I write this sitting cross legged on a double bed in a tiny bedroom in a vacation apartment. Dan and Damian are playing table hockey in the living room, various relatives are watching something funny on TV in the adjoining apartment's living room, the remnants of birthday cake are tucked away in one of the two fridges, it's very late and nobody cares. We're in a seaside town (Seaside Heights, to be exact) on the Jersey Shore, or, as Damian likes to say, we're at the NJS (New Jersey Shore, you see). The very traditional arcade-games-and-pizza-and-bathing-suits style boardwalk is a few blocks from here, along narrow streets lined with tiny beach cottages that smell like sunlight and ocean. The vacation rental has wifi and a pool and life is good.
We got to New York -- should I say New Jersey? This will take some getting used to, this shift in focus – we got to this side of the country on Monday night. Sans cats but with a mission. To find a place to live, that was the agenda, the plan, and the hope and fear. When we got back from our last trip in April, I stayed up far into the night every night for a week, thinking and worrying about all the unknowns involved in uprooting our lives and replanting ourselves so far away. But one of the main thoughts cycling through my head, one of the main frets my brain kept chewing on and refused to spit out, was this. Where will we live? What will it be like? Can we find a house? Will we end up somewhere dank and dark, with constant footsteps overhead and never ending loud television sets? Will we have to squeeze our lives into a narrow, dark shoebox in a dicey neighborhood? Why are we doing this again?
As Dan and I started looking around, started reading Craigslist rental postings and MLS rental listings and New Jersey newspaper classified sections online, the fear didn't subside. A scant few houses, not just in our price range but in any price range. And the vast majority of the apartments were on the main drag (noise, oh my) or were in multifamily houses (homes split into two or three or four), and if someone's upstairs and the house wasn't originally built for this kind of separation, you hear footsteps and TV and coughing fits and loud sighs. You hear everything.
We wanted a house but would settle for a duplex, a side by side deal with more insulation between units and even maybe a basement. We wanted three bedrooms but would settle for two. We wanted a place with peace, quiet, and light but would settle for… well, we'd settle for a place we could settle into and call home base for a year or two. Renting after owning is hard to fathom, downsizing on purpose is harder in some ways. It's all doable, just odd. But if the place itself is depressing? Not good.
Tuesday June 21st, 1:30 pm. Time to find out. Time to see. We met with the realtor who showed us houses to buy last time. Nice woman. Down to earth.
Place #1. A house. We had high hopes. We were and weren't disappointed. Really nice dead end street, lots of kids. Clean back yard. Pleasant house, though a bit dark (Dan disagrees with my memory of this) and a bit small (I could get past that) and a lousy kitchen and lots of fairly awful wallpaper. But the bedrooms were nice sizes and there were three of them and the house had that old house charm in the details and it could feel like home and could we have it, please? But no, we couldn't. Even though two small dogs live there now and even though the landlady is apparently fine with these scrappy little guys, she has had bad luck with previous large, destructive canines and now says no means no. No dogs, no cats, no goldfish. No pets. No house for us.
Place #2. An apartment, ground floor in a multifamily. No yard. Kitchen the size of a closet – albeit complete with granite countertops and new tile floor. Kind of like gilding a mouse, y'know? And when we looked out of the windows, all we saw were other windows. Depressing.
I know that when you live in Manhattan, this happens. You live in a small apartment, you see other apartment buildings out your window. But it's different. Better insulation, for one thing. And fire escapes and city skylines and rooftops and such often combine to create a kind of alternate peace. But 40 minutes outside the city? Doesn't feel right. Suburbs are supposed to have benefits like grass and sky, aren't they? Isn't that the point? Isn't that the plus to balance out the away-from-the-action minus?
Place #3. So bad I didn't get past the front door. It happens. Amusingly, the apartment was painted in lovely shades of orange and yellow. Pretty paint doth not make a hovel less hovel-like. Dan went upstairs, came down to report that one of the two bedrooms had an unusual convenience: a washer and a dryer. Yes, right in the bedroom. Mmm. Moving right along.
