Shakespeare, Gray Hairs, and Peggy Lee

A week or so after moving into the new house, I stood in the guest bedroom, unpacking all of my books, when an enormous wave of sadness overtook me.

On one hand this was nothing new. In the days before, during, and after the move, more than once I stood in a room full of boxes thinking, “It can’t be done.” Also, “Why do I have so much shit?”

But this wave of sadness felt more pointed. If a wave can feel pointed. It was pointing me at something, but in my exhaustion it took me a few minutes to make out the direction.  In the middle of my alphabetical shelving, somewhere between Shakespeare and Sam Shepard,  I sat down on the edge of the bed. I didn’t wipe a tear from my eye.  I was too tired to cry. So I sat there looking at the books till it hit me.

I’d lost my way. I’d failed where those writers had succeeded. Each book was like a reproach. Concrete evidence of their drive and dedication, their private sacrifices. And me? I was 20 pages from the end of my own book. I’d been there for several months, after starting on the damn thing eight years ago.

I suppose I had an excuse or two. A new house. The arson. And I’d been working three jobs, two of which involved a great deal of writing, about a subject for which I’d had to feign great interest: marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. All writers could learn a thing or two from marketers. But each hour I spent thinking and reading about marketing were hours I couldn’t spend writing my book, reading my favorite authors, discovering new books, or figuring out how to be a better writer.

This is the great battle for all writers, since writing rarely pays the rent. A battle I’d been losing. I was tired and angry all of the time, pulled in a hundred different directions. My current freelance client had revealed herself to be a sociopath, happily devouring every hour my sweetness had offered her, and who’d paid me back with resentment.

Three jobs had meant more money, and the money had been good, and we’d just bought a house, and there I sat, in the new house, surrounded by boxes and not-crying, adrift from the thing that had given my life the most meaning.

That night, over dinner in our kitchen, with the oven and the lights shorting out from a faulty breaker, my husband listened to this familiar tale of woe, then told me the same thing he’d been telling me for months. And this time I heard him.

And though it made me anxious and nauseous, because it meant disappointing other people, whose interests I’d put ahead of my own, the next day I gave notice at two of the three jobs. I kept one, the job with the health insurance and the commuter check and the greatest number of hours, the job I could leave every day at the office. The job that involved no writing at all.

I’m writing this with a head full of cold medicine, which is making me self-indulgent. Or more self-indulgent than usual. The cold and other complications kept me out of Joe’s chair, which means I’ve gone a full two weeks since my last haircut. I know, it’s an atrocity. But in my slightly-longer sideburns I see more than a couple of gray hairs, and it’s this, I think, that finally allowed me to hear Joe’s advice about dropping the 2 jobs.

Because at the age of 41 I keep looking around and thinking, “Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee was before my time, but apparently the sentiment is universal. And in no way does this apply to my husband, or our pack of dogs, or the new house.

It’s the panicked, and yes, self-pitying cry of a middle-aged (yikes) man who’s worked a series of low-wage desk jobs and has a 98% finished book that scares him shitless, and who’s afraid he hasn’t made nearly the mark he’d like on the world.

The only way to answer that question is with action. So I dropped the 2 jobs and now, leaner and slightly less exhausted, I face the end of the book with less money and fewer excuses.

Of course I immediately filled some of this free time with another project. I caught the gardening bug. Again. Long story, but the new house has enormous outdoor potential, and I’m obsessed with making it pretty. Or prettier. Happiness comes from low expectations. Besides, on the spectrum of addictions, gardening feels slightly more productive than, say, crystal meth. Or Playstation 3.

Even without gardening, a new house is essentially four walls of endless projects. But the two weeks notice I gave the two jobs have passed, Joe’s Barbershop has opened again, and in fits and starts I’ve made a little progress on the book. Maybe Peggy Lee will quieten down for a little while.

The Right Direction, a.k.a. One White Dude’s Confession

About a week before we moved into our new house, some guy broke into a home about four blocks away and killed an entire family. I saw the headlines while, um, researching something online at work, then texted the Manly Fireplug.

“Five dead. But the paper says it took place in Sunnyside!” That would be the next neighborhood over from ours, and it was my attempt to inject lame humor into the mid-level anxiety we had about the location of our new home.

But a few days later I checked again, and now Wikipedia, our greatest repository of fact, called it “2012 Ingleside, San Francisco homicide.”  We consoled ourselves with the rumor that the killer already knew his victims, because frankly, it was too late for us to turn back.

I also consoled myself with other “facts.” The victims were Chinese. The suspect Vietnamese.

This post is taking me a long time to write, in part because it’s about my own racism, and I want to be rigorously honest.  I’d rather not do such a thing, so I keep clicking away to read about Cabin in the Woods and to shop for new shower caddies. And it’s taking me a long time to write because we’ve lived in the house all of 12 days, and my thoughts and feelings about my new neighborhood are muddled.

