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Piercing the Gloom

If the prospectors are about, there must be prospects. Right?

The real estate agent appears on a Monday, prowling around our picket fence. The air is June-gloomy; it muffles the clippity-clip of her high heels. Neighbors watch her from behind their curtains. The house down the block is for sale, but this new face seems to be going door to door, taking notes on a clipboard. We wonder if she might be a rogue Jehovah’s Witness when she cranes her bobbed-blond head through the arbor.

“Thinking of selling soon?” she asks. 

So the moment has come. You know times are changing in Southern California when the prospectors start coming around. Real estate agents don’t knock on a lot of doors when they know they’re going to get no for an answer. But it’s a different story when that sixth sense kicks in and something signals that it might be time to send out that first tentative feeler.

Here in Orange County, where homeowners follow property values the way fishermen follow the ocean, we’ve come to know what a low tide looks like, and we’re so ready for this one to start turning. Dare we hope? 

Normally we would simply step away from the window, but something about the gray day stops us. There she is, in the mist, pulling a business card from her pocket, smiling so hopefully. We have no interest whatsoever in selling. No matter. We open the gate and invite her in. 

Life hasn’t been a beach here at the beach lately. Foreclosure notices pepper the canyons. “For Lease” signs flutter up and down Pacific Coast Highway. Experts may point to a rebound. Outsiders may view us with envy. But they don’t see beneath the surface, beyond the June gloom that still infuses and traumatizes this place. 

They don’t see the honor students working two jobs just to afford community college, or the borrowing from Peter to pay Paul to keep up with the car payments. They don’t wonder whether we actually want this much time to go surfing. They don’t get the cold calls from the contractors who, just a few years ago, were turning away business.

And they don’t know all the ways we’ve been forced to reassess our value, all the ways we’ve struggled to see our way through to the other side of this recession. More than most places, Orange County homeowners’ hopes and fears rise and fall with property values. You are what you own—that’s how we secretly felt in boom times. So where does that leave us, as we’ve watched so much of what we own slip through our fingers? This may not be a pessimistic place by nature, but over time, fear has settled here like a marine layer that won’t burn off. 

So maybe we’re vulnerable this morning. In any case, we let the prospector think we’re considering selling, maybe even this year. We just want reassurance—some sign from the other side of the fog bank, some measure of where we stand now: How bad is it out there? Has the market really hit bottom? What are prospective buyers actually offering for that house on our block? If our house goes on the market tomorrow, what can we get?

We totally lead her on. I hope she forgives us. Maybe she’s leading us on a little, too. She compliments our curb appeal, our upgrades, our location. Maybe her outlook is accurate. Maybe it isn’t. All I know is, as the gate closes, we begin to feel we have prospects, and we realize we haven’t felt that way in a long, long time. The sky is still gray, but here at the beach, you have to remind yourself: June gloom only seems to last forever. Sooner or later, the sun always breaks through. 

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.

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