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Praise for Entangled in America



The author’s story will touch readers with its authenticity. Her writing is spare, but emotional. Women will identify with her. Men will remember women like her.



Sarah Bates, author of The Lost Diaries of Elizabeth Cady Stanton



Wanjiru Warama’s writing shows a superior understanding of human nature. It has subtle humor.



Joe Torricelli, author of As Luck Would Have It



The book is a rich narrative of Warama’s ups and downs, as she makes her way to accomplish her dream of an independent woman. She has found her voice and rhythm as she triumphs in America.



Kathy J. Davis, A sucker for a good story













ENTANGLED
IN
AMERICA











Wanjiru Warama

Athomi Books

California, U.S.A.



Entangled in America


Copyright © 2017 by Wanjiru Warama

All rights reserved.

The reproduction, transmission or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without written permission.


wanjiruwarama.com

wanjiru.warama@gmail.com


Published November, 2017

United States of America


First Edition

ISBN: 978-0998051321


Published by Athomi Books

8064 Allison Avenue, #684

La Mesa, California, CA 91942


Cover Design: LimelighBookcovers.com















Dedicated to my late brother Stephen Mũriithi Warama

and to my sister Florence Wairimũ Warama

for their unwavering love and support



And to authors whose books have helped shape a better life for me







Table of Contents


1: It’s About Money

2: Roommate

3: Pyramid Scheme

4: May West

5: Another Side of Real Estate

6: Chotara

7: I’ll Beg or Work for Food

8: Home Safari Realty

9: Bankruptcy

10: Aged and Lonely

11: Mr. and Mrs. Drunk

12: 52nd Street Property

13: Arm-candy

14: Bankruptcy Discharge

15: Partnership and Foundation

16: Piggy Bank

17: Two Old Men on a Mission

18: A Movie Star

19: Repair Garage 89

20: Acturial Tables Glitch

21: It Takes a Village Call

22: The Village Gets Tested

23: Mr. Vegas

24: Superior Court

25: Family Ties

26: Tribalism

27: The List

28: The Power of Bloodline

29: Driving Disability

30: Tribalism Seed

31: Tribal Pecking Order

32: Missed Signals

33: Strange People

34: The Ultimate Loss

35: Debt Collector and Heir

36: The Mighty Dollar

37: Don

38: The Village Fails

39: Psychic to the Rescue

40: The Alligator House

41: Real Estate Bubble

42: Unschooled Tribalist

43: Primal Fear

44: Special Lotion

45: Mr. Distinguished

46: The Trance

47: Lawsuit seed

48: Lawsuit Call

49: Lawsuit Nurture

50: The Cracked Slab

51: Crafting a Lawsuit

52: Dr. Credentials

53: The Brothas

54: The Lie

55: We Need to Talk

56: Dominance and Submission

57: Yes or No to Dominance

58: My Way or the Highway

59: Mediations

60: A Penniless Old woman

61: The Quiet Rant

62: Mediation Round One

63: Mediation Round Two

64: The Final Round

65: This Too Shall Pass

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS






1

It’s About Money





Who knew I would be stuck in the African immigrants’ merry-go-round, always talking of going home as soon as financially able. One year follows another, and before one knows it, years pile up into decades. Finally, the home-goer’s limbs weaken and the grave inches closer than “home.”

My going-back-home story started back in 1984 when I first arrived in the United States, and the culture shock debilitated me. I stuck it out and finished my final year of college. In the process, I ran out of money and couldn’t afford an air ticket back home.

By mid-1986, I had taken a stand. The need for long-term goals mattered little to me. Without a committed relationship to lean on or to rush back to in Kenya, my country of birth, I planned to hunker down in the USA, “find myself,” and eventually return to Kenya richer and more socially liberated.

Despite my focused efforts, in the next four and a half years, “finding me” remained elusive. Besides, I didn’t know what “finding me” really meant. How would I know I had found myself? My stressors still walked in step with me. My family in Kenya lived in poverty and failed to understand why I could live in America, a rich country, and not visit or afford to help as I did when I lived in Nairobi. Why then, they wondered, did I remain in a foreign country.

Raised in Kenya, however, where women’s “ceiling” was, and still is, to a lesser extent, lower than that of women in the western world, I remained unsure of whether I had the fortitude to wade through the Kenyan society as an unmarried woman. When I first came to America, those two parts of my life—my family’s unrealistic expectations of my ability to help financially and women’s social challenges—had driven me to leave Kenya for America, albeit to take a timeout for one year.

The year came and went, my psychological demons still unresolved. But bills had no respect for my plans or my ‘poor me’ issues —they needed immediate attention.

Fortunately, the one part of my life I was clear about since my days in Nairobi, and always worked hard to avoid, was becoming a member of “the less fortunate among us.” I had woven my life into the American tapestry and become a member of the working middle-class, workers one paycheck or mortgage payment away from lower class. I enjoyed homeownership—a three-bedroom, two-car garage house I bought in January 1991 on Arrowwood Drive in San Diego, California.

Meanwhile, I existed outside the general economy’s loop. I focused on raising Mariana, my twelve-year-old daughter, and on growing my clientele, since I had become a real estate professional two years prior. I read business books, especially the real estate how-to genre, marketed my property listings, and prospected for business, too busy to read newspapers or listen to other business news. But something anti-real estate was going on, only I wasn’t sure what, like a body malaise without a diagnosis.

