Archives for category: stereotyping


“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 needed this morning.”
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 did a wonderful job cleaning up.” Rather, I expected a recitation of some or all of the following common complaints:
1. The seller is not finished moving;
2. There’s a carpet/floor/wall stain we never saw before;
3. The seller took the washer/dryer/chandelier that was supposed to be included;
4. The leaves have not been cleared;
5. The toilet doesn’t flush/sink doesn’t drain.
I could continue the list of humdrum defects for several pages but no one would keep reading. The meaning to me of each such item was that I would 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 had to rouse a degree of righteous indignation on behalf of my clients, regardless of my personal feelings.
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 enigmatically. When I met with them six weeks earlier to review the contract, they made no effort to ingratiate themselves. They 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, feeling like I was holding back a tsunami of suspicion. “I’ll also use your funds to pay the surveyor, title company, county clerk, etc. It’s all detailed in writing.”
I handed each of them a letter I’d prepared for all my clients explaining the procedures and likely costs of a closing.
Jeff, a paunchy red-head of medium height, 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 the Sherman’s. Nonetheless, after our meeting, the transaction proceeded routinely. Wendy, a freckled-faced blonde, called with occasional inquiries. They obtained their mortgage commitment, and the closing was scheduled without notable hiccups. Thus, although 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 details of defects. First-time home-buyers 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 abruptly to full attention.
“The seller, Mr. Brown. He stabbed himself in the main bathtub. I think he’s dead,” said Jeff.
My brain reacted like the finale of a fireworks display. “Is he joking?” I wondered for an instant. “No way, not Jeff Sherman,” 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.”
“So, like, this just happened?” I asked.
“Yeah, she said he didn’t want to sell the house,” said Jeff.
“Okay,” I said slowly. “So he killed 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. I considered my schedule and sourly concluded my entire day would be dominated by this one 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 complete the transaction. She’ll be too bereft to function.
“What do you want to do?” I ventured, tentatively. I cringed from the anticipated response.
“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.
“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 hunting knife, and committed suicide. The body had been removed by the coroner and the bathroom scrubbed.
“Is everything else okay at the house?” I asked Jeff.
“Yeah,” he shrugged, as though he experienced something like this every day.
“And Mrs. Brown is coming 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 in front of us 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 actually completely flummoxed.
She continued: “I told my husband last night I would not 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. Wow, was I ever wrong!



My situation shows why a kid can’t count on a college to pick his roommate for him.  I should’ve answered that survey they sent, like my mother said.  I can’t admit that to her, though.  She’ll never let me forget it.

So I get to school the first day and I’m all psyched and ready to go.  I’m gonna have a lot of fun and all that.  Who do I find in my room, already reading a friggin’ chemistry book?  None other than Nathan, a Chinese guy.  I thought he was someone’s dad or something, what with his glasses and comb over.  He looks like he’s forty-five!  But no, he’s a “visiting student,” or some such thing.  If he does good enough in English this year, he’ll get to stay for all four years and graduate.  Hell, he’ll probably finish before I do.

Nathan’s not even his real name.  It’s something no one can pronounce.  His advisor decided “Nathan” would be easier to use in college.  I think they could have come up with something better than “Nathan.”

That first hour or two, he just keeps smiling at me and offering to carry stuff.  I say “no thanks” about ten times, but he keeps insisting.  So I let him carry a few boxes though he’s not really up to it, if you know what I mean.  I still have to take all the heavy ones.

Some guys from down the hall pop in.  They have their weed and pipes out and are rarin’ to go.  Jeez, the last parent only left the floor about ten minutes before!  Anyway, I left my stash at home, safe and sound in the crawlspace where my mother will never find it.  Who knows what she did back in college, but I didn’t want to take any chances packing it.

So I say to these guys:  “I’ll join you tomorrow, but I gotta get downtown and load up on some stuff,” and they’re like:  “Okay, dude, come on over when you’re cool.”  Then they ask Nathan if he’s up for a little toke.  Heh!  The friggin’ guy doesn’t even know what they’re talkin’ about.  They look at me and just start cracking up.  I don’t like getting laughed at, y’know, but anyway, they kind of seem like jerks.  Nathan just looks confused.  I sorta feel bad for him, but also for me.

