst of all, logorrhea.

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Personally, air travel has never been fantastic. My first flight EVER, from Philadelphia to Chicago circa 1964, resulted in the use of the barf bag. Though illness does not produce that effect in me, motion sometimes does – I’ve even become queasy on the Circle Line Tour around Manhattan. The plane event inspired anxiety and the acquisition of Dramamine for every subsequent flight until the last decade or so, at which point I simply decided “enough, I’m over it.” Needless to say, I never aspired to become a pilot or an astronaut.

The only aspect of air travel that is better than “the good old days” is the smoking ban. I happen to have been traveling from California on the day it went into effect in 1991. I remember it clearly because a San Francisco television reporter asked for my opinion in the waiting area. I said something along the lines of: “What idiot ever allowed it in the first place?” I doubt my intemperate clip made it to the small screen. But, as they say nowadays, “Seriously?” Well within my lifetime, smoking was allowed inside confined, flying compartments as though the already-fetid, germ-filled air would not travel from the rear of the plane.

And what about the food? Arguably, the fact that most domestic flights now offer none is a positive development considering the doleful reputation of airline cuisine. But shouldn’t they be able to provide something edible? The situation became so bleak by the beginning of this millennium Jet Blue managed to gain positive press by providing blue potato chips. Now, with airlines making more money than they can spend I note that “snacks” are making a comeback. If only one could make a meal of tiny pretzels and peanuts.

 

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While the major health improvement of the smoking ban is undeniable, the industry has backslid in several other aspects of hygiene. Notably, there are no longer headrest covers to protect passengers from the previous occupier’s grease or dandruff or, for that matter, lice. (Sorry for the graphic image – I should have warned the reader). And the greater level of crowdedness doubtless creates less healthy air.

 

*****

 

Flying presents a philosophical dilemma with regard to how I approach life. When I was young I wished away a lot of time. For instance, during the winters when I was under twelve or so I counted down the weeks until the baseball season. During college, I wished away exam weeks. My law school years were basically a countdown until the drudgery ended. I specifically recall calculating during the first week that there were 1,051 days until graduation. Some classmates were not amused.

Now that I’m older, I strive to banish such negativity. Upon entering middle age, I largely limited my “count-downs” to the cold weather months, and in recent years living in the south, even winter is totally tolerable. In sum, as time seems to pass faster, I’m philosophically opposed to wishing it away.

Flying is an exception.   I wish away every second of time spent on airplanes. I try to be the last to enter (unless carry-on luggage requires me to join the scrum for limited storage space) and I’m the first to jump up when the destination is reached.   Once or twice during a flight, I silently count the seconds from zero to sixty and then backwards again to zero so I know the minutes pass. After I complete a count in English I do it in Spanish or German in order to credit myself with a pathetic sort of intellectual satisfaction. My wife thinks I’m nuts. Perhaps. Am I the only one who does this?

 

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*****

 

I’m afraid Mark Twain would reach the same conclusion about air travel as he reached about the weather: “Everyone complains, but no one does anything about it.” There’s simply no other practical way to reach many places one wants to visit. That’s the reality; that’s the plane truth.

 

 

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HOME FOR SALE

 

Our house is for sale and the experience is somewhat unnerving. Like a high school senior with applications to ten colleges we have no idea what or where our lives will be in ten months. The only thing for certain is uncertainty. Not only do we not know when or for what price someone will buy our home, we have no idea what sort of buyer to expect. We learned that lesson the last time around.

 

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*****

 

In 2008, in the depths of the most recent housing and stock market busts, we put our house in Ramsey, NJ up for sale. Two years earlier, in the flush of the real estate and stock market booms that had preceded the busts, we’d impulsively bought a house in North Carolina and started a two-year process to move south.

The timing cost us money, but no need to second-guess water for having flowed under the bridge. In the world of bold real estate moves, the relevant cliché’ is: “You win some, you lose some.”

Concurrent with the downtown in the 2008 market my wife, Katie, obtained her real estate license. Cause and effect? Bad luck?