My fellow agents at Realty Edge Ltd., a husband and wife company in neighboring National City, complained about their slow business. But the husband/manager harped on, “You make your own market.” I became even more tenacious in my prospecting: distributing flyers, calling prospects, and going door-to-door. Despite my efforts, an economic tsunami—a brewing savings and loan housing debacle—blindsided me. By the time it reached its zenith, it had slowed my sales to a trickle and swept me out of my house.

~~~

The first clue that something was amiss came from my property listings. I had a whiteboard pinned on the wall next to my desk where I recorded property addresses, sizes, amenities, and prices. My board looked impressive, but the properties hardly sold.

When I received an offer, half the time the property didn’t sell. Main reasons were buyers’ inability to qualify for loans because of low income, bad credit, sketchy employment, not enough down payment, or unverifiable source of funds. Other reasons included loss of job during escrow, buyers' remorse, or seller and buyer failure to agree on repairs. Sometimes unpaid child support or decades-old, long forgotten, welfare receipts sank sales of even the most experienced agents and brokers.

In cases of welfare, recipients didn’t understand that welfare money, like work-relief payments, was free as long as one lived and died poor. If one made money, the government thrust its hand out.

Because child support and welfare payments never appeared on the regular credit reports, unpaid accounts appeared in title reports. Title companies had to get the records’ details from the city’s Revenue and Recovery Department that was famous for dragging its feet. After paying the delinquent accounts, buyers lacked enough money, which meant they had to beg their relatives to pitch in or borrowed from their retirement accounts. Already tired of the long process, some buyers looked for any excuse to cancel.

Sometimes negative economic news or the heavy responsibility of paying on a mortgage spooked others. Some of the buyers changed their minds at the signing table.

The buyers weren’t the only ones getting nervous. By the end of 1991, I had fallen into panic mode. I relied on closed escrows to pay my bills—a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. If a sale fell through, which happened often, borrowing from my credit cards bailed me out, putting me in a worse financial situation.

I shared my financial challenges with two girlfriends—Lukia, a former college mate, and Phyllis, a fellow real estate agent who wasn’t faring well herself. I told them my intention to rent out my house and move into an apartment I could afford.

My two friends bombarded me with, “You’ve just moved in; enjoy your house. Tenants will damage your house; they will call you to unclog toilets all hours of night.”

Their warnings played in my mind every day. Scared, I conceded and stayed.

Instead, I immersed myself in sales and marketing, driven like an addict in search of a fix. I made goals with specific deadlines. The first two goals were to earn $5,000 per month within a year, and buy a dream four-bedroom, four-bath red-tile-roofed house on a quarter of an acre in an upscale area in five years. As marketing gurus advised, I plastered one list of my goals on my bathroom mirror. Another list went into my purse for review when I waited in long lines. I visualized rosy outcomes while I chanted my goals twice a day like a mantra—first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

It was just a matter of time before my efforts bore fruit, I believed.





2

Roommate





Chants and positive thoughts worked great, and I became a true believer. My property listings increased, but my sales remained anemic. The holidays fell upon us, starting with Thanksgiving in November. The citizenry immersed itself in Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa annual holiday pageantry—the lights, the shopping, and the eating. Meantime, the real estate malaise took hold.

Three properties I had in escrow fell out before Christmas. Two buyers, tired of going through the loan qualifying process, changed their minds. The third couple, the wife lost her job during escrow and the husband couldn’t qualify alone.

Heartbroken, on the evening of the office Christmas party, I feigned sickness (I never wanted Mariana to learn how broke we were.) I took to my bed. By then she, a constant visitor at Realty Edge Ltd., enjoyed Friday Filipino food or pizza feasts, occasional parties, and the office fellowship. Missing the Christmas party would have been a big disappointment. I asked my friend Lukia to chaperone her.

~~~

The more experienced agents in my office said there was no point in whining about the economy. “Just ride it out,” they said. My first idea of renting out my house seemed all the more prudent. Perhaps I rent out a room, I thought. The income would help me pay my bills while I still enjoyed living in my house.

I advertised the bedroom I used as my office under: “room for rent” at $400 per month. The amount was half my mortgage payment and enough to tidy me financially until better days arrived.

A friend asked to rent the room. I hesitated. A year earlier, he had settled for friendship after I turned down his boyfriend aspirations. He was acceptable as a roommate—good and stable—but we were incompatible in our personal goals and priorities. His political ideals trampled everything else. But, for a recent immigrant, financial stability came first.

Before I agreed he move in, we discussed our friendship. He confirmed he understood our relationship was platonic. Assured, but focused on my financial needs and relieved not to have an unknown renter in my home because of Mariana, I rented him the room and he rented out his house.

My new roommate and I agreed to share the living room, kitchen, and the hallway bathroom. He brought his couch set, which looked better than mine. I donated my tired set to a thrift store. I paid little attention when he inserted, “You will make dinner” into our verbal agreement.

One evening, I had not returned home by eight. According to Mariana, our roommate complained I had not kept my part of our agreement. With my unpredictable work schedule that varied from ten to fourteen hours daily, cooking dinner on time challenged me. I ran around stressed, like an overworked married woman with unsupportive husband and child (when I didn’t haul her around) waiting at home to be fed.

Tired and irritated by the demand and feeling guilty for the late cooking, I hurriedly cooked ugali (precursor of cornbread), greens, and chicken. The ugali didn’t come out as firm as it should. But my roommate ate it with gusto because, either he was hungry or as a non-Kenyan, he couldn’t tell badly cooked ugali.

~~~

Besides “not meeting part of our agreement” charge, I woke one morning, turned my head, and my dimmed eyes landed on a face, bedding snugged up to his neck. I wondered when my roommate got into my bed or how long he had kept me company. Groggy and irritated, I asked, “What are you doing here?”

“Thought you wouldn’t mind,” he said.

“What made you think so?” I asked.

“Well, you are a woman, I’m a man…”

“Just go to your bed,” I said, shaking my head.

The short exchange alerted Mariana, who was already up. My door ajar, I saw her appear at the hallway and witness our roommate hustle back to his bedroom. When I drove her to school that morning, she asked me, “Did ‘Mr. Sneaker’ sleep in your bed?”

“No.”

“I saw him come from your bedroom.”

“He wants to share my bed, but I don’t want him to.”

“I know he likes you, but can’t imagine the two of you together,” she said and giggled.

We didn’t share dinner that day. The man remained in his bedroom until I retired at night. When I returned home from work the following day, he and his furniture had disappeared. Only my rickety coffee table, a small stand, and my 13-inch black and white TV on a chair remained in the living room. I regretted giving away my couches. Drained, my eyes scanned the room in dismay. I sat on the coffee table, my briefcase and purse beside me.