Nathan’s real quiet the rest of the afternoon.  He gets back to his book while I unpack.  He sorta follows me over to the cafeteria for dinner and sits at my table.  It’s a little like having a pet, I guess.  He just smiles at me and waits, and hardly ever says anything.  I’m thinkin’, “How’s he gonna get any good at English if he never talks?”  So I ask him some questions, like:  “What teams does he root for?” and “Who’s his favorite band?”

He nails the first one – the Houston Rockets – ‘cause they had Yao Ming.  But he doesn’t even know what I mean by “band.”  I have to play friggin’ charades in front of a bunch of kids at the cafeteria making like I’m hittin’ a drum and strummin’ a guitar.  They probably think I’m nuts.  Anyway, there must not be much music over there ‘cause Nathan can’t name a group.  After a long pause, he says:  “Bwitney Spear’?”

I can’t keep myself from laughing, but I think he’s serious.

So we get back to the dorm, and I’m looking around for something to do.  Everyone’s like hanging out in the lounge and getting to meet each other and Nathan just seems to want to say “hi” to that chemistry book again.

“Nathan,” I say.  “What’s so good about that book?”

“I really want to know organic chemistry,” he says.

I guess he’s into growing vegetables or something.  I tell him I’m going out and ask if he wants to come, but he just blinks at me from behind those glasses.  Then he says, believe it or not, that he’s tired and will go to sleep soon.

“Nathan,” I say.  “It’s your first night at college.  You can’t go to sleep at ten o’clock.”

“Yes, very sleepy,” he says.  “Long flight.”

I’m like, “Okay, dude.”  So I leave.  But I don’t feel good about it and the whole time I’m at the lounge, and the R.A.’s introducing everybody and the girls and guys are checking everybody out, I’m like thinking about Nathan alone in the room.  It’s like I’m becoming a damned parent or something.

After an hour, I decide there’s really no one great to hook-up with so I go back to the room.  And Nathan’s in pajamas.  I haven’t seen a guy wearing pajamas like that since I was ten.  Anyway, he’s putting away his clothes into his dresser, and he’s writing something with a marker on his socks.  So I ask him about it:     “Nathan.  What’s with the socks?”

“Oh,” he says.  “Each day, I use different pair so they will always be even.”

“Hunh?” I say.

“Yes,” says Nathan.  “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday, and so on.”

“It’s Wednesday Thursday.”


“Wednesday is before Thursday, not Thursday before Wednesday.”

“Oh, yes, thank you very much,” says Nathan.  “You help my English so much.”

That was the happiest I’d seen him, organizing his friggin’ socks so he knows which pair to wear each day.  How did this happen to me?


So I’m in my bed and it’s dark and Nathan’s asleep in his bed on the other side of the room.  And I’m thinkin’ about how this is my first day of college and, so far, it’s been no fun.  And what am I going to do about this roommate situation?  Can I change rooms or something?  And, all quiet like, Nathan whispers across to me:

“Are you awake?’

So I say “Yes.”

He says:  “Thank you for being so nice to me.”

And then I feel bad again ‘cause I was just lying there thinking about how I want to get out of there.

“Ah, no problem,” I whisper back.  And I’m thinking to myself:  “Yeah, no problem for you, man.  But I got a big problem.”  Finally, I must have fallen asleep ‘cause next thing I know I’m waking up.  And where’s Nathan?  He’s already sitting at his desk reading.  It looks like he’s been at it for hours.  He tells me he is sorry if he woke me up.




We sold Nike today, after twenty years.  Not the stock, but the grand piano, purchased impulsively twenty years ago, with the winnings of a stock investment.  We probably should have kept the stock.  Live and learn.

We were confident that, with three young children, at least one would be a spectacular musician or, at least, a continuing musician.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Each of them trudged through an obligatory year or two of lessons and each failed so spectacularly that we were not a bit reluctant to let them quit.  Just to be sure, the eldest and youngest also failed at the oboe, and the middle one failed at the flute, though she did attain a level of semi-competence that inspired us to purchase another expensive instrument for her.  Several months after that acquisition, she quit that, too.  At least a flute fits inconspicuously in a closet.

The piano served as an imposing and enormous piece of furniture in our living room – too pretty in its rich walnut suit to serve as a shelf, and too large to see around.  In the early years, I was an occasional tinkler at the keyboard.  I dusted off memory cells first developed when I was eight and was gratified to still play several pieces from that era by memory.  Yet, I was not able to commit any NEW pieces to memory.   I peck laboriously through simplified versions of famous melodies from sheet music.