Place #4. Carpeted condo backing onto the main drag. Not terrible if you like that sort of thing. I don’t. Also, small.
If there was a Place #5 I don't remember it.
Tuesday night was not a good night. My mind spun out. We were going to look at a carriage house and a duplex the next day, both via Craigslist (and both sans realtor fee). But a carriage house is usually a tiny place behind a mansion, and I imagined a Beverly Hills rich vibe all around me as I lived in someone else's back yard, and it felt squicky. And the duplex, well, we'd driven past it and it was in an area I would call urban, ie: heavily trafficked, dense housing, no yards. Interesting shops and the main drag in walking distance, but not what we thought we wanted.
I finally calmed myself down with a plan of sorts: I could come back in a month with Damian to check out new listings, we could ask the realtor to send us houses as soon as they popped on the MLS, we could even rent one sight unseen, couldn't we? It's not like a lifetime commitment, not like buying a place. And if we didn't find one by the time we moved, well, we could put our stuff in storage and stay with family until something came along. And something would surely come along, wouldn't it?
I was up till 4 am.
Wednesday morning. I was nearly half an hour late for a school tour, I met with the assistant principal and then met Dan and Damian at a local playground. I called the carriage house landlady. Sure, come on over. So we came on over.
Yup, it's on Mansion Row. Yup, it's a little house behind a big house. Yup, it's essentially in someone's back yard. But it doesn't feel like that. It's perched up on a hill, the lawn between the two buildings is large enough you don’t feel like you're on top of them at all. And the main view out the windows is of trees. Green all around. Peace all around. The main floor is wide open, living area, dining area, kitchen area all divided by space rather than by walls. Great light. Wood floors. Modern kitchen including dishwasher. Washer and dryer in the basement. Upstairs, two tiny bedrooms. The master bedroom has a slanted attic-room-like wall, making it feel even smaller, but oddly has a walk-in closet. The space between rooms is less hallway than alcove, big enough for an office or for a drum set.
And we liked the landlady a/k/a the woman who lives in the big house. Jewish intellectual, gray streaks in her decidedly uncoiffed kinky hair, around our age, warm and unpretentious. We said we were interested. We filled out the application, wrote a check for the credit report. Said we'd let her know for sure by Friday and drove off feeling ever so much better.
The duplex turned out to be nice but not nice enough. Depressing living room, basement which floods and won't work as a laundry room, no yard, not a very warm place. But a nice neighbor. Whose sons go to the school Damian will probably attend and who both play musical instruments (one is in fact a drummer!). We were almost kind of tempted, but not.
We went to my friend Cathy's for dinner (and a dip in their pool) and I called the carriage house owner to tell her we want the place. She ran the credit check. We went back over to the house after dinner, met her husband and kids. I was worried about this part. Would the husband be stuffy? Would Damian like the kids, his neighbors? Was this workable, would personalities mesh? They did. The girls took Damian down to their playroom, I heard giggles floating up. His giggles. And we liked the husband and I think he liked us.
We have a place to live in our new town. We signed a year's lease. They know our situation, know we plan to buy again sooner or later. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if they end up helping us look! Nice people. My kind of people. Feels like coming home.
It'll be tricky fitting our furniture into a space smaller than we're used to but we can discard some and store some if need be. It may feel strange at first, two very small bedrooms instead of three-smallish-plus-office. But the open main space feels so good, so welcoming, and we got what we wanted above all else. Peace and light and a lease that starts in September.
Eliza mentioned me in her journal today, mentioned becoming invested in this cross-country move of ours, called us brave. I know what she means. Well, not sure about the brave part, though sometimes, yes, I think it must be brave in the way that you are when you walk into what looks like a wall, knowing it's an optical illusion but the logical part of your brain, the empirical part, says, "No, that's a really a wall and it's gonna hurt like hell when you slam your nose into it," and so you close your eyes and hold your breath and take one step, then another, then another, all the while thinking "I can stop any time, I can decide not to go through with this, I can walk backwards if need be, right? And by the way, where's the nearest hospital? Y'know, just in case." And before you know it, you're at the wall and wow, you're through and then finally you find out what's on the other side. So yes, maybe brave is the right term for this, maybe so.
