Gimme Shelter

( 4 )

Overview

"Of course I want a home," writes Mary Elizabeth Williams, "I'm American." Gimme Shelter is the first book to reveal how this primal desire, "encoded into our cultural DNA," drove our nation to extremes, from the heights of an unprecedented housing boom to the depths of an unparalleled crash.

As a writer and parent in New York City, Williams is careful to ground her real-estate dreams in the reality of her middle-class bank account. Yet as a person who knows no other way to fall...

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Gimme Shelter

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Overview

"Of course I want a home," writes Mary Elizabeth Williams, "I'm American." Gimme Shelter is the first book to reveal how this primal desire, "encoded into our cultural DNA," drove our nation to extremes, from the heights of an unprecedented housing boom to the depths of an unparalleled crash.

As a writer and parent in New York City, Williams is careful to ground her real-estate dreams in the reality of her middle-class bank account. Yet as a person who knows no other way to fall in love than at first sight, her relationship with the nation's most daunting housing market is a passionate one. Williams's house-hunting fantasy quickly morphs into a test of endurance, as her search for a place to live and a mortgage she can afford stretches into a three-year odyssey that takes her to the farthest reaches of the boroughs and the limits of her own patience.

"Welcome to the tracks," she declares at the outset of yet another weekend tour of blindingly bad, wildly overpriced properties. "Let's go to the wrong side of them, shall we?" As her own quest unfolds, Williams simultaneously reports on the housing markets nationwide. Friends and family members grapple with real estate agents and lenders, neighborhood and quality-of-life issues, all the while voicing common concerns, as expressed by this Maryland working parent of three: "The market was so hot, there were no houses. We looked for years at places the owners wouldn't even clean, let alone fix up."

How frustrating is the process? Williams likens it to hearing "the opening bars of a song you think is 'Super Freak.' And then it turns out to be 'U Can't Touch This.'" Told in an engaging blend of factfinding and memoir, Gimme Shelter charts the course of the real estate bubble as it floated ever upward, not with faceless numbers and documents but with the details of countless personal stories — about the undeniable urge to put down roots and the lengths to which we'll go to find our way home.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"When you're just renting, there's no place like home, and it seems there's no place like home in New York City unless you're a gazillionaire. Mary Elizabeth Williams's quest for a modest room of her own is hopeful, hopeless, and hilarious. Gimme Shelter is down and dirty real estate porn starring the funny, smart girl next door." — Sarah Thyre, author of Dark at the Roots

"A compelling, clearly written story that will interest anyone seeking a personal perspective on the causes, depth and longterm consequences of the financial crisis and the ramifications of past and current policy decisions." — Publishers Weekly

"The perfect cautionary tale for an age of managed real estate expectations. It really shouldn't be this hard for middle-class people to find a decent, affordable place to live." — Neal Pollack, author of Alternadad

Publishers Weekly

Williams, a freelance journalist, provides a blow-by-blow account of the recent inflation of the real estate bubble and its economic-and emotional-impact on middle-class families like her own. The author paints a vivid picture of the crisis in New York City, where even with a housing budget of $400,000, she and her husband found only properties that provided less than 1,000 square feet of living space or were located under bridges or facing expressways or were in dire need of six-figure renovation. She provides cogent explanations of the recent financial crisis and foreshadows its still-developing repercussions, given that she is one of the millions who signed onto an Alt-A (not quite prime) mortgage. Her family's search for a home and their journey through the mire of the New York real estate market rises to affecting heights and is a compelling, clearly written story that will interest anyone seeking a personal perspective on the causes, depth and long-term consequences of the financial crisis and the ramifications of past and current policy decisions. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
A middle-class couple in "car-honking, no-YOU-shut-up Brooklyn" embarks on a three-year mission to seek the permanence of home ownership. Journalist Williams loved her Carroll Gardens rental, but felt pressured as homeowning friends with appreciating equity ridiculed those who didn't invest in real estate, asking, "What will it cost six months from now?" With limited savings for a down payment, the author and her husband desperately started looking for houses in Brooklyn, but in their price range found only dilapidated, termite-ridden buildings near highways and unsafe neighborhoods. Williams bitingly describes the search, reliving the hysteria at the height of the 2003-06 real-estate bubble: "Open houses are crowded and competitive, with brokers entertaining multiple suitors like Scarlett O'Hara at a party." Without much of a plot engine to propel a repetitive, mostly unfulfilling search, the author opts for plumbing the psychological depths of her emotional history, explaining her tenacious need for a house and security in confessional, tell-all prose. Abandoned by her husband when she was six-months pregnant, Williams' reluctant mother is a chronic worrier and inappropriate confider who says things like, "You have no idea how incredible it is to have grandchildren . . . It's so different than what you feel for your own child." The author shows New York rapidly becoming affordable only for the extremely rich, while the middle-class gets squeezed out to the suburbs. Along the way, she patiently explains such real-estate idioms as staging, no-doc mortgages ("a lending version of ‘don't ask, don't tell' ") and interest-only loans. Although the author's mantra was to go for what you want,no matter how unobtainable it seemed, eventually she compromised and settled for a lower-priced home in Inwood, on the northern tip of Manhattan, close to the Cloisters and a beautiful park. Poignant and funny.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416557098
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 4/1/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Elizabeth Williams is the cultural critic for Public Radio Internationalõs morning news show, The Takeaway, and a regular contributor to Salon.com. She has written for many publications including The New York Times, The New York Observer, and Parents. She has appeared on Court TV and has lectured on journalism and community at New York University and Columbia University. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Home-Shopping

Of course I want a home. I'm American; it's encoded into my cultural DNA.