Why did we decide to sell the piano?  While I derive occasional satisfaction from my playing, the piano more often serves as a reminder of our family’s futility.  My particular problem is an inability to practice.  I know that I am not alone in that problem; for me, it is not a lack of desire to play well.  My problem is that, by the time I practice a piece enough to perform it with a not-embarrassing level of mediocrity, I am too sick of the piece to perform it at all.  Meanwhile, we continue to expend several hundred dollars each year on tuning.  As the piano increasingly represents frustration, it is increasingly neglected.

Our first marketing effort took place several years ago via Craigslist.  Nearly a dozen people responded over a period of a month or two, and several were serious enough to come see and play it.  Each one enjoyed the sound and the appearance, but they rejected it as too large and/or too expensive.  Finally, one young man appeared infatuated.  He came three times.  He played as though he already owned it.  He described the space it would occupy.  He said he would buy it.  He did not even bargain on the price and he scheduled its pick-up.  Just one formality, he said, before the mover arrived; he was an accomplished musician, and he felt the piano should be checked by a “technician.”  This, he told me, is a professional several steps above a mere tuner on the qualification ladder.  He assured me that it was like having a master mechanic check a used car.  Since the piano had been professionally maintained throughout its life, there was no basis for concern.

Wrong again.  The “technician” arrived with the attitude and charm of a hit-man.  He did not shake hands.  He did not establish eye contact.  He brushed past me at the door and regarded the piano behind me like a food inspector discovering a nest of cockroaches.

“Wow,” he said, indicating the location of the piano.  “Has it always been there?”

“Yes,” I replied, unsure of what he was intimating.  There was no other logical place in the house for a grand piano than the living room.

“You have a vent there,” he said, indicating the air conditioning and heating vent that was on the floor adjacent to the piano.  Such vents, of course, were located throughout the house.

“And that window,” he grumbled, indicating a window ten feet from the keyboard.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes.  He shook his head.  I thought he might not respond.  Finally, he summarized his disgust, still without having touched a key:  “You got heat, you got cold, and you got sunshine.”

I made a motion that he correctly interpreted to mean that I did not understand why these unavoidable household accoutrements presented a problem.  Most people, after all, do not have houses without heat, cooling or windows.

“You can’t have an instrument in such conditions.”

I did not respond, and tried to picture Carnegie Hall without heat or air conditioning.  He finally approached the piano and opened up the top.

“Oh!” he groaned.  “You got a real problem here.”

“What?” I asked.

“The whole sound board is cracked.  It can’t be fixed.  Oh, it’s in terrible shape.”

“How can that be?” I asked.  “It was tuned a week ago and the tuner said it was in great shape.  It sounds beautiful.”

“Yeah, right,” he scoffed.   “I’m not even going to waste more time.  Look at that mess!”  He pointed to a line along the main block attached to the strings inside.  I stared hard where he pointed.  It looked to me like normal grain in the wood.

“That’s a problem?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” he said.  “It’s all about to pull apart.  I’m afraid I have to kill this deal.”

He turned towards the front door without even striking a key.

“I’ll call my tuner,” I said.  “Can he speak with you about this?”

“Won’t do any good,” said the technician.  He scurried out past me.

I was stunned.  How was this possible?  I immediately called my tuner and described what had happened.

“I’ll come out tomorrow,” he said, “but I think I know what’s going on.”

“What?” I asked.

“This is not uncommon,” he said.  “Some technicians have a different agenda.”

“Piano technicians have agendas?” I asked.

“You’d be amazed,” he said.

Meanwhile, an e-mail arrived from my buyer advising that he would not be purchasing the piano.   I was stunned.  I wrote back:  “I’m willing to pay to have another technician come and provide a second opinion.”

The buyer responded:  “I’ve decided to buy a piano that my technician is selling.  Thanks anyway.”

The “agenda” was clear.

Our tuner arrived the next day and agreed that the alleged “crack” was merely grain in the wood.  Though he is only twenty-five-years-old he looked at me with pity, like I was a child who had just learned there is, indeed, evil in the world.

The Craigslist trail turned cold and, after several months without interested buyers, we considered consigning the piano to a wholesaler.  Their representative came to the house and fawned over the instrument.

