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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Lesson in Humility Amidst Another Man's Treasure...

Not far from what I found...
They say that one man's trash is another man's treasure. However, it wasn't until recently that I was able to really crystallize the meaning of the phrase, while helping an elderly man move out of his apartment.

Let me start at the beginning. For the past few years, I have been trying to sell a commercial/ residential building, just north of Miami International Airport in Miami Springs. The property has four business spaces on the ground floor and three one-bedroom apartments on the second. (Yes, for those that don't know, aside from being a husband, father, TV news editorial manager and part-time blogger, I'm also a part-time Realtor; which is not saying much compared to the amount of hats my wife wears!)

In any event, while the building is attractively located and has tremendous potential, it is what Realtors would call a "fixer upper" or, better yet, would describe as needing "some TLC" (otherwise known as some tender loving care).

Unfortunately, because of that reason, a couple of contracts had fallen through after the inspections.

To make a long story short (which is not easy for me!), after much haggling, breakdowns in negotiations, taking the property off the market and more negotiations, we finally reached a deal with a buyer willing to take on the workload at a price the seller was willing to accept.

There was one condition; the top floor, where two tenants had been living since the 1970's, would have to be evacuated, so that the new owner could gut and restore it before putting it up for rent again.

That is where my story gets interesting.

Obviously, the tenants were not exactly thrilled about having to move. One because, despite the conditions that he kept his apartment in, and you can just imagine in what condition an unmarried man in his fifty's, who has been living in the same tiny apartment for about thirty years with no aspirations of moving on up, like George and Weezy, would keep it in, I guess because it was home to him and he had grown comfortable (even with the leaky roof, mold on the bear walls with no drywall and a part of the floor that was ready to give in!).

However, probably the hardest sell to relocate was of the elderly man in the front apartment, who had moved out several years before, but had so much "stuff" in the unit, that he preferred to keep paying for it as storage then having to move his things. In fact, every time, I went to show the apartment, he said he was going to get around to it one day.

To top it off, he had just had open-heart surgery in February and wasn't in any condition to move his things (or so he said, which I doubted until he showed me his scar on his chest the minute we both arrived at the apartment. I guess, trying to prove that he couldn’t lift anything!).  In fact to move up and down the stairs was a task for him and caused him shortness of breath.

He wanted a month to clear his apartment, which considering that he had been meaning to get around to it for over five years, I was sure would take even longer. But, the longer he took, the longer it was going to take to close the sale.

Therefore, being “Mr. Nice Guy,” and knowing my commission depended on my clearing the units as soon as possible (unfortunately, even when I'm being "nice," my motives are not always noble!), and considering the seller lives in upstate Florida, I volunteered to help the tenant with the move; figuring, how much could it take to clear a one-bedroom apartment (a couple of days of work?).

Well, to my surprise; a lot more than I expected! Have you ever watched one of those hoarder shows on TV? You know the ones where people are living under mounds of junk, half-eaten pizzas, delivery food boxes, clothes, books, magazines, files, and knickknacks?

It was worse; sans the half-eaten food. Not only was there an overwhelming smell of some dead animal (probably a rat), which permeated the entire apartment and slapped you in the face, like Moe hitting Larry and Curly, the moment he opened the door, but there were layers upon layers of dust and a never-ending amount of all sorts of stuff; from books, to a rock collection, to documents from the 1970's signed by environmentalist and activist, Marjory Stoneman-Douglas, and then-Governor Bob Graham, to hundreds of books, encyclopedia, a boat anchor and ropes, termite spray, walkie-talkies (that still worked, according to him!), CB radio antennas (I didn't know they still existed!), car wash items (that he was going to get around to using it one day) and much, much more.

To put it into perspective, a moving company that I hired to come in several days later to finish the work I started refused to take the job, saying it was too disgusting and they couldn't work under those deplorable conditions! (This really ticked me off!)

I was left in shock and awe, probably like Saddam Hussein after the U.S. invaded Iraq, but said a prayer, asking for strength and offering my work to God, took a deep breath and, despite feeling like I needed a hazardous materials suit before going in, I started putting books into boxes. I figured I would eventually get used to the smell. I didn’t!

Anyway, if that wasn't bad enough, he was attached to most of his things, and wanted to keep everything that I found (and he didn't even remember he had!). He kept saying, "That would sell well on E-bay," or  "That has a lot of value!" Or, the topper, “You can’t find these anymore!” No kidding! Who would want them, I thought!

So, as I put books upon books away, and, after finding a feather duster, I dusted them off before storing and sealing them (He wanted to make sure they were sealed so they wouldn't get damaged!), he started sifted through some of his things and gave me permission to toss out a few things (Throw things away? I pounced like a cat jumping on a sofa); it was mostly a couple of chairs that were falling apart due to termites, some old clothes that he had piled in a corner (including dirty underwear!), empty boxes that he once collected (for what?), a large spool, that once belonged to a fabric store downstairs and some voodoo-looking wooden art pieces (that were probably filled with termites as well and when I put outside near the trash can someone took!).

Yet, in the hours I spent in that practically unbearable stench and going up and down the stairs clearing, what to me, appeared to be mostly junk, I got to know the old man and realized where he was coming from.

Here was a man in his mid-to-late 60's. His only family was a brother in upstate New York and a grown niece and nephew that also lived in the Northeast.

This "stuff" was everything to him. It was his identity, memories and his life's accomplishments. The value and attachment he felt for these things, was not the monetary value he would get on E-bay, as much as the worth they gave his life. It was his legacy.

I thought, let's be honest, we are probably going through the trouble of moving all this stuff into storage, and at some point, possibly in a not-too-distant future, he was going to die, and it would probably be tossed out, as probably happens to hundreds of people every day (which sadly reminded me of Eleanor Rigby from the Beatles' song).

I was humbled. Here I was complaining inwardly of having to do this filthy, tedious and arduous job by myself and feeling sorry for myself and a bit taken advantage of. And, instead, God was using me. I thought, God loves this old man, just as He loves me, and was giving me an opportunity to befriend and help him; a lonely soul, who was exposing his entire life to me and trusting that I would help.

It was as if the words Christ says in the Gospel, "Whatever you did for the least of these who are members of my family, you did for me" were hitting me over the head. I felt a sense shame but also affection for the old man. I think he realized it by the way I treated his “stuff.”

At the end of the day, after over four hours of work, which didn’t even making a dent in the pile of, until that day, disregarded items, and taking some to storage, we agreed that we would have to hire some professional movers to complete the job and he said to me, "You're a good man, Mr. Espinosa. I hope the next guys that come are a lot like you."

"Thank you," I answered, knowing exactly what he meant. He trusted me, as he would admit to me a few days later, and, as a Christian, there is no greater compliment he could have given me...

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