For most of my adult life I’ve followed a few simple rules:
1. When friends move away, stop being friends with them.
2. Don’t do anything that doesn’t directly or immediately benefit you.
3. Never answer the phone, unless it’s your dealer.
Rudimentary versions of these rules can be traced back to my early days. As a child, I never quite grasped the concept of other people. I knew they existed, of course; I saw them everywhere around me, the same way Charlton Heston sees the Romans in Ben-Hur: as hundreds of extras in a large-scale Hollywood production. Day players in costume, added to the background for the sake of realism.
Unless they offered me goods or a service—dinner, allowance, a sleepover, a game of stickball—other people were an inconvenience. Take my grandmother, for example. She was a sweet-natured, jolly Italian woman, but she never bought me any Transformers or G.I. Joes, so I was not deeply affected by her death. “Gee,” I thought when I got word of her passing, “there goes my regular supply of waffle cookies.” I pleaded with my mom to let me skip her funeral. “Why does it matter if I go? I’m just gonna sit there and do nothing! What’s the point of that? Oh, you’re going to take away my allowance now? Fine, I’ll go, but I’m not gonna have a good time!”
As the years passed, my friends and relatives expected less and less of me. In my twenties I’d get the random call from my mother, informing me of the latest family news: “Danny, have you talked to your sister lately?”
“No. I don’t know, maybe. Why?”
“You should give her a call. She had a baby this morning.”
“Cool,” I said, lying on my couch, dusting marijuana ash off my shirt. I had forgotten my sister was even pregnant. An hour later I remembered to call her then decided against it. She’s obviously busy, I thought. Besides, what are we going to talk about? She’s probably had fifty phone calls already, why would mine be any different? She won’t even be able to pay attention to the conversation. She has a newborn baby, for Christ’s sake—the thing’ll start crying when I’m in the middle of saying something, and I’ll get annoyed.
I’ll catch up with her later.
Later became December. I showed up at her house for Christmas dinner and saw a nine month-old girl sitting on her living room floor. “Oh yeah,” I said. “There’s the kid you had.”
In my late twenties, friends started getting married. I’d sort through a month’s worth of mail and find the occasional wedding invitation mixed in with the takeout menus and past due notices. Usually I’d open the invitations and read them while taking a shit. “So…you request the pleasure of my company,” I’d say, a cigarette dangling from my lips, the smoke rising into my eyes. I’d scan the calligraphy text, searching for a reason not to attend. Most often it was the location. If it was within state lines I’d consider it, filing the invite away with other “pending” mail: hospital bills, AAA renewals, letters from collection agencies—basically anything that didn’t pose an immediate threat to my cable service.
Invitations to weddings that took place outside of Massachusetts were filed in my trash. I took offense to anyone who expected me to fly to Savannah for a week or climb a mountain in Peru just to watch them get married at sunset by an ordained Sherpa. These extravaganzas are known as “Destination Weddings”, as in, “Come and buy a ringside seat to our honeymoon!”
My closest childhood friend moved to San Francisco after college, met a girl from the Bay Area, and got married in Napa Valley. He had sent me an invite a year in advance. That was followed by a couple texts over the next few months: “Hey Danny, how are you??? Let’s catch up soon.” When those went unreturned, the texts got more specific: “Hey bro, just want to make sure you got my wedding invite. You’re gonna be there, right? Won’t be the same without you.”
Eventually the texts became phone calls. Whenever his number appeared on my caller ID I’d silence the phone and hide it under my pillow. I wasn’t man enough to face it. Each of his calls conjured a different childhood memory of the two of us—playing army as kids, dating girls in junior high—and I watched those memories wither and evaporate. An entire lifelong friendship, nullified from existence. Still, it was easier than answering the phone, and certainly easier than buying a plane ticket.
Two months before the wedding I received another text: “Dude. Just please RSVP. Please. You don’t have to come. Just please let us know.” I wanted to respond, but when the time came to type the letters into the message field, I froze. Texting him back would have made it real, would have made me accountable. Instead I stashed the phone under my pillow, closed my eyes, covered my ears, and silently wished he would disappear from my life forever.