But when I said I know what she means, I meant the readerly fascination with personal stories, with life as shown on blogs and online journals. The way you become invested in someone's life, reading it like a book when the hero just stumbled into a hornet's nest and then one of the hornets pulled out a knife, and boy what's he gonna do now? And your heart beats faster as you're reading and you stay up way too late because you can't put the book down. But this is not fiction and it has no ending, it's just twists and turns and thoughts and feelings, it's like nothing else. Memoir as it's lived, unfolding in real time. I too am addicted and so I understand that right now my life is like that, this big cross country move creates that sense of wanting to turn the page to see how it turned out for us in our new home, our new life. Hell, I feel it too. I want to know how this story ends. Do we live happily ever after? Do we feel this was the right choice, to go back home to the New York area after seventeen years? Will we land on our feet? What's going to happen? Where will we live, how will we make it work? Can I take one little peek at the epilogue now? I promise not to tell!
When we started talking about this back in February, I figured we wouldn't go unless Dan had an editing job lined up, safety net and justification both. But it became clear after our visit in April that he probably can't get a gig there while he's still here. Because nobody really believes you'll pick yourself up and move from the film capitol of the world to a smaller filmmaking community unless you just go ahead and do it. Prove you mean it. But we both also realized then that we'd be heartbroken if we didn't make the move. Our hearts are there, not here. And if we didn't try it now, we would always wonder if it would have worked, how it would have been. So we have to give it a try. But for a while I was having a hard time with this idea. Cart before horse, result before cause. How does this make sense? People make these huge moves for tangible reasons, no? Solid financial or career considerations, usually. Isn't that the way it goes?
I started thinking about the people I knew who had done such things. And you know what? I mostly thought of people whose lives I've read online. John Scalzi, who sold his house and moved from the DC area to rural Ohio, largely because his wife missed her family. Yeah, that's me, only in this case it's true for both of us. Karen Meisner (now offline), who packed up her little family and moved from Berkeley, California to Madison, Wisconsin, mostly because she felt like Berkeley wasn't the life she wanted, it didn't challenge her enough. I can relate there too – not that LA doesn't challenge me, but it doesn’t excite me, and it most certainly isn't the life we want. Sage and Todd, who have moved more than once; their last move was from the Western US to Toronto, primarily because of the worsening political climate in the US. We thought long and hard about that ourselves, but it turns out that this is not exactly us after all, except for this: we move from a city that doesn't feel in sync with us politically, emotionally or socially to a town that does. But in all three cases – and I didn't have to think hard to come up with these, they are (or were, in Karen's case) people whose words I read weekly if not daily – they moved for personal reasons. They chose to do it, no external force (ie: job offer) pushed them out the door.
I feel much better now, realizing this. Remembering what I've read. We're not alone. People have done this and not only survived but thrived. I know this because they told me. Online. It's not fiction, it's real life stories we read online, and our own lives are sometimes unexpectedly enriched because of it.
A little life lesson: Be flexible. It's pretty much the only way you can handle the rollercoaster without falling off or at least ending up with a bad case of whiplash.
Remember that timetable of our move? History. Alternate history, turns out. Our new timetable:
June 20th. Fly to New York. Leave cats behind. Find place to live. Do other stuff. Sweat (90 and humid? Ugh.)
July 3rd. Come back to LA. Greet cats.
July 5th or 6th or so: visit Legoland (we promised) and Seaworld (why not?).
July 11th or thereabouts. Dan starts work.
(What? Oh. Yeah, well. A job. Here. For the summer. With people he knows and likes. Why not?)
The rest of July. Buy boxes. Pack. Sweat. Say goodbye to people and places here. Turn the air conditioning up. Stop sweating. Throw things out. Donate other things. Buy more boxes. Pack some more.
