Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Empty Houses

During the height of the Great Recession American streets were littered with foreclosed homes. I used to work as a realtor doing contract work for banks. I spent a lot of my time in empty houses. Sometimes the houses weren’t empty.

Realtors often shared stories about squatters with each other. It was fairly common for one of us to enter a house and find signs that someone had been living there illegally. Usually these were attention adverse vagrants who would flee at the first sign of being spotted, but not always.

In 2009, I was showing a house in a new subdivision in which development had begun with gusto but burnt out soon after. The area was half developed, a few cleared but vacant lots, a handful of built houses, and the rest of the land reclaimed by trees that had been there longer than the town. Of the handful of houses that had been sold in the development, one had been foreclosed upon. I was contracted for this house.

Upon entering the house I noticed that a back window was half open. When I walked up the stairs to the second floor, I smelled human excrement and saw the common detritus that accompanied squatters wherever they stayed. Before I left the house, I closed and locked the back window and made a mental note to bring a garbage bag the next time I came, so I could throw out all the squatter’s things and the accumulated trash.

As I was leaving the development, I noticed one of the few people actually living on the block sitting on the front porch of his house and I stopped to speak with him.

He was a big man, tall and wide. He wore jeans and a plaid shirt, untucked, and boots with untied laces. He looked at me suspiciously.
 I explained to him who I was and what I was doing. I told him about seeing the squatters' stuff, and he said that he had noticed someone walking in the neighborhood at night sometimes. He didn't think it was one of the three or four other people living in the development, but he couldn’t give a good description of the person. He said the person wasn’t doing anything illegal, just walking around, so he hadn't bother calling the police. He explained, as if I might not be aware, that a lot of people were having a tough time and that he didn't see the point in heaping any more trouble on to those already sinking in it.

I made some noncommittal grunts and then asked the man to call the police if he saw the squatter again. The man acted like he didn't like the idea, and said he didn't see any point in hassling people who weren't causing any real trouble, but I insisted and finally the man agreed.

I gave the man my card and asked that after he called the police that he call me, too. He said he would.

As I began to walk away, the man stopped me. He asked if I ever feared for my safety being a woman all alone in these empty houses. I said that sometimes I did. He said it made sense.

A few nights later, I was at home with my family and I received a call on my cellphone. I answered and it was the man that I had given my card to. He said that he had seen a person walking around and that he saw them head toward the back on the house I was trying to sell.

I asked if he called the police and he said he had. I was halfway out the door before I remembered to grab a trash bag, thinking that if I was heading to the house again I might as well clean up the squatter's mess while I was there. So, off I went into the dead of night to check on the house.

I drove the half hour to the development, but when I arrived, I didn't see any cop cars. I thought that maybe the police had come and gone by the time I arrived. I headed into the house.

I entered the house and walked around. I saw the back window that I had closed and locked on my previous visit was now broken and open.

I sighed and was thinking about the hassle of replacing the window when I heard a noise from the front of the house. I turned and let out a small scream. Standing in the doorway, tall and wide, was the man I had spoken with on my last visit. He smiled and I let out a relieved laugh.

I told the man that he was right about the squatter having come back. The man agreed and moved into the house.

I opened the garbage bag I had brought and began to pick up the various trash and personal items left by the squatter: empty food wrappers, a gallon of water, bedding material, and a cellphone. I threw it all in the trash.

Don't do that, the man said to my surprise. I looked up and saw he was standing closer. I looked at him quizzically. The man frowned at me and said the things weren't mine to throw away. I told him that this wasn't the squatter’s house and that the squatter shouldn't be made to feel welcome here, or I would never be able to sell the place. I asked the man, didn't he want me to sell the house? I told him how it would help his properties value.

For some reason that set the man off and he began to rant at me about how it was wrong to take what little a person like the squatter had away. Couldn’t I see that enough had already been taken from the person?

I began to get afraid, so I told the man that I had to get home to super and would finish cleaning up later. I left the trash bag in the middle of the floor and I asked the man to leave so that I can lock up.

I was afraid for a moment that he wasn’t going to leave. He stared at me and made no sign of moving. Then he turned around and left the house.

I stood on the front porch with the man. I thanked him for calling the police and for calling me. He replied that he didn't call the police. I was confused and explained that someone called saying that they had called the police after seeing the squatter and that I assumed it was him. He said that he did call me, but that he never called the police. I was still confused, but the man was giving me the creeps, so I said goodbye and left.

As I drove away I watched my rear-view mirror. I watched the man as he watched me drive away. He was standing in the front yard of the home I was trying to sell as if it was his. I watched as he turned and headed back behind the same house.

I stopped my car in the middle of the road, there would be no traffic, and waited for the man to emerge from behind the house. I sat there for nearly an hour waiting. He never emerged.

The next day I went to work and did a little investigating. I wanted to know more about that strange man. I remembered the address of the house in which I assumed he was living, the one on which front porch he had been sitting. I looked up the ownership records, so that I could get the man’s name. To my surprise the house wasn’t sold. It was banked owned and supposedly vacant.

By D.K. (Alone at Night)

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