There was a problem with the lady in Yakima, Washington. It wasn’t that the décor lining her Astroturf-ed wheelchair ramp reminded me of a makeshift shrine to a fatal car accident, with its rain-soaked teddy bears holding American flags, soiled bud vases sprouting fake bouquets, and hand-painted signs with faded messages about love. It wasn’t that she had hoarded plastic bags, or that she was obscenely obese and motored around in a Jazzy 2000 wheelchair sporting a T.J. Maxx stretch pants camel toe. It was that I had yet to find one item in her home (except for large appliances) that exceeded twenty dollars, and she was asking if I’d found her 14K diamond ring.
I pushed my dust mask up onto my forehead, walked down her ramp, leaned up against a concrete frog holding a sign that read, “Hoppin to meet your acquaintance!” and said that I had not. She assured me that it was certainly in a plastic baggie in her hallway.
There’s nothing like a good house fire—one that leaves a person with nothing from their former life but a brick chimney—to showcase a person’s ethics. Some people take hours trying to remember exactly how many pairs of jeans they had, and then fearing the wrath of their insurance company or doubting their memory, will tell me to knock off a couple pairs from the list or change them to a cheaper brand. Other people will just look at me, a person they met a few hours ago, and say, “I don’t know… do you think I had about ten pairs?” Then there are the people who will tell me they only bought designer jeans while seated across from me in a pair of Mossimos. Sometimes this very same person will then remember they had $500 dollars cash in a back pocket of a pair of high-end jeans, which are now burned out of existence, which they bought with cash and don’t have a receipt for.
The lady in Yakima did have a plastic bag of jewelry in her hallway, but it was full of Target trinkets: Faux pearls and rhinestones, metal Rudolphs with fake ruby noses. I had inventoried the whole bag the day before as “Costume jewelry, one hundred bucks.” The problem with her now remembering she had a very expensive ring wasn’t that she didn’t look like she owned one, and it wasn’t even that I didn’t want to go back into her dark, cramped hallway and wade through all the other plastic bags on a treasure hunt for something that most certainly didn’t exist. The problem was that her house had been broken into sometime after I’d gone back to my hotel, and the thieves had taken the bag of costume jewelry, among other things that surely turned out to be a disappointment to them (like a TV that will work for a week until the smoke damage completely corrodes the wires), and now the Yakima lady was free to put two 14K diamond rings in that bag. It was gone. I had no evidence. Maybe she did have the ring, and I didn’t see it. Maybe it was her mother’s mother’s mother’s and had crossed the Atlantic on a ship, crossed the country on a train, and sat in her junked-up one-story home making her feel pretty. Or, maybe at some point some guy knelt in front of her (pre-camel toe, pre-morbid obesity) and said, It is you that I want, so here’s this rock. I just didn’t know.
Then I kind of knew when the Yakima lady said, “Well, I also had a Rolex. Did you find that yet?”
This is where my job can get ridiculous. Kind of like a lawyer, minus the respect, pantsuits and income, I’m hired to be on someone’s side. I can red-flag claims my clients make, but I must act like I believe them. If I question anything they purport to have owned sans evidence, I have to spin my line of questioning so as to seem like I’m only helping them gather evidence of ownership for the insurance company. It actually takes a lot of acting skills to pretend to believe someone you’re hired to help. I only pull it off because I’ve taken a lot of acting classes, and I feel sorry for anyone who’s lost nearly everything they’ve owned—real or made-up.
I’ve spent five hours in a Starbucks with a liar, drinking Carmel Macchiatos and picking apart a scone while he told me he owned top-of-the line this and that. There was nothing left of his house except for concrete front porch steps, so he drew a map of his floor plan, and I wrote down everything he claimed to own. When he put the same $1,500 dollar washer in three different rooms, we both pretended that he just couldn’t remember where anything was. I surreptitiously highlighted and question-marked large segments of his claim. Everything would get worked out later when the insurance company compared his claims to his coverage. I was just there to document his idea of himself, and things were fine until he put down his pen and asked if I’d ever been in love before and would I like to see a picture of his girlfriend and did I like hot tubs?
The Yakima lady didn’t care if I’d ever been in love—or if I had a first name. (She kept referring to me as “inventory gal.”) She wasn’t one of my clients who considered a fire to be a partner to re-growth-spiritually or financially. She didn’t try to stuff cash in pockets that had burned up. She didn’t drone on about how lucky she was to be alive, even though she was only alive because two teenagers hoisted her and her chair out her window after riding their bikes past her house and noticing that the back half of it was on fire while she sat in the front part, oblivious and bathed in the glow of TV.
All it seemed the Yakima lady wanted from her loss—or, what she wanted when I was standing at the end of her Astroturfed-ramp—was ownership of a diamond ring and a Rolex. Since “robbers had stolen her ring,” and because I’ve had a pretty good life myself and had no reason to be stingy about quantifying hers, I said, “Where’s your Rolex?” She thought for a moment and said, “On the floor by my bed.”
There were four embarrassing things on the floor by the Yakima lady’s bed, and while some of you are thinking I’m going to say they were condoms, I must tell you that they were condiments. Specifically, there was: a 7 pound jug of Hershey’s syrup, a 1 pound tub of peanut butter, 7 oz of toasted marshmallow crème, and a 6.5 pound vat of Cheez Whiz.
Since, I was looking for “a Rolex,” I did a very careful inventory and noted that there was a metal soup ladle sunk into the vat of Cheez Whiz. Other things of note by the Yakima lady’s bed were several pieces of wadded up tissue paper, a fork, three Kotex pantiliners, a Cats and Dogs wall calendar, twelve empty plastic bags, two pairs of elastic-waisted stretch pants, and a Mickey Mouse watch with a plastic band (noted mostly for its quality of being the exact opposite of a Rolex).
Walking back outside and telling her I’d searched all over and couldn’t find a Rolex, felt very much like telling a child I’d looked and looked and couldn’t find her imaginary friend. Then again, a child believes her imaginary friend exists. The lady from Yakima knew her imaginary friend didn’t exist, and while some part of me looked down on her morbidly obese motorized existence and wanted to do anything I could to help her move forward with a myth of herself that didn’t involve pushing a lever, doing so would only make me a co-conspirator to fraud. And that is not my job. So, instead of simply highlighting her incredulous claim sometime later on my laptop and letting the insurance company parse truth from fiction, I cut to the chase and said, “Since I didn’t find your Rolex, what do you want to have?”
She said, “A Timex?”
I said, “Sure.”