But hey, half-baked conclusions are what blogs are for, so away we go…

Ingleside is one of San Francisco’s more obscure neighborhoods. “You know, near City College,” I tell literally everyone when they give me that blank, where-did-you-move look. Located on the city’s southern edge, Ingleside has no distinguishing landmarks, and offers few results when typed into Google. It’s also one of the last affordable neighborhoods left in the city. If by “affordable” you mean single-family homes that sell for a half-million dollars.

One night, the week before we moved in, the Fireplug and I stopped by the house. We’d done this a few times, walking through the empty rooms and picturing our future. I think it’s what people do when they buy a house. I’d always drag the Fireplug into the backyard, which was surprisingly peaceful and offered a glimpse of the bay and the Oakland hills.

On this particular night, standing in the living room, we noticed a black couple coming out of the house two doors down. The woman turned to yell something to a man in their garage, then climbed into a car and drove off. The man in the garage turned on some very loud music, and left the garage door open for the next hour. The Fireplug and I looked at each other.

“You know our to-do list?” I said. “Let’s move double-pane windows to the top.”

Just now I could have called our neighbors African-American instead of black. I’m a writer; I understand the power of words. And there’s an unrelenting pressure to be politically correct, living in San Francisco, which black people are leaving in droves. At least I think that’s still the politically correct term. I’d ask my black friends what they preferred, but I don’t have that many. Which may be part of my problem.

I’m a researcher by nature, which I’ve realized from writing a 350-page memoir is probably due to a rather chaotic childhood and a deep aversion to surprise. I like to know what’s coming my way. Especially when I’ve just committed to buying my first house.

And so I went online and looked up census figures for the quarter-mile surrounding our new Ingleside house. And I focused my search on race. And that night I presented my findings to the Fireplug.

“Over the last eight years Asians have held steady at 50% of the neighborhood’s population,” I said. “Hispanics have dropped by 8%. American Indians dropped by 37%. Blacks dropped by 30%. Whites have increased by 23%. Oh, and people with graduate degrees grew by 110%.”

I want to be clear here. I wasn’t just reciting facts. I was offering proof that the neighborhood was heading in the right direction.

By “right” I meant “safer.” I’m not saying this was a rational act. I used percentages of racial minorities to try and ease my anxiety.

I like to think of myself as an open-minded guy, able to look past skin color to the individual blah blah blah. Nobody’s asked my position on the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman mess, but it’s hard not to have one in our echo chamber. I’d say that public rushes to judgment are usually ill-advised. Off the record I was leaning in my usual liberal direction.

It’s easy to think of yourself as open-minded about race when you spend 95% of your time in neighborhoods that are 95% white. But moving into what real estate agents call a “diverse” neighborhood had ripped open my broad-minded disguise to reveal something else underneath.

The day we moved in, the Fireplug stood out on the sidewalk, directing the movers to carry stuff either upstairs or downstairs, and I stood inside, directing them to the right rooms. The Fireplug and I have this running joke about his habit of talking to strangers, a habit (surprise!) I don’t share. After the movers left, the Fireplug told me that more than a few neighbors had stopped by to welcome us.

He already knew their names. Susan, the Asian woman in the bright orange house, who dressed to the nines even when walking her little dog around the block. Brian and Rick, the gay couple across the street, who’d moved into their renovated house with two adopted kids, and who literally cheered when the Fireplug mentioned that he had a husband, too. Carlton, the black man from two doors down, who sat with two other black men on lawn chairs outside the open garage, watching the afternoon drift by.  And Austin, the Chinese man next door, who was thrilled to hear that we owned and not rented, and who told us that yes, the residents of Carlton’s house often listened to loud music, but it never went late, and in fact they acted as the unofficial neighborhood watch. They knew who belonged on our street, and who didn’t.

In other words, the Fireplug discovered things that no census could reveal. And yes, I felt foolish. And relieved. And thankful for the Fireplug’s big mouth.

Today our house is half-rewired and half-unpacked, our windows rattle, the shower’s cramped, and our kitchen won’t be appearing in Elle Decor anytime soon. But the house gets a ton of light, and I like going home to it, to our three dogs and the big backyard. I like waking up with the Fireplug.

And in the evenings, after work, when I take the dogs on our comical, leash-snarling, hill-climbing walk, I try to meet the eye of everyone I pass. Some of them talk to me. Some of them glare. Sometimes I’m glad that one of our dogs is a pit bull. (He’s arguably the sweetest member of our pack, but strangers don’t need to know that.) Every time I step outside I’m conscious, in a way I never was in my last neighborhood, of my skin color.  That’s not a bad thing.

And in 12 days Ingleside has grown on me. Most of the houses are modest. There’s trash in some yards, neglected gardens, cars propped up on blocks, “Beware of Rotweiler” signs, and acres of peeling paint. There’s a house around the corner where a young man was recently killed. It’s boarded up, with a row of candles out front, and outer walls covered in his friends’ testimonials. He was described by reporters as an “aspiring rapper,” and the articles about him, lean on details, ran for a single day. I looked him up on Facebook. He was twenty years old, and his profile says, “Engaged.”

