So tomorrow is going to be my last day in New Jersey as a resident, unless something really dramatic happens and I get incarcerated here. I have a bunch of random, somewhat conflicted, thoughts going on and figured I’d share four of them here with you.
This got long, partly because I’ve gone through quite a bit, and partly because I’m going to be driving sixteen hours a day for the next three to four days. So blogging will be difficult, to say the least.
1. You Don’t Know It’s Home, Until You Leave It
I have to admit that I never fell in love with our house. It’s a small, 3BR/1BA, split-level that my wife and I bought as a starter home. And unlike so many, I don’t know that I ever fell into the whole “I’m a HOMEOWNER now” deal. I never enjoyed mowing the lawn. I never got into the Mr. Handy thing. And most of all, I regarded the place as a starter home, not our permanent home for the next thirty years. It became evident during this whole relocation that my wife was having a lot of emotional issues with leaving our home, while I was looking at the place as just another step towards our permanent home, and a possible investment property.
Yet, today, as I’m cleaning out the last of the trash from all of the rooms (my wife and kids are already in Texas), putting them all in bags for pickup tomorrow, and closing the door for the last time… I felt a little twinge of something. That little house is where we had our two boys, where we built a life, a family, a home. It’s where we’ve had ups and downs, where I’ve ruined more than one meal until I figured out what I’m good at and what I should never attempt, and to where I’ve dragged my bags after yet another long road trip.
And only after I’ve emptied it of all of our possessions, cleared it and cleaned it out of anything that is me and my family… only then did I realize, “You know what? This was home.”
Home may be where the heart is. But sometimes, you don’t know where your heart is, until you leave.
2. The Local Expert Is Whom She Knows (Corollary: The Staff Is the Realtor)
These days, in real estate, a popular topic of conversation — and indeed, the advice of many coaches, thought leaders, and the like to real estate agents — is that of becoming a local expert. All the focus on local markets, price changes, and all of that is important of course, but as I was moving out of my house, I became acutely aware of something else: the local expert knows local people.
In my move out, I needed a painter, a cleaner, a home inspector, a handyman, and a couple of strong guys to help me move furniture. I suppose if I had used a moving company instead of trying to do it myself, Id’ have saved on the couple of strong guys, but I still would have needed all the other people. In the Internet era, it’s possible to do all the searching yourself for a house, a community, a mortgage, whatever — and even servicepeople, I suppose. But what a pain in the ass it would be to have to go deep dive into the Web to find a house painter.
It was here where my agent (longtime friend, colleague, and sometimes client, Sue Adler) saved me. Or rather, to be much more precise, here’s where Dawn Preziosi, Sue’s transaction manager and right-hand woman, who seems to know everyone of use in and around the town of Millburn, saved me. Now, I’m sure Sue knows all those people too (except for the 20something big boys Dawn found somehow, who had time on their hands), but Dawn was like my guardian angel through the incredibly painful process of packing everything up, making the house presentable, and getting crap out of the building.
And I realized something. Sue is an amazing agent; one of the best I’ve ever seen. But I don’t know that she would be half as successful without someone like Dawn keeping her clients happy and relatively stress-free. The staff is the agent. You’re really only as good (or as bad) as the people you have working for and with you. That extends, of course, to brokers — but that’s a slightly different story.
3. I Do Put A Price on Freedom
If you think of freedom, as I do, as the ability not to have to deal with random arbitrary bullshit from government workers, then y’know… freedom is really worth something. This is a true story from this past week.
It snowed here in NJ quite a bit last Thursday. Our town has an ordinance that prohibits on-street parking after 2:00 AM. Given that I had two large u-haul pods sitting in my driveway, I had to park on the street. I got the permit allowing me to do just that. But with the snowstorm on its way, I got a phone call from the police telling me that they’re canceling the permit for the night so that the streets can be plowed, and that I should move the vehicle to a municipal parking lot about a mile away. No problem at all with that — there was a storm on the way, they gave me an alternate (as inconvenient as it was for me), and I happily moved my car there.
Well, it’s now the next day, and we had only gotten about four inches of snow. The streets are cleared, the sun was out during the day, and by evening, it looked as if it hadn’t snowed at all. I call the police to let them know that I need to park out front. The officer who answers first tries to transfer me to the parking bureau, and not finding anyone, gets back on the phone and the following conversation takes place:
Him: “Sorry, Sir, but overnight parking is not permitted tonight.”
Me: “What? Why not? It’s not snowing tonight, and there’s no snow in the forecast.”
Him: “I know that, but overnight parking is canceled.”
Me: “For what reason?”
Him: “You’re going to have to find somewhere else to park the vehicle, sir.”
Me: “Okay… well, where can I put it? Is the muni lot open tonight as well?”
Him: “No, that was only for the snow emergency last night.”
Me: “Uh… okay… so where am I supposed to park this car then?”
Him: “I don’t know, sir — you’ll just have to find an alternate location.”
Me: “…” <– (This is stunned silence on my part)
Him: “If you don’t, you’re taking the chance that you’ll get a ticket.”
Him: — Ringtone —
This was a totally arbitrary, unexplained decision. I’m not even sure it was a decision. It could have been that this cop didn’t want to track down the traffic bureau people, and just decided to tell me some bullshit. There is no alternative offered, and because he’s a policeman, I know that it would be far too annoying and troublesome to try and track things down. Besides, the last thing I need is to get on some shitlist of local cops.
Now, I don’t know if the culture in Texas is different than the one in New Jersey. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it is, judging strictly by how the two states look at legal firearms. But man, I hope it is.
