The SMITH Diaries Project

Such Frauds

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

By Brad Wieners

A few days after M received the impassioned email from the divorcé selling her colonial in Nyack, we borrowed my brother-in-law’s Jeep, packed Gus into his car seat, and drove north up the Palisades Parkway. It was an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in November, and this helped the incorporated village of Nyack to make a fine first impression.

As we pulled in, people were out: a peleton of wannabe Lances in stretch jerseys and Lycra shorts whisked up the main drag. A bookshop clerk arranged discount books and old National Geographics for a sidewalk display. I was pleased to see a shop manager, a black man, directing the cleaning of his store windows. I’m white, and some of my best friends are white, but one of my fears of the ‘burbs was homogeneity, and I liked right away that Nyack was, just to look around, less Wonder Bread, more multigrain. Mid-block M spied an Eileen Fisher, her favorite clothier, and so while she found a place to take an urgent pee and quick-checked what the Eileen Fisher had in stock, G and I found parking. We agreed to meet Mommy at the corner across the street from the Eileen Fisher-the corner, it turns out, where the realtor Sanders Properties has its offices.

Gus, in pursuit of a peppy punting dog, broke the ice. The pup he was after, a Corgi, was panting just inside the Sanders office, and G, about the same height from the floor as the Corgi, gave chase on all fours.

I introduced myself to the realtor on duty, Bill, a slightly regal gentleman who, I’d learn later, had once run a major New York ad agency. He set aside his crossword to listen with practiced, but not insincere interest as I explained our tentative search for a new home. By the time we were done chatting-M found us inside-we had a date to see three or four homes after lunch. Bill was good at his job.

Out on the curb M and I flashed each other the same “who us?” look, shrugged, and then laughed nervously. We had no idea what we were doing. Speaking with Bill, I had been stumped by the rather straightforward and necessary question: What can you afford? We honestly did not know what we could afford, or if we could afford anything at all. The last time we’d ordered our Equifax credit reports, the news had not been particularly good, and we had yet to approach a bank about a loan.

What we did know is that it was high time that we “got in the game.” Perhaps Bill Safire knows the provenance of this phrase, but in American vernacular, I can tell you with some authority that it is what people who own real estate tell people who don’t about the crucial need to own real estate. “Even if it’s not everything you dreamed, get the house,” they say. “You need to get in the game.” That way, the argument follows, you can leverage the heck out of your equity. The logic’s similar to how it takes money to make money. But to hear some homeowners talk, even one house puts you in position to become a mogul. Or maybe that’s a New York thing. Once in the game, anything was possible.

If we weren’t confused about the need to get in the game, we still didn’t know if we’d be allowed to play. Though our salaries had improved-that I even had a salary was promising-we were still down to the wire each pay period, staying just above the waves of our consumer and IRS debt. M’s eldest brother had been telling us how he wanted an investment property, and maybe we could live in and manage it? And my father had said that he and my stepmother were willing to help us with a down payment, drawing in part on his parents’ estate. These were, we believed, real offers of financial support, but how much and when remained indeterminate, contingent on us coming up with a plan. In short, the money to buy a home was more notional than actual at the moment Gus chased that Corgi into Sanders Properties. So much so that at one house we visited, M turned to me and whispered, “I feel like such a fraud right now.”

As it was our first time looking for a place to purchase, as opposed to an apartment to rent, much of what was surprising to me about the experience probably sounds na?ve-like realizing that home shopping requires you and yours to act like high-rollers, to front as a couple, as if you’re in on a con. The other thing that struck me most about house hunting is how intimate you become with the strangers you meet in their homes, how personally intrusive the whole deal is. With a prospective purchase at stake, I wanted to know more about the tenants, and especially the tenant-owners, than I’d ever wanted to know about former renters. It was as if I was going to buy not just their former living spaces, but also their lives. And I wanted to know if they were leaving the place haunted.

