This is a departure from what I usually write here. This is my most personal essay to date. This is me feeling about the loss of my home.
Flotsam and Jetsam
From Wikipedia: Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo. Jetsam is part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is purposefully cast overboard or jettisoned to lighten the load in time of distress and that sinks or is washed ashore.
It’s also the title of Chapter 9 of The Two Towers, and is both a reference to the junk floating around the ruins of Orthanc and an ironic self-deprecation by Merry and Pippin, who themselves are washing up on the shore of the tumultuous end of the Third Age.
And it’s a pretty good description of my house right now. I’m sitting here surrounded by boxes and piles and plastic totes and papers and what Philip K. Dick called “kipple”. Some is going to our new apartment, some is going to storage. A lot of it is going to be left where it lays. Jetsam. Abandoned because no matter how cool it is, no matter how much we wanted it, how useful it was, how much it meant when we got it, we simply don’t have room for it, and won’t in the foreseeable future. Most of what’s being left behind has little or no cash value.
But it has plenty of value to me.
Flotsam and jetsam.
The ship of the American Dream has wrecked, slammed into the iceberg of the recession. We hung on as long as we could, but 40% of the compartments were breached. Too much to hold on. We missed a couple payments, and the bank refused from that point on to deal with us honestly.
We offered to resume payments immediately provided they could give us an assurance that they would not foreclose on us while we were working on making up the deficit. No dice, they said. “I can’t guarantee that the foreclosure department won’t move on it.”
From that point on, to make a single payment would be throwing good money after bad. And after I lost my job in early 2009, and re-entered school, I put a lot of money into the house hoping that I could stay just barely afloat until I could start my career and work toward getting back on top of things. And every single penny I put into equity simply vanished.
So we tried for the homeowner’s assistance program, you know the one. The one that that huge bailout was supposed to take care of. The bank “lost” our paperwork. They lost our paperwork four times. Things started going wrong with the house, things I could not fix myself. For months we’ve been living with a bucket under the kitchen sink, because there’s a clog so deep in the line I can’t get to it. It needs the services of a professional.
And in a house that’s lost 40% of its value and has already been “sold at auction”? It’s not worth fixing.
Flotsam and jetsam.
After the fifth time we sent out paperwork, we received a notice from the bank – Bank of America, who manage the mortgage for Bank Of New York Mellon. We never entered into deals with these banks, by the way. Our mortgage was through Countrywide. If we’d known that B of A was going to end up being the bank that we would have to deal with, we never would have bought the damned house. We would have dealt entirely with a local bank. According to CNN back in 2008 when B of A bought Countrywide, “Bruce Marks, a consumer advocate and chief executive of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, says that consumers should have an easier time getting loans modified by Bank of America. That’s because the $4 billion price tag that B. of A. paid for Countrywide is a fire sale price that will allow them to write down mortgage loans, he says. Getting consumers to agree to some sort of payment will be better than no payment at all.” There’s a word for that one, by the way, it’s 8 letters long and starts with “Bullshi”.
The notice said that a deal through HAMP had been set up, one that would stabilize our payments and knock about 15% off the principal. The deal was also marked “Rejected.”
They sent us an offer they had already rejected. Months later, they told us why it was rejected. It was rejected because our credit rating was too low.
The reason our credit was low? Because we paid off our credit card and paid off the home equity loan that was part of our mortgage. That lowered our credit. It wasn’t the only thing, but it was the final straw, the 15 points on our FICO score that meant the difference between deal or no deal.
I put “sold at auction” in quotes because the sheriff’s auction was a farce. Anyone showing up to buy our house there would have to put up money – except for BNYM, who bought the place. They didn’t have to pay anything to anyone. They just went and bid the price up to just less than 2X the current market value of the house. Without spending a penny.
They had no desire to work with us. By the way, if you’re scratching your head and wondering why BNYMellon sounds familiar? They are the bank that oversaw the TARP bailout. You know, the one that was supposed to save homeowners by saving the banks. It did not work because it was never allowed to work.
