Trying On A House

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08/02/2011

Neighborhood: All Over, Brooklyn

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For the past several weekends, I’ve peeked through the homes of strangers when they weren’t there. I’ve tiptoed through brownstones, crept up the stairs of detached Victorians, and cased the backyards of garden unit condos.

In Bay Ridge, I studied the diplomas that hung in a home office. In Prospect Lefferts Gardens, I thumbed a young couple’s bedside reading. In Sunset Park, I cracked open the refrigerator and looked at last night’s leftovers.

I’m on the prowl for a new place to live, a job that takes me deep into Brooklyn for open houses across the borough. Veteran house hunters know the routine: the signing of a guest list, the pitch about original floors and century-old moldings, and the questions about the boiler, the windows, and the taxes. Lines of people march through the house, looking to buy property while someone else is still using it. We’re expected to picture the place empty, to imagine what it might be like if we lived there—where our sofa would go, how the space might fit a growing family—and to ignore the current arrangement of armchairs or the mold on the shower curtain.

It’s a tough job, difficult not to see what’s right in front of us. We’re there to study the layout and condition of the house, and yet I can’t avoid noticing how its owners live within it—the mismatched furniture, the acrid smell of cat litter, the vintage exercise bike in the basement. While the real estate agents yammer on about the house’s “good bones,” I excavate clues about its owners and their lives.

At one place, I lingered over the family photos in a hallway, the shots of dated perms and feathered bangs stealing more of my attention than the stained-glass skylight that illuminated them. At another, I noticed stacks of cards for several different businesses and knew we were in the home of a graphic designer. Two weekends ago, I stood in the bedroom of a teenage boy, gaping at the topless girl in the poster thumb-tacked above his dresser. “My mother would not have approved of this decoration,” I told the guy next to me, a man who came to this open house wearing a tool belt. He ignored the poster and me, shuffling off to inspect the copper wiring and the pitch of the waste pipes, I’m sure.»

Trying On A House
Photo by Kenny Sun

After twelve open houses, I felt like a voyeur. Then, last weekend in Dyker Heights, I spotted a comrade. Three couples meandered around a townhouse, shaking banisters and counting electrical outlets. Wandering a bit, I found myself in the large master bedroom with a stranger, a woman who seemed every bit as curious about the sellers as she did about their house.

While I pretended to inspect the new windows, I watched her glance at a young child’s drawings framed on the dresser, fan the magazines on a stool in the bedroom’s corner, and wipe dust from the wooden headboard—exactly the kind of things I’d done at previous open houses. I continued watching her as she knelt to smell the flowers on the nightstand and made her way to the walk-in closet at the far end of the bedroom. She opened the couple’s closet door, admired its sizable dimensions, and paused for perhaps a second too long at the sight of the clothes inside. Then, with no evident self-consciousness, she reached for one of the shirts—the shirt of a total stranger—and rubbed its fabric between her thumb and forefinger, a gesture usually reserved for racks at department stores or thrift shops. I smiled at the boldness of this woman’s act, admiring her impropriety. Here we were, attending an open house, and she was examining clothes she’d never wear.

I didn’t stay to see if she checked the size of the shirt or held it up to her torso in the mirror. Not wanting to interrupt, I left the woman alone in the bedroom and went downstairs to inspect the wiring and ask about the waste pipes.

Nicholas Soodik is a high school English teacher in Brooklyn.

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