God Knocks

“It’s becoming a bedroom community for people who work on Wall Street,” the Wife says of our beloved Manhattan. While the housing market everywhere else incurs gangrene, prices here are sky-high and climbing. A new condo goes up every three seconds and an angel does not get his wings.

When I moved to New York City in 1988, it was possible to find a rent-stabilized apartment in the East Village, Kips Bay, and plenty of other places—to live an artist’s life, or a drunkard’s, while securing a semblance of middle class security and stability. People moved here to pursue music careers, acting careers, writing careers, anything that didn’t pay. Some even painted. They could live here indefinitely while the market ignored their talent.

Today the city is cleaner and safer, but a small one-bedroom in an indifferent neighborhood costs over a million dollars. It’s not just the poor and the old who are getting priced out. Not just the working class. Not even just the middle class. New York is still a melting pot, but its ingredients are changing as the city squeezes out all but the richest rich.

Brooklyn is where many families have moved and many creative people with or without families are moving, but Brooklyn’s prices are no better. You get a little more space for the same obscene truckload of cash, and you pay for it in subway mileage.

Any reasonable person who does not already own a place and is not fabulously wealthy would catch the first bus out of town and not look back. But if Osama bin Laden could not chase us off this island, neither will the lesser abomination of insanely high and continuously escalating housing prices.

Throwing our first stake in the ground, we have enrolled our daughter in a fine preschool. And when the newly-out-of-rent-stabilization but still-below-market rental lease I have ridden since 1990 finally ends next year, we intend to buy. Don’t ask me how we’ll do it. I only know that we will.

Which brings me to God and the knocking sound.

I awoke this morning to a quiet, insistent, knocking, high-pitched and hollowly wooden—as if a tiny woodpecker were signaling from the back of our bedroom’s bookshelves.

(I actually awoke to our little dog’s barking, something he never does. He also peed twice on the floor, something else he never does. And threw up all over our gorgeous white Flokati rug. But that isn’t part of the God story.)

When a person who has not been particularly spiritual enters a spiritual program, odd things begin happening. Atheists call these things coincidences. For instance, an addict in a big city fearfully attends his first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Chairing the meeting is the guy with whom he first bought dope. Programs like NA and AA are rife with such incidents.

The Wife is in a very different sort of program, but it is spiritual, and it concerns really living your life. Yesterday in that program, she and a friend focused on the notion of our owning a home, even though it seems impossible here. Before bed last night, she said we could start the process of finding a home by taking an action as simple as reading Home Buying For Dummies.

So this morning, there is this knocking sound. It’s not coming from the bureau. It’s not coming from the desk. It’s not electrical. There’s no big truck out on the street causing the windowpanes to rattle. The sound is insistent. We cannot localize its source or account for it logically.

Doors cover part of a bookshelf. Searching for the source of the sound, the Wife opens the doors. Out falls a book: Home Buying For Dummies.

And as she picks up the book, we both notice that the sound has stopped.

58 thoughts on “God Knocks

  1. We get a random tapping noise. I finally found out that one of our hanging pictures was moving very slightly against the wall. It was entirely invisible to the eye, but when touched it would stop and not start up again for a few days.

    Still… odd.

  2. Growing up in a Pentecostal family, I can hear my mom saying, “don’t worry it’s probably just Satan”. But then again, it could be God telling you to read up on home buying. Any “reasonable explanation” as to the cause of the sound?

  3. who knows, it might be jennifer connelly next door, standing dripping wet in a puddle of water.

    (yes, i know that movie was awful but Monkey already used the Poltergeist reference)

  4. I know that God was a big part of how we got out house (I still live with Mommy & Poppy). We got the house at a awesome price. It was before the housing prices got ridiculous, but it was great even at the time.

    While we were considering buying the house, a man showed up at the house with the Realtor. He was planning to buy the house with cash, on the spot. However, the keys to the house were missing!

    Oh, and I’m looking forward to an AEA: Washington D.C. or Richmond :)

  5. I (heart) God.

    And owning my own house in the midwest where my mortgage payment on my 4-bedroom house is half as much as a 650 sq. ft. studio in Chelsea.

  6. Great, not only is New York stratospherically expensive, it’s also apparently haunted? I’m starting to reconsider moving up there.

  7. Move to Philly. It’s not as expensive as NYC, there is a decent art/tech scene, chances are you’d be buying an actual house (as opposed to a room in a building)and there are many small nooks where you can actually buy land below a quarter mill… my wife and I just found a small house with a big yard just over the bridge in Jersey (Collingswood)… And New York is not that far away.

    think about it.