My country was founded by stragglers looking for a place to put down roots. Its wilderness was built by people lured by the promise of a plot of land. Its sales pitch to the world, even now, is that this is where everybody else comes to forge a life. Home is what we fantasize about and sacrifice for; it's what we go into debt over and fight wars over. It's what The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind and Battlestar Galactica are all about — that wrenching, primal need to have a place in the world that belongs to us and to belong to it.

I walk by the house, even though it's out of my way, and sneak a fleeting peek through the windows. Sometimes, I cross the street, the better to play the part of someone who's not interested, and cast a coy glance right as I go past. I pray no one I know sees me here on Sackett Street in the middle of the morning, off my usual route and with no good excuse. There's nobody in there that I'm interested in; the place is empty anyway. No, I'm fixated on the house itself. I'm stalking an inanimate object.

I saw it a few weeks ago, and now it haunts me, a crush I can't get out of my head. I shut my eyes and try to remember the precise leafy design of the ceiling medallion, the color of the bricks in the back yard. I've got it bad. So I walk past, hoping not to see signs of people moving around, people moving in. Someday soon I will, and I'll have to stop coming around like this.

Most of our friends have already made the leap. Mortgages happen. They happen to the buttoned-up friends who work for the government, and they happen to the burnouts who never miss a Burning Man. They happen to the single and the married, the gay and the straight. But not us, not yet.

We live in the most expensive shantytown on earth. It's the place we can get bok choy at 3 a.m. but the supermarket runs out of toilet paper. Where we can share a pediatrician with one of the Beastie Boys and get felt up by junkies on the bus. How many other places boast luxury lofts above skeevy bars? And where else, outside the refugee community, is obsessing over shelter the chief local pastime? Where else but New York City — Brooklyn, to be exact? The grandly named County of Kings used to be an afterthought, a bridge-and-tunnel punch line. Now it's rapidly becoming a Zagat guide destination of its own, with rock star residents and CEO-priced real estate.

I had never been to an open house before I saw the place on Sackett. I hadn't any need. I've recently decided, however, that this is the year our family buys a place of our own, the year Rent will become just a musical instead of a way of life to us. The average American moves 11.7 times in a lifetime. By my count, I'm already on my fifteenth residence. I've clocked in six of those with Jeff, in four cities and a dozen years. The world is full of nomads, to be sure, but I have done enough wandering. Even here in dense, cramped Brooklyn, I believe there's a space to truly call our own. I just have to find it before we're priced out.

Enter my new Sunday pastime — snooping in other people's closets, flushing strangers' toilets. It's easier and more constructive than brooding, which is how I've spent the previous few weeks.

It is the winter of 2003. Since Lucy turned three in January, Jeff and I have been on the fence about whether to have another child. At thirty-seven I'm not exactly decrepit — yet — but my breeding years are finite. Whatever we choose, I'd rather it be an active choice rather than something we forgot to discuss until it's too late. The way things have been between us lately, though, we may not ever have sex again, let alone babies.

We have a spectacular spat on Court Street, on the way to a kiddie birthday party. I badger Jeff about when we're going to have the conversation, and he mopes that I'm pressuring him. We fight again on the F train. "You promised we'd talk in February!" I snap, providing the morning's drama for the occupants of our car. "February's not over!" he lobs back, narrowing his brown eyes at me.

"You'd better get it together," I hiss before storming out at Jay Street, "because it's a short month."

When we finally have the discussion, one exhausted night when work and parenting and the seventh straight day with no sunlight have put us in the optimum frame of mind to make a life-changing decision, neither of us is surprised what my vote is.

I'm not one of those women who gets off on her fecundity. I didn't enter marriage, or even parenthood, raring to produce multiple offspring. Having a child didn't do much to quell my ambivalence about kids as a species either. When friends started having their perfectly timed second children two years after their firstborns, I felt no urgency to join them. I shudder when anyone I didn't give birth to calls me a mommy.

Yet I deeply relish the sweet, silly intimacy of motherhood, and I love my kid with more ferocious tenderness than I ever thought possible. Expanding on the adventure of family, this time with Lucy in the role of big sister, is exactly what I'm up for. Despite all the financial and career and time and sheer stamina concerns that another child would kick up, I'd like to try. There's more to it than that, though.

"I look at our table," I tell Jeff, shifting my gaze all of two feet from the couch to the spot where we eat our dinner, "and I see someone else at it."

