We’re All Crazy.
It happens with nearly every introduction. The person that wants me to meet their prospective buyer or seller says, “Scott, I want to warn you, my (friend, colleague, sister, acquaintence) is crazy.” Let’s face it- Crazy is par for the course in New York. You have to be a little delusional or nutty to even take a shot at New York, even more so to stick around. It’s not a specific lyric in the Sinatra tune, but maybe it’s implied in the “city that never sleeps” verse. If you plug into the energy of this amazing place, you’re forever bound to it, and it may drive you batty, too.
When Kenny* let me into his apartment, perhaps it was my total, utterly blase attitude that appealed to him and won me the listing to sell his home. On that first visit, though, I was hardly keeping myself together, staring into the accumulated piles of, well, everything. Hoarding Disorder is how it is named in the DSM-5, psychiatry’s bible. Surely, Kenny had become blind to his things, but I couldn’t look away.
Five decades early, Kenny was a young man from flyover country who moved to New York to pursue a music career. He showed me photos of the Frankie Valli wannabe he once was, hair slicked back, sitting at a piano, a vision of some kind of pop stardom that never came. That life of singing in clubs had morphed into giving piano lessons and working in the back rooms of the recording business. Every physical item of that life remained, though, stuffed into the backs of closets along with old suits. In his living room, shoved behind shoji screens, were stacks of boxes, piles of plastic bags. Two generations before Kenny was around, artisans had built the Upper West Side. Artists like him moved in to sustain it during its dark days of the 1960’s and 1970’s. This was a time capsule, overfilled.
Long ago, Kenny had saved his money to buy the apartment when it converted into a cooperative in the 1980’s. To pay his monthly building expenses now, he had to bring in foreign students as boarders. The rental price was low enough to attract those who didn’t mind the peeling paint that flaked off every wall, to ignore the water-damaged bathroom. His other roommates were freeloaders who hadn’t taken a single shower- they were the boxes and detritus.
The kitchen had old washed-out spaghetti jars and hundreds, if not thousands, of plastic shopping bags, stuffed into grimy nooks and behind steam pipes. Its walls were lined with old pegboard full of holes, where he hung spice racks, coffee mugs, and every conceivable knick knack. I found ancient cans of beans in the pantry and cinnamon from 1985, spices separated from the meaning of their name, their potency no more. Lifeless and tasteless. There was a maid’s half bathroom in the kitchen, its toilet removed to make room for storage. Neil Young himself had once crooned, “A man needs a maid;” this apartment desperately longed for one. The sun choked through windows caked in grime.
I would work with Kenny over a period of weeks to let more life into the apartment. Thus began the arduous process of “preparing” the apartment for market, which I put in quotes because I was hardly successful. I begged him to spend five thousand dollars to move items into storage while we showed his apartment for sale. I even offered to advance him the money. Kenny may have finally said yes to me out of some kindness, but on the morning the movers got to the door to tote away his rooms of neatly packed garbage, and box up everything else which was not-so-neatly organized, he turned them away. I had told Kenny that having the apartment cleaned out would have earned him an extra one hundred thousand dollars in the final sale price. Clearly, an illness prevailed on this desiccated little man, and would eventually detract from his bottom line.
It took six months, but we eventually sold the apartment. It took every ounce of salesmanship I had myself hoarded over the years. As the closing day approached, the last phase of our process kicked off. Kenny and his things had to actually vacate the apartment. Would he throw anything away before the movers actually walked through that front door?
The day before the move, I warned the moving company with echoes of the movie Jaws. Instead of “I think we need a bigger boat,” it was I think you need more boxes than you realize. Kenny called me the next day to apologize. “Scott, you were right, I didn’t have it in me to do the job.”
The men on the truck had run out of boxes; the apartment still needed serious attention to be emptied of all its things. I engaged the superintendent, his staff, my assistant at the time, and his two friends. Working for an entire day, they separated the recyclables into clear bags, and the garbage into dark bags. Two days later, the apartment was finally where it needed to be for the closing.
The buyers strolled through the empty apartment. They could see the vestiges of an earlier time, the details that must have inspired Kenny to move in all those years ago. The apartment was ready for them, but were they ready to take on a full renovation? I had to wonder: who was crazier? Kenny, or the people who bought the apartment?
I’m working on No Small Moves, a book about the transformational power of real estate. Selling real estate is about much more than brick and mortar. Subscribe here to read more of my stories, and click here to get updates on my podcast, Finding Home, or my Real Estate Newsletter.
*Kenny isn’t his real name.