There are “nice” houses, too, probably owned by people who, like me, sometimes pick up a copy of Dwell. But it’s the other houses I like to look at, walking the dogs, or on my way to the BART station every morning. And this is the point at which words fail me, explaining why I like them so much.

Because every possible word (“Real?” “Honest?”) sounds patronizing, the words liberal urban white guys use to romanticize the fading parts of their neighborhoods. After paging through several dozen Dwell photo spreads, after the ubiquitous bowl of green “apples” and countless Keep Calm posters, I yearn to see something a little more alive. Ingleside – whose residents show evidence of caring about things other than minimalist design- feels quietly alive.

Last weekend the Fireplug’s sister came to town and helped us do some unpacking and painting. After our second trip to Home Depot, we came home with a weed wacker, which the Fireplug used on our entire, quarter-acre backyard of 18″ grass/weeds. He also wacked the weeds out front, and Carlton, who was entertaining a few friends with a barbeque outside his garage, ran down to say that he had saved a parking spot for us on the street. He could just move his car and it was ours, he said. His barbeque was loud, but it didn’t go late. None of his parties had gone late.

More than once, before our move, I’d found myself defending our new neighborhood in a half-joking manner, pointing out new development on Ocean Avenue. “Because what’s a better sign of gentrification than Whole Foods? Ha ha ha.”

But as the 12 days ticked by, my little census research left me feeling gross and increasingly uncomfortable.

It’s humbling to see myself as a cliche. A gay white man moving into a “fringe” neighborhood, fixing up his home, paving the way for others like him. I am part of the 23% surge in white people. Which, it stands to reason, means that I’m changing Ingleside.

If there’s justice in the world, though, Ingleside will change me, too.

My Hero, My Fireplug

Joe Gallagher photo by Michael McAllisterSo the Manly Fireplug and I bought a house.

I should say he bought the house, since the sale of his last one gave us the down payment for this one. But my name’s written next to his name on several thousand pieces of paper by now, I’ll be paying half the mortgage, and I must have earned at least a tiny amount of credit by simply enduring escrow.

Weird how fast life changes. Two months ago we were planning our honeymoon (now postponed.) Back then I had no idea what “4 percent and no points” meant. I still don’t. But I know it makes some people jealous.

Due to recent events at the barbershop, I’m reluctant to post photos or give too many details of the house. Most of my anger at the arsonist has faded, as I figured it would, and I feel fairly confident, or as confident as one can feel about this kind of thing, that it was just some random pyro.

But I can’t be rational about the welfare of our dogs.

So I’ll say this much. It’s in a far-flung corner of the city, with nice big rooms, hardwood floors that are getting refinished right this moment, two skylights, and a great backyard for the dogs. From back there you can see a slice of the bay and the glimmering lights of Oakland. Every time I stand out there my head gets quiet and I feel like life is gonna be ok.

Thanks to our realtor Matt Fuller, who every day for the past two months went above and beyond. He was one of maybe two grown-ups we encountered during this whole process. I started referring to one mortage lady as “Trainwreck Pennie,” but that was weeks ago – she was nothing compared to the bumbling, inept, and juvenile band of incompetents who barely avoided derailing our “dream.” (I’m looking at you, Prominent Escrow Company.)  Reading Matt’s emails to them – as their series of mistakes delayed our closing from one day to seven – was a personal highlight. He steered us safely to the other side, always with a sense of humor. Thanks, dude.

The real hero of this story though is my husband. Seriously, I’m biased, but he managed to get through the sale of his last house, applications with two separate mortgage companies, an arson at his business, fire insurance paperwork, finding a temporary chair during shop repairs, tax season, multiple contractor appointments, and the Escrow Week from Hell with the sort of fortitude I hope to one day emulate.

Now, who wants to help us pack?

Mortgages Are For Masochists

Dogpoet/Michael McAllister MFA Columbia Graduation Imperial Margarine GownYou ever get that whiny voice in the back of your head that says, “Boy, it sure would be nice if life only gave me one, maybe two things tops to deal with at a time?” Apparently life doesn’t work that way!

I know. I’m still processing this, too.

Also: IF YOU ARE A WRITER CONSIDER THE BENEFITS OF RENTING!

Three jobs and an arson are nothing compared to the mortgage approval process. If you recently took time off to go to grad school, work on a book, or engage in nontraditional forms of employment, prepare yourself for weeks and maybe months of financial proctology.

Dig out your bank, credit card, IRA, and 401k statements (yes, Dad, I really have a 401k). Scan and email your tax returns. Check your credit score and try not to give in to despair. Write three-page emails trying to explain the six or seven w-2 and 1099 forms from 2010.  Keep your cool when they say, “Um, that was really confusing.”