I’m no anarchist or some ideological libertarian nut. I think I’m a normal, law-abiding guy who is happy to move his car to a parking lot a mile away when I understand the reason behind it. But modern life seems to have far too many of the arbitrary rules, nonsensical bureaucratic whims, unexplained regulations, and tiny intrusions into personal freedoms. Like cutting down my tree in my yard that I paid for, without needing the permission of some clerk in a government office (which I need to do in my old town).
With the 2010 census results, there are quite a few political types who think that people are fleeing blue states for red states because of high taxes and high cost of living. Maybe. But also, maybe they’ve just gotten fed up with all of the minor, tiny, yet daily restrictions and intrusions and bureaucratic bullshit. Maybe some part of them remembers a time when people had certain freedoms they took for granted.
I’m willing to pay a price to try and get at least some of those freedoms back.
4. The Town-Gown Relationship Exists After School
I went to Yale University, an elite university, located in New Haven, CT, a decidedly non-elite municipality. One is a bastion of wealth and privilege, and the other is the kind of poverty and crime-stricken city that residents of Detroit would find familiar. When I was at school, the relationship between the mostly wealthy (and white) students, faculty, and administrators who attended or worked at Yale and the citizens of New Haven who were largely poor, uneducated, and black was so bad that the university took on numerous projects to try and improve town-gown relations.
Other university towns, except those already in tony wealthy suburbs (such as Princeton, NJ or Palo Alto, CA), have similar problems.
Well, as it turns out, I think some of the wealthier suburbs around the United States has a “town-gown” problem too. It’s not something that real estate people ever talk about (likely because it would be against some law or some regulation somewhere), and it isn’t something that draws much attention from the media, but I think it’s real and growing.
My town, Millburn, is a very wealthy suburb that lies on the Midtown Direct train line from New York City and has the top school district in New Jersey year after year. The median family income supposedly is $158,888, but that has to be old data or horribly incorrect. $160K a year would likely place you in the bottom 10% of the families in Millburn (which includes the Short Hills section). Most of the residents work in New York in the finance, media, or law industries in mid or senior level positions.
But what about all of the people who work in Millburn, especially in public sector jobs? The police, firemen, sanitation workers, township employees, the clerks in the tony stores in town, all of the service people who make it possible for us to enjoy a great life there? Taxes are high, and I’m sure these blue collar workers get paid well, but I highly doubt they can afford to live in a town where the smallest starter homes start at half-million bucks. No, they’re probably living in nearby communities where prices aren’t quite as high, the schools aren’t anywhere near as good, and stores quite as nice.
One of the young men I hired to help me move stuff was a local lad, but he didn’t live in Millburn; he lived in a nearby town called West Orange with a median family income of $106,233. He was a nice enough kid, smart, responsible, and I liked him quite a bit. We get to talking and he tells me that he’s a college dropout who does a bit of work here and there in construction. He was going to college to get a degree in physical therapy, until he met a friend who had a job with a 20 hour course, rather than a four-year stint.
Let me tell you now that parents in Millburn/Short Hills would be absolutely horrified at the thought of their child dropping out of college, unless (a) he invented the next Facebook, (b) was drafted by the NFL or NBA, or (c) had his band’s album just go double platinum.
There was a cultural difference between this young man and my neighbors in town that was every bit as obvious as the cultural difference between Yalies and New Havenites in 1991.
What I wonder about is whether some of the ticky-tack bullshit I was encountering from various functionaries and bureaucrats stemmed from conscious or subconscious resentment from the “townies” to the “gownies” in my little suburban enclave. The guys at the town dump giving me all kinds of trouble, requiring this permit from that office which happened to be closed, the cop with the no-overnight-parking thing, and the rest of it, I wonder if it’s small bits of retribution from people who know for a fact that they would never be able to afford the kinds of houses and lifestyles that these pampered, over-educated Ivy League types with their fancy-ass City jobs could and do.
Why do I wonder that? Because when I was with my local lad friend, somehow those issues disappeared. He knew someone, you see, at the town dump. Suddenly, gates that were closed turned out to have a back way in. Permits that were required were overlooked. And, he told me that he knew virtually everybody on the police force such that when they busted up a party, they’d arrest a bunch of kids, but let him and his friends walk. He went to school, went to the bars, went to the Jersey Shore, with some of these guys, did a construction job or two with some of them, and was in-and-of that community. The rest of us, who actually lived in the town, were more like transients and implants – guests in a strange resort of sorts.
I got no proof of any of this, of course. It’s just random thoughts on the night before I depart for good. But if I’m right about what I saw and felt and experienced… Millburn is hardly unique. The better suburban towns, with their academically inclined schools, professional dual-career parents, and upper-class cultural values… who works at their McDonalds and their garbage dumps? Who paves their streets and takes care of the sewer lines? For sure it ain’t the Harvard-bound youngsters who are far too busy practicing piano or doing yet another extracurricular to buff up their resume for college.
I honestly don’t know if things are different in places like Palo Alto, or Laguna Beach, or Greenwich. But you know, I suspect they are not. I suspect that those places have the same town-gown issues that we have.
And… I’m Out
Perhaps we’ll return one day, because despite the two bitch-fest sections above, we have loved living here. Who knows how the country, the states, the town, and my family will change over the years and decades. And now that I am leaving, I realize that this was home. I’ve been here, in this house, in this town for six years — the longest I have ever stayed in one zip code. And that counts for something.
I’ll miss the people, the sights, the sounds, the familiarity of the place. I’ll miss the Millburn Deli, the Diner, the Tinga’s, Taylor Park, the ice cream shops, the street, the neighbors, and yes, even the fickle town dump.
Then again, I will never, ever, ever miss not having to shovel snow ever again.