A few weeks later I received a final text: “Hope you’re ok, buddy. Be well.”
With that chapter closed, I could finally move on with my life.
* * * *
On November 30th, 2013, I checked myself into a rehab facility for drug addiction. When I got out, I found a sponsor who took me through the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The program had the formidable task of deconstructing those three basic rules by which I had lived my entire adult life. AA taught me that other people were not just disposable extras in my life story, but that they were stars too, with their own movies, although probably not as Oscar-worthy as mine. I learned that incoming phone calls only seem scary, but when you walk through that fear and answer them, they’re actually not so bad. I learned that happiness has little to do with what you get, and everything to do with what you give.
“Dude, that’s the biggest load of shit I have ever heard in my life. Do you hear what’s coming out of your mouth right now? You sound like a fucking Ted Talk.”
My sponsor and I sat at a booth in the Thinking Cup, a coffee shop on Tremont, discussing my ninth step amends: the part of the recovery process where I have to confront all the people I’ve harmed, apologize, and offer to make some sort of restitution. On our table was a sheet of notebook paper: fourteen names, listed in blue ink—collateral damage from a life of substance abuse.
I continued. “I didn’t harm these people. Most of them, I just fell out of touch with. It happens. I’m forty years old, for Christ’s sake.”
My sponsor looked down at his right knee, where he kept his phone perched during our meetings. “I know, but…” He spoke to me while texting someone. “You avoided them. Your addictive, self-centered behavior prevented you from showing up for these people when they asked you to. That’s a kind of harm.”
I let out a long breath and thought about Angela. Angela was a college friend who I dated for a few months. Our romance ended when I showed up at her apartment one night, high on cocaine, and accused her of flirting with a thirty year-old investment banker at the bar earlier that evening. “He’s my cousin, you sick fuck,” she said. But I wouldn’t hear it. I exploded into a fit of rock star-style rage and proceeded to trash her bedroom. It was a lackluster attempt since the only trashable items were the menagerie of stuffed animals on her bed. One by one I picked them up and hurled them against the wall: first the giraffe, then Simba from the Lion King, then a Dalmatian, and then a purple frog. For my finale I picked up two furry dolphins and repeatedly knocked their heads together.
“Dolphin whores!” I growled, spit flying from my mouth. Angela stood in the corner and stared at me, horrified and bewildered.
She moved to New York after graduation. Surprisingly, we stayed friends and kept in touch for a couple years. She always asked me to come down and visit for a weekend. I’d say yeah, love to, but I never went. Finally she stopped asking. I didn’t hear from her again until 2009, when I received an invitation to her wedding in New Zealand. I placed the invitation on a pile of unpaid parking tickets, vowing at least to RSVP, which, to my credit, I did—in 2011.
She messaged me on Facebook a couple years ago and told me she was pregnant. They don’t allow phones in rehab, so I didn’t get the message until a few months later. I sent her a “congrats!” to which she never responded. I figured that was the end of it.
Until last night. After nearly two years of radio silence she texted me, asking if I’d like to come down to her new home in Connecticut and meet her husband, Paul, and their son. I was welcome to stay the night in their guest bedroom. She wrote that she’d been reading my blog and was happy I was clean and sober. The text ended with “Please come, Danny. It would be so great to see you.”
I hadn’t responded yet.
My sponsor looked at me over his coffee cup. “Is Angela on your amends list?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then you need to write her back, today, and you need to go down there and make amends.”
“Why can’t I just call her and do it over the phone? Do I really have to go down there and waste an entire Saturday night in Bumblefuck, Connecticut?”
“I take it you don’t want to go down there.”
“Of course not.”
“That’s why you have to go. Remember the story of the good wolf and the bad wolf. They are constantly in battle. Whichever wolf you feed is the one that wins.” He finished his coffee and drummed his knuckles on the table. “Okay let’s wrap this up and go look at sunglasses."
