Tuesday, February 06, 2007
* Part I of a two part series.
I've always imagined that I would excel at many jobs I would never try. Most jobs, I figure, can be boiled down to rhetoric anyways. Of course, I imagine that I'd excel in the language-driven worlds of attorneys and politicians, of CEOs and advertisers. But sometimes I challenge myself to imagine doing a job I would have no affinity for, like a financial analyst. Knowing nothing about finance, and lacking the desire to learn, I would be forced to rely wholly on my persuasive verbal skills. "Everyone says all this stuff about diversifying portfolios" I'd begin. "But let me tell you a little secret" This would be my big gun--pretending to have exclusive against-the-grain insight--"it's bullshit. Put your money on one horse, that's what I say. And I think Big Lots is that horse." It’s the thought of faking and swindling that I like so much, the challenge of getting by on charm and coined phrases alone. Perhaps I'll get the opportunity to do that someday. Unfortunately, however, when I did have the chance to try a new job I was anything but a smooth and removed rogue. Instead, I threw myself into it with a surprising and somewhat reckless sincerity.
It all began when I was still in Tucson. Because I still receive emails from my old school in Michigan, I got an email that was sent to the whole department from a professor emeritus living in California offering $3,000 to anyone that could "find a buyer" for his house in Michigan. He had a real estate agent that wasn't having much luck, and all you had to do to get the prize was direct the future buyer to the agent who would deal with everything else. Knowing I'd be back in winter, I responded to the call with an email. I went on about how savvy I was in all matters regarding real estate, how I had sold my old house in town, how I was aware of all sorts of insider resources even a realtor wouldn’t know about and basically put on the typical show of expertise I put on whether or not I know anything.
What an easy three grand, I thought to myself. I'd simply slap the house all over the internet, take a few calls, refer the buyer to the realtor and collect what would take me at least a class of teaching to earn. When I got back to Michigan, I called the owner and followed up on the bravado of my email with more of the same.
But once I actually saw a picture of the house, that's when the project became far more complicated. The photographs on the internet were awful. There was a hideous red area rug covering wall-to-wall carpet in a living room filled with oppressive, ancient leather furniture. Several walls were covered with 1970's style wood paneling and heavy ceiling fans on every ceiling. Dusty mini-blinds obscured every window, and shelves over packed with books dominated a third of the walls.
Before I had actually seen the house, I figured these were just unflattering photographs of an decent looking place. If I went there myself, I thought, I could take better photographs that showed it to its best advantage, post those in my ads on the internet and be home free. I could angle the camera away from the unsightly bits and capture only its best side. With this in mind, I took up the owner's offer to communicate with the realtor and see the place for myself.
As I drove up, the house was fairly nondescript from the outside. It was a good sized ranch house painted a ugly--but not aggressively ugly--green. When I got to what was described as a "unique four-season entry way," John, the realtor, opened the door. "Nice to meet you!" he said in the calculatedly hardy way that old-fashioned businessmen believe makes a difference. His handshake--firm, dry, boisterous--furthered the impression that this was a Willy Loman character, a man from another time hoping to make that big sale that would finally root him in the present, and give him claim to this life. I would have perhaps enjoyed engaging with him to hear just how much he matched this impression, but I was instantly distracted by my surroundings. The entry way was a horror. Nothing in it was newer than thirty-five or forty years old. A lamp fashioned from a gnarled branch and decorated with rust, goldenrod, and maroon fake flowers drew the eye against its will, and two metal wall hangings, meant to depict some kind of crawling vine, sparkled with pink and bright green metallic buds. One an all-season end table, a ceramic donkey leaned into his load of a candle holder, absent of the candle.
The tour continued and it was soon apparent that the photographs I had seen were actually miraculously flattering. The living room--merely too busy in the photographs--was a deadening chaos of textures and colors in real life. There were knickknacks in every nook and multicolored embroidered pillows nestled next to their plaid boucle counterparts on sliding rocking chairs. Cheap tables represented the range of styles of home décor in the late sixties and seventies, and the rug in person radiated with the visual version of a sulfuric smell. The ceiling fan hung ominously low, as if it were a busy-body god of tastelessness, ready to intervene should the hideousness be jeopardized.
