Archives for category: realtors

SNOWPOCALYPSE

 

 

The world appeared it might be coming to an end last Friday when forecasts predicted a 6-8 inch snowfall for Durham, NC. I’d always heard about pre-storm panics and stores selling out of essentials, but I’d never personally experienced it until I went to the local hardware store that morning in need of a paint sample. The parking lot resembled Normandy Beach on D-Day. A line snaked out the door with people clutching numbers like life preservers. Though some customers planned to purchase sleds and saucers to enjoy the storm, most hoped to obtain portions of the store’s fast-dwindling supply of salt, sand and shovels. Not anxious to spend ninety minutes at the store, I retreated, paintless, to my new home, a townhouse half a mile away.

After lunch, I went to the public library to pick up a book. A sign on the door indicated the library had closed at noon “due to inclement weather.” Even the direst of forecasts did not call for precipitation before the evening!

 

*****

 

We moved from New Jersey to Chapel Hill in 2009. Having heard tales of an ice storm in 1999 that had shut off electricity for ten days we were putty in our realtor’s hands when she showed us a house with an optional generator for $7,000 and a large basement. “That’s a small price to pay for peace of mind,” she said. “And you can host the whole neighborhood in your basement when their lights go out.”

As an introvert, the latter possibility sounded awful, but the idea of having electricity during the famed Carolina ice storms made sense. We bought the house and the generator and smugly signed up for its $350 yearly service and maintenance contract. We settled in and waited for the opportunity to be “the smartest people in the neighborhood.” There was no ice during our first winter, or the second.

The years went by. No ice. We began to hope for an ice storm or even a tree to take down a power line, anything to help us realize value from our generator. Increasingly, we doubted there’d ever really been an ice storm that rendered local life as primitive as the Stone Age, or more appropriately, I suppose, the Ice Age.  After seven years, we moved to a new home in Durham just one month ago. It has neither a basement nor a generator. “I’m not making that mistake again,” I declared.

 

*****

 

The forecast downplayed the risk of ice damage because unusual cold foretold a dry, puffy sort of snow. Instead, the predicted sleet/snow line moved thirty miles farther north than expected, and we woke on Saturday to little snow but two inches of accumulated sleet. The temperature then plunged to the teens and the region shut down like a congressional committee on ethics reform. Nothing moved, not cars nor people nor trucks. And that includes snow removal trucks because North Carolina communities hardly have any, and what they have is focused solely on major highways.

Today is the sixth day after the storm! To the amazement of anyone who’s ever lived as far north as New Jersey, schools and libraries are STILL closed even though temperatures have been above forty for three days. The local news refers to “stubborn areas of ice that are under trees and pose a grave danger.” The icy mix is now a muddy mess. Our electricity has stayed on, however, a fact for which I’m mostly grateful. To the extent I’m a writer, however, I’d sort of hoped for a dose of delicious irony.

 

 

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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.


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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


MAKING A RACQUET

tennis-ball-984611__340I  I looked forward to playing tennis at our new condominium in Costa Rica.  The sales literature we relied upon showed two courts nestled amidst tropical landscaping.   The selling realtor, a fabulously successful Californian named Brett, assured us these courts were of the highest quality and had lights for evening play when desired.  Upon our arrival, however, we realized the only thing he failed to a mention is that the courts did not yet exist.  Perhaps, after two or twenty-two or seventy-two more condominium units are sold (everyone has a different story) the two courts in our community will be constructed.

“Pura vida,” said Brett, when asked in person about the courts, using the local fits-all expression to convey ‘no worries.’

“But you told us there are courts,” I said.  “I believed that our place has tennis courts.”

“It’s just a matter of time,” said Brett, unruffled.  “There’s a court at the Coco Bay Club.  You can play there.”

“How far is that?” I asked.

“Five minutes, tops,” said Brett.

Allowing for Brett’s tendencies, I took that to mean ten-fifteen minutes.  Not as optimal as the one minute walk I’d expected, but workable.