In addition to helping me navigate the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, my sponsor has proven quite useful in other, less spiritual matters as well. Were it not for his guidance I’d still be buying my clothes at Target, instead of boutique shops on Newbury Street, the kind that are named after a single person. Nor would I have discovered the slim wallet, Netflix documentaries or Kiehl’s anti-aging skin cream. My sponsor is like a human Esquire magazine subscription. I call him when I have a question about anything, from gastro pub recommendations to retirement planning, so it was natural that I reached out to him when I found myself in Bethel, Connecticut, without a gift for my host family.
“Find a toy store and get the kid a stuffed animal or something like that. That’ll be good,” he advised.
I found a general store on route 302 and bought a Cuddlekins Siberian Husky for the kid and a gallon of apple cider for the parents. When I pulled up in front of their house, at three in the afternoon, the driveway was empty. I grabbed the toy, the cider and my bag, walked up to the front door, took a deep breath and rang the bell. No one answered. A dog yipped from inside. I rang again. Nothing. Again the dog barked. I got back into my Jeep and waited.
Thirty minutes later a BMW pulled into the driveway. A man got out. He wore a pink Polo shirt with the collar up, gray slacks and leather slip-on loafers. It looked like he was talking to himself, until I noticed the little Blue Tooth device lodged in his ear. He grabbed a set of golf clubs from the trunk and started toward the front door.
I got out of my Jeep. The man saw me and held up his hand—either as a “hello” or a “wait there”—then pointed to his ear. This is a common gesture that translates to “I’m an important asshole.” He walked in through the side door, still talking on the phone. I stood on the front lawn holding a jug of apple cider and a stuffed animal.
Eventually he came back out, a microbrew in hand, a sweater tied around his neck.
“Dave?” he said.
“Right. Paul Wilmont. Angela’s husband.”
For twenty minutes Paul Wilmont and I made small talk. He complained about the condition of the greens on the back nine at Bellingham Country Club. He complained about his clients from Bear Stearns. He complained about Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback. He complained about the nanny’s work visa. In an effort to assimilate, I complained about how deceptively hard it was to replace my condo’s front door. “I need to find a handyman to finish the job,” I said. “The door is off the hinges, just leaning against the doorjamb. Hopefully no one will break in, but…”
Angela arrived, carrying a canvas tote bag in one arm and her son in the other. We exchanged pleasantries and she introduced me to her son, Dodson. She then pointed to the dog. “And that little guy is George,” she said. I felt like telling her she had the names reversed, but I held my tongue.
I presented the apple cider and the toy puppy to my hosts. Angela made an elaborate thank you overture and offered the stuffed animal to Dodson, who pushed it away. She offered it again and he smacked at it violently, this time with a piercing “no!”
“It’s okay, Doddy. You don’t have to play with it,” she said through a smile. She set the Husky on the other side of the couch, out of his sight, then turned to me. “Don’t take it personally.”
“No, I’m sorry, I just thought…” I couldn’t believe I apologized for buying the kid a forty-dollar gift.
“Really, don’t worry about it.” She forgave me. As though I accidentally elbowed her son in the head or showed him the last twenty minutes of The Exorcist.
I don’t have any children, but most of my friends do. When I give their kids a present, I get a thank you, even if the parent has to coax it out of them. My godson sends me thank you notes just for playing Star Wars with him for ten minutes. Angela’s house observed a different code of etiquette, more like Ancient Rome: if the gifts were not deemed satisfactory then they were discarded, and the gift bearer was shamed.
In the living room we snacked on Vienna sausage, figs, assorted cheeses and miniature slices of bread. The food was artfully arranged on a piece of slate, which was like dining off my mother’s front walkway. Angela suggested I try the butter. When I asked what made it so special she revealed its mystery: goat milk and a hint of Gouda cheese. Now even my palette felt inferior.
She flipped her hair back and bit into a gherkin. “So, Danny, tell me, how have you been?”
We caught up on old times while her husband snored in his recliner and her kid routinely threw Tinker Toys against the wall. Angela asked about my life in the days leading up to rehab. I gave her the abridged version. “…I couldn’t eat any solid food. Most days I couldn’t get out of bed until I had a fix,” I said, looking down at my feet. “One of my dealers was going to kill me for ripping him off. It got so bad I thought about, you know, ending it all…” I looked up and saw Dodson sitting on his mother’s lap, while she read quietly to him, a story of a missing green sheep.
