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Monday, June 11, 2012

On the Courthouse Steps

On the first Tuesday each month, foreclosed properties are auctioned on the courthouse steps.  This is not a metaphor or figure of speech, but an actual, verifiable reality.  I had the opportunity to witness this first-hand thanks to Spencer's boyfriend Glenn, whose company buys these properties as part of a hedge fund.  Of course, it goes without saying, that each one of these foreclosures represents the end of someone's dream, and who knows how much personal and financial distress.  Having said this, however, let it be known that I am what William F Buckley once called a Free-Market Voluptuary: I just love the free market and get down and roll in it whenever I can.
The way it works, if "works" can be employed to describe such a haphazard process, is that some flunky from a law firm will appear, willy-nilly, find a convenient spot on the steps, and begin reading from a fat stack of papers in a monotone voice usually reserved for Ben Stein imitations.  Potential investors hover close, listening through the babble of legalize about land-bound tracts and proceeding so many degrees nor'nor'east and parties of the first part or whatever, until they hear the opening price, say $100,000, at which, if somebody wants to bid, he'll say, "$100,001," and so forth.
The trick is, the representatives from various law firms are all reading off their foreclosures at the same time, with new ones showing up intermittently, old ones going away, and then sometimes coming back, and nobody making any huge effort to attract an audience, by say, shouting and waving his arms, saying, "Yoo-hoo!  Over here!  I've got some foreclosed properties for sale!"  Hence the reason I was needed; in fact there was a modest group of us there, making sure that Glenn's company wouldn't miss any of the properties they had on their list; they needed several bidders working at once and "runners" to go around and verify which law firms were present and reading out which properties.  If a successful bid was entered, we had to get the guy with the dough - a coworker of Glenn's who had an envelope of cashier's checks totaling over a million dollars.  I was given a list of properties with a maximum bid for each.  Most of the other folks there were clearly from other investing consortia, so we were cautioned not to let anyone get a peak at our maximum bid, and not to go around telling everybody our business.  I didn't get to bid myself, but I nearly did.  The two auctions I participated in, the opening price was higher than what Glenn's company was willing to pay.
I had one awkward moment: I saw someone I recognized, a man who sometimes works as a substitute teacher at my school.  He asked what I was doing there, and I gave the vague reply as instructed.  I had the horrible vertiginous sensation that his own property had been foreclosed upon, and he'd shown up in the forlorn hope of buying it back.  Other than that, the day was as entertaining and bizarre as any day I have spent.  On one side of the courthouse steps was another auction, having to do with taxes.  I asked one of Glenn's colleagues about it, and he admitted he knew nothing about it, that it was, as he expressed it in accurate but less than perfect grammar, "a whole nother thing."
Before leaving, I saw my substitute-teacher acquaintance in the thick of the tax auction, taking notes, and occasionally entering bids and realized he wasn't there to buy back his home after all.  He was just a plain old Free-Market Voluptuary.
Like me.

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