“Is there anyone to play with?” I asked.

hotel-swimming-pool-1065275__340“There are a ton of people at Coco Bay, and a pool and a spa and a five star restaurant.  You’ll love it.”

“Five stars?” I asked, my skepticism rising.

“Well, maybe four stars.  Plus, it might not be open this time of year.”

Brett’s nickname could well be “grain of salt.”  As another example, he told me that Magic Jack, a computer attachment for low-cost phoning, is free for three years, even with the advertisement in front of both of us stating “Six months free.”   One tolerates Brett’s “reality” due to his legendary effectiveness.  Someday, if we choose to sell, he’ll convince the next owner that our unit is, somehow, worth more than rational analysis indicates.

“Alan from my office is a member there,” Brett continued.   “I’ll have him call you tonight.  He’s a great tennis player.”
“Wonderful,” I said.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t hear from Alan that evening.  The next morning, I walked over to the real estate office to see when Alan might be in and ran into him at the entrance.  He was identifiable by his appearance in tennis whites.  In the dusty hubbub of downtown Coco, that stands out.  Fortunately for me, Alan’s opponent had just canceled, and he was pleased to have a replacement.  Alan is a about forty, a Quebecois who headed off to warmer, Spanish-speaking climes decades earlier.

“Were you going to play at Coco Bay?” I asked.

“Yes, my buddy is a member there, and I was going to be his guest,” said Alan.

“Oh,” I said.  “Brett said you were a member.”

“Well, not really,” Alan said.  “But I have an idea.  We’ll drive over there and tell them you are a potential member and I’m your realtor.  I’m sure they’ll let us in.  They’re desperate for new members.”

“Hunh?  Brett said the place is humming with activity,” I said.

“Well…” said Alan.

“Anyway, the realtor idea should work,” I said, thinking that the story plausible and increasingly willing to embrace quasi-reality  .

“I just hope I can give you a good game,” said Alan.  “I’m a beginner.”

“Brett said you were ‘great,’” I said.

“Well…” he halted again, both of us contemplating Brett’s relationship with truth.

Alan drove me back to my place to change into tennis clothes and pick up my racquet.  Though disappointed at Alan’s “beginner” status, I tried to remember that playing “for fun,” not blood, is appropriate on vacation.

I settled into the passenger seat of Alan’s SUV for the drive to Coco Bay.  It involved navigating a local neighborhood.  There were few cars on the road, but tons of pedestrians and bicycles, people on their way to work and school.  Women with assorted bags walked among fruit stalls and small bodegas to complete their daily shopping.

Driving in small-town Costa Rica is a double-edged experience.  There are chaotic traffic patterns due to a lack of shoulders, curbs or painted lines and ever-present potholes.  Also, a single bicycle can be loaded with as many as three adults or four children.  On the positive side, one admires the vibrant hubbub of the community.  Children walk in groups to school, instead of being bused or carpooled as they would be in much of America.  They chatter and laugh as though they had not a care in the world.  And, though they live in homes we would consider hovels, most are dressed and groomed like fashion models.

“Do you mind if I leave off the car for a wash?” asked Alan.  “It’s just a few hundred yards from the club.”

“No problem,” I said.

The car wash consisted of a lean-two where two tattooed guys had a hose, a bucket and rags.  At home, one would no more hand over keys to them than to panhandlers on the street.  Yet, Alan chatted with them in Spanish and bade them good-bye:  “Regresamos en dos horas, mas o menos,” he said.  (“We’ll be back in two hours, more or less.”)

We walked across the main avenue and proceeded down a side street overhung with tropical trees.  The pavement became a pitted dirt road; we exchanged amiable nods and greetings with several people as we passed.  A pack of napping dogs barely raised their heads to note the two Gringos walking with tennis equipment.  Finally, we came to a guardhouse and gate beneath a faded sign:  “Coco Beach Club, Luxury Residences and Lots, Completion Spring 2009.”

“Hola,” said Alan, to arouse a sleepy guard in an ill-fitting uniform, who bore a striking resemblance to Larry of ‘The Three Stooges.’