 

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I know this: In six months on the job she had customers who missed appointments; customers who couldn’t make decisions; and, customers who made the attitude “the customer is always right” impossible to maintain. Despite working every weekend she never made a sale nor obtained a listing.

But she did have the inside track on listing our own home. I interviewed her carefully:

“What commission will you charge?” I asked.

“None,” she said. “We’ll save at least 1.5%.”

“You’re hired,” I said.

 

*****

 

In anticipation of listing the home, Katie had a carload of agents from her office visit and offer suggestions.   As a result, we moved furnishings around and painted several walls. We weren’t exactly “staged,” but some wisdom from experience was put to work.   A cedar shake contemporary with unique window shapes and exposed beams, our house was not for everyone. For a buyer with traditional tastes (ninety percent, according to studies), our house would not appeal.

Concerned that selling might be a slog we listed on September 1, nearly a year before our mid-2009 move date.   If a buyer appeared and offered a reasonable price, we would do the deal, regardless of closing date, even if we had to move out early. After all, our likeliest buyer would be open to the unusual, the absurd and the lack of any ceilings over most of the first floor. We couldn’t risk losing them.

The first few showings weren’t promising. “Weird,” said one review. “Too modern for us,” said another. One customer was open to a contemporary home but required a swimming pool.  A foreign customer indicated he liked the interior but wanted us to replace the exterior siding.

“Is anything wrong with it?” Katie asked.

“No, they just don’t like it,” said their agent.

“That would cost $40,000,” said Katie.

The agent offered the telephone equivalent of a shrug.

Several other lookers needed to sell their homes first, a contingency we wouldn’t consider. Most were simply not interested, either due to price or location or the sheer unusualness of the construction. Since the etiquette is for the homeowner to not be present for a showing I never saw the prospective buyers. Feedback filtered from realtors to Katie over the telephone.

 

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*****

 

One evening Katie received a phone call from a shopper who said he’d located our listing himself on his computer.   Though on-line shopping is now the norm, in 2008, buyers were just beginning to shift from having a realtor compile a list of houses for them to see. The caller (called Joseph herein) had no agent and, therefore, would be Katie’s customer if he chose to buy. We were excited at the prospect of saving an additional 1.5% but also concerned he was wasting Katie’s time.

“Does he have a family?” I asked.

“No, he’s single,” said Katie.

“He wants a four bedroom house in the suburbs for himself?” I asked.

“He said he wants to see it,” said Katie. “It can’t hurt, right?”

“Good point,” I said. “So is he coming out next weekend?” I asked.

“Actually,” he wants to come tomorrow morning at 7,” said Katie.

“Seven a.m.!” I said, intrigued. “Why?”

“He said he works odd hours,” said Katie.

“Hmmm,” I said. “Sounds strange. I’ll hang around to see him.”

 

*****

 

At night, before falling asleep, we speculated what Joseph might have found attractive about the on-line picture of our house.

“Maybe the rhombus-shaped windows,” I guessed.

“Maybe the decks shaped like a ship,” said Katie.

“Or the pile of boulders in the front yard instead of grass. He won’t have to mow them,” I said.

By 7:20 the next morning we’d heard nothing from Joseph.

“Probably not showing up,” I said, the voice of skepticism.

“Don’t be negative,” said Katie, though she was also fighting the fatigue of dealing with disappointments.

At that moment a massive black Range Rover sped around the corner and pulled into our driveway. I peaked through our bedroom blinds to see it stop abruptly just inches from our garage door. The driver remained inside behind tinted glass for several minutes talking on a cell-phone, long enough for me to express more negativity. “Joseph might be a mobster.”

 

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Finally, he emerged, a middle-aged man with medium-dark features and a long, black ponytail. He had earrings, tattoos and wore a leather jacket. “This guy is not Mr. Suburbia,” I reported to Katie while we went to open the front door. “Looks more like Cheech or Chong.”

The doorbell rang and Katie greeted Joseph while I hung back, curious but vigilant. Though his affect was far more motorcycle gang than soccer dad he was soft-spoken and polite.

“Sorry for being late,” he said. “I work crazy hours.”

“What do you do?” asked Katie.

“I’m a drummer in a band,” he said.

