Friday, December 19, 2008

A Slushy New York Night With Campbell Scott

So if you're a Manhattanite & you can't get any friends to see a play called The Atheist (by Irish-born Ronan Noone), what do you do? You buckle up and go by yourself. Even if there's a foot of slush everywhere between you and the theater.
Criminy, where else in America can you actually WALK to see a play & actor of this quality? It's not even a fifteen-minute walk to get there from my apartment, and most of the sidewalks are clear even if the corners require strategic leaping and feinting through deep icy mush.

Campbell, you may not know it, but you and I have a date. Lookin' good, I think, hair just the right length & fake shade of red, blue eyes peeping over my new scarf with the blue and mustard circle pattern...The play is caustic & biting, a tale of a journalist gone bad (in search of his mother's love?), not searingly original but I love the telegraphic language & musical phrasing, and Campbell Scott is brilliant. Infused with energy I drift home, wishing I could discuss it over a pint with someone.
I pass the faux army surplus Marc Jacobs store on Bleecker Street and see that there are people shopping (wtf??) at 10 pm at night. Yikes. Further on, I enter a deli to buy seltzer to mix with my pomegranate juice at home. A very wet & cold Irish wolfhound puppy befriends me as his owner buys peanut butter. His wagging tail endangers the potato chip racks for 3 feet all around. I swear the dog is smiling. Do we deserve such good will from the animal kingdom?

"Be careful, don't fall...stay warm," says the Pakistani store owner as he carefully gives me my one cent change from the three dollars I handed him. As I push open the door the Guatemalan man wrapping roses in the little tented foyer just beside the entrance looks up and smiles at me. "Have a good night," he says. "You too," I mumble. (Yeah, right. He is going to be standing there in the cold for a few more hours long after I am home in bed.)
A block from my apartment, I pass the nursing home and see that an old woman is being wheeled out on a gurney by two ET's, into an ambulance. She is wearing an oxygen mask and her naked body is barely covered by a white bedsheet. One of the ET's tries to cover her shoulder, but the sheet keeps slipping off to reveal her pale, cold flesh. They don't have an extra blanket to spare? I am wearing a down jacket, scarf & gloves and she is practically naked in the middle of the street.

Just another night in the big city, eh, boys and girls? My emotions are swirling and I can't feel my feet anymore. Or maybe it's my heart that's numb. I keep walking. Should I have taken off my jacket and put it over the ailing woman? She was almost inside the ambulance....

I arrive home finally, and am soon secure in the warm cocoon of my pre-Campbell Scott existence. Was it as good for him as it was for me?

Somehow, I don't think he's going to call me in the morning.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Oh Joy: November 4, 2008

Oh personal joy....

New York joy....

American joy....

Japanese, Egyptian, French, Swedish, Australian, Polish, African joy....

Global joy....

Celestial joy....

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Here Tell Your Anguish

Fall is a time of melancholy reflection in New England, and the 2008 election season has put many of us over the top, obsessing over the possibility that our candidate, the young man who offers us healing and hope, will be vanquished by the old forces of fear and greed. What can one do besides give money and time to his campaign? Not having formal ties to any external belief system, praying is just not an option for me.

Lately it has become almost impossible to think about anything else. So much is at stake. Correction: EVERYTHING we care about is at stake. In my opinion, this is nothing less than a referendum on our understanding of what it is to be human. I was beginning to bore and irritate my friends with my outbursts. (As in, "Yes, Nader is a great man, I respect his accomplishments, but he's not friggin' ever going to be President and if he siphons off enough votes to wreck this for the Democrats you and all his misguided supporters will be partly to blame for untold suffering and maybe the end of the world..." You see what I mean. I was getting a little worked up. )

So I decided to escape from New York City to the Gulf coast of Florida for a week, to see if a change of scenery would calm me down. My plan was to do some writing, walk, bike and swim, watch the last Obama/McCain debate with friends and return refreshed and feisty.

In a city where most drive, even short distances, I had the sidewalks mostly to myself and the anoles, tiny dinosaur-shaped lizards who constantly dart like rush hour commuters between bushes and across the pavement, somehow projecting an air of cameraderie. (Or maybe it's just their Manhattan energy that I like...)