He seemed surprised by our arrival but waved us in.  Beyond the gate, elaborately designed paving stones conveyed the aspirations of a high-end community, the effect diminished by grass growing up between them.

“This place doesn’t look very successful,” I said.

“They got killed in the downturn,” said Alan.  “But they might revive with the economy.”  He shrugged, to convey: “Who knows?”

“Does anyone live here?” I asked.

“They sold about ten percent of the lots,” Alan replied.  “Fortunately, they completed the roads and clubhouse before everything died, and the tennis court.”

We arrived at a massive stone clubhouse, where the hopes of pre-2008 bust was reduced to humidity-swollen doors, cracked tiles, and a shuttered restaurant.  The “spa,” visible through a condensation-ruined glass wall, consisted of a selection of forlorn exercise machines, many with hand-written signs indicating “no funcionar.”   No one was in the “office” to speak with us.

“We’ll play first,” said Alan.  “The court is just past the pool,” he continued, upbeat.  In spite of his good cheer, I envisioned a tennis court with cracks and grass growing in the middle.  “Stop it,” I scolded myself, fighting to prevent cloudy thoughts from darkening the sunny day.  We walked out the back door of the clubhouse and arrived, at last, at a glistening swimming pool, surrounded by palm trees and flowers.  Several other guests lolled in the water and made the Club seem alive, however iguana-1057830__340tenuously.  Insects buzzed around foliage in a riot of color. A large iguana lounged at poolside like a tourist.

“There’s the court,” said Alan, pointing to a metal gate at the end of a walkway.

I could only see the entrance as we approached, since thick shrubbery surrounded the rest.  When we entered, I was relieved to see a bright green surface and a sturdy net, a perfectly respectable tennis court, with absolute privacy.  Or so I thought.

Tennis is played in a variety of circumstances and in front of a variety of on-lookers.  At Coco Bay, however, I played for the first time before spectators who hooted and hollered after every shot.  In fact, they screamed between points and during water breaks.  The noise began with our first warm-up shot and continued.   We played not before rabid fans in monkey-624797__340Chile or Kazakhstan but rather, a troupe of howler monkeys, who’d taken seats in a massive fig tree adjacent to the court.  They found our game entertaining.  Or, they found it irritating, or amusing, or disgusting.  Hard to say.

Whenever there was a lull in the monkey symphony, we heard roosters from somewhere beyond the fence and, to top it off, cows mooed to provide the bass.  On percussion, a flock of parrots chattered as they darted between surrounding trees.

“Is it always like this?” I asked Alan, astonished.

“Not always this loud,” he said.  “There’s a hawk or something scaring parrot-807303__340the parrots.”  He motioned skyward where a massive bird I thought resembled a pterodactyl circled.

“Let me take this all in,” I said, pausing to look around.  “This is incredible.”

“Hey, there’s a reason they shot ‘Jurassic Park’ in Costa Rica,” said Alan, smiling.

Alan and I hit for an hour.  For a beginner, he wasn’t bad.  After we finished, I paid a piddling sum at the office to become a “visiting member” of the Club and walked back with Alan to retrieve his clean car.

The next morning, I saw Brett.

“Alan said you enjoyed the tennis scene yesterday,” he said.

“That’s a good way to put it,” I said.  “The actual tennis was okay.  But I will definitely remember the setting forever.”

“Listen,” he said, “there’s a few lots in there you might be interested in buying.  They can’t miss!”

“Hasta la vista, Brett,” I said, retreating.  “You’ve already helped enough!”


