The copper is the easiest, isn’t it, vandal? You can clear the whole house with a hammer and a hacksaw. Start in the basement at the water heater. If the property has been properly winterized, the water will be shut off, and even if it hasn’t been, it takes hours for a basement to flood and days for someone to notice. (Just make sure the power is off, for real. In April they found a fried vandal in a cellar in Pontiac, Michigan, his body bobbing as high as the window well.) The hacksaw can handle the pipe — not cleanly, but you don’t need it to be clean. For the wire, take the hammer to any electrical outlet and follow it from there. There’s no elegance to it. You might want to bring a dust mask for the sheetrock. With copper hitting three and a quarter this summer, you can make a couple of grand a house, especially if it’s one of those two-thousand-square-foot suburban boxes. There are dirtier ways to spend a night’s work.
But wait, you might ask, isn’t there copper in the external AC condensing unit?
There is, but only a little. Many a vandal has gutted a $2,500 condensing unit for twelve bucks’ worth of copper, and that’s just improvident. Don’t get greedy. If you haven’t got the resources to take the whole unit, leave it for the vandals who do. A big truck can really elevate your game. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ensures that its homes are all properly outfitted: every foreclosed HUD home has an oven, refrigerator, furnace, and water heater, with potential dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, microwaves, and stand-alone freezers besides. In the hot and recessed cities of the Sunbelt — your Lubbocks and Mesas and Rios Ranchos — a lot of the hardware is brand-new and ready to relocate to the pawnshop, scrap yard, or relative’s apartment of your choosing. If your team has matching jumpsuits or a white guy to answer the neighbors’ questions, you can do the whole job in broad daylight.
You can do all that. The people who used to live there — those American dreamers or deadbeat mortgage-loan defaulters — they’ve already lost the house, and with it all the love and security and copper pipe therein. Now, in 2009, those items belong to the federal government, which takes notice of them only inasmuch as, once they are gone, their value is subtracted from the asking price of the property, which is already being unloaded at a bargain in a buyer’s market. That value is determined by me, Conn Driscoll, a largely untrained and unsupervised employee of a contractor of a contractor of a contractor of said federal government. A temp, in fact.
So of all the victims and criminals and corrupt officials involved in this whole sordid collapse, I ask you, vandal, why write messages to taunt me?
On a Monday morning, sitting in my cubicle sipping burnt coffee, I get a call from Tamboura. He’s standing at 2245 Wynn Court on Detroit’s West Side.
“Again?” I ask. “What did they do this time?”
“Hard to say,” says Tamboura in the polite, resigned tone I’ve found is typical of Detroiters, “other than kick in the boards at the back door. What’s it say they did last time?”
I pull up the property-condition report for 2245. I’ve revised it four times already. When we acquired the house in March, it was missing the water heater, stove, fridge, and kitchen cabinets. In May someone took the rest of the appliances, shattered the French doors, and shit in all the toilets. In early June they stole the copper. In late June they stole the bathtub fixtures and a good amount of the vinyl siding. At the beginning of July they broke the remaining windows. A week later they smashed the toilets and sinks and scattered the fiberglass insulation throughout the house. I figure those last two incidents were probably just some kids. Or maybe it was the previous residents themselves: sometimes they come back to take out their frustration on the shells of their former lives.
“There should still be three radiators inside,” I tell Tamboura. “You see them?”
“I’ll check.” Even over the phone I can hear the emptiness of the house: Tamboura’s echoing footsteps on the floorboards, the grit against the soles of his boots. “This inside gets any emptier,” he says, “it’s gonna be outside.”
“I hear you there,” I say. My language has trended toward the folksy since I started working with these heartland types — not purposefully, but rather through a sort of pandering osmosis. I think it speaks to some inherent character flaw in the person I’ve become — or, worse, the person I’ve always been.
I hate this job. That should go without saying. I’d quit if I thought I could find something better, but the collapse of the housing market has collapsed the job market, too. I’ve got student loans and a liberal-arts degree. I rent a crappy row house with two other guys. And I’ve got a big bag of colloquial expressions that play from Phoenix to Flint, so I’m always prepared to have a hoot and a holler and a tuna-noodle hot dish. Does that make any sense? I’m a friendly, easily replaceable automaton, is the point.