Stay near the phone and field each day’s new request. For example, “Can you give us the contact info for the two years of employment before you had this really weird urge for an Ivy League education? Actually,  make that three.”

Also: “Can you get us a copy of your degree from Columbia?”

“How humiliating,” Joe said when I told him.

“Someday,” I said, “I will look back on all of this and not throw up.”

“Even better,” he said. “You finally got to put that MFA to use.”

Letter to an Arsonist

It’s been nine days since you set fire to my husband’s barbershop. And yeah, I’ve spent a good chunk of that time wondering who you are.

Let me cut to the chase and answer your most urgent question: we don’t know who you are, and I doubt we ever will.

But we’ve wondered. And we’ve boiled it down to two theories.

  • Theory #1: You picked Joe’s shop for a personal reason. Maybe my husband, who’s got a big and sometimes rough-edged personality, raised his voice to you one day. It happens. Maybe you hate gay people. Or flat tops. Maybe you’re the dude who sent me a bunch of software-anonymized emails last summer, full of venom and veiled threats, demanding that I cancel my upcoming wedding. Which – maybe you noticed – I didn’t do.
  • Or Theory #2: You’re just a random pyro. As Alfred put it to Batman (sorry for the pop culture reference, but I’m a man of the times): Some men just want to watch the world burn.

The pyro theory seems more likely, if only because I distrust the drama factor raised by theory #1. Targeted. So dramatic. Like Batman.

But if this were a movie you’d get unmasked. We’d discover your motive. We wouldn’t be left with this dumb open wound, peering into the faces of the good people around us and wondering, “Could it be you?” Cause in real life, bad guys don’t wear clown paint.

Of course if you’re a random pyro you’re not reading this letter. Us writerly types would call this a literary device. It’s contrived and a little pretentious. But it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to a face-to-face, so just humor me. Or, if you’d rather, just tell me who you are. I’d really, really enjoy that.

This week I ran into a friend who, several years ago, got beaten to the edge of death by a bunch of kids. They pulled him apart on a dark city street and left him there. And they never got caught.

My friend left that city and moved to a remote town, on a river, and spent the next couple of years putting himself back together. He had time to wonder about those kids. Who they were. Why they’d done it. Time to consider another crazy-making motive – that they’d been hired.

I asked him how he’d dealt with the not-knowing. “I lost a year of my life,” he told me, “Asking myself the question ‘why?’”

There’s this saying that’s been floating around the rooms of the 12-step meetings where I still spend time: “Why is not a spiritual question,” usually spoken with this smug, I-read-The-Power-of-Now-and-have-attained-enlightenment tone that invariably makes a lot of other people in the room nod in sage agreement.

And oh God, how I want to rip them apart.

That maxim fills me with rage. It appears nowhere in the official 12-step literature. It’s just one of those fads that waft through our meetings and the culture at large. Like “living in the present moment.”  Or that whole inner-child crap from the early 90’s.

Screw those blinkers. Spiritual growth doesn’t come from not asking why. The point isn’t protecting yourself from the pain of uncertainty. It comes after you’ve asked why as many times as you can stand, knowing you won’t get an answer.

At least that’s my guess. I don’t know. I’m just saying that nine days after the fire I’m still asking why, and fuck anyone’s advice, I’m entitled to that question.

And on the slim chance that you’re not some random pyro, and that you targeted Joe for a reason, it’s probably what you want. The nervous, corrosive wondering. The bunker-building. The doubting of good people’s intentions. The thoughts of cutting our losses and moving to the damn desert.

But it’s hard to stay in a bunker when a few hundred people come pull you out. They offered Joe help and money and more than a few kind words. Someone made us corned beef and cabbage. Dear arsonist, when the shit hits your fan, who’s going to make you corned beef and cabbage?

Joe’s ready to stop asking why. But he’s a tougher cookie than me, and it’s one of the many reasons I stick with him. Watching him, I learn how to face things like critics and arsonists and mortgage lenders. He’s already building what you tried to burn down.

Was your act evil? On my more generous days I believe that we’re all capable of any crime. I’ve acted selfishly. I’ve failed people. I’ve hurt them too, more recently than I’d care to admit. And so asking why, of myself, seems like a crucial question. Why did I act that way? And how will I act better next time?

I’ll probably never get the answer to why you lit that match. But at least I can turn the question on myself. If I’m capable of burning something down – and I am – why have I never done it?

I think about you breaking into the shop, 3 a.m., and skulking down to the basement in shadows. Fueled by compulsion or bitterness. Slipping out in the dark, the smoke and the flames rising behind you. Hurrying down the street towards cover. Like that dude last summer with his venemous emails, cowering behind software, unable to show his face. Maybe you hid nearby to watch your work.

And when you got back to the metaphorical mother’s basement of your life, maybe you showered and scrubbed your hands. But you’re carrying something now that you don’t get to put down.

