By Matt Salyer

Essay

This is an unconventional love story.  It all started when I sat down for coffee on the bougainvillea-ensconced patio of the perfectly restored 1906 Craftsman home of my editor and friend Estelle Serna.  As usually happens, our conversation quickly turned to real estate.

“So, I’m back on the market again,” I told her.

“Again?” she said.

“I’ve been looking at a few places with a new agent.  But I haven’t found anything good.”

“Are there any houses you’re even considering?”

“Not really.  There was one that was okay, but it sat directly underneath the 2/210 overpass.”

“That doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, Summer,” Estelle said.  “When I bought this house, the bougainvillea was ragged.  How much was this house?”

“$620,000,” I said.

“That’s not bad!”

“Yeah, but I just don’t feel that spark.  I’m waiting for The One.”

“Just buy it, Summer,” Estelle said with a weary sigh.

I had been having these conversations a lot since I turned 40, on landscaped patios all over Los Angeles, but somehow, they never really sunk in.  Even as the market hit bottom and started to rebound again, I always thought I had more time.  The perfect house was always on the next block: The One.  In the meantime, I spent my weekends driving from open house to open house and my evenings sitting under the single flickering light bulb in my 200-square foot studio apartment, loading and reloading Redfin.com.  Sure, I wanted to settle down, but I didn’t want to settle.  Then I read a statistic that said that a 40-year-old woman with an annual salary of $75,000 and a credit score of 650 is two hundred times more likely to be killed in a terrorist attack than she is to find a suitable home in Los Angeles.

“It’s time to adjust your list,” Estelle told me.

Here was my list five years ago when I began my search for The One:

Four bedroom, two bath
Large lot
Two-car garage
Within walking distance of a Bristol Farms
Solar water heater
Granite countertops
In-ground pool
Outdoor kitchen
Original moulding
Tenuous connection to B-list celebrity
Mature quince trees
Wood-burning fireplace
View of the Hollywood Hills and/or Pacific Ocean (preferably both)
Kiln

Was this too much to ask?  Could this be the reason that 78% of Americans born between 1965 and 1980 will die of radon poisoning while lying face-down on a mildewed futon mattress in a condemned tenement apartment building with low ceilings and Formica countertops and no one to mourn them?

All I wanted to do was curl up with a copy of Dwell magazine and watch the sun set over my salt-water infinity pool – was that too much to ask?

At first, house-hunting was fun.  I looked forward to spending each weekend out with my real estate agent, climbing over trash piles and peering through wire-reinforced glass windows, chatting happily about “potential.”  But at a certain point, I felt burned out, tired of the drop-ceilings and the feral pigs and the tacky overhead lighting.

Finally, the statistics I had read began to hit home.  Would I be one of the 1 in 3 middle-aged women who tried to buy a house for ten years, gave up, went crazy, and wound up digging a foxhole beside a freeway embankment, then carpeting it over with Flor tiles?

After a particularly harrowing day of house-hunting, I caught up with my good friend, marionette restorationist Randall Hitch, for glasses of port on the glazed terracotta terrace of his Moroccan-style villa overlooking the hedge maze and the koi pond.  He told me his house had just been listed in the National Registry of Historic Places after it was discovered that deleted scenes from “Chinatown” were once stored in a utility trailer parked in the alleyway behind his home.  I told him about the last house I had rejected.

“It was nice, roomy, in a good neighborhood, in my price range, but it was sort of pre-fab-looking and also it didn’t have a floor.”

“There are a lot of ways to personalize a pre-fab home, Summer,” Randall said.

“I know.  But I mean, there was no floor at all.  Just uncovered joists.”

“Summer, you’re too picky. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Do you think this house was in perfect condition the day I found it?  Of course not!  I had to tear out wall-to-wall carpet in the back hallway.  Beige wall-to-wall carpet.  But in the end, what matters is that I have a place to call home, a place to love, a place to store 1700-square feet of early nineteenth-century Persian art.”

I gazed out at the ocean, the radiant floor heating warming the soles of my shoes.

“I just feel like I could do better,” I said. “I feel like I deserve it.  Where’s my fairy tale ending?”

“We are all brainwashed by the media,” Randall said, “by newspaper style sections and design blogs and issues of Elle Décor we find in our dermatologist’s waiting room.  My mother was sending me clippings from Better Homes and Gardens, Summer.  Actual paper clippings.  They want to sell you on a dream of home ownership but the reality is very different.  Owning your own home is work.  No matter how amazing The One is, you’re still going to have to touch up the paint, clean the rain gutters, trap and release some mountain lions – that’s real life.”

