Thursday, January 26, 2006

Desperation Smells Like Bread

We were on something like our fourth open house when she whispered it, standing in the threshold of a 1920's two-story somewhere in LA.

"Smells like desperation."

The agent was there, quick with a clammy handshake and a push toward the sign-in sheet. The sellers were in the house as well, her in an apron and him in a cardigan. They were all smiles and pleasantries, all "oh, come in" and "would you like a cup of coffee." It only took a brief look around to realize this wasn't a house that anyone lived in. These were speculators who fixed the place up and made a few trips to a Swedish warehouse store for the Fuzion living room set and the Totari bedroom ensemble.

For all their efforts, the ruse was riddled with holes — there wasn't even a roll of toilet paper in either of the bathrooms.

Standing there watching them smile at us made me think of the first time I was on a roller coaster, that very first ride when your guts go skyward as you cling to the safety bar and grit your teeth. It was that kind of a smile, more tendon and bone than happiness and light. I was 12 when I smiled my first smile like that on a roller coaster, trying to maintain the appearance of cool, to make it seem as though I were enjoying that momentumless sense of suspension as I hung in the ether at the top of the highest peak. The plunge back to Earthen reality was inevitable, but I needed to deny it as long as I could. I wanted off, but escape was not an option with that damn belt and bar holding me in, so I put the danger as far out of my mind as I could. That's what brought the memory into my head at this particular moment during the open house. I thought how these people, this agent and his clients, were all on a roller coaster for the first time, scared to death that this thing was about to plunge back to earth. Clearly, they hoped to get us to take their place on the ride before the big drop.

No longer are homes just soaring on and off the market with a minimum of effort on the part of the seller's agent. The numbers prove it. Now those sedan-dwelling suits have to work for their whopping 6 percent commission. They've got to woo buyers into those seats, get them to sign 70 pieces of paper, put the belt across their laps, slam that safetey bar in place and then "bam," head for the hills.

Though these follks smiled and talked about how they just hated to give the house up, blah, blah, blah, job transfer, blah, blah, blah, sick mother, blah, blah, blah, we knew that they were lying, and that they were scared to death. The baked bread was a dead giveaway.

It's a tactic that's listed all over the Internet. Just a simple Google search reveals hundreds of how-to tip sheets that suggest manufacturing a homey environment before an open house by baking bread. Here's one from a Canadian website:
Filling your home with the smell of fresh baked bread or boiling cinnamon are 2 ways to make it smell more inviting.
I get it. Of course, shiny rocks sell for more than dull, dirty ones. But, when it gets to be a manipulative invasion of your olfactory senses, shouldn't the alarm bells in your head start to go off? Shouldn't the reflex reaction be "step off, Betty Crocker!" More times than not the experience makes me feel like I'm walking into a Subway sandwich shop, and I stumble to the kitchen looking for the sign that says "order here."

And so, when the smell of this sourdough hit us like a stench the other day, my wife and I turned to each other and smiled. It's when my wife said those brilliant words: "Smells like desperation."

And we all know what she meant.

Desperation is the smell of an insecure kid who wants to get the girl so badly he drenches himself in Old Spice before going to the dance. It's the smell of a used car that's got more vanilla extract in the carpeting than it has oil in the engine. It's a smell that, should you encounter it at the door of an open house, ought send you right back to the curb and on your way home.

Freshly baked bread is the smell of fear, fear of the bubble.

— The Boy in the Big Housing Bubble