And that’s why I haven’t done what you’ve done. I wouldn’t want to carry that thing around. I wouldn’t want your life.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

The Smoldering PileThe sun was coming up and the man had been circling the charred pile of belongings outside my husband’s barbershop when I started pounding my fist on the car’s horn. He gave me a curious glance, then went back to circling. I climbed out of the car and closed the distance between us.

“Move on,” I said.

“What’s your problem?”

“Just move on.”

“What do you care?” he said. “This stuff’s just laying in the street.”

“I don’t fucking care. It’s not yours, so move the fuck on.”

He looked closely at my face. “You should have paid your fire insurance.”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

“You don’t have to be such an asshole, man.”

My voice dropped. “Move on,” I said, then climbed back in my car. He stood there for a minute, still talking to me in words I could no longer hear. Blood thrummed in my ears. He turned and made his way up the street.

I’d been sitting in the car outside the Manly Fireplug’s shop for about an hour, since just before dawn. We’d left his house four hours ago, right after I’d stumbled groggily into the bathroom and heard both the ringer and the text alert going off on his phone in the office down the hall. It was late. Or early, depending on your perspective.

I peered at the phone in the dark to see the words, “Accident at the shop.” I called the friend who’d left the text. “Get down here,” he said. “There’s a fire.”

I drove us down the hill at a speed just shy of reckless, both of us still half-asleep. It was 3 a.m. Or maybe 4 a.m. An hour made vague by daylight savings time, and we drove down in equal ambiguity, holding our breath, wondering if what awaited us would come as a shock or a relief. I wanted to erase all of it, take it away from the man sitting next to me. Erase the seconds I stood in the stark light of the bedroom, looking down at my husband with the phone still in my hand, telling him once, twice, then three times, “Joe, wake up.”

We turned the last corner. Four firetrucks. “Shit,” he said.

And now I sat, hours later, in the car again, watching the man I’d yelled at shuffle up the street. He wasn’t the first man I’d scared from the smoldering pile that morning. I dug out my phone and when the Fireplug answered I said, “Do you want me to protect your friend’s pile of burned-up stuff from the crazy homeless people?”

He sighed. “You don’t have to protect the burned up stuff from crazy homeless people.”

“Good. Cause I’m getting in fights with them. And they’re winning.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” I sipped from a cup of cold coffee that had been sitting in my car since the day before. My hand smelled of smoke. “Are you guys going to be much longer?”

“Just a few minutes,” he said. I could hear the buzz of a saw over the line. He’d gone to the hardware store with Basil, one of the barbers, and Basil’s boyfriend, Ron, to get plywood to cover the broken windows and the two back doors that had been kicked in by the firefighters. This was after the emergency window repair service told us they’d charge $2000 to board everything up. I’d stayed behind to guard the open shop, and as it turned out, fight with crazy homeless guys over the charred pile that had been dumped in the gutter to cool.

“Crazy” and “homeless” were just words I’d used to distance myself from the men I’d scared off. Truth was, the last guy’s wounded tone had gotten to me. Maybe I didn’t need to be such an asshole. Not about burned-up crap.

I suppose I had an excuse or two. The single hour of sleep now well behind me. The holes in the floor and the wall of my husband’s shop that the firefighters had opened with their axes, holes you could peer through to see the still-smoldering pile of belongings that the Fireplug had let a friend store in the basement. The row of folding chairs I’d bought from IKEA for the literary readings that had begun to melt together. The water and the soot and the smell of smoke. The arson investigator who’d questioned first the Fireplug, then me, of our whereabouts before the fire, to whom I’d said, “Look, I know you’re just doing your job, but we are a few days away from closing on a house, and he needs a steady income more than an insurance check.”

The smoldering belongings were not mine, but I felt strangely protective of them. And exposed, as if someone had dragged our own private lives and dumped them in the gutter for the world to pick through. And so I felt relief when the Fireplug and the others returned with the plywood, and I could think about something else.

Dawn gave way to late morning. Friends showed up to help (thanks guys). We swept the broken glass from the sidewalk, and pumped the standing water from the basement. Neighbors loaned us a step ladder and an extension cord. They dropped off a box of croissants. Word spread on Facebook and every few seconds someone called or texted the Fireplug. Still bleary from lack of sleep, I kept thinking about the time I had to explain to him lyrics from a Ke$ha song:

Boys blowing up our phones…

By noon the shop had been boarded up. Later the Fireplug would call the insurance company and there’d be more inspections and paperwork, but for now we’d done all that we could do. Basil and I leaned against his pick-up truck out front and every few minutes broke the news to another shaggy-haired client. I told Basil that he and Ron were the heroes of the day. Privately I wished for not the first time in my life that I was good with my hands. I wanted to offer my husband something tangible, as they had done. All I could do, when he’d told me he was scared, was tell him that we’d get through this, no matter what.

Disheveled men and women, some of them muttering to themselves, continued to circle the pile in the gutter. I figured they were merely looking for something they could sell, something that might buy one more meal, or one more day.