Angela announced that dinner would be at six, and that the Galvins would be joining us. The Galvins were a young couple that lived nearby. They too had a two year-old son, Smith. The thought of a duplicate set of WASPs made me uneasy, but I stayed positive and tried to keep it light.
“Smith?” I said. “Does he have a first name?”
Angela laughed. “Danny…you haven’t changed at all. God bless you.” The implication being that if she could, Angela would trade it all in—her “rustic” farmhouse, her cashmere throw blankets, her professionally curated stack of hickory firewood—for a chance to be simple again. I have come to understand this dynamic as reverse class envy: You don’t want our life. I know it seems fabulous, but really, it’s a burden. Life was so much easier before it required a tax attorney on a monthly retainer.
The Galvins arrived at quarter to six. While the boys played on the living room floor, the two couples hammed it up in the kitchen. Their conversation reminded me of the kind of vapid chatter usually reserved for a golf foursome, pointless dribble about NFL injuries and trendy diets. I sat on the couch like a satellite, a strange piece of inner-city debris that had drifted into their suburban orbit.
Dinner was served in the “country room”—pan-seared salmon with truffle oil mashed potatoes and a side of fresh green beans. The vegetables were topped with a lemony cheese sauce that had a delightfully thin consistency and looked exactly like the snot that collected on Dodson’s upper lip during the entire meal.
“Sorry about the boogies,” Angela said. “But we read that wiping his nose only reinforces the idea that something about him needs fixing, which in the long run can lead to self-esteem issues.”
“That’s interesting,” I said, curious as to whether they applied the same theory to diaper changing. It was likely, given the smell of feces that had wafted over from the high chair for the last fifteen minutes.
Afterward we retired to the living room, where we all sat around the two boys, marveling at them, deciphering their syntax, interpreting their behavior, predicting their futures. “Smith loves falling face down on the couch. He’s so trusting.” Or “Dodson keeps his toys very organized. Our pediatrician says that’s the hallmark of a highly analytical mind.”
I wondered what my parents said about me when I was a toddler. “Danny is fascinated with Great White Sharks, but he cries whenever he sees a picture of one. Why is he such a fucking pansy?” Or “My son tried to negotiate his way out of his grandmother’s funeral. He’ll grow up to be a selfish prick, just like his deadbeat uncle.” Then it occurred to me that my parents never evaluated me. They never showcased me at family gatherings. In fact, I wasn’t allowed at them. They were for the adults, to sit around a table drinking Cutty Sark, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and swearing like sailors. If I wandered into the room someone scooped me up and returned me to the nearest television set.
Finally at eight o’clock the Galvins packed up Smith and his bag of toys and went home. Paul went to his study to read the Wall Street Journal and make some calls. Angela poured herself a glass of wine and we sat at the kitchen table.
“Listen Angela,” I said. “As part of my recovery, I need to make an amends to you. For coming to your apartment that night, senior year, totally wasted, and accusing you of doing things you didn’t do. And especially for not being in touch the last fifteen years. I was selfish. I didn’t care about other people. You reached out many times and I ignored you.”
Angela set her glass down on the table. “Thank you, Danny. I appreciate that. I hope that’s not the only reason you came down here,” she said, smiling warmly.
“Of course not,” I said, lying. “If there’s anything I can do to help fix the wrongs I’ve done in the past, please let me know.” I always add this last part with the presumption that no one will take me up on the offer. No one has yet, anyway.
“Well, actually,” Angela said. “Paul and I were thinking of playing tennis tomorrow morning, but we couldn’t find a sitter, and the club daycare isn’t available on Sundays. Would you be willing to watch Dodson until noon-ish tomorrow?”
I stared at her for a moment, then forced myself to swallow. “Sure. Absolutely.”
We talked for a little while longer, then at ten thirty Angela showed me to the guest bedroom. I got in bed and watched a Netflix documentary on my iPhone, then fell asleep.
My alarm woke me up at five in the morning. It was still dark out. I made the bed, grabbed my bag and tiptoed out to the living room. The house was silent and still. The babycam monitor on the kitchen table showed a grainy shot of Dodson asleep in his crib, an image I recognized from the Paranormal Activity films. I thought about leaving a note for Angela and Paul, then decided against it. The house didn’t have an alarm system, so that was good. I had to pee, which I could easily do in the front yard.
