Sunday, August 21, 2011

Performing The Coda

Coda: A few measures added beyond the natural termination of a musical composition.

While I waited for Murphy’s daughter to arrive I walked around the exterior of the house taking notes. After making a loop of the yard and ending back at the front step, I recalled a snowy Saturday a few years ago when two friends and I came over and shoveled Murphy’s front walk so he could get out and about.

When his daughter arrived we went inside. It was like Murphy might be home any moment. His magazines were in a neat stack. His clothes in the closet. The remote control sat on the coffee table before the TV.

It is an odd thing to walk the rooms of an old friend’s house after they’ve passed, trying to estimate its value. This is the place where Murphy and his wife raised their children, where he came home from work everyday for decades, where he cared for his wife as she was dying, where he aged alone in his 80s.

He was born black in a time of segregation, lived in this neighborhood for 88 years. He served in WWII, set type for printing presses, served on the City Council, sold insurance, and lived to see a black man elected president of the United States.

A photo of President Obama hangs on the same walls that hold framed newspaper clippings and awards that span Murphy’s 88 years.

And it has all come to this just a few months after this lovely man died; me walking the rooms of his house trying to figure out what the place it worth. In this way, I’m the coda – the final notes beyond the piece of music that has ended.

The guy who taught me this business was Dale.

The last time I saw Dale was at Murphy’s funeral in May. He was supposed to speak but wasn’t feeling up to it. The cancer was taking its toll. I sought him out and said hello. That brief moment of small talk in a noisy room filled with people would be our last conversation.

We sold real estate together for 8 years. He was generous to my family beyond imaging. But Dale and I were relentlessly on opposing sides of civic and political events. He hurt my feelings. I hurt his. But when I saw his white hair and broad shoulders above the crowd at Randal and Roberts Funeral Home, I sought him out to show him the respect I felt for him.

Sitting at his funeral just a couple months later listening to stories about his life, I thought back to one of my own stories about Dale’s generosity.

I had a listing owned by an elderly woman. Dale announced one day he had the perfect buyer. I rolled my eyes when I found out it was someone he’d bailed out of jail (Dale was a bail bondsman, too). But he got his buyer pre-approved and my seller accepted their offer.

Immediately Dale discovered the buyers didn’t have enough money for their loan application. He told the lender to take it out of his own commission at closing. The appraiser demanded that the peeling paint on the eaves and trim be scraped and repainted. My seller had no money to do it. So Dale delivered his own ladders, paint brushes and paint he bought himself to the house and told his buyers, “If you want the house you’ll have to paint it.” They did.

There were other fees his buyers couldn’t pay, like a gas company deposit. He paid them all or arranged for it to be taken from his commission. At the closing he joked and told stories as usual and was eventually handed a very, very small commission check. He walked out of that closing spinning his key ring on a finger and whistling a tune. You’d have never known he’d just got paid near nothing for a hell of a lot of work.

He’d given a break to somebody who needed a break, a gesture he would brush off as unimportant if you complimented him for it.

A couple weeks ago my phone range while I ate lunch with Stacy at Noble Coffee. I stepped into the tearoom for privacy. It was an attorney I didn’t know. She said a deceased client of hers had identified me in her end-of-life planning documents as the Realtor who should list and sell her house. She gave me a name I didn’t recognize. She read off the address and I mentally walked down that street until I realized it was Sandi. The last name had thrown me off. I forgot she had remarried in the decade since she disappeared from my circle of acquaintances.

A few days later I was meeting that attorney, standing on the back porch of that familiar house for the first time in years. Distant memories flooded my mind.

Before I was a Realtor, when my wife and I had small children and were living on one teacher’s salary Sandi had noticed we were struggling. Earlier that year she’d seen a friend and me strip two old houses of their aluminum siding. She asked me what I got for recycling it. “$500 apiece,” I told her. So as she began renovations on this house, she asked me if I wanted the aluminum siding. “Sure,” I told her. I figured I would be removing it myself, but I got a call one day from Sandi saying her construction crew had removed it all and stacked it in the yard for me.

Walking through the house I noticed a cabinet my wife had refinished for Sandi. I saw porch columns I’d salvaged from a Victorian-era home at 8th and Cherry and sold to her. She used them to decorate her bedroom. I recalled the Christmas vacation she did me another favor, hiring me to strip the woodwork in the upstairs bathroom.

And when I became a Realtor, she hired me. In one of my last conversations with her, almost 10 years ago, we sat in the dining room and went through legal documents to sell another property of hers.

It has been a sad summer for a lot of reasons. Especially sad that three friends, mentors . . . people I looked up to when I was a young adult and new to Noblesville have all passed in a single season. But there’s also a feeling of purpose to play a bit of the coda in their lives, those random notes at the end of the piece of music they lived.


  1. Your column has touched my heart. -Adrienne

  2. I think you've remembered them well.

  3. Murphy was a sweet man and I was glad to have met him, and carried stories about him home to the UK. Amazing writing as ever, Kurt.