Archive for July, 2012
If you are like me, you have a random sampling of news websites to keep you abreast of the happenings of the world every hour or so. It’s the age we live in; every data point, story, press release, blog post triggers a monsoon of pundits and analytical analysis that either sends you running for the hills or tripling down on your latest investment. If you don’t believe me, scroll through this reputable blog and tell me how I should be the most confident in years on Tuesday then be disappointed in home sales twice only a week later. With everything out there, how do you find the truth?
First, understand the underlying data. As it relates to real estate, one needs to be especially cautious. Data may or may not be adjusted for seasonality, it may or may not be a selection of particularly poor or particularly good markets, it may be new homes vs. existing homes, etc. With the need for new headlines every hour, data can and will be manipulated to tell whatever story is the flavor of the moment. Personally, I always start at one of the sources.
Second, understand the basics of real estate. Unlike the stock market, real estate is slow moving, plodding, and a hyper-local asset class. Despite what the headlines might say, you have not missed the bottom in many locations. If you are looking to buy a single family home, tomorrow will be just as good a day as yesterday, as will six months from now. Interest rates tend to move on a quarterly basis and rarely increase more than 0.25% in that time span. Sure, your neighbor might have a 3.75% interest rate, but your 4.25% will put your payments close enough and will still be historically, the lowest in our history.
Investors will likely need to act with more urgency. In most of the hardest hit markets, institutional investors (i.e., private / public corporations with lots of money to spend) have quietly been buying up homes at a breakneck pace. Trying to find a bargain in Florida or Nevada is no longer a slam dunk. Additionally, finding lenders that will do anything beyond the bread and butter multifamily investment will also be a challenge. Small investors had a great window 12 months ago, but now that window is closing rapidly. Rapid in real estate could mean six months from now, but it could also mean yesterday.
Last, but most importantly, understand your market. National real estate statistics rarely add value to a local buyer. Real estate is cyclical everywhere; however, the size and length of the peaks and valleys can vary dramatically. If GM moves a plant in your neighborhood to another state, you can bet prices will move aggressively downward no matter what the national real estate market is doing. Understanding this differentiates great realtors from the rest of the pack.
Amazing realtors don’t parrot pseudo-facts from newspapers or websites; they utilize stats to enhance their local market knowledge. Acting as the knowledgeable voice of reason to clients inundated with misinformation will only serve to build trust and respect for your craft.11 comments
I will be doing an hour-long presentation on my book Man Alive! at the The 21 Convention in Austin. The convention runs from August 17th – 19th, and I will be speaking first-thing in the morning on Saturday, August 18th.
My topic? Intellectual self-defense amidst the last-gasp collapse of Rotarian Socialism. Not too surprising if you’ve read Man Alive! My plan is to go through a number of specious arguments, with examples, showing you how to defend your self from the pandemic deceptions deployed by demagogues to defend tyranny.
The 21 Convention is put together by Anthony “Dream” Johnson. It seeks to “surface, restore, and actualize the ideal in man” — a goal I can heartily endorse. There will be a total of 18 speakers over the three days of the event, including Yaron Brook of The Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights and Richard Nikoley of FreeTheAnimal.com.
Anthony Johnson runs his events like Brian Brady and I should run ours, very professional and strictly business. If you want to come see me or the other speakers — with topics ranging from philosophy to politics to health and fitness to sexual relations — you can buy tickets by clicking on this link. That’s an affiliate link, which means that I’m getting a piece of the business, if that matters to you. You can buy three-day or one-day tickets, with upsells, but note that the prices go up on July 31st. There will be video of the presentations available for sale after the event.
I’m interested in doing more of these, if you have a microphone available for me. I’m doing philosophy at the 21 Convention, but there are a lot of topics covered and touched upon in Man Alive! that I would like to bring to an audience. As an example, I can do an hour on orgasms that will change your life forever. To see what I can do without an audience — on philosophy, not orgasms — visit the Videocast category at SelfAdoration.com. Meanwhile, if you’re going to be in Central Texas next month, come give me a look. I plan to put on a killer show.4 comments
When, after deciding that think tank and political advocacy were a lost cause (as is true of many things, I should’ve consulted Greg Swann earlier about this), I went back to law school, I decided to go to law school, I had only the vaguest notions of what being a lawyer actually meant.
I knew I wanted to earn a good living. I knew I was pretty smart. I also “knew” that my years in managing non-profits had left me with precious few skills that might be attractive in the for-profit world.