I served my purpose here. It was time to go.
As I reached for the doorknob something caught my eye under the glow of a nightlight: the Cuddlekins Siberian Husky, next to the couch, where Angela stashed it. I crept over to it, picked it up and looked into its eyes.
“Don’t take this personally,” I said. Then I wound up and hurled it against the living room wall, just for old time’s sake.
It’s time to sell my condo and move up in the world. In preparation, I met with a realtor to discuss my property value. He cited a few areas where upgrades were necessary, the first being the clapboard siding on the front of the house. “I’m only saying this from experience,” he said, “but wood rot is a major turnoff. It was the first thing I noticed when I parked my car.”
I can no longer deny this. My house is an eyesore, a decayed tooth in a row of newly composited veneers. My street is lined with taupes and tans and warm grays and cool grays—the entire range of Benjamin Moore neutrals—and then there’s me: a three-story house the color of a cancerous lung. The exterior was last painted in the early eighties, in a shade of brown called “Spicy Mustard”. The color has since been discontinued, not because of lead or any other toxic additives, but because of its aesthetic offense.
“Not only is the rot a cosmetic problem,” the realtor continued, “it can also indicate collateral damage beneath the surface. Let’s go outside. I’ll show you.”
We walked downstairs to the sidewalk and stared up at the building. The house, as a whole, looked ill. Arthritic. Jaundiced. Mangy. I wasn’t sure what would benefit it more: vinyl siding or a dialysis machine. I bought the place when I was a breezy, semi-ambitious twenty-nine year old. I thought owning a rundown fixer-upper would be cool and unpretentious, that I’d teach myself some home improvement skills and turn it into a labor of love. But ten years peeled away fast, and the only thing I rehabilitated in that time was my opiate addiction. And that was in 2013.
“See this here?” the realtor said, pointing at a first floor window. The frame was porous and denuded, like a piece of driftwood that had washed ashore. I winced as he snapped off a few splinters from the corner and chiseled out a fingertip’s worth of mushy pine. “This is no good. Rain water, melted snow, it can leak right through this into the sheetrock, and then you’ve got more problems.”
I thought about the bulb that had formed in the wall of the second floor stairwell, just after our third major snowstorm last winter. It was as if a tumor had grown underneath the plaster. By late February it had gotten so big and grotesque I thought it would rupture, and that an army of tarantulas would crawl out through the fissure. Since renters occupy the other two units, no one seemed to care enough to make a fuss. Finally, in March, the owner of the second floor condo came by to install some new light fixtures in his unit. He knocked on my door. “Danny, did you see the wall downstairs?” I played dumb and followed him down to the second floor landing. The entire wall looked pregnant, like it had some large animal stuck in its gullet.
“Jesus. How did that happen?” I said. He stared at me, his jaw hung open as he searched for a place to direct his anger and confusion. Then he just shook his head and said he’d call his carpenter for a quote.
All of my encounters with the second floor owner had a similar dynamic: he’d confront me about an obvious problem in the house—a stripped keyhole or frozen pipe or flooded basement—and I’d act as surprised as he was, as though I’d just returned home from a three-month overseas trip. Or he’d straight-out call me on my negligence, like the time I threw the ventilation duct in the garbage because it kept falling off the dryer. He found it sticking out of a trashcan and carried it up to my unit.
“That thing’s important?” I said, pointing at the six-foot aluminum hose. “It’s been lying on the floor next to the washing machine for the last five months. I figured it wasn’t necessary, so I tossed it.”
“Well, it ventilates carbon monoxide out of the house, so, yeah, it’s pretty necessary.”
“Shit,” I said, scratching the back of my head. “I guess we should put it back on.”
To his credit, he’s always been reasonably patient and civil towards me. On my second night after moving in he came upstairs to introduce himself, then informed me that his girlfriend was allergic to marijuana and asked if I could kindly exhale my pot smoke toward an open window.
“I’d say you’re looking at around ten thousand for new siding,” the realtor said. “You’ll want to go with vinyl. You know what they say: vinyl’s final.”
Ten grand? Did he not notice that my living room TV stand was a child’s bedside table, laid flat on its side? If I’m going to spend ten thousand bucks it will be for something stainless steel, marble, or solid gold, not for a material I associate with fake bomber jackets.
“Talk to the condo association about it,” he said. “Split three ways, it might not be so painful.”
I nodded. Sure, I’ll talk to the association, which sounds funny since the association consists of only three people. An “association” implies annual conferences at the Marriot and a rating by J.D. Power & Associates, not three 30-something bachelors whose only other memberships include Gold’s Gym and Draftkings.com.
We looked at the house for one final moment, in silence, as though we were standing graveside, paying an old friend our last respects. A freak hailstorm had occurred a week before and left an indelible mark: random wood splints jutting out from the window frames, small divots in the clapboard, debris scattered on the sidewalk. Ten years of foot traffic had stripped the front steps of their paint; lack of maintenance had let the risers decay into tendons of shredded wood. My house was no longer a house. It was a pulled pork sandwich. It looked like a hideout for outlaws, after the sheriff’s posse had emptied several thousand rounds of ammunition into it. I pictured Butch and Sundance sneaking out the back door, wearing nothing but gun belts and britches.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw a young man in a tailored suit walking out of the brand new apartment complex across the street. He hit a button on his keychain and with a beep-beep he simultaneously unlocked his Lexus and started the ignition. As he drove off I noticed an “MD” on his rear license plate. I looked down at my pajama bottoms and flip-flops, and sighed.
Back in my unit I asked the realtor if anything could be done about the pitch in the floor. “It’s really noticeable at that end of the kitchen, by the back door, and also in the bedroom,” I said. My pitched floor is the reason I still have black and white vinyl tiles in my kitchen and a gray threadbare carpet in the bedroom, both of which I inherited with the condo. The kitchen tiles I can live with, but the bedroom carpet is so old that the more heavily trodden areas have darkened over time, reminding me of large urine stains, or the feet outlines on the floorboard of my father’s ‘87 Honda Prelude. It disturbs me to think what kind of microorganisms might reside in the threads. I can’t replace the carpet without dealing with the pitch, and how can I possibly consider flattening an entire subfloor when I can’t even mount a spice rack on my kitchen wall?
“The floor doesn’t bother me so much,” the realtor said. “I’ve sold a lot of properties with pitched floors. It happens in older houses. They set over time. It’s natural. The house just finds its own comfort level.”
Well, so long as the fucking house is comfortable. What good are level floors when your house is suffering from hypertension or chronic back pain or—worse—social anxiety disorder? You think it can’t happen to your house, but it does.
“What about that liquid leveler stuff?” I said.
The realtor curled his lips inward and stared hard at the floor, then shook his head. “I really wouldn’t mess around with any of that. Although…you could install a softer wood, something like bamboo, and just lay it horizontally instead of vertically. The planks are only a few inches wide, so they’ll be able to go with the incline.”
I gave him a friendly tap on the shoulder. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
A pitched floor is the ultimate black eye. You can’t hang a picture over it or hide it in the closet. When people buy houses, they expect the floors to be level, the same way they expect both sleeves to be the same length when they try on a sweater. Like an STD or a drunk driving charge, there is no positive way to spin it. I imagined the realtor showing my place to discerning young buyers: “Some people think pitched floors actually make a house more relatable” or “The good news is the house is comfortable. You want to see something painful? Take a look at those new buildings down the street—bolt upright, like they’re posing for a wedding picture. This house is more…relaxed.”
The pitch itself is not that big of a deal—it’s not like I need a grappling hook to walk the five feet from my kitchen table to my bedroom door. The problem is the residual effects. For instance: I can’t put a single piece of tall furniture against the far wall of my bedroom without it leaning toward me. There’s no danger of anything toppling over, but still, I don’t want my bureau puffing its chest out at me when I get dressed in the morning. The psychological impact is even greater on my cat: I’ve seen her swat at a tennis ball and then watch as it veers from its normal course to a more supernatural trajectory, as though aliens have interfered with my condo’s magnetic field. The cat’s eyes widen as the ball loops around in a semi-circle. Once it starts rolling back toward her she shrieks and then scurries under the bed, where she hides until the ball is removed from the premises.
