Chapter One: Getting The Property Soul’d

Determining What Matters Most

No, Thank You, Dr. Mengele

My carefully laid plans of a career in medical research had turned into a bit of a disaster. Not only was it isolating—I was stuck in a dark, dank laboratory most of the day—but it was also heartbreaking. When I was not reading research articles, I was hunched over furry little hamsters and did all sorts of terrible things to them. Sometimes I had to slit their throats to collect blood samples. Other times I had to implant cancers into their cheek pouches, wait for the tumors to grow and then irradiate them. When co-workers saw me crying, they scolded me as if I were a little girl, “Paula, if you want to be a scientist, you are going to have to learn not to be so emotional.”

As my colleagues shrugged their shoulders and continued torturing small animals, I had violent nightmares. I hated walking up the six flights of stairs to the floor where they housed the doomed mice, rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits and monkeys. Each time I climbed those steps, I clutched the handling gloves tightly to my chest and said a prayer, knowing that the animal I chose could die. I kept thinking my frame of mind would change; I would become hardened and strong like the rest of them. But I didn’t. Every new day was as hard as the first, which is still seared into my memory:

When Dr. Nelson, one of the PhD’s in the Radiology Department, instructed me for the first time to collect a hamster for an experiment, I was more eager than afraid. I had been reading research articles for a month and wanted some hands-on action. I felt I was ready and he agreed.

I was halfway down the hallway when he called to me. “Paula, aren’t you forgetting something?” Dr. Nelson held up a pair of gloves.

“Oh, I don’t need those,” I said, remembering my neighbor’s sweet cuddly ball of fur.

He walked over to me and gave me two canvass-covered hand protectors. “Trust me. You will.”

When I unclasped the lock to the cage, the cute little animals inside shrank en masse to the farthest corner and stood on their hind legs with front claws drawn, baring pointed front teeth and letting out such a collective screech that I was jolted backwards. “Damn,” I yelled as I rammed my hand on the metal cage, trying to get out of harm’s way. Gloves were a definite must. I put on the bulky contraptions, making sure none of my flesh was showing.

As I reached inside, the high pitched screaming started all over again. I was forced to withdraw. Remembering how well I connected to animals, I started talking to the small creatures in a low, soothing voice. I slowly slid my hand in again, but lost confidence when the animals rushed toward me, apparently determined not to let me take one of their own.

Dr. Nelson insisted that animals did not have emotions, but these animals seemed pretty angry. I had always been a big proponent of medical science, thinking that experimentation on animals was necessary for the benefit of mankind. Now I was not so sure. Didn’t Hippocrates preach, “First, do no harm”? Or did he just mean no harm to us, the most highly evolved species (theoretically) on the planet? And did scientists really believe we were the only living beings on the planet with emotions? Or was it because it was just easier or more convenient to think that way in order to do this work? Just as it is sometimes easier for us to deny our own emotions? Granted, emotions are complicated, often irrational and difficult, if not impossible, to measure, but does that also mean they don’t exist?

The reason I got my BA in biology was because of my love of all living things—there it was again—those damn emotions! Being a doctor or veterinarian was out of the question. I did not have the funds or the commitment, and no way did I want to be a nurse and push bedpans. Full of optimism and hope that I would be part of a team who would discover a breakthrough cure for cancer, I told myself medical research was the job for me. Now I was forcing myself to get out of bed every morning. I hated my life. So when Ted Martin, my boyfriend at the time, received a job offer to teach at the University of California campus in Irvine, California, I decided to move with him. Just like The Mamas and the Papas, I hoped “I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.” Without any further thought, I left the cold, blustery winter days in upstate New York behind. California, I believed, could be my ticket out of hell.

Escape to Laguna Beach
Starting over, I chose Laguna Beach, a small artistic beach town, as my new home. The golden sand at Laguna reminded me of the French Riviera, except there were no pebbles to hurt my feet, few men in bikini Speedo trunks (thankfully) and no topless women. This was the United States after all. It felt like a slice of paradise.

The town center had the usual coffee shops, restaurants and stores, city hall, fire and police departments, and a library. Unlike the polished, very sophisticated nearby beach towns of Newport, Corona del Mar and Balboa Island, Laguna was quaint and charming, nestled between grass hills and the Pacific Ocean.

