Monday, June 13, 2016

good fortune in strange times

1. something to (es)crow about

When we were going through the adoption process, other hopeful adoptive parents compared the “match”—the time when the expectant mom and the adoptive parents have agreed on a plan, but before the baby is born—to escrow. I had no experience with home ownership, but I understood what it meant: a period of limbo when hopes were high and a lot could go wrong.

Now the adoption process is helping me understand the process of buying a house.

I know how that sounds, comparing a human being to a piece of property. And that’s exactly why adoption is so frustrating, because it attempts to translate a relationship into a transaction.

Anyway, we are now in escrow. Regular escrow. By “we,” I mean my dad. AK and I are just the grateful, probable future tenants. If adoption was a creaky wooden roller coaster, this process has been a buttered luge—that quick and smooth. A very expensive luge, where someone else is doing the buttering.

A fairly accurate depiction of what it feels like to be a hopeful adoptive parent.
The house: a 1912 Craftsman bungalow stuccoed over and painted a dark, calming olive. There’s a little backyard, a shaded patio and concrete countertops that will be able to stand up to the destructive forces of me and a toddler. Dash will have his own small room. There’s a beautiful claw-foot tub in the bathroom and orange trees lining the driveway. Dash decided his favorite part of the house was the toilet brush left by the previous owners.

You can tell it’s been flipped just by the fence—natural-wood fences have become code for hipster/flipper/New Highland Park. The house’s Zillow profile reads like a recent history of the U.S. housing market. It sold in 2005, was foreclosed on in 2008, sold in 2009, foreclosed on in 2011, sold in 2011, and sold again in 2012. Those facts, plus a YouTube video we found of its makeover journey, made my heart go out to the little house, as if it were a stray pet who’d never found quite the right human.

It’s us! We’re the family that doesn’t want to sell you or let you crumble! We just want to live in you and love you and probably kill some of the lovely plants in your yard, if we’re being perfectly honest.

I wonder about this impulse in myself. Why do I instantly anthropomorphize the house? Why do I have to translate this transaction into something relational? Why do I have to pretend that what is in fact an overpriced, beautiful, desirable home is some kind of underdog in order for me to love it? Is my need to be needed that huge?

2. where’s our humble home?

Having lived in Highland Park for nine years, it’s not like I haven’t noticed gentrification. The Wild Hare became The York. Mr. T’s became Highland Bowl. That funky smelling pet store is gone, and Town now occupies Italiano’s, selling pizza at double the price. There are multiple yoga studios, multiple record stores and Bernie’s campaign headquarters. There’s a store called Platform that will stage your flipped house (and staged ours, at least one of the times it sold).

And yet my eyes were opened all over again while house hunting. I am acutely aware that a forty-year historical trend is reversing: Cities are desirable again, houses near downtowns everywhere are getting snatched up (I am now a snatcher) and poor people are moving to Palmdale. It is strange and breathtaking to watch yourself ride the wave of history.

With my new real estate goggles, I saw flipper fences everywhere, along with signs tacked to telephone poles, saying We buy houses for cash $$$. Only two types of houses seemed to be for sale: The ones with new countertops and new wood floors and freshly baked cookies in the kitchen, and major fixer-uppers screaming Flip me!

One of the houses in the latter category was down the street from our current place. When I showed up for the open house, a young, blonde-haired woman looked up from her phone and told me she was not the agent, but she could answer any questions I might have. She didn’t say who she was.

The house was cute, 1930s mission-style with a lot of original floors and windows. It was pretty banged up, with rotting wood framing the windows, and a kitchen that would have been an excellent location to shoot a 1970s period piece.

"Can I get you anything? Coffee? Leisure suit made from my wallpaper?"
“The owners have plans they can share with you,” Not-the-Agent said. “Like, they were going to knock out this wall and expand the master bedroom. And they were going to open the kitchen up.”