“No radiators here,” says Tamboura. “Looks like they tagged up the living room, too.”
Cast-iron radiators are worth their weight in cast iron, which is to say not very much at all. That’s probably why they were the last to go. At the bottom of the property file I type: “Radiators missing. Property condition report revised due to vandalism.”
“Alrighty,” I say, eager to end the conversation. “Just resecure that door, and I’ll get you a work order for the lock.”
“Sounds good to me,” says Tamboura. “That graffiti is just so strange.”
“Strange how?” I ask, wishing I were the sort of person who could just hang up a phone midsentence.
“Cryptic, I mean,” says Tamboura. “I sent you a picture. You check it out, tell me what you think.”
I open my mailbox and find Tamboura’s message. The picture is blurry, artificially bright from the flash. Every contractor doubles as a bad photographer in this economy. The words are written on the wall in tall slashes of spray paint, but the message is quite legible: CORNELIUS — WHERE THE TREASURE AT?
“Does that mean anything to you?” I ask Tamboura. “Is it a local reference maybe?”
“Damned if I know,” says Tamboura. “Damned if I even know a Cornelius.”
I’m a Cornelius. (Though I go by Conn. Wouldn’t you?) Cornelius Driscoll, not-yet-permanent employee and sole member of the Vandalism Department at Terminus Management Specialists, Inc. My geographic area of responsibility fits roughly into the triangle formed by Detroit; Austin, Texas; and Carson City, Nevada. I operate from a cubicle at the Terminus headquarters in northeast Philadelphia.
After I wrap up the call, acting unperturbed but still plenty perturbed, I hear: “Are you using Tamboura again?” The voice comes from the next cubicle, which houses the entire Adverse Occupants Department in the person of one Dion Lombardo.
“Yeah,” I say. “Why?”
“You should spread the work around,” says Dion. “It keeps the contractors hungry.”
“Adverse occupants” is an industry euphemism for squatters. It’s important to Terminus that the vacant properties under our stewardship remain vacant. “Adverse-occupant clearance” is normally no more complicated than asking the local police to escort the squatters off the property. Most go quietly. It sounds cruel, because it is, but, as Dion is quick to point out, “there are 18 million vacant homes in America. Chances are they’ll find a new one down the block. So don’t be a pussy.”
Dion thinks I’m a pussy for a lot of reasons. I try not to lie to the contractors, for one. I don’t like to haggle with them over prices, for another. I believe the things they tell me about the properties, for a third. Dion accuses me of taking the job too personally.
“You know, I bet a lot of these contractors are vandalizing the properties themselves,” muses Dion. “Steal the copper. Sell it. Call it in. Get a work order to secure the property. Get paid twice.”
“Maybe they’re too hungry,” I say.
Dion and I were hired the same week, and so far we’ve managed to remain hired for nearly six months. Around here that’s more impressive than it sounds. Federal contracts are highly competitive. If you’re not doing the job in the fastest time for the cheapest rate, you’re out. That’s true whether you’re a contractor in West Detroit or our employers lobbying Congress in D.C. Any change in government contracts creates vacancies here at headquarters. If we lose the Fannie Mae contract for Indiana, the Indiana reps are gone. If we pick up the Freddie Mac contract for Illinois, that’s a new slate of reps. Across the cubicle wall from me is Julie Zippo, the rep who handles the HUD contract for Michigan. Before her it was an Arizona rep named Sam. Before Sam it was a Nebraska rep named Lorenzo. All temps. Temps are temporary. Sooner or later I’ll be gone like the rest of them.
Job performance is one of the less-important criteria for continued employment here at Terminus, from what I’ve observed. So much of property management is dependent on unpredictable forces: the amount of snowfall in New England, the price of gas in California, the potency of methamphetamine in Cleveland. Decisions about who stays and who goes are made by analytical despots like Len Svizzero, a wan, blond, unassuming man who paces the floor every few days, scratching on his notepad, realigning departments. In nearly six months I’ve never heard him speak. I don’t even know his nominal position in the company. But I know if Len wants you out, that’s it.
