“hocus pocus!” real estate for sale!

When we moved from the east coast 13 years ago, we practiced a little “hocus pocus” when selling our home in Redding, Connecticut. One of the smallest houses in town, our 100-year-old Victorian farmhouse, at 1,500 square feet, was about half the size of our current one. While it lacked an abundance of living space, our 3 bedroom, 1 bath home was full to overflowing with charm. It provided the perfect backdrop for my collection of antiques and memorabilia. But when it was time to sell, we weren’t sure prospective buyers would love our one-of-a-kind, vintage home.

My husband left my young daughter and me before Christmas, to begin his new job here in the Pacific Northwest. I was anxious to sell quickly so that we could all be reunited. Just before he returned to spend the holiday with us, I learned from a friend that a neighbor and friend of hers had just died of a heart attack at age 42. The loss was especially devastating because she left behind two very young daughters, the littler of whom wore a helmet because she suffered some neurological disorder. The husband owned a local ice cream shop in a town next door to ours. Evidently their marriage had been strained because he was very controlling of his wife’s time, and her friendships.

I was so saddened for the little girls who were now without a mom, that the sale of our house seemed inconsequential. Instead of praying for our family’s reunion, I prayed hard that the children would be okay. I cried that they would be okay.

When my thoughts returned to the sale of our home, a dear friend, Carol, offered some unusual advice. While it seemed like religious superstition, we were open to anything after 2 months without a firm offer. In the dead of winter, we buried a small statue of St.  Joseph, head first, facing the street, in the dirt in front of our house. Needless to say my husband had a difficult time digging a hole in the frozen ground. But he did. And guess what? Our home went into contract later that week! We had bought it 14 or 15 years earlier for $115,000, and sold it for $245,000. When we moved, St. Joseph traveled with us. We had to dig up his statue and honor him with a place in our new home, which we have. He stands among my collectible dishware in a red, painted cupboard.

With foreclosures on the rise recently, sellers and buyers “are turning to witches, psychics, priests and feng shui consultants, among others, to bless or exorcise dwellings,” or “to help move…property stuck  on the market.” The Wall Street Journal’s “The Housing Slump Has Salem  On a Witch Hunt Again,” indicates that the ancient tradition of housecleansing is making a comeback. Tony Barletta bought a foreclosed home in disrepair at 31 Arbella St. Because of its bad vibes, he invited 70-year-old witch, Lori Bruno, who claims to be descended from 16th century Italian witches, and warlock Christian Day to process through the house casting out the negativity. “They clanged bells and sprayed holy water, poured kosher salt on doorways and raised iron swords at windows.” Then Ms. Bruno chanted ” ‘Residue, residue, residue is in this house. It has to come out,” and “Lord of fire, lord flame, blessed be thy holy name…All negativity must be gone!’ ” The bell ringing is to break up the negativity, while the iron sword keeps evil spirits at bay, according to Bruno and Day.

Historically, Catholics and Hindus call upon priests to bless a new home before occupying it. Chinese believe in cleansing a home of any accumulated bad luck before the start of their New Year. Julie Belmont, a so-called “intuitive,” working in Orange County, California, explains that with foreclosures, ” ‘It’s not dealing with entities or ghosts…anymore…a lot of it is energy imprints from past discussions, arguments, money problems. All of that is absorbed by the house.’ “

But while Ms. Bruno and fellow Salem witch Lillee Allee perform house blessings for free because they “don’t want to live off people’s sadness,” others see it as a real business opportunity. “Austin, Texas-based feng shui consultant Logynn B. Northrip is teaming up with Scottsdale, Ariz., real-estate agent Jason Goldberg to offer a package of services to create better vibes in a home, either before sale or after purchase. The two met at a yoga retreat.” Sacramento, California realtor Tamara Dorris used feng shui to help sell a home that had sat on the market for more than a year. Having placed “a jade plant, believed to bring financial good luck, in a ‘prosperity corner’,” the home received 2 offers of purchase within two weeks.

