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Rant #417
(published January 15, 2009)
by David Erik Nelson
On the evening of October 13 we smelled gas. As a Detroit Edison technician fruitlessly wandered our neighborhood with a flashlight and digital gas-leak detector, my wife and I realized that the house next door, which had sat vacant since the owner's death, had an unfinished renovation. I told the gasman, and he and I trooped around back, where we discovered that a 20-foot length of copper gas line had been carefully unscrewed from its junction at the side of the renovated garage, and then roughly snapped off where it peeked out from beneath the half-finished car port. Natural gas blew freely from the ragged stub of pipe. If there had ever been a shut-off valve attached to this extension, then the copper thieves had taken it, too.

The home's owner, Mike, was killed in early March 2008, a few hours after the start of daylight savings time. Mike was working as a tow truck driver, pulling a drunk driver out of a ditch, when a second drunk sped past flares and police, then slammed into Mike, killing him instantly. One of Mike's old housemates, who'd returned for the funeral, told us that the second drunk had been going 60 miles per hour, and that Mike had been cut in half by the impact. I don't know if that's true, but it was a closed casket.

Had it not been for the economic downturn, Mike wouldn't have been standing on the shoulder of an exit ramp that morning. He'd run his own packaging company for nearly a decade, serving a vast network of local small businesses. But as the economy contracted and the rate increase on his home mortgage loomed, it became increasingly difficult to stay above water. Mike closed his business roughly a year before his death, ultimately returning to driving a wrecker, work he'd done as a young man years before.

On the evening of October 13, we let ourselves into Mike's tidy brick bungalow. Apart from the obvious public-safety concerns, I justify my actions in this way: Mike and I once agreed to look after each other's houses when the other was not around (this was after Mike had chased off a drunk that had gotten lost in my garage). We did not, at that time, stipulate any limitations on this agreement. Mike has not been around much lately. QED.

Although the carpets had been pulled and the walls freshly painted—Mike's siblings had begun preparing the property over the summer, then abruptly stopped—the kitchen still smelled of his cologne. The basement, which Mike had divided into a confusing warren of rooms, smelled strongly of gas. The DTE technician was visibly relieved when he finally found the meter in the back of a closet. He cranked it shut, then sealed it with a brass lock.

Meanwhile, my wife found a copy of Mike's obituary, still tucked into my old scarred-up Bible. The obituary included Mike's sister's married name, and she had a number listed in the phone book. Mike's sister was grateful for our assistance, then mentioned that the house was still stuck in probate. Although no payments had been made on the mortgage since March, Countrywide Home Loans—who had nearly gone bankrupt two months prior to Mike's death, then been bought by Bank of America—had yet to make a claim. She imagined they had their own problems.

Three days later a sketchy pair of contractors were at my side door, asking if "anyone lives next door." I asked what they wanted, and they said they'd been "sent by the mortgage company, or whatever." I said I'd have to see a card, some sort of ID. They took me around the house, to their big panel truck—an innocuous name and Detroit phone number boldly printed across the side—and produced a laptop showing a work order from Countrywide Financial Services. They were repossession specialists, sent to drill out the front locks, replace them with a discrete padlock, photograph the entire property, and enter bids to winterize it. "We're mostly out in Detroit," one contractor explained, "Sometimes we come to a place, and there's people living there." When asked if their arrival meant the property was in foreclosure, the contractor shrugged. "Well, when it's in foreclosure-foreclosure they have us come through and change all the locks."

It's three degrees here, now. There's a foot-and-a-half of snow on Mike's roof and a tree down in his front yard, and we haven't seen those contractors since football season.

(a version of this ran in the December 2008 issue of the Ann Arbor Observer)

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