August 2nd. Escrow ends. Get a honking big check, deposit it. Look at each other and shake our heads in wonder.
August 3rd. Become renters in this very same house. Weird.
The rest of August. See July, only now with 50% more boxes and sweat and stress.
September. This gets a little tricky, but:
Say hi to moving van and movers. Watch nearly all our worldly goods disappear into the innards of a huge, enormous and really freaking long truck. Wave goodbye to nearly all our worldly goods.
Then: Either Damian and I kiss Daddy goodbye (if the job hasn't ended yet) and get on a plane or we all three get on that plane (if the job has in fact ended). Oh, wait, five of us. We bring the cats this time. But we leave the minivan behind, either with Dan or solo. A minivan alone in the big city, up to no good.
Get off plane. Don’t forget cats on plane. Introduce cats to Grandma and Grandpa.
A few days later: Meet honking big, freakishly long truck in New Jersey. Say hi to stuff. Also to movers. Watch stuff reappear from the depths of honking big truck. Give movers water and our undying gratitude. Unpack enough stuff to sleep that night in our new abode. And maybe eat too. Live among boxes for a week.
Damian starts school. One week. Just one. A taste of school, a sampler.
Say bye to cats. Get back on plane. Fly back west. Yes, this is strange to me too. Settle in, then leave? Why not?
Get off plane. Greet Dan if we've left him behind. Say hi to minivan. Drive for many days with many stops along the way. Arrive. Stay put. Hello New Jersey. Hello New Life.
Yes, we could ship the car. And we may well end up doing so. But we don't want to. We want to drive, to see a large swath of country, experience that visceral, tangible move. See the miles. And yes, it means pulling Damian out of school for two weeks. Listen, it's first grade. Do you think he'll remember what he learned for those two weeks of school for the rest of his life or remember a monumental cross country drive filled with life and sights and scenery and history?
Plusses to this new plan: Job. Money. Good. Plus, it looks like I may have a small writing job this summer. Freelance, from home. But far easier to do from home and not from car in the middle of the Utah desert – I mean the Colorado Rockies – I mean, where am I today? Plus, September: cooler drive than August. Also, tourist spots will be less crowded. Also, a month more time to pack. A Good Thing. But mostly, see above. Job. Money. Good.
(SP, I will write about the selling process. Next up.)
Now that we've sold the house (we're officially in escrow) and have probably picked out a school for Damian for fall, this is all seeming far more real. And as it does, I find myself missing the photoblog. No, stay with me, this is not a nonsequiteur. Because we're leaving. And we're here now. And what I see now, every day around me, won't be my every-day-around-me for much longer. And I want to capture that, best I can. And what better way?
I've posted a photo essay of the Venice Boardwalk over on my photoblog for your enjoyment. I thought about posting it here, but here is words, there is pictures. So there it is. I plan to update there far more often. Should I post here every time I do? Or only if it's full-on essays like today's? Or not at all? What do you folks think? Let me know!
I spent most of yesterday in a deep blue funk. I feel much better today, even though the situation is the same. Maybe I'm resigned. Maybe it's started to seem almost inevitable, the evolution of a city, and I'm partaking in that process whether or not I want to do so.
We've had three offers for the house. All from builders or investors with intent to build. None from people who would actually want to live here. At least four people/sets of people walked away from viewing the house saying they loved it and planned to make an offer and then… didn't. I think they all went home and, once they were no longer standing here, the spell was gone and the "Oh my god, sandwiched between apartment buildings??" reality hit full blast.
It was different when we bought the house. Not because it was an easy decision then. It wasn't. But because we were dealing with less than half the expense. Prices are so out of control in LA now. People are spending so very much money. And this is not a situation that can improve. You can add onto a small house. A dicey neighborhood can become gentrified. Apartment buildings aren't going to metamorphose into single family homes. You're stuck with them. It's no wonder if prospective buyers look at each other and say, "We're going to pay all that cash and live like that? Why on earth??" And, too, I think the recent spate of articles about the imminent housing bubble burst has people second guessing their choices. Rightly so. They may have to live in them a long time. That, or sell at a loss.
