"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s a terrible thing to come to terms with, but I am the reason the world is in an economic tailspin. Me, alone. All those foreclosures, short sales, bank failures, job losses, bailouts, plummeting stocks, the ripple effect into Europe, China, even Madoff: all my fault. Moi. That last house I sold at 253 Carrington Way? That was the tipping point, I’m convinced. I sold it for $657,500 in August 2005, and now Zillow is damning it at $537,000. I would weep to call the owners now and say, hey, want a market analysis? Sound like fun? I know, you’d rather shove shards of glass under your fingernails, I hear you.
In any case, I’m your neighborhood real estate agent, and I’m really, really sorry.
And to think it all began so innocently. Nine years ago, back in the early aughts, it felt like the right thing to do, getting that real estate license. Laid off from three (count ‘em, three) publishing jobs, I was looking for a job I couldn’t lose. I asked a couple of real-estate friends what they thought about their job security.
”Do they lay off real estate agents?” I asked.
There was a stifled guffaw. “You could murder a couple people, but if you had some good listings in the bag, you’re probably fine.”
It was between a real estate license ($200) and an MBA ($65,000). I did the math and, boom, I was a real estate agent.
Those early years were insane. I hit the ground running, holding on for dear life to a market taking off like a jet plane. You could send out a mailing — or an ad, or a flier, possibly just a phone number — and get 20 calls on it. My phone would not stop ringing. Countless e-mails burned my eyes night and day. People were crazed for houses, lusting after them, bidding up and up and up, clawing at each other just to get the house. It was a frenzy of nesting, a compulsion to cocoon, to own no matter what. Houses were hoarded like porn, lunged and pawed at like food dropped into villages at wartime.
And we as real estate agents were, what? Mindless spokes and wheels in a transaction? Pawns in some mad game? Satan’s evil linchpins? The instigators of the world’s demise? I’m still not sure. Regardless, we drove around like maniacs with our buyers to “just listed” properties — i.e., they came on the market half an hour previous — took a jog through some mediocre house, then sprinted back to the office to advise our clients not just how to write an offer, but how to write one that would be accepted. That is, teach them how to punt and feint: make the offer good for an hour only to force the sellers’ hand; show up at first light with the paperwork and a check to greet the sleepy homeowner getting his newspaper (à la “Sopranos”); strike all contingencies. Or last but not least: bid blind with an escalation clause. That is, bid $5,000 or $10,000 over the highest amount offered, whatever that happened to be. Basically: tie a cloth over your eyes and just throw money.
But those full price or 10K-over asking offers didn’t always cut the mustard, especially if there were four of them on the table. We’d suggest to our buyers to make it personal: to go for the Lifetime moment. To show up in person at the bidding table holding the hands of their adorable children; to pen missives such as: “The minute I crossed the threshold of your beautiful home, I knew this was the one. Your home is just like my grandmother’s. She died last week.” (This is where you well up, OK?) “But she would have loved to see me buy a house just like yours. Here’s $500,000 for your home assessed at $350,000, please take it, oh please, I’ll do anything.”
Houses of all kinds, in any shape at all, were selling instantly, even “psychologically impacted homes.” I’ll never forget one horrid slab ranch where there’d been a murder. The listing broker hadn’t even bothered to remove the police tape from around the house before offers began pouring in. In total, five bids rolled in on the home, each at least 5K over asking, with the winning bid striking the mortgage as well as the inspection contingencies. I heard the sellers threw in the ghost as well.
By 2002 my office was brimming with new, fresh-faced agents from every walk of life: software engineers, teachers, retail store owners, landscape architects, all manner of escapees from the corporate world, ready to learn on the fly and cash those commission checks as fast as possible. More seasoned agents cast them flinty glances as if to say: “Have you ever heard of a real estate cycle? Sure we’re flyin’ high, but strap on those seat belts, kids, this roller coaster is going down.”
But no one was paying attention then. We relative newbies thought this was just the way things were. Wake up, work, crash, repeat. There were lavish Christmas parties, over-the-top award ceremonies deifying top producers who were making truly crazy money, new cars in the lot, fresh duds on our backs, and no one really felt the sting of the check on all those dinners out. Let’s put it this way: The bon temps roo-layed. We had 10 phone lines, and at times they were all ringing at once.
Did we make money? Yes. Did we work for it? Yes. I worked seven days a week for months at a time. I lost 10 pounds, lived on PowerBars, filled my gas tank two, three, four times a week. I answered my phone in the bathroom, at weddings, funerals, my birthday surprise party, while eating my PowerBar, even at a wake. I worked on holidays, weekends, many times up at 6 and dropping by midnight. Once I lost a bid for my buyer clients, let’s call them the Smiths, because I had slipped home at noon to take a shower, having had no time in the morning because of a painfully early home inspection. I left the phone outside the shower stall, but I guess I never heard it. An hour later I saw the call, called them back and found them furious: Their dream home had come on the market, they were standing in the open house, and where was I? Showering? By the time I got there, breathless and wet-haired, the owners had already signed another offer, $18,000 over asking. Mrs. Smith wept, Mr. Smith cursed, then fired me. I felt sick. The guilt was actually worse than the lost commission. Their American dream shattered by me.
Predatory loans? We thought they were just “creative,” a term not at all pejorative back then. I don’t even think the term “predatory loan” existed until it was time to lay down some serious blame, as in 2007 and on. In any case, I had some lower-income clients who were part of this collective insanity. That is, everyone had drunk the same Kool-Aid, so they wanted a house as badly as everyone else. I actually rooted for them to get a loan, any kind of loan, to get them into the house they wanted. They had a 3-year-old daughter and one on the way, and both worked two jobs while trying to learn English, which they were picking up with astounding speed. We aggressively house-hunted, bid and got the house, and they were ecstatic and very grateful to me, even though the house, at just over 850 square feet, could barely contain them. There were tears and hugs at the closing, where my phone rang and rang and screamed some more.
So yes, back then it was a piece of cake to pay my bills and put something away, but my hair was falling out, I was so stressed. I was not a great partner to my husband. Most of my friends had given up on seeing me. Even my cats didn’t recognize me when I dragged myself home at night.
Fast-forward to now.
Now, my cats not only recognize me, they wish I would get a life, as does my husband. My hair is back in place on my head.
My office is filled with empty cubicles; phones are answered on the first ring. Papers flutter about on empty desks. Of course the economy is terrible, but something more is going on. It’s eerie. Even the top brokers are sleeping late, reading more, and wondering what the hell to do. Award ceremonies have been canceled. Holiday parties are ancient history. Just as for everyone else, the future is impossible to predict because the combination of elements in play is unique.
In the wee hours, the faces of my clients parade before my eyes. Sleepless, I get up and see what their home is worth now; pray that they still have their jobs. Then I Google “best paying jobs of the future” and read: dental hygienist, database administrator, systems analyst. I have a good cry and go back to bed.
I’ve checked in on my lower-income clients and thankfully they’ve both kept their jobs, but their home would be a short sale if we had to put it on the market now. They told me they’ve made ends meet by inviting a relative up from New York to stay and pay some rent by living in their already crowded home. I can’t imagine which room they’re putting him in.
The Smiths: They’d hired another agent to come to their rescue after I took that fateful shower, and had had no problem overbidding on another home. Now their home is one of the dozens of foreclosures in town. Days on market: 342. Price changes: five and counting. Just the other day I read that Mr. Smith’s company was slicing employees like cheese from a giant wheel.
What am I doing now? I take depressing classes on the labyrinthine procedure of conducting short sales, orchestrate foreclosures, show buyers countless homes before they confess they’d like to “maybe wait a year or two,” watch sellers break into tears as they sign a listing contract. Try to figure out how to market myself via social networking, which gags me, but what can you do? Lord knows, I live to Facebook, Twitter, tweet, blog, gather, LinkIn, YouTube, Gawk, Boing Boing, friend, Rain Actively, Digg, Xanga, Squidoo, Top Produce, and MySpace my way into the hearts of my buyers and sellers.
My phone has been, for all intents and purposes, silent for weeks now. I keep checking to make sure it’s on. Sometimes I’ll make a few calls just to use up those minutes I’ve already paid for. Today I ran into an agent from my office in our local drugstore whom I hadn’t seen for months. She told me she’d gotten a job at American Girl. She’d been a full-time real estate agent for 26 years. I asked her how she liked retail. “I love it,” she said unconvincingly. “People are so happy when they’re buying dolls.”
Another real estate friend has gone back to doing trade shows for medical products.
A downtown agent got a job in a fancy French restaurant where he hasn’t worked since college (“when the aprons fit”). Now he says he’s one of those waiters standing in the corner staring out the window waiting for customers, the ones he felt sorry for walking by the restaurant on his way to show houses in 2004.
Other friends complain about getting pink slips. At least they’re getting a pink slip. (Unemployment, anyone? Maybe even COBRA? A pipe dream for us commission-based folks.) There’s something a tad respectful about a pink slip. It says: You had a job, now you don’t anymore. As opposed to crushing silence and empty in boxes, which mean, I guess it sure looks like/isn’t this a dead ringer for/heads up: you don’t have a job anymore.
Last week, my phone actually rang. I nearly had a heart attack. It was a real live potential seller. A neighbor from down the street with a horse property — not the most common thing in my hood but there are a few. She said that, “among others,” she would be interviewing me, a few high-end brokers from neighboring offices, and three horse property specialists. Can we say “disincentivized by the competition”?
I tried to rally. How can I get around the fact that I’ve never sold a horse property? I suppose I could show up in jodhpurs, compliment the seller on her tack barn (“Great saddle choice! I love this kind, don’t you? You know … leather“), put hay in my hair. Whatever it takes to get the job. After all, my last paycheck was in October. Holy deeded manure pile!
Desperation has become a familiar face; at times it even stares back at me in the mirror in the morning. But I don’t think I’m alone. As the orchestra plays, sliding down with all of us on the tilting deck of the Titanic, I can see it now: my fellow real estate agents and I wishing each other well as we call out, “Hey, see you at American Girl!” or, “I hear Orange Julius is hiring. You go, girl!”
So if you hear whinnying or see me cantering about town on a some fetching filly, not to worry. That’s just me trying to get the listing, along with everybody else.
Erica Ferencik is a recovering standup comedian and featured guest on NPR's "Morning Stories." Her satiric novel, "Cracks in the Foundation", features Ginger Kanadoo, a hapless, desperate realtor who will stop at nothing to seal a deal.More Erica Ferencik.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)