There were no high-rises on the beach (the hotels had been built in the twenties and thirties) and not a chain store in sight (except for an Albertson’s tucked away from the city’s center, where people bought their groceries). The houses surrounding the town center, where I was looking for a rental, were mostly small beach cottages, some of which had been renovated and expanded into more substantial homes. However, even the smallest cottage was too expensive for us. I found a tiny, one bedroom apartment in a fourplex located on a busy commercial corner. It was curtainless, dingy and in desperate need of a paint job, but since the beach was so close, all of that didn’t matter.

Bette Mae, our landlady, was a knockout beauty with sparkling eyes and a distinct Long Island accent. She had lived in Laguna most of her adult life. Her chestnut brown hair was tied up in a tight bun, which, to me, was a bit old-fashioned, but it did not take away from her striking good looks.

I figured she was approaching fifty because she introduced three robust well-tanned men as her sons. I wondered if time would be as kind to me should I decide to stay in California. Her smile and open manner welcomed me and she took me in like I was her long lost daughter. There was always a pot of homemade soup on her stove, a warm smile and a listening ear for anyone who needed to talk. Since I felt so safe with her, I confided that I was in a quandary about what to do for a career.

Bette Mae became my inspiration; she told me her remarkable story of how she was widowed, twice, before she was thirty and left with three young children. She invested the money she received from her husbands’ life insurance policies and bought two houses—one for her family and the other for income. Real estate had literally been her savior. Perhaps it could be mine as well.

I knew nothing about business, sales or dealing with the public. I was new to California and a complete stranger. Yet sales was enticing because my success would depend entirely on me. On days that I had surplus energy, which I often had, I could work as long as I wanted and had a good chance of benefiting directly from the fruits of my labor. The harder I worked the more income I stood to make.

“Ambitious salespeople are amply rewarded for their success,” Bette Mae said. “It actually helps being a woman, because the average person trusts us more than the fast-talking men.”

I had been in the medical field long enough to know that the men got the promotions. Coming in early, willingly filling in for my less ambitious colleagues, and working on weekends to finish an experiment all got me nowhere. No overtime pay. No bonus. No extra day off. No acknowledgment. Not even a pat on the back.

In sales, I could be my own boss and come and go as I pleased. The freedom would be liberating. No more feeling boxed in by a life that was not harmonious with who I really am. No more living someone else’s dreams. Hadn’t I done enough following others’ orders rather than taking the time to find out what I wanted?

In my youth, voices had echoed in my ears, “Get a science degree. You can always do something with that.” I heard it said to me over and over. It reminded me of the advice, “One word: Plastics,” given to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. My mother, in particular, had some rather specific criteria for what represented a “respectable” profession. I, on the other hand, would call them narrow-minded.

Why was it so necessary that I pleased others and not myself? Ironically, I might just as easily have wondered why I hadn’t chosen sales in the first place, because it certainly was in my genes. My great-uncle’s real estate firm, Pagano Real Estate, had “For Sale” signs everywhere in Delmar, a small suburb outside of Albany, where I grew up. And although I was not the most popular girl in school, everyone always commented on how beautiful our house was. And indeed for good reason, because my father was an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright and an architect himself, who designed and built our postmodern ranch high on a full acre parcel fronted by a row of regal pine trees. From the long, gravel driveway, a stone walkway cut across to the front door. A four-foot retaining wall encircled the house, and both of these masonry structures were ingeniously lined with bright ornamental shrubs, roses and colorful long-stemmed flowers.

The focal point was a huge picture window with flagstone siding bordering each side. The house door and under-hanging soffit were painted turquoise. This was a daring choice on my father’s part, which might have seemed gauche, but he knew the bright iridescent color against the flagstone would be spectacular. It was the one obvious thing I could boast about my family. The rest of the stuff I’d just as soon keep to myself, though perhaps nothing could be more revealing than the conversation—if one could call it that—in which I announced my new and exciting career choice to my parents.

Telling them I was leaving the medical field was not easy. Any conversation, other than the weather, had always proved to be a test of wills. No wonder I had moved so far away. Maybe Dad would understand, especially if he thought his work inspired me. Without analyzing any further, I grabbed the phone. Mother picked up.

“I have some exciting news to tell you,” I gasped, all enthused. “Is Dad around?”

Mother called for Dad to get on the other line “I know—you’re finally getting married! I hope not to that Ted person. His head was always stuck in a book. But I guess something is better than nothing. At least you won’t be an old maid.”

“No, Mother. Something much better! I’ve found a new profession! Something I think I’ll be really good at—real estate! I’ll be selling houses, meeting new people, always on the go and doing something I enjoy. You’ve always said how I can’t sit still. You know, I hated being cooped up in a laboratory all day, doing one rote experiment after another. It’s so boring.” Plus, I won’t have to kill animals. But I didn’t say that.