It seems that if we want to sell to real live people, we have to price the house lower than the market value, which is already lower than it would be if it weren't in an awkward spot (ie: between apartments). Maybe fifty thousand dollars lower. Maybe more. That money buys us another year of settling into our new life or, if things go reasonably well, it might be the chunk of money we need to make our down payment high enough to buy a decent house in Jersey. In other words, it would be a pretty dumb move to lower the price that much. Save a house, screw with your future.
It breaks my heart, this beautiful house gone. But in another way, I get it. The house is an anomaly. A relic. There are a few others on this block, in this area, but not that many. And it's not fun being a homeowner among renters. They toss trash in our yard, park in our driveway, talk on their cell phones outside our windows (okay, that last hasn’t happened for a while, but it has happened). It's a very urban environment, not quite the white-picket-fence dream. A condo building here would fit better. Would suit the neighborhood better. Would feel better to the people who buy in.
This house has an expiration date. We knew it when we moved in. Dan said he thought we'd likely be the last people to live here. We tried to fix it up, make it nice, entice people, avoid that fate. But it seems he was right.
I don't regret fixing the house up. For one thing, we had to give it that chance. For another, we learned a lot in the process, things I hope we can apply to our next house (whenever that may be). And we got to enjoy the transformation, got to be in a no-longer-dingy environment. More concretely, our realtor says it actually affected the price, even for the builders. For one thing, they won't build right away. This way, because it's nice, they can rent it out for a while, collect some money. It becomes more attractive as a result. Also, they know they might have to compete against people who want to live here, so they have to bid higher than they otherwise might. If a place is an obvious teardown, builders bid low. Way low. So our little spruce-up job more than paid for itself in profit. Just not the way we'd hoped.
We've countered the offers, we're close to a deal. We bow to what feels inevitable, or at least necessary. I was terribly, terribly sad yesterday. Oddly, the cloud lifted today. It is what it is. A house is not a person. Is not us. We walk away from this in good shape, in fact. It works. Not the way we'd hoped, but it works.
People keep asking me if we know when we're moving. Valid question. And since a bunch of my friends read this, I thought I'd post the details here. (Don't worry, this is not a laundry list.)
June 7th, a/k/a today. Hold Open House. Leave house at 11 am. Imagine hordes tramping through. Feel weird.
June 8th & 9th. Field offers. Counter offers. Hold breath. Go into escrow. Exhale. Eat sushi. (Well, why not?)
June 20th. Board plane to New York. Bring cats. Stow them in the overhead compartments. Get chewed out by flight attendant when the fuzzballs pop their heads out to ask for kitty treats before takeoff. Grudgingly agree to check them as luggage.
June 21st to July 2nd. Look for house or apartment to rent. Squeeze in a few school tours. Take breaks to go down to the Jersey shore with relatives. Pet cats a lot and scratch behind their ears.
July 3rd. Fly back to LA. Cats stay in New York with grandma and grandpa. Bye, cats. Bye, grandma and grandpa.
July 4th. Try to find some fireworks.
July 5th to July 31st. Pack and toss, pack and toss. A household to move, mountains of never-used belongings to discard. Freak out. Take break to go to Legoland and Sea World because we promised we would. Say goodbye to Shamu.
August 1st (date approximate). Climb into minivan. Drive east. Through deserts, over mountains, hello Continental Divide, hello herds of bison, hello huge president heads, hello great brown Mississippi River, hello and what a huge country. Thank the gods of travel several times for an air conditioned car and cell phones.
August 16th (date approximate). Arrive. Hello cats. Hello new life.
The cats are ready for their great adventure.
This is harder than I expected, selling a house. Oh, not because anything's wrong. In fact it looks like we'll have a minimum of two offers and this is before tomorrow's open house, which was to be the official date we're open for business, only six people snuck an early peek. We'll definitely sell the house, most likely by the weekend. Which is good. But hard too. People tromping through our house, our home, eyeballing our possessions. Making decisions, judgments, evaluations.