It's not that I want some imaginary Gerber-jar baby. It's that I'm ready for the child I'm convinced we're meant to have. You can overanalyze, you can list your reasons why you want the things you do, but in the end the big stuff defies explanation. Sometimes, you feel life pulling you, and so you go.

A year ago, at Andrew and Ruth's wedding in New Orleans, I splurged at Marie Laveau's for a tarot reading. "I see you with two daughters," the fortune-teller informed me.

"That's pretty good," I said, "I have one daughter."

She smiled indulgently at me, the way you do when a child puts her shoes on the wrong feet, and repeated herself. "I see you with two daughters."

"So do I," I said.

My husband isn't so sure. We're an ordinary middle-class family. By that I mean a true working middle-class family, not the people you see on the cover of New York magazine wringing their hands because a half-million-dollar salary doesn't go as far as it used to.

When we moved back to New York in 1999 after several peripatetic years of freelancing and grad school, Jeff had to reinvent himself at a lower-level office job. Even now after a few raises and promotions, he's still in a not terribly lucrative position in the not terribly lucrative world of publishing.

I work from home at a half-time job for a Web site, and do freelance writing as well. When the Internet boom went bust, my company gutted much of its staff. I was one of the lucky ones who got to stay. Salaries were cut and I haven't had a raise since. I don't make six figures a year. My husband and I put together don't make six figures a year. We've never owned a car. We rarely go out. Our main expenses are rent and parenting.

"I worry about money," Jeff tells me, and I do too. "I'm scared I'll be trapped in my job forever," he says. I suspected this response was coming. That whole cringing whenever I'd broach the subject thing was a tip-off. "I can't fathom how much harder all of it would be with a baby. I'm so tired all the time now."

He's a good man, and he wants to do the right thing. "I keep looking for a sign," he says. He's searching my face for the answer. "Maybe you being so sure is the sign. If this is what you want, then we'll do it."

And then I say something that stuns me.

No.

This isn't how I pictured it at all. I wanted to have a baby the way we had Lucy, to be utterly, romantically on board for the experience. It isn't like having the chicken or the fish for dinner; it isn't a "whatever you want, honey" decision. I can't go through trying to conceive and pregnancy and swollen ankles and pushing a human being out a reluctant orifice and raising a child with someone who's so-so on the idea.

Jeff and I are both only children ourselves. We know you don't need siblings to have a family. I'll resign myself to accepting what we have as more than enough. I'll give away the maternity clothes and little baby things I'd packed up. I'll get over it. I'll flail around for a while, missing like mad this child I didn't even have, but I'll live.

"If it's not right for both of us, it's not right, period," I tell him. "That's our deal, right?"

He puts an arm around me. "Then I guess it's settled," he says, and it feels like something inside of me just broke.

I had so blithely assumed this spring would be all about conception and pregnancy, based on little more than my own wishing. Now that the plan is off the table, I badly need a distraction from the grief. I need to channel that nesting instinct into something. If we're not expanding the family, then that's one less big expense in our lives, and a space requirement that's more or less settled. The idea seizes me almost immediately. If I can't have a baby, I'll get a home.

The Sunday after the big talk our family is crammed around a tiny table at Bagel World, loading up on carbs. As I flick through the paper, I make my intentions known. "Maybe we should start looking to buy a place," I say, "because the housing market is heating up."

Jeff is somewhat less hesitant about homeownership than he is about having two children. "I guess we can see what's out there," he answers noncommittally.

Before we can see what's out there, though, we need to know what we can spend. We start by reducing our contributions to our 401k's so our take-home pay is higher and we have more savings at the ready. We have some money put aside already, but not a lot. I twiddle with a mortgage calculator and, based on our rent, get a rough idea of what we could pay each month. We're looking at, absolute maximum, a $400,000 investment. The sum is staggering, but it's a blip in the New York housing market. Houses that went for $600,000 two years ago can fetch close to a million dollars now.

Jeff and I have a talent for finding neighborhoods just as they're becoming impossible to afford, arriving, on average, a year before the middlebrow chain stores and coffee bars. We are drawn to places when they're on the cusp, still alive with that electrifying mix of old ladies in house dresses, goateed artists, and sleepy new parents.

The problem is that nothing ever stays the same, and change is happening at such a breathtaking pace that yesterday's vibrant melting pot is today's homogenized playground.

My fantasy is that we'd find someone to go in on a two-family house with us. That's the formula my nonhomeowning friends and I keep talking about, although none of us are actually doing it. While I generally bristle at anything with such hippieish associations as co-ownership, sharing is appealing. I'm not greedy. I could share a yard; I could even share a washer-dryer. Maybe someone else out there has the same idea.

The house on Sackett is offered at $775,000. It's a two-family, brick but not brownstone, and close to the dead zone of warehouses and the Gowanus Canal. It's no great shakes. But madre de dios, the potential.

I crowd in to the open house on a sunny Sunday, and the joint is jumping. It's a mostly straight-up white crowd, with a smattering of preppy guys and their Asian wives. Everybody looks younger and more prosperous than the scruffy lady all by herself that the realtor is studiously ignoring.

