Rental Dementia: Through Crossed Eyes

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Six sweaty hands held the center pole as the rush hour 6 train headed downtown. While a persistent little purse jabbed me in the back, a hanging elbow came dangerously close to smacking me in the jaw. I was timing every screeching halt with the oncoming elbow and ducking each careless swing. The elbow-guy was completely oblivious but he got off along with 70 other people at 42nd Street. Another hundred got on.

Among the new arrivals, pressing into the crowded train, was a small group of tourists. Clearly only taking the subway for the experience of it all, they looked at the cluttered mass of vibrating humanity with excitement. “Idiots,” was the first thought that came to mind, until I caught myself wondering what this rush hour ritual must look like to an outsider. That’s when my new sales approach hit me: Be as dumb as they are. I’ve been going about my career as a rental agent all-wrong.

After 12 years of scratching out an existence here, it’s only natural to sometimes forget how great the city really is. New York isn’t simply an overpriced market place of extreme inequality where just about anything can be bought or sold, and most people work 60 hours a week to survive, having nothing but “great restaurants” to show for it. No, it’s much more than that. It’s also a thriving center of creative energy where anything can happen. The trick for me was to see it once again through their eyes and share in their delusional dreams.

No longer the grey voice of reason and experience, I’ve decided that if a client believes the Upper East Side is a great place to explore cutting edge nightlife, it’s not my job to disagree. I may see the neighborhood as an unfortunate blend of the ultra rich and wildly immature, a sort of a large fraternity mixer sponsored by corporate donors who have to double as chaperones, but that’s just my opinion.

If they have to live in the Village because that’s where Sarah Jessica Parker lives, then to the Village we shall go. I’ll then admit to almost having moved there myself for the exact same reason. They are somehow under the impression that Hells Kitchen is a dangerous and drug infested neighborhood where criminals are forced to mug each other because no one else will venture there. I’ll confess that I had no idea and will thank them for the tip. In the meantime we should keep looking on the Upper West Side where crime doesn’t exist.

They don’t yet have an agent and have never been on a New York stage, but their acting teacher in Wisconsin assured them that they had that special “something.” For this reason, they must live near Broadway, if not somehow on Broadway. I’ll agree with the acting teacher—yes, they’ve got something all right—and only ask that if, after finding the right apartment, I could possibly get a front row seat on opening night. I’ll even use the commission money to spring for dinner afterward.

In the past, I’ve allowed my personal experience and taste to dictate my sales technique, naively believing that informing and educating renters would be rewarded with loyalty. But that hasn’t been the case. The “honesty is the best policy” approach in this business has gotten me nominal results, but plenty of dinner invitations and comments like, “Sorry about finding our place with that other jerk, but we should really hang out sometime.” I guess, but it seems pretty weird to me that somehow these people missed the fact that I was working. My new approach of agreeing with absolutely every misguided idea that renters come up with and enthusiastically sharing in their fantasies is going to pay big dividends. And they’ll never mistake me for a friend again. I’ll always be remembered as that strange broker guy who shook his head “yes” at everything they mentioned.

It’s easy to see the potential renter as a delusional brat with entitlement issues when they look at a space twice the size of my own apartment with better appliances and say things like, “Who lives like this?” But I’m simply not challenging myself when I view them this way. I need to understand and sympathize with what they believe they need, why they moved here and what crazy whacked out version of New York City they hope to discover. The hard thing to do, and what may enable me to succeed in this business, is to relate to these renters: to see these little white overpriced boxes through their eyes and to be able to share in their dreams of a lifestyle that they really deserve, regardless of how far-fetched and just plain silly it is. More importantly, to once again see the great opportunity that simply living in this unpredictable city presents every day. If I can do that, I may be able to afford to live here.

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