Three years and more than $300,000 in direct and opportunity costs, I emerged from UNC-Chapel Hill (having completed my first year at Arizona State) with a law degree, the privilege (I mean that in the technical sense) to practice law upon passing the bar, and not much more. The economy had collapsed, and in the interim we had sold two homes in Phoenix, one for about what I bought it (thanks to Greg) and the other at a vastly lower price (through a broker my wife selected).
There were no BigLaw jobs for me to take, coming from a good, but not great law school, with good, but not great grades.
Fortunately, I had spent a year and a half getting my hands dirty as a glorified intern at a local Public Defender’s office, where I worked on some very serious cases, and helped win a trial for someone accused of a robbery, the evidence I located would show, he could not have committed.
More importantly, it turned out that I had skills that were much more important than lawyering. Technical and technological skills. And I discovered that I am, while introverted and contemplative, pretty good at interacting people through the crucial hiring (sales?) process.
If I had it all to do again, I don’t know that I would go to law school exactly. Don’t get me wrong: I am probably one of the few lawyers who loves practicing the law.
But I’ve found that I also like building things. I have tons of ideas on how to make things, and provide more efficient services to people. Unfortunately, the law and all the players in this system are extremely conservative, in the sense that they hew to established rules, practices, and technologies. The databases and computer systems, to take one small example, are archaic. Everything and most everyone is resistant to change.
So here I get to my point: If you are young (by which I mean, under 40) and at all entrepreneurial, or have what you think is a good idea, do not go to law school. First, Inside the Law School Scam has the goods on what an incredible waste of money law school is for the vast majority of people who go.
If you do want to go to law school, be very, very sure you want to actually practice the law. And that you know what the “practice of law” means beyond receiving a better-than-average paycheck. The days when a law degree was a ticket to a six-figure income are over.
Mostly, the American system of education has been a scam, that has only become increasingly apparent in the past 5 years as the average debt of recent grads has soared, nearing the six figures. Law Schools are at the center of that scam.6 comments
Not everything can be coordinated in cyberspace. When you gotta move, don’t take a turn without Twist.
What is it? In the shortest possible summary, Twist is ETA software. You tell it where you’re going, it tells you and the people you’re meeting there when you will arrive. Or they can tell you when they will arrive, so you don’t waste time thumb-twiddling. ETA is calculated on your actual motion, so it doesn’t tell anyone anything until you actually hit the road.
Twist integrates with iCal (which integrates with Google Calendar). It will tell you when you need to leave for an appointment so you won’t be late.
It also taps into your contact database, so you can select any destination you already know about. Twist keeps track of your past destinations, so reusing them is a breeze. And you can set up favorite destinations you use all the time (like your home or office), adding in the contacts associated with that site, for one-touch Twisting. (Realtors: Think about how many times you go back to a house you have listed or put under contract.)
And it integrates with Google Maps to give you driving directions and real-time progress updates on your travels. I don’t use GPS, and I’m off-the-charts kinesthetic, so this is more gee-whiz fun for me that something I need, but the people on the other end can track my mapping, too.
Here’s the PR movie for Twist, which for some reason is focused on dating:
Who (besides nervous daters) can use Twist? Happily-committed couples; if you’re cheating, Twist will tell on you. Bosses with drivers on the road, stipulating that the ability to supervise creates a liability for failure to supervise. And: Real estate professionals. Twist makes it easy to plan your day, to coordinate with clients, vendors and other team members — and to tell your spouse and kids when they might expect to see you again.
What would I change in the software?
I want every event in my calendar to be Twisted automatically, in the background, without my intervention. Moreover, I want the calendar integration to be more heuristic: It it looks like a street address, use it. Software that tries to engineer me is never fun.
I want the ETA estimates to be based on my track record as a driver. I move through space at least 30% faster than Twist thinks I should. Over time, the ETA times should be based on my actual pace and not Twist’s (and Google’s?) surmises.
Likewise, if I regularly deviate from the suggested route (I know all the sneaky back ways to get where I’m going), I want to use my route, not Twist’s. Anyone coming by separate vehicle should have my superior route to follow, as well.
There’s more that I haven’t even talked about: Facebook, Yelp, Twitter, walking and mass-transit options, weather, photos (including Google street view), etc. If you are committed to living a fully transparent life, Twist gives you a documented paper trail for all your movements and appointments.