Seems to me like St. Joseph is a more budget-friendly investment, and reeks less of superstitious mumbo-jumbo. But as far as I’m concerned, hey, whatever works!

never know…might try some of it the next go-round…hugmamma.

good samaritan #7

Newman’s Own has celebrated a landmark contribution of $300 million to charity. It was reported by Brian Williams on NBC’s Evening News. I wasn’t aware that every penny is donated. While I may not have been a huge fan of Paul Newman’s films, liking some, but not others; I commend his generous nature of seemingly, unconditional compassion for the less fortunate.

In a clip from an interview with Newman, he said “What could be better than holding your hand out to someone in need?”  Newman identified a need, and signed on for life, even in death. I’ll bet he’d be even prouder of his philanthropic legacy, than the one he left behind on celluloid.

My husband, daughter and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Newman’s eldest daughter Nell, and her husband once. I believe she’s inherited her dad’s position as head of Newman’s Own. They’d bought an antique pine cupboard from me, which was selling at a charming, antique shop in Wilton, Connecticut, where I rented a space, called Simply Country. They asked if I could deliver the piece, which, of course, I consented to do. Who wouldn’t? Even if I had to rent  a truck to haul the cupboard! Luckily, it fit in the Ford Windstar van we owned at the time.

The couple lived in a smallish, white cottage, on a huge, level, parcel of land. Most of it lay behind the house, which sat at the front of the property. Nell and her husband were warm and friendly, smiling and laughing easily. While our husbands carted the cupboard into the house, bringing it to rest in its designated spot, Nell and I made “small talk.” Wish I remembered about what. But I’m sure I admired her home, her furnishings, and asked after her parents. She told me they lived nearby. In fact, I knew where their house was located. In my regular treks in and around Westport, I’d seen the stone lions that guarded the iron gates to the actors’ acreage. I may have glimpsed the home when we drove slowly by once, but viewing was difficult, since it’s set back from the road aways.

I think we commented on the lovely, old trees gracing their yard, so we were taken around towards the back to see more of them. Hanging from a very  large  branch of one tree, was an old-fashioned, rope swing, with a wooden seat. While we adults continued to talk, our daughter made herself comfortable, swinging contentedly, back and forth.

When we took our leave, it wasn’t like old friends, but rather like folks who were very delighted to meet one another. Perhaps, it was that they, and we, rarely, if ever, get to know people from two such different “worlds.” In truth, they weren’t really so different from us. Nell’s parents would’ve been proud of how cordial and welcoming she was to strangers, just making a delivery.  

for the “star” and his offspring, hugs…hugmamma.

“service with a smile”

Having both worked in service-oriented jobs for many years, with my husband still in the business, we agree that customer service is a “dying art.” Shopping on the Internet has made it more convenient for consumers to surf the global market for all their needs. An appealing product, savvy marketing and a credit card completes the transaction. There’s no need to interface with a flesh-and-blood person. After all, Google can answer any of your questions. And if you’ve got a hankering for “warm and fuzzy,” click on “smiley face” or download your choice of YouTube videos, to get your endorphins moving.  

Businesses grew by leaps and bounds when consumers had quantities of disposable income. Customer service was unnecessary, so it became a thing of the past. A few retailers, like some purveyors of travel and TV’s QVC, continued their traditional practice of being solicitous towards customers. But some, like E-Bay, Amazon.com, Craig’s List, department stores, supermarkets, drugstores, fast-food chains, medical practitioners and airlines, may have opted to minimize service in favor of quick turnover, with a “get ’em in, get ’em out,” attitude.

With the downturn in the economy, companies are scrambling to win back customers who have fewer dollars to spend. Customer service may be on the rise again. I hope so. It doesn’t cost businesses more to have employees smile, offer a warm greeting, listen with patience, offer options for resolution, and express appreciation for ongoing patronage. However, a company may want to invest in customer service training. Even employees with impeccable manners and the greatest intentions, will meet their match in irate persons. I know, I’ve sat on both sides of the desk.

In my mid-20’s I worked as a customer service agent for the Hawaii Medical Service Association in Honolulu. It represents Blue Cross/Blue Shield in the islands. I had extensive training in the technical aspects of HMSA’s policies so that I could answer policyholder questions. I did so in person, and on the phone. I enjoyed helping people, especially when I could clarify or demystify the finer points of their coverage. Receiving their thanks, and seeing their smiles when they turned to leave, was extremely gratifying. Of course, there were some who were disgruntled with what I had to say. And there were a few who insisted upon speaking with my supervisor, hoping his response would be different. Sometimes a review was scheduled, but often his answer confirmed mine. One particular encounter left me “shaking” in my muumuu (long, Hawaiian dress).

