Sunday, March 25, 2012

Things We Left in the Fire

(This piece originally appeared in Boat Magazine in November 2011. They edited out the footnotes for some untold reason. Those are included here in all their resplendent glory.)

I was in Sweden on December 13th 2008 when I got the phone call that my mom's house caught on fire[1]. While I barely ever spent the night there, it was essentially where I lived, holding all my possessions and acting as the de facto headquarters of my label Cass Records.

It would be just short of a week before I was back home in the states to actually survey the scene. After dark on a cold December night, she opened the newly-added padlock, took a deep breath, looked at me and asked "Are you ready?"

What I didn't anticipate from the burned-out shell of the house I'd grown up in was how messy it would be. I expected shit to be burned, the acrid smell of the stale smoke and the general despair of the entire situation…but it's easy to forget that fire fighters tear up walls and bust holes in ceilings to control the conflagration. What results is an ungodly amount of stained dry wall, soggy insulation and every other sort of disemboweled housing material all over the place.

The combination of the flames from a candle left burning and the water sprayed to douse them destroyed all of my books, leaving literature littered all through the front room where I used to lay on my belly with feet flush up against the heating vent watching the 7am airing of SportsCenter before heading off for school.

In hindsight, I don't really miss the books and feel almost ashamed that I'd convinced my mom to go through rubble and compose a list of all the one's I'd lost. I've been very happy to discover that replacing my books has been far cheaper than replacing my records could ever be.

The awkward part of cleaning out a burned house is the uncertainty. It was immediately clear what stuff I wanted and needed to get out of there…records, musical equipment, all of my clothes. It was also self-evident what was garbage…all my books, the television with a melted plastic casing, all of the dishes except for my favorite ramen bowl (that was thankfully submerged in water in the sink during the ordeal). But things like artwork I'd trash-picked, participation trophies from grade school…all the STUFF that one accumulates in life is confusingly difficult to deal with.

You don't have the luxury of a proper "moving" like other folks do when they leave a residence. You are evacuating. When given the opportunity to return to the scene of the crime, you feel like shrugging your shoulders, "I got out already…do I really need any of this?"

I did shit like glued a Chet Lemon Starting Line-Up action figure to the front door, put a glow-in-the-dark skeleton (used in an 8th grade science project) in my old bedroom window[2] and nailed a bass drum with "The Rolling Stones" written on the head to the roof. The whole situation was surreal to me so I did my best to have the structure echo my feelings[3].

On top of that was the frustration of the scum of the city breaking into the house and going through what was inside. A small, faux-historic childhood bank safe was pried open and freed of the $2 bill and bicentennial drummer boy quarters it contained. The next-door neighbors saw some guys walking out of the back door with an armful of busted drum cymbals and unusable hardware. Thankfully it seemed scrappers never got in there, but the fact that some absolutely soulless fuck took a shit in the middle of the living room was the ultimate low[4].

Approximately three months after the fire, I moved to Nashville to take my dream job of overseeing vinyl record production at Third Man Records. My mom was left with the task of the affairs of the house.

The building itself was not a complete loss. It did however suffer $90,000 worth of structural damage…mainly confined to the walls of the front room where the fire was and smoke damage everywhere else on the ground floor. The way insurance operates is they give you $70,000 to cover the structure and the balance of $20k if you actually decide to renovate.

My mom had no interest in renovation. When a 1989 Pontiac with a Blue Book value of no more than $500 was stolen from the driveway earlier that year she'd already pledged that she was done with Detroit. Having spent all 50+ years of her life in the city, she'd felt that she'd done her time. The fire merely hastened her exit and to some extent made it easier, as she was renting a cute little house in the bedroom community of Berkley by late January.

The peculiar thing about the check from the insurance company for $70k was that it was made out to my mom AND the bank[5] who held the mortgage. She couldn't do anything with that check without them. And in 2009, trying to deal with a mortgage company in regards to property in Detroit was the last thing you wanted to do.

Every person she talked to told her something different, contradicting and unaware of what folks all working for the same company were telling my mom at any given time. The charade went on for so long that the check actually expired and she was sent ANOTHER one by the ever-patient (and extremely easy to deal with) folks at Farmer's Insurance.