  8. For the Flokati rug: you can wash it in the washing machine with some Woolite and it will be good as new. Look for a laundromat with one of those extra-big machines. I have a beige Flokati rug and a cat who once had kidney problems, so I speak from experience.

  9. The signs are everywhere! This one, however, seems really important. :-) Thanks for sharing the story — as usual, a pleasure to read your site.

  10. Man, God’s been busy. He’s been over at my place turning lights on and off willy-nilly. For the life of me, though, I can’t figure it what He’s trying to say.

  11. The Buddhist in me sees the wonderful interconnectedness of the universe in this event, the atheist in me says your bookcase wants you to move.

  12. I think maybe it’s time to accelerate that move to Seattle ol’ buddy! A million bucks buys you a beautiful house in a beautiful area or two beautiful houses 15 minutes from downtown. Bring it!

  13. Mice. You opened a door that hadn’t been opened in awhile and scared the mouse/mice that was hard at work building a nest before winter hits.

  14. White rug? You must be religious! (or not very practical, or very careful or perhaps devil may care. But with a child! Crazy!)

  15. Ah, you gotta love God’s divine orchestration.

    It’s amazing how we can chalk up a lot to coincidences in an effort to satisfy our subtle denials.

    I’m sure you’ll get the place, just gotta have faith.

    – Daniel

  16. Alex C. – You will not, I assure you, be missing bricks during our next good sized earthquake. As you stand in a door way or are under your desk you will thank your favorite deity that SoCal architecture favors dry wall and stucco.


  17. And up there in the bookshelf, the empty spot where the book was placed, reveals some wooden planks which seem loose. I tear one out and discover and old brown paper bag filled with green notes from a past century. Must be well over a million of them…
    (i’m not english, so excuse the cadences of this prose)

  18. Jeff,
    Your next-door neighbour is a short-sighted painter who just started experimenting with a novel form of pointillism. Big brush, big points, hence the knocking noise.

  19. Congrats in advance on your impending home buy, Jeffrey. I hope you get to hold on to NYC and not have to do one of the suburbs.

  20. OK. That’s almost as bizarre as the inexplicable things that seemed to happen during the Chinese month of the dead (Aug) when I was a kid in Singapore–designated “freak the trippers” month–like push tops of bottles of flat water popping off for no discernible reason.

    I just saw Chart Junk in the New York Times about NY house prices (via.) Related, perhaps? It sounds like buying in NY is like buying in Bristol, UK. As the erudite Andy Budd said today to a room full of students in Bristol, “if you’re interested in money (read: buying a house in NY etc,) don’t get into Web design.” But ah, the things we do for love.

  21. Might be a case of Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, that is, the “phenomenon where one happens upon some obscure piece of information–often an unfamiliar word or name–and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.”

    But then again, that might be just a means for God to work.

  22. I used to have a cousin who lived within walking distance of his job on Wall Street. He had a one bedroom apratmen— well, closet. He made good money which was essential to him. His rent was thousands every month, and he wore a $1000 suit every day. His life consisted of earning money to pay the huge bills necessary for him to stay where he was so he could continue to earn the more money. It was cyclic. Aside from the nice suits in the closet of his rented closet, he had nothing. No real possessions, no close family, no friends, and no social life. But who cares, he’s rich. Right?

    Meanwhile, I’m the country mouse living in rural NH (which is a great place to live by the way). I do okay but I don’t have a fraction of the money old cuz has. But I do have a real home which is bigger than a closet and actually has several closets in it — which I should rent to New Yorkers. I have friends, and a family, and a dog (who really is a member of the latter).

    I’ve asked my cousin about his life and what he’s given up in the pursuit of his riches. He states he’s lonely in the city. But he smiles and tells me he’s rich. I look at him and ask… are you? Are you really?

  23. Isn’t the U.S. heading into a housing crisis?

    Already deep in one. But not in New York City. Limited space (along with other factors) keeps prices rising, no matter what.

  24. Rent control tends to do that. It changes the incentives of every player. William Tucker had the breakthrough book “The Excluded Americans” almost two decades ago. Never got covered by the New York Times, though….

  25. We are still in Jeff’s rent stabilized apartment. Soon Jeff will be nearing his 4th decade in our apartment. Yeah, that’s right, four.

    We knew we could never buy in Manhattan. That’s why we bought the place in the Catskills. And I have to say, I’m glad we did. It feels nice to own something, to lay claim. Now it is where our heart is.

