On some days during the 1970’s as I travelled to work in Denver, I passed a magnificent house on a sprawling corner lot. It was a symbol of accomplishment in a community of other fine homes, but it seemed to possess a quiet elegance that the other sizeable neighbors lacked. Whoever built it anticipated that the occupants would have means to sustain its status, and I wondered …

Who Owns the Key?

During certain times of the year there are enough giant flea markets in Denver, with enough stuff it seems to fill every garage in the county. My friend Jeff knