I want to say I am an expert on foreclosure—I feel an onus to provide a sturdy framework for what follows, to be more well-read on the subject than most—but even reviewing the titles of books chronicling the mortgage crisis and foreclosure is overwhelming. “The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Mortgage and Credit Markets: A Comprehensive Analysis of the Market Meltdown.” “The Foreclosure of America: The Inside Story of the Rise and Fall of Countrywide Home Loans, the Mortgage Crisis, and the Default of the American Dream.”
For the past couple of years, I have been helping my father maintain foreclosed homes throughout the northwest for a property management vendor contracted by mortgage lenders like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. My expertise is hands-on. But the only thing I know for sure is that foreclosure is damned laborious.
Entering a foreclosed home is usually straightforward enough—my father retrieves a key from the lockbox and opens the door—but sometimes, we must “break and enter.” It’s 2010, a mild day in June, and my father is wielding a giant screwdriver in one hand, a wrecking bar in the other, and breaking into a split-level home through a basement window (we couldn’t get in through the door).
“This damned window!” my father says, his whole body in a lunge.
To lighten his mood—this window is more stubborn than most—I regale him with my imaginary soap opera version of foreclosure, an absurd spin-off of the soaps my mother watched when I was a child. In “These Are the Days of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” Fannie and Freddie are unwed lovers sharing a mansion with marble floors, ornate chandeliers, gold-plated trim and baseboards. Fannie collects Fabergé eggs, gestures dramatically when she speaks. Freddie smells of Scotch, likes to gamble. In each episode, the couple hosts a party for Wall Street bigwigs “in their ballroom the size of this split- level,” I tell my father. When discussions of foreclosure arise, Fannie and Freddie are nonchalant. “Let them stay at the Hilton,” they say, seemingly oblivious to the personal hardships of those whose homes they’ve repossessed.
“Commercial breaks are for home loans,” my father adds.The camouflage-print bandana he has tied around his bald head is saturated with sweat.
“Realize your dreams through home ownership,” I say.
But reality ensues in homes like this one, and it rarely matches those dreams. Upon notice of eviction, men and women wander through bedrooms and living rooms and kitchens, hurriedly packing what they can of their belongings.
“Lights flicker; televisions turn to static,” I explain.
“Power service disconnect,” my father says.
I’m peering over my shoulder, hoping nosy neighbors won’t mistake my father for a burglar and me for his accomplice. Or, what if the former residents of this home happen to return for something they forgot?
The latch snaps.
My father crawls through the window, and I prepare the camera, waiting for him to open the front door.
What we do is called “initial services”: securing the property, completing the “trash-out” (removing what remains in the home), performing the maid service and miscellaneous seasonal maintenance, and inspecting for damages (sometimes homeowners flood or burn their homes in an act of defiance). For three days, we’ll become surrogate-residents of the split-level. The photographs we’ll take before we begin our labor, as well as during and after, will prove to the lenders its transformation.
“The photographs have to tell a story,” my father reminds me. “Shoot the address outside. … then the entry way from the front door … the living room … every room … from different angles.”
He demonstrates, and I follow him, snapping the photographs in stride.
“And get lots of the trash!”
I photograph the messes we’ve been wading through, and I open drawers, cupboards and closets, photographing what’s inside them.
The “before” photographs document the story of a homeowner’s departure. Some take with them as much as they can: I’ve photographed ceilings with wires hanging down like frayed nerves from holes where light fixtures were and walls with gouges the size of a man’s chest where bathtubs once concealed networks of pipes.
We decide a family of four or more lived in the split-level, and they took only what could be hauled in armloads. The suitcases are gone, but we find clothes hanging to dry from the shower rod, a couch, bookshelves lined with books and photo albums, children’s drawings taped to the fridge and moldy TV dinners filling the shelves inside the freezer.
In this line of work, most everything becomes trash. We measure the amount in cubic yardage:The washing machine in the garage is 1 cubic yard, and the projection television anchoring the living room is probably 1.5.
The more trash we remove, the more we get paid. But our pay isn’t anything to brag about once we’ve subtracted the costs: fuel, U-Haul rentals, dump fees, our nights at Motel 6, general wear and tear on the pickup—not to mention upon us. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure why we keep doing what we do.
We’ll remove two 17-foot U-Hauls’ worth of trash from the split-level. We’ll photograph ourselves lifting 68 cubic yards—approximately 3.75 tons—into the truck by hand, and then we’ll take photographs again as we unload it, some of it at local charities, the rest at the dump, where we’ll turn heads, tossing contractor bag after contractor bag over the edge as fast as we can grab hold and let go, and heaving the furniture the charities turned away. It’s probably frowned upon to keep things for ourselves, but I’ll stuff in my pocket a letter a mother wrote to her daughter and a child’s drawing of a bird, imagining my creation of a Web site called “Foreclosure’s Lost & Found.”
We’ll return to the split-level to photograph our performance of the maid service and to check for any trash we might have neglected to remove before. Every property must be as empty and as spotless—inside and outside—as humanly possible before we take the “after” photographs. The real Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are picky: no footprints across the floor, not a hair in the sink, not a streak on a windowpane or mirror, not a trace of ash on the sidewalk, where one of us might have stamped out a cigarette.
“We’ve got to get this damned thing out the door!” my father says.
He’s hunched against the upper half of the split-level’s staircase, bracing the projection television against his back—a Levi’s-clad Atlas holding up the world.
I’m squatting above him, gripping the bottom corners of the monstrosity, hoping the slip-grip on my gloves won’t give. Together, we weigh less than the television—it’s at least 300 pounds. If gravity wins, if we let go, it will crash down the stairs, taking us along.
Two days ago, when we unloaded furniture at The Salvation Army, the delivery driver said he’d pick up the television but his insurance “doesn’t cover stairs.” So for two days, we have pretended the television wasn’t here.
You’d think that after lifting 3.75 tons (twice), moving a television would be child’s play, but the thing’s sheer magnitude—its potential to project life-sized cinema upon its screen, to frame our reflections in full—lends it substantial animus, as though it were purposefully resisting our efforts to bring this trash-out to a close.
“Don’t try this at home,” I joke. I support the television with a knee. I grip it with all my strength.
Memories of my own childhood home, of my once-whole family, are framed by a flashing television screen.
In a video labeled “Christmas Eve at Home, 1987,” my older sister Tyrah and I tear open presents in the living room as my mother spins the knob on the stereo, searching for a station without static. When my father hands her the camcorder, she films Tyrah holding up a boxed Barbie’s Dream House, its cross-section glossy, its walls colorful, every room filled with furniture. “Daddy will have to put that together,” my mother says and then turns her attention to me and the china doll I’m unwrapping. “She’ll get broken,” she warns. “Don’t take her out of the box.”
How am I supposed to play with a doll I can’t touch?
My parents hand off the camera again, and my father films my mother as she slides tiny earring-backs onto earrings he bought her: diamonds surrounded by deep red gems. He zooms in on her ear, and she tucks her soft blonde hair out of the way.
“They do something in the light,” he says.
My mother films my father in his new summer blazer, and he insists it fits him just right. “Everyone gather around Mommy,” my father says.
Tyrah and I cozy up to her as our father rests the camcorder on the coffee table and enters the portrait he’s staged. “Smile,” he says, and we do.
The footage is suspect.
I can guide that VHS tape into my VCR, push play, and I’m inside that home, inside that portrait again, but not long after that Christmas, off-screen, my father told me it was over—that he and my mother were getting divorced, that all I once thought to be wound so tightly had come undone. He sat on the steps of the front porch in a T-shirt and cutoff Levi’s shorts, his bare feet planted on the bottom step, our two-story country home rising behind him, its windows placed like eyes. A cigarette dangled from one hand as he gestured with the other, trying to explain what had happened. I sat beside him, wondering what it would mean to hold fire in my hands as he did, what would become of the little girl I knew myself to be within the home behind me (a home I wouldn’t be able to call my own much longer) when the flame he was holding burned out.
The corners of the television pinch my palms.
“Screw Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac!” I say. “Let’s just leave the damned thing here:
‘Spacious split-level with complimentary television.’”
“We’ve gotten it this far,” my father says through a half-laugh.
I ease down a step, letting the television slide toward him.
By a haphazard method involving a nearly empty five-gallon bucket of paint and a block of wood—items we forgot to haul to the dump—and our own sheer will, we manage to get the television down the stairs. We alternate resting it on the bucket, then on the block of wood, moving it stair by stair until it lands on the floor of the entryway with a thud.
“Will it fit through the door?” I ask as if I’ve forgotten what we’ve already maneuvered through this door and so many others.
“I’ll unhinge the damned door if I have to!”
But we’re able to tilt the television, turn it and guide it, at last, over the doormat my father put down over the threshold.
If my father isn’t Atlas, he’s MacGyver, I decide: We’re making do.
My childhood home stood in the mouth of a canyon in the outskirts of Ellensburg,Wash., a small town in the center of the state—the “Heart of Washington” according to the local newspaper.The quarter-section of land where it stood can be traced in title transfers back to the 1800s, to the popularity of Manifest Destiny, to the roots of home ownership as a coveted characteristic of the American Dream.The earliest available record indicates that the U.S.Transcontinental Railroad sold the land to Byron and Stella Chisholm in 1894.Three years later, the Chisholms sold the land to a mortgage company. Information on the heads of the mortgage company is scarce. According to newspaper archives, there was a lawsuit (decided in their favor) about a racetrack near the river, and one of the two heads of the company was noted for hosting a euchre party at his home—I imagine poker instead, cigars and Scotch. Maybe I am just a cynic, but other records seem to indicate that the pair’s business practices weren’t entirely scrupulous. At one point, for example, they attempted to use their mortgage company to pay off unrelated debts in the Sandwich Islands. Does this behavior suggest a 19th-century prelude to 21st-century predatory lending as I’ve interpreted it? The scenario seems fitting, if not entirely accurate.
The mortgage company eventually sold the land in 1911—fair and square, as far as I can tell—to Francis M. Standley. According to a penciled note on one of the home’s original boards, and from what I’ve been able to learn, dizzying myself reading microfiche, the home must have been built by Standley in 1912—back when homes didn’t have foundations, when insulation was made of newspaper scraps, if there was any insulation at all. My father says Standley might have ordered the home from a Sears’ catalogue. Sears’ Model No. 115 (1908-1914), a six-room Modern Cottage “with wood foundation, not excavated,” bears a close resemblance.
My family enters the scene in 1928—specifically, my grandfather’s second cousin, Lily (Dunning) Pope, and her husband, Gil Pope. The Popes owned the home and raised sheep on the surrounding acreage for the following 45 years until Gil died of cancer. My grandfather had been close to the Popes for much of his life; having no children of their own, they considered him a son. Lily sold the property to him and my grandmother after Gil’s death in 1971, and they rented it to friends and family until my parents bought it in 1980, the year Tyrah was born and two years before I entered the scene.
Lily’s estate sale drew hundreds of buyers.The headline for the article published in the local newspaper described the sale this way: “It was a great day for an auction—with bargains galore, and you name the price.” Lily described the event differently in her journal: “This is a day I will never forget as long as I live, and I never want to go through it again.” She stares out from a small photograph in the article, her lips slightly pursed, a cap covering her short white hair, wrinkles running deep around her eyes.
Lily relocated to a mobile home set in a field bordering the home where my grandparents lived, a few miles down the road from “the home place.” She recorded the coordinates of her “tin can,” as she called the mobile home, in the same journal where she recorded the serial numbers of her pistols and rifles, and the births and deaths of her animals. According to the newspaper article, the mobile home “had less than enough room for all her possessions”; she took her horses and dogs “and every fine piece of furniture she could fit.”
Tyrah and I slept in beds that Lily left behind.
During the first few years of my childhood, the home still had no insulation, no foundation—it couldn’t hold the heat. My father woke late one winter night, tiptoed past our bedrooms and checked the indoor thermometer downstairs, which read 39 degrees, even with the woodstove loaded and hot.The next morning, he cut a pillow-sized hole in the floor beside the chimney so that heat would drift directly upstairs where everyone slept.
I remember lying near the metal grate he set there, staring through to the floor below, being told I’d fall through if I wasn’t careful, and I remember the makeshift steps that led up to the front door when the house was lifted so the foundation could be poured.
By the time of “Christmas Eve at Home, 1987,” the house had been set back down, and the interior remodels were in progress. It’s possible to see a large piece of plywood masking a hole in the wall where my father removed the original fireplace—the plywood decorated by pages torn from a coloring book. Insulation is exposed where other sections of wall have yet to be replaced. The doors and windows are new, and plastic covers the lampshades of shiny brass lamps atop matching oak end tables on either side of our new blue shell-backed couch.
The living room of my home today is a partial replica of that one: Those end tables and that couch have followed me into the present. But, here, on this side of the television screen, I am a spectator; I can no longer believe there is a foundation beneath me that holds everything in place.
The deed to my childhood home went back to my grandparents after my parents divorced. Friends of the family rented the home until my cousin and his wife bought it recently. But its floors had sloped, and its ceilings were bowed.
“I guess you can’t lift up a whole home and expect things not to shift when it’s set back down,” my father said.