But it was the kitchen that I found most disturbing. The internet listing said little about the kitchen--only that it had "custom cabinets" and that the appliances "were available"--so I figured that it might be a bit outdated not to warrant more glowing copy. This kitchen, however, would have been outdated in 1980. This was an avocado kitchen, complete with an avocado stove. The avocado colored kitchen, popular only for a moment in the mid-seventies, is the quintessential example of bad, instantly dated décor--even the layman knows that. There is a part of me that appreciates the outdated, the forgotten, the victims of the tiller of time. But that part of me was silenced when I thought of someone actually living with this kitchen. Someone, I thought, cooked meals on this green stove. For years. Someone watched that television (there was an ancient, bulky television on the countertop, wedged under the "custom cabinets"). Someone started his day with the color. For years. Every object in the house seemed to echo that sentiment. For years, the discolored plastic phones seemed to say, we rang. For years, the profusion of cheap battery powered wall clocks chimed in, we ticked. For years, the vacuum added, I sucked.
Previous to this, I had little opinion of the old prof that had lived here. He seemed like a pleasant guy, enthused about his retirement, gracious enough. But after touring his home, I started to wonder. What kind of mind could tolerate a house that had offered not a single scrap of visual pleasure? It wasn't that I had different tastes; it was that there seemed to be no taste at work here whatsoever. Even bad taste involves discernment: The person with bad taste picks out ugly things, arranges them in jarring formations, chooses overwrought, fanciful shit over clean lines and pleasing shapes . There is an aesthetic--albeit a tacky and outdated one--in the majority of unattractive homes. But here, there was no sense of choice behind anything. The only logic that was at work here was the blind logic of accumulation. Stuff had appeared over the years, perhaps from dead parents, perhaps from ex-wives, perhaps from old apartments, and apparently had the run of the place. The furniture, the area rugs, the tiny pictures of assorted nothings had an unchecked, cocky object-hood that comes from never being truly subject to human will.
All this implied a sense of being so diminished that even homely objects and their coincidental arrangement had become too daunting to set right. I imagined the old professor subconsciously wincing at the dourness of an ancient leather arm chair, but sinking into it nonetheless, much like a victim, after enough abuse, might sag into the arms of the torturer. That, or the old professor suffered from a madness of omission and was able to move through the house as if it were some kind of neutral, featureless cloudbank where his corporal self just happened to be.
Normally, I might have gone on thinking about how someone gets to that point in one's mind and homemaking, but I was instead overcome by adrenalin. I could fix this! I could come in, redecorate, take new pictures, and fix this! At first, I didn't think my contribution in trying to sell the house would be much. I'd be sort of an extraneous figure, in it for the money and mostly working on the internet. Now, I realized, I could answer a great need. And I knew what to do. For me, so often a doubter and a skeptic, the feeling of certainty hit me like a mania. My purpose was clear! The path was laid before me, as if it has been laid for me! The realtor was standing there, waiting on my reaction, and it was with great effort that I pulled myself down from these new, and pretty much foreign heights.
"This place" I motioned around me, "is obviously an older home. I mean, it has wood paneling, this avocado kitchen and these…" I was suddenly concerned that the realtor, being a pretty musty figure himself, might be offended by proxy if I laid into the age of the home too much--"these decorations don't really downplay the fact this house is older. We need to downplay that as much as possible, I think."
"Huh." He looked around as if the thought had never crossed his mind.
"And this rug" I said, slipping back into an aggressive mode of certainty. "Has got to go."
I stared down at the rug itself, thinking "Get ready buddy. Say goodbye to your unspoiled paradise of rug-dom." I projected myself so fully to the moment I would yank up that rug that I could feel every detail of that moment, right down to the rush of knowing I was doing right. The fantasy was heady and transporting; the porn of perfect conviction.