It's seriously tiny. The downstairs is occupied by two bedrooms and a bathroom, where a miniaturized washer-dryer lurks across from the toilet. The garden level consists of a sitting room and an eat-in kitchen. Upstairs, there's a very humble one-bedroom apartment.

This is not a home to go halfsies on.

There also appears to be one working outlet in the whole house. Every appliance, every fixture, is connected via an elaborate system of extension cords and adaptors. Paint is falling off in imposing chunks.

It's too late, though. I don't care about anything anymore, because I'm besotted. The house has all the details that always divert me from glaring problems. For starters, there's a tin ceiling. When I look up and see a tin ceiling, I see heaven itself. The kitchen has vintage glass cabinets and a built-in armoire. There is subway tile in the bathroom. Outside, there's a small, sunny yard where Tibetan flags flap in the breeze. It's all that I desire, a patch of earth in the city, a place to have friends over to cook out, to drink my coffee on a summer morning, to plant flowers with my daughter.

When I return from the Sackett Street open house and rapturously describe the place to Jeff, he nods blankly. He not only doesn't share my ardor, he doesn't understand it.

"It's too expensive, right?" he says. "So why bother thinking about it?" As far as he's concerned, we should stick to pursuing things in our price range. He is so on my shit list.

We're not usually this discordant. Jeff and I met in New York, when he lived in the East Village and I had a place in Hoboken. I was leaving the early showing of Roger & Me with a girlfriend; he was going in to the late show with his friends. My friend knew him from work. She introduced us, and right there in the lobby of the Eighth Street Movieland, we fell for each other.

After we married, we spent years bouncing around San Francisco and Boston, until the pull of Gotham became too great to ignore. When we were ready to return, we wanted a new neighborhood for a new chapter of our lives.

Brooklyn was terra incognita, a place we'd visited only once or twice. A few friends tried to steer us to the Williamsburg section of town, which was fast becoming the new East Village — Trendy! Edgy! See also: Desolate! Now it teems with expensive bars and strollers, and we couldn't afford it if we tried.

Most people we knew figured we'd wind up in Park Slope. Park Slope is what Berkeley is to San Francisco and Cambridge is to Boston — the crunchy, liberal, and pleased-with-itself sibling to the posh big city across the river. It's the neighborhood that has a food co-op and a wildly expensive private school. It's also the place bookish, academic people go when they're ready to settle down and make babies, which, our friends and family rightly assumed, was what we were settling in New York to do.

We tried to warm up to Park Slope when we invaded for a whirlwind weekend of apartment-searching, right before Christmas. We ate burgers on Seventh Avenue and checked out Prospect Park and looked at an insane number of places, in elegant old brownstones and delicately beautiful limestones. Everywhere we went, Jeff was thinking what I was thinking: Pffffffft. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Jeff and I know one way to love — at first sight. No second-guessing, and no doubt. It's why I couldn't have a baby knowing he was unsure. It's why we couldn't bring ourselves to live in Park Slope either. We didn't get it.

At the time, Jeff's oldest and best friend was living on Smith Street in Cobble Hill, in a railroad apartment above Johnnie's Bootery. I didn't know what a bootery was, but I liked that there were places in the world that still needed them. After another fruitless afternoon in the Slope, we went to visit Peter and to check out his neighborhood. I was a goner before we even got to his door.

We had stepped off the train at Jay Street, in the center of Brooklyn's downtown. It was as urban and uninspiring as anything we'd ever seen in lower Manhattan. Then, when I wasn't expecting it, something clicked into place. We crossed Atlantic on Court Street and entered Cobble Hill.

It had the feel of a true neighborhood, where produce stands and burrito joints mixed with more upscale-aspiring storefronts. There were trees and side streets full of brownstones and brick and oil lamps. And people. People everywhere, speaking in Spanish and Japanese and French and Italian. Little kids and old guys with cigars. A palpable pulse.

By the time we got to the movie theater, with its Art Deco marquee and crudely rendered murals of Scarlett O'Hara and Laurel and Hardy, I was sure this was exactly where we were destined

to live. We ate lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant called Zaytoons and stuffed ourselves with soft, fragrant flatbread. "I can't believe this great neighborhood was sitting next to Manhattan all this time," I said, humbled by my ignorance, "and we never knew it."

"This is the one," Jeff replied.

We met with a real estate agent who apprised us nervously. He rose from his chair and came up three inches from my face and half a head shorter than it. "I'm using my twenty years in this business to read you now," he said to my chin. "I think you're people I can trust." He grabbed his coat and walked us several blocks farther from downtown into the neighborhood of Carroll Gardens.

Carroll Gardens's main claim to fame is that it is the setting of the movie Moonstruck. It's where Al Capone got married. It's home to several funeral parlors, pizzerias, bakeries, and plaster Virgin Marys. You could say it has something of an Italian vibe.

