Toms River, across the Barnegat Bay, teems out ahead of me in the blustery winds and under the high autumnal sun of an American Thanksgiving Tuesday. From the bridge over from Sea-Clift, sunlight diamonds the water below the girdering grid. The white-capped bay surface reveals, at a distance, only a single wet-suited jet-skier plowing and bucking along, clinging to his devil machine as it plunges, wave into steely wave. "Wet and chilly, bad for the willy," we sang in Sigma Chi, "Dry and warm, big as a baby's arm." I take a backward look to see if the NEW JERSEY'S BEST KEPT SECRET sign has survived the tourist season — now over. Each summer, the barrier island on which Sea-Clift sits at almost the southern tip hosts six thousand visitors per linear mile, many geared up for sun 'n fun vandalism and pranksterish grand theft. The sign, which our Realty Roundtable paid for when I was chairman, has regularly ended up over the main entrance of the Rutgers University library, up in New Brunswick. Today, I'm happy to see it's where it belongs.
New rows of three-storey white-and-pink condos line the mainland shore north and south. Farther up toward Silver Bay and the state wetlands, where bald eagles perch, the low pale-green cinder-block human-cell laboratory owned by a supermarket chain sits alongside a white condom factory owned by Saudis. At this distance, each looks as benign as Sears. And each, in fact, is a good-neighbor clean- industry-partner whose employees and executives send their kids to the local schools and houses of worship. Management puts a stern financial foot down on drugs and pedophiles. Their campuses are well landscaped and policed. Both stabilize the tax base and provide locals a few good yuks.
From the bridge span I can make out the Toms River yacht basin, a forest of empty masts wagging in the breezes, and to the north, a smooth green water tower risen behind the husk of an old nuclear plant currently for sale and scheduled for shutdown in 2002. This is our eastern land view across from the Boro of Sea-Clift, and frankly it is a positivist's version of what landscape-seascape has mostly become in a multi-use society.
This morning, I'm driving from Sea-Clift, where I've abided the last eight years, across the sixty-five-mile inland trek over to Haddam, New Jersey, where I once lived for twenty, for a day of diverse duties — some sobering, some fearsome, one purely hopeful. At 12:30, I'm paying a funeral-home visitation to my friend Ernie McAuliffe, who died on Saturday. At four, my former wife, Ann Dykstra, has asked to "meet" me at the school where she works, the prospect of which has ignited piano-wire anxiety as to the possible subjects — my health, her health, our two grown and worrisome children, the surprise announcement of a new cavalier in her life (an event ex-wives feel the need to share). I also mean to make a quick stop by my dentist's for an on-the-fly adjustment to my night guard (which I've brought). And I have a Sponsor appointment at two — which is the hopeful part.
Sponsors is a network of mostly central New Jersey citizens — men and women — whose goal is nothing more than to help people (female Sponsors claim to come at everything from a more humanistic/nurturing angle, but I haven't noticed that in my own life). The idea of Sponsoring is that many people with problems need nothing more than a little sound advice from time to time — not problems you'd visit a shrink for, or take drugs to cure, or that requires a program Blue Cross would co-pay. Just something you can't quite figure out by yourself, and that won't exactly go away, but that if you could just have a common-sense conversation about, you'd feel a helluva lot better. A good example would be that you own a sailboat but aren't sure how to sail it very well. And after a while you realize you're reluctant even to get in the damn thing for fear of sailing it into some rocks, endangering your life, losing your investment and embittering yourself with embarrassment. Meantime it's sitting in gaspingly expensive dry dock at Brad's Marina in Shark River, suffering subtle structural damage from being out of the water too long, and you're becoming the butt of whispered dumb-ass-novice cracks and slurs by the boatyard staff. You end up never driving down there even when you want to, and instead find yourself trying to avoid ever thinking about your sailboat, like a murder you committed decades ago and have escaped prosecution for by moving to another state and adopting a new identity, but that makes you feel ghastly every morning at four o'clock when you wake up covered with sweat.