The third time I passed the window of the Christian Science Reading Room in downtown St. Petersburg, I paused and allowed my gaze to fully rest on the sign in the window. (Ah, the advantages of being on foot when all the world is otherwise whizzing by.) The first two times I had noticed it and hurried on, self-conscious to be seen reading religious slogans in the window of a storefront "church."

Droplets of sweat trickling down my back, a strange feeling of peace invaded my body. "Here Tell Your Anguish"- the sign wasn't promising to fix me, it was just assuming that to be human is both to feel anguish and also the need to "tell" it.

A devout agnostic/humanitarian, I found those words and that thought powerful and comforting. They had a hypnotic cadence that was mystifying to me. There was an intriguing mind behind those words.

Returning home, I simply typed them into Google Search, and Eureka! the author appeared to be Charles Lamb (1775-1834), renowned English essayist. (I'm telling you, essays rule.)
And if anyone has the right to expound on anguish, it's Mr. Lamb: his beloved older sister killed their mother in a fit of temporary insanity, and he took care of his sister the rest of his life. His novella of unrequited love ("Rosamund Gray") is now on my must-read list. (Note: in several other Google entries, the quote is also attributed to Thomas Moore, in the hymn, "Come Ye Disconsolate". But I am still happy I was first sent to Charles Lamb.)

There was more gold in my first excursion: a whole series of references to the appearance of "anguish" in quotes from various writers. Here's a killer:

"The beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder."
Virginia Woolf, from "A Room of One's Own"

Words were beginning to soothe me.
To some problems, there are no solutions, divine or otherwise.

But to put our feelings into words- that makes us fully human. Our unique task, and our unique privilege.

To finish, I offer a cherished quote from a tattered piece of newsprint (brown with age) that I carry in my wallet-
it's taken from a poem by W.H. Auden, who manages to stumble his way to the sublime more often than not:

"Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives."

Is this thought comforting?

Mission accomplished.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

When It's Time To Bid Your Contractor Adieu

Ruptures are painful. There is the temptation to assign blame; there is the also not very helpful tendency, if you are me, to look for the fault not in my stars, but in myself. Always a possibility- but it shouldn't be a foregone conclusion!
What if a sequence of unrelated simultaneous events just becomes too much for two individuals to juggle, and a fragile connection implodes, and it's nobody's fault, but everyone's loss?
No, I am not talking about a marriage- but almost: my recent falling out with my trusted local contractor. I am sad about it, but in going over it here I hope perhaps a reader may benefit, and I will achieve some clarity (and catharsis).

Let's call him Dermott. His crew had painted my little 1860's farmhouse in upstate New York, and he replaced the rotting wooden steps with a gracious brick and flagstone veranda that he and I designed together.
He supervised the arrival and setting up of the Amish-built storage shed/barn, painting it to match the house and putting up a low flagstone wall around it that melded it seamlessly into the landscape and historial ambiance of the sleepy hamlet that was once a cluster of modest housing for workers near the local train station.

It's now become a retreat for, among others, crazed New Yorkers seeking a peaceful respite from their urban pursuits.

In all cases, I followed my recipe for avoiding last-minute confusion: get the bid for the work in writing, pay 1/3 up front, 1/3 when the job is half-done, and the remainder on satisfactory completion. If the person is an unknown quantity, ask for references, and get 2 other bids. (Usually you don't want to take the highest or the lowest bid.) You should never have to tell a bitter tale of "I paid them the whole amount in cash on the first day and never saw anyone again"- that really doesn't need to happen.
So, I left in Dermott's hands the installation of a new clawfoot tub and tiling of two bathroom floors while I was away visiting family in Sweden during the summer. I had the bid in writing, I ordered the tub myself on the Internet (from a Kentucky outfit) and Dermott was all set to take delivery and get to work while I was gone. His crew had free rein of my house for an entire month.
A few e-mails exchanged while I was away let me know it had become "the job from Hell"- the old plumbing was in such bad shape that a lot more had to be done before the tub could be installed and everything would not be done when I returned. I believed this, as I had to trust Dermott or my world would start becoming shaky.

It's a quirky house, with small rooms and steep stairs, and not easy to work in. This I knew. Everytime they turned around, some new small problem had caused delays. I asked him how much extra I owed him for the problems encountered and when he gave me a figure, I actually added $300 to it because I felt he was undercharging me! It seems to me we were both feeling guilty (and angry)- the perfect codependent situation. Neither wanted the other to be mad. We already were, and weren't admitting it. A recipe for a blow-up.