 

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“Wow,” said Katie. “Our children might know your band but we’re not really up on the local music scene, so….”

“You might have heard of us,” he said. “The Allman Brothers.”

“THE Allman Brothers?” repeated Katie.

“The ONLY Allman Brothers,” he said, smiling.

Joseph walked past us through the foyer and gazed into our living room, while we were still processing our shock. He didn’t appear to notice the cathedral-like ceiling; he didn’t look out the windows to the woods beyond; he didn’t remark on the vast expanse of open space. He walked straight to the fireplace, the most traditional part of the entire house.

“Is it a real fireplace?” he asked, a dreamy expression on his face.

“Yes,” said Katie.

“Does it work with wood?” Joseph asked.

“Yes,” said Katie. She glanced at me as though to say: “This is weird.”

“Can you make a fire?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Katie, who motioned to me to gather some wood.

“Can I sit here?” he asked, taking a seat on a couch in front of the hearth.

He watched as we got the flames going. I couldn’t help wondering why the most unexceptional aspect of our house appealed so much to this famous musician.

 

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We sat down on a sofa across from him and watched the fire crackle. Katie and I hoped the flue would clear the smoke more effectively than it usually did. Joseph looked like the most contented man on earth.

After the fire died down he took a quick look around the house. Finally, he said: “I’ll take it. I’ve always wanted a working fireplace.”

It certainly was not up to Katie to point out that every house in our neighborhood had a fireplace. Probably, most houses in our town had fireplaces. Over the next few days I worked out the terms of the contract with the drummer’s attorney. He barely negotiated off our asking price. We closed two months later.

 

*****

When our daughter, Sarah, was little, her favorite books were the Berenstain Bears series. One was entitled: “Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover.” The expression always stayed with me but I’d never applied it to my own life until dealing with our buyer, the vaguely scary-looking sweetheart of a man who played drums for one of the wildest rock bands in history. Due to my ecological sympathies, my view of massive SUV’s is still reflexively negative. But my view of pony-tailed, tattooed, earring-wearing, leather-clad men is as non-judgmental as can be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


OUR GREATEST PRESIDENT

As the election season enters its twentieth or thirtieth month, it seems there is no end in sight.  Doubtless, on the day after the November election this year, those of us who are not moving to Canada or Costa Rica will be subjected to media speculation about who will run in 2020.  A selection of narcissists, egotists and attention-seekers (redundancy used for emphasis) will try to gain consideration as candidates.

Common in their rhetoric will be claims to the legacies of prior presidents.  Republicans link themselves to Lincoln and Reagan.  Democrats hearken back to Franklin Roosevelt.  Both sides will want to sound “Jeffersonian.”  Few recognize our truly greatest president.  This oversight is about to end.

*****

In eleventh grade I took a course on “American Heroes.”    Heroism, to me, consisted of a mixture of acknowledged accomplishments, fame and admiration on the part of the public. When the time came for a final paper about heroism, the teacher offered topics from a list of standard categories.   I could examine explorers, politicians, sports figures or scientists.

Though tempted by “sports figures,” of course, I rejected the topic as too obvious; it was something I would have chosen in third or fourth grade.  Instead, I surveyed how Presidents were or were not considered heroes, and why.  To do this, I summarized a number of encyclopedic entries and skimmed several biographies.

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Some presidents, like Kennedy, seemed heroic even though they hadn’t actually accomplished much.  Others like Franklin Roosevelt seemed heroic and deserved to be.  Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore were not considered heroic even by the few people who had heard of them.  On closer examination, it appeared their obscurity was deserved.  My forgettable paper received a forgettable grade, and I moved on with its contents largely forgotten.  But this year’s clown car of candidates provoked me to recall my only “discovery,” a man I believe should be a hero, who is not.

*****

James K. Polk had a terrible publicist.   His profile doesn’t appear on Mt. Rushmore.

