(excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds–part one)
Purslane watched the news each morning before leaving for work. It had been a sad and similar report for months now; businesses failing and people losing their homes to foreclosure. The housing crisis had hit every city across the United States and Purslane watched and listened with a rapt and weary heart.
Her own mortgage and the house itself had become a burden. It was cold and drafty to be sure. The place needed new windows, a new roof, a gas heater and a new fence and new carpeting for the stairs and all the bedrooms. Thousands and thousands of dollars. Purslane and Reggie were living paycheck to paycheck and barely breaking even. And they’d refinanced three times! Purslane listened to the news reports and heard the statistics that counted the percentages of foreclosures in each state. She watched the interviews with husbands and wives and saw the multitude of children yanked out of schools and familiar neighborhoods and learned of the thousands of dogs that were given up as families left homes for apartments where pets weren’t allowed. Her own mortgage was severely under water and how had this happened? Why did she and Reggie so easily and quickly take equity loans? Purslane began to think back, back to the first ten years in their house. She and Reggie worked and paid bills and bought groceries. They’d hosted birthday parties and Christmas and 4th of July celebrations. They’d taken road trips to California and purchased new cars —so many new cars. And then it started. The solicitations in the mail. Offers of credit, of cash. Irresistible and so easy. “Are you a homeowner?” the adds asked and provided a name and phone number. The brokers even came to sit at their kitchen table! They brought all the necessary documents. They parked their fancy cars at the curb in front of Purslane’s home and carried their leather satchels inside. In under an hour and in less than a week Purslane and Reggie could have a substantial lump sum of cash or generous line of credit. It was all so easy and no one thought much about it at the time. Home prices will always rise. And Purslane and Reggie signed where they were told to sign and took what they could. By the third refinance they were both in agreement that they would eventually sell the house anyway and downsize, so why not cash in a little? Home prices would always rise.
One year later
The sign was in place at the foot of the driveway. The neighbors were surprised and disappointed. Purslane and Reggie had lived in the same house for 18 years. They knew their neighbors by first and last name. Knew where they worked and where their families were from. They watched neighbors welcome grandkids and in-laws and pets that grew old and died and even saw some couples divorce or spouses pass away. They knew who played golf and who liked paintball. Which kids were college bound or bound to get in trouble. They looked out for each other in many ways and they laughed at each other’s quirks. There was the bipolar woman who gardened in the dark wearing a miner’s head light and the woman whose house was kept so spotless her own husband was compelled to create a space for himself in the garage where he could relax and put his feet up without reproach. There was the woman who, after a block party night of Tequilla shots, kissed another’s husband on the mouth and the couple whose unemployed adult son returned home for a month and left after a shouting match on the front lawn where he dropped his pants and showed his moon white ass to his appalled and embarrassed parents (and the handful of neighbors who looked out from upstairs bedroom windows).
The agent was young and looked like he could be related to Michael Landon. He had to be Irish, Purslane thought, as she shook his hand and smiled into his bright blue eyes. He wore a close fitted suit and tie seemed a bit too formal but he had a nice smile and Purslane and Reggie were eager to hear his plan for selling their home. He positioned his briefcase on the glass coffee table and looked around the room, “The place looks great” he said and nodded to each of them, “I see you’ve cleared out a lot of personal items. It’ll be easier for prospective buyers to see their own stuff here.” Purslane smiled at Reggie and thought of the dozen or so boxes that now set piled in their garage. The agent pulled a flier from a manila folder. Reggie and Purslane liked the way the pictures turned out. “Hey our place looks pretty good in these pictures!” Reggie laughed and then asked, “You think it’ll sell for 270 thousand?”
“It’s a starting point” the agent commented, “We’ll wait a month and then reduce accordingly, probably in 20 thousand dollar increments.”
“But what about the bank?” Purslane wanted to know.
“Short sales take time. And we’ll negotiate with the bank once we get a viable offer.” The agent snapped his brief case shut and stood. He shook hands with them and smiled wide. Purslane and Reggie were taller than their real estate agent and Purslane thought his perfect white smile made him look like a little boy. Maybe that’s why he dressed so formally she thought, to be taken seriously.
Purslane continued to watch the news clips in the morning of the ongoing housing crises. Some people were losing big, extravagant homes—grand homes with pools and beautiful landscaped lawns. Some people were destroying homes as they left, removing hardware and ripping up travertine tiles. Vacant houses were becoming neighborhood blights and attracting teenage hoodlums or vagrants. Purslane saw this happening in her own neighborhood. She’d take walks and learned to spot the houses that were in various stages of foreclosure. Some still had the bank notices stapled to the front door. The pages curling and flapping in the breeze. Some homes had no notices yet but the lawns were overgrown and the garbage cans sat perpetually curbside. Some had only bare windows and empty rooms to indicate the absence of families that had once lived and called the place home. Purslane wasn’t shy and felt a strong curiosity about the lives of the people who left. She approached the windows and cupped her hands around her face straining to see what the empty rooms looked like. A broken TV or overturned kitchen chair, scattered bits of toys or dirty blankets remained. Purslane could see the nail holes in the walls and the shadowed outlines where pictures used to hang. It left her with a sad, contemplative wondering and a strange kind of loneliness.