“Paula, your father is an architect, which is a respectable occupation.” Mother enunciated the syllables of the last two words so I would really get the point. “That’s a whole lot (again more enunciations) different than selling houses.” In her most critical voice, she added, “Life isn’t always fun and games—you need a real job.”

“But selling homes is a real job,” I countered. “I’ll be writing contracts, finding people their dreams, negotiating offers. Every day there will be something new to do, to learn, people to meet…”

I heard a loud sigh on the other side of the phone and prepared myself for the emotional backlash. Her voice raised an octave higher. “So you want to be a common salesperson, after all that money and time spent on getting your BA in biology? What a waste!”

Yeah, but it was my money I used for college and it was not working out. I didn’t say that, much as I wanted to. Instead, I said, “Sales is something I feel aligned with—it suits my personality better. Since I will be working as an independent contractor, my success will be measured by how well I do my job. You know what a hard worker I am, and as a medical researcher, I never got recognized for all my accomplishments. All the promotions went to the men. My real estate success will depend solely on me.”

Mother kept on talking as if she had not heard a word I said, trying to convince me to continue living my life of quiet desperation and despair. Perhaps Dad would understand. I turned my attention to him, recalling all our Sunday drives looking at the different architectural aspects of the homes in our neighborhood. His predictable response: “Listen to your mother.”

I had to live my own life, I told myself as I hung up the phone, wondering why the many miles between us could not give me the emotional distance I craved. I turned on my stereo and chose a record album to match the raw emotion I was feeling so I could get the clarity of what to do next.

When I told Bette Mae of my decision to get my real estate license, she cautioned me about the fate of other people she knew who had tried to be salespeople and failed. “First of all you need a minimum of six months to a year of savings in the bank.” I checked my finances. I had a good nine months and, if I was frugal, a year—enough time to get my business rolling.

She then explained that being in sales was cyclical. “You have to be prepared for the dips and valleys. Real estate is 100% commission-based. If you don’t make a sale, you don’t get paid. Not one dime. “And you see those successful real estate agents driving around in their fancy cars? Most of them live on the edge—just one step ahead of creditors. They make a sale and then they spend, spend, spend, thinking that the good times will never end. But they do. My question for you is—do you have the courage, tenacity and confidence to hang in there when things get tough?”

I walked to the beach with a notepad in hand to think this all through. Finding a place of solitude, I let the soft golden sand sift between my toes as I made two columns on my paper. I closed my eyes, concentrating on the soothing, lapping sound of waves on the surf. I felt the healing rays of the sun on my face and opened my eyes only to write.

I knew the analytical life of a scientist was not for me; there was nothing else on the horizon, and I may very well have had the qualities it took to be a salesperson. I certainly did have the drive and self-discipline. I had been working since I was sixteen. I wrote that down. Plus, I put myself through college and believed I have the determination and tenacity necessary to hang in there. I felt comfortable around people, and I had just moved 3,000 miles, so I must have had some confidence— and ample courage as well. I had been stuck in a suffocating role too long. Having a boss telling me what to do only irritated me. I liked my independence. I could do sales my way on my terms. The thought gave me a liberating feeling inside. I felt my heart opening wide—the possibilities enticing. For me it was worth the gamble to give sales a try.

Bette Mae lent me the Anthony School Instruction Book, which she had gotten for her older son Mark, hoping he would choose a more steady career than just washing cars, and she assured me the material was not all that hard. I told her I was not worried. If I could pass my Organic Chemistry final, I could take just about any test. For the next month I spent my days and evenings at the library.

Escrow, trust deed, amortization, equity, leverage: those were all words I had never heard before, but I studied hard and passed the test on my first try.

The interview process was more difficult. Bette Mae gave me the names of the two best firms in town. I made the appointments, dressed the part and talked myself into being calm. “It’s a piece of cake,” I told myself. I laughed—always the sweet eater. The first firm was Nolan Real Estate, which was within walking distance from my apartment.

A secretary ushered me into a private office where I was to wait. It was only a few minutes, but it felt like an entire afternoon. It was hot and stuffy with the sun beating through the windows in the middle of the day and, as the minutes crawled by, I started to perspire and grow increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, a middle-aged man with a brisk manner and obvious high self-esteem walked in, shook my hand and took a seat at the desk opposite my chair.

My hands were folded neatly on my lap. No fidgeting, I told myself. No dramatic talking with the hands. And speak slowly. He asked me the same question I had asked myself. “Where will you get your clients? You just moved here. You have no sphere of influence.”

