One of our favorite authors is Lewis “Buddy” Nordan. A few weeks ago, we were reminded of his short story “The Sears and Roebuck Catalog Game” from his collection Sugar Among the Freaks. We were reminded because a For Sale sign has sprouted like an alien toadstool on the lawn of a Snob Hill property.
We were reminded of Nordan’s story because, as he wrote in the second paragraph, “My favorite game was to open a Sears and Roebuck catalog and sit with my mother on the floor or on her lap in a chair and to point to each model on the page and to say, What does this one do” – where does this one live? – which one is her boyfriend?”
We were reminded of this because we have for years played a similar game we call Who’s Next?, as in, who’s leaving the Hill next. This is a game that is both simple and quite complex. Cold War strategy has nothing on this exercise. There are only 12 homes on Snob Hill, but the houses and families who live in them are as intricately entwined as players embroiled in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
We admit that Who’s Next evolved from our early days on the Hill as we plotted to dismantle what came to be known as the Axis of Evil (this term was promptly appropriated by the second Busch administration). Very few properties on the Hill come to market, and this was even more true 18 years ago when we acquired our homestead. As the newcomers then, we quickly intuited the power structure, which was an oligarchy consisting of C, M, and J – or the CMJ Corporation, as we called it.
These three women had, without contest, ruled Snob Hill for years, due to the low turnover of properties. C was a woman who owned the world's largest collection of jean culotte skirts and favored short-cropped butchy haircuts. M was the widow of a local doctor infamous for wearing silk robes at his dinner parties, cross-stitching Christmas decorations, and being caught in flagrante with a male patient. J did not just hen peck her husband, she bludgeoned him. She was a heavy, round woman whom we nicknamed The Death Star. We are still sure she generated her own gravity.
These Supremes passed judgment on a panopoly of issues – judgments that they did not keep to themselves. Boys: too noisy. Dogs: too yappy. New house paint: too yellow. Trash: set out too early. Grass: not cut often enough. Fire pits: illegal. Today: not as great as yesterday.
We, and a select few of our other neighbors, tried for regime change to no avail. We dreamed of a coup d'état, or a putsch, or an overthrow, or some other sort of sudden deposition. Yet still they reigned. The best we could do was wish for the dismantling of the CMJ Corporation. It was a war to be won through attrition. We assured ourselves that time would be our best defense. “At least,” we reasoned, “If we can’t unseat them, we can outlive them.”
And Who’s Next? was born. Actually, in its original form, it was Who’s First?. Who would be the first to leave the Hill? This topic provided hours of enjoyment as we contemplated who would lead the exodus. We became, for all intents and purposes, the Snob Hill Actuarials – masters at weighing age, health, income, family pressures, the local real estate market, home and property maintenance, and overall openness to change, among other variables. And each time we played, the outcome was different. We became fond of a line from a Lucinda Williams song, “If wishes were horses, I’d have a ranch.” We were living on The High Chaparral.
It took several years, but M was the first to relent. She had been a widow for at least 20 years and did not work, but when she announced her departure, she said she was “retiring” to Arizona. We could only suppose that dictatorship had taken its toll. Several years after that, C and her husband downsized to a local condo development. J is still holding on, in a way. She and her husband, Chicken D, moved out of their house and into one they inherited close by, but their Snob Hill house remains empty and un-for-sale, sort of like one of Saddam Hussein’s abandoned palaces.
We continued to play Who’s Next?. At least two years ago, we correctly identified the current household in the Dutch Colonial as next. We liked the widow who lived there. It took us a while to get to know her because we had been warned by the CMJ Corporation to avoid here because “she drinks.” This was conveyed in the same whispery, gossipy way that cancer was mentioned 50 years ago.
The For Sale sign appeared without warning. We had hoped for some advance notice. The agent’s name on the sign was Cookie Rottermich. We wondered who would want to say, “Cookie is selling my house”? The image of a passel of Keebler Elves scampering about the place, tjuzing and prepping and staging was disturbing, to say the least. And even though our computer cannot access Google translator, we are sure Rottermich can be loosely translated from the German as Rotten Milk. Not a good sign.
A week later the open house was announced. The Dutch Colonial was the only house we had not yet seen inside in the 18 years we have lived on the Hill. Apparently this was the case with most of our neighbors because as we entered, the house was crawling with them. It seemed there were more neighbors than potential buyers. We are a nosy lot.
We toured the house, then met some Snob Hillers and discussed, in the kitchen, the inadequate size of the kitchen, the general condition of the house, and the recent sewer issues that had been mitigated. In the living room we met some other Hillers and discussed the owner’s desire to move to a retirement community and whether she was asking an appropriate price. We fell into two camps on this issue: those of us who thought it was correctly “priced to sell” and those of us who thought she should have set the price higher. We have our own property values to consider, after all. With other neighbors, we compared who had been in what houses and who had made significant home improvements over the years. Between ourselves, we proposed some light to moderate demolition and the benefit of turning the screened porch into a four season room.
We admit we dished about living on the Hill. And some of the outsiders kept an ear cocked to our conversation. Especially someone we nicknamed Blue Notebook Man. He practically followed us around. We swear he even took some notes. We noticed he had two young sons (oh, and a wife). This interested us because of the three families with children, there are four girls and two boys. Two additional boys would help equal out the hormonal balance of the neighborhood.
A few days later, we thought we spied Blue Notebook Man assessing the house with a home inspector. A few days after that, some surveyors were taking measurements. Yet, still no Sold sign. We had to remind ourselves that some agents wait until the deal is done before announcing it.
A week or so later, the news was official. But no Sold sign. Instead, it said “Too Late!”. Too late for what? Was this a message to us? Was it too late for us to vet the potential new neighbors? Was it too late for us to sell first? Was it too late for the sellers to back out? Or was this an agent/conspiracy theorist with a new spin on The End is Near! sign? A simple, unambiguous, easy-to-understand Sold sign would have caused much less anxiety.
Now we wait. Will they move in before the Snob Hill annual Christmas party? Or will the current owner insist on one last holiday before moving to the next phase of her life? Will there be boys? We don’t know.
But we can say this: Welcome Strangers!
And ask: Who’s Next?