Was Randall right?  I thought about all the movies and television shows that had dominated my formative years: Ally McBeal’s Murano glass lamp, Mr. Big’s fabulous chandelier on “Sex and the City.”

The last person I talked to was my own real estate agent, Carmen Yu, in the dining room of her 3300-square foot Spanish-style eco-palazzo with its low-VOC paint, reclaimed wooden coat hangers, wild truffle insulation, and ultra-efficient commercial pizza oven.  She ushered me towards the “green” sofa she had made herself out of three larger sofas, then went to get us drinks from the floating wet bar that bobbed up and down along her in-home brook.

“Every night I sign into Redfin and Trulia and Zillow and I see all these amazing houses but I can never seem to buy one.  But their ads all seem so perfect.  What’s the matter with me?”

Carmen shook her head.

“I’m going to be honest here, Summer.  We put these ads up to fool you.  The photos are all taken with wide-angle lenses, run through a ‘sucker’ filter on Photoshop, or just hand-drawn by our kids.  ‘Cozy’ means small; ‘sunny’ means scorched; ‘airy’ means there are holes in the roof; ‘historic’ means a murder was committed there; ‘low-maintenance backyard’ means that the last owners salted the earth.  You’re 40 years old, it’s time you faced facts.  Do you want to know what ‘turnkey’ means, Summer? Do you?” She took my hand.  “It doesn’t mean anything.”

Her words hurt, but they also rang true.  No wonder 63% of L.A. county residents are now living full-time in their office cubicles, subsisting on nothing but Sparkletts water and Nature Valley granola bars.

That night I went home and after hand-cranking the emergency generator in my dark apartment, I was able to go online and sign into Redfin again.  I clicked through all my new matches and they all looked so promising.  This one had exposed wood-beam ceilings, that one had a two-story guest house.  Why, this one even had a low-maintenance backyard!

Then, as I had often done before, I visited the ones that got away.  There was 1317 Maple Street, with its six-foot-tall-ceilings and tar-impregnated top soil, sold for $700,000 after being on the market just nine days.  There was 415 Elm Road, which I rejected as “too boxy,” sold above asking price, probably to a happy family that was even now contentedly scrubbing toxic lichens off the three remaining walls.  While I had waited for The One, plenty of good ones, and even not-so-god ones, had gone off the market or been destroyed by landslides.  What would be left?

It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for you.  The truth is, in the time it took you to read this article, you wasted $4,200 in lost equity, housing prices rose 30%, your landlord was convicted of exotic pet smuggling, and your apartment’s rat-infested carport slid four inches deeper into a sinkhole, taking your Camry with it.  So take my advice: don’t hold out for your dreams – just buy it.

Part I

Like new lovers, my husband and I were blind to flaws. And even if we had seen them, we wouldn’t have cared. Sunnyside, Queens, had us smitten. Rows of dollhouses rested in the shade of old English Plane trees. White wooden porches, hidden courtyards and raccoons. I almost expected an army of garden gnomes to slide down the slated roof, singing. I would interrupt their silly chatter and usher them to the heirloom rosebush, where my husband would be waiting amidst bunnies and blue birds to have his picture taken.

What lay beneath the colorful bricks and the pitched slate roof? Where was the skeleton, where the closet?

When we arrived for the showing, the owner, an Asian man the height of a 10-year-old was nipping at the hedge in the front yard with nail scissors. This made him appear neat, honest and trustworthy. Mr. Lau waved us into the house. He wore a broad smile, but didn’t speak any English. He didn’t understand our questions: Why was he selling the house? When did he buy it? What are those earth mounds in the backyard? Mr. Lau would grunt, smile and point to his wife, Mrs. Lau.

Mrs. Lau, small and round, sat in the kitchen in front of several bottles of pills and a ticking wall clock wrapped in plastic and grease. She explained in broken English that they were old and helpless, and that after living in the house for 30 years they were moving in with their daughter in Orange County, California. She pointed at the mysterious earth mounds in the backyard and said, “Potatoes!”

Even though I was about to blow my entire inheritance, the day of the closing I bought the Laus chocolate truffles to ease their pain. Poor Mr. and Mrs. Lau, we thought. It must be hard to leave behind a home like that.

Our inner weeping stopped abruptly when we began to discover what Mr. Lau had done to our house. For the next few months, he managed to surprise us daily.

Mr. Lau’s main skill lay in his versatile use of plaster, silicon, tar and other building materials designed for purposes he willfully ignored. As if his caulk pistol had a loose trigger, he smothered whole rows of tiles with thick layers of goo. When we tried to remove the caulk, the tiles came right off with it.

