19 April 2011

Some claim these things are only visible in hindsight...

Watch the full episode. See more POV.

When the task you were given involves walking door to door, you soon get a better sense of just how bad it is in certain places.*

Stats and figures. Foreclosures, vacancies, or those newly built and still sitting empty and inert in the market. As you make the rounds in the course of doing your work, you encounter your own -- more immediate, more tangible -- sets of numbers that corroborate or concretize the other enumerations that you've been hearing for months. And you find that these digits tell a slightly different story -- a story that's longer and more detailed, sometimes more grim, that makes you wonder.

The term "ghost town" never comes to mind at any point, but you do experience a certain feeling over and over again -- specifically, the sort of feeling you get from certain ominous silences, from ending up in places where it feels like much of the life has been siphoned away.

Usually there's a number of telltale signs to indicate that a residence is empty; that it's been empty for a good while, and that you might be wasting your time in trying to establish its status. Maybe the lawn hasn't been mowed in ages and now sports a variety of weeds that've grown to two or three feet in height. Or the driveway and walkway are thoroughly covered by a thick layer of pine straw, leaves and twigs. Likewise with the gutters and roof. Maybe there's a wasp's nest on the door, and you can tell by the size of the thing that it's been amassing for many months. Or -- more often -- there's a stack of phonebooks still sitting on the porch from the last routine delivery, still in the plastic bag that now has a layer of black mildew growing inside it from having sat out in the rain for the past three seasons.

Admittedly, these are also the sorts of signs that can in some cases be misleading. There's still the chance that someone lives there. And the job you've been given is to verify which places of residence are occupied; and part of that task involves establishing which ones -- beyond question -- aren't. In a few cases, it might be self-evident and clear enough. For example: The house where the front door had been kicked in off its hinges -- with the door now laying inside the foyer, and the living room's strewn with random items -- plastic dishes, a few toys, an old clock radio, a broken lamp -- and clothes (adult's size, as well as those for small children) laying about randomly, as if the prior occupants had had had to leave in a hurry -- if not flee, perhaps. And the whole place stinks from the rain coming in for how ever many months, and some vandals have entered the place and had their way with it. You can probably go ahead and cross that one off the list, but only after you've talked to a neighbor and confirmed your observations with an outside and knowledgeable party.

But, most times,  one way you can tell if the place is empty is by the sound of the knock. You knock on the door, and -- if you have a set of finely-attuned ears -- you can hear the way the sound carries through the interior of the house. It might carry an ever-so-slight echo as you listen to its rapport travel across bare floors, bouncing of the walls and windows. With no rugs or curtains or furniture to absorb or buffer the reverberations, the place sounds hollow. This is often a good indicator that suggests you might be wasting your time by doubling back and trying again at another time.

Fairly early in the gig, the dead-end streets are the ones that you begin to dread dealing with. Seems like that's where all the antisocial sorts have gathered in -- eccentric, suspicious, standoffish, if not paranoid and occasionally outright atavistic. The ones who enjoy giving you bogus information, the ones who must still cuss the day that they ever moved to "the city," the ones who only want any- and everybody to completely leave them alone. The ones that have a big mean dog, and lots of PRIVATE PROPERTY and NO TRESPASSING signs posted, maybe even a gun that they wouldn't think twice about reaching for. And then inevitably you hit the block's cul-de-sac, which is usually where most of the abandoned property's clustered -- sometimes upward to five, six in a row.

And there are the low-rent, disheveled apartment complexes where the parking lot's never more that one-third full and where you get very few responses from the addresses you've been given. You make the required number of attempts that you've been assigned, and once you've met that quota you go find the complex superintendent or someone at the management company and --  sure enough -- it turns out the entire place barely has a fifty percent occupancy ratio. And your assigned route also has you covering another community just a half-mile down the road, where you find yourself making the circuit of a high-end subdivision -- y'know, the sort that's lined with multileveled townhomes and condos that were recently built and targeted for the upper income brackets. There's a lot of signs indicating that a good many of the places are for sale, are between owners, stuck in mid-"flip," and once again you encounter (as with everywhere else) one empty residence after another. The place feels half deserted, and as you wander the blocks you keep hearing that same intermittent chirping sound -- the sound of a smoke alarm whose batteries are dying, pinging away inside some empty unit. There's always at least one within earshot at any given time, as the last one you passed diminishes behind you, you can hear another one coming up not too many doors ahead of you. Nobody's here....nobody's here...nobody's here...

You wonder, where'd they all go? In some cases you can answer, someplace else, away from here. But about half the time you conclude that "they" were never "there" to begin with.

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* Aside: I found it highly ironic that when I initially sent to watch the first video above, I had to first sit through a 15-second ad for Goldman Sachs.

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