Sponsor conversations address just such problems, often focusing on the debilitating effects of ill-advised impulse purchases or bad decisions regarding property or personal services. As a realtor, I know a lot about these things. Another example would be how do you approach your Dutch housekeeper, Bettina, who's stopped cleaning altogether and begun sitting in the kitchen all day drinking coffee, smoking, watching TV and talking on the telephone long-distance, but you can't figure out how to get her on track, or worst case, send her packing. Sponsor advice would be what a friend would say: Get rid of the boat, or else take some private lessons at the yacht club next spring; probably nothing's all that wrong with it for the time being — these things are built to last. Or I'll write out a brief speech for the Sponsoree to deliver to Bettina or leave in the kitchen, which, along with a healthy check, will send her on her way without fuss. She's probably illegal and unhappy herself.
Anybody with a feet-on-the-ground idea of what makes sense in the world can offer advice like this. Yet it's surprising the number of people who have no friends they can ask sound advice from, and no capacity to trust themselves. Things go on driving them crazy even though the solution's usually as easy as tightening a lug nut.
The Sponsor theory is: We offer other humans the chance to be human; to seek and also to find. No donations (or questions) asked.
A drive across the coastal incline back to Haddam is not at all unusual for me. Despite my last decade spent happily on the Shore, despite a new wife, new house, a new professional address — Realty-Wise Associates — despite a wholly reframed life, I've kept my Haddam affiliations alive and relatively thriving. A town you used to live in signifies something — possibly interesting — about you: what you were once. And what you were always has its private allures and comforts. I still, for instance, keep my Haddam Realty license current and do some referrals and appraisals for United Jersey, where I know most of the officers. For a time, I owned (and expensively maintained) two rental houses, though I sold them in the late-nineties gentrification boom. And for several years, I sat on the Governor's Board of the Theological Institute — that is, until fanatical Fresh Light Koreans bought the whole damn school, changed the name to the Fresh Light Seminary (salvation through studied acts of discipline) and I was invited to retire. I've also kept my human infrastructure (medical- dental) centered in Haddam, where professional standards are indexed to the tax base. And quite frankly, I often just find solace in the leaf-shaded streets, making note of this change or that improvement, what's been turned into condos, what's on the market at what astronomical price, where historical streets have been revectored, buildings torn down, dressed up, revisaged, as well as silently viewing (mostly from my car window) the familiar pale faces of neighbors I've known since the seventies, grown softened now and re-charactered by time's passage.
Of course, at some unpredictable but certain moment, I can also feel a heavy curtain-closing sensation all around me; the air grows thin and dense at once, the ground hardens under my feet, the streets yawn wide, the houses all seem too new, and I get the williwaws. At which instant I turn tail, switch on my warning blinkers and beat it back to Sea-Clift, the ocean, the continent's end and my chosen new life — happy not to think about Haddam for another six months.
What is home then, you might wonder? The place you first see daylight, or the place you choose for yourself? Or is it the someplace you just can't keep from going back to, though the air there's grown less breathable, the future's over, where they really don't want you back, and where you once left on a breeze without a rearward glance? Home? Home's a musable concept if you're born to one place, as I was (the syrup-aired southern coast), educated to another (the glaciated mid-continent), then come full stop in a third — spending years finding suitable "homes" for others. Home may only be where you've memorized the grid pattern, where you can pay with a check, where someone you've already met takes your blood pressure, palpates your liver, slips a digit here and there, measures the angstroms gone off your molars bit by bit — in other words, where your primary care-givers await, their pale gloves already pulled on and snugged.
My other duty for the morning is to act as ad hoc business adviser and confidant to my realty associate Mike Mahoney, about whom some personal data would be noteworthy.