A couple more examples of the dirty dealings and shady circumstances of our foreclosure include: the notice was published in a newspaper in a smaller town 30 miles up the road even though the auction was to be held here; the auction was postponed 5 months but we were not informed of the postponement or the new date until we got a call trying to coerce us into trying to do a short sale (And riddle me this: why would the bank even want us to try to do a short sale after refusing to even consider letting us amortize the amount we were behind? Why would a bank refuse to accept all the money from the current homeowner but be willing to accept less from an investor?); we received the first formal notice of the new date of the auction postmarked AFTER the new auction date. And I’m not even going to touch why we were steered into a subprime Countrywide loan when we qualified for a Prime mortgage – as far as why we took the subprime? We were sold on it by a so-called “Buyer’s Agent” who turned out to have his rather than our best interest in mind. We were trusting, probably too trusting – but we did not have a NINJA loan. We did not file a fraudulent loan application. We had fairly decent income, nothing spectacular but enough to pay the bills and go to Taco Bell once in a while, and had no reason to believe that a few years later the entire economy would take a giant dump, that our house would plummet in value rather than slowly rise.
Flotsam and jetsam.
Packing my house is a series of cruel jokes.
It’s finding a book published in 2006 full of essays about how special home is, written by people like Vera Wang and Rick Warren and Stephen Spielberg – people who still have their homes. A book that tells another story as well, one that I won’t go into here because it’s still too painful to myself and others, a story that’s intimately related to the job that, before the economic crash and my layoff, was the reason we thought we had the stability to buy the house in the first place.
It’s finding a stack of newspapers that we collected on an epic road trip that we were on the week war was declared in Afganistan. Newspapers that we tucked carefully into a closet so that someday we could share them with future generations, show them how ordinary life always continues in the shadow of world-shaking events. Gone. Jettisoned. We just can’t keep them.
It’s not cleaning off a counter because I know that under the bills and letters and folders of papers, there is a leather-bound journal that we bought the day the house closed and wrote down our hopes and dreams and the little things that make owning a home different from renting – paint chips and receipts for the new light fixture. A journal that includes a clipping from the newspaper, the obituary of the mother who owned the house before we did, whose gardens we restored. A journal that I just can’t bring myself to look at, because I don’t know what would hurt worse; keeping it where it would always be a reminder of almost making it, or throwing it away as a final admission that ultimately we didn’t, at least not this time.
It’s looking at the gardens we restored and expanded, now as weedy and overgrown as the day we moved in because we just couldn’t maintain them this year.
It’s finding a tote full of clothes that have been in the back of a closet for 6 years and realizing that my favorite sweater (not-so-lovingly nicknamed “Old Stinky”) didn’t actually get thrown away when we moved in. (Still looking for the Southwestern patterned rug, I think that one did accidentally end up in the trash back in 2004. Damn. It was a nice rug.)
Flotsam and jetsam.
Puzzles we won’t ever put together on a rainy afternoon because there’s just no room. We bought them for a dollar, and they will gather dust on the living room floor until the bank sends someone with a dumpster to scrape up the remains of our dreams.
The wallpaper we put up in the dining room one frazzled and exhausted and hilarious and exhilarating weekend. (The dining room table goes into storage. It was the first piece of furniture we bought for the house we were supposed to grow old in. Maybe someday we’ll have the chance to be old at it.)
I never did get the wiring updated. It was something I was going to do when we had enough equity to make it sensible to refinance and take a little extra for improvements – but the value never went up, it only went down, and the equity vanished.
I never restored the porch windows from the crappy aluminum combinations back to the Craftsman-style 3-over-1s that the original parts of the house still have.
I never finished remodeling the bathroom.
I never got rid of the 1970s gray paneling in the living room or got rid of the dropped ceiling that the mice ran riot in after the cat had to be put down.
The ghost of the cat still appears, curled up in his customary spot on the floor next to the built-in by the hallway. My atheist friends will tell me that it’s just a hallucination, wishful thinking, my craving for survival beyond the bounds of life. It doesn’t matter if they are right. It does not matter if I am merely imagining his purring presence or if in some sense he’s really there, because I see him there – but I won’t see him in the new apartment. He’s a part of this place, whether he’s actually there in some feline spirit or if he’s just there because that’s where my memory tells me to step carefully because from the time we moved in, that was his self-assigned spot.
Flotsam and jetsam.
Will the new owners respect the people who lived here before we did? Will they bother to find out that he was a member of the Luftwaffe who came to America after the war to build a better life, to raise six children in a house that had been built 25 years earlier (probably to house railroad workers)? Will they spend summer afternoons on the deck and feed the chipmunks that I trained to eat out of the palm of my hand and sit on my shoulder? Will they joke about being at war with the squirrel that they secretly leave piles of sunflower seeds laying out for? Will they harvest the rhubarb, will they appreciate the bin filled with rich black compost? Will they keep and tend the Egyptian Walking Onions that border the garden that have been growing there for decades? It breaks my heart to think that every penny and hour put into the property, that every shovel of garden earth turned, that digging out the saplings that threatened the foundation, has ultimately gone to waste.
Will the new owners understand that the great bargain they got will have been purchased with tears, with the death of our dreams?
Flotsam and jetsam.
The apartment is almost full. Storage is filling fast. But the piles filling the living room and the dining room and the office seem to get no smaller.
We’re going. I’m not cleaning anything. I feel like my home was stolen from me. We were willing to pay for it. We told them, over and over, all we wanted was to have what we were behind on added back in. “We owe this money, and we’re happy to pay it, we just need some time. Don’t you get it? The whole country is in the same boat, and we forked over billions of dollars so that you’d be able to afford to cut us a little break, give us a little time. That money wasn’t for bonuses. It wasn’t for your interest-bearing cash reserves. It was to save neighborhoods, to give families some breathing room while the country recovered. We’ll gladly pay you half again or more what the house is worth today, because it’s not just a house to us. It’s not an investment property. It’s not a source of income. It’s home. It’s hopes and dreams and the sense that behind the door I can just be me. It’s where I can plant onions next to geraniums, where my kid and I can build a trebuchet in the yard and fling jack-o-lanterns into the compost pile just because we want to spend a weekend playing with physics and engineering, where we can name the cardinals and chase the rabbits out of the lettuce with Nerf guns. It’s where we can grow our food, eat what we can and can what we can’t.”
Flotsam and jetsam is all that remains of what was my Permanent Address. It was a place that was special.
Now it’s just a mess. Wreckage. Piles of clothes and boxes and junk, custom shelves that I built for my books that stand empty save for dust and gum wrappers and crumpled newspapers.
It’s not home anymore. Now it’s just a house. And I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been ripped off. That it was stolen because someone looked at a balance sheet and said “We’ll have a better profit next quarter if we sell this one to an investor for cash for a quarter of the amount we’d get over the next 25 years of mortgage payments.” That our paperwork was never really lost at all, but that someone made the cold-blooded decision to throw it away so that our default would grow too big to justify amortizing.
There was a neighborhood meeting a few months ago addressing the issue of how to keep the neighborhood from degrading further. It was a nice neighborhood when we moved in. The foreclosures started not too long after that – we bought right at the peak. We watched as homeowners left and absentee landlords took over more and more. I don’t think people who rent are bad people – hell, looks like I’m going to spend most of my life paying rent instead of owning. But there is a different level of investment when you feel like you actually own the place.
A renter will not plant a tree to replace the hundred-year-old oak that blew down in the F-1 tornado that hit the block. When you rent, what things are going to be like in 20 years just isn’t part of the equation. When you own, though, it matters a lot. You do things that will make a difference in a generation. If you are going to live somewhere for a year or two, you don’t need to know your neighbors. Not really. You can live somewhere for quite a while and never get to know anyone and suffer no ill effects. But if you are planning to spend a significant part of your life living fifteen feet away from somebody? You want to know who they are, and you want them to know who you are.
It makes a neighborhood. A neighborhood is not made of houses. It’s made of homes. And an empty house in the middle of a block of homes hurts them all.
Our house that’s not home anymore is not the first foreclosure on the block. It’s not going to be the last. The house across the street sold for one-fifth of the amount the couple who owned it owed on it. An 80% loss of value – and a price they could have easily paid. That drove the value of our house down – but not the value of our home. My home was always worth more than I paid for it. As a house, though? It would have been stupid to try to save it. The house is as worthless as the piles of flotsam and jetsam that fill it.
The difference between without worth and without price is one of perspective. My house is worthless. My home was priceless.
And in about two weeks, the sheriff will come to the door with an eviction notice, and I will leave quietly. I’ll turn off the lights and lock the door and hand over the keys, and all I will leave behind is my dreams, my hopes, and my home.
And flotsam and jetsam.
But before I do that, I am going to find that journal, the one that was all about our house. I’m going to print off this article, fold it neatly inside the journal’s cover, and hide the journal under the insulation in the attic, right behind the access panel in the upstairs wall behind the sewing machine. I’m going to leave it there, and maybe someday someone will find it, and read it, and realize that there was a hell of a lot more to the story than “Wow, what a bargain!”
IT WAS NOT A BARGAIN AT ALL. IT WAS BUYING A STOLEN STEREO OUT OF THE BACK OF SOMEONE’S VAN AND TELLING YOURSELF IT’S OK BECAUSE IT’S NOT LIKE YOU STOLE IT YOURSELF.
We were happy here. We were unhappy here. We cried tears of joy and we wept in grief. We went through the hardest times of our marriage here, and we had some of the greatest shining moments of pure domestic bliss here.
We had a cat. He weighed 30 pounds and he would sprawl out on the bathroom floor on hot days and he once got stuck in the bathtub because he knocked over a full bottle of conditioner and couldn’t get enough traction to get out – but wow was his fur soft for a week.
The new screen door I installed didn’t fit right, even though the guy at Menard’s said it would, so there was a trick to getting it closed – you had to push on the frame with the heel of your hand just so when you were opening it and then it would close just fine. And the doorknob on the back door only worked from the inside if you turned it to the right.
The smoke detector in the bedroom always went off when the pizza was 2 minutes from being done.
One time a piece of flashing came loose and when I went up on the roof to try to fix it I got stuck up there because the ladder was too wobbly to safely climb down and I had to call my partner home from work to open the window so I could crawl back in through it, and I almost got jammed because the window and my butt are almost the same size.
The bricks lining the front flowerbed, the red ones, they came from my parent’s house. I took one with me when we left, but I didn’t have room for the rest.
The squirrel’s name was Beebo. He had white tufts of fur behind his ears, and the day I met him he was standing on the front steps with half a waffle in his mouth. Give him syrup – I didn’t and he dug up all our tulip bulbs within an hour. He once spit a mouthful of chewed up leaves on my head just so I would know that this time, it was personal.
Don’t dig under the two cinderblocks with the granite chunk next to the garage, the ones set flat into the earth in the middle of the catnip patch right by the driveway. There’s a great big gray cat buried there, wrapped in a quilted flannel jacket. I miss him a lot more than I’m generally willing to admit. He almost never let me pick him up, but if I lay down in the middle of the day because I wasn’t feeling well, he would always come and snuggle up to me and purr, and then I would feel better. I used to joke that he hated me, but he didn’t – he just loved my kid more than any other human, so we were all second-best in his eyes.
The cardinal’s name is Biggles. If you don’t get the joke, then you probably won’t be expecting the Spanish Inquisition.
Leaving my house, leaving so much behind, I feel like part of me is dying. Half a dozen years, and tens of thousands of dollars, and I have nothing to show for it. I don’t even have a crappy T-shirt that says “My house got foreclosed and all I got was this crappy T-shirt.”
The best line from Semisonic’s song “Closing Time” is this: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
This is the end of a beginning that started when I first began to feel like I was an adult, the first time that I really began to see myself as middle-aged. By the time I get out of school and get my license to practice, I’m going to be at that age that some people describe as “a man in his prime” and others describe as “a couple years short of being eligible to join the AARP”.
Flotsam and jetsam.
A new beginning.