So what if all the tiles were to fall off? Who cares! I was in love. If the house had collapsed on top of us, I would have chimed, “Honey, let me get the broom!”

The dollhouse windows were covered with years of grime. They just need a good wash, I thought. But after hours of scrubbing and buffing, I saw that the glass was fogged between the panes.

One night we tried to turn on the heat. Mysteriously, the boiler, which had worked the day of the inspection, seemed to be broken. After hours and hours of trying to find out the gist of the problem, the plumber informed us that the electricity line, hidden behind the yellowing ceiling tiles, had been “snipped.”

Mr. Lau was “a joker,” “a jogger” and “a passionate gambler,” the neighbors told us. And apparently, he spoke English passably well.

Behind the hedges in the bushes we found innumerable old broomsticks. It turned out that Mr. Lau had used them to build modernist supports for fast-growing plants. My archeological findings revealed another facet of Mr. Lau’s extraordinary creativity: he bundled the sticks together with rubber bands, wire, string, telephone cables, and, in a personal twist, Mrs. Lau’s old tights.

Mr. Lau’s gifts could have made him a fortune on Etsy, but instead he devoted his talents to his house.


One day, anguished black clouds appeared. The first hurricane hit the northeast since 1903, and New York’s streets turned into rivers. Heavy winds and rainwater whipped our dollhouse. When just before dark two old friends arrived for a visit, I took them up to the wood paneled attic. We joked that its crawlspaces that lead nowhere were home to Mr. Lau’s grandmother. If I stuffed my ears with Mrs. Lau’s old tights, I could almost hear Grandma Lau boss the gnomes around.

It turned out instead that the attic was haunted by Mr. Lau himself. As my friends and I stood marveling at the dark wood paneling, the rain hammered onto the slate roof. The dim light bulb flickered. Through the foggy windows pointing out to the yard I could see how the spaces between the “potato” earth mounds filled with water and how the water crept closer and closer to the house.

“What are those mounds in the backyard?” My friend asked.

“There is a long waiting list for those burial plots,” my husband joked. I turned around and noticed a thin, continuous strand of dark water running down the wooden walls behind him. A metallic taste filled my mouth—the first sign of an oncoming panic attack. I must have visibly blanched because my friend immediately tried to calm me. “I’m sure it’s just a small hole in the roof,” she said. “Probably right by the chimney. They would have noticed if the hole was big.”

“The chimney,” I said, my voice shaking, “is on the other side.”

My friends tried to distract me. “Wasn’t there something you wanted to show us?” they asked. I had told them that Mr. Lau had decorated the basement in the style of a 1970s porno. He had paneled the space in light brown wood, hiding pipes and electric wiring behind yellowing ceiling panels. One room was divided off from the rest and featured an inexplicable, rectangular peephole.

I led my visitors to the basement bathroom that Mr. Lau had designed. The colors! A beige toilet confronted a pink shower curtain. The amorphous, bile green and fecal brown floor tiles battled the square, baby blue wall tiles. This was nausea. This was art. Or something. It suddenly struck me that it didn’t look so much like the set for a porno as much as a snuff film. Were these shocks planned? Was Mr. Lau watching us from the comfort of his new living room in Orange County?

Taped to a wall in the basement was a thick, 10-feet long bamboo rod whose purpose we couldn’t guess. Had Mr. Lau used the rod as a push pole during floods? But where was the boat? Had he used one of the several doors stacked against the wall as a raft? Then I noticed the puddles on the ground. Water!

“It might not be much,” my optimistic friends tried. “You might just need someone to snake your drains.”

The four of us tried to determine where the isolated puddles came from. Maybe a pipe was leaking? I took off a ceiling panel. A mousetrap garnished with a desiccated rodent fell on my head. Behind the doors that Mr. Lau had left us, I discovered a sewer drain with a missing screw cap. The old towel decorated with Disney characters that Mr. Lau had stuffed into the hole in lieu of the cap was saturated and had begun to release a slow but steady stream of water. Due to physics, gravity or something equally unfathomable to me, the water had accumulated where the foundation lay deepest without leaving any trace of its path.

The waters were rising, and we needed help.

To be continued…

Travolta House

By Ted McCagg

The Feed

How are you?

By Mary Hendrie

Letters

Hey John,

Thanks for the note on my wall. Your exuberant “hello” was heartening like good soup on a bad day, which isn’t to say yesterday was bad. It was a good day. I heard from you, after all, and work went pretty well. Aside from the hour I spent looking through photos of friends I no longer speak to, I’d say the overall experience for the day was net positive.

But it’s a funny thing when people write on your wall and want to know, “How are you?” It’s a more sincere question than the passing-in-the-grocery-store variety, but it’s loaded, and it can’t really be answered via wall post.