When I first returned, it was clear it would be weeks before the job was done, as his crew now had other commitments to install heating systems, etc. for other people and my job was no longer a priority. I tried to be understanding. People were coming and going for a few hours at a time; the house reeked of paint and spackle and I woke with headaches. Sometimes people scheduled to come did not show up at all.
Some small problems unrelated to the remodel came up and I asked Dermott to either recommend a handyman, or let me know how much extra I would owe if his crew could take care of the issues. He said they could do it, no problem. (Examples: installing a rubber draft guard at the bottom of an irregular basement door that was allowing musty air to seep into kitchen from basement; wrapping air conditioners with covers for the winter.)

Finally: At 10:30 pm one evening in late September (the job was originally scheduled to be finished in late July) I arrived from Manhattan on foot from the train station, in the dark. My back door was wide open.

Without thinking, I called Dermott immediately and asked him who had last been at my house. He wasn't sure. "Maybe Mike?"
I told him that from then on, only he was authorized to come & go because he was the only one I completely trusted to be careful. Dermott said he could not guarantee that. "Okay," I said, "in that case, we're done. Please return all my keys. I'll have someone else finish up the last details. Let me know if I owe you anything."

"Fine," he said, "we're sick of coming to your house. Maybe you should never have left Manhattan. And anyway, I lost money on that job."

I am relieved but mostly sad. Undoubtedly the tensions of the external world- the growing acrimony of the 2008 electoral process & the unsettling turmoil on Wall Street- played a role in the disintegration of my working relationship with Dermott. Obsessive mental re-playing of our e-mails and conversations still does not help me ascertain what I might have done differently. And I seriously doubt the rupture can be repaired.
Although I don't know Dermott's political leanings, I think what happened is in many respects a microcosm of the culture wars that McCain and Palin have been trying to inflame once again. Taunting me to "go back to Manhattan" reminded me of the "America- Love It or Leave It" bumper stickers of the late Sixties. It was not a good memory.

It's complicated and a bit scary, being a single female homeowner in America. I am going to have to hunt down that portable drill I bought two years ago and do a little less writing and a little more recharging of my batteries (literal and metaphorical) if I am ever going to get all the artwork and mirrors back up on the newly plastered walls- and my ego patched up as well.

At least I don't have to hire a divorce lawyer. Been there, done that.

Adieu, Dermott. I still love my front steps.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Young Woman From Omaha, Nebraska: Mary-Madeleine Lanphier, 1911-1981

The black and white photos from her childhood show nothing out of the ordinary: the girl-baby born in 1911 on a bearskin rug, the feisty Boston Terrier sprawled beside her.
On Easter, holding up a basket, huge plaid bow atop her head with its thick straight bangs, high-button shoes on her dainty feet.
Swimming in a lake, head aloft, grinning, with her girlfriends looking on from the dock.
How did this young woman dare to make the journey from Omaha to New York City, to Horatio Street in Greenwich Village?
Was it the magnetic attraction of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry, read by the young woman on the high school radio program beamed from Omaha out into the cornfields? After she arrived, how many detours were there on the way to becoming the writer she knew she could be? After five children, too many men to count, an editorship of McCall's (it was rumored she invented their slogan, "The Magazine of Togetherness"- she, the eternal single mother!) her luck turned a bit.

An amazing team, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, took her in as a creative partner. She receiving writing credits on two films: "Lovers and Lollipops" (1956) and "Weddings and Babies" (1960). The latter shared the Critic's Award with Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" at the Venice Film Festival. Both are in the archives at the Museum of Modern Art, and are now listed in various Internet movie sites devoted to classic movies...Unavailable to the public for years, they can now be viewed in DVD format. French filmmakers like Godard gave credit to Morris Engel for sparking the independent film movement with the pioneering shoulder-slung camera that the ex-GI Morris devised, enabling him to shoot on location in New York City. The results were poignant, luminous films that found meaningful drama in the lives of "ordinary" Americans. Ruth Orkin's brilliant photographs of New York streetlife live on in museum collections and notecard reproductions.

But nobody (except her widely-scattered children and grandchildren) has ever heard of Mary-Madeleine Lanphier, the young woman from Omaha: writer, mother, artist's model.
Ravishing subject of a 1940's painting titled "The White Fichu" by George Bellow's best friend, Eugene Speicher, who was once the most celebrated portrait-painter in mid-20th century America. (His portrait of fellow student Georgia O'Keefe hangs in the entryway of the Art Student's League in New York City.)