RELATED BY DIVORCE
“You can’t do that,” said my boss, angry, looking up from his desk upon my return to the office. I was shocked, so excited I was with my first, improbable triumph in my two-week-old career as a divorce lawyer. Somehow, he viewed my victory as a failure.
I’d commenced working for Ralph DiPierro when he rescued me, solely on the basis of one telephone conversation, from a tedious position as a junior attorney at a classy, old money law firm. The fundamental problem was the firm’s disinclination to transfer a livable amount of that money to me in exchange for my time-consuming efforts. Also, the opportunity for client contact, which young lawyers crave, until they actually experience it, was non-existent from my permanent position in the firm’s law library.
Ralph, in contrast, offered client contact in abundance. He foisted my totally inexperienced self upon an unsuspecting client the first morning on the job, the likelihood of malpractice be damned.
“Here, take this file,” he said, in his direct, unadorned way. “Nina Brown’s husband left her. They don’t have any money, so you can handle it.”
“Well, um,” I stammered, accepting a thin, manila folder from gaunt, salt-and-pepper-haired Ralph, a possible winner of an Abraham Lincoln lookalike contest.
“Just show up at calendar call next Monday. They may not start the trial; it depends if there’s a judge available.” He added. “If they do, just settle it. Frankie Terranova’s the husband’s lawyer. He’ll go easy on you. I’ve known him a long time.”
“But what should I do to prepare?” I asked.
Ralph appeared stumped, as though the concept of preparation were totally foreign to him.
“Well, you know,” he finally said, “read through the file, give Nina a call so she knows you’re handling her case, and guide her through the process. She’s very young. I talked to her a couple months ago; I got stuck with her ‘cause she’s a waitress at MacMurphy’s.”
I must have looked surprised at Ralph’s explanation, since I knew clients to be almost sacred at my former firm; no one spoke disparagingly of them.
Ralph continued, in a tone suggesting wisdom gleaned from thirty years as a suburban divorce attorney: “You never want to represent a wife. Generally, the money is with the husband. But, sometimes, you don’t have a choice. Anyway, in this case, the husband’s broke, too.”
Ralph told me MacMurphy’s was the bar where he usually ate lunch and played in weekend poker games. The owner was his best buddy. Still, I felt uneasy as I sat down with the file in my office, formerly the storage closet, adjacent to Ralph’s office. I’d spent much of the morning fussing over hanging my diplomas on the wall. Now, I actually had a client to worry about. What if the case did come to trial? What if Frankie wasn’t “easy on me” as Ralph had promised? What did I actually know about divorce law or trials or clients or anything?
Law school had prepared me to read voluminous amounts of material relevant only to someone intent upon being a Federal Appellate judge. For readers who are unfamiliar, law school is largely an exercise in reading judge’s opinions. These dry writings are selected in order to illustrate important concepts, I assume, but they rarely resonated with me. And my year at Yardley, Grinnell & Berman only taught me to hide in the corner of the law library and appear intensely busy, no matter what.
I took a deep breath and opened Nina’s thin file. Notes on her intake sheet indicated she was twenty-seven, a year older than I, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment her husband had “deserted,” and she had a three-year-old son who may or may not have been the child of her husband, if I was properly interpreting the question mark Ralph had scribbled. A 3” X 5” card stapled to the folder indicated the trial date.
I wasn’t sure what I would say to Nina when I called, but I decided to “take the plunge.” A tiny voice, childlike and vulnerable, said “Hello?”
My stomach fluttered as I realized this person’s future was somehow tied to my minimal professional abilities. “Hello, I’m Stuart at Ralph DiPierro’s office,” I said.
“Who?” she said.
“Your lawyer’s office. Ralph is your lawyer and I’m his associate,” I said, trying to deepen my voice a level of experience or two. I felt “associate” conveyed gravity beyond that of a mere “assistant.”
“Oh, oh yeah,” said Nina. “I was wondering when I might hear something.”
“The trial is scheduled for next Monday,” I said. “There may be a delay, but we have to be ready, just in case.”
I wasn’t sure what constituted “ready,” but I felt it was a mature thing to say and I hoped Ralph would fill me in as the date approached. I didn’t know what else to say, and an awkward silence ensued, until Nina said: “Should we get together and talk or something? Maybe I can tell you what I’m hoping to get?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” I said, relieved. Her suggestion totally made sense.
“Can you meet me this evening at the Empire Diner?” she asked. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to meet a client for the first time at a restaurant.
“Can’t you come to the office?” I asked.
“No, I have to work at MacMurphy’s ‘til four and then take care of my son. But I can leave him with a friend from seven to eight this evening. So, is 7:15 okay?”
“Um, sure, I guess,” I said. “See you there.”