Hiding from the spouse? Hiding from the boss? Hiding from The Man? Twist is not for you. But if you want to maximize your use of the precious minutes of your day, it’s a sweet little app.4 comments
I was all set to write about how you should NOT use the new Zillow sites because I happen to agree with Don Reedy that they are sleeping with the enemy…when sleeping with friends is ONLY an FTP and a little bit of money away…c’mon people. 😉 ( I was even going to title it “A Mess of Pottage” just to get people talking… )
But then I saw this on the Huffington Post. Check it out. SERIOUSLY. Check it out.
Now for those of my friends that are more liberal, RELAX. 😉 Just because I saw a Google alert for Real Estate Blog from HuffPo does NOT mean I am drinking your Kool-Aid. You should know me better than that. 😉
And for my conservative and libertarian friends, RELAX. 😉 I am not drinking THEIR Kool-Aid. Boy this political season has me stressed. hehe. Oh yeah…conservative friends..go back and read the post, don’t skip it just because it is HuffPo…you aren’t gonna die or go blind…grin
My goal was to offend EVERYONE politically in two paragraphs…how did I do?
I guess my points (I have THREE) with the above article was that I was well and truly surprised to see HuffPo celebrating the creative destruction of one business and noting the rise of another as an entreprenurial journalist shifted from Journalism to profitable blogging and made good at it. (Or is in the process of it).
And a corollary to that point. Creative Destruction WORKS. Even in our beloved real estate industry, just because things are the way they are today does not mean that they will be there for long. I am headed out to Inman this year (after a long hiatus from Connecting and Conventioning and etc) to enjoy some further reflection on where this industry is going and how to profitably stay in front of it.
We need to embrace change. Enjoy it and thrive on it.
How essential are brokerages? How about Franchises? How about Offices? How fast will business models change? Third party lead generators – are they vital? Or just an interloper?(All good questions IMO)
Oh yeah…the other two points.
2) The final point is this. REGARDLESS of the circumstances that you find yourself in… (And yeah, sometimes it is tough.) There is always a way, over time, to get to the Creative side of the Destruction. It takes rugged individuals who dedicate themselves, but there is a way.
So if you are looking at your real estate career and saying W-T-Heck (or worse)? Whether you stay in the same industry or go to a game where the rules are more in your favor, know that the Creative side of the destruction is not far away. My hat is off to this guy. He used the gifts God gave him to give back and get paid for it. Good for him. I wish no less for anyone, anywhere.
It’s been quite a while since I last wrote on Bloodhoundblog. It certainly doesn’t mean that I have been absent; frankly, it just means I have been too busy to take 30 minutes and compose an interesting thought provoking piece of writing up to the standard we have all come to know and love on this site.
But I digress, as a real estate investor I have only worked with two great brokers in my entire investing career. I find most run-of-the-mill brokers to be under-educated, uninspired, and more interested in cashing a check by any means necessary than actually meeting my needs. The first broker was a dynamic “buyers” broker, who understood my investment goals and my available capital. Rather than over promising and under delivering, she relentlessly showed me house after house for 4 weekends straight until we found the right quaint little fixer-upper in my price range. Her reward, a $2,000 commission on a $40k home sale and my testimony.
What was my testimony worth? I did two more deals with her, both taking much less time and for a much higher dollar value in the next year (+$10k to her bottom line). I did another deal with her the following year for another $10k to her and I referred her like crazy to all of my investing friends. Even if none of them bought a single thing from her, she turned a $2k commission into $20k, at no additional cost to her and very little time thanks to her investment in me and her in-depth market knowledge.
Realtor number two is basically the same story, but add a few more zeros given some career advancement and price appreciation (Detroit vs. New York City).
From a buyer’s perspective, I am looking for the following qualities:
- Market Knowledge – I don’t need you to print off a list of 80 comps (not reviewed 90% of the time) and ask me what I think. I need you to send me a targeted list of homes you have been inside and already know will meet 90% of my needs. I need you to know why this block is superior to the next and I need you to know something about the seller if at all possible.
- Industry Knowledge – As an investor, I run my own spreadsheets, but I do need you to have a general sense of what properties make sense for investors vs. homeowners. We are different. A home does not qualify as an investment just because it can produce enough rent to cover the mortgage. I need to understand what kind of appreciation this market can expect. Are there good schools in the area? Is it a transitional neighborhood where I should be looking to hold for 3 – 5 years, or is it a heavy flip area where I could probably sell it to another investor? Any new commercial / retail coming to the area? Have a general idea about capitalization rates?