I’ve heard one story of Len walking past a woman who is talking to a contractor on the phone: Len stops. He listens in on a few sentences of the exchange. He then walks down to the end of the row and asks a rep, “That girl — what does she do?” The rep doesn’t know. He asks another rep; that one doesn’t know either. Len writes something on his notepad, tears it off, goes back to the woman, hands it to her, walks away. And she’s done, just like that, with the ruthless, arbitrary efficiency of a tyrant who loves his job.
There’s a culture of superstition about avoiding termination. If you want to stick around, don’t be a loner. Don’t be anonymous. Have some sort of gimmick that allows you to stand out: grow your beard long, wear bow ties, organize lunch outings. Seem foundational, essential, irreplaceable. I inherited my position and cubicle from a guy named Chong, who left only a name tag and an index card pinned to the wall with a couplet written on it in tight, effete script: “Till Goths, and Vandals, a rude Northern race, / Did all the matchless Monuments deface.” I replaced his name tag with my own, in a much larger, bolder hand. Above that I put up a loud, eye-catching sign: VANDALISM. I am Conn, the vandalism guy.
Dion’s head pops up over our cubicle divider. He keeps his hair short and tight, with a chin-enhancing goatee. “Check out my new signature,” he says.
I open his e-mail. The bottom reads: “Dion Lombardo, Manager, Adverse Occupants Department.”
“You’re a manager now?” I ask. “Says who?”
Dion grins, not with his teeth but with his eyes. “I am the entire Adverse Occupants Department. Ergo, I manage it. Ipso facto, I am the department manager.” He sits back down. “Try it yourself.”
“I don’t want to be a manager,” I tell him. “I’m not trying to rise in this company. Once I get the faintest whiff of something better, I’m out of here.”
“What are you, too cool?” asks Dion. “ ’Cause the too cool can get axed just like everybody else. So can the uncool. So can the moderately cool. The people they don’t fire are managers with performing departments. You gotta carpe diem, Connie. That’s Latin. What did I tell you about being a pussy?”
I wish I could quit my job. I can’t stand the pressure, the dishonesty. The higher-ups hand me one price to give to the contractor when I hire him, then a new one when it’s time for him to do the work, then a third after auditing. They get mad when the contractors quit, but you can’t just lie to people and expect them to keep coming back for more. Can you?
The thing about property management is that it’s a boom industry. These are boom times, like the gold rush or the dot-com explosion or the postwar era, when everyone bought a new house in the suburbs. Only now it’s the other way around: no one can afford the big, new suburban home, so someone needs to take care of them all after they’ve been foreclosed on by the bank. Five years ago the property-management industry was minor, peripheral. In another five, if the economy recovers, it will disappear again, like a shark beneath the water’s surface.
As in all boom times, somebody is going to get rich in this one, but it’s not going to be me. I don’t even have a car and have to catch a ride home with a tall, twitchy Pennsylvania rep on the new Fannie Mae contract. It’s been less than a month since Terminus acquired the contract, and the situation is already starting to fall apart. His whole side of the office has been frantic. But it’s taken attention away from the other departments, so I’ve been quietly enjoying it.
Kensington, where I live, is also where a good portion of the repossessed properties in Philadelphia are found. From the freeway I look out over the rooftops and try to pick out the vacants, but everything appears more or less the same from above: blocks of houses, most of which still have their water heaters, bathroom fixtures, and stoves. But all residents are temporary residents, really. People come and go. A city is its real estate: its shingles, sheetrock, and copper pipes.
We get off at the Girard exit, and my co-worker drops me off on Jasper Street, at the address I maintain with a little more than half my paycheck. I look up and down the block at the red-brick row houses with spent roofs and faulty wiring that will surely one day spark and burn us all to death as we sleep. But we still have our radiators. So it’s not as bad as Wynn Court, vandal. Not yet.
It’s a Wednesday. I have to get nine windows repaired on Detroit’s Lower East Side, on a house that’s about to be sold. Normally we board windows, but these need to have glass in them — at least, until the property becomes somebody else’s problem. If I spend more than $150, somebody up the chain of command is going to chew my ass out. “I could do it for under $150,” Tamboura is saying, “but those windows are gonna be made of cellophane.” I tell him just to board them up until I can talk to someone.
Dion struts up like a drum major, whipping a packet of papers in the air. “Guess who’s about to be permanent, dickhead.”
“How?” I ask. Permanent is a salary, benefits, stability. Job security. Permanent is permanent.
