Van Chronicles – Chapter 11

House on the hill, money in the bank, cars in the driveway, gym out the back door

It’s not every day one of my dreams gets to come true. And this was a big one.

My longtime dream of heading west had pivoted itself a bit to the south over the years. I had my eye on sunny California. All that ocean and the sandy beaches. In one of those angst moments in my early twenties, wondering what was to become of my life, a bunch of friends were playing that parlor game popular among angsty twentysomethings who sense a certain lack of direction in their lives. The game is always “If you had your choice, and money was no object, what would you do? What would make you happy to do? And just assume you’ll get paid scads of money for doing it.” I closed my eyes and a picture came to mind of me lying on a beach in sunny California, sipping something nice and cool, with a little umbrella in it maybe, reading a book. Now this was a job I could handle. I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to get this job, but it seemed that a requisite first step was getting myself to California. Definitely west, in a southerly direction.

That we were moving to New England on the East Coast of the United States was just a glitch in the proceedings. The East Coast was a requirement for Dennis’s work. The business of insurance and reinsurance is cloistered in the east and if you’re an actuary, this is where you ply your trade. So it was first things first – we’d get the heading south part done, and we’d worry about west later. The important thing was to get across the border. There was some consolation in that the East Coast had beaches too. Not that that mattered much. With a three-and-a-half year-old and an eighteen-month-old in tow, there weren’t a lot of squares marked on the calendar as “read at the beach” days.

NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) is what got us across the border – it was a scheme the governments of Canada, Mexico, and United States came up with under the name of free trade that among other things siphoned some talent from Canada. It seems the United States was short of, among other things, mathematicians…and if the shoe fits, it’s time to go walking. Not that I can add three figures together without a pencil and paper handy so I can carry over to the tens column, but Dennis could. The rest of us just tagged along. Fortunately there was no math test at the border and they waved us through, happy enough to have us on their side. Next stop: Connecticut.

We had lucked into a grand scheme. In 1990, the housing market in both countries was in dive mode. When the news came that Dennis had secured himself a job in Connecticut, we put our Toronto house on the market. And it sat there. It was a lovely house, built in the 1930s and oozed charm, if you liked oak wainscoting and beveled glass windows, and didn’t mind that it leaned a little bit. The house was in a ravine, which is fine, but unfortunately, it had been built originally in the days when a small river had flowed deep beneath it. When the river still flowed, one assumes the houses on our side of the street stood tall with no Leaning Tower of Pisa attributes. But when the riverbed dried up, there was a bit of a crumbling effect and the older homes began to list. Ours listed rather dramatically into the house next door and settled there years before we moved in. But it was a nice house – even the wildlife liked it. There were gaping holes in the roof where our chimney commingled with our neighbor’s. One day I was sitting on the toilet and I looked up to see a squirrel’s paw poking its way through the vent directly above the commode. I guess he was checking out the conditions on the floor below his main digs, seeing if he wanted to upgrade his living quarters.

He was about the only one who expressed any interest in moving in. A house that was sharing space with its next-door neighbor apparently wasn’t quite the catch it was when we moved in at the height of the house-buying frenzy. It didn’t help that our neighbor on the non-leaning side decided that she needed a change of pace in her life and put her house up for sale a month after we listed ours. We were sunk. Right down to the bottom of the ravine.

Fortunately, a young couple took pity on us – not a lot of pity, mind you – and offered to buy the place at a rock bottom price, with a few restrictions, the first being considerably less money than we’d hoped to get for it and second, we’d come and mow their lawn for the first year. Or at least the economic equivalent. Instead of taking out a mortgage with their bank at astronomical interest rates, we became their bank, and our equity in the house became their playing field.

So when we headed south, we had nothing but the shirts on our backs and interest in a home for squirrels. But we had our furniture, and that was the key to the grand scheme we lucked into. The housing market was just as bad in the States and a lot of homes were sitting empty, including those belonging to senior executives at megacorps. General Electric had its head office in Fairfield, Connecticut, and it had a fair bit of residential property sitting on its books, a portfolio that grew larger every time it decided to transfer one of its executives to a branch in Chicago or Detroit. The executive couldn’t sell his home here in order to buy a new home there, but GE needed him there. The only thing for it was for GE to buy up the house here and hand over the cash to the upwardly moving executive.

What to do with all that real estate that wouldn’t sell? Only in America would someone come up with the answer to fill the void. GE and their confreres in the corporate world would hire a company like Show Homes of America to find inhabitants for all these empty homes across the country. The idea was that Show Homes would find people to live in these empty houses, fill them up with furniture, and that would make the house more inviting and, theoretically, easier to sell.

Someone put us on to Show Homes, who it turned out were less interested in us and considerably more interested in our furniture. We took photos of our furniture and sent them off to the person there in charge of interviewing furniture. Now, I don’t want to cast any aspersions on our furniture, because, really, it was all just fine, but it was fine in a hodge-podge sort of way, from hand-me-downs to department store floor models sold on the cheap. There was nothing remotely show-home about it. But take the pictures we did, and off they went by courier for the big interview, and somehow, they did us proud and they got the job. We were moving into a house that was vacated months earlier by an executive who’d been transferred to Kalamazoo.

to be continued…

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