Matter, Energy, and Life of Michael A. Castello.


Rachel and I have been looking for a new place to live because, well, the rent. One of the options we’ve been considering is finding a house and sharing it with our friend Liz and another guy, Matt, a friend of a friend who has been looking for a place as well. After months of disappointment Rachel finally found a house that looked like the right balance of bedrooms, bathrooms, and price, and made an appointment for us all to tour it this afternoon. Unbeknownst to us, things had already begun spiraling out of control.

We pile into our vehicles and show up at the house a few minutes before our appointment with the realtor. It is obvious from the movement and voices that people are inside, so we knock on the door. No answer. A dog begins to bark, drawing our attention to the “Beware of Dog” sign hung on the gate. Footsteps thunder around the house. We wait a little while and knock again – still no answer. We begin getting the sense that we’re actively being ignored by the house occupants, but shrug it off and poke around the driveway a bit waiting for the realtor to arrive.

The front door has windows above it, which is how Matt notices a kid running up and down the stairs. He knocks again, forcefully, leaving no doubt in our minds that we are being ignored. Finally, the horizontal blinds part just wide enough to reveal a middle-aged woman’s eyes. “Sorry, the house has already been rented,” she announces.

“Since Wednesday?” (Rachel had made the appointment earlier this week and was told Sunday was the earliest the house could be shown).

“Yes, we moved in yesterday.”

At this point our indignation is building. What kind of a realtor does this? Rachel gets on the phone to call them, no answer. Suddenly one of the upstairs windows opens, revealing the leathery, creased face of a lifelong smoker.

“What are you doing here?” Smoker Woman is outraged, accusing us of trespassing with her tone.

“We had an appointment with the realtor to see the place today.”

“Well sometimes things happen, we had the cash and we rented the place and it’s ours now,” she hollers. We’re completely flabbergasted. Why are these people so intimidated by us? Meanwhile, the front door opens and the first woman emerges, brandishing a piece of paper.

“What are you doing in my driveway?! We rented this place! I’m calling the po-lice!” Despite our utter confusion and lack of action, things are rapidly escalating.

Smoker Woman appears to be both on the phone and conversing with a partner deeper within the building, but is talking loudly enough for us to clearly hear her down below.

“Call the cops, they have a Chinese!” Apparently being Asian and wearing a coat turns our 100% SoCal friend Brittany, who was along for the ride, into a hardcore gangster warrior. Still thoroughly confused and unable to reach the realtor, we get back in the car and head home. Not even halfway back, Rachel’s phone rings: It’s none other than the realtor, calling to apologize for being late to the showing. She helpfully offers to give us the lockbox code so we can start touring the house ourselves.

“Hold on, this is getting confusing,” I tell her, turning to Rachel. “Rachel, stop the car, you’ve got to hear this.” We pull over onto the side of the road, Rachel takes the phone and informs the realtor that using the lockbox probably isn’t the best idea as there are, in fact, a number of people already living in the house. The realtor is taken entirely by surprise and promises to call us back.

When she finally does, the situation has escalated even further. The back gate appears to have been broken into and the locks have been changed on the front door, so she can’t get in. The property owners and the police are being called in to deal with this group of belligerent squatters, and would we mind coming back to the house to witness them getting arrested and identify who we had seen inside?

We return to the house to find a surreal situation. Several patrol cars are parked out front, barricading the driveway, cops are milling about, a workman is repairing parts of the house, and people laden with bags of belongings keep tumbling outside. An overweight man is seated, being interviewed by an officer. Several of them had taken flight when the police arrived and were apprehended attempting to flee into the nearby hills. Another kid had been found attempting to escape, a car was parked in the garage, and three or four other people along with their pets had been there as well, completely moved in.

As the cops take statements and the realtor begins to show us the house, the squatters bustle past hauling armloads of stuff out to their cars. Two people are being arrested. The middle-aged woman walks by in tears – the paper she had been waving was a forged lease, pieced together from documents stashed in the house by the realtor for showings. The efforts had scored her a misdemeanor. Some of the others said they had been living out of their car for months, and despite their apparent knowledge of fake leases, breaking into houses, and changing locks, claimed they didn’t make a habit of moving wholesale into miscellaneous houses.

They had broken a number of things inside, perhaps sometime in between spreading pet food all over the sinks and in the corners of the bedrooms. The workman is busily tearing up the floor and mopping, You see, the toilets had been taken out of the bathrooms in order for the floors to be retiled, but the kids had used them anyway. The dog, on the other hand, had preferred the closet. A paper plate of half-eaten chicken wings sits on the floor of the kitchen, attracting flies. In fact, trash and food scraps of all kinds are piled across the range and countertops. A pair of pants and a shoe insole lie forgotten in one of the upstairs hallways. The backyard fence is partially collapsed. We continued to tour the house, owners, realtor, and workman all insisting that random people don’t typically move into their rental properties unannounced.

Once we’d seen everything, we left, still not entirely sure what had happened. We debriefed our aching minds over a hearty meal at Souplantation, and decided to put in an application.

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