How am I? Well, I’m alive, but somewhat disillusioned. I miss the slow, easy life of our hometown, but I don’t miss the ignorance of some of the people. I quit smoking since we last spoke, and sometimes I wish I hadn’t.

I live near DC, where the air quality is toxic, and I know because they tell me every day on the radio about the air quality — code orange, which means we should all avoid strenuous outdoor activity. I’d like to lose a little weight, but that’s hard to do with all these codes to follow.

Every day, I drive home and scan the radio for familiar songs to fight off the particular loneliness that breeds in my car, and when Morrisey comes on, I belt out all the words, right or wrong.

I have a good job in a boring city, a great husband, and a normal sex life, I think (but I don’t know what’s normal). Oh, and I wrote a book of sorts, but actually it was my grad school thesis, and I can’t bring myself to look at the thing for editing purposes or to print copies to send to agents, so it’s just sitting on my shelf now. Some of it is pretty good.

To tell the truth, when I look at all our old friends on Facebook, the people who are outrageous and fabulous and those whose lives are quiet and generic, I feel I’ve lost something. I’ve been hollowed out a bit, and I don’t know how it happened or if I am alone. I feel I’ve had limbs severed, but all my parts are here. I wasn’t looking when this phantom part of me died, so I’m not really sure what I’m trying to revive.

I have not yet joined the ranks of lonely folks who teach their pet birds to sing pop songs, but I have lost a couple cats. Anyway, I guess birds do it for some people. Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t like birds much.

The truth is, I keep waiting, John. I keep thinking something amazing will happen, and then I’ll feel right. Like the book I’m meant to write will just spontaneously come into being as a best seller. Then I’ll feel like the person I was always meant to be. Like my ship has come in, right? But until then … until then …

Well, I took a bike ride after work, and I went down to the grocery store just to see if I could do it. I wanted to go inside and buy some squash to cook for dinner, but I didn’t know what to do with my bike while I went inside, so I just turned around and rode back home. It was fun, anyway.

And tonight, we’ll celebrate my husband’s birthday with a few friends at the house. Our house. Did I tell you I own a house now? We’ll eat crabs and drink beer on the back deck. We have a lot of trees, which are pretty, and a nice view of a little creek. After dinner, we’ll watch a movie. It’ll be fun. Maybe before the night is over someone will end up naked, but most of our friends have outgrown that.

I was about to say life ain’t half bad, but maybe it is, John. But even if it is, 50% is better than some presidents get. And the truth is, at least I have people, ya know? At least I love someone and go outside sometimes. Code orange be damned, right?

So, how are you?

My friend’s husband Paul came over to cut down trees in the woods behind our house. He arrived with a gas-powered chainsaw, an electric chainsaw, soundproofing earmuffs and protective eyeglasses. My husband, misty-eyed, watched him unload his Jeep. Then they shared a manly handshake.

“I want to get rid of that one, those two over there, and that big one over there is dead, so let’s take it down, too,” I said to Paul.

“C’mon, Rick,” Paul said, slapping him on the back. “Give me a hand.”

As the men scrambled down the hill into the woods, I was secretly glad it was someone else’s husband who would be doing the dangerous work. But I wondered whether Ricky had been harboring resentment: I had refused to let him get a chainsaw or any other power tool that can chew a hand like a hungry bear.

When Ricky moved into my Upper West Side apartment 10 years ago, he had old-school hand tools: augers, planes, gimlets, awls, spokeshaves — nothing that needed gas or electricity. We kept them in the trunk of our car because there was no place inside to store them safely — and because no torture museum was in the market for artifacts. I used to say that one day a sheriff was going to stop us and ask, “Sir, can you open the trunk?” and we’d be detained for hours.

“Why don’t you get rid of these old tools?” I’d ask.

“Because one day I’m going to build something using hand tools,” he’d promise.

When we moved to Rockland County, Ricky got a shed to store his hand tools, but he insisted we needed an all-in-one Black and Decker battery-operated drill driver for our 150-year-old house.

“You can’t call the super every time something breaks,” he said.

Over the years, my husband has come to the rescue more times than I can remember, tightening towel rods, fixing cabinets. He crafted shutters, built planting boxes and framed a patio.

Until I married Ricky, the men I knew, my father included, hired other men to cut, drill and fix stuff. I had at first assumed my husband, who grew up in urban Canarsie like me, descended from similar stock. But his late father was a power-tool dealer who brought every newfangled gadget to their weekend Catskill house. Ricky’s boyhood toys were drills, saws, tractors and Sawzalls. He learned to fell a tree when he was 12.