- Passion – Realtors that don’t love real estate should not be employed in real estate. If you don’t spend at least one hour a day looking at interesting real estate articles in your area just for the fun of it, you are not the person I want to hire. It’s great to love putting people in homes, but to be an amazing realtor you need to love homes, neighborhoods, and almost everything else there is to love about real estate. This is one of those characteristics you know when you see it immediately.
Are there other qualities that make a Realtor great, sure, competitive spirit, entrepreneurial drive, basic customer service skills, etc, but the three qualities above are my base criteria.
I am going to make a committed effort to start writing once a week again. Thank you to Don for knocking the cobwebs off of my keyboard.7 comments
A couple nights ago I got caught up watching the movie Ground Hog Day with Bill Murray. It’s a fun movie I’ve seen before, so you can imagine my surprise when I realized how much I was learning from this character.
Murray plays Phil, a weatherman doing an on-the-scene report covering Punxsutawney Phil, the famous Ground Hog that looks for his shadow on February 2nd. The twist is: Phil finds himself awaking each morning… to the same morning! It’s February 2nd again and again and again. What does he do? At first, he does what most of us would probably do, he tests the limits: he flirts, he overeats, he steals money, he even tries to kill himself, just to see what happens. But each morning, he awakens to the same Sonny & Cher song on the radio, and the same day repeated outside.
Eventually, Phil begins to improve himself. He takes classes and he learns new skills; he seeks out people who need help and through it all, becomes a better man. He learns, albeit slowly, the power of… the moment. The moment is that brief instant when a decision is made; the decision may lead to years of work or an immediate change, but either way a course is set. (Of course, the opposite applies too: a moment passes without a decision, and a course is set as well.) So Bill Murray’s character Phil, begins seizing those moments, and begins improving his life in ways he could have never imagined.
By the end of the movie, Phil has become a new man; even the locals treat him differently (and remember, to them it truly has been only one day). The motivation behind making those decisions is ultimately unimportant; to improve as a man, to win the heart of a woman, or just to make more money; the “why” is less important than the “what.” He has transformed himself, one decision at a time, one moment at a time.
You may not wake up each morning to “I’ve Got You Babe” on the radio. And you’re most likely not waking up each day only to discover that it’s the same day all over again. But are you waking up to anything that much different? Is it the same you, doing the same thing, around the same people, in the same area, and having the same results? Imagine how your life might change if TODAY, you make a decision to take a class, or improve your skills, or simply meet more people. Imagine how your life might change if TODAY, you decide to grab that moment…10 comments
I just fired up one of Zillow’s new Agent Premier sites and poked around.
It’s pretty impressive stuff.
I run a number of WordPress multisite networks for Real estate, and at a glance, Zillow’s done a really good job of offering a really functional wordpress install, with great design options, idx integration, and of course, easy bloggy wordpress content creation…
Out of the box.
In a few minutes.
For Just $10 Bucks A Month!
But Of Course These Sites Won’t Get You Leads (Yet)
Look, for the price Zillow’s agent premier sites are a fabulous deal. You’ll instantly have a site that’s probably better than what you’ve got going now.
But you’ll still be missing 3 very important things.
- A Traffic Generation Strategy
- A Core Lead Capture Element [Your IDX Search doesn’t count, nobody will trade an email address for what they can get for free on the Z ]
- And a Consistent Follow Up Strategy
You can find good help and layer these things on.
And Zillow can make implementing a modern (post 2007 real estate lead generation strategy) easier by looking into these 2 feature quick requests.
- Add a “below post” widget area so folks can link out to a lead generation squeeze page, or include some kind of opt in form… (for something, anything other than a property search.)
- And/Or include a totally blank page template so folks can build their squeezes on the fly.
There are also some minor things missing like Facebook commenting, advanced SEO options, and other minor stuff that can be added via a plugin here and there.
But otherwise… for $10. You kidding me?
I maybe sorta wanted to not like it…
But geez… we all have to admit. Zillowpress is pretty nifty….4 comments
I love the scene from the “Princess Bride” where they undergo a battle of wits. Very funny scene, and way too reminiscent of popular conversations regarding the housing market in general and the San Diego housing market specifically.
So, How’s the Housing Market Doing in San Diego?