“Now, the kitchen…” the realtor said. I waited for him to finish the sentence, but instead he clicked his tongue a few times and let out a long breath. This is a familiar tactic used by anyone who’s about to cushion bad news. First they disclose the general problem area. Then, if possible, they lead with something positive and self-evident. Then they hit you with a devastating reality. My gastroenterologist does this all the time: “Now, your colonoscopy results…first of all, you’re still young. Your speech is good, your hearing is good, and we’re able to sit here and have this conversation. All of this is good. But you do have a hole in your colon, which is probably causing the abdominal pain, as well as that gooey substance leaking from your belly button.”
I tensed up as the realtor looked around my kitchen. “The good news is that everything makes sense. You have a fridge over here and a stove there and a sink there,” he said, gesturing to each appliance. He turned the faucet on. “The water comes out when I turn the knob. Definitely a plus.” He squatted down, searching for another positive characteristic. “You have a gas line over here, so check that off the list. The recessed lighting in the ceiling is…acceptable. All of the fundamentals are sound. But there are a few things you definitely need to address, and believe me, the kitchen is a tipping point. First, these cabinets either need to be updated, or at the very least nailed firmly to the wall. Secondly, this countertop has to go. Butcher block Formica hasn’t been in style since the eighties. You should upgrade your appliances to stainless steel, too. And it wouldn’t hurt to get a dishwasher in here, even a small one.” He wiped his forehead and sighed. “And while you’re at it either cut a window in that wall or just knock it down entirely, open the room up a bit. That’s a pretty big deal though, since there’s electrical running through it…”
I felt lightheaded. My bowels filled with water. “Can I at least keep the artwork?” I said, trying to add a little levity to the proceedings. “Or do I need to replace that, too?”
“Frankly, if I were going to put this place on the market and show it to potential buyers, I might swap that Indiana Jones poster with something a little more…I don’t know…relevant. Those nuances make all the difference.” He stepped back, took a long look and made one final assessment. “You might consider hiring an interior designer and a structural engineer and doing a complete kitchen remodel. Gut the whole thing and start from scratch.”
I nodded. I felt both beaten and humiliated, as though some college professor had just told me my final paper was incoherent drivel but was giving me a chance to rewrite it. Part of me was angry with the professor because I stayed up all night writing the paper, but the rational part of my mind was angry with myself, because the paper was assigned ten years ago.
The realtor sensed my defeat. “Look, no matter what, you’ve got one major thing working in your favor: location. This is South Boston. Yes, there are projects on both sides of you. Yes, there’s a methadone clinic around the corner. But that’s city living. I sold a newly renovated place two houses down from here for three hundred and twenty five thousand, and it’s a hundred and fifty square feet smaller than this place.”
I brightened up. “No shit?”
“You’ve seen all the luxury condos sprouting up in the neighborhood, haven’t you?”
I thought of the young doctor and the ignition button on his keychain. “Of course. There’s construction all over the place. When I first bought this place I had a three-sixty view of the city; now all I see are windows into nicer apartments.”
The realtor studied me for a moment. “I’m gonna let you in on a little secret, and you didn’t hear it from me. Have a seat.” We sat on the couch. He pulled out an iPad and started Googling. I noticed a college class ring jammed onto his chubby pinky.
He spoke while he surfed the web. “These developers are spending millions and millions of dollars. They jump through a lot of hoops to get permits in this part of town. They also cut a lot of corners to get around certain building codes.
“If I were you, I’d start making a stink about each one of these high-rise condo complexes going up around here. Get vocal. Attend the town hall meetings. Contact your district’s congressman. Here…” He pulled up a boston.com article and showed it to me. “There’s a ninety-unit apartment complex going up less than a block from here. Plus a parking garage, supermarket and private dog park. They’re set to break ground in the spring, with a 2017 completion date.”
“And?” I sensed something cunning on the way, and it thrilled me.
