I HEAR FROM American Express regularly, but this letter was special. It urged me to “acquire funds quickly and easily” by taking out a line of credit against the equity in my home. “Why is the American Express Equity Resource Line right for you?” the letter asked. “Because now your home can give back some of the good things you’ve put into it.”
It had never occurred ro me until then that my home owed me money.
In some ways I even feel beholden to my home. My home is larger than I am, it preceded me, it is built to last longer. I always know where to find it. My home is substantive enough to fall back on, were I truly hard pressed; but were I truly hard pressed, American Express would not be offering me money. (I live in the country. Not significantly agricultural country, but I have seen all those movies. I know what kind of trouble folks like you and me and Jessica Lange got into after lenders flooded their family farms with credit. American Express’s desire to invest in my home gives me a dream: I am trying to pick my juicy garden tomatoes but can’t, because my arms are pinioned by what should be life preservers but are instead thousands of dollars’ worth of heavily financed and defaultedupon tractor tires.) My home keeps me and my household warm and dry, cool and lubricated.
But not necessarily on my terms. Any given sequence of clicks, gurgles, whoofs, and silences may signify that my home’s plumbing-and-heating system is operating the way it is supposed to or that it is getting ready to dissolve the very concepts of operation, way, and supposed. One moment I am sitting all toasty in my domain, and the next moment hot water is seeping through the walls.
Someone, a student of economics or of plumbing, I forget which, told me once that aspiring economists study plumbing: the way pipes work is somehow a model of the way money flows. That equation is just fathomable to me, because plumbing and economics alike aren’t. My home’s plumbing and heating involve untold variables, from OPEC to sweated nipples to mice. To be an intellectually honest student of my home’s plumbing and heating is to be as out of one’s depth, projectionwise, as a perfectly candid economist. Since, I conclude from long experience, no one can live or plumb in absolute radical uncertainty, there are no intellectually honest students of my home’s plumbing and heating.
I don’t mean to complain. Doubtless a principle of equity applies—homes begin to resemble the people they house. I might be at a loss with predictable, sound-as-a-yen plumbing. And my plumbing today is a day at the beach compared with what I was immersed in years ago when I rented a mobile home. The bathroom was so small that I had to take a shower stooped over. One morning I got the hot water turned up too high, lost my bearings trying to adjust the knobs, and couldn’t escape until finally I burst scalded out into the livingdining area, wearing much of the shower apparatus. Another morning I awoke beside a steamy freshet. The water heater had exceeded itself in the night and caused something to burst, and I was looking from my bed into a rushing stream that traversed not only the mobile home but, I found after wading outside, the whole trailer court. It is amazing to see what a little plumbing can do. I watched the stream that sprang from my residence steadily lengthen, way on out toward the horizon. When I called my landlord, he came over and sighed.
“Every time I try to own something,” he said, “it just wants to back up on me. I don’t know; Misty and I lived here before we . . . the truth is, she went off with the Culligan man. I see now I didn’t do a lot of the little things. Not realizing. But, hell, she looked down into the sink all the time. I asked her why and she wouldn’t say and she wouldn’t say and finally she said if I had just once in six months ever thanked her for being her. So, hell, I started to then, but she stopped me. She said she didn’t feel like she was her anymore. I don’t know why I hold on to this place.” Tears welled up in his eyes. American Express does not confront all that may happen when homes start giving back what people put into them.
For nearly a century my home was a parsonage. When we tore out an exterior wall we found a surprisingly lurid lining of tracts and Sunday School lessons, which spoke, not cozily, of final things: poor girls frozen in the snow, rich men too preoccupied to be washed in the blood. When relieved of that wall and its literature, my home brightened. My home knows how to have a good time. Still, there is a heritage there, one that I would be loath to place in the hands of any more money changers than necessary.
If I were to follow American Express’s advice and take a brisk creditor’s stance toward my home, I know I would pay for it. Have you heard Tammy Wynette and her daughter Tina render a song called “No Charge”? Little Tina pipes up, asking to be remunerated for chores. Then Tammy weighs in: “For the nine months I carried you, growing inside me: No charge.” Would you like to hear that sung to you all night by plumbing?
Granted, mine is not an eighties home. I bought it two digits ago, for just five digits down and a handily single-digit mortgage. That was before Money got hotter than Peace and Love and became the most absorbing thing in America.
Today, I realize, the sort of deal proposed by American Express is making a big splash. More and more Americans are borrowing on what is sunk into their homes to get the cash it takes to float the kind of life-styles that people who live in the kinds of homes they live in have been led to expect. According to The New York Times, “Americans have just begun to dent the equity in their homes built up over years of rising real estate prices. Some $4.3 trillion of unmortgaged equity still remains to be tapped as collateral.” “Tapped,” is it? That attitude toward shelter is over my head.
The headline on that Times story, let it be noted, was “PUTTING THE HOMESTEAD DEEPER INTO HOCK.” A Newsweek piece on this trend was headlined “SQUEEZING YOUR HOUSE FOR CASH.” Headlines, because they fall back on idiom, have their own barometrics.
Unless you can talk your home into making the payments on one of these loans, I think it is hazardous to treat your domicile as a deep pocket. To reside, to be sure, is to be at sea. But if my home and I are going to take a plunge, we are going to take one that has dash and moral implications, and one in which my home’s distinctive properties are enlisted. For example—well, if this were in fact what I contemplated doing, exactly,
I wouldn’t be talking about it. But picture the following headline and subheads:
ROGUE HOME, OWNER PLUNDER AMEX VAULT
GUARDS BAFFLED BY
JETS OK HOT AND COLD WATER
Freebooter Steams Off in Converted Parsonage