But then a woman pushing a shopping cart, her threadbare slippers scraping along the sidewalk, slowed next to the pile, and I saw then, side by side, her belongings and our friend’s belongings, exposed, dragged out into the light. She looked at the pile, at the boarded-up shop, and then at us, as though measuring our change in fortune. I looked away from her.

Our friend showed up and stood stoically at the side of the pile, looking down at his charred belongings, holding the soot-smeared portrait of his parents that the Fireplug had pulled from the basement.

Another woman, her face marked by everything life had thrown her way, came over and stood near our friend, gazing down at the pile, whispering words in her own language. Then she made a noise of alarm, bent, and pulled a few burned photos from the pile. The blackened, smiling faces seemed to move her to tears, and she made low, keening noises of anguish. She held the photos out to our friend, who nodded at her, turned, and walked back to his car. The woman came over to us, grieving in her private tongue, and we looked down at our feet as she tried to show us the photos in her hands.

Real Estate for Dummies

And you will LIKE ITYeah, I totally disappeared on you. But the following glossary should help explain what I’ve been up to. With special thanks to my husband, the Manly Fireplug, and Matt Fuller, our real estate agent, who’ve kept me hovering near sanity.

“Bathroom in Original Condition:” A room that will make you question if life is worth living.

“Center Patio:”
A feature common to houses in the Sunset neighborhood, that will fill you with fantasies of sun-drenched-kitchens and second-cups-of-coffee, and that will drive the selling price about 25k beyond asking, and 50k beyond you – you silly, dreamy coffee-drinker.

“As-Is:” You will breathe mold spores into your lungs day and night, and you will like it.

“Diverse neighborhood:” White person be warned.

Buyers: Masochists

Sellers: People who shove dirty clothes under their beds, or who just flat-out lock the door to the master bedroom during an open house.

Lenders: Emotional proctologists

“Turn around time is 48 hours on all pre-qualifications.” You’ll drive yourself insane waiting for 10 or 11 days before you call and find out that, since you have three jobs with corresponding paperwork, they put your application under a pile on their desk and ducked out for a smoke break.

Short Sale: A phrase dreamed up by someone who tortured small animals as a child.

REO: A house that some poor sucker lost to a bank, such as Wells Fargo, who’ll slip totally frivolous, mean-spirited clauses in the contract should you be so bold as to place a bid. “Do they even want to sell this house?” you’ll wonder. Ha, that’s funny, you’re trying to understand a bank!

Pending: You’re so very close to getting the house that -even though you know you should remain detached – you’ve pictured sharing with your husband and three dogs, and that you’ve furnished smartly and comfortably in your head with the help of various magazines and decorating websites (see below). At least we think you’re close. Maybe.  Other agents probably won’t show it to other potential buyers. I mean, most of them wouldn’t dream of it. 

Escrow: Thirty days or more of disorientation, insomnia, indigestion, weight loss, irritability, and termite reports.

Midcentury Modern: An architectural, interior, and furniture design form that you are unreasonably drawn to because you are gay. A phrase you’ll type into the search box on Craigslist and ebay thinking you might actually find a bargain chair for your “pending” living room, before it dawns on you, three weeks later, that nobody who would give you a deal would even think to use the word “midcentury.”

Dwell: A magazine featuring photos of “sustainable” prefabricated cabanas you picture as your writer’s studio, that the city of San Francisco would never in a million years grant you permission to put in your backyard, “reclaimed” wooden dining room tables holding nothing but a bowl of green “apples,” and floor lamps priced at $2,126. A form of torture you will subject yourself to before dragging your broke ass to IKEA.

Design Within Reach: A store with Midcentury furniture porn priced within reach of nobody you know. Off to you-know-where.

IKEA: A store featuring couches owned by every member of the 99%, but that you tell yourself you could disguise with a throw pillow.

Apartment Therapy: Interior design crack. A swirling vortex of virtual home tours and DIY braid-a-rug-from-your-dead-grandmother’s-pantsuit projects. When you look up from your computer, eight hours have passed, you really, really need to pee, and oh, you’ve lost your job.

Backsplash: This thing in the kitchen you probably could have gone the rest of your life in total ignorance of, but then you decided to buy a house.

Little Pink Houses For You and Me

I snapped a dozen pics of the rather dumpy house in one of San Francisco’s most far-flung neighborhoods when I told our realtor Matt, “It kind of smells like old people.”

It was a Saturday afternoon, and the pics were for the Manly Fireplug, who was working at the shop, and the house was the first stop on our first tour.  We moved to the window of the back bedroom, and Matt pointed out at something in the overgrown yard.

“It comes with its own boat,” he said. A decrepit rowboat had been propped against the sagging fence, half-hidden by weeds.

“Architectural salvage,” I said, “People pay extra for that.” Then I wandered into the pink-tiled bathroom (a vast number of the city’s bathrooms, according to real estate photos, are entirely tiled in pink) and snapped a pic of the cracked toilet basin. Then I followed Matt back down the stairs, and he pointed at a sign hanging on the back of the front door.