The Carroll in its name comes from Charles Carroll, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence and the sole Catholic in the group. The second part of the moniker has to do with the jewels of the neighborhood — the Place blocks. On First, Second, Third, and Fourth Place, the houses are mostly brownstones, nineteenth-century head-turners straight out of an Edith Wharton novel or Sesame Street. In an urban planning quirk, they're set back from the sidewalk, giving the streets an unparalleled feeling of light and spaciousness, and leaving room in the front for squares of green. The Gardens.

That December weekend we came down from Boston to look in Brooklyn, there were only two apartments on the rental market in Carroll Gardens, both on Fourth Place. The street was decked out for the holidays, not in the tasteful white lights and pine wreaths of our Brahmin neighborhood, but in good old-fashioned plastic and a Vegas-worthy array of twinkling lights. We stopped to gawk at a life-size nativity featuring Mary, Joseph, and an empty manger where Baby Jesus would arrive on his birthday. Instead of Wise Men, Santa and a giant snowman stood guard over the tender scene. We have arrived, I thought. This is where we belong.

The first landlady we met, whose departing tenant had left behind an apartment full of paper and debris, didn't agree. Maybe it was because we're not Italian, or because we were from out of town. Whatever the reason, she turned us away. Another landlord, in a three-family a few doors up, seemed suspicious too, but offered us a lease on a minuscule upstairs apartment. We leapt at it.

A year later, I had a newborn in my arms, a lease that had expired, and a landlord who'd decided to convert our building into a one-family and kick us out. Sleep-deprived, hormonal, and historically overemotional on the subject of geography anyway, I spent days heaving and snuffling to Jeff, envisioning worst-case scenarios that would fling us to unchartered boroughs. "Wah-wah-wah we-re g-g-g-gonna have to move to Queeeeeeeeens!" I'd hyperventilate at him while Lucy screeched along sympathetically.

Instead, fate smiled on us. One morning on the way to the subway, Jeff passed by a nondescript storefront, a law office that shared space with a real estate agent. A handwritten sign in the window advertised a one-bedroom "plus den" at the high end of our price range. The "den" is Brooklynese for the cell-like side room that every apartment seems equipped with. It's where you stick the crib after you've gone from couplehood to familyhood and before you get fed up and move to Jersey. The apartment we were living in was also a one plus den. It probably measured 750 square feet in its dreams.

That evening, while Jeff made spaghetti in our kitchen built for one, I dutifully strapped Lucy in the BabyBjörn and went over to the office. The broker, Vivian, grew up in Carroll Gardens. "I've lived down the street my whole life," she told me. She was open and friendly. "I think you'll like this apartment."

"I'm a little worried about size," I said. "We've got two adults and a person whose main job these days is growth."

"It's big," she promised, but I've lived enough places and looked at enough apartments to assume that God created realtors to make lawyers and publicists look honest.

We walked through the darkness to a block where the houses are the widest and grandest in the neighborhood. Vivian steered me to a stately brownstone with a requisite statue of Saint Anthony in the front yard.

A petite blonde was standing outside in the cold, smoking a Parliament. "Hey, Viv," rasped the landlady, "how's the family?" She held out a hand. "I'm Gina. I live downstairs, with my daughter and my granddaughter. What a beautiful baby. God bless her."

"Be careful with the banister, it's broken," Gina warned as Vivian, Lucy, and I lurched up a dusty flight of stairs. She unlocked the door and said, "Let me open the light."

She flipped a switch, and I gasped. "Excuse me," I said, "I need to make a call."

The apartment was almost twice the size of our other place, and, at $1,800 a month, only $200 more. The kitchen and bath were bigger, though still psychotically claustrophobic, but the bedroom was almost preposterously large. The "plus den" room could fit the crib and contained a closet, and there was a whole extra middle room, ideal for our office.

Jeff showed up in a heartbeat. "Do you think it's too big?" he mused.

"That's not a question people who live in a city should ever ask," I replied. A few weeks later we had moved in. We've been there ever since.

There's a lot to appreciate about our apartment — the high ceilings, the hardwood floors. There are plenty of drawbacks too: the water leaks that have sent brown rivers cascading down into our kitchen cupboards, the broken banister that forces us to go up and down the stairs clinging to the wall, the temperamental toilet that regularly goes on strike and refuses to flush, the stink of smoke from our nicotine-addicted neighbors that creeps into our air space, the ceiling collapses that have unleashed plagues of shiny flying roaches. There are days it feels like the last freaking book of the Bible in there.

It has not for one moment ever felt too big either. Not any of the times we've cringed when a well-meaning relation has gifted us with a supersized toy, not every morning when I roll out of bed to navigate the scant floor space between the garment rack and the bed, not when I'm so frazzled over where to put our shoes or our papers or our laundry detergent that I have to go to the Container Store to calm down and cheer up.

But the thing I like least about our apartment is that it will never be ours. The tenants upstairs, Sheila and her grown daughter Marilyn, have lived in the building for thirty years. They're great people. My biggest dread in life is turning into them.