Now what? Ralph had already left for court, so I called an acquaintance who I knew had “put through” several uncontested divorces at another firm. I explained my predicament.
“It won’t be hard,” said Joe. “Complete the CIS with your client. Then, when you get to court, review the husband’s CIS, see where they disagree, and try to narrow the disagreements.”
“What’s a CIS?” I asked.
Joe laughed. “I forgot you’ve spent an entire year in the library. A CIS is the ‘case information statement.’ You fill in your client’s budget, and how much she is asking for in support. The husband will have filled in how much he’s prepared to pay. When you get to the courtroom, either the judge or his clerk will bring you and the opposing lawyer into the judge’s office, adjust a couple of the numbers, and make you settle without a trial.
“What if we can’t settle?” I asked.
“Settle,” said Joe. “Don’t rock the boat. Judges hate to waste time on trials.”
“Thanks,” I said, relieved to understand the likely order of events. It all sounded manageable. “I’m meeting my client tonight at a diner.”
“You’re meeting her outside the office?” said Joe, surprised.
“It’s the only time she’s available,” I said.
“Whoa, be careful,” said Joe. “There’s nothing more ‘available’ than a young divorce client.”
“Very funny,” I said, though the ramifications of Joe’s remark refilled my slightly diminished well of anxiety.
I arrived at the diner several minutes early and took a seat in a booth near the entrance. Right at the appointed moment, a woman who looked no older than a college student, but who could only be Nina, strode in wearing jeans and a notably tight tee shirt. She was thin, with big brown eyes, freckles and curly, permed hair in the style of the mid-1980’s. She virtually flounced into the booth across from me and offered a smile. I noticed she chewed gum with the avidity of a lion consuming a zebra.
“Nina?” I said, feeling self-conscious in my three-piece suit.
“Yes,” she said, taking me in with a smile that made me feel like I was eight-years-old and playing lawyer.
We ordered coffee and Nina explained her situation: “Robert left me almost a year ago. It really hurt. He doesn’t even bother to see our son, Charley. He’s living with a receptionist from the factory where he works. I hate him.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“Can we really nail him?” she asked. “He left us alone. I can hardly pay the bills.”
I felt a tug of sympathy for this lithe young woman across from me. Who could leave her like that? After she explained what Robert earned, however, I was certain I could do little for her; Robert earned less than she did.
We filled out a blank CIS I’d found in the office. Nina’s rent and car payments consumed nearly all her income. Charley’s baby-sitting and nursery school used up the rest, and Robert could not be counted upon for alimony. The only hope was to obtain reasonable child support.
“He offered fifty bucks a week,” said Nina. “I’ve gotta get at least a hundred. If I got that, I could get by.”
I nodded sympathetically, as though I were familiar with the costs of child rearing. The numbers sounded small, even to my uninformed mind.
“There’s one awkward question I have to ask,” I said. “Robert is Charley’s father, right?”
“Of course he is,” she replied, then added: “I’m nearly certain.”
“Okay,” I said. “I guess that’s good enough.”
I actually had no idea if it would be. When we finished our coffees and reached the bottom of the form, Nina stood and flashed me a luminous smile.
“Can I have your home number?” she asked, “just in case something comes up?”
I didn’t know if this was appropriate or not, but how could I refuse? I scribbled my number on a napkin and stood to say “good-bye.” Nina put the napkin into her large, leather bag and shocked me by leaning forward to kiss my cheek.
“You’re sweet,” she said, as though she were twice my age. “I know you’re gonna take care of me and Charley.”
I was enveloped by perfume as she turned and strode out. The shape of her rear left an impression I knew was inappropriate. “This is your first client,” I reminded myself.
The week flew by as my first, possible trial approached. At his suggestion, I studied some of Ralph’s complex files, and he offered occasional tidbits of advice, though they rarely concerned our clients or law. From Ralph, I learned which casinos in Atlantic City had the best buffets, which local bars had happy hours on which days, and which health club had the best racquetball courts. I felt totally unprepared. I went to bed early on Friday evening, and drifted into an unsettled sleep. I dreamed numerous scenarios at court, all disastrous.
What if Nina were ordered to pay alimony to Robert? What if the judge declared I was incompetent?” What if Nina shouted: “He promised to help me and he didn’t!” My dreams were so dire I was almost relieved to be awakened at two a.m. by the telephone.
“Hello,” I said, groggily. I heard crying on the other end of the line.
“It’s Nina,” said a high-pitched voice, sniffling. “The bastard. He’s ruined my life.”
“What?” I said, coming to attention. I immediately thought the worst, wondering if Charley had been kidnapped or the apartment set on fire. “What happened?”
“He, he,” she started, almost unable to speak. “He took the pots and pans.”
“Hunh?” I said. “What else?”
“They were really nice,” said Nina, distressed. “I bought them with my birthday money last year.”