If, you know, you want that sort of thing.
“Come on, Connie,” says Dion, sliding into his chair. “Managers can’t be making a paltry temp wage. I’m moving up in this fucker.”
Dion spent two years in the state correctional facility at Chester, though I’m not exactly sure for what. The most I’ve heard him say about it is that he “overreacted,” which was “unfortunate.” I feel for Dion. It must be infinitely more difficult to find a job when you’ve got a criminal record. Having managed to slip one felonious foot in the door of this office, he probably intends to make the most of the opportunity. The prospect of a career in this business fills me, however, with gloom.
On the other hand, Dion doesn’t have any student loans, so I’d still probably trade places with him.
Zippo calls from her cubicle. “Hey, Dion, I got a bear in a place on Algonac.”
“So?” Dion calls back, filling out his packet of papers.
Zippo sighs. “So, I got a bear adversely occupying a property on Algonac.”
Dion looks at me and grins. “Sounds like an infestation to me. That’s within the state rep’s purview.”
“It’s a bear, Dion, not a goddamn termite.”
Dion stands and looks down into Zippo’s cube. “As the manager of the Adverse Occupants Department,” he says slowly, “I’m going to make the executive decision to tell you to fuck off with your bear problem. Now, if you want to ask the nonmanager of the Vandalism Department for help, he may be able to do something for you, as he is weak-willed and servile.”
Zippo peers over at me. I can see her face only from the nostrils up. Viewed over a cubicle wall, everyone looks like a bewildered child. “Call animal control,” I tell her. “And I’m not servile; I’m personable.”
I walk up to the front of the cubicle bay, where our department heads reside in slightly taller, roomier cubicles. Pat Tedeschi, the HUD Recurring Services manager, is hunched over his keyboard, his left leg bouncing like a piston. Pat is in his late thirties and has lost most of his hair. He always has the tense, bored look of a man in a hospital waiting room. I ask him about the windows on the East Side.
“Give him the price he wants,” he says. “Auditing will comb through the pictures afterward and find a way to cut it down.” When I don’t leave immediately, he looks up. “Problem?”
“It’s just . . . Tamboura is a good contractor. He does good work. I don’t think they’ll find any reasons to bilk him. And if they do, he won’t do window repairs for us again.”
Pat eyes me with the bemusement of a horse observing a small dog. “You said he’s in Detroit? He’ll do window repairs for us again even if we don’t pay him anything. He’s got nothing else going. And if he doesn’t want to do windows, we’ll give all his work to the next guy. You think he’s the only asshole in Michigan with a tape measure and a caulk gun? These guys have got nothing, Conn. They’re lucky we give them this.”
I have no reply, so I return to my cubicle.
Dion is on the phone. “All right, Mario, just don’t make the news,” he says and hangs up. “Did you know Mario in San Tan Valley is driving around with an AR-15 in his truck? These contractors are packing serious heat.”
“It’s the Wild West out there,” I say, slumping to my desk, resting my forehead against the cold formica.
Dion rocks back in his chair. “Wild West. Wild Midwest. Wild Northeast. It’s the Wild Everywhere, man. Squatters, meth heads, bears in the cities. I say bring on the zombies, kid, ’cause it can’t get much wilder.” He glances up the aisle. “What were you talking to Pat about?”
“Window repairs. He wants me to scam Tamboura in Detroit.”
I expect Dion to tell me again how I’m using Tamboura too much, but he says, “Pat’s got an ax over his head. Not long for this office.”
“Do you think so?” I ask.
“Don’t you think so?” says Dion. “I mean, if I were to say the right word to Len about what Pat does or doesn’t do around here?” He makes a chopping motion with his hand. “Fa-shunk. That’s the sound of an ax coming down.”
“I’m sure Len knows what Pat does and doesn’t do,” I say. “I mean, Pat probably reports to Len. Right?”
“Bro, I don’t think anybody around here knows what anybody does,” says Dion. “I’m pretty sure this whole thing is built on implication.”
I have trouble disputing that. “Are you going to do it? Say something to Len?”
Dion grins. “I’d love to. Only problem is, Connie, I ain’t no snitch.”
