“Whoa, where are we?,”my client, who we'll call D, exclaimed with a passionate mix of fear and excitement.
As we pedaled across Pulaski, an early Spring day's cloudless sky began to reveal the Bungalow. Logan Square's 'appeal to all' nature of brick two flats, greystones, vinyl sided multifamilies, and restored victorians bleached out into a conforming sea of the everyman's house. Some had stained glass, others a curved bay window. A few had protruding dormers. But they were all Chicago brick bungalows, the workingman's urban retreat. The sometimes Windy City is blessed with fenceless islands of these legendary contributors to America's claim as a housing oasis, where generations of immigrants have escaped cramped apartments and rudimentary shacks to obtain gardens and garages, finished basements and eat-in kitchens.
A hair north of Fullerton, and two blocks toward the Mississippi from Pulaski, beyond a frontier of still operating factories, one enters Hermosa, a pleasant change from the Parks and Squares that stumped the naming creativity of the city's neighborhood founders.
We had the code. In minutes D would get his first chance to see the ornate moldings and oak floors that still enchant most bungalows. He would understand why these simple homes, built like tanks for the proletariat, continue to prevent the suburban exodus of home craving urbanites.
The storm door was stuck. The bane of real estate professionals is keys. And doors. Entry is never as easy as one might expect. The other bane is the actual real estate professionals. As D perused a street void of wrought iron fencing, I frantically dialed the real estate office, but like all professional real estate offices handling lower priced properties, nobody answered. You receive a lockbox code for unoccupied properties. They are meant to help a real estate agent show a property that he or she may otherwise be unable to attend. But many lockbox realtors feel a Buyer is better escorted by an Agent who has never seen the property. So, in an effort to retain their title as the nation's most admirable profession, they reluctantly collect commissions from underwater sellers while other individuals do their contracted work.
In desperation, I began to knock at the windows, hoping, by chance, that the real estate office was so completely incompetent that they put a lockbox on the home of a resident who spends his Tuesday mornings in the living room. Realtor incompetence sometimes works in your favor.
An elderly man, his overpowering aftershave welcoming us, stood atop the concrete landing with a look of suspicious surprise, as I attempted to explain why two men were attempting to enter his castle.
He remained motionless behind the glass storm door. His thinning grey hair, long and straggly, was mobster grease combed. Polyester slacks rose above the naval, supporting one of those short sleeve button downs that hipsters find so amusing at thrift stores. His bushy gray mustache was not ironic. And those furry house slippers beckoned you to relax for awhile. But he was not beckoning.
“I'm from Captain Realty. We had an appointment at 11:30 to see your listing. The office gave me the lockbox combo. Here it is....”
Luckily he didn't see our no Cadillac bicycles, but my shaggy long hair was still casting doubt. He wouldn't open. I guess my client and I could have been those people from the evening news, that realtor and client impersonation team who go around stealing Tchotchkes and fake Andes mints from the plush carpeted homes of naïve immigrant homesellers. But we weren't. This was D's first bungalow. Please. He needs to understand.
I gave him a business card as if that 2 x 3 piece of low quality paper stock would validate my professional existence. I repeated the lockbox code, and the difficult to pronounce surname of his hardworking agent. His whiskers twinkled. The slippers rotated slightly. One more glance toward my client, whose friendly demeanor and close cropped hair sealed our fate. We were in.
Without introduction or an offering of the low quality Easter treats that sat longingly on his frilly lace covered dining room table, our reluctant host began his perfunctory tour.
“Have you made any repairs recently, or upgraded the mechanicals, like the plumbing or electric?”
“Everything new. Everything new,” he repeated in a thick eastern european accent.
“How about the roof?”
“You call office. Call the office.”
Hmmm. Why would the office know about his roof. “Excuse me, is this your home, or are you renting it?”
“You call the office. Call the office,” he brusquely repeated, as became his manner, in what was apparently broken, broken English.
Was this was some conspiratorial arrangement between the no-show agent and this character?
The heartless tour continued. “Here one bedroom, here one bedroom, here bathroom.” His penetrating glare put the fear of Pope John Paul into us, preventing even a cursory glance at the closets or the functioning capabilities of the shaded windows.
Maybe if I changed the topic away from the home, he would open up a bit. “So, where do you want to move when you leave here?”
“You call the office. Call the office.”
Two minutes hadn't passed before we were being rushed through the basement, finished but barren save a solitary plush chair that the old man utilized to study Lech Walesa's admonitions of those who traffic in real estate.
“Here one room. Here one room. Everything new. No junky. No junky.”
I thought I'd inspect the furnace room but Mark Twain's Polish doppelganger would have none of it.
“Outside. Come. I show you outside. Come. Outside, you come.”
Obedient German captives, we followed our captor. We climbed back through the steep basement stairs hidden behind a closet door. Our leader made a sharp right and we followed one step behind, his knockoff Old Spice drowning us in Grandfather. We stopped briefly in the leader's sunroom, a paneled conversion of his enclosed porch, where more beckoning chocolates peeped over the tops of coffee table crystal and Polish news beamed from the anachronistic flat screen television perched delicately on a cheap formica end table. D and I looked at the chocolates. Dear Leader gave us the GetOut look.
“Here outside. Have ga-rage. Have yard. No junky. Everything new. No junky.”
Indeed, it was a meticulous rear, his yard, already prepared for the Spring carrot and dill planting season. What was this man's story?
“Have you lived here for long?”
“Call the office. You must call the office.”
D did not seem comfortable. I couldn't resist another question.
“What is your opinion of the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners?”
“Call the office. You must call the office.”
He allowed us approximately twenty seconds to digest the exterior landscape. He pointed to the bungalow's flush tuckpointing. “New. Everything new. No junky. No junky. Come front home. You see front.”
For once, our host had us lead. He followed as closely as we had, as we led him along the home's concrete walkway. We opened the iron gate to the manicured front lawn. As we turned around to get a close look at the roofline and facade's tuckpointing, we noticed that our fragrant host had vanished. Sort of. He was on the other side of the gate, key in hand, deadbolting it. Before either of us could laugh, a shadow passed the bungalow's heavily draped bay window, and a click was heard, and then another. The shadow passed once more, never to be seen or heard from again.
I decided to call the office. It's what HE would want.
“Yeah, this is Seth from Captain Realty. We had an appointment to see your property at 11:30. You left the lockbox code but we couldn't get to it. The owner was home and very surprised to see us. And he did not seem happy.”
A woman in a heavily accented eastern european accent, representing an agent with a name like Jabberwocki, informed me that there must have been a mistake. “Sir, we calling this man and tell him you are come to see property.”
“Why do you keep a lockbox on a property where somebody resides? I don't want to get shot.”
“Sir, no, no is true. Nobody shoot you. We tell the man you are coming. Maybe he forget.”
“I don't think this man speaks English. But he is fond of your office.”
“Yes sir. Maybe this problem. Maybe no more having person speaking the English call seller man. We call him next time in language he speaking.”
The Few. The Proud. Realtors.