Lately, I’ve begun to think more than I used to about happiness. This is not an idle consideration at any time in life; but it is a high-dollar bonus topic for me—b. 1945—approaching my stipulated biblical allotment.
Being an historical Presbyterian (not-attending, not-believing, like most Presbyterians), I’ve passed easily through life observing a version of happiness old Knox himself might’ve approved— walking the fine line between the twinned injunctions that say: “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “happiness is whatever is not bludgeoning unhappiness.” The second being more Augustinian—though all these complex systems get you to the same mystery: “Do what, now?”
This median path has worked fairly well through most situations life has flung my way. A gradual, sometimes unnoticed succession through time without anything great happening, though nothing unsurvivable and most of it quite okay. The grievous death of my first son (I have one other). Divorce (twice!). I’ve had cancer, my parents have died. My first wife has also died. I’ve been shot in the chest with an AR-15 and nearly died myself, but improbably didn’t. I’ve lived through hurricanes and what some might say was depression (it was mild if it was depression at all). Nothing, however, has sent me spiraling to the bottom, so that cashing in my own chips seemed like a good idea. Much quite good contemporary literature, which I read in bed and—if I angle the page right—is all about just such matters, with happiness ever elusive but still the goal.
And yet. I’m not sure if happiness is the most important state for us all to aspire to. (There are statistics on these subjects, graduate degrees, fields of study offering grants, a think tank at UCLA.) Happiness apparently declines in most adults through their ’30s and ’40s, bottoming out in the early ’50s, then sometimes starting up again in the ’70s—though it’s not a sure thing. Knowing what you fear in life may be a more useful measure and skill set. When asked by an interviewer, “Do you feel you could’ve been happier in life,” the poet Larkin said, “No, not without being someone else.” Thus, purely on average, I would say I’ve been happy. Happy enough, at least, to be Frank Bascombe and not someone else. And until late days that has been more than satisfactory for getting along.
Recently, however, since my surviving son, Paul Bascombe, who’s 47, became sick and presenting well-distinguished symptoms of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease—though there’s speculation the Iron Horse really didn’t have it but had something else), the subject of happiness has required more of my attention.
For the last eighteen months I have held a part-time job at House Whisperers, in Haddam, New Jersey, where I live a solitary, senior, house-and-library-card-holder’s life. House Whisperers is a boutique realty entity nestled within a larger, vertically integrated realty entity owned outright by my former employee Mike Mahoney, from my—and our—roaring ’90s house-seller days on the Jersey Shore. A certified Tibetan—he long ago changed his name from Lobsang Dhargey to “something more Irish”—Mike got seriously rich by noticing a new market of well-financed Tibetan investors itchy to buy distressed New Jersey beach property left behind by the latest hurricane. (Getting rich almost always involves recognizing a market before the other guy, though who knew Tibetans had that kind of liquidity, or how they came by it?)
From selling distressed beach holdings, Mike moved swiftly using his newfound asset position to leveraging the purchase of hundreds of once-regular family homes—in Topeka, Ashtabula, Cedar Rapids, and Caruthersville, Georgia—residences which had become problematic for their owners due to tax liens, deferred maintenance, owner-infirmity, fixed-income woes, unpaid alimony, etc. These houses he fixed—and still fixes—up on the cheap using outsourced construction crews, assigning their upkeep to maintenance companies he owns, then securitizes the buildings into widgets he sells as shares on the Tokyo exchange to anybody (often other Tibetans) ready to take a risk. After which he rents them—sometimes back to their prior owners. Every bit of this shenanigan is perfectly legal following “the lost decade of housing,” when the banking sector went prospecting for richer seams. HSP, Mike’s umbrella company is called. Himalayan Solutions Partners. (There are no partners.)
House Whisperers, where I nominally work, is Mike’s separate vest-pocket “niche” project whereby he locates and services high-end home-buyer clients who for their own reasons desire complete, BPSS-level anonymity when purchasing a home. There are plenty of people at all stages of the purchase process, right up to and past the point of sale, who simply don’t want the world to know their beeswax: people who want to buy a house then never live in it, visit it, or even go inside; people who want a house for Grampa Beppo until he “passes” and the will clears probate. Or people who want to buy a house to actually live in, but are famous rock stars, disgraced politicians or Russian dissidents who don’t like publicity or for a clamor to be made. House Whisperers reaches out to this market for a hefty fee. (I’m not talking here about people in the witness protection program or convicted weenie-wavers who can’t find refuge in the general population. These cases are handled by government agencies and don’t involve our type of clients.)
I, years ago, let my own realtor’s ticket lapse, but I have been willing to come on board with Mike to jolt myself awake and out of my house in the aftermath of divorce and my second wife, Sally Caldwell, deciding to dedicate her life to one of service by counseling the grieving on distant shores (where a whole lot of grieving presumably goes on). She has recently taken orders as a lay nun, so a happy reconfiguring of our married life is likely not in sight.
Our small House Whisperers’ office occupies second-floor space on Haddam Square above Hulett’s shoes, across from the August Inn. My job there is really only a semi-job, not the gig economy, but not exactly not. I do little more, in truth, than answer the phone and pass along private contact info to our agency higher-ups. My minimal duties, however, afford as one of their side-attractions the chance to dispense granular, ground-level, real-time real-estate intel to people who’ve misunderstood our internet grille, which states we are “Confidential Consultants Offering Unique Home-Buying Strategies To An Uncommon Clientele.” Citizens who (incorrectly) believe this describes them, routinely call me up seeking the lowdown on the commonest nuts-and-bolts real estate quandaries, which I’m only too happy to help them resolve based on years of experience: “How” (for instance) “does a reverse mortgage really work, and at age 92 with co-morbidities, should I jump into one?” No. “What’s the downside on Chinese drywall for my mother-in-law apartment?” Lawsuits await. “Where’s the breakeven for the fixer-upper I’m about to drop on the rental market but that needs new soffits?” When was it ever not a landlord’s market? Make money by spending money.
Most of this information you can get out of the New York Times. Only people don’t want to be bothered—which is why the rest of us have jobs. Plus, most citizens, even in high-end Haddam, don’t read newspapers anyway.
Mike Mahoney, my would-be boss, is as ever a semi-lovable, quasi-honest entrepreneurial dynamo who believes that in all of his money-making forays he’s being natively “responsive” to the suffering of others by relieving them of their encumbrances— their homes—all of it in accordance with some Dharmic dictum found in a bardo somewhere. I am sympathetic to him if only because he risks his skinny Tibetan ass on longshots and wins. And yet. On my shady block of Wilson Lane, the old ether of true residence has all but burned off now—as with many close-in neighborhoods across the land—leaving the door ajar to absentee owners, private-equity snap-ups, Airbnbs and executive apartments, where, before, citizen pharmacists, teachers, librarians and seminary profs paid the taxes and rightly took pride. It’s rare anymore to know who lives next door to you. If you died in one of these not-quite domiciles, no wreaths would appear on the door, no pastor call, no neighbors would show up with a hot dish. In my day, I marketed these houses like flapjacks. But always to humans who wanted to live in them, raise children, celebrate birthdays and holidays, get divorced. And die—mostly happy.
From Be Mine: A Frank Bascombe Novel by Richard Ford. Copyright © 2023 by Richard Ford. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.