“This will sell instantly,” he declared.  He felt he could sell the piano at so high a price with his marketing muscle that, even after paying his commission, we would clear more money than if we sold it ourselves.  He even said:  “They don’t make them like this anymore.”  I knew it was trite when he said it, but it had enough truth in it to convince me.  As a Baldwin, our piano is one of the last to have been made in America before the entire industry decamped for China.  In 2001, Baldwin declared bankruptcy.

Six months after the wholesaler transported our piano to a warehouse two hours away, I was contemplating the meaning of the word “instantly.”  I was able to see our piano on his website, so I knew it still existed, but seeing it looking forlorn along with hundreds of others made me doubt both its unique quality and his marketing acumen.  He urged us to lower the price, twice.  Finally, when he called to suggest a third price reduction, to a level significantly below where we had it on our own, we opted instead to retrieve the piano.  We put sale plans on hold.

After two more years of its benignly dominating our living room, our tuner suggested that a client of his might be interested in the piano.  That evening, I heard from a man who asked me to send a picture of Nike from my phone.  After a trying technological tutorial, I managed to comply with his request.    He called immediately upon receipt to say that the instrument was “beautiful” but would never fit in his apartment.  “But my daughter’s instructor might be interested,” he said.  “Would you mind if I forwarded her the picture?”

“That would be great,” I said, though I really did not feel anything would come of it.  For years, every lead ended with “it’s too big,” or “it’s too expensive,” or “it’s too brown.”  I pictured moving into a nursing home at 100 lugging a grand piano behind me.

Yet, within a week, I heard from a woman named Hiromi Yamanashi.  She was the instructor that the man had mentioned, and she told me that her childhood piano was a Baldwin grand.  She had left it in Japan when she came to this country but was anxious to replace it.  She scheduled a visit for the next day.  I called our tuner with the good news.

“Oh,” he said, when I told him about Hiromi.  “She will never buy it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“First of all, it’s brown, and Asians only want black pianos.”

“What?” I said, appalled by his stereotyping.

“It’s just a fact.  Black pianos look better with their hair.  Second,” he continued, “Asians do not buy twenty-year-old pianos.  They only like new ones.  Piano companies in Asia do not even sell parts since no one there ever repairs a piano.”

I was wondering how it was that my piano tuner was explaining the ways of the world to me — again.  How could the world of pianos be corrupt and immoral?  This was not a used car that I was trying to sell.  It was an embodiment of beauty and culture.  In any event, my enthusiasm for Hiromi’s visit was diminished.

Hiromi arrived exactly when she promised.  She was a tiny woman, seemingly thin enough to be blown over by a breeze.  However, despite her stature, Hiromi projected an imposing, no-nonsense style; she strode from the door to the piano with purpose, barely pausing to say “hello.”  She sat down and played with powerful beauty and confidence that had rarely been heard in our house.  In fact, such competence had NEVER been heard in our house except from the stereo system. I enjoyed the sound washing over me like a wave and wished one of my children were playing.

Unfortunately, after several minutes of impressive beauty, she paused over a key in the lower register that was slightly discordant to my untrained ear.  Apparently, it was vastly discordant to her highly trained ear.  Over and over she hit the key, louder and louder.  It was like fate knocking catastrophically in my ears.  Each hammer blow made the sale of the piano more remote.

After a moment, Hiromi stood up and indicated she would be leaving.  “I will have to shop around some more,” she said.  “Thank you for showing me the piano.”

“I could get that key fixed,” I said.

“Not important,” she said.  My hopes died completely.  I remembered what the tuner said about Asians and the repair of pianos.

I was stunned a month later to receive an e-mail from Hiromi asking if the piano was still available.  I replied that it was, and she asked if she could check it again.  When she arrived the second time, she was accompanied by a quiet young man.  He sat beside me to listen to her impromptu concert.  After thirty wonderful minutes she turned to us, and said:  “I’ll buy it.”

“Really?” I said, shocked.

“Yes,” she said.  “We are getting married next month, and this is our wedding gift from my parents.”

I was delighted with this turn of events.  At least four things were wonderful:  the piano was finally sold; the piano was sold to someone who would play it beautifully; the piano was purchased for a joyous occasion; and, though not as important in the cosmic sense, I was going to be able to tell my tuner that his cynical stereotyping was wrong.  My faith in humanity was, at least, partially restored!