~~~

When Mariana’s birthday came in April of 1992, before she finished middle school, I had no money for us to celebrate. I brought two cupcakes from the office food bribes that vendors—loan and title officers—brought to the office almost every week to lure business orders from us. I put the cupcakes on the coffee table and stuck in candles. I took two pictures of Mariana kneeling, blowing out the candles.

Another time, Marina invited her schoolmate to stop by after they walked home from school. I heard their chatter as they walked up the driveway. The two found me watching TV, lying on my side on the living room floor, my head propped up on my elbow, open hand to my temple. When Mariana saw me, she rushed to her bedroom and dropped her books. She joined her friend who had already peered in the living room and, when she saw me, pulled her head back and waited in the foyer. The two walked back out without Mariana making any introductions.

I felt so defeated and drained the incident didn’t embarrass me. By then, I had no illusions about my financial standing; it would be awhile before the dollars rolled in. But come they would. When and how was the puzzle I needed to solve.





3

Pyramid Scheme





For unemployed, underpaid, or underemployed people like me, who hungered for gainful employment, or to boost their income, during the real estate housing debacle in the nineties, seminars abounded in hotel ballrooms or in large private homes with furniture that seemed too clean to sit in. Before presentations started, hosts offered juices in half-full large wine glasses with lemon or orange wedges as if the drinks were highlife or cocktails.

Seminars in homes were pragmatic, dignified, and subdued. But hotel meetings turned out to be robust and rowdy, like church revivals. Eloquent presenters in black suits or dresses talked about reaching the top of the organization in months. They claimed to be directors or having won cars and trips. The emcee summoned excited witnesses and lined them in front, from where they gave their testimonials. The room filled with excited, friendly, smiling people. I admired and envied them from the first seminar I attended in a large hotel ballroom in Mission Valley.

I resisted signing up because the business model made no economic sense. Besides upfront signing fees and merchandise purchases, presenters focused on how many people a signee recruited into the organization, not the sales he or she made—a version of a pyramid scheme. Through my exposure to business, I knew that only the initial entrants made money before the pyramid paid less and less until it finally collapsed.

Even with that knowledge, I drove to different venues in the name of networking. In reality, I couldn’t resist mixing in the dazzling, infectious atmosphere, controlled by impeccably “dressed for success” smooth talkers, thereby opening myself to temptation.

But temptation wasn’t my concern, although it should have been. I believed with the help of greed, and because I knew how pyramids worked, I could beat the scheme and pull out profits before the inevitable collapse—when withdrawers outnumbered the payers. My only barrier: I didn’t have money to buy the products or services peddled.

Finally, my greed let an acquaintance suck me in on a scheme that touted—“untapped business”—selling water purifiers. The business sounded wholesome and healthy; after all, I used a water purifier. Borrow from your credit card, sell purifiers, pay back the borrowed money, and enjoy the profits, he advised.

I hawked the purifiers in between my real estate prospecting. By the time I surrendered, I had bumped my credit card debts $5,000 higher and was stuck with water purifiers no one wanted.

~~~

Toward the end of 1992, after a year of financial scraping, I made the one decision that my friends dissuaded me from a year earlier. I spruced my house for rent without consulting the two friends or anyone else. Cash advances from one of my credit cards that still had a chargeable balance helped me pay my mortgage, replace the aged, dull brown carpet in the living areas, and install vinyl laminate floor in the kitchen.

And finally, I got a yardman to trim shrubs and cut grass in the sprawling backyard.

When we first moved in during the cold season in January, the wooden-fenced backyard was a source of pleasure. Perennial shrubs and vines hugged the fence and green grass grew with abandon. I enjoyed looking through the living room glass sliding door and thinking I had a wild yard right in the city. We also enjoyed the bloom and fresh smells in spring. In summer, except the evergreens, the shrubs and grass turned brittle and ugly. If one struck a match, there was no telling how many nearby houses my neglected yard would have helped burn to the ground.

Now, in the eve of renting out my house, I watered the scrubby front yard, morning and evening, so the humble house showed well from the street. Meantime, I held yard sales on weekends until most of our belongings sold.

But I still had to decide whether our cat would move with us.

~~~

We had a cat in Nairobi since Mariana was a baby. The cat and she grew up and played together as if they were the same species. As soon as we moved into the Arrowwood house, Mariana wanted me to duplicate our Nairobi lifestyle—get a cat. She nagged whenever she saw a cat. I turned a deaf ear until I sold a house for a couple moving out of town.

During one of my appointments with the sellers, just before their house sold, I took Mariana with me. When their cat and Mariana met, they became inseparable. Even at twelve, she gently stroked the cat, cooing and talking to it as if it were a baby. The woman said she and her husband had failed to get someone to adopt the cat. They planned to take it to a homeless shelter when they moved. Our house became the shelter when I failed to come up with a good reason why Mariana couldn’t take the cat home that evening. My declaration that I wouldn’t feed or take care of the cat, and that it was her full responsibility, met with, “Of course, it’s my cat.”

I caught myself in time before I blurted out, “It’s an extra mouth to feed.”

Our household dynamic changed from the time the cat moved in. Mariana abdicated her responsibilities. She played with the cat but never cleaned its litter or fed it unless I nagged and nagged.

The cat let me down, too. I expected an independent cat, which could forage for food if it became necessary, like the one we had in Nairobi, a patriot who guarded the homeland with passion. If a mouse or rat dared trespass our front or backyard, and it wasn’t quick enough, it became the day’s gourmet meal.

