There were rules of the game that, if ignored, caused problems. One was the before-and-after pictures. They had to be taken from exactly the same angle; if you were off by a couple of feet, you had to drive back and retake them.
There was also a murky area regarding “initial services.” As grass-cut vendors, it was a big no-no to do work on a property that had not yet had its initial services. Judgment calls were required. If the place was still full of trash, or had five-foot-tall weeds in the backyard, or otherwise looked like it needed initial services, we were supposed to take pictures, then skip the job, instead billing a “trip charge” that would pay us $10. We were forbidden to remove any personal property. This was because sometimes the former occupants left valuable items behind, and, legally, they had 18 days to come back and retrieve their belongings.
When a bank owns a property that has been foreclosed, they assign it to an REO (real estate owned) realtor who will get the listing when it goes up for sale. If the agent discovers the property vacant and abandoned, the bank is notified, and they have someone change the locks and haul off the trash. However, if it appears that the value of what’s left behind is more than $300, a notice is posted on the front door stating that the owners have 18 days to make an appointment with the agent and retrieve their belongings.
Sometimes, they’d send us to mow the grass and complete a maid refresh at properties that were still in this “post and hold” period, and we would find a house full of someone’s stuff. Jewelry, art, booze, 54 Chevy trucks in the barn. I never understood why, after they’d evicted the occupants and changed the locks, they couldn’t realize that initial services had probably not been completed. Maybe in the general chaos and confusion, they shotgunned out the list of every bank-owned property and left it to us to sort things out. At my level, it was like being a mushroom, kept in the dark.
We took pictures and sent them in by the thousands. I imagined some bank wonk in a cubicle in Texas, trying to keep track of several hundred thousand photos of lawns and toilets, determining which needed grass cuts and which needed trash-outs. Usually it was obvious, to us, whether the property had been abandoned, people leaving behind only things they weren’t able to stuff into a U-Haul — old patio furniture, worn-out shoes, and crusty barbeques. But the banks had a policy that, if a bed was present, it was an indicator that someone might still be living there. They’d put the property straight into the 18-day post-and-hold. Even a photo of a ratty, stained mattress on the floor meant that the stuff was off limits for 18 days. Three weeks later, we’d sometimes arrive to find the power off, a refrigerator full of rotting food, and a house full of rodents. Banks.
One day, I rolled up on a property out in Eastlake. There was a large dirt lot with a lot of weeds out in front. It looked vacant, abandoned. I got started on the grass cut, running my beat-up Craftsman weed wacker at full throttle over almost a third of an acre of dead weeds, little decomposed granite pebbles and nettles flying off and stinging my face. I was sweating profusely, another dirty job, one of about ten that day. Then I went to go inside the house to clean it, and the master key did not work. The locks hadn’t been changed yet, so I called the guy I was working for and asked what to do. He said, “You are not getting paid for that one, should have checked the locks before you cut the grass. Hey, dude, you’re just an independent contractor. Sorry, sugarbritches.” He was laughing, almost giddy, like this was some kind of hilarious joke on me. I did not find it amusing at all.
Another time, I went inside a house that had had the locks changed but not yet been trashed out. It was full of someone’s personal belongings. The place was in east Chula Vista, south of Eastlake, in one of the new subdivisions. There were a ton of foreclosures out there. Some of the streets were not even on the Thomas Bros. map yet, and the people were getting locked out of their homes. This particular property was a row home, with a small front yard maintained by the homeowners’ association. We only had to wack the little postage stamp of a backyard and do the maid refresh, easy money. I opened the door and stepped into the house without knocking, and stopped in my tracks, shocked to see that the place was full of stuff. Not the usual junk and trash; it looked like someone still lived there, with art on the walls, furniture, dishes in the sink. It felt like I’d walked into someone’s house uninvited. I thought they’d appear at any moment, saying, “What in the hell are you doing here?”
Over the year and a half I was doing grass cuts, I went through three weed wackers, four lawn mowers, two leaf blowers, and three digital cameras. The work was rough on lawn mowers, especially, because half the time you couldn’t see what you were mowing underneath the weeds. I killed a nice Sears 6.5 horsepower rear bagger on a rock in Fletcher Hills. I ran a White’s side bagger, my favorite lawn mower of all time, flat-out into the ground. I replaced the bent blades on it twice; finally, it gave up the ghost at a property east of El Cajon. I felt like having a funeral for it. In that time, I completed about 800 grass cuts, took around 6000 pictures of grass, before and after, and photos of perhaps 1600 clean and shiny toilets.
At the row home in Chula Vista, after I got over the initial shock of feeling like I’d walked into someone’s house uninvited and was critiquing their taste in art and furniture, I took pictures of the debris and sent them in so I could at least get a trip charge out of it. A couple of weeks later, there was a go-ahead on the trash-out and the job was given to the middleman I worked for. He did some of the trash-outs himself, to make more money while we were out mowing lawns. But he’d missed yet another deadline and needed to get it done, like, yesterday. So he called me and asked if I wanted to start doing trash-outs instead of grass cuts. I immediately agreed. The grass cuts were getting boring, and I’d always liked the trash business. As it turned out, the townhome in Chula Vista didn’t have anything especially valuable in it. The former owner had just packed up and left, taking what he wanted and leaving the crap he didn’t: an extensive VHS video collection, some Ikea furniture, magazines, art prints, dishes. It was the detritus of yet another person who’d walked away. Soon the condo was empty, cleaned to a sparkling shine and freshly vacuumed, without a trace of the former occupant.