In the prologue to the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof the character Reb Tevye, in a soliloquy to the audience, explains the hardships and dangers facing the Jews in Anatevka, their shtetl in the Ukraine. He says, “Why do we stay? Because Anatevka is our home.” But in the last act, the police constable informs the Jewish community that they have to sell their property and leave. The pogrom that everyone feared is actually happening.
What are they leaving behind? Not much—a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a pot, a pan, a broom, a hat. And where are they going? Lazar Wolf the butcher is going to Chicago, America. Tevye is going to New York, America. So they will be neighbors! One thing is for certain: in the strange new land on the other side of the Atlantic, they will have far more security and prosperity than they ever had in Anatevka. So why are they sad?
Sometimes, I think that we invented migration in Oklahoma. Maybe the soil is too thin and dusty for anything to put down roots. After all, we got started with our own American pogrom in 1839, when five Native American nations in the South were forcibly resettled from their homes in Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi to an Indian Territory carved out of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. Many died along the way. The Cherokee called the migration “Nunna daul isunyi,” “the trail where they cried.” Yes, our people survived in the new territory. Some even prospered. Does that matter?
In the 1930s when the topsoil blew away, thousands of people migrated out of Oklahoma to wherever they could find any kind of work. Most of them went to California to work as farmhands in the fruit orchards. Was it always terrible? One of my great aunts went to California in the 1930s with a few dollars in her purse after her husband abandoned her. She went to work in a dress shop and ended up owning it. She invested in Los Angeles real estate, and made a fortune. When I met her for the first time in 1958 she was as rich as a queen. But her life wasn’t happy. That I know. I could see it in her eyes.
I bought my house in the northwestern New Jersey community of Sparta in 1978. There was no well-thought-out plan. I was living in East Orange, and when I was presented with a huge increase in my car insurance bill, I realized that I would actually save money by becoming a homeowner in a location further away from the urban center. In our corner of New Jersey the Linden refineries are so far away that they might as well be in another country. People from other parts of the state actually came to our area to take vacations. It’s a beautiful place.
My house is small. It could have better insulation, and the windows really need replacing. I don’t have a “great room” or a finished basement. I don’t have a two-car garage (not even a one-car garage) or a “rec room.” I have only one bathroom. But for thirty-four years it has been my home. In the front yard there is an oak tree which we planted from an acorn. It is now nearly sixty feet high.
I made the mistake of refinancing it at the beginning of the “Great Recession.” The mortgage broker who arranged the refinance immediately sold the mortgage to Countrywide. What they did with it, attorneys are still trying to sort out. But when Bank of America acquired what was left of Countrywide in the aftermath of the housing crash, it acquired my home mortgage as well.
I never thought that I was in danger of losing my job until the day that I lost it. I couldn’t believe it, and two years later, I still can’t. I had no choice but to file for protection under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code, and the home mortgage was included. It was over $30,000 more than the house could fetch if it were sold. My attorney advised me to stop paying. I followed his advice.
In the two years since, I have been trying to work out an arrangement with Bank of America that did not involve putting myself back on the hook for an underwater mortgage. They have not budged. In the meantime, the government, from the White House on down, has done everything it can to shield Bank of America and the other big mortgage holders from any prosecution for the fraud that was committed—and is still being committed. The actual record behind the rhetoric and sound bites is that no one has lifted a finger for the distressed homeowners, and there are millions of us. I have been advised by those who know, including my own attorneys, that I can delay the inevitable, but I can’t win. I cannot keep my home.
On Tuesday evening, December 5, 2012, after the sun had gone down, a process server knocked on the door and presented me with a formal complaint from the Bank of America’s attorneys. Foreclosure proceedings are under way.
After the holidays we will look for something new, something we can afford, and something which will not require me to lug fifty-pound bags of water-softener salt into an unfinished basement, which will not require me to shovel snow or rake leaves, which will have a back door that a bear can’t push in, and might even have a dishwasher. It will probably be in the part of New Jersey where my wife Linda was born and raised and where most of her family still lives. It will even cut over an hour off the travel time to visit my own parents and sister in Maryland. Is that terrible? It certainly is not. It will be better. After all, what am I leaving behind? A little bit of this, a little bit of that, a pot, a pan, a broom, a hat. My heart.