She presented this as if it were a special bonus, like an ocean view or new appliances. The “plans,” which were actually just an idea (and a rather obvious one at that), didn’t seem to warrant the extra $100,000 they had tacked onto what would have been a normal price (for a ridiculously abnormal market).

AK likened the experience to that time she wanted to buy a stereo, and they seemed to come in only two flavors, cheap-ass and uber-high-end.

Where’s our humble little home? we wondered. I imagined clean empty rooms, aluminum windows, some unattractive bathroom tile, but nothing that would collapse or leak or smell. The only place we glimpsed that seemed to fit this description was next to high-voltage power lines that even my non-alarmist dad found troubling.

The realtors all had that seller’s-market strut, like hot girls at the club. They used vaguely coded language about “desirability” and “good schools,” trying to assure potential buyers that this neighborhood is safe for white people (in fact, all neighborhoods are safer for white people than they are for people of color, usually).

3. imposter syndrome

I want safety. I want Dash to go to a good school. I’m not above any of this, although I did wonder what his childhood will be like if we’re essentially living above our means by nature of our rental arrangement.

His childhood would be like mine. I grew up a middle-class kid in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. This manifested in small ways that seemed big at the time. My parents didn’t automatically buy all the shit I had to sell when we fundraised for extracurricular activities. When we went to the zoo or the beach, we always, always, always bought our own snacks. We went out to eat exactly once a week (less during tight times), to a neighborhood Mexican restaurant where burritos cost $3.

My dad started going to Leo's in 1948. Long live Leo's!
But I always had food and clothes and got to do the stuff that mattered most to me. It wasn’t like I was alienated for the fact that I couldn’t afford a letterman jacket when I was on varsity cheer. I was just bummed and a little cold.

In some ways I think this situation was ideal. I knew, in a small way, what it felt like to go without some stuff, and it made me good at saving money (sort of…sigh) and empathizing with people who had to go without more stuff. 

I don’t want Dash to go to school with only white kids, but right now Eagle Rock High School is only 10 percent white. Even if that number quadruples in the next 13 years, white kids will still be in the minority. Plus, the house that will hopefully be ours is zoned for Franklin High School, which is 1 percent white.    

This is all such new territory, literally and figuratively. Property. Schools.

“Excellent adulting!” my friend Nicole congratulated me. I felt like an imposter, of course. My dad is the real adult in this story, although I know that would seem true even if we were the buyers. That’s the nature of parents, at least competent ones.

4. oldies but goodies

The other day I attempted to get a little exercise by putting on music and dancing around with Dash next to the air conditioner, pausing to do stomach crunches now and then. He is really into music and dancing these days; he does this knee-bend-and-stomp thing that melts my heart and reminds me that humans are intrinsically musical creatures. I was wearing a T-shirt and underwear and my hair was in pigtails. We danced to Ray Charles, Parov Stellar, The Pretty Reckless, The Book of Mormon and (because my phone was on shuffle) that mandatory U2 album.

Dash's favorite songs. You should see this kid do the Mess Around.
I had memories of my mom dancing to oldies in our family room. At the time “oldies” were fifties music. I guess now oldies are, like, The Cure. Or Backstreet Boys? I remembered her seeming silly and oh-so-mom-like; I tried assuring myself that my moves were more club-worthy (but hopefully not too club-worthy because Dash). Who am I kidding? I am Dash’s childhood, at least part of it, and whatever I do will be silly and embarrassingly mom-ish, as well as adult by default. It will be the stuff he strives for and the stuff he runs from. It’s cool. I’ll take it.


Jonathan said...

We are living through the exact situation you described at the moment - although on the other side of the world. We have three adopted children, and live in a very affluent area - so we are that family that can't afford to go out much, that can't buy the label clothes, that can't go on the expensive holidays, and so on. We tell ourselves that our children will appreciate money, but it doesn't stop you feeling bad about yourself sometimes. Great post.

Cheryl said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Jonathan. I imagine your kids will appreciate you very much!