The news stories kept coming. Every day a development or twist. People were desperate and scared. Some were angry and disgusted. There were cheats and scammers promising to halt the banks and save homes. Money was being made by people who preyed on the fear and ignorance of innocent, struggling home owners. Purslane listened and learned, feeling disgusted and disappointed in her own behavior. She held herself and Reggie up to the light and scrutinized both his and her motivations. How had they been so foolish!? She grew angry and bitter. She was sickened by the realization that they’d succumbed to a society and common culture of ‘gimmee, gimmee, gimmee, I want it NOW, NOW, NOW! Purslane’s stomach knotted and clenched with each morning news report when she saw her own ignorance displayed on screen in the faces of strangers.
Purslane and Reggie needed a break. They packed an overnight bag and headed for the coast, driving through the Olympic National Forest and spending the night at Lake Quinault. They rented a cabin near the lake that had a wooden, walkaround porch and a view of the water. Purslane felt the anxiety of the past weeks drop away. The gentle movement of water, the smell of dirt and moss and rain and the stillness of the lake itself worked to calm Purslane’s mind. She thought Reggie was feeling the same relaxation but by nightfall he was in a pent up state of despair. He couldn’t sleep and there was no TV in the room to distract him and guide his thoughts to other things. He felt like he couldn’t catch his breath and sat on the edge of the bed in the darkness.
“Purslane I can’t sleep here. I can’t breathe” Reggie sat with his arms locked at the elbows and his hands gripping the edge of the mattress like a man about to be pushed from the top of a cliff. Purslane rubbed his back and waited. “You need to just lay down for a minute and close your eyes.” She said. “Here– you can have my pillow and you can stay propped up if you want, but please Reggie, just lay back down.” Reggie reluctantly leaned against the pillows. He lay stiff as a corpse and stared wide eyed at the ceiling. His breathing was shallow and rapid. Purslane was tired and wanted to sleep. That wouldn’t happen with her husband about to have a full blown panic attack. She sat up and took Reggie’s hand. Purslane turned on the bedside lamp and noticed a small clock radio. She flipped it on and slid the dial around and around until the static stopped and the sound of a man’s voice came in loud and clear. Reggie sat upright and gave two pillows to Purslane. He calmed a bit as soon as the radio conversation filled the room. Purslane and Reggie sat shoulder to shoulder on the bed listening. A man and woman were discussing the housing crises and the impact of a short sale versus a foreclosure. Reggie looked at Purslane and sighed and Purslane leaned forward in the bed, anxiously waiting for new information and maybe even some advice. They got what they needed. At that moment they learned that Washington was a no recourse state and if the house foreclosed the bank had no legal means to seek repayment. But if the house sold as a short sale the bank could seek to collect the difference between what was owed on the property and the amount it actually sold for. This news changed everything for Purslane and Reggie. They felt empowered to now make the right decision. They would do what millions had already done. They would speak to the agent on Monday and tell him to take their house off the market.
Purslane received a message from the agent’s assistant early in the day, before she herself had a chance to call. There were forms that needed to be signed right away and the assistant would send these forms to Purslane’s email. She was instructed to sign and call back so the paperwork could be picked up as soon as possible. Purslane printed the forms and began read the first line on the document. State of Washington Power of Attorney. Purslane felt her pulse quicken. “He thinks I’m an idiot. He thinks we’re both too stupid to know what this form means!” Her years in healthcare had exposed Purslane to many legal forms. Forms pertaining to confidentiality, financial responsibility and power of attorney. There would be no way in any kind of Hell that Purslane would give that little shit real estate agent any rights to negotiate on her behalf with the bank. He might agree to anything and she and Reggie would be legally bound by law to whatever kind of deal he made! When the agent showed up the next day Purslane calmly told him they would never sign a power of attorney and they appreciated all of his efforts but the house was no longer for sale. The agent made a call and said someone would be out in a few days to take down the sign. Purslane and Reggie carried in the boxes from the garage and rehung the family pictures. They repopulated their home with all the personal touches, books and clutter and watched as a happy neighbor, a retired Marine, pulled the for sale post out of the ground with his bare hands and tossed it in the grass on the side of the house.
The next several weeks were consumed by negotiations with their lender. Purslane diligently gathered documents, wrote letters and talked at length on the phone with bank representatives. She and Reggie eventually worked out a deal that wasn’t a true loan modification but it would buy them some time. They were on a three tiered adjustable payment plan. The mortgage amount would reset every two years and by the sixth year it would be back to the same amount that got them in trouble—an amount they wouldn’t be able to pay. Purslane and Reggie accepted and signed off on the documents. They could afford to stay in the house for at least two more years. Purslane felt a big sense of relief but it was mixed with frustration and anger. Anger at herself and the whole banking system. The lending industry in general was under fire and under scrutiny and rules were being re-written by the federal government. Rules that would prevent another housing crisis from ever happening again.