SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
June 1, 2014

It’s Always Some Damn Thing

 

Nobody ever said house-hunting in New York would be loads of fun. Well, okay, maybe a couple of real estate people and a few other mentally deficient types did, but they can’t be trusted. Even entering into the mess with a full understanding of this, we had no idea it would be such a brain-fogging ordeal. Every seller we’ve encountered has a racket and is working the angles, and every house has a filthy little secret it doesn’t want revealed.

            Morgan and I drafted a very simple, clear list of the specific details we were looking for in a new place, and how much we were willing to pay. It narrowed the field considerably, and made things, you’d think, much easier for everyone involved. They weren’t unreasonable demands, really. I wasn’t insisting on a moat and drawbridge, or twelve-foot brick walls topped with razor wire enclosing the back yard. Those things would come later. All we wanted was a damn house with a couple of bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms. Given the neighborhood where we were looking, houses that fit the bill quite nicely were plentiful. Trouble was, the people who were selling them were fucking insane.

            We were set to see one place that sounded perfect, even if it was a bit further south than we would’ve liked. We could even live with the fact that it abutted the local post office’s parking lot and dispatch center, with trucks coming and going all day and night. It was in decent shape and the price was right, so we were willing to put up with a lot. The house was owned by a retired couple who lived there with their forty-five year old daughter. Didn’t know what the hell was wrong with the daughter, some kind of emotional cripple, probably, but I figured it wasn’t my place to ask. When Morgan told me one of the photos on the listing revealed a bust of Elvis in the basement I was sold. In fact I was ready to insist the bust stay with the house.

            The problem was the family didn’t really want to move, and had already pulled out of a deal once after signing a contract. That didn’t sound promising. But they’d since changed their mind and put the place up for sale again. Morgan and I were going to be the first people to see it since that initial debacle. Then true to form the night before we were supposed to show up they decided against selling again. That’s when we decided yeah, maybe that post office dispatch lot next door would’ve been a bit much after all.

            The next house was a shabby little number inhabited by an Egyptian family who kept following us around. The father repeatedly asked God to bless me, the daughter pointed out everything that was wrong with the place, specifically an ancient water heater with a tendency to explode. Although they had a washing machine they had no dryer for some reason, and so hung their laundry on a series of clotheslines strung up all over the basement. And then there were the neighbors on both sides, whose houses looked like they might well collapse in on themselves (or us) at any moment. Worst of all, the whole time we were there, the family matriarch never said a word, merely followed us around and glared angrily.

            After breathing a small sigh of relief upon stepping out into the air and sunlight once again, we walked a few blocks north and through the front door of what was exactly what we were looking for. It was in beautiful shape, the location was ideal, and it was within our price range. The first floor smelled vaguely of shit, but we thought that might just be an ephemeral thing. It would drift away in time, probably. The catch was Dr. Foot, the elderly physician who owned the building. He had an office on the ground floor and rented out the upstairs to foreign college students (all young girls), running the place like an SRO. We’d been told they’d all be leaving, the good doctor included, but he refused to let us look in his office as we were being shown the house. It seems he’d refused to allow anyone into his office, including the broker who was selling the building. That seemed a little odd, and Morgan and I assumed it was because that’s where he stored all the bodies (which would also help explain the smell). That was okay, too. I could live with corpses in the walls. The kicker, though, was since he had a doctor’s office on the ground floor, we’d have to get a fifteen year commercial mortgage instead of a normal residential mortgage. It also meant we’d be taxed at a much higher rate. According to an architect friend, we could convert the office into residential space, but it could take up to a year, and we wouldn’t be allowed to live in the building while the renovation was underway. It would also likely cost us $100,000 or more by the time the conversion was finished. It was all so confounding and tedious. The architect suggested I could take over the office myself and tell people I was a shrink, while Morgan thought we could open a crooked day care center. Hell, I know how to play leap frog. Both sounded good to me, and after doing the math we decided we might actually be able to swing it. But as soon as we made that decision, we were told Dr. Foot had gone all spazzy in the head and decided to unceremoniously yank the house off the market. Maybe he heard we were coming.

            Okay, so there we were again. we saw a listing for a place a few blocks away, strolled past and decided it looked nice from the outside, but the moment we called and tried to set up an appointment, we learned the family selling the house had changed their minds, too, and decided not to sell. What the fuck is it with these people?

            A week later our realtor took us to another nice little place in fine condition for a reasonable price, even if it was kind of in the boonies of western Brooklyn. But as we were driving away she told us (and only because I asked about the sewage treatment plant a quarter mile away) that yeah, things could get to smelling pretty foul in the summertime. And oh yeah, every time it rained all the local sewers backed up, often filling basements all over the neighborhood with shit.

            Okay then. Maybe we should take a look at this next one on the list, here.

            A feeble man in his nineties was sitting in the entryway of a two-story brick house a few blocks away from the one we’d just seen. That might help explain why the whole house reeked of mothballs. I also guessed he had a touch of the Alzheimer’s, which might be why a raving schizophrenic had been contracted to handle a full renovation of the interior a few years earlier. Or maybe, Morgan suggested, M.C. Escher was involved somehow. It was a narrow house, and the main floor consisted of one long, wood-paneled hallway flanking two long, narrow bedrooms. That’s it. That’s all there was, just a hallway and two long bedrooms. No kitchen, no bathroom, no anything else. Downstairs was nice, I thought. Almost futuristic in its starkness, with a clean ceramic tile floor and a stretch of fluorescent panels overhead. It also, for some reason, had two full kitchens, which seemed a little odd for a place that was wide open like that. But who knows? Maybe they had cook-offs down there or something. Oh, and back behind the second kitchen was a small side room, and in the side room there was an uncovered hole in the floor. A wide, deep hole that seemed to have no bottom. We were told it had something to do with the sewer system. I was hoping it wasn’t as close as the house got to a bathroom, given we hadn’t seen one on the first floor.

            The upstairs was nice and pretty much what you’d call normal. Only trouble was there was no way to get up there from inside the house. No, if you wanted to go upstairs you had to go outside, around the house, down an alley, and enter another door that led to a hidden interior staircase up to the second floor.

            I had kind of an immediate strange affection for the crazy house, but Morgan had her doubts. So we moved on to the next.

            Things were feeling mighty bleak, but from the moment we walked in the front door we could feel we’d finally found what was destined all along to be Our House. It was open and bright and had the right vibe. It had everything we were looking for, everything on the list. The location was more than ideal to boot, and the price seemed curiously low. Sure, maybe it needed a little work, but nothing we weren’t willing to take on. Still though, there was something suspicious afoot, I could sense it. How could a place like this be on the market for three months when everything else around there was snapped up in a few days? Well, we weren’t going to worry about that.

            The realtor walked us around, gave us the grand tour, and we were just about ready to start making offers. Then she said, “There is one thing I should show you that might be a bit of a problem . . . ”

            In this case the thing that “might be a problem” consisted of an illegal extension on the back of the house (including the basement), the ensuing and long-running battle with the city buildings department, and the niggling little fact that the back of the house in all likelihood would have to be demolished and rebuilt to code. All that could take, well, it would take some time. Still, though, we had hopes, and got in touch with our architect friend who, bless him, was straightforward about everything that would need to happen and all the things that could potentially go very, very wrong.

            Yeah, it’s always some damn thing. It was pretty obvious to us it was time to keep looking. Now the problem was there wasn’t much of anything else to look at. The housing market where we were looking could best be described as arid, and those few things that were coming up were priced way out of our depth. For the moment anyway we’d run out of options. Maybe we’d all just stay down here in the Bunker for a while.

 

You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.