In at least one case, I liked the seller-or my idea of his life-better than the property. The tenant-owner was a man who must be one of the better wooden boat builders in the world because one of the best boatbuilding outfits in the world, in Southwest Harbor, Maine, had hired him, and that was the reason he was packing up his wife and two boys and selling the house his grandfather had built himself in 1918 (a year that used to seriously haunt me, but doesn’t now that 2004 happened.)

This man’s house, on Nyack’s Mansfield Street-was straight out of Frank Capra, a tasteful doll house for grownups that, during our visit, was between fall harvests: leftover Halloween decorations mixed with the first hints of Martha Stewart Thanksgiving on the porch, windows, and hutch. Lots of wood, an open floor plan, a vintage oven that apparently functioned as well now as when it was installed in the 1940s. In the attic were Lionel scale trains, and in a shed out back was what looked like a Model T. The boatbuilder’s son was home during our visit, and he could barely conceal his anguish, and, beneath it, an inherited pride in that house.

A sucker for world-class artisans-especially slightly anachronistic ones-I wanted to be worthy of this man’s family home, and to convince his hurt son that Gus would come to deserve it. The location was good, too-less than a minute to the shuttle bus over the Tappan Zee to the commuter rail into Manhattan. The price wasn’t right, though, and the house itself was a bit of a wooden boat. And that’s one of the other things that hits you when house hunting: it forces you to be realistic about just how handy you are, even at your most optimistic.

“It’ll be different when we own,” I tried, talking myself into the boatbuilder’s house. “Then I’ll want to work on the house.”

“You say that, and you might want to, but you won’t,” M replied, rather harshly, I thought. Still, she wasn’t wrong, and together, we had to face it: I like to effect repairs the way I cook-without reading the recipe (instructions). And this improvisational approach works a lot better at the stove than while inside the broiler trying to repair it. Which is another way of saying, I like to imagine I’m handy, but I’m not. M is handier, but understandably likes a greater say in the scope of projects she’ll end up tackling. No Frank Capra boatbuilder’s family house with train sets for us.

Another house we saw that first afternoon, though-just north of town, but at the lower end of Nyack’s inflated price scale-had us excited. As did the town, and when we packed Gus into the Jeep to go home to grimy old Greenpoint, we knew we’d be coming back to look some more. And then, just as I was about to drop into the Jeep, Bill spoke up from the opposite side of his SUV-audible, but invisible.

“Oh, Brad?,” he said.

“Yeah, Bill-” it felt necessary to reply in the exaggerated affirmative, to let him know I could hear him since I couldn’t see him.

“There’s a rowing club in Piermont, the next town over, and they’re always looking for new members.”

“Hey, that’s great! Thanks -and thanks for your time today.” I closed myself into the Jeep and put the key in the ignition and then got a spinal chill: how the hell did he know that I might like to row? I turned the Jeep on, pulled from the curb, and as I drove, quickly rewound our afternoon’s worth of chat. Then I asked M if she remembered my saying something about rowing. No… No, she hadn’t.

By the time we were on the highway home, headed past Piermont, I was checking the rearview for Rod Serling. After all, it’s not paranoia if the suburbs really are controlled by Body Snatchers. M, who grew up in a small town, and despairs of the lack of privacy in smaller communities, felt it, too-if not quite so melodramatically. Do you suppose he Googled us? But even then, was there anything about my having rowed in college on the Web? Do realtors have special databases? We hadn’t given him our socials, had we?

By the time we reached the George Washington Bridge, I’d relaxed a bit about it, and assured myself I must have dropped a hint somewhere that I liked rowing. However he’d managed that parting line, it only proved again that Bill was good at his job. For I now had a house and an idea of my new life to dream on. In the dream, it’s daybreak on the Hudson, and mist is rising off the river, and the shell beneath me is hissing through the water, and the morning is so quiet, so still, that I can hear the dribbling droplets of water fall from the oars as I square the blade to take the next stroke.

Up Next: If It's Good Enough for Bill Murray...

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