“What’s a sphere of influence?” I asked. I did not catch that phrase while studying for my real estate exam.

“A sphere of influence is all the people you know—family, friends, past business associates, your doctor, lawyer, hairdresser, and then all the people they know. To get started you need a minimum of one hundred contacts. Then each of them has a hundred, and so on. Real estate is a contact business. Your success depends upon who you know.”

“I just moved here,” I said.

He thought for a moment. “We find that many of our successful women agents meet their contacts through their children’s schools. Do you have any children?” Before I had a chance to answer, he said, “I’m sorry. I should ask first—are you married?” When I said no, he ended the interview and gave me the “good luck” handshake.

The second company was Lingo. Within minutes of meeting me, the sales manager asked me what model car I drove. Proud to even own a car, I answered, “A Chevette,” and was immediately told that the company had no desk currently available. He ushered me out the door, saying he would call if anything changes. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to wait around for that call. For them, a Realtor’s image was very important, critical, in fact. I figured it was not just the car; I was too young inexperienced, unconnected and poor.

When Bette Mae’s suggestions didn’t pan out, I realized I needed to make my own plan. I decided to try Newell Associates, the real estate office on Pacific Coast Highway, which had helped me find my rental. Okay, so it was not the most prestigious office in town, but it did have a good reputation. Moreover, it was an established family-run business with a high-visibility location.

On the day of the interview, I convinced myself this was my lucky day. I took my time getting ready, choosing my best dress, pulling on my pantyhose—though it was again warm outside—and heels. I carefully applied my make-up—not too much rouge or lipstick or dark eyeliner, but enough to look mature.

I checked myself in the mirror, doing a quick turn-around. Not bad for someone who was not into fashion. As I looked at my reflection, I said: “Today is the day,” convincing myself the third interview was the charm. All I needed to do was believe in myself. I waltzed through the door, smiling with anticipation.

Paul Newell, Jr., the owner’s son, was a Laguna native, an amber-tanned well-dressed man in his mid-thirties who had a perpetual smile. I guessed that he had a lot to smile about if his family owned a real estate firm on Pacific Coast Highway. We got in his immaculately kept, champagne-toned Cadillac Seville with cushy leather seats. This was the nicest car I had ever ridden in. I regarded Paul’s invitation to lunch as a good sign. He chose the historic Laguna Hotel right on the water. As soon as we pulled up, a valet opened the car door for me.

I acted like I did this every day. I got out with the graceful ease of a model. For that day, I had decided, I was the queen. The hotel had a restaurant deck which overlooked an azure blue ocean overspread on that day with a blazing indigo sky. We sat beneath a green-and-white striped umbrella. I noticed all the wealthy vacationers enjoying themselves—women in oversized sun hats and dark glasses sipping strawberry daiquiris while athletic men with bulging biceps downed ice-cold beers. Over the railing I could see surfers gliding atop the waves despite the fact that it was the middle of February! I was feeling relaxed, confident and assured. I just assumed I had the job.

When Paul said, “We haven’t hired you yet,” I ignored his comment and kept proceeding forward as if he had. He was the type of person, I surmised, that had a hard time saying no to young attractive women. After a lingering lunch, we went back to the office. My charm, my courage and my chutzpah paid off. He showed me my desk and I joined Newell Associates that afternoon.

Lessons Learned from Chapter 1:

RESEARCH YOUR OPTIONS If you are thinking of real estate as a career, try to start talking to people who work in the field. Ask them how they got started; what made them successful and how long it took.

EVALUATE YOUR FINANCIAL READINESS Since real estate is commission-based, you need to have enough money to work without income for six months to a year. You also need to know how to live frugally at the start without getting discouraged. As Bette Mae said, “You have to be prepared for the dips and valleys. Real estate is 100% commission-based. If you don’t make a sale, you don’t get paid. Not one dime.”

RECOGNIZE THE PITFALLS OF A SALESPERSON Being in sales depends on the state of the economy at the time. You must save for the downtimes. Ask yourself, do you have the courage, tenacity and confidence to hang in there when things get tough?”

ARE YOU COMFORTABLE RELATING TO PEOPLE OF ALL PERSONALITY TYPES? A sales career is not for the timid. Do you have an outgoing personality? Do you have the ability to deal with all kinds of people?

RECOGNIZE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITIES I found that the best way to make important life decisions was through the physical process of writing everything down on paper. The hand-eye-brain coordination unlocks hidden answers that using a computer cannot do.