I've lived in other people's houses my whole life. The first was my grandmother's, right on the other side of the Hudson River in Jersey City. I don't want my child to grow up in somebody else's home too.

"We should get our credit reports," I tell Jeff one lazy evening as we park, semidazed, in front of a movie. "Sure," he says, and soon after, we've ordered them.

More than your blood type, more than your astrological sign, more, even, than your SATs, your credit score is your identity. It determines what kind of a dream you can buy.

There are three major credit-scoring bureaus in America: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. These businesses collect information on how you spend your money and how on the ball you are about paying your bills. Late with a student loan? Delinquent with a car payment? Running up a lot of debt and paying only the minimum balance? They're the ones keeping tabs.

Your score is a calculation on a scale of 300 to 850 of how likely you are to default on your debts. The lower the number, the riskier a prospect you are. Jeff and I are in good shape in this regard. In the Venn diagram of our relationship, we overlap on an appreciation of bacon, Philly soul music, and having as little plastic as possible and carrying as little revolving balance on it as possible.

Jeff's scores are 738, 790, and 785. Mine are 810, 808, and 805. All we do is not use our cards too much and pay our bills on time, and our credit is considered "excellent." It's still a long road though, from getting a good score to scoring a house.

I arrange a playdate for Lucy with her friend Harry. It's really an excuse to get together with his mother, Jennifer. Jennifer and I are in a codependent real estate relationship. We can spend entire afternoons discussing the minutiae of the New York Times real estate section, from the Thursday "Recent Sales" column to the merits of the current week's "If You're Thinking of Living In" neighborhood report to the price tags on any building or condo or co-op in a five-mile radius. We can talk for hours about boilers and wiring, coaxing out intimate details of other people's countertops and closet space, and it doesn't get old for either of us.

Jennifer is from a midsized Ohio town that the housing bubble has conspicuously passed by, where one could easily purchase ten homes for the cost of one Brooklyn brownstone. When I met her, she and her husband were living in a microsized rental on President Street. It predated the relationship, belonging first to Vincent and a revolving series of roommates, but eventually straining, like a size-twelve ass in a size-six pair of jeans, to accommodate a wife and child. The rent was cheap and they scrimped and saved. Then a death in the family brought them some extra money. In 2001 they bought a fixer-upper three-family brownstone around the block from us for $780,000. It was a good price then. It's an impossible one now.

Meticulous, diligent Jennifer throws herself wholeheartedly into whatever she does. She was a self-educated home buyer, who as an owner learned on the fly the ins and outs of renovation. Becoming a homeowner didn't dampen Jennifer's taste for the hunt either. She still checks out open houses and reads the Web sites of every broker in town. She's also got a real knack for it, an instinct for what's a good investment and what's a clunker, a sense for how much work a house will need and how much it'll cost. Her continuing research also reassures her she got an excellent house at a wise price. As she says, "If I can go out for a few minutes on a Sunday and look at a place and that makes me feel good, why not?"

Now that I'm dipping my toes into the market, Jennifer has become an enthusiastic supporter of the quest. She gets to house-hunt vicariously through me. I get to home-own vicariously through her. She's the one, even in this cutthroat market, who keeps saying to not be afraid to bid and to bid low. "All they can do is say no," she says with the confidence of someone who negotiated the kind of deal on her house that any realtor would have said couldn't be done.

When I tell her about the house on Sackett Street, I can hear neurons firing up in her head. "There's another open house this weekend," I say, enticing her with those original fixtures.

"Call me Sunday, when you're heading out," she says. "Maybe I'll check it out with you." This is Jennifer code for "on it like white on rice."

Jennifer at the open house projects a vicious beauty. She's a quiet woman who wears ponytails and glasses. Get her around anyone unloading property, though, and she is a shark. As we stroll through the rooms, she grills the broker about the concrete on the sidewalk. About the roof. About why the water pressure is so low, relentlessly knocking thousands off the asking price. I'm so dopey-eyed over the plank floors, I can't even form a question, but Jennifer makes it all look as straightforward as a mob hit.

I follow Jennifer with a notebook like a cub reporter, scribbling furiously. I know I will never live in this house, even as I stand here contemplating how loud the foot traffic is at night and whether the closets are big enough. Since when has not being able to have something stopped anyone from aching for it? At least I'll sound a whole lot sharper the next time I go out on the prowl.

I need any bit of savvy I can get. Something has to compensate for what we don't have much of — money.

We have friends in other parts of the country who bought their homes with practically nothing in their pockets, with not much more than their smarts and local incentives. I keep hoping that we can use our pluck and wits to find a relative bargain and finance it through some magical loan.

I look into Housing and Urban Development programs for first-time homebuyers, but our family isn't financially or vocationally qualified for any. I spot a boarded-up brownstone on a less desirable block and make numerous calls to the city. Eventually, I track down some info on the owner, who, it turns out, is still paying taxes and is not violating enough quality-of-life laws for the house to be officially designated abandoned.