There’s no shortage of data or opinions, of course. Here a just a couple of places and opinions I found interesting and potentially useful. First, Here’s DataQuick’s (OMG lengthy) view of the San Diego data. Quite a bit of stuff in here, all of which seem to indicate that the San Diego market might be recovering slightly. But right on the heels of the DataQuick report is an article from MSNBC, a report that has a rather dim view of San Diego’s recovery.
So, with my own opinions of the San Diego market in my head I reviewed a couple of local real estate experts to see what they thought. First a take on one of the neighborhoods in San Diego by Kris Berg. Her numbers are easier for me to read than DataQuicks, and no one likes to be called a sick real estate market by anyone. And here’s our good friend Jeff Brown with his take on analyzing real estate data. Jeff is speaking to the choir in me when he talks about analyzing. He is asking if the data and the way it is analyzed is as important at the analyst doing the organizing.
My Take on San Diego Real Estate
My opinion comes after this concerto, aptly named “Cacophony”, but sweet music to my ears, and which I’ll explain below. Listen to this now.
Pretty cool stuff, huh? A cacophony of sounds, but your head and your heart allow you to analyze and put these sounds together so that they not only make sense, but are appealing and fun to spend time with.
Which Brings Me to My Opinion on the San Diego Real Estate
- When you want to know if there’s gas in the coal mine….you send down a bird.
- If you see smoke, you know’s there’s fire….but how hot is that fire?
- If it walks, quacks and…you know….it’s a duck.
- “Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.” (Will Rogers)
- See it. Hit it.
Yep, this is what you paid to read. Some old fashioned advice about skinning cats, and some advice for each of you who are real estate pros. And that advice is that it’s up to you to consume all the data, analyze all the data, taste the food at every restaurant, smell the grass at every playground, walk the railroad tracks at 10 p.m., put your soda down and go into art shops and old shoe repair places. It’s up to you to be the analyst that Jeff Brown wants you to be, the historian that Kris wants you to be, and the ultimate best at putting together a synergistic and cohesive body of knowledge (not info…) that your current or future clients can take to the bank.
San Diego real estate is a cacophony of data, but each of you has a guitar in hand, and an audience who wants to listen to the concerto, not all the notes. In your area, learn the notes, and then put them together to make a concerto that clients will turn to. Every real estate market has a sound that you can harness, and data that clients desperately want to hear. Conduct yourself (and your data) like a professional, and the only cacophony you’ll hear is the phone ringing with new clients.1 comment
The world you find is the one you’re looking for, and the map to that world is written in the lines of your face.
A couple weeks ago we got together with an old friend whom we had not seen in some while. She made a huge point of remarking that my appearance had not changed at all, which I dismissed as a kindly untruth, sweet but surely very far from being accurate.
This is me on April 15, 2001, the photo I’ve used at BloodhoundBlog since its inception:
This is me on July 9, 2012, a week ago today:
A little more weight on me, and a little jowlier, but not much difference. The set of my features is a constant, a reflection of the world I see outside my mind.
This is me from Man Alive!:
Your mama told you, when you glared and grimaced at her, that your face would freeze like that, but neither one of you knew she was right: The facial expressions we wear most often – habituated Mothertongue emotional reactions – inscribe themselves into our skin.
We listed an actual equity sale on Friday, and we’re getting ready to do another one Friday next. I’m waiting right now to get the signed contract on a buyer side, also an equity sale. That much is good, since we have fared very poorly in ForeclosureWorld. But I just lost a buyer side that we need very badly, and I have not had any confidence that we can hold onto our own home for the past four years. Desdemona died, Shyly died, and Odysseus is making his last orbit around the sun. I’ve had family shit, and Cathy lost her father and is slowly losing her mother.
In short, I could wish for more triumphs and fewer tragedies. But the world you find is the one you’re looking for, and the reality of my own life is that I have to make a conscious effort to remember pain as soon as it’s over. I love my life best when I’m too busy to think about anything but what I am doing right now, and I think that attitude is written all over my face.
What does all this have to do with you? If you don’t like the face you see reflected back to you in the mirror, try looking for a world you like better outside your mind: The map to the world you expect to discover every day is written in the lines of your face.4 comments
The thugs who “regulate” our economy might be completely corrupt, but at least they’re utterly inept.
If you won’t look out for your own interests, you will have no shortage of “friends” among the ruling class.2 comments
“But we’ve got to have some regulation!” How else are insiders going to get their mitts onto sweetheart mortgage deals?