Both hearing aids,” he said. I snapped the last pic of the house, feeling a little guilty about my earlier “old-people” crack. Ms. Martha had lived here, maybe most of her life. Maybe she’d died here, too.

Back in the car Matt kept asking me what I wanted in a home. Location? A garden? A stripper pole in the living room? I told him that after my husband and dogs, nothing was more important to me than my home, but then I found myself stuttering nervously that I…well…I kind of like a place that’s a retreat from the world, if that makes sense?

Truth was, I was scared shitless. Our first application for a preapproved mortgage had been turned down, due to the fact that I’d taken time off for grad school and to work on my book, and though our second application was supposedly “looking good,” nothing yet was certain, and I felt hesitant about this open house tour, and of real estate in general. I’m a writer with one 98%-finished book living in San Francisco, hardly the Danielle Steele of every banker’s dreams.

We spent the rest of the tour driving around the Outer Sunset, one of the few neighborhoods in the city we might possibly afford. I snapped pics of fake-wood paneling, tandem garages, and asbestos tiles. I snapped pics of illegal basement in-law units, and grimy bathrooms straight out of Folsom Prison. I snapped pics of a 12-room house carpeted entirely in, yes, pink.

But I also snapped pics of polished hardwood floors, Wedgewood stoves, and a back yard with cypress trees and a view of the Marin Headlands. We wandered through empty houses, and houses where the owners scrambled to make the beds in the next room. We wandered past a 12-year-old girl, oblivious to us, video-chatting with friends on a laptop at the kitchen table. We wandered through houses where it seemed nobody had ever lived, tastefully staged within an inch of their lives.

I felt the nervous, competitive energy of a house crammed full of prospective buyers – young couples and Chinese families, and more than a few start-up types – all of us pretending not to see each other as we tried to picture the living room in a different color.

After five or six houses I felt giddy and exhausted, a headache gnawing at the edges of my vision. “You have an interesting job,” I told Matt. “You see everyone at their absolute most stressed, teetering at the edge of sanity.”

The next day we got word that our loan application had been preapproved,  and the thing I thought couldn’t happen was now possible. Or near-possible. I felt superstitious and unrelieved.

“I’m getting an ulcer,” I told the Fireplug, who had been through real estate insanity in New York and San Francisco, and who, let’s face it, was the more stable, profitable, loan-worthy of the two of us.

“This is nothing,” he said. “Remember what I said. Roller-coaster.”

And I’ve flown off the tracks, full-out OCDing on real estate sites, my already-fractured attention span splintering atomically, unable to focus on anything else. I am writing this partly to distract myself from the fact that Matt is right this moment touring the house that has reached the top of our list, a house we’ve only seen in professionally-staged online photo galleries,  in another far-flung neighborhood, a house I want to believe is solid, a house we can both picture living in together, getting older and more crotchety, needing at first one, then two hearing aids, hanging notes on doors to remind ourselves of all the things we’d otherwise forget.

A Bungalow for Officers of the Peace

The Hanging Sheriff of Midtown TerraceA while back the Manly Fireplug and I drove around the Twin Cities for a few hours, looking at all the houses where I’d spent my youth. Having finished my MFA thesis, which formed only the first two-thirds of my actual book, I’d turned our trip into a research expedition.

If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you know I’m writing about my family, who’ve been awfully charitable about the whole thing considering that everybody (including me) comes out of the story looking like, well, singular pieces of work.

Quick review of the basics:

  • Parents separate when I’m ten and my brother five
  • Parents both come out of the closet when I’m eleven
  • Parents divorce and begin adventures in same-sex dating
  • Parents both end up with long-term partners who were also previously married, with kids
  • I come out at college, as far from my family as possible
  • My brother, poor dude, turns out straight

So I did a lot of packing and unpacking, of boxes, suitcases, and duffel bags, in the midst of a complicated joint custody schedule. My brother and I lugged a lot of bags onto a lot of buses, and were forever leaving things at the wrong house.

So there were a few houses for the Fireplug and I to cruise past in our rented Sebring. Ten or twelve or more, I’ve lost track. But during the tour the Fireplug turned quiet. Silence is an unnatural state for him, so of course I asked if he was okay.

“My stomach hurts,” he said. It took us a while to figure out that he was stressed. He’d spent his entire childhood in one house, the house where his mother still lives, and our day-long tour was getting to him.

Ever since college I’ve had a deep, primal longing for a home. It doesn’t need to be big. I just want one. And only one. I like having all my stuff in one place. I don’t rent storage lockers. Whenever I have to move I unpack everything (and I mean everything) within 24 hours. I hate clutter, and my idea of hell is a bad roommate.