But the San Diego cat, with its white fur coat that rivaled any polar bear, lacked spark—no survival skills whatsoever. And who could blame it? The cat carried at least three extra pounds on its frame. This made it exhibit mannerisms similar to those of a sloth suffering from insomnia, lazy eyes wide open with stillness like a statue.

As if that wasn’t enough trouble, the cat refused to eat people food like the Nairobi cat. When such food appeared, it eyed inside the bowl, then turned away without even a sniff. The special cat wanted special food—store-bought cat food. Without it, she went on a hunger strike. It didn’t matter that mice roamed and socialized in our neglected wild backyard. The cat wouldn’t have known anyway. It stayed indoors unless one of us nudged it outside to get some sun.

One time Mariana called me to the back covered patio to witness what a lazy cat we adopted. A risk-taker mouse dashed this way and that way in search of a playmate. Twice it stood on its hind legs scratching its yet-to-appear whiskers right in front of the cat. The cat remained crouched, occasionally extending a limp playful paw, a true live-and-let-live advocate.

~~~

With most of the furniture sold, I advertised the house under the San Diego Housing Commission, Section 8 program, which subsidizes rents for low-income tenants. I didn’t want to take chances with a regular tenant in case he or she became unemployed and failed to pay the rent. If a subsidized tenant lost a job, the government paid the full rent.

My first callers, Mrs. Pringle and Reverend Yates, became smitten with the house and the neighborhood.

After we signed the rental agreement, I suffered from landlord remorse; I hated to move after I prettied the house interior. I envied Mrs. Pringle and Reverend Yates when their Section-8 caseworker told me of their miniscule out-of-pocket rent portion.

Mariana and I moved into a one-bedroom unit at the gated Meadowbrook Apartments, at the corner of Paradise Valley Road and Meadowbrook Drive, about a mile away. Mariana was against the move when I initially told her, and when she saw our tiny new quarters, she flat out rolled her eyes, and sulked. She never warmed up to the apartment. The setup didn’t give her the privacy and freedom she craved to play or socialize with her two girlfriends.

I did the best I could to get her some privacy. I partitioned the large bedroom into two elongated sections by aligning our two high-backed-mirrored dressers in the middle, each facing its owner’s bed.

With the cat’s fussy and lazy ways, we couldn’t fit it into our second-story cramped quarters. I forced it upon a family I believed could afford its upkeep.





4

May West





With the Arrowwood house rented, I concentrated on my business, prepared to weather my financial troubles by waiting it out, as people familiar with economic downturns advised. As the economy stumbled and wobbled, some mortgage companies couldn’t wait it out. One-by-one, they closed doors, merged, or sold themselves to stronger companies.

Conrad, my manager at Realty Edge Ltd., and presenters at seminars I attended, kept on harping, “You make your own market.” Despite my commitment to the mantra, my faith had already wavered.

I blamed Realty Edge Ltd.'s size for my sluggish business. A small outfit with only ten agents plus the broker and the manager, a husband and wife team, the company lacked a marketing and advertising budget. Like most real estate companies, the couple relied on their agents to bring in business, besides getting a listing now and then from their close friends.

I yearned for more exposure through a bigger company with an advertising budget that would help draw in potential customers and clients into the office. I advised the couple of my need, cleared my desk and moved to Century-21 May West on 3rd Avenue in Chula Vista.

The number of agents and brokers in the new office ranged from 120 to 140. There were at least one hundred cubicles in a large, open office. Management and the top producers worked from private offices. The rest of us, regular agents and associate brokers, met our clients in either of the two meeting rooms, each furnished with a conference table and a phone.

~~~

The Century-21 franchise had a one-week intensive training for their new recruits before they dropped it because of training agents and then getting them poached by other companies. The training took place at Hazard Center in Mission Valley.

Even with basic experience at Realty Edge Ltd., the training helped shorten my learning curve. I learned the tumbles of real estate sales and marketing and escrow and the title process. But the best education I received was how to acquire clients and customers and how to overcome their objections, which the trainer had us role-play.

It was the first time I attended a structured training on how to cold-call and what to say, and how to counteract a reluctant customer’s objections. Before then, I had worked extra hard, wasting time working with first-time sellers or buyers—the bulk of my business—who weren’t in a position to buy or sell.

Afraid of a big financial commitment, buyers looked for ways not to sign documents until they understood them. This proved challenging and time consuming because, as agents and brokers, we required clients to sign whatever disclosures we explained in case some time later, which happened often, they claimed, “You never told us that” or “I don’t remember that.” Some buyers and sellers became hesitant to sign papers and eyed agents sideways as if they were out to get them.

I recall a couple who refused to sign the final papers after the lender had released the money. The couple worried about the astronomical amount of interest they would pay by the time they finished paying their mortgage after thirty years. No explanation of how interest rates work could satisfy them, or maybe I didn’t use the right language to counteract their objections.