A gentleman from the island of Molokai had called, unhappy with a bill payment. I think it was a hospital claim, probably of a sizeable amount. I explained how the insurance carrier had determined his coverage. Unhappy with the information, I can only imagine how the man’s eyes bulged, his belly heaved, and how difficult it might have been to breathe, as he screamed profanities through the telephone. The tirade continued when I handed the call over to my boss. We were mistaken to think we’d heard the last of the policyholder. Not long after, the huge Hawaiian man  arrived at our offices, having made the flight specifically to address us in person. I gladly introduced him to my supervisor, who withdrew to the privacy of his office, with the angry islander in tow. I think someone from upper management eventually joined the conversation, but I don’t remember the outcome. Needless to say, the experience left me wary.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been the irate customer. However I’ve certainly done my fair share of yelling, I’m sorry to say. But it’s always been when I felt inconsequential, the company having already snagged my business. There was the time we’d refinanced with a bank at a low-interest rate. Because the appraiser hadn’t submitted his report on time, our rate was due to be increased. Not until I spoke with the President’s secretary, shedding tears of frustration, did she resolve the matter in our favor. 

When my 19-year-old daughter’s VISA bill showed an annual $85 fee for fraud protection on a credit limit of $500, I went ballistic! If she didn’t pay the fee, she’d be slapped with a finance charge. And if that kept up, she’d reach her allowed max in no time.  It was ludicrous that a billion dollar corporation would take advantage of a teenager. Unfamiliar with marketing schemes, my daughter thought VISA’s $2 rebate check was a reward for opening a bank account. Cashing the check actually signed her up for credit card protection, as indicated on the back, in fine print. My nonstop tirade failed to move the customer rep until I asked how she’d feel if her teenager had been scammed. The rep agreed to remove the fee, without requesting repayment of the rebate.

Purchasing a used sofa back table in Atlanta for $300, I agreed to pay the dealer another $265 to ship it to my home in Washington state. He shipped with a small, regional carrier because of its comparatively low-cost. When the merchandise arrived in Tacoma, my husband was told that the price had escalated to $600. In speaking with the seller, I learned that the price change had occurred within the shipper’s bureaucracy. The clerk with whom the transaction originated, wrote up the piece as a “sofa bed,” not a “sofa back table.” Sight unseen, the receiving office modified the price accordingly. When we asked that they open the crate to verify that it was a table, not a sofa bed, we were aghast when the amount shot up to $800+. No reason was given, but I surmised the decision was made that the piece was an antique. If I refused to pay the exorbitant price to retrieve my belonging, it could be sold locally for a hefty sum. After phone calls to 3 different offices, I was directed to the company’s corporate offices in Alabama. I wrote a letter describing, in great detail, the events leading up to my outrage. I addressed it to the President of the freight company, copying the President of its parent company, and express mailed both. It was sent on a Saturday, and I followed up with a call on Tuesday. Long story short, the Tacoma branch delivered the table to my husband for the originally quoted price of $261. That didn’t include door-to-door transportation, but it did in my case.

Who wants the grief that accompanies confrontation? Not me, that’s for certain. I’d just as soon turn my back, leaving it to those with hardier constitutions. But as I’ve indicated in my earlier posting, “put a ‘face’ on the ‘unknown,’ ” sometimes I’m integrity gone amuck! As with most people, there’s a “line” which when crossed, Mr. Jekyl steps in for Dr. Hyde. At that point, I become “warrior mom,” battling until my opponent is “face down,” eating dust from under my high-heeled stiletto, specifically removed from moth balls for the occasion. 