Seems like no matter how much we grow up, it’s the childhood stuff that sticks. So the five years that I’ve spent going back and forth between the Fireplug’s house and my apartment, bags in hand, have been challenging to my nesting OCD. Part of being an adult, however, is accepting life on its own terms, and San Francisco real estate is its own reality.

Following our wedding in New York (and our domestic partnership in California), we’d barely dipped a toe in the tepid waters of possible home ownership when a realtor friend called and said a family was interested in looking at the house the Fireplug shares with his roommate, a house which wasn’t even listed. A pocket listing, he called it. (A lifelong renter, I am mystified by the entire home ownership process, including terminology.)

The same realtor friend had just emailed us a photo of a cute little bungalow near Stern Grove with the subject line, “Your Next House.” Looking at the photo, we had to hand it to him, he was good. We weren’t so delusional as to assume that we’d end up in the cute little bungalow, but it seemed unwise in today’s market to turn down the family’s request.

My head that week filled with fantasies of a cute bungalow, with my husband and our dogs, and my duffel bags tucked away on a back shelf of a back closet. The Fireplug, who’s been through the process more than once,  kept cautioning me, telling me to expect an emotional roller coaster ride, with no certain outcome, and that I’d have plenty of opportunities to work on one of my, um, less noticeable traits: patience.

“We haven’t even applied for a mortgage yet,” he said. I tried not to pout in response.

When the realtor arrived with the family, the Fireplug’s roommate and I ducked out through the garage with the dogs. We drifted up and down the block three times waiting for the family to leave, the dogs giving us curious looks, and it was weird to look through the picture window at the strangers wandering through the living room, assessing the place that I couldn’t quite call home, but where I’d spent so many hours. I felt territorial.

The roommate had done his best to de-gay the house of its most egregious belongings, especially since the family of strangers included a grandmother, but you can’t catch everything. After the family left, the realtor told us that the grandmother had carefully examined the shirts hanging over the dryer and asked, “Who’s the sheriff?”

“Depends on which night,” I replied.

The realtor smiled. “I love my job.”

 

Worth a Few Words

In a lovely, rose-tinted alternate universe, I spent the few weeks since my last post lying on a beach in Fiji with the Manly Fireplug, a blissfully unplugged honeymoon.  I’ve never been to Fiji, and I don’t even know if it’s a nice place to go these days, but the poet in me liked the alliteration of Fiji and Fireplug.

But in real life the honeymoon had to wait, and after ten days going from Philly to the Catskills back to Philly then to Brooklyn and Manhattan before returning to Philly on our extended wedding/ Fireplug family reunion tour, we actually had to, you know, work for a living.

I’m writing this on company time, having picked up another weekday of office work, which now puts me somewhere around 50 hours a week between my various jobs. When your health insurance eats up a quarter of your salary, you do what you can.

So a long-winded, carefully-composed narrative of our wedding won’t be forthcoming today.  Besides, this is the internet; who has the attention span for narratives? How about a couple of pics instead…

Since the Fireplug had something like 12 or 13 family members making the trip from Philly to Brooklyn bright and early the morning of the ceremony, the Fireplug’s mom decided to rent an entire bus. What showed up was a stretch limo – the kind with an interior neon ceiling that changed colors, with tiny artificial stars shimmering overhead. I could almost pretend like we were kicking off a Saturday night trip to our junior prom, but really it was Wednesday morning,  and we were heading up the Pennsylvania turnpike.

The driver had some trouble navigating the limo through the narrow streets of Brooklyn Heights, and we arrived at the promenade with only a few minutes to spare. The wedding photographer snapped this as I emerged from the limo, fretting:

Mike McAllister Dogpoet Wedding Fretting

There’s a few other photos here. (Thanks again to Jonathan Gati for the great shots.) Various friends and family converged on our location but I continued to fret. The judge was late. No judge, no wedding. There’s a reason I shy away from event planning. I fret.

But the judge arrived with seconds to spare.

Mike McAllister Dogpoet Joe Gallagher Manly Fireplug Wedding

I believe our ceremony lasted about six minutes. It included the exchange of vows we’d written together, which I later posted here.

I made it about two words in before this happened to me:

Mike McAllister Dogpoet Wedding Tears

Yeah, I totally cried. Sue me.

Mike McAllister Joe Gallagher Dogpoet Manly Fireplug Wedding

My friend Norman Brannon snapped this photo. That’s the Fireplug’s mother beside him; his best man, Joel; and his niece, the flower girl I mentioned in that other post. Beside me stands my father, my best man that day.

I don’t remember what we were laughing at. In fact, I can’t be certain the ceremony lasted six minutes, because a fierce case of tunnel vision overtook me. Beneath the promenade ran the East River, and beyond that stretched the skyline of Manhattan. Somewhere in there stood the Brooklyn Bridge. I saw none of it.

I only remember one thing from the ceremony.  The thing I tried to focus on during our vows. This face:

Joe Gallagher Manly Fireplug Wedding

And I’ll think I’ll just leave it at that.