There are homes in Brooklyn available at auction, thanks to a foreclosure rate that's creeping steadily upward all over the country. But most of them require massive rehabs and are located in the absolute shittiest parts of town. I'm not afraid of elbow grease or investing our family in a growing neighborhood. This is more than that. It's crap schools, high crime, and more money than we could spend for renovation.

I'd never before given much thought to whether or not Jeff and I would own a home. We married young; we conceived as soon as we started trying. I'd assumed if I wanted another baby, I'd have one. I'd equally assumed that home ownership would be waiting for us when we were ready for it. I had the cockiness of one for whom other milestones have come easily. Only a few weeks into the house hunt, and already the reality of what we're facing here and the subtext that we have failed economically, are only making the disappointment of not having another baby even worse.

After school one cold March afternoon, Lucy and I go to see Margot and her new daughter. Margot grew up in Brooklyn Heights, not far from right where she's living now. She has the inborn confidence of a native New Yorker, with a low threshold for the indirect, the unsure, and the passive. She moves quickly and she expects you to keep up.

She and her husband Simon bought their two-family in Cobble Hill in 1999. The house was a disaster and they paid $250,000 for it. They lived there through a nerve-scraping year of renovation, surviving microwaved meals and workers tramping in and out. They endured it all through a pregnancy and the birth of a first baby, because that was the only way they could afford to do it.

Margot's daughter Bette has been Lucy's best friend since before the girls could even crawl. Now, and for the rest of her life, Bette is also someone's sister. Margot knows that's not in the cards for us. When, in her ninth month, she cheerfully queried, "So when are you going to have your next one?" I responded with the glum assertion, "I'm not."

Harper is snoozing in the bouncy seat when we arrive bearing a tray of spinach lasagna. I peer at the baby under her blanket, her long eyelashes casting shadows on her cheek. She's so stunning it's an icepick to my psyche.

By the time I come home, I can barely speak. It's hit me why I'm so pissed off at Jeff. It's not that he doesn't share my certainty about a baby. It's that he's reneging on our deal.

We have a pact that's sustained us through our entire relationship: to make our decisions based on our desires, not our fears. It stems from our earliest days after meeting each other. He said it's what made him call me for the first time. It's why I got off the corporate track years ago. It's how we chose to live in California and Boston for a few years. We'd never lived there and we wanted to do the things we hadn't tried. Now, when I think back to our baby conversation, I remember all I heard from Jeff was a litany of worries.

We're washing the dishes after Lucy is asleep. "I have to say something," I tell him, "and then I'll let it go. If you're completely satisfied with everything we have now, if you don't want to have another baby, then fine. Just do me a favor and ask yourself if that's it, or if you're not saying yes to something that could be fantastic because you're scared. You don't even have to tell me what the answer is," I say, and I mean it, "but promise you'll think about it. We always said we wouldn't chicken out."

"Okay," he replies softly, and sticks a plate back in a crowded cabinet.

I don't expect him to change how he feels, I don't expect anything to change at all, but I needed to ask. I needed to be sure.

A short time later I pass a sign in another real estate office, a listing for someone with "patience, vision, and stamina." There's a picture of a brick house, not the familiar brownstone of my street or the stately red of Cobble Hill, but a yellowish beige-ish baby-poop hue. The price is $625,000, "firm," the ad notes, and there's an address.

It's located at the farthest end of a dead-end street, a few yards before the Gowanus Canal. An enormous tree in front of it has burst through the sidewalk, ripping up pavement and blocking out the view of its upper levels. From where I stand, I can ascertain a few things. The area past the rust-crumbling gate is similarly cracked, the windows are far too filthy to see in, and what is at best ivy and at worst a virulent strain of Venus flytrap is crawling up the façade and tearing up the bricks. To call it a blight would be an insult to blight.

I stand in front of the house wondering if I could wheedle a better price than "firm" from the seller and pondering whether the inside is full of fabulous, untouched details like stained glass and sliding doors. An older man materializes from the house next door with a broom and begins sweeping his stoop.

"There are mushrooms growing in there," he says. Come again? "Mushrooms" he repeats. "Nobody's lived in there for twenty-five years. Owner lives on Staten Island. The whole block has been trying to get him to sell it for years. He'd rather not sell it than not get his price."

Part of me is intrigued. I picture a primeval interior overrun with fungus, moss, and elves. The more sensible parts of me, my feet, turn and walk away.

On Saturday, it feels like spring outside. We still need sweaters and jackets, but the air is soft and there isn't a cloud for six counties. We decide to treat ourselves to breakfast out and head for the greasy spoon at the end of Court Street, directly under the overpass. The diner lacks ambiance and drinkable coffee, but it's cheap and close and the waitresses fuss like mad over my daughter.

I'm cutting up her pancakes when Lucy blurts, "Mommy's going to have a baby."

I can feel my heart cracking. Jeff's a great father. I get swoony and sentimental when I see him with Lucy, their close relationship teaching me of how much fathers and daughters can mean to each other.

"No," I tell Lucy, trying not to glare accusingly at Jeff, "I'm not."