It wasn’t long before my cousin and his wife and two young children moved into a new home they built not 20 feet behind the old one, which still stood there, like a grand addition missing only a connective hallway.
My cousin’s decision to demolish my childhood home shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it did. When he broke the news, he said he wished there were other options. He said he thought about moving the home to the nearest field instead, but he didn’t think it would survive.
“You’d have to tie it up to keep it from falling apart,” was my father’s take.
I wanted to believe my father could do it if anyone could, that opening the walls of that home all those years ago—and seeing how they fit together—had been practice for just such a feat. I imagined it wrapped and ribboned, like Barbie’s Dream House or Sears’ Model No. 115, sliding heavy into the field.
Almost 100 years after that home was first assembled, it was torn down—Jan. 16th, 2010. I rented a camcorder to document the event.
When I entered the living room early that morning, camcorder in hand, I half- heartedly hoped I’d encounter traces of “Christmas Eve at Home, 1987”: Barbie’s Dream House on the floor, perhaps, its rooms filled with furniture, scraps of wrapping paper insulating its cardboard walls. The light was too low, however, to register anything other than the beam of my flashlight, clouded by breath.
Tyrah and I stood in the snow, catching windows our father pried loose, my cousin’s oldest son peering curiously through the front window of his home behind us.
Throughout the day, we loaded the back of my car with bricks, boards, banister rails—all of which weighted it in the months of snow that followed.
I filmed Tyrah removing a layer of wood paneling on the bathroom wall that covered the wallpaper which, she reminded me, had mesmerized us as children. As we’d bathed, as we’d brushed our teeth, as our mother had combed and braided our hair, we’d projected our family onto the figures framed in its black-and-white antique newsprint advertisements for remedies and hygiene products.
“The bald man in the ad for Dr. Scott’s Electric Hair Brush—$1—was our bald father,”Tyrah said, pointing to him.
Our mother was the beauty in profile for Procter & Gamble’s Vegetable Glycerin, who wore a floppy-looking hat, which resembled the one our mother wore when she gardened. Lily was the woman in the rocker, reading a book in the advertisement for The Electropoise Company
“She was reading us a story,” I remembered.
Gil was the mustached man in profile for Cuticura Remedies, advertising the specific cure for “humors of the blood and skin.”Tyrah and I were the young girl standing on a rock at the water’s edge in John Collier’s “Water Baby” painting (appropriated by Pears Soap). I studied that figure closely as I tried to peel her off the wall.
“I always thought the light shining on the rock behind her was a pair of wings,” I said.
When she tore in half, I told my father to take the whole wall.
He started his chainsaw.
My mother had called at 3 a.m., sleepless, asking us to save a door for her—with the hinges. We didn’t ask why she wanted a door, where she might display it. We figured she just wanted closure and believed a door might suffice.
We took every door.
I’d wanted this event to make the local newspaper as Lily’s estate sale had—“Historic Home Demolished”—but it was to be strictly a family affair.
My father performed half the demolition. I stood inside the living room and filmed him through a jagged frame of splintered boards where a wall used to be, and Tyrah snapped photographs from every possible angle. Without a mask to protect him from the insulation spilling from the walls and filling the air like static, our father worked the excavator with both hands, both feet, pulling at the layers of our home, shaking the floor beneath us, reaching further, not yet telling us to get out.
I remembered “Christmas Eve at Home, 1987” and my mother’s warning: “Leave the doll in her box,” she’d said. She’d kept the plastic on the lampshades, too—as if she’d somehow sensed this was coming.
“Not many people get to stand inside a home while it’s demolished,”Tyrah shouted over the clamor of the excavator.
“It feels like an earthquake.” I zoomed in and out on the scene, imagining the footage as a continuation of the scene my parents had filmed, the cinematic equivalent of double exposure—two disparate scenes framed as one by a fluke of light.
The debris from the demolition didn’t fit into the hole my cousin dug the day before for its burial. He drenched the mangled heap with gasoline and lit it with a torch. My father carefully nudged the trail of debris into the hole as it burned—the excavator’s arm an extension of his own.
In the photograph my father took of Tyrah and me later that evening, we stand four feet apart, facing each other. We are hinged at our hips, our arms forming a roof above our heads, our hands palm to palm—an apex. We make the shape of a home with our own once-home ablaze behind us.Tyrah took a photograph of our father standing 10 feet from the fire, his back to the camera, his arms straight above his head. He is a beam, a candle—the flames alive and leaping high above his fingertips. What shape would my mother have made if she’d been there, beside him?