“You’ve called me in the middle of the night because he took your pots and pans?” I said, amazed to have been called for something that struck me as so trivial, but also relieved the situation was not worse. I began to laugh.
“I was afraid it was something really bad.”
Silence from the other end of the line was deafening. I knew I’d made a mistake. What is considered important to a client, I realized, especially a divorce client, is not something for the lawyer to judge. That was the first self-learned nugget of knowledge I would remember for the rest of my career.
“I’m sorry,” I added. “I just thought… it might be something worse.”
Gradually, Nina composed herself. and we agreed I would bring up the matter with Robert’s attorney on Monday. I assured her I would call from the courthouse if we were able to settle, or in the unlikely event we were actually going to trial. Nina finally hung up after saying somewhat half-heartedly: “Sorry I called so late. I just didn’t have anyone else to call. I’m so lonely.”
It took me several hours to fall asleep again. I tried not to obsess about it, but anxiety over my courthouse debut ruined the entire weekend. Calendar call in northern New Jersey was a social phenomenon. About fifty men and a handful of women sat in a cavernous courtroom in Hackensack. Every other lawyer seemed to be named Ralph or Frankie or Dominic and the few women all seemed to be Teresa or Annemarie; it was not unlike a barbershop.
The assignment judge, a triple-chinned mountain of a man named Anthony Polito, stood at a lectern on a raised platform in front of the room and called pending cases in a mysterious order that I didn’t understand, then “assigned” them to particular judges and courtrooms. As he worked his way down his list, the room gradually emptied, and I found myself one of the few stragglers.
“Hey, Frankie,” said the judge, peering down from his perch and addressing a short, bald man in a plaid, three-piece suit that resembled curtain material. “Where’s DiPierro?”
My heart fluttered as I realized Frankie Terranova, my “adversary,” was speaking: “Ralphie said he was sending his associate.”
“Wow,” said Judge Polito. “Ralphie’s got an associate now. Impressive.”
I slowly raised my arm. “I’m, I’m Ralph DiPierro’s associate, um, Sanders is my name, um Stuart.”
Judge Polito gazed down at me. I felt even younger than I’d felt when I’d met Nina. Frankie Terranova took me in with a barely-concealed smirk.
“So, counselor,” he said, “you ready to rock-and-roll?”
“Easy, Frankie,” said Judge Polito. “What have you guys got?”
“Just a simple uncontested,” said Frankie.
“Alright, I’ve got some time to settle that myself,” said the judge, glancing at his watch.
“Come into my chambers.” Frankie and I followed the judge through a doorway at the front of the courtroom and into his office, a dark-paneled cave decorated with photographs showing Judge Polito with various local politicians.
“Were you at Knights of Columbus Sunday?” the judge asked Frankie.
“Couldn’t make it. Had Angie’s christening,” said Frankie.
“Congratulations,” said the judge.
“Thanks, Tony,” said Frankie. For just a second, my mind drifted to the specter of being known around the courthouse as “Stuie.”
The two bantered like brothers while I stood awkwardly to the side. Judge Polito hung his black robe on a rack behind his desk, sat down in a massive leather chair, and indicated that Frankie and I should sit down on two wooden chairs facing him. “So,” the judge said. “All settled?”
“Sure thing,” said Frankie.
“Um, I need to see his CIS, don’t I?” I asked, my voice rising involuntarily from my intended assertion into a question.
“Sure, George,” said Frankie, reaching for his briefcase.
“Stuart,” I corrected him.
“Yeah, whatever,” said Frankie. “Here’s the CIS. My client’s got no money. Plus, he thinks the kid might not be his, so we gotta go easy on the support.”
Judge Polito addressed Frankie: “Does he wanna do a paternity test?”
“No, Judge,” said Frankie. “He doesn’t think it that much.”
Both men laughed.
Judge Polito awaited my response as I skimmed the CIS. As Nina had indicated, Robert proposed to pay $50 a week in child support. Much of the rest of his income went towards his rent and car. But one item jumped out at me; Robert budgeted $100 a week for “alcohol and tobacco.”
Trying my best to sound like Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I declared: “Your honor, this man is suggesting that he pay $100 a week for drinking and smoking, and only $50 for his child.”
Both men looked at me as if to say: “So, what’s the point?”
I added, with indignation: “That doesn’t seem right.”
Judge Polito turned to Frankie. “What do you say to that?” he asked.
“It’s, it’s,” Frankie sputtered. “You know, a guy’s gotta live.”
“I don’t know,” said the judge, a smile seeping slowly through his substantial jowls. “But that’s a hard thing to justify, you know, a hundred for booze and fifty for the kid.”
I felt a burning look of hatred directed at me by Frankie, but I kept my gaze fixed firmly on the judge.
“I think,” continued Judge Polito, “you should modify the CIS and then we can call this ‘settled.’”
Frankie crossed out $50 at “child support” and wrote in $100.
“You’re breakin’ my balls,” he said to me.
Judge Polito laughed. He took the modified CIS and signed it. “Here, kid,” he said to me, like I was his employee. “Take this out to the court clerk and enter it as settled. Me and Frankie are gonna chat a little longer.”