Mike hails from faraway Gyangze, Tibet (the real Tibet, not the one in Ohio), and is a five-foot-three-inch, forty-three-year-old realty dynamo with the standard Tibetan's flat, bony-cheeked, beamy Chinaman's face, gun-slit eyes, abbreviated arm length and, in his case, skint black hair through which his beige scalp glistens. "Mike Mahoney" was the "American" name hung on him by coworkers at his first U.S. job at an industrial-linen company in Carteret — his native name, Lobsang Dhargey, being thought by them too much of a word sandwich. I've told him that one or the other — Mike Lobsang or Mike Dhargey — could be an interesting fillip for business. But Mike's view is that after fifteen years he's adjusted to Mike Mahoney and likes being "Irish." He has, in fact, become a full-blooded, naturalized American — at the courthouse in Newark with four hundred others. Still it's easy to picture him in a magenta robe and sandals, sporting a yellow horn hat and blowing a ceremonial trumpet off the craggy side of Mount Qomolangma — which is often how I think of him, though he never did it. You'd be right to say I never in a hundred years expected to have a Tibetan as my realty associate, and that New Jersey homebuyers might turn skittish at the idea. But at least about the second of these, what might be true is not. In the year and a half he's worked for me, since walking through my Realty-Wise door and asking for a job, Mike has turned out to be a virtual lion of revenue generation and business savvy: unceasingly farming listings, showing properties, exhibiting cold-call tenacity while proving artful at coaxing balky offers, wheedling acceptances, schmoozing with buyers, keeping negotiating parties in the dark, fast-tracking loan applications and getting money into our bank account where it belongs.
Which isn't to say he's a usual person to sell real estate alongside of, even though he's not so different from the real estate seller I've become over the years and for some of the same reasons — neither of us minds being around strangers dawn to dusk, and nothing else seems very suitable. Yet I'm aware some of my competitors smirk behind both our backs when they see Mike out planting Realty-Wise signs in front yards. And though occasionally potential buyers experience a perplexed moment when a voice inside them shouts, "Wait. I'm being shown a beach bungalow by a fucking Tibetan!" — most clients come around soon enough to think of Mike as someone special who's theirs, and get over his unexpected Asian-ness as I have, to the point they can treat him like any other biped.
Looked at from a satellite circling the earth, Mike is not very different from most real estate agents, who often turn out to be exotics in their own right: ex-Concorde pilots, ex-NFL linebackers, ex-Jack Kerouac scholars, ex-wives whose husbands run off with Vietnamese au pairs, then wish to God they could come back, but aren't allowed to. The real estate seller's role is, after all, never one you fully occupy, no matter how long you do it. You somehow always think of yourself as "really" something else. Mike started his strange life's odyssey in the mid-eighties as a telemarketer for a U.S. company in Calcutta, where he learned to talk American by taking orders for digital thermocators and moleskin pants from housewives in Pompton Plaines and Bridgeton. And yet with his short gesturing arms, smiley demeanor and aggressively cheerful outlook he can seem and act just like a bespectacled little Adam's-appled math professor at Iowa State. And indeed, in his duties as a residential specialist, he's comprehended his role as being a "metaphor" for the assimilating, stateless immigrant who'll always be what he is (particularly if he's from Tibet) yet who develops into a useful, purposeful citizen who helps strangers like himself find safe haven under a roof (he told me he's read around in Camus).
Over the last year and a half, Mike has embraced his new calling with gusto by turning himself into a strangely sharp dresser, by fine-tuning a flat, accentless news-anchor delivery (his voice sometimes seems to come from offstage and not out of him), by sending his two kids to a pricey private school in Rumson, by mortgaging himself to the gizzard, by separating from his nice Tibetan wife, driving a fancy silver Infiniti, never speaking Tibetan (easy enough) and by frequenting — and probably supporting — a girlfriend he hasn't told me about. All of which is fine. My only real complaint with him is that he's a Republican. (Officially, he's a registered Libertarian — fiscal conservative, social moderate, which makes you nothing at all.) But he voted for numbskull Bush and, like many prosperous newcomers, stakes his pennant on the plutocrat's principle that what's good for him is probably good for all others — which as a world-view and in spite of his infectious enthusiasm, seems to rob him of a measure of inner animation, a human deficit I usually associate with citizens of the Bay Area, but that he would say is because he's a Buddhist.
Excerpted from The Lay of the Land. Copyright © 2006 by Richard Ford.