Unfortunately for them, it was just before the start of the real estate bubble. The house they cancelled on more than doubled in price in three years. The house never went back to the price they would have paid even at the height of the real estate crash in 2007/2008.

~~~

Most of my three-year tenure at Century-21 May West, I prospected three to four hours most days, with a goal to sell or list one property each week. I preferred cold-calling or telemarketing because it produced listings faster, with my labor as the only expense. (I never warmed up to buyers. They often proved fickle, bound to change their minds on a whim—sometimes against their own interests—especially when they consulted their clueless know-it-all relatives or friends.)

One week, I called for three days without getting a single listing. I vowed to turn the tide the fourth day. No food or break until I get a house to sell, I told myself. I called for one hour, two hours, three hours. Halfway into the fourth hour, a woman answered her phone on the second ring.

I introduced myself and asked whether she knew of anyone who wanted to sell a house.

“Yes! My husband want to sell,” she said in haste.

“When does he want to sell?”

“He’ll come home for lunch. Can you come talk to him?”

“What time?” I asked.

At 1:30 sharp, I knocked on the door of the two-story home. The house, by the border of San Diego and National City, had a humongous motor home parked beside it. A man dressed in a dark top with matching pants opened the door. The living room floor, covered with bedspreads, was littered with children—babies, toddlers, and three or four preschoolers who tried to keep still without much success.

The husband introduced himself and his wife. Since he had finished eating his lunch, he offered to give me a tour of the house. The wife didn’t join us; she remained behind to attend to coos, gurgles, and shrieks.

He and I headed up the stairs and walked into immaculate bedrooms, like hotel rooms awaiting guests’ arrival. “Why do you want to sell such a beautiful home?” I asked to assess their motivation.

“My wife don’t want to babysit no more,” he said. “We want to move to a small house or apartment.”

“When are you planning on moving?”

“Anytime,” he said.

That meant the couple had a weighty issue disrupting their lives. The listing was then mine to lose.

Finished with upstairs, Mr. Homeowner and I went downstairs. We reached their huge family room with a green-topped billiards table at the center. Since he and his wife had grown old and tired of throwing holiday and ballgame parties, no one came to use the table any more, he said. The fireplace at the corner had old, settled-in ashes. I had seen enough to help me compare the house to similar properties in the area and help them set the price.

“How much do you want to sell the house for?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, and started scratching his head. “We were hoping you’d tell us.”

“I can certainly do that,” I said. “I’ll get you information on properties that sold in this area recently. Are you available between six and seven tonight?”

“Let’s see…parents pick up their children from five to six,” he said. “You can come at seven.”

When I returned that evening, with the children gone, the living room looked airy and inviting. The wife invited me to sit on one of the couches. I suggested we sit at the dining table.

During my prep questions meant to help me tailor my presentation to their situation, their financial challenges unraveled, the reason for their motivation.

The couple had borrowed on their house and bought a deluxe motorhome to travel across the United States. After their dream trip, they parked the motorhome, never to use it again. The husband tried to sell it, but buyers offered only half of what they had paid. (I doubt Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner knew they could have rented a motor home and made that memorable trip.)

After the hefty mortgage they tacked onto their house, Mrs. Homeowner babysat to supplement her husband’s income. Tending to babies and running after toddlers eleven hours daily, five days a week, had worn out her bones. They intended to get rid of both house and motor home before the poor woman collapsed from exhaustion.

~~~

Some people can’t stand cold-callers—most use the term “telemarketers”—and believe this mode of prospecting should be illegal. But cold-calling or door-knocking works—primarily for middle-class people—because of people like Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner. These people know the answer to their dilemma, but stay stuck until someone nudges them to take a leap, or the lender forecloses on their property.

In my real estate career, I came across homeowners who didn’t want their neighbors or friends to know they had money problems. Among husbands who managed their family finances, a handful of them didn’t even tell their wives. Sometimes they kept mail from their mortgage companies unopened until the lenders foreclosed their homes for non-payment. Many times these homeowners lost their equities, which they would have recouped if they sold the houses in a timely manner.

The two modes of prospecting—cold-calling and door-knocking—are a goldmine for hardworking diligent agents and brokers short of advertising and marketing funds. Besides, it boosts the economy because of the many people who are paid from real estate transactions.

It’s reported that one real estate transaction pays about thirty-five people. These include repair people, termite companies, escrow personnel, title companies, appraisers, insurance companies, mortgage brokers, agents, notary public, and many others.

That’s the good side of real estate, when the seller and buyer agree and everybody gets paid.





5

Another Side of Real Estate





To make cold calls to unknown prospects, a title company supplied me with a list of homeowners’ names, addresses, and phone numbers in whatever development I chose. For door-knocking, I preferred a neighborhood with newer, well-maintained homes and curbs where I could walk without tripping. The plan was to get quick business from highly motivated sellers.

Occasionally, I bumped into people who dampened my enthusiasm. As a black person, although I hated people’s prejudice to cross my path and bog me down, I soon realized I needed to embrace the good, the bad, and the hush-hush if I intended to make a living in real estate.

One mid-day, I went to the Terra Nova neighborhood, east of Highway 805 in Chula Vista. I started on one side of a street. If a homeowner answered my knock, I asked if she or he knew of anyone who wanted to sell or buy a house. If the answer was “No,” which was 99.5% of the time, I left a business card. If nobody came to the door, I stuck a flyer at the door.

At one house, a dog became unhappy with my intrusion. I left a flyer and hurried away. The dog watched me through the screen door as I retreated down the driveway, but didn’t curtail its boisterous bark. When the owner appeared, she opened the screen door, held the dog’s collar, and both watched me. I stopped so the woman could see I was just a hardworking agent, not a burglar. Who knew—she could give me a listing in future. (The optimism of seeing a potential sale is branded into every real estate professional’s brain.)

I also expected the homeowner to acknowledge me. Instead, she looked at me with a smirk and never uttered a word. She bent and patted her dog, saying, “Good boy. Good boy.”

I took exception, walked off her property, and finished distributing the flyers I brought with me. Except sporadic stops at houses with “For Sale by Owner” signs, I never knocked doors in the Terra Nova neighborhood again.

~~~

About two months later, I prospected around my office, near downtown Chula Vista, on the western side of Highway 805. I finished knocking on doors on both sides of one long street. In the middle of the next street, I tapped on a door three times—no audible activity. I raised my hand, my knuckles on the ready to rap again. The door flew open—the way I flung doors in my younger insecure days in Nairobi to emulate bosses who did it as a matter of course, to exhibit authority.

When the twenty-something woman saw me, she gasped, jerked backward, and slammed the door in my face. Before the door touched the jamb, she reopened it, gradually. We exchanged knowing glances. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to do that.”

“I’m looking for work,” I said. “Do you know anyone who wants to sell a house?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t,” she said.

“Thank you for your time,” I said and turned to leave.

“See you later,” she said. “Sorry for what happened.”

See you later and an apology? I understood the generic “later” part, but I would rather she didn’t apologize for what came naturally to her.

Exchanging knowing glances with a white American woman, and getting the full meaning of the racial contaminant in the American psyche, made me realize my initial unexpected America had morphed into expected America, and I was then fully entangled in America.

This experience spooked me. How was I supposed to earn a living if the sight of me conjured negative images in some prospects’ minds? From then on, I identified and prospected in neighborhoods where I was least likely to attract negative second glances.