A young woman from the heartland, Mary-Madeleine was educated by nuns in a Catholic convent in Omaha from the age of 10, after her beloved mother's death; she never finished college, never shot a wolf, never judged another human being. She loved the color chartreuse, made her own hats, gave bright pink boiled starfish as Christmas presents, loved sex and foreign films, Colette and gypsy music and Medalia D'Oro coffee. She sometimes hinted at Native American ancestry (with French Canadian heritage in her family, Lakota Sioux genes are a distinct possibility). She was self-destructive, spontaneous, foolish and fierce, always. She charmed her friends and bewildered her children. When she died in 1981 after a year-long, intense battle with the most virulent form of lung cancer, her family decided against placing an obituary in The New York Times. They later came to regret this omission.

May I now present my mother?

Monday, September 8, 2008

E.B. White and I Feel Sad About Sarah Palin

This was never intended to be a forum where I would rant or proselytize about my political preferences. I had envisioned a kind of quiet, bloggy refuge where you might seek a bit of quirky mental refreshment. (My model is the supreme deity of all American essayists, E.B. White, especially as collected in "One Man's Meat"...)

The times call for some acknowledgment of what is happening. You don't care that I contributed to the Obama campaign, or that I wrote to The NY Times in horror after Palin's speech, or that I toss and turn at night at the idea of women losing the right to choose- but maybe you, too, are experiencing a little anxiety?

I wonder what E.B. would say about Sarah Palin. Would he feel as frightened as I am by a woman who can make fun of the idea that a captured prisoner (and suspected terrorist) deserves to be "read his rights"- said with a curled lip and a rolling of the eyes that one of our Presidential candidates actually believes in this little bit of arcane Americana? In spite of all the research that shows that data obtained via coercion is often false, and may lead to byways that actually allow more harm to be done as false leads are followed (all moral considerations aside)?
And what about the suffering of unwanted babies whose resentful parents make their lives a hell on earth until they too grow up, emotionally if not physically maimed, to repeat the same tragic mistakes?
Sarah Palin's own prospective son-in-law purportedly described himself (on a quickly obliterated MySpace page) as a f--king redneck who didn't want children....This is the man she urged her own daughter to marry as soon as possible- to save Mommy's career? It all makes me very sad. A world with teenagers stunted by lack of knowledge, whether of Darwin or birth control, a world without polar bears, a world growing warmer and warmer, as libraries grow smaller and smaller....

I don't want to live in an America where Sarah Palin holds an office even remotely related to the American Presidency.
I wouldn't want her as the HOUSEKEEPER in the White House.

And E.B. White- Maine farmer, father, humanist and naturalist- might agree that Sarah Palin should stay up North. Way up North.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Did Mia Farrow (or Diane Keaton) Write Woody Allen's Films?

Is it possible that Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow are the true creative geniuses behind Woody Allen's best films?

Watch "Annie Hall" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors".

Then watch "Melinda and Melinda" and "Match Point".

I'm just sayin'.....

Friday, September 5, 2008

How We Commune

Walking the humid streets of St. Petersburg, Florida this past August, I discovered that my Proustian madeleine is not a fragrant tea-soaked morsel, but the acrid smell of weeds pushing through cracked cement, the porches of 1920's rooming houses clogged with pots of gangly geraniums, and snails gliding across rain-moistened tiles, with all the time in the world to make it to their next destination... I am remembering visits to my father in Pasadena in the summers of the late 1950's, after he had given up on life in Manhattan and moved to a place where he could live in a modest stucco apartment-complex with a pool right outside his front door.
I was furious that he had abandoned Greenwich Village for such a provincial backwater and I hated that bland, cookie-cutter apartment. Like any normal 15-year-old, I rebelled and stayed inside in the semi-darkness, hair uncombed, reading my W. Somerset Maugham stories and inhaling ginger ale and potato chips. Every once in a while my dad would tap on the screen door & timidly invite me out for a swim, and almost always I refused. How much more exciting to read about Sadie Thompson on her South Pacific island! I had progressed from On Human Bondage (still a formative influence on me) and was riveted by Maugham's tales of decadent post-colonial life.

