Thursday, September 27, 2012

Renting a Place for Life


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I flew back to New Jersey ahead of my family, giving my wife (she still doesn’t know I flew business class) a chance to get used to having to handle the kids by herself full-time. Yuppers, after an extended post-earthquake transition period involving the labyrinthine process of obtaining a green card legally, battling to no avail the immeasurable incompetence of the stewards of our health care system, bringing our new baby daughter into the world while managing not to take our eternally fighting and screaming sons out of it, and countless changes in plans for the future – move to Oregon (we flew out to make sure we’d actually like it), move to North Carolina (we drove down to make sure we’d like it), move to the Washington, DC area (until we drove down and I remembered how ridiculous the traffic is), go back to school to bring my forensics education up to date and finally get that crime scene investigation job (this idea will be forever on the table, somewhere between the napkins and the Tabasco), move to Summit, New Jersey or somewhere close to one of the trains that go there (for a business venture that would eventually fall through), stay in East Hanover since by this time our son was registered for kindergarten as well as fall soccer and my wife had made a bunch of friends in town (while my own social life existed almost entirely on my laptop), and finally, in a development that occurred while I was still doing pushups on the in-laws’ tatami floors, move out to Long Island to manage someone’s growing butcher shop collection (the guy decided to hire me on nothing more than a relative’s recommendation and my intense good looks)  – I am, I think, about to return to the world of socio-economic utility.

If that last sentence has you feeling like you’ve just been woken up mid-meeting by a co-workers hand-slap to the back of your head then you’ve got a handle on how I’ve felt for the last twelve months. (yada yada, poor me…)

On August 16th, as I was plunging into my jet-lag-enhanced break from my family in particular and reality in general, I thought maybe that sometime during the next three weeks of playing lone wolf (though on a much shorter leash than once upon a time) I’d have a chance to take off on a quick road trip for a few days. Go camping somewhere in New England. Finally visit Boston. Heck, why not put my passport to use one last time before it expires and fly somewhere random?

Yeah right. I never even made it to happy hour.

Looking for a place to rent is like a box of chocolates. Okay no it isn’t. Chocolate is fun. Chocolate is satisfying. You can share chocolate and people will like you. Driving all over the region to check out houses – and just as often apartments in houses – that go for $2K a month and look even smaller and/or crappier than in the pictures is not fun. Having your offers rejected because you don’t have an actual credit score because you’ve been out of the country for ten years and I’m sorry I see you have sixty thousand dollars in your bank account but without a credit score the landlord can’t be sure you won’t break the lease is not satisfying. And you can try to share your woeful tales of driving between New Jersey and Long Island to go house hunting but people will not tend to like you for it.

You still with me out there?

The news that my prospective boss’s latest deal was headed for the toilet had me scurrying for the want ads. However, said prospective boss is the kind of guy who makes it a point to never assume the position and was on top of another acquisition faster than you could say Syosset Sucks Anyway. So I was still in the developing picture but now I was doubling down on the fun, looking for places on both Long Island (where I had a job, maybe) and in my hometown in New Jersey (where my son had a school to go to, the only definite in my life). In the end, Long Island won out. Barely.

I’d decided I wanted to live in Northport, a cool if decidedly affluent town along the north shore. But I wasn’t finding anything in my price range except crummy duplexes and bland apartments – until I stumbled on this great ranch with a huge yard on a quiet street. ‘Oh, the tenants decided not to move out,’ the realtor said when she got back to me after my fourteenth message to her voice mail. It was five o’clock on August 29th – yes I needed a place starting September 1st – when I walked into the real estate office I just happened to notice as I was shuffling and stomping back to my car after another fruitless visit to another agency.

The woman at the front desk was nice and pleasant and completely ignorant about everything you’d think a person behind a front desk should be attuned to. If Andrea hadn’t walked in I’d probably still be living with my mom – assuming she wouldn’t have thrown us out by now. ‘You should go check out this place on 4th Avenue, down in East Northport,’ she said after twenty minutes of searching frantically and keeping me in the seat next to her desk with a tenacity usually reserved for used car salesmen. I looked at her computer screen, at perhaps the only available rental I hadn’t seen yet. It was more than I wanted to shell out every month. It was in an area of East Northport I’d seen earlier that day, to look at a crummy house. I wasn’t exactly enthralled with the area, made up of a grid of streets that had sidewalks in some places but not others. But the sun was going down in more ways than one. I said okay and took a drive by.

I rolled past. I stopped and backed up. And parked and stared and slowly got out. And started tip-toeing around and peeking in the windows.

On the way home after my last trip to Long Island, while inching up Canal Street on my way to the Holland Tunnel along with four thousand other cars, I popped in a CD I hadn’t listened to in ages – The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest. In one of the last songs the guy who refers to himself as, among a dozen other names, Q-Tip, asks a simple question: ‘What is life if you don’t have fun?’

Living in this house on 4th Avenue in East Northport, I knew, would be fun.

I called Andrea, she shot over and we took a look around inside the house. A year in this renovated 90-year-old two-story home with the finished basement and the huge yard would run me something like $4600 more for the year than the best crummy duplex I’d found. And as I sat in the bay window of the dining room gazing out at the big old front porch – the kind meant for kicking back on a warm evening and watching the neighborhood grow dusky – I knew that living here would be worth every extra penny and more.

Andrea seemed not unfazed but not overly-concerned either about my blank credit history, my lack of previous renter references and my ‘soon-to-be-employed’ status. For some people, reality and circumstance (and intense good looks) do count for something.

The next morning I faxed her every bit of potentially helpful documentation I could dig up, short of a note from my mom (which I said I could include but she said we should hold off on that until we really need it). Around lunch time she called me. ‘Well it seems the owners of the house are out of the country.’ ...Really... ‘The listing agent is trying to track them down as we speak.’

Of course. After buying a house and putting tens of thousands of dollars of improvements into it in order to begin renting it out and building a return on the investment who wouldn’t fly off to Portugal?

I spent the day (it was August 30th now) begging God for forgiveness for anything and everything I’d ever done as well as a few things I'd only been accused of while scouring craigslist for something, anything, anywhere that wasn’t crummy. At eight in the evening I took my wretched brain out for a walk and an ice cream cone, and ended up on my cell phone talking to Hank, born and raised in Brooklyn and doing real estate for thirty years on Long Island and Christ man hadn’t he seen it all. Hank had listed a three bedroom ranch in upscale Huntington, down the road from Northport, for less than the place on 4th Avenue. But Hank, rambling on and on like someone born and raised in Brooklyn, went into so much detail about the place he talked me out of it.

I licked the ice cream off my fingers and went home to bed, my guts all tied up in knots.

Just shy of noon on Friday Andrea texted me. The owners didn’t care much about a number on a credit score. They did prefer their tenant have some kind of income, but a quick phone call to a guy collecting butcher shops was good enough for them and the house was mine. Softie that I am sometimes, I practically had tears coming out of my eyes as I stood in the sun out on my mom’s driveway. So recently staring down the prospect of a crummy duplex, I now knew that my wife and my kids would be happy when I brought them to their new home.

The spectacle of the journey, however, was just beginning…