~~~

The problem wasn’t confined to residential neighborhoods. I noticed an undercurrent of similar behavior in the office. I heard rumors that Equal Housing authorities had targeted the office for investigation on redlining and steering—refusing to rent or sell or direct non-white customers, mainly blacks, to certain neighborhoods. Focused on improving my shaky financial situation, I didn’t concern myself with office rumors.

But I had to attend office meetings that took place once a week. After the meeting, agents “caravanned”—toured the company listings in a hired tour bus.

I put my listings on the caravan list. When the people in charge configured the route the bus would take, because of the neighborhoods I then chose to prospect in, my listings appeared among the ones at the bottom of the list. Many times they didn’t make the cut. During the meeting, some agents made derogatory remarks: bad neighborhood, the house is overpriced, a snicker, or some agents pre-occupied themselves and didn’t pay attention during my property pitch.

Later, to cut costs, the company discontinued bus tours and reverted to carpool caravans. As before, some listings, mine included, were relegated to the end of the caravan. Cars dropped out of the carpool one by one. In my case, only a handful of agents who supported me ended at my listing.

I stopped including any listings on the weekly caravan, and instead exposed them through the Multiple Listing Service (MLS,) yard signs, flyers, and an occasional ad in the House Trader magazine.

A father and son team owned the company. The son, in conjunction with a woman office manager, conducted the meetings. From my observation, he and his father were people-oriented and most likely unaware of the pockets of such discriminatory behavior.





6

Chotara





At Century-21 May West, when potential buyers and sellers called or dropped in the office, the agent or broker on duty at the time helped them. In real estate lingo it was the person on “floor time.” One time, the receptionist, a woman of Mexican descent, called me on my phone extension.

“I have a prospect for you,” she said softly. “Could you come over?”

This was unusual. She should have forwarded the call to the floor-time agent. Volunteering for floor-time was an easy way to get business from walk-in or phone clients. I never volunteered or gave the reason even when the manager asked me why I passed on such an opportunity. I had noticed earlier that whenever I talked to walk-in prospective clients they became hesitant when I took them to the meeting room. They looked through the glass door at anyone who passed close by as if they expected a more knowledgeable agent to come help them.

Twice I received calls from motivated prospects. One talked on the phone at length. She must have felt comfortable since she told me she didn’t mind my accent, but said she would never let a black person sell her house.

The other prospect made an appointment for himself and his wife to come to the office. Their immediate hesitation when they met me let me know I wasn’t the person they expected. I gave the referral to a fellow agent. From then on, I decided whatever business I got would be through my own efforts.

But if business came through non-stressful circumstances, I wasn’t that stupid to turn it down. So, after the receptionist called me, I hurried to the front office. She handed me a phone number on a chit of paper. “He wants to sell his house,” she said, still in a low voice. “He asked for a colored person, and I thought you’re the best person to help him.”

Chotara? Half-caste? I had by then half-heartedly come to terms with “minority.” But “chotara?” No one had ever called me colored. I debated with myself: take the listing or turn it down. Maybe take the listing and tell the Mexican, if she were an agent, she would be the one to take the listing, not me. Pride has its limits. I handled the chit of paper with care and kept my racial ideals to myself, but not out of my mind.

Up to my twenties, I had never met a chotara. We had the Africans, the Europeans, the Indians, and the Arabs. I met my first chotara in the mid-1970s, when a young man came to the office where I worked in downtown Nairobi. While waiting to see my boss, he told me, “I’m a chotara,” mainly a product of an African and European.

It had to be uncomfortable for a chotara in Nairobi those days. People called them half-castes or half-breeds as a matter of course, although it was never in malice.