Regulation is rent-seeking, Rotarian Socialist graft, and that’s all it ever is. Who sold out the housing market? The regulators, of course.
I love this bit from the AP story:
Among those who received loan discounts from Countrywide, the report said, were:
—Former Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
—Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
—Mary Jane Collipriest, who was communications director for former Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, then a member of the Banking Committee. The report said Dodd referred Collipriest to Countrywide’s VIP unit. Dodd, when commenting on his own loans, said that he was unaware of receiving preferential treatment but knew his loans were handled by the VIP unit.
The Senate’s ethics committee investigated Dodd and Conrad but did not charge them with any ethical wrongdoing.
—Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
—Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., former chairman of the Oversight Committee. Towns issued the first subpoena to Bank of America for Countrywide documents, and current Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., subpoenaed more documents. The committee said that in responding to the Towns subpoena, Bank of America left out documents related to Towns’ loan.
—Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif.
—Top staff members of the House Financial Services Committee.
—A staff member of Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, a member of the Financial Services Committee.
—Former Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif.
—Former Housing and Urban Development Secretaries Alphonso Jackson and Henry Cisneros; former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. The VIP unit processed Cisneros’s loan after he joined Fannie’s board of directors.
—Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, was an exception. He told the VIP unit not to give him a discount, and he did not receive one.
—Former heads of Fannie Mae James Johnson, Daniel Mudd and Franklin Raines. Countrywide took a loss on Mudd’s loan. Fannie employees were the most frequent recipients of VIP loans. Johnson received a discount after Mozilo waived problems with his credit rating.
The report said Mozilo “ordered the loan approved, and gave Johnson a break. He instructed the VIP unit: ‘Charge him ½ under prime. Don’t worry about (the credit score). He is constantly on the road and therefore pays his bills on an irregular basis but he ultimately pays them.”
Johnson in 2008 resigned as a leader of then-candidate Barack Obama’s vice presidential search committee after The Wall Street Journal reported he had received $7 million in Countrywide discounted loans.
The report said those who received the discounts knew the loans were handled by a special VIP unit.
“The documents produced by the bank show that VIP borrowers received paperwork from Countrywide that clearly identified the VIP unit as the point of contact,” the committee said.
The standard discount was .5 waived points. Countrywide also waived junk fees that usually ranged from $350 to $400.
You insist, contrary to all evidence, that Batman will rush in to save you from the harsh, cruel world. Now you know the market price of Batman’s “integrity” — 50 basis points.
There’s a clue in the air. If you breathe deeply, you just might catch it.7 comments
Where we’re going, we don’t need brick-masons…9 comments
Happy Independence Day. This is me, fiction from The Unfallen:
Bel Canto is about halfway between Central Square and Harvard Square. When they emerged into the cool of the night, they turned left, toward Harvard Square. They walked along in a contented silence, and she felt very close to him for no reason she could name. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of his coat and his left elbow was sticking out there, like an invitation. Without asking permission she stuck her hand inside the crook of his elbow and kept it there. He looked down at her hand and smiled, so she knew it was all right. She knew they would look like an old married couple to the students pushing past them, one of those Yuppie couples who inhabit the high-rises on Mass Avenue. There’s a first, she thought, to be tickled at being mistaken for married.
Central Square is the shopping district for a number of blue collar neighborhoods. As you walk out of it toward Harvard Square, you see a little bit of everything — the Cambridge Post Office and city government buildings, free-standing houses, high-rise apartment towers, frat houses for both Harvard and M.I.T., cheesy little office buildings, restaurants, bars, fringe businesses — everything. But as you draw near to Harvard Square, Harvard asserts itself, and the eclecticism of the no-man’s-land between town and gown gives way to extremely absurd art galleries and extremely unappetizing restaurants and extremely fanatical radical bookstores and extremely incomprehensible retail stores devoted to every extremely incomprehensible pursuit or pastime known to the mind of man — or at least the Harvard man.
But even that can’t last. The real estate in Harvard Square proper is extremely valuable. If you cannot pay the rent, the landlord will direct you to a more suitable location closer to Central Square. In Harvard Square itself, absurdity is found only out of doors.