It’s comforting to live with a man who knows his way around a toolbox. It’s even sexy, so long as he’s not in danger of getting mangled or disfigured.

Three years ago, Ricky wondered if I would consider buying him a stationary table saw for his birthday.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A flat table with a blade underneath it,” he explained. “You turn a crank and the blade rises from the table.”

The only thing rising at that moment was my lunch.

“Why do you need that?”

“I’m thinking about building a greenhouse.”

The following weekend when we went to look at the contraption, I turned white.

“I guess you’re not too comfortable with this?” he asked. We didn’t buy one.

Weeks later, we were with our friend Peter. I noticed horrific scarring on his hand.

“I severed my hand using a table saw,” he said.

I shot Ricky a look. Even he looked a bit queasy when Peter explained how the paramedics brought his thumb on ice to the ER so it could be reattached.

Father’s Day is around the corner. I asked him what he wanted. He said a slick.

“It’s a chisel with a blade you use for post and beam construction,” he explained. “I’m going to build a timber-frame studio the old-fashioned way, using hand tools.”

I can live with that.

Dating’s a bitch.

And this is the time of year when it’s easier to plop in front of the TV with a bottle of Veuve and watch a House marathon rather than suffer through, as the only single person* in the room, the forced jollity of holiday events.  You start to miss the days when your mother pestered you about your dating life. Anymore, she just slaps on her Colorform smile, tells hyper-enthusiastic tales of others – who got married even older than you – and passes the twice-baked potatoes with a heavy sigh; resigned to the fact that the children born to your siblings are going to be the only grands she’s going to get.

(*For the record, no, my widowed grandmother does NOT count, thank you very much and besides, evenshe has a boyfriend, so suck it!)

But it hasn’t been easy. I’ve been “out there”.  I’ve tried.  Honest I have.  I’ve just gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop more times than I care to count.

For example:

An Evangelical jazz drummer proposed marriage twice, only to break off the engagement. Twice. Both times as dictated by God who audibly spoke to him on the bank of a lake in Texas. A scientist told me the morning after our first night spent together, that, while I looked ‘just fine’, my BMI still indicated that I was technically obese. There was a chef who would only have outercourse, even though the relationship had progressed to the apartment-shopping phase. And let’s not forget the lawyer whose break-up speech proclaimed that I was comfortable to be around, and made every event an adventure, but I just wasn’t ‘thunderbolts and lightening’.

Ahem.

Despite all of that, I persist. I am a hopeful romantic. I cling desperately to the knowledge that, in the words of Fivel Mousekewitz, “Somewhere, out there … someone’s thinking of me and loving me tonight”.

Bolstered by this ridiculous ongoing fantasy, I recently joined an internet dating website.

(I know… Please don’t judge me.)

Truth be told, however, that lawyer was wrong. am ‘thunderbolts and lightening’. I’m no gentle summer shower – I’m a torrential downpour.  I’m outspoken. Bossy. Tact isn’t always my forté. I’m a career gal. A broad. I’m definitely more Yentl and less Hadass.  Fanny Brice. K-k-k-k-k-katie. (Pick a Streisand character… any Streisand character…)

But knowing that Barbra, for all her chutzpah, is a certifiable bitch, I got to thinking maybe this time around, I should soften things a little.  Resolve to e-volve and use the internet for its Powers of Good: To help me finally find my Avigdor.

In order to do so though, I would need to get back to some basics. Take a refresher course and revisit some fundamental Junior League principles.  Try and be a lady

… for once.

So I turned to one of the classics:

Let’s see what advice Betty has that can help me in 2009…

1. Shut up and dance. Got it.  Moving on…

2. Note to self:  Wait 24 hours (or until sober) to e-mail, text or tweet.

3. The girl should make the move??? What??? Clearly Betty’s never read The Rules.

4. Good plan. Don’t let the guys know that you’re seeing more than one at a time. That’ll be our little secret…

5. If I don’t speak to men I’ve never met, how the hell is this internet dating thing going to work???  I think Betty needs to rethink things for the next edition.

6. Call me a cynic, but I think I’m going to be hard-pressed to find a Yankee who will perform his ‘manly chore’ for this nice Southern transplant…

7. So I suppose I shouldn’t keep ruling out those guys from Staten Island, eh?  You never know. Underneath those velour tracksuits, they might be swell.

8. Listen, Betty. If the guy doesn’t like me for who I am, then he can go fuc— (Deep breath…) Manners… manners…

9. Then how is he going to know I like him???

10. See #9.

Thank you for reading. I had a lovely time. So glad you came. I do hope you’ll call again soon!

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Images (used without permission) from Your Manners Are Showing © 1946