In my travel experiences from one end of the country to the other, southerners and Hawaiians exude genuine warmth and hospitality. The tellers at my mother-in-law’s bank welcome her with sunny smiles, and assist patiently with any questions she may raise. I find Southern wait staff gracious in their greetings, and their drawls hold my attention as they enticingly describe the “specials of the day.” What both ethnicities share is a slower paced lifestyle. That seems to translate to great customer service. Of course, as with anything else, there are exceptions to the rule. But I enjoy spending time in those locales, where “getting to know you” and “service with a smile” are more than fanciful sayings. They’re a way of life. 

for amazing customer service, huge hugs…hugmamma.

a treasure trove

Deciding to enjoy a day in the sun, hubby and I briefly visited friends to see what goodies they were selling in their neighborhood yard sale. I snapped up a set of 4 square, etched glass lunch plates with matching mugs for $10. While there I did a little rearranging, bringing to the front items that would catch the eyes of passers-by. I left, hoping the changes would increase sales.

Residential communities and shopping plazas behind us, we found solace in the wide open spaces the farther along we drove. Heading toward a favorite restaurant for lunch, I saw a street sign out the corner of my eye. I immediately asked my husband to “Go Back!” Turning the steering wheel, he made a quick right turn. It put us on a road that was sure to connect with the one we’d passed. After a short drive, we came to a stop sign. As we turned left, I knew we’d been here before. It was deja vu.

As buildings came into view at the bottom of the street, I squealed with delight. Ahead lay the historical train depot with its museum, the bookstore that carried “out of print” titles, and the restaurant/bakery that served up “to-die-for” home cooked meals and baked goods. We’d eaten there 12 years before when we first moved West. At the time it seemed we’d driven umpteen miles in search of a haunt favored by the locals. 

Impatient to see if the inside looked the same, I jumped out the door as soon as the car was parked. Not waiting for my husband, I entered the restaurant. It seemed more spacious than I remembered; but it had the same, comfortable vibe as before. Looking around, I saw people smiling and chatting as they munched away at their food. I was so happy that we’d found this “hidden gem” again.

After dining on a hearty meatloaf sandwich, coffee and lemon meringue pie, I was ready to explore. Contentedly burying himself behind his e-book, my husband waited while I browsed the nearby shops. He helped carry an armload of old books, mostly biographies, that I’d purchased for “pennies.” (Compared to what I pay at big retail bookstores.)

Expecting to make a quick stop at the train station museum, I did so only because it was there. I half-heartedly hoped that the antique shop I’d visited before was still housed within. But I was pretty sure it had gone out of business a while ago. Walking through the front door, I felt I had traveled back in time.

An avid collector of vintage items, I’ve searched for treasures from Hawaii to New England to Venice. But I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming inventory of memorabilia I saw before me. Wherever I looked there were walls of old black and white photographs, wedding certificates, baseball uniforms, tools and so much more. There were glass cases displaying old typewriters, a mannequin dressed in a vintage wedding gown, hats, dolls and a miniaturized train depot complete with trains, tracks, landscaping, and the like. There was a bank safe and a phone booth. Both looked like they might still service customers. There was a grouping of old Singer sewing machines, and a small cart that might have been a child’s or one used for delivering goods.

I couldn’t stop “oohing” and “aahing” as I marveled at several vignettes. One was of a barbershop; another of a classroom with children sitting at old school desks, filled bookcases alongside. A third showed a kitchen complete with all sorts of cooking and eating paraphernalia from bygone days. For me, the most significant find stood at the foot of the stairs descending to the basement, a ringer-washing machine. I smiled remembering my childhood encounter with that antiquated contraption. 

At 9 or 10 years of age, I helped my older, married sister put the washed clothes through the ringer of the machine, ridding them of water. In shocked horror I watched as my hand got caught in the rollers. I probably waited to see how close my fingers could get before letting go. Blood curdling screams brought my sister, and everyonelse in the house, running to see what had happened. I’m happy to say I escaped, fingers, hand and arm completely intact. I made sure not to tempt fate a second time.

The curator couldn’t have been lovelier, allowing me to snap some pictures, as well as sharing tidbits about preserving the antiques and explaining how they came to be in the museum. We parted friends, deciding to keep in touch via emails, blogs and Facebook.

I rejoined my husband,  who was patiently sitting on a bench just outside. He listened as I recounted all the details of the past hour or so. He hadn’t realized that more than train artifacts were on display. He might have come inside had he known. Well there’s always the next time, for we’ll be back.

trust me,we will return…hugmamma.