And two decades later, a receptionist called me a chotara, a colored? No lady, I have always been one color, a native Gikũyũ from the Great Rift Valley, I felt like marching back to the receptionist and clearing it once and for all.

~~~

Months later, the same receptionist buzzed me and said I had a visitor. Oh, not that chotara business again, shot through my mind. It had not escaped my notice that no person had dropped in the office to ask me to represent him or her unless it was through our prior arrangement.

I couldn’t hide my surprise, therefore, when I came face-to-face with a throwback from my student days. Seated all dignified was Sonny, a former Iranian roommate who had shared a two-bedroom apartment with his older brother, his Latina girlfriend, and me in Normal Heights. Sonny and his girlfriend occupied one bedroom and I the other. The brother slept on the floor in one corner of the living room. Not far from his “bed” was his prayer mat where he prayed five times a day.

It was about seven years since Sonny and I had seen each other. He had traded in his former casual wear for a suit and an overcoat and now looked like an accomplished executive.

I took him to the client meeting room. Perhaps he abandoned his lazy ways, or he had come into some money, I thought.

“I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” he said.

Sonny and I hadn’t liked each other, and I doubted he would look for me “everywhere” to represent him in a house purchase.

“Well, here I’m,” I said, without asking how he found me, especially in those limited internet days.

“You have no idea how glad I’m to find you,” he said. “Do you remember my brother?”

“The pious one? Of course I remember him.”

“He is sick, very sick.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

“Someone told us we can get a cure for AIDS in Kenya.”

I almost gasped, barely kept my composure. Mr. Pious suffered from AIDS? The question floated in my mind. After a solemn pause I asked, “A cure for AIDS?”

“I came to see whether you can introduce us to someone, give us a contact.”

“A cure for AIDS?” I repeated, shaking my head, still trying to connect Mr. Pious with AIDS. He had rebuked Sonny for fornication and occasionally reminded him of the hellish punishment that awaited him.

“Can you think of someone, a relative, or a friend you can contact?”

I planted my elbows on the table, interlaced my fingers, and rested my chin on my hands, as if I were deep in thought. But the only thought that came to mind was how to convey to Sonny that if I had AIDS, I wouldn’t have known whom to contact. Or, at that early stage of people’s limited awareness, I would have concealed it.

“I’m sorry about your brother,” I said. “But I know no one I can contact, I’m sorry.”

“I thought you could help, give us a referral or something.”

“I wish I could,” I said, with a sad face while I shook my head slowly.

With nothing else to say or share, silence enveloped us.

“Anyway, how have you been?” Sonny finally asked.

“I’m okay, just trying to make a living.”

He excused himself and left before I asked him anything personal.





7

I’ll Beg or Work for Food





Although moving to the one-bedroom apartment secured my house on Arrowwood Dr., changing to a bigger office didn’t end my financial troubles. I carried a balance of $14,000 on my credit cards, plus a private loan of $6,000. After I paid a $450 rent, a $329 car payment before gas, utilities, and minimum payments on my credit cards, I remained little money for necessities.

Just like today, there were places people in a financial bind could seek help, but I couldn’t bring myself to visit free food centers. I feared someone would see me and spread the news to my professional friends and acquaintances and current or future clients about me begging for food. I couldn’t bear the embarrassment.

Lack of food must have been widespread because one day, before we moved from the Arrowwood house, I found a package at our porch. On opening it, I found two cans of beans and a big pie-size deep yellow American cheese. In my ignorance, I didn’t know what to do with that much cheese, and I didn’t want to cut a slice and spoil the look. I kept the beans and gave the cheese to Nana, a woman you will meet later in the book.

When our food shortage intensified, I convinced myself I could get government assistance because of Mariana. I had heard help was available to families with minor children and even to “undocumented immigrants.” With a resident “green-card” status and with a child, I thought I more than qualified. I planned to visit a welfare office, get a handout, and no one would be the wiser.

I cased out-of-the-way welfare offices. The one in Lemon Grove, perched at the top of an incline, about 300 yards off Broadway, behind other buildings, seemed ideal to sneak in and do a little begging.

I arrived mid-morning, took a number, and waited, seated among rows of other welfare hopefuls. The place was packed. Not much went on except the usual children fussing out of fatigue or boredom. An occasional child played or fussed excessively and a mother, with a tightened face and pursed lips, shushed and itched to cap the child’s mouth if the neighbors’ side-eyes wouldn’t term it child abuse and possibly interfere.

I wondered how such children fared at home where the parents were the ultimate arbiters, without witnesses.

On that day, parents, mainly women, were overweight or on their way there. I had not come to terms with that part of America, waddling poor people. In Kenya, not one poor person had an ounce of fat to spare. The ones who displayed fat, through extended stomachs or oversized thighs and backsides and puffed cheeks, had sugar and carbohydrates overload to thank. In that case, they didn’t consider themselves poor.

At the welfare office, I spent half a day waiting, completing forms, and taking an interview—an interview I could have skipped and not been worse for it.

“I don’t have very good news for you,” the white man said after the interview. I sat on the chair across his desk. He said when I rented out my house I became an investor. To get assistance I needed to sell my house or move back in.

Due to the depressed housing market, the house was by then worth less than I owed. Fortunately, the rent paid the mortgage. If I moved back in—which made no sense to me—I couldn’t afford to make the payments. I informed the interviewer of my dilemma.

“Those are the rules,” he said.

“Can I at least get food stamps?” I begged some more. “I have a child at home to feed.” Even as a legal resident, I couldn’t get free food either. I had to be a United States citizen, he said. I left dejected, wondering how the “illegals” I heard politicians and American citizens complain about got free services. The only consolation, by then Mariana qualified for free lunch at school.

~~~

With minimum payments on my credit cards, the balance kept creeping up because of the astronomical interest rate. Bankruptcy crossed my mind occasionally, but I dismissed it. I believed losers and dishonest people harbored such thoughts, always on the lookout for how to take advantage of their fellow citizens or dishonor their obligations.

In Kenya, the financially able looked at bankruptcy as a disgrace. The majority of the population teetered on bankruptcy, whether they knew it or not, and it was never an issue.

Despite rejecting bankruptcy, however, one thing had changed. I wasn’t bashful to talk about my debt to people I knew well.

Larry, a mortgage broker, urged me to file for bankruptcy. He quoted several millionaires who had filed bankruptcies and returned to millionaire status, “within no time.” He didn’t convince me. As a real estate agent and then broker, I vowed to keep my credit report untainted, not only because it was financially prudent, but, also, to be a good example to my clients.

Potential clients wouldn’t have asked for my credit rating before they accepted me to represent them, but I would have felt a tinge of guilt asking them to do what I couldn’t do. So far, I had paid my bills on time, juggling credit cards when my income fell short.

Instead of bankruptcy, I looked for live-in jobs where Mariana and I could live rent-free in exchange for basic work around the house. I found a one-bedroom attached to the main house in Point Loma, west of San Diego airport, but the old couple wanted to rent to a single person.

Then I answered a newspaper ad for a live-in personal assistant in a secluded house in La Mesa, in the outskirts of San Diego. The sixtyish-year-old white man had a home office with an adjoining office for a secretary. The interview consisted of him showing me around the office and asking me questions as we walked. Then we stood at the outer office where he asked me what I thought of the job. I told him, once more, that based on my experience, I would do a good job for him. I expected him to thank me and say he would get in touch. Instead, he said, “The job is yours if you want it.”

And the best part, he said, I could work part-time and do my real estate business on the side. It was exactly what I wished for, perhaps too perfect.

“Thank you so much,” I said. “You won’t be disappointed.”

“But, your daughter can’t move in,” he said.

I hesitated, dumbfounded. “She has nobody except me.”