And it was out in full force tonight. At the Harvard Square station of the subway the plaza was rife with milling weirdness. Little teenage skateboarders with their strange haircuts and black street poets and homeless Vietnam veterans with stress disorder and a taste for the vine and middle-aged men in three-quarter-length raincoats thumping bibles and hectoring anyone who would cooperate by ignoring them. And everywhere, everywhere, everywhere little brown-haired Madonnas from Southie and Revere. Brown leather bomber jackets and big hoop earrings and way too much make-up and way too many Marlboro cigarettes. Sitting on walls and benches or standing around in twos and threes. Big-boned girls with big round breasts and big round behinds hanging around in Harvard Square looking for a shot at something better.
And big round brown eyes, Gwen knew, big like a horse’s eyes or a fawn’s or a dog’s. Big like an orangutan’s eyes and just as lost, just as searching, just as hopeful, just as hopeless. She felt her own eyes welling up and she squeezed Devin’s arm. She said, “I’ve told you one of my secrets. Now it’s your turn.”
He smiled and he placed his right hand atop hers for a moment and it was nothing and it was everything. He said, “I know how to roll cigars. Is that a good enough secret?”
“Not likely,” she scoffed.
“I really do. I learned when I was Hunter’s age, five years old. My grandfather taught me how.”
“Your grandfather taught you how to roll cigars? When you were five?”
“It’s the truth. He was unfallen I think, just wild and innocent. He grew up on the streets of Athens, and there was nothing he didn’t know before he had beard enough to shave. I was growing up on the streets of Boston and he thought I had the right to the same education he’d had. That was my youth, mostly, spending every afternoon with my grandpa. You asked for a secret and I’m giving you a history…”
“Well do go on.” She pulled herself a little tighter to him and he didn’t complain.
He smiled, a tight little wall of a smile that keeps things from spilling out. “Nicholas Demosthenes Constantopoulos, my mother’s father…”
“Yet another Demosthenes.”
“I don’t know how far back it goes. A long way. It’s Hunter’s middle name, too. It’s just one of those things that make a family. The family is who we say it is, and maybe the more we have to say, the more a family we are.” He smiled again, from joy this time. “My family has a lot to say.”
She laughed quietly. And she had the idea that he had pulled her still more tightly to him. They were walking the long way through the Square, looping around Brattle Street, walking very slowly. She put her left hand on his forearm, so now she was holding his arm with both hands. Her cheek was almost at his shoulder. She didn’t feel quite confident enough to put it there but she didn’t want to pull away either.
“My grandfather came to this country right after the first World War. He was fifteen and he stowed away on a freighter. Russia had gone Communist, of course, and Greece and Italy and all the Slavic countries were dallying with it, and he was convinced that if he didn’t get out then, he might be stuck there forever. Killed even, because he never could keep his mouth shut.
“Anyway, just after the war was the beginning of the end of immigration in America. ‘Give me your tired, your poor’ was secretly revised to read ‘Give me your blonde, your protestant.’ Nobody meant anything by it, I guess, we just fear the stranger. The toe-headed Episcopalians who ran this country thought it was being overrun by Irish Catholics and Russian Jews and swarthy Mediterraneans and greasy Slavs with thick ankles and thick accents. My grandfather spoke just enough English that he was able to convince the immigration people that he had a job waiting for him as a translator for a Greek language newspaper. That’s how he got in.
“But what an American he was! He did the dirtiest, filthiest jobs to accumulate capital, and he made little patriotic souvenirs, little flags and ribbons, by hand at night. He had a Singer sewing machine that he bought at auction. It’s powered by a foot treadle. I still have it; I intend to show it to Hunter someday when he decides he’s overworked. Nobody worked harder than my grandpa. He’d make his little souvenirs and take them around to the parks or the beaches on Sunday. It was a way to make extra money, but it was always just Sunday out in the world for him, too. All the other immigrants loved this country as much as he did, so he always sold out.
“That was his break, that was his big idea. He took all the money he’d saved and opened a little sweat-shop on Kneeland Street. He made little souvenir flags and big flags for houses and flagpoles and enormous flags for statehouse lawns. He’d do any American flag, federal, state or municipal, and any historical American flag, but he never once made a flag from any other country, not even Greece. During the second World War he turned down a lot of money from the Canadians because he wouldn’t make their unit flags.
“Before the war he married my grandmother and my mother was born and the Great Depression came and nearly wiped him out, but he didn’t lay anyone off and he never missed a payroll. And every Sunday, rain or snow or shine, he’d go to a park or a beach or an historical site and push a little cart loaded with patriotic souvenirs.”