“This parking garage holds sixty-five cars. The building has ninety apartments. By Massachusetts state law, each tenant is required to have at least point-nine parking spaces. How did they get around that? Zoning variance. And variances can be very hard to get when the community is actively rallying against them. Where are all those extra cars going to park? Not to mention visitors. What about all that extra traffic? You don’t think it will affect you?”
“So you’re saying…”
“I’m not saying anything, but if I were saying something it would be this: I know people, locals from around here. They complain about a new construction project, the extra traffic, the blocked view, what have you. And then, suddenly, they have a new roof deck, or maybe brand new siding, or a new kitchen. Then they stop complaining, the construction moves forward, and both sides come out smiling. I mean, really, what’s ten or twelve grand when you’re talking about a hundred million bucks on the line?”
“Hush money,” I said, almost a whisper. I leaned back into my couch, star struck at the notion. Corrupt developers, dirty politicians, crooked unions, and me: the one man who could bring it all crashing down…but sells out and takes a payoff instead.
“You have to do your research though. And there’s no guarantee.” I was still daydreaming when he dropped his standard leave-behind on my coffee table. “My card’s in there, and any other boilerplate info about our services. Give me a call if you have any questions. And here, this is for you, too.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a travel mug, beer koozie and keychain, all branded with his name and face and real estate office logo.
We shook hands and I showed him out. As the front door shut behind him I snapped out of my reverie and remembered all the problem areas we hadn’t even addressed. Such as:
-- A bedroom closet that’s ten inches deep, which means shoes have to be turned sideways, flush against the wall, and then stacked on top of each other. It also means the hangers have to be turned at a forty-five degree angle just so the door can close.
-- The archaic heating system: baseboard electrical units like those found in a Howard Johnson’s motel room, thirty years ago. My condo has no wall thermostat; the heat is adjusted manually on each heater, with a dial that goes from OFF to 6.
-- My back deck: nails pop out, wooden planks loosen, the entire structure sways and rattles in a stiff wind. It’s about as safe and reliable as a Peruvian rope bridge.
The realtor climbed into his Range Rover and drove off, back to his plush real estate office with his fancy HVAC and his top-of-the-line level floors. I walked back up the stairs to my condo, noticing for the first time the frayed strands of fabric in the stairwell carpet, the missing balusters in the railing and the large black smudges on the unpainted walls.
I have friends who own three-bedroom houses in the suburbs. They take on annual projects, like repaving their driveways or building ice rinks in their backyards. I have friends who own turnkey lofts in up-and-coming areas like East Boston or Dorchester. They have brick walls, high ceilings and skyline views. I have wealthy friends whose parents buy them fully restored condos in exclusive Boston neighborhoods. “It’s an investment,” they tell me, which sounds a little better than “mom and dad bought me a house”. I know people who are meticulous about their homes, like this guy from work who spent a year searching for a rare kind of onyx for his kitchen backsplash. The materials and installation cost four thousand dollars. When he told me this I congratulated him and shook his hand, then went to my computer to look up what a backsplash was.
Sometimes I do not feel like I belong in the grownup world, that it’s a wave I have neither the wherewithal nor the gumption to ride. The funny thing is, I only feel this way when I measure myself in terms of property value or when I see the world not as a world, but as a marketplace. I get anxious when I compare myself to other people, especially when the other person is Restoration Hardware. A house is a person’s castle. A house is a wise investment. But a house is also a box, and no matter how much you put into it, it will never be filled. Before you know it, you find yourself inside the box, too.
* * * *
I poured myself a cup of coffee and walked to my living room window. There was a time when I could see the horizon, all the way to Medford, rooftops the size of Monopoly pieces. Now I see windows, two-bedroom apartments, kitchen islands, metal sculptures, handsome couples, houseplants, early morning yoga, a lot of empty space. The lives of young professionals. And beyond that I can see a sliver of the warehouse across the street, where, in eighteen months, another luxury complex will rise from the ashes. More windows, more lives, more designer dogs, more yoga, more space.
I set my coffee cup down, picked up my phone, and Googled the name of my local congressman.
It’s time for the little guy to start complaining, and take a piece of the American Dream.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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