You are what you read, and I was sure I was becoming more worldly by the hour.

Fast-forward to the present, as I discover the faded 1920's architecture and the restored grand hotels of this gracious old resort town in Florida that I have recently made my second home. It gradually occurs to me that I am connecting with something my father treasured before I did: the ocean, open skies, the feel of clean cotton on skin baptized in chlorine. There is also a vivid sense of unknown possibilities, of civilized danger, lurking somehow. It feels like life has once again become open-ended & infinite, the way it seems in childhood.
(If you are very lucky, and if good books are among your treasured companions.)

How all this can be embodied in an overgrown hibiscus bush and a proudly unshaven senior citizen holding up his beer can to salute me in the evenings as I walk past the weatherworn communal porch of his "residential hotel'- I don't know, but I am filled with emotion and I feel like I understand my father as I never did before.

Another bonus: there's a funky cafe on the St. Petersburg harbor called "Moon Under Water," that features British beers, Anglo-Indian cuisine and a wall of photographs of Singapore in the 1920's....I wouldn't be at all surprised to see W. Somerset himself walk in and sit at his favorite outside table on the little terrace looking towards the yachts bobbing up and down in the marina. Oh, wait- that's MY favorite table.
If you go, be sure to bring a copy of The Razor's Edge as a conversation-starter.

And here's to you, dad.

For fascinating details of Maugham's views on sexually transgressive women, his own bisexuality and a stunning list of the films based on his work, go to

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Evetta The Only Lady Clown

Here's what my new fridge magnet says: "Evetta the Only Lady Clown with the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth." She is in white harlequin-style pantaloons and dark stockings, with tasselled ballet slippers jauntily pointing upwards, her gesticulating arms completely encased in long black gloves. She sports a tall white beehive wig (hello, Marge Simpson?) while the circus Ringmaster leers over her shoulder down into her cleavage. He holds a whip suggestively over her, in his right hand.
I snapped up this beauty at the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum complex in Sarasota this past Labor Day weekend, immediately recognizing a kindred soul. (I was voted Best Sense of Humor in the 7th grade at PS 3 in Greenwich Village, circa 1957- what's a girl gotta do when she doesn't have boobs yet? Be funny.....naturally. It's still my proudest moment.)
Evetta and I had to become better acquainted. At moments like this I drift in a trance over to my computer and am blissful for hours... It did not take more than a few moments, however, before I hit paydirt. Apparently, the women of the circus knew that they could achieve a rare kind of freedom and financial independence as clowns, lion tamers and acrobats....In a fascinating piece based on her extensive research (thank you, Mr. Google, all is forgiven), Professor Janet Davis of the University of Texas at Austin enlightened me about Evetta:
"Acrobat Josephine Matthews invaded the all-male world of clowning in 1895....She thoroughly enjoyed her life with the circus:
'I believe that a woman can do anything for a living that a man can do, and I do it just as well as a man. All of my people laughed at me when I told them I was going into the ring as a clown; but they do not laugh now when they see that I can keep an engagment all the time and earn as much money and more than they can in their branches of business. I like the work and try to put ideas into it. Every day I thnk out something new and the management usually gives me pretty wide latitude. My chief difficulty is in making myself heard, but then nobody ever listens to what a clown says; everything depends on the antics.'

from the text of "Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakirs and Lady Savages: Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America," a brilliant talk by Janet M. Davis in October 2005 at the University of Virginia. Quoted here with permission from the author.
Books by Professor Davis: The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top (2002) and Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Memoir of Tiny Kline (2008).

And then- I drifted into my memories of my sweet female clients in San Francisco who ran a cafe called The Bearded Lady ....because they were. Bearded ladies, lesbians and rock musicians. More anon. Stay tuned. Everything connects.

Why I'll Never Be Rich: AdSense, Poodles & Moi

I just have to share this with you. It's too funny. In the course of looking up this blog on Google (yes, I confess)I found the following entry. It was like a personal rebuke from the Googlegods. They must be looking right over my shoulder as I blog! (And yet- they are so wrong... Let's take it as a resounding vote for being counterintuitive! Or something.)
And here I quote:
"What is AdSense- How does it make you money Online?....What Do Leaky Roofs and French Poodles have in Common? Absolutely nothing. What makes this program so revolutionary is that Google actually targets ads to your website based on your website content. This ensures that only ads that are relevant and enhance, rather than detract, from your site are delivered. Visitors come to your site, not because they want to learn about French poodles, but because they have a leaky roof or related question. They're not interested in French poodles, and Google AdSense won't deliver ads on French poodles to your site. AdSense will only deliver ads related to roof leaks to your site, similar or identical to the ones you saw when you did the search! This may seem pretty logical but Google was the first to think of it and it makes sense, which is why I guess they call the program "AdSense"." (End quote)

Which is exactly why computer search algorithms will NEVER replace THE HUMAN BRAIN. Thanks anyway, Mr. Google.

