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Among the Rubbish 

The secret to happy house hunting is to recognize the omens

I did not set out yesterday to solve a bank heist. No. When I woke up in the morning, my only plan was to buy another house because recently it occurred to me that my life was oddly uncomplicated all of a sudden, so what better way to fuck it up than to invest in another rental property? Besides, it's not like I can rely on my 401(k) for retirement -- a 401(k) that is empty now actually, but no big deal. I would have fared better if I'd just bought beer with that 3 percent of my income. No kidding. I could have made more money by returning the cans.

So I have to invest in something other than stocks, and something more reliable than, for example, the savings plan of my friend, Wes, who once figured he'd found a rare penny and could retire on its proceeds once he alerted Sotheby's of his discovery. That was years ago. The last time I saw Wes, he was literally shirtless and barefoot, conducting a yard sale from his girlfriend's driveway.

Not that I have anything against that. My own mother took to hawking boxes of picked-over discards at a swap meet once her job building bombs for the government finally fell apart. She made ends meet by selling crap out of the back of an old VW van. She wore a coin belt and everything. I'd never seen her so happy. Eventually, she got good at recognizing the occasional gem among the rubbish, such as the Italian Pezzato figurine she gave me. She found it in a box of broken ceramic beagles, a perfect little jewel discovered among a ration of total turds.

Which aptly describes my real estate investment technique; either find the gem among the rubbish or find the rubbish among the gems. Lately, my method has been to buy the ugliest house on the block, and yesterday I had one all picked out -- a tiny brick shit box that sat like a little boil in a neighborhood of ostentatious new-builds. If there's anything I can't resist, it's an ugly house sitting squat among its prom-date neighbors. The house I live in now is like that: barely bigger than a double-wide trailer, with aluminum grandma awnings and a bathroom smaller than my bed. I'd initially bought it as a rental property until the crotchety neighbor/stalker called me 20 times one day to bitch about the "bad element" that renters bring and how I needed to live there myself in order to keep the neighborhood from going "completely to the pooper."

"All right," I finally sighed, as I'm a pushover for senile old sea urchins. So I moved in and the two of us talk across the fence fairly often now. She forgets she already told me the story about how the lady who lived here before me died of breast cancer 20 years ago at the age of 42, so she recounts it to me again and again, and I usually listen patiently. Some mornings I catch her in her bath slippers in the street trying to pick up industrial trace material that has fallen off the backs of the contractor trucks headed to the new development down the street. Today, our houses are among the last hold-outs in a now-hot neighborhood -- the few that are not torn down and not improved.

So this brick shack I had picked out met all these same criteria. It was a veritable shoo-in until, for some reason, I was drawn to another house entirely. It was not the ugliest house on the block, but rather the gem among the rubbish; a cute little cottage with new tile and no black widow spiders in the water well or used condoms in the yard or any of the other things I usually regard as good-luck tokens.

Because I pretty much appreciate anything that will scare off other buyers and allow the house to sit there until the seller will foam at the mouth with happiness at the sound of my offer. For example, the first house I ever bought stood a few doors down from where the police had recently found a severed human head in a plastic sack. So you can imagine the bargains to be had on that street. But this house had none of that and it still spoke to me, which made me suspicious.

"There's nothing wrong with this place," I said apprehensively to Ramiro, my long-suffering real estate agent. "So what's wrong with this place?"

"If you don't buy it," he sighed as he peered at the slice of skyline view through the living room wraparound windows, "I will."

"Let's check out the basement," I said cautiously. So Ramiro opened the hatch and there it was! Right there on the dirt floor was a stolen ATM! How awesome is that? The house was perfect in every aspect except it happened to be a crime scene involving a nearby bank robbery! This beats a severed head in a plastic sack by miles! Soon the place was surrounded by police cars and Ramiro was busy recounting his statement to a gaggle of officers with their pens poised. "I'm sorry, Hollis," he hollered to me amid the frenzy. "I apologize for getting you into this."

I answered him but he said he didn't hear me over the helicopter blades rotating overhead.

"I said," I shouted, barely able to contain my excitement, "that I'll take it!"

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories and Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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