One guy who came by yesterday loved the house itself but ultimately couldn't get past the apartment buildings on either side. Which made me feel squicky somehow. Like: Hey, we've been living here for four years, are we idiots, then? I mean, I know. I don't like them either. And it was a difficult decision to buy, one I regretted and then didn't regret, then regretted, then resolved. I love this house. I hate this house. I love this house. Putting it on the market feels so poignant, feels so vulnerable.
Our realtor fielded seven calls this morning, many of them from developers wanting to know details about the grade of the land and how many units the property could hold. And the part of me that wants a clean getaway says, yes, let them all bid, all these builders, let them go into a frenzy over this desirable location, let them buy it for many thousands above our asking price, let us walk away with a bigger bundle of cash to start our new life. But the part of me that walks around the house smiling at the yellow walls and wainscoting and pretty fixtures wants to kick them out of the house with a snarl: Don't ever darken my doorstep again, you history-destroyer you! You insensitive churl! You're the people who have made the city ugly, you and your cement block apartment buildings on so many streets formerly lined with pretty Craftsman houses like this one. Smashing pride of place with the hefty blow of a wrecking ball.
On the other hand, a pair of women came by yesterday, their gazes caught by the for sale sign. From our realtor's description, I liked them. And it sounds like they fell in love with the house. Which is what I want. What I really, really want. For this house to be loved, not torn down. But this house is clearly out of their price range. They were going to head back to the bank to try and get qualified for more money, but hell. They shouldn't. Maybe we'd get our cash out this way, but they'd be in over their heads. I don't want to walk away feeling bad, feeling worried, feeling guilty for making a sale.
On the other other hand, five people (or sets of people) saw the house yesterday. Of those, two said no, one had already made an offer, one wants to make an offer but may not be able to (the women), and the final one asked our realtor if he made an offer right then, would we consider it? (Our realtor said, "Wait till Tuesday.") So it's not like the house is unwanted. But I can't shake the feeling that my house – and therefore somehow me – no, not me, my choices, my home, my intimate life – is being judged. It's like wearing your underwear in public, y'know? And asking people to buy it.
Weird feeling. Uncomfortable. Disquieting. I'll be relieved when this week is over.
Lovely vintage Craftsman; early 1900's charm and extraordinary detail. Gorgeous original woodwork: built-ins, crown molding and wainscoting. Hardwood floors. Great flow-through. 3 BR plus office. Charming country kitchen. Laundry room w/ extra half bath. Secluded front yard creates a sense of privacy. Large backyard with fruit trees. Front and back porches. Plenty of parking. Easy walk to boutiques and restaurants. Central air with filter and UV treatment; copper plumbing; earthquake bolting.
(pictures beyond the fold, as they say. Click on "continue" to see our pretty house.)
I was going to do this as a before-and-after set because every room you see in these pictures (plus some you don't) (well, okay, the laundry room) (and the front yard too) have been transformed by our sweat and tears. But I couldn't find the pictures I took way back when we first saw the house, so bah. And anyway, I'm tired. In the past couple of weeks, we've stripped and scraped and scrubbed horrid carpet glue off the front porch and then painted it, also painted the laundry room, also done a lot of general straightening and organizing.
The place is ready to show. Wow.
(Oh, and blurb wording and picture taking all copyright by me, myself and I. I love working with a realtor we've known for over a decade. He knows to give me room to do some things myself.)
Our broker put our house on the MLS (multiple listing service) yesterday. By last night, he'd already gotten a call from a broker representing an investor who wanted to bid on it sight unseen. Whoa.
As of today (3:45 pm as I write this), he's gotten something like five calls from brokers. He told them all that the first showing is Tuesday at the broker's open house. Two said okay. Three said their clients can't come Tuesday, can they see it over the weekend, pretty please? Whoa.
Also? The investor came back with an actual honest-to-god bid. For our asking price, no underbidding at all. Whoa.
My head is spinning. This is happening so fast. So so fast.
(I'll post the listing wording and pictures in a separate post.)