My phone rings. A contractor named Bedros is calling from 2201 Veach Street, Detroit’s East Side. A group of squatters have finally been removed after almost a month. Michigan has unusually robust squatters’ rights, and the process of eviction can be lengthy. In Detroit nothing ever goes quietly.
“These folks really did a number in here,” says Bedros in his husky growl.
Bedros used to be a cop. Then he started helping people escape their credit-card debt by selling falsified police reports of identity theft, so they could claim they didn’t run up the balance themselves. It’s another of our era’s cottage industries. He ended up with his picture in the papers above a story asking why so many Detroit police officers go bad. He’ll never work as a cop again, but he still has the mentality of one. The Michigan squatting laws offend him. I’m afraid he’s going to drop somebody one of these days, just to get it out of his system.
“What’s the damage?” I ask. “Bottles? Needles? Did they shit everywhere?”
“None of that, no. But the whole ground floor needs to be cleaned out. There’s a futon, a few beach chairs, blankets. There’s crayons and some kids’ stuff. There’s a mattress in one of the bedrooms. Some cans and cereal in the cabinets. There’s a bag of recyclables in the kitchen and a couple of bags of trash outside.”
“Get rid of all of it,” I say.
“Looks like they cut some sheetrock to patch the holes in the walls. I could finish it if you want.”
“No, we don’t do repairs,” I say. “We just mark it in the file.”
“Okey-doke. How about the graffiti in the basement?”
“We only cover graffiti if it’s vulgar or profane. Is it vulgar or profane?”
“Not sure,” he says. “It’s in Latin.”
Five minutes later I’m staring at Bedros’s pictures. Big block letters, filling most of a basement wall: CORNELIUS — VAE VICTIS.
OK, vandal. The graffiti is starting to get to me. Some things are hard not to take personally.
I’ve tried to convince myself you can’t really be talking to me, but then again, why not? Maybe I’m famous in certain Detroit circles. Is that so far-fetched? I’ve hired a dozen contractors there, at least, and fired quite a few. You could be one of them getting back at me, trying to get into my head. You all know Dion because you call him when you find squatters in a property. Did he put you up to it — Dion with his jokes and his Latin? Maybe all of you are in cahoots. Or maybe I’m just paranoid.
I should quit. I’ve been considering it for a while. Beat management to my inevitable termination. I’m an idiot to wait for the row house on Jasper Street to crumble around me and for Kensington to become my tomb.
But who am I kidding? Even if my student loans somehow went away, even if my lease somehow disappeared, even if I could suddenly wake up in a new place, what else is there? Of what shining new frontier am I unaware? I sit at a computer every day while contractors send me pictures of the houses of the cities of America, and none of those worlds looks any brighter than my own.
I realize I’m talking to no one, by the way. I want you to know that.
It’s a Friday. I think. The days have been running together. Earlier this week Terminus lost all the HUD contracts except Michigan. It’s as though even HUD realizes Michigan is a lost cause and thus is willing to let Terminus continue to mismanage it. The company fired all the state reps but Zippo, whom they added to my Vandalism Department in a support capacity. It’s just her and me now — and Dion, though he spends most of his time in management meetings.
Between me and Zippo there is not a hell of a lot to do, but she’s good company. She’s a ball-breaker — and cute in a casual, tomboy sort of way, but she has a girlfriend named Shannon with whom she plans to elope to Minnesota once Shannon finishes medical school. I tell Zippo she’s too Northeast Philly for the heartland and that she should learn some of my useful heartland phrases if she wants to fit in. She suggests that I move to Detroit and present myself to the first bear I encounter.
Today she pulls her chair over to my cubicle so I can show her how to update the property files, and she sees a new index card I’ve hung next to the one left by my predecessor. “What’s with that?” she asks, pointing to the card, which reads: “Vae victis.”
“Some graffiti I saw,” I tell her.
“Strange,” she says.
“Why?” I ask. “Do you know what it means?”
“I think ‘Woe to the victors,’ ” she says. “No, wait. It’s ‘Woe to the vanquished.’ ”
I explain to her the workings of the Vandalism Department, and halfway through I realize how deranged it sounds: If someone takes the refrigerator, we mark down that it’s missing. We estimate the cost, but we don’t buy a new one. If they take the copper, there is no more copper. If they make a hole in the wall, we don’t patch up the hole. It just becomes a fact of the house: there is now a hole in the wall. We never fix anything. I have never fixed anything. I have never made one single thing whole again.