"Yes you are!" she insists. She rubs my stomach. "There's a baby in there and she's going to come out." I'm sure this is just some weird reaction to Bette's new sister, but she's playing it to the hilt. She leans down to kiss my belly. "Hi, baby," she coos. "Daddy, touch Mama's belly."

Then she looks up at me. "Why are you crying?"

"I'm not," I say, as the waterworks flow so copiously that I can't even fool a three-year-old. We can't have a baby, we can't find a home, how much less together could our act be? While Jeff pays the tab, I escape to the bathroom to pull myself together, splashing my face and staring at the Bob Marley poster in the ladies' room until I'm composed enough to come out. Everything's gonna be all right. Everything's gonna be all right.

We step out in the morning light, and Lucy busies herself singing the score of Annie. "I don't need anything but you!" she belts.

That's when Jeff whispers: "I've been thinking about what you said. You're right. I was scared. I want to have a baby. I want Lucy to have a sibling; I want two kids running around the dunes on Cape Cod in the summer, playing together. I knew it for sure when I saw Lucy kissing your belly. I've been looking for the sign. That was the sign."

This is exactly what I've been wishing to hear for weeks. There's only one thing to say.

"What the hell are you doing to me?" I roar. "Are you crazy? I thought we made a decision." I'm so angry and sad and confused over this whole stupid pancake breakfast fiasco I could run away. "I can't be on the roller coaster anymore. It's too late. Forget it."

Three and a half weeks later, I drop Lucy off at nursery school and then I duck into the drugstore on the way home. When I get there, I shut myself up in the bathroom for a few minutes, and when I emerge, I dial Jeff's work number. I'm pregnant.

Copyright © 2009 by Mary Elizabeth Williams

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Finding a home in NYC ain't easy

    Mary Elizabeth Williams, her husband and two daughters's search for a home in New York City is recounted in Gimme Shelter- Ugly Houses, Cruddy Neighborhoods, Fast-talking Brokers, and Toxic Mortgages: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.

    Timing is everything, and Mary Elizabeth and her husband started their search in 2003,at the height of the home buying insanity. After living in a cramped apartment with one daughter and another on the way, she convinced her husband it was time to look for a home of their own.

    If there is anything harder than finding an affordable rental unit in NYC, it's finding an affordable condo, co-op or home to buy. Williams places her story in the perspective of the national experience. Many of her friends were buying homes across the country, and she tells their different stories- from San Francisco to post-Katrina New Orleans to St. Louis to Minnesota.

    Williams and her husband lived in Brooklyn, and they loved it there, so it was there that their search began. She figured they could afford a $350,000 mortgage, but everything in that price range was awful, filthy with missing stairs, sagging porches and a home that had mushrooms growing inside the house.

    Brooklyn was becoming as expensive as Manhattan, as Manhattanites were spreading over the bridge and making real estate prices skyrocket. Getting a mortgage was a scary proposition as well. While Williams and her husband had excellent FICO scores, they did not have the 20% required for a down payment.

    No problem; this is where the creative ideas of mortgage brokers come in. They could get a no-doc loan. This type of loan requires no pesky checking by the bank to see if the information provided by the prospective buyers on salary and credit history is accurate. Williams humorously described this type of loan as the banking industry's version of "don't ask, don't tell". While Williams and her husband were good credit risks, other people who received no-doc loans were not; thus created the housing crisis that tanked our economy.

    For three long years, Williams and her husband looked at condos, co-ops and houses. They finally found a co-op they liked in a neighborhood that, although far from Brooklyn, had a big park, a grocery store, decent schools, and most importantly a nearby subway station. (Anyone who lives in New York understands how crucial that is.)

    There is as much suspense as in a Stephen King novel as they wait for approval by the co-op board in a timely manner in order to get the low interest rate they need to afford the bank loan.

    This is a timely book, as Williams shares her personal story of looking for the American dream of home ownership in the context of the beginning of the housing crisis. It is immensely readable, reading almost like a novel, and if you have ever bought a house, you will relate to her story.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 27, 2009

    Mary Elizabeth Williams's "Gimme Shelter" a must read for everyone who has looked for a home in a big city

    Mary Elizabeth Williams tells a compelling tale of her multi-year search for the American dream -- a home for her family in or near New York City, during the height of the real estate bubble. Her harrowing stories of obnoxious real estate sales people, crazy sellers, horrifying mortgages, and ridiculously expensive homes will terrify you at the same time her sparkling wit will make you laugh. An exceptional first book.

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  • Posted March 8, 2009

    Funny, poignant, and suspenseful!

    I tore through this book in a weekend and I agree-- I am sad the book is over! Mary Elizabeth Williams does the impossible-- she explains the sub-prime crisis in easy to understand terms, she effortlessly weaves together tales of very different people pursuing the dream of home ownership, and she makes us care deeply about the outcome of her own family's home search. At turns funny, frustrating, suspenseful, and poignant, "Gimme Shelter" is a must-read for anyone who has toured one too many stinky run-down open houses in pursuit of a place to call home.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2009

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