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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