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In fact, other than his gravesite and a small museum in Nashville, Tennessee, there is no trace of him on the contemporary scene – no college, no institute and no national park.  It surely didn’t help that he died only three months after leaving office.  He didn’t get to buff a ”legacy,” as they call it nowadays, the way Ford, Clinton, and the first president Bush have.  He didn’t have a library or a speaking tour or the chance to make millions speaking to Goldman Sachs.   Whatever the cause of Polk’s obscurity, his accomplishments stand in stark contrast to those of every president in my lifetime and make a laughing stock of the present candidates.

Polk declared upon election that he would only serve one term from 1845-1849 and then go home.  He meant it!  Can you imagine?  When he took office, Polk declared four major goals of his administration and proceeded to accomplish ALL of them, including:  vast extension of American territory via the Mexican-American war; overhaul of our tariff structure that produced a manufacturing boom; establishment of an independent Treasury that streamlined American commerce; and, the addition of Oregon and Washington to the United States by way of threatening Great Britain with war if they did not abandon their claims to the same land.

 

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Detractors and political rivals claimed that Polk was TOO effective.  Ulysses Grant, for one, thought Polk unmanly for picking on weak opponents such as Mexico.  Others argued that “Manifest Destiny,” the philosophy that guided Polk’s insistence that America deserved the West indicated excessive pride.

Abolitionists argued that Tennessean Polk took too strong a stand in favor of slavery.  Indeed, like a typical southern landowner, Polk owned slaves.  Unlike Jefferson, however, he is not known to have impregnated any.  He took a pragmatic approach to politics, a quality sorely lacking at present.  He suggested the new northwestern states would be free of slavery if Texas would enter the union as a slave state.  The compromise earned the backing of Congress for both acquisitions.

We have no recordings of Polk’s speeches, of course, but he was said to have been spellbinding and clear, his logic unassailable.  Due to short stature, he stood atop tree stumps to speak and became known as “Napoleon of the Stump.”  The term “stump speech” thus entered the lexicon.

*****

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I am not the only person to have noted Polk’s qualities.  On several lists of “greatest presidents” prepared in the mid-twentieth century he appears in 10th or 11th place.  Some refer to him as “Best of the Unknowns,” or the like.  But recent history should propel him to the top of the list since his qualities are now so rare.  Since Truman, perhaps, our nation hasn’t enjoyed a president who spoke the plain truth.  And we’ve certainly not known one to stick to one term.

As a result, when I hear candidates worship at the altar of Saint Reagan or Saint Kennedy I can’t reach the mute button quickly enough.  But if I ever hear one promise to govern like James K. Polk, after I pick myself up off the floor, he’ll have my vote.

 

 

 

 

 


DEALING WITH THE UNKNOWN

 

My personal experience with anonymous correspondence is limited to one unhappy event.   Around 1990, several years after I opened my law office, the New Jersey Bar Association alleged that the sign posted on the street in front of my office was improper. In the sign I described myself as “Stuart Sanders, Real Estate Specialist.” To me, this represented the truth, since my practice consisted almost entirely of real estate closings.

The Ethics Committee of the Association viewed the matter differently. They wrote that they had received a letter from a fellow attorney who stated correctly, in their view, the word “Specialist” belongs only to those who earn certificates as “Civil” or “Criminal” trial attorneys. Their letter told me to remove or correct the sign within fifteen days. Outraged, I wrote back, asking rhetorically: “What is more unethical: to represent the true focus of my law practice to the public, or to file an anonymous complaint behind a colleague’s back?”Unknown.jpeg

During the next several days, while I awaited a response that never came, I hardly lived five minutes without wallowing in righteous indignation. I tortured my poor office staff and family with a barrage of braying, along the lines of: “I’ll sue them; I’ll assert my constitutional right to freedom of speech; how can they own a word?”

At night, I experienced more than a few sleepless hours with another question: “Who filed the complaint? How do I get revenge? Do I wish for a painful disease or mere bankruptcy to be visited upon my so-called colleague?”

Gradually, after a week or so, the sting of the situation subsided. I paid a sign company to replace the word “Specialist” with “Closings.” I decided that to argue with the Bar’s Ethics Committee would not be a brilliant career move. And I ceased evaluating every local attorney I dealt with to see if they were “the one.” “Don’t give whoever it is the satisfaction,” I instructed myself.