Her cheek was on his arm by now and he either liked it or didn’t care or hadn’t noticed, she didn’t know which. “And where in all this did you fit?”
He smiled warmly. “I grew up with him. My dad — we’ve barely even talked about him — my dad was a nuc in Rickover’s Navy. He was away all the time, so we lived in my grandfather’s townhouse in Bayview — I still live in that house. I went to Saint Timothy’s, right around the corner from the house, and I’d go to my grandpa’s factory up the block after school. I’d do my homework there or listen to my grandpa argue with the neighborhood merchants or we’d play chess together — completely unpredictable and he could kick my ass.
“Here’s the secret. My grandfather knew this old black Dominican who had a cigar shop on Harrison Avenue. You could buy tobacco in the leaf there, Havana-seed tobacco from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. But you could buy smuggled Havana leaf, too, if you proved you could be trusted. So my grandfather, a life-long anti-Communist, a dyed-in-the-woolen-underwear American patriot, defied the Cuban embargo so he could continue to roll his own Havana cigars. He never let me smoke one, because my mom would have killed him. But he taught me how to roll them, and I can still do it.”
He was smiling everywhere, just beaming. She said, “You loved him very much, didn’t you?” She regretted it at once.
Sadness dropped down on him like a curtain. “I miss him every day. Every day. Any time I need to see him, I can, though. I can see him laughing. Just wild and innocent and sweetly crude and gently rude and completely free in the shadows of the late-afternoon sun. Laughing from his throat like rocks in a barrel, laughing around a fat hand-made Cuban cigar…
“He used to take me with him, every Sunday, once I got to be about Hunter’s age. All week long he was a businessman. Not a big businessman, but quick and shrewd and clear-sighted and very decisive. On Sunday he was just a sweet old Greek with a push cart. Always had time to chat with old friends and new ones. More often than not it was my job to move the merchandise, because he was having too much fun just being out in the world. We didn’t need the money, it was just something he did. Something we did.
“We worked the Bicentennial together, and I’m glad we did because he… He died that winter. I was sixteen and too proud and then some, and it seemed like all spring and summer of 1976 he was rapping me on the back of the head and telling me not to be a horse’s ass. We’d go to Breed’s Hill or the Common or the Old North Church and all these ugly people in ugly summer clothes would show up and honor America by throwing tonic cans and gum wrappers at it. It offended me, particularly because my grandpa was the real glory of America and these corn-fed idiots just treated him like dirt.
“We worked The Esplanade on Independence Day that year, very big history-making day. Six-hundred-thousand drunken morons and The Boston Pops. And tall ships. And fireworks. We couldn’t push the cart, it was too crowded, so we just stayed where we were, selling stuff hand over fist. But I was in the blackest mood I’ve ever been in.
“My grandfather was the American dream, every page of that story. My father was a Captain in the U.S. Navy. I was a teenage physics god who was really going places. And these fat stupid beery people were treating my grandfather like an organ grinder and me like his monkey.
“There’s only so much you can say when a boy’s almost a man, right? My grandpa pursed his lips and let me stew. We shut everything down when The Pops started the 1812 and he pulled me tight to him. I was maybe four inches taller than him by then, but it didn’t matter, because he’ll always be bigger than me. It was loud, loud, loud and I knew he was trying to say something to me but I couldn’t hear him, I could just see the tears rolling down his cheeks.
“He grabbed me by the hair and pulled my ear down to his mouth. He said, ‘It’s not the people, it’s the idea. The idea makes the people great, as great as they want to be.’ And right then the cannons went off and the fireworks went off and the sky over the Charles was enflamed. And we stood there together crying, him for his America, and me for him…”3 comments
Today is our tenth wedding anniversary. Cathleen and I have been a couple since January, 1998, but we got legally, lawfully married on Independence Day in 2002. Our “our songs” are No Myth and Thunder Road, but there are some “my songs” that I think of often to remind myself of why I so much love being married to this woman.
That recording brings out the jazz in the song’s DNA, but no one, so far, has done a good job of finding the country song that’s in there, too.
I understand this all the way through me. I don’t always like being around other people, but when I do, the person I like to have near me most, most often, most enduringly is Cathleen.
So “Darling, be home soon.” I can’t think of a recording of this song I don’t like, but Derek Trucks just kills on the slide guitar at the end of this one.
And we close with John Hiatt expressing a mystery I understand very well:2 comments