“You should place her in a friend’s home,” he said. “A child will be in the way. You have potential, and I can make you a very wealthy woman.” He went on to tell me about another black woman back East, whom he had enriched.

I listened to the story to be civil. After he finished, I excused myself, and headed to the door. The man told me to think it over and call him back. I wondered whether he understood the negative impact his request would have on Mariana if I went along.

After three days, he called to check whether I still wanted the job. By then I didn’t want it even if he welcomed Mariana and promised to chauffer her to and from school.

So much for rent-free jobs—I dilly-dallied in real estate until Mariana went to high school.







8

Home Safari Realty





When I worked at Realty Edge Ltd., and my business didn’t prosper as I expected, I blamed it on limited exposure. After two years with Century-21 May West, a much bigger company, I couldn’t use that excuse. I had many listings, but they hardly sold. If any sold, after I split the commission with the company, my part dwindled since house prices had continued their downward slide. I reasoned—if I didn’t have to split my commission, I would end up with the whole check.

I studied and received my broker’s license in late 1993, with a plan to open my own office. The following year, I rented a space in an office building on Bonita Road in Bonita, where two psychologists and a property manager rented rooms and shared the reception area.

On March 24, 1994, I launched Home Safari Realty. The name was inspired by the Kiswahili word safari, meaning tour, journey, or trip. I visualized homebuyers taking a safari through my listings, and getting full commissions—no splits—soon after, and my maxed credit cards fully paid.

My new business, however, unraveled in a way I never expected. One month, I distributed 1000 flyers and business cards, but whenever I returned to the office, the answering machine had several hang-ups but no messages. I needed someone to answer the phone and take messages while I prospected, went on appointments, or attended seminars.

I took another financial risk and employed an assistant, a young woman of Mexican descent. In addition to clerical duties, I expected her to help me with non-English speaking Spanish clients. Since no one used the reception front office, I had the telephone company install a phone extension so she could use the office.

By then, I still juggled payments on my credit cards but now missed a payment here and there. Just like before, the sales didn’t close fast enough; or failed to close. With the rent payment, and payments for furniture, a second-hand computer, phone, printing/stationery, and other miscellaneous office expenses, not to mention my home expenses, it didn’t take long before I realized I should have waited before I opened my one-woman show, at least until I finished paying off my credit cards.

I had underrated the expense of running an office, let alone the synergy I derived from working with every level of real estate professionals. But the worst oversight, despite my business training in college, was that I had not appreciated the power of name recognition. I prospected in the same areas I did before, but now some clients squirmed and claimed they weren’t ready to sell—only to spot a competitor’s sales sign in their front yard within the week.

One prospect let me know the challenge I faced as an independent broker. I had met him a year prior when I found him getting his house ready for a tenant. Back then, he had mentioned he was thinking of selling his rental house, but wanted to rent it one more time. I kept in touch with him during my regular monthly “keep-in-touch” calls to my database prospects.

When I called the man one month, after we exchanged pleasantries, he said, “My tenants in South San Diego moved out.”

“Oh, they didn’t stay long,” I said.

“They stayed just a year,” he said. “I think I’ll sell it this time.”

“How much do you want to sell the house for?” I asked.

“I’m getting it cleaned up.”

“We can put it on the market while you get it ready,” I said.

“I’ll tell you what, lemme call you in ten days,” he said. “The house should be ready then.”

“That’ll be great,” I said. “Let me give you my phone number.”

“I already have your number.”

“I have a new number,” I said.

“Why?”

“I changed offices—I’m now with Home Safari Realty in Bonita,” I said, as if I had joined another established office.

“You left Century-21?”

“Yes, but nothing has changed.” I said. “I’m a member of the Association of Realtors, and I have to follow the same code of ethics.”

“How many agents are there?”

Oh, my. Should I tell him the truth? I sensed an almost assured business slipping away. I braced myself.

“If you recall, I told you I became a broker last year.”

“But you were still with Century-21,” he said.

“This year I started Home Safari Realty to better serve my customers.” I didn’t dare breathe a word that I had an office of only two—my assistant and me—or about my commission-split concern.

“Can you handle it?”

“I’ll definitely do better without big office bureaucracy,” I said. “Let me give you my phone number before I forget.”

“Okay.”

By the quickness he said “Uh-huh” after every digit, I sensed he wasn’t writing the numbers.

After selling real estate for four years, I should have known better than talk to a prospect I was familiar with about changing offices while trying to get his business. Instead, I should have called him after a week and pretended to check on the repair progress. Giving him my new number should have waited until he signed the contract with my details included, and my new business card attached on top of the folder with the contract. Better still, I should have waited to include the card to the “thank you for your business” note I sent to clients after they gave me business.

~~~

I called the would-be seller after a week. To his credit, he told me his concerns. He felt uncomfortable, he said, giving a property to an independent broker who wasn’t backed by a well-established company.

I begged the man.

Begging had now become one of my business routines. Two years prior, I had watched President Herbert Walker Bush literally beg voters to reelect him, when it became clear the then Governor of Arkansas, William J. Clinton, might win. After that, my mantra became: if the President of the United States can beg for votes, I can surely beg for a property to sell. The only problem, begging goes hand-in-hand with desperation; the minute people sense a hint of desperation, they abandon that “wagon” in a hurry.

Well, just like President Bush’s begging didn’t change the voters’ minds, my begging didn’t change my prospect's mind. Nothing I said convinced him I could do a good job selling his property unless I worked at one of the large brokerage companies.

Instead of losing the sale, I referred the client to Mel Allen, a fellow broker with Century-21 Teamwork, for a 20% referral fee.

After three months, my assistant left one Friday after I paid her and never returned that Monday. She liked real estate persona without the mundane behind-the-scene menial activities. She also had to have been lonely in that office. I was lonely, too. I missed the weekly meetings, mouth-watering, waist-bursting pastries, and the general office camaraderie. I looked for an alternative office location and other ways to normalize my life.


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