The other thing to know about the house is that she owed $100,000 on it and if the residence were in proper, livable condition (as it was before the fire) its estimated market value would be $50,000. It's pretty clearly stupid to spend $90,000 fixing a house that's only worth half that, just to spend another 20 years paying off that $100k.

So over TWO YEARS after the fire, my mom had negotiated with folks at the mortgage company to take ALL of the $70,000 and just consider the deal done. She'd be taxed on the $30k she never paid back and was fine with it. While the bank would be out $30k, in giving her the house they'd have their books clear of a place that was worth half the money it'd take to fix. She was fine with the responsibility of the house from that point, whether to sell it, bulldoze, whatever.

Once the mortgage folks received the check and deposited it, they told my mother that they'd changed their mind and that they were keeping the money and not giving her the house. To be fair, she stopped paying her mortgage once she'd stopped living in the house so it was technically a foreclosure. But I doubt any of the other thousands of foreclosures in Detroit at that time had a homeowner immediately willing to pay 70% of the total amount owed.

There was an unsuccessful foreclosure auction of the house in May of 2011. Just before that, my mom and I essentially broke into the house[6] for what I imagined would be my last time. I pulled some old speakers out of a cabinet in the basement, a box of multiple copies of the White Stripes' first cover appearance on the Metro Times and a handful of other inconsequential random things. I told mom I was fine if I never went back into the house.

But I think there are probably still some baseball cards and back issues of Sports Illustrated in the attic. I know I left hundreds of copies of the Int'l Shades cd I'd released in the basement. The cement walkway leading from the driveway to the house still has the impressions of my feet from when I was four months old. The kitchen door frame still displays the heights of me and my siblings as we grew over the years.

A friend of a friend has taken on mom's case in terms of pursuing legal action. Mom was ready to just walk away, to essentially let the bank steal the house out from under her, but I urged her to pursue it, to not let those ogres to just take the place away from her.

My stomach felt instantly nauseous when I opened an email from my mom that showed the house listed on a local Detroit real estate website for the paltry sum of $5000. What was even more frustrating was that being in the middle of saving up to buy a house in Nashville (where shit is pricey) made that amount seem so insignificant. I could've bought it instantly. I wanted to buy it instantly. If I was 21-years-old I probably would've.

But I'm old enough to know about property tax (in Detroit, exorbitant) and can't imagine that I personally want to be responsible for a burned out building in the city. It's embarrassing. My mom's words on the whole foreclosure ordeal are short but to the point "It could've been so simple."

While researching for this article, the folks from Boat sent photos of the house as it stands as of October 2011. The front door has been replaced with an out-of-place stained wood with oval-shaped glass center. Friends in the neighborhood were under the impression that someone was living there. A quick search of real estate records show it sold for over $7000 in July of 2011.

While the twinge of discomfort I feel is only slightly belied by the fact that someone, somehow sees promise in the building, the way we got to that point is nothing but absolutely disgusting. For a city that has lost over a million people in the past few decades, too many folks' memories of Detroit are tied-up in empty lots or burned-out buildings. There were five people living in that house in the year 2000. They've all left the city now. It seems that my family's memories (both good and bad) will be encased in that house forever. I just wish it all didn't end on such a sour note.

[1] For my thoughts and feelings about this at the time it happened, check my blog at

[2] Before being shown photos of the house as it stands now, I'd forgotten that I'd put a Church of the Subgenius sticker on that same window.

[3] I did walk Heidelberg mastermind Tyree Guyton through the house in the summer of '09 and gave him free reign to take whatever he wanted. That was surreal in a positive way and I someday hope to see something that was once mine nailed to a tree as part of his art project

[4] Never mind having to clean it up, I was just disappointed in all the times as a kid when I sprinted to the bathroom at the first sign of a television commercial break only to come back having missed a joke on "Full House" or some other such pallid sitcom. If anyone should've gotten to take a shit in the living room it should've been me. Or maybe my brother.

[5] I specifically don't want to mention the name of this multi-billion dollar bank, mainly because I don't think they're above exacting retribution on me for writing this

[6] earlier in the year the bank tried to seize possession of the house by putting new locks on the charred door WITHOUT ever telling her. When my mom so very kindly reminded them that they didn't have that right she was overnighted a set of keys to the place. For some reason this day those keys did not work, while they had on previous occasions.