Love always,
Poodles on the Roof (Don't forget to write!)

(Your 24/7 site for illogical right-brain connections that delight and amuse.)

P.S. Let me know if you want to hear the story about the poodle in 19th century Italy that roused a whole family in time to save it from an earthquake...Don't get me started on poodles. They are the smartest, funniest....well, now you went and got me started.

Tales of 3 Cloudy Titles: Tale # 2 (and new Moral!)

Even with eternally vigilant title officers, strange things can happen. The following story is true.

It was the early 1990's and my San Francisco clients, a young professional couple with a baby, had given notice on their rental apartment when they were the successful bidders on the Noe Valley fixer-upper of their dreams. It was sunny, on a great block, with a large yard and lots of space inside. The Victorian charm was just waiting to be recaptured after years of ownership by a man who had become a widower in this house, and then married his wife's nurse. The house showed poorly, stuffed to the gills with old brown metal filing cabinets and lumpy old armchairs, and most buyers had turned up their noses. The sellers were anxious to relocate "to the country," they said. Once in a while I thought I detected a note of hesitation on the part of the man, who loved his house and his old neighborhood. The wife seemed nervous and was often abrupt with anyone who came by, although she became gleeful when describing how she planned to sue McDonald's over being scalded with hot coffee. (Yes, I know, I thought that had already been done, too...) Well, on the day that my excited buyers were supposed to move in (picture a moving van full of their furniture waiting outside the house and their baby sleeping in the back of their car as they approach the van), I got a call.

The title company had not allowed the sale to go through that morning, because the husband's son had suddenly appeared in their office from Canada, claiming that the whole deal was invalid. He had disappeared up North to avoid being drafted during the war in Vietnam and had not been heard of since, but now he claimed not only an interest in the property, but that his new stepmother had been responsible for his real mother's premature demise, and that his stepmother was planning to lure his father into a remote rural location -and kill him, too!
A real showstopper, if ever there was one.

Hmmmm. What to do? (Don't you just hate it when this happens?) This was a Friday. Apparently, the title company was able to pull some strings and get a judge to hear the case on VERY short notice (because of the hardship situation of the family with a baby and nowhere to go) and she allowed the transaction to proceed, the transfer of title to go through, and my clients to move in. A happy ending to a problem nobody could possibly have foreseen....maybe.

Let's not even dwell on my first mind-boggling reaction: some part of me actually believed the son had it right! Now it all made a weird kind of sense: the father had never shown any enthusiasm for the move to the country, and I had always gotten unsettling vibes from the "nurse". But it was all out of my hands from the point when the judge made her decision. I had done my "job".

MORAL: You tell me, please. I am open to all suggestions. (I still dream about this one.)
Aha! On 9/04/08 it finally came to me:

When the son's away, a nurse may prey.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tales of 3 Cloudy Titles

A "cloud on the title" (according to my New York Real Estate Exam Review book) may be defined as "Any document, claim, unreleased lien or encumbrance that may impair the title to real property or make the title doubtful; usually revealed by a title search and removed by either a quitclaim deed or suit to quiet title." Bottom line, you don't want to "buy" property from a seller who can't unequivocally prove he or she has the legal right to sell it to you.
Sometimes it may be tempting, but it's always a bad idea.