After almost floating with elation to the bank of telephones in the hallway, I called Nina with the news. I’d won her what she wanted. I’d rescued a damsel in distress. I allowed myself to picture a celebratory hug, perhaps another kiss. Perhaps, we would be friends. After all, she was lonely and I was new in town.
“Oh, that’s good,” she said, when I reached her.
“Me and my boyfriend can go away for the weekend to celebrate.”
“Boyfriend?” I thought, disappointed, recalling her saying: “I’m so lonely.”
But then I thought about it a few minutes longer. I was naïve. Upon reflection, at least, I realized someone like Nina could not be expected to live like a nun for a year after her husband left. Back at the office, at least, I would receive acclaim.
When I arrived, however, that’s when Ralph glared up from his desk and declared: “You can’t do that. Frankie called and he was really pissed.”
When I appeared totally crestfallen, he explained: “A satisfied client is good for one divorce, maybe two over a thirty year career. A friendly adversary like Frankie is good for easy settlements in five or ten cases every year. You gotta just go along. This is real life, not a television show.”
My career as a divorce lawyer only lasted two more months. As soon as an experienced former judge’s clerk became available, Ralph suggested I work for his brother, Alan, who did real estate closings.
“Excellent,” I thought to myself, “a relatively non-emotional area of the law, without judges, lying clients, flirtations or moral compromises. It’s all black-and-white; we’re only dealing with money. My priorities will be clear.”
Not only did I eventually prove to be wrong about whether emotions and lying were part of real estate transactions, but Alan had apparently been tipped off about my zeal for representing clients’ interests.
“Listen,” he said on my first day, “in real estate law, a happy client is worth a deal every five or ten years. A happy real estate agent is good for five or ten deals a year. And a happy mortgage broker is even more important. Don’t ever forget that.”