 

*****

 

Two years later, I’d nearly forgotten the incident when an elderly attorney from a neighboring town arrived for a closing. Although I’d met him years before, he wasn’t someone I saw often. He’d certainly never crossed my mind as a suspect when I’d laid awake imagining retribution. His colleagues knew him for two things, namely: alcoholism; and, related to that, having run over and killed a youngster with his town’s fire engine while driving to a July 4th celebration. As town attorney and its fire chief, he’d managed to squelch any personal responsibility for the tragedy, but the legal community knew the inside story.

After offering a wet-fish handshake, he said: “I see you’re not in violation anymore.”

“Hunh?” I said, not certain what he meant.

“Your sign,” he said, his rheumy eyes twinkling with mischief and triumph.

“You fixed it. My letter worked.”                                        images.png

I glared at him. Several verbal responses arose in my mind, all barbed with poison. But, as I considered his entire presence, from his tattered and stained sports jacket, to his erratically shaved jowls, to the vast belly that almost prevented him from reaching the closing table, I found myself unable to deliver one. Apparently, the awful things I’d wished for had occurred to him already. In fact, even worse than I could have dreamed.

“Yes,” I finally said. “And business has never been better.”

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*****

 

Fast forward twenty years: I’m nearly at the four-year anniversary of starting this blog and have posted 160 stories and essays. Most weeks, I have between 100 and 200 “views” and am often surprised by which posts are popular. Sometimes, the stories I think are best fall like stones in water. And posts I’ve belabored end up being relative successes.  Readers or “followers” need not be concerned that I monitor their individual reading habits. That level of detail is unavailable. But my hosting site does tell me in what country my readers access the blog.

The overwhelming majority of my “reads” take place in the United States. But many also occur in Canada and Costa Rica where I have friends and acquaintances. Occasionally, a dedicated reader travels to Europe or Asia and checks my blog as they go, leaving me with a tantalizing string of countries. When a friend spent several months in and around Vietnam last year I had my first “views” from Cambodia and Laos; during her honeymoon last year, my daughter delivered my first hits from Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

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*****

 

Last year I posted a story about my father’s unlikely friendship with former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo. It briefly went viral in a minor way when hundreds of readers accessed it over a two-day period. I never learned who they were. Presumably, one person happened upon the story and referred it to friends or co-workers. No one commented, however. How mysterious to not know with whom I’d struck a nerve, and why!

Other times I know exactly who has binged on my blog. There are several friends who do not read every post but, if they know I will be at a social event, might read eight or ten in the day or two before we meet. They discuss aspects of the posts with me in minute detail and often offer insights I hadn’t considered when I wrote. I appreciate their interest.

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In the past two months a tantalizing mystery has arisen with a reader I’ve come to think of as “The Brazilian.” “Reads” have occurred almost daily in Brazil. Usually, there is one, though several times, there have been two or three in a day. I cannot think of anyone I know who is living or traveling in Brazil. This person, whoever he or she is, has been remarkably dedicated. I’m flattered! Yet, they have never left a comment. Maybe they don’t realize they can comment or, perhaps, they prefer to remain anonymous.

Is my Brazil reader a student learning English? Is he or she somehow fascinated by the minutiae of my existence or by my views on current events? I can’t tell which stories they have read. They could be reading the most recent posts or they could be scrolling back several years to find stories of interest.

So now, like an actor breaking character and speaking directly to the audience, I’m herein communicating to my reader in Brazil. You know who you are! How did you become a reader? What are your favorite stories or story-types? How did you alight upon my blog in the first place? Are there subjects you particularly enjoy? Do you have any questions I could answer? My imagination runs wild! In my dreams, I wonder if you are a major movie producer who is just waiting for the right moment to offer me a “deal.”

If you’d rather not respond, that’s fine. One of the enjoyable aspects of writing stories (as opposed to editing and re-writing and occasionally abandoning stories that don’t work), is not knowing how they’ll be received after I push the ”publish” button. The mystery fascinates me. At least, having written this post, the “Brazil” questions are out there, I’m less likely to express puzzlement every day. Compared to some anonymous situations, this one is a pleasure.

 

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