Rocks exploded somewhere deep within the burning debris.The sound echoed against the hillside like gunfire.
I told Tyrah that Lily was shooting all her pistols and rifles from beyond the grave— whether in commemoration or defense of her property I refused to decide.
My father spoke eloquently when I asked how it felt to tear down what he and my mother had worked so hard, all those years, to prevent from falling apart: “I could see the old and what we once considered was the new; the layers blended together as time rushed through it once more.”
And I wonder, as I study the remains of the bathroom wall hanging above my television today, if what has become of my childhood home had been written on that wall all along, as we bathed, as we brushed our teeth, as all that water rushed from unseen places in the walls and swirled down drains behind the figures whose faces Tyrah and I pretended were ours, and we just didn’t know how to read it yet. There is no remedy for the passage of time—no magical hairbrushes, no jars of vegetable glycerin, no bars of soap, no
turns of the faucet. Not unlike the pages of the newspaper my father crumpled nightly, whatever we didn’t cut out of this home was destined to be reduced to ash eventually.
There we had stood, warmed by the flames, their reflections, like our own, flashing upon wet mud.
The Salvation Army truck arrives as my father and I roll the giant television down the sidewalk.The truck is a hefty white steed branded with a large red badge I initially see as a heart.The driver backs the truck in front of the garage. He nods hello to us as he walks around to open the trailer, his jeans baggy, cuffs frayed from dragging upon the ground. My father helps him strap the television to a dolly. Once the television is inside, my father releases his grip. The driver straps it to a bar lining the trailer’s wall, steps down, nods goodbye.
I pull a cigarette from my pack, hand it to my father and pull out another for myself.
If only the loss of home could be measured this way, I think—in washing machines and televisions. If only there was a message of condolence which could do that loss justice and a fleet of baggy-jeaned angels who could haul it away on a big white steed branded with a heart.
I wish foreclosure was just an absurd soap opera—that one could change the channel—and if there is a dream to be realized through home ownership, I wish that such a dream’s realization could prove to be as good as the dream itself. I know my father is thinking this, too, as he watches The Salvation Army truck merge onto the street and takes off his gloves.
From foreclosed homes, we’ve removed books like “So You Want a Divorce” and “Understanding Human Behavior” and “Reader’s Digest Practical Problem Solver.” Perhaps the abandonment of these books tells the same story as the books chronicling the mortgage crisis and foreclosure have told:The loss of a home, as I’ve come to know it, is, indeed, a default, a meltdown, a fall. But is there a way to analyze comprehensively the so-called trash my father and I have hauled away from foreclosures or the human behaviors and foibles that might instigate the loss of a home—no matter the circumstances of that loss?
As a child, I believed my home was braced and battened, strong enough to shield me from all calamities. What book could have soothed me when that belief was shaken? What book might my father have read, all those years ago, to explain what would happen once we left? And what words might bring me solace now? That place is gone. Who am I without it?
We couldn’t endure this labor if we weren’t once-removed from the heartbreak. I don’t think we could even feign the strength required to overhear some other father tell his daughter that he isn’t really Atlas or MacGyver; that he can’t hold her home, her world— his dream for her—together anymore; and that he can’t save the day with the tools beneath the canopy of his pickup.
I take the photographs of our labor with artistic intent. I zoom in as my father muscles appliances and televisions into U-Hauls. I zoom in upon his calloused hands gripping contractor bags, wiping windowpanes and mirrors, placing new keys into lockboxes— evidence of a supposed transformation. I suspect the people reviewing these photographs for Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, hundreds of miles away from where we labor, won’t think twice about their quality, let alone about the deeper story I want the photographs to tell—the story of a dream’s inadequacies, so often taken out with the trash.
Once we’ve taken the “after” photographs, secured the split-level and loaded our equipment beneath the canopy, we climb into my father’s pickup, and he types the address of the Motel 6 near tomorrow’s foreclosure into his GPS with an un-clicked pen.
“I hope our friend Tom Bodett forgot to turn off the light again,” he jokes. “Proceed to the nearest road,” the GPS says.
My father shifts the pickup into gear, and I realize this must be why we keep doing what we do: We could be at any address on any road, and these homes we drive away from—and the stories of those who once lived in them—both are and are not our own. This business of foreclosure has become a business for closure.
But into how many homes must I watch my father break and enter? Onto how many of foreclosure’s forgotten television screens must I project my own memories of loss before I am able to stop the loop, push eject? No matter how I frame them, won’t all renderings of that place I once called home eventually turn to static?