    There is life outside Manhattan.

  26. careful with the whole “no matter what” thing. after 1987 nyc real estate prices dropped, by 1993 were down 11 percent, and i believe stayed flat until ’99. if you’re in it for the long run, though, buying in nyc is probably still a good bet even at the current prices. yes the cliche still holds, in the long run we’re all dead, but as long as you’re not in a situation where you might need to cash out during a temporary downturn — which can, has, and will happen — you can count on rising prices unless something really awful happens on the island, in which case we’re all screwed anyway, so fuck it.

    my only really major issue with the housing prices is that, while you can probably sell that $1 million place for far more than you paid for it down the road, you still might be paying an $800,000 mortgage for a 1-bedroom, which sucks no matter what. it puts a damper on the whole “owning is better than renting no matter what” thing.

    (also, you only get “a little more space” in brooklyn if you’re looking in certain places. my commute is now 10, sometimes 15 minutes longer than when i lived on the LES, but i have a house, and hey, i read more. tradeoff acceptable.)

  27. Good luck with the house, I have been trying to buy one in California for a while now. It looks like our market is tanking, and will for a couple years.

    Weird about the book…

  28. i hear that the bronx is soon to become the new park slope. or queens. maybe it’s queens. or have they used up all the “x is the new y”s?

    the knocking thing is straight out of a conversation between freud and jung on the paranormal. it’s somewhere in “memories, dreams, reflections” i think.

    if i can buy a house in seattle, you can buy a house in new york. just keep listening too the strange noises, both inside and outside your head. oh, and keep an eye on the obits. just sayin’.

    john in california at 6:33 – i sincerely hope for your sake you’re not talking about the SF bay area. if you are, you’ll need more than luck. you’ll probably need to “disappear” some people. however, i hear rents are down!

  29. That’s right. God wants you to own an expensive apartment in NYC. Of course!

    When people misinterpret coincidences, atheists also tend to call such things “egotistical”.

    But anyway, good luck :)

  30. My landlord decided to raise the rent December last year and I started looking for a new house. I started looking for a new house but never settled on anything. A little later he decided to sell the house and I started looking for a new house but still couldn’t find anything good. He decided to increase the rent and tired of looking for a new one, I decided to pay a higher rent. A few days before I was to sign the agreement, my friend and neighbour who lives one floor below came to me and told me he is relocating to Singapore and would love if we could rent his house. God does has his way fo working things out for us.

  31. They’re not calling this “the New Gilded Age” for nothing. This is what happens when our government’s tax policies favor the uber-rich and the gap between rich and poor widens. Even though the prices have fallen somewhat in other markets, decent housing anywhere has become nearly impossible to find for the lower classes, and the middle class is stretched beyond belief.

    The New York Times had an interesting article a few days ago about how a consumption tax could work to turn this all around. Fat chance it’ll happen though.

    Some other time I’ll tell you about the paranormal experiences I’ve had.

  32. “Already deep in one. But not in New York City. Limited space (along with other factors) keeps prices rising, no matter what.”

    Ditto for San Francisco, the only really comparable market to NYC. Plus we San Franciscans apparently pay a £20,000 p/a premium for living in this most highly-desired areas of the country. Once those roots are down, though (family, friends, work, pre-schools, etc) it’s so hard to even think about moving away…

  33. WOW! Bizarre. It seems like a Sign from Above. I would start looking immediately! One *silly* question: Why would you want to live in NYC or ANY large city anyways? I thought that the Internet is making the world smaller. Far away places seem almost next door. That said, with the current housing and interest-rate market, you could probably buy a “Dream Home” on a few acres of land, “Far From the Maddening Crowd” for LESS THAN 1/4 of what you would pay in NYC. And you could still accomplish the same things that you do in NYC. If you’re like me, it doesn’t matter where I am, I’m usually glued to my computer screen. But it would sure be cool to be glued to a computer screen on a grassy knoll someplace than locked up inside of a tiny condo that costs $1 million. Just my 2 cents.

  34. If you waited, you’re lucky!
    You can probably find a place outside of NYC for way less now.
    I’m from the West Coast and have no idea where prices have gone in NYC…

  35. Thanks Jeffrey for such interesting story about New York.
    I write this comment in the end of 2009. Prices what you wrote about fallen down. God knocked until the market answers all the same.
    Now there is a great redistribution of property. And soon prices will raise with new power. So hurry up people who didn’t buy a house until now.

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