I tell her about a house on Appoline Street in Detroit that someone hit with his car. I don’t know if the driver was mad or drunk or suicidal, but he stuffed his Chrysler into the living room. Now the house is slowly caving in on itself. For a while Bedros was calling me about it every week or so, even though he knew there was nothing I could do. Whatever force is responsible for repair no longer holds sway in Detroit. But Bedros would call and take a picture and send it to me, a post-industrial memento mori.
“It’s hard to dismiss the collapse when you’re literally watching a house collapse,” I say.
“What do you care?” says Zippo. “It’s not your house.”
Dion takes Zippo out to a late lunch, and I stay behind in our now empty section of the floor, listening to a dozen sleeping computers. Tamboura calls from 1184 North Larson Street, Southwest Detroit. Despite Dion’s advice, I’ve been using Tamboura almost exclusively. Bedros has been in the hospital: the guy finally took a swing at a squatter, and the squatter swung back with a two-by-four.
Tamboura ended up taking a loss on the window repairs. I figured he’d tell me to fuck off after that, but Pat was right: he needs the work and still jumps on whatever I throw at him. He’s become less friendly, for sure, but I suppose friendliness just gets in the way. His calls are quick lately, purely exchanges of information. “Can’t talk long,” he says. “It’s already past five, and I still gotta hit Puritan, Riad, Edmore, Bishop, Seminole—”
“What’s up?” I ask impatiently.
“I just wanted to tell you I found another one of those Cornelius messages. Man must be somebody big. They tagged up the whole side of a house to get his attention.”
My insides shrink. “What’s it say?” I ask.
“Big letters. Must have used a ladder. Says, CORNELIUS — GET OUT OF DETROIT.”
“Shit,” I say.
“Yeah,” says Tamboura. “Wonder who he pissed off.”
I cradle the phone. My stomach feels as though it’s collapsing around an American-made sedan.
I’m not going anywhere, vandal. Not till I decide to. I manage Detroit. I’ve helped prepare it for burial, and I’ll be the keeper of its bones.
Thinking I might be dreaming, I look around for confirmation that the world is unchanged, and that’s when I see Len standing mere feet away, pale and slight as an apparition.
He is looking down on Dion’s empty desk. His eyes flit up, and suddenly I’m staring into his watery gaze below a receding hairline. It’s the moment I’ve avoided for the past six months. I’ve tried to keep out of Len’s line of sight, to keep my very existence hidden from his reductive mental math. I say nothing.
“Who sits here?” he asks. His voice is strangely beautiful, quick and quiet as a mouse click.
“Dion Lombardo,” I say.
“And what does he do?”
Dion is the Manager of the Adverse Occupants Department. It says so in his e-mail signature. He is an ex-convict. He is permanent. He is my cubicle neighbor, my cohire, my confidant. I know what he does. Don’t I know what he does?
“I don’t know,” I hear myself say.
Len makes a note on his pad. “And you?” he asks. “What do you do?”
Me? I’m Conn, the vandalism guy. I’m a provincial magistrate in the service of a retreating empire. I’m a collaborator. A class traitor.
“I’m the manager of the Vandalism Department,” I say.
Len watches my face, my eyelids, my nostrils. He can see the tiny movements of my ears, I’m sure of it. “So you’re permanent,” he says.
“Yes,” I say, grinning in terror at the reality of my words. “Here to stay. They told me I’d be getting an office soon.”
“Did they?” asks Len. He clucks his tongue like a man who up until this very moment believed that he’d moved beyond the possibility of wonder. He makes a note on his pad, tears it off, and leaves it on Dion’s desk. Then he turns and walks toward the bank of dark offices at the far side of the vast room. He disappears around a corner, his footfalls fade, and I am alone among the rows and rows of cubicles and monitors.
There’s a peacefulness to this office I’ve never noticed before. It’s like the product of a plan well executed. I don’t mind it when it’s like this. Here the electricity runs with the comforting thrum of civilization. Here the air is heated by a massive furnace in the basement and cooled by giant condensers on the roof. There are dozens of dozing computers, hundreds of wires running down to connect us to the power grid. In this building I am insulated. They can’t get me in here, all those vandals out in the wilderness.