Tale #1

Right after the "Velvet Revolution" in then-Czechoslovakia, in the spring of 1990, my Czech-born husband and I were in Prague where he was excitedly exploring all nooks and crannies of the beloved native city he had not seen since his hasty departure when the Russians sent their tanks rumbling through the streets in 1968. A posting in a cafe caught his eye- a "hunter's cottage" with land was available for $10,000! Unable to resist, we let ourselves be driven deep into the forest to view an archetypal whitewashed & thatch-roofed cottage offered for sale by a taciturn Russian officer soon to be on his way home. My husband was ready to have the money wired from America the next day; he was sure this bargain was going to be snapped up instantly if we faltered. But there was no easy mechanism for determining legal title at that time in the chaotic atmosphere of the disintegrating Soviet Empire; indeed, there were no reliable professionals handling private real estate transactions at all. For all we knew, the "seller" would disappear with his money and then the rightful owners would appear to claim property that had been confiscated from the Czechs long ago by their Russian occupiers. (Such restitution has happened very often in the years since, and rightfully so.)

So we passed on that opportunity, and waited 10 years before legally acquiring a small apartment in an Art Nouveau building on Korunni Street, near a streetcar line and small cafes.

I really did not want to live in an isolated cottage on the edge of a deep, dark woods anyway.

MORAL: You can take the New Yorker out of Manhattan, but you can't sell her a pig in a poke.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Shabby Chic Weekend Remodel

Okay, peeps: imagine that you need to sell your apartment or house in a hurry (you just got that long-awaited job in Paris or Los Angeles and you have no time to install new European fixtures or paint the master bedroom). The first Open House is next week. Eeek. Possibly you suddenly need to sublet your place furnished so you can go on that location shoot......Or maybe you just need to uplift your spirits and inject a jolt of creative energy into your hard-working bod.
Here goes: Designate the sum of $160. $120 will be for your remodel. $40 you will donate online to your favorite candidate or charity. You will now gather your old dishtowels, pot holders and shower curtains. Wash and donate to Goodwill when you buy the items below.With your precious remaining $120 you will trundle over to your local Target or Bed, Bath & Beyond (or its equivalent) and buy cotton dishtowels in any of the following colors: olive, dark purple, soft teal, oatmeal. If they are a real bargain, mix in a black & white plaid one. Add two black cotton potholders (small square ones). If the color scheme of your kitchen is a more retro yellow/red/black palette, you may buy red plaid or solid black towels and red potholders. No flowers on anything, please. (We'll go to the real thing, donch'a know.) Your new shower curtain should be white on white stripes or black and white stripes. (Okay, I'll let you get away with gray or silver stripes.) Next, you will go to your local Goodwill/Symphony Thrift Shoppe/Salvation Army and buy one funky glass lemonade-type pitcher and one glass fruit bowl (could even be old-fashioned Pyrex). Plain plain plain is the key word. (Did I say plain?) Buy a pound or two of green apples at your greenmarket or health food store, and a $5 bunch of daisies. If you are lucky enough to live near wildflowers, pick a bunch of those. If you have a few dollars left, buy a pump container of eco-friendly handsoap in a green scent like cucumber or kiwi...never, EVER, with antibiotic additives. (They just lower your resistance when you will really need it! Don't get me started.) If you have some extra mad money, buy organic cotton sheets (Pottery Barn has fab sales). Hang shower curtains, put flowers in pitcher on kitchen table, wash bowl and put on table with fruit in it. Sit down and eat an apple. If you don't feel better I want to know why, peeps!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Remembering Gene Upshaw- and his brother Doug

This week I was startled to see in the headlines that NFL Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw (one of 61 players to make it in on the first ballot) had died. He carried the Oakland Raiders to three Super Bowls, two of them winners. The obituaries describe Gene as "having a fine, understated sense of humor, and considerable depth," and being "introspective and reflective." I did not know Gene, but I did know his brother Doug back in San Francisco in 1985, and they must have been raised by some kind of mama and daddy back in Texas.
Doug Upshaw was slight, and gentle and funny. We knew he was rumored to be the brother of NFL great Gene Upshaw, but Doug never boasted about this. He was the only African-American agent in my real estate company at the time, but he was not exceptional in being gay. (This was San Francisco, after all.)
He once came to work in a raccoon coat to die for, vamped around the office and let us all try it on.
Doug also happened to be a CPA. When I needed to make a sudden move to a new house (there had been a tragic suicide by hanging on an outdoor porch behind my current home, and I couldn't bear to stay there any longer), Doug helped me put together a home loan application quickly and expertly. I feel I owe the success of that move to Doug. In many ways, it was the first move in a series that helped me and my family beyond reckoning.
Not long after, he fell ill with the scourge sweeping San Francisco that has now become a global challenge which transcends any differences of race, gender, class or national identity. At the time, such an illness was a secret to be hidden from family and society. Doug suffered a slow and agonizing death, surrounded by loving friends.
Doug, your brother Gene was lauded this week- but you, too, will never be forgotten.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shocking ( and Sexy) Swedish Land Use Law!

This past July I spent a month in Sweden visiting relatives & trying to get a grip on the ways of this somewhat shy & mysterious people. I happened upon a marvelous booklet put out by the Swedish Institute, stocked in an official tourist information kiosk (open 24 hours!) set in the middle of a busy Gothenburg cobblestoned square. Called SWEDEN & SWEDES, it was incredibly well-written, telling me much more about Strindberg than I really needed to know....BUT. I chanced upon this amazing passage (backpacker alert):
"Love and respect for Nordic nature is a key element of the Swedish soul and modern society. In Sweden there is an ancient and globally unique law known as the "common right of access," which gives everyone the right to move around freely (as well as to raise a tent, pick berries, mushrooms and flowers and so on) in nature- even on private property- as long as they are not in sight or hearing of a residence."

Does this not absolutely knock your socks off? (The question, of course, that immediately occurs: does this include non-Swedes?) I await responses!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Real Estate Fables, C'est Moi

A few words (and a disclaimer) about how this blog will be structured. In New York State only a real estate lawyer is legally able to give advice and counsel in the field of real estate. Thus, the nuggets of wisdom gleaned from my own experience and mistakes (and triumphs) will be doled out here in the form of anecdotes/fables, followed by a moral. If you are thinking Aesop, you get it. NOTHING I say here should be the basis for any specific decisions you make without first consulting your real estate lawyer to see what best fits your particular case. Interestingly enough, in California (where I first received my license and worked for more than 15 years) title companies handle real estate escrows, and lawyers are rarely consulted during standard residential real estate transactions. I came to see the long-suffering title officers as angels-in-disguise (a shout-out to Eileen Gallagher). They work for a set fee rather than an hourly rate, and plough through tons of paperwork with nary a complaint. However, the downside of not using lawyers is that the real estate agent winds up acting as a sort of lawyer for the transaction (by default), executing the multi-page contract and negotiating all the terms and contingencies. This is very time-consuming and fraught with all the legal pitfalls you might expect. It is, in short, nerve-wracking. Being more in control entails feeling much more responsible if the deal begins to hit a brick wall. (Which happens VERY often.) So I was quite happy to learn, upon transferring my career to New York, that lawyers take over the transaction once the buyer and seller agree on a price. Let them earn their money, I say. The peace of mind I experience in exchange is priceless.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why Poodles on the Roof?

For years I have been contemplating a way to share the hard-won knowledge I've accumulated as I navigated the rocky paths of motherhood and authorship, paying my bills through the unlikely venue of selling real estate on both the left & right coasts. It's been quite a ride, encompassing the AIDS crisis in 1980's San Francisco, the 1989 earthquake, a major housefire, the dotcom boom & bust, my daughter's graduation from Wesleyan and a difficult divorce from my Czech-born husband....but somewhere in there I managed to complete my coming-of-age novel, begin a memoir of my Greenwich Village childhood, and learn an awful lot about termites, plumbing, co-op rules, tax-free exchanges and why homeownership is the best second job in America- as well as being the foundation for feelings of security and joy that can enhance every other part of life. (I've also learned that real estate disputes bring out the worst in people but what else is new?)
Growing up in a series of small rented apartments and grungy hotel rooms in New York's Greenwich Village, I never thought that someday I would own a little farmhouse in upstate New York and a one-bedroom loft with brick walls in a converted high school in St. Petersburg, Florida, or that I would be someone who could give helpful advice to first-time buyers from all over the world in the two hottest real estate markets in the United States.
But I do, and I can.
I hope my words will help you to make intelligent real estate decisions, and give you an inside look into a process that too often does not serve the needs of the anxious and confused client.
Or maybe you will just be amused and that will make me happy too.

POODLES ON THE ROOF is dedicated to all my customers and especially to my French-speaking client who asked for a contractor's inspection to make sure that the roof above the Manhattan penthouse he was buying was not going to spring a leak down into his apartment- there were puddles and pools of water above his prospective unit, and my client told me he was concerned about the "poodles on the roof". I realized then how fond I am of my clients and how much I love my day job.

Thank you for giving me the inspiration to finally get this blog on the road!