Campus sits west of the Chicago river, at the circle interchange of the Kennedy and Eisenhower expressways.  In the 60s UIC wedged its way into and consumed Chicago’s Little Italy, grew tentacles into the near west and south sides.  At one time called Circle Campus after the knot of concrete ramps where the two arteries bisect, it was built similarly of concrete in a style called Brutalism, emulating Soviet public housing, “riot proof,” with double-layer covered walkways akin to parking garages, an open-air amphitheater and massive concrete wheelchair ramps to 2nd floor entries reiterating the circle motif.  A miniature replica of an Eastern Bloc city, and likewise now with crumbling concrete, permanent scaffolding erected to protect students and faculty milling on (and off) grass lined footpaths under trees that replaced the severe web of covered walkways in the 90s.  The circular quad in front of 24-story University Hall underwent a decade-long project (that should’ve taken about a year) to add grassy knolls, flowered borders, and (perhaps a reminder of Brutalism) tile-lined fountains that rarely run because they’re broken.  But I walk campus without envy for Northwestern, University of Chicago, DePaul, or Loyola.  They have tradition, bigger trees, a vine-covered brick building probably called “Old Main.”  We have Brutalism.  It’s where part of me –  a native Californian – lives, has lived for almost 20 years.

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…

After an extended period of contented real estate monogamy, my family and I have outgrown our one-bedroom Brooklyn floor-through (it’s not you, it’s us!) and so, despite its great location, lovely landlords, double exposures, and adorable mice, we have been looking for new place. And by that I mean, we have looked at about fifty places. At least. Over the course of this search I have come to two conclusions: 1) There are no deals in New York realty, and 2) Apartment-searching is a bit like dating. I say this having never really dated, and so I am open to the idea that this analogy might be absurd, but follow me, if you will:

Because we are not desperate to move, we (much like serial daters in New York) have the luxury/curse of getting to be really picky. You look at a place (go on a date). You think, eh, it’s okay. It has some slightly ridiculous problem as most NYC apartments, and people, do – no tub, or no closets, or it’s on the fifth floor (real estate equivalents of an annoying laugh, or being too short or too tall– all things you could overlook if you were really in love, proving that you aren’t). So you think, eh, I’ll wait. Something better might come up next week. And you look at some more places (go on a few more dates). You start to forget that you yourself are not perfect either. After all, you want to receive a lot and give a little. But it’s easy to forget this because you are in New York City after all, and while there are a lot of duds (dank basements for $2500 a month/drooling hobos peeing into milk jugs on the subway) you know that there is also the possibility of perfection (gorgeous brownstones with jewel-box backyards/surprisingly humble models who really just want to work with children).

And thus, we have become the real estate equivalent of the dater who just can’t settle down because she always suspects there is something better right around the corner. Because there probably is. There must be! There just MUST be a non-crappy, large 2+ bedroom in a decent neighborhood near the train within a young family’s budget…right? With room in the hallway to store a stroller? And if it could possibly not be a directly beneath the freeway/adjacent to a housing project or live poultry shop/actively on fire, that would be super sweet too.

(Dear non-New-Yorkers, know that what I am asking for is roughly the equivalent of hoping to see a unicorn making love to a liger while sliding down a rainbow. Realtors have literally laughed at me.)

(Oh, and by the way, Dear Realtors. Please stop telling me that a “cozy little room” is a “perfect nursery” when it is clearly a closet. And that door-less “bedroom” leading into the kitchen? That’s called a dining room. I’m not that stupid.)

If only I could cobble together bits and pieces of the 50-some places we’ve seen. The windowed sunroom of the Windsor Terrace tempter; the two large, separate bedrooms of the wackadoodle co-op; the backyard with cherry tree of the crazy people’s place in Kensington; the elevator and pristine laundry room of the Ocean Parkway condo; the PS 10 school zone of the livingroom-less wonder. The most perfect apartment would rise like Frankenstein’s monster and shuffle-step over to our current abode, gathering into its guts all of our belongings and placing them just so. Then it could lurch back to its quiet, tree-lined street with ample parking and a cute, never-crowded, baby-friendly, inexpensive café/bookstore/organic fruit stand right by the park. “Dang,” we would say to each other, “it’s almost too sunny in here!” And, “Sheesh, what are we going to do with all this closet space!” And, “Darn this spare bedroom, now everyone we know is coming to visit us.”

Sigh.

On the upside, house-hunting does provide a unique treat for a writer and/or nosy person: the opportunity to boldly snoop where you would otherwise never go. How else would we ever have visited the Sunset Park apartment with the room dedicated entirely to collections of crystal and its bedroom display of hardcore gay porn? Under what other circumstances would we have seen the Queens haunted-house foreclosure with its friendly squatters, or the Crown Heights edifice that’s become affectionately known in our household as “the murder house,” or the dramatic decorative stylings of Alexei, he of the space-ship-Jacuzzi-shower, circus-tent-ceilinged-living-room, and belanterned “wine cellar” closet with its brick-veneer-wallpaper? We’ve dated oh so many homes and though we’ve had our hearts broken more than a few times at least, like a commitment-shy ladies’ man (or man’s lady), we have some stories to tell.

There is no fairytale-wedding-style-ending to this tale–not yet, anyway. But the other we did measure the baby’s crib to see if it would fit in my office. Which is really a closet. And you know? It just might.

[Ed Note: But then that night a leak busted a hole through the ceiling of that room, breaking the plaster and ruining many books! It has not been fixed! And to that I can say only: HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!]

The course actually begins with the words, “Location! Location! Location!”

Since teaching jobs are both hard-to-get and low paying, I’ve decided to think about pursuing a career in commercial real estate brokerage. The two classes you have to pass before you can take the salesperson license exam are “Real Estate Principles” and “Real Estate Practices.” You can take them online through Allied Schools.

The “Principles” class begins with a Welcome page featuring images of golden hills, redwood trees, rocky coastline, and flowers blooming in the desert. What follows is mind-numbing, soul-withering flapdoodle.

You read me right. Flap fucking doodle.

From “Location! Location! Location!” the text continues:

Most of you have seen this phrase in a real estate ad describing the perfect neighborhood. All of you reading this, no matter what city you live in, are experiencing the perfect location. No…we are not referring to your specific street, town or county…we are talking about California. California has everything, and usually it is the best! Whoever said, “Less is more” just never lived in California.

Oh, snap! Take that, hippies! And other 49 states!

Too bad, as my tax returns and spotty resume clearly demonstrate, I’m one of those people who think less is more.

After the introductory chapter, which is basically a commercial for California — diverse climates! varied geography! gargantuan economy! — there are chapters explaining property, estates, ownership, encumbrances, contracts, etc. This material is so soporific it needs to be read in the morning, with coffee and a hard chair. And someone holding that hard chair menacingly over your head, lest you start to nod off.

Though it took me a few weeks, with several breaks for unintentional naps, bathtub soul-searching, and applications to other jobs, I managed to make it through the first class and pass the (open-book) final exam. Now, in “Real Estate Practices,” I seem to have hit the wall.

In this class the authors tell you how to get started in your career. First, they offer this inspirational photo and caption:



Real Estate salespeople come from many different backgrounds.


[Interactive Feature: Can you find the black person?]

Then, the section “Dress for Success” suggests that the same qualities that made people popular in seventh grade will make you tons of money today:

The image you present helps you build rapport with prospective clients. When connecting with a client, if you remind them of someone they like or mirror their own taste, they are more likely to respond to you positively. When considering how to dress, the best strategy is to mirror the style of your clients.

Got that? Whatever you do, don’t, for the love of God, be yourself. Rather, study your client, and then mimic his/her speech and dress. People don’t think that’s weird at all!




These styles of dressing are not recommended if you want a successful career.

I can understand why head-to-toe denim isn’t recommended, but I’ve been a denim hater since 1986 when I woke up to the fact that my Ton Sur Ton jacket was totally lame. But the floral-print cowboy hat? That’s festive. That lady’s a closer, you can tell. And I’ve got no complaints about the Asian woman. I would totally buy a house from her, or at the very least take a tour and fantasize about impromptu kitchen sex.

(Me: “So… these granite countertops pretty durable?”

Hot, Inappropriately Dressed, Asian Real Estate Salesperson, hoisting self onto counter: “Come over here and find out.”

Boom chicka wah-wah...)

As for the punks in the bottom right corner, get real, Allied. No true punk would sell real estate. Anarchy and escrow don’t mix.

So how should we aspiring real estate salespeople dress?

Employees who dress appropriately leave a lasting impression of professionalism.

Ah, yes. I think I’ve seen these people before, hanging out at that bar I always walk past. You know, the one that sucks.

I’ve just about had it with “Real Estate Practices.” Life is hard enough without having to present a completely false exterior to the world. And I’ve always prided myself on my honesty and integrity.

This, according to Allied, is completely wrong:

You must always project a positive, professional attitude regardless of the circumstances. Everyone has good and bad days; however, real estate sales associates have to smile every day, no matter what is going on in their personal lives. The moment you allow your personal feelings to influence how you interact with clients, your undisciplined behavior will suggest an unprofessional sales associate.

They have a point. You won’t close any sales if you spend your time with clients bitching about your sciatica, but that seems like common sense. And that’s what bugs me most about this class. The authors obviously have no faith in their students.

And really, is their advice even good? When you, dear reader, are looking to buy or rent property, do you think, “I must find a broker who dresses impeccably and smiles all the time”?

You know who else smiled all the time?

This guy:


And this guy is still smiling:

I wonder if my reaction to this course material a sign that I should not pursue a career in real estate. That I’ll fail due to my inability to “project a positive, professional attitude” and wear my shirts tucked into my pants.

But would another job be any better? Am I not just clinging to a childish refusal to accept the world for what it is? Basically, a place where everyone’s a whore of one kind or another, and our discourse is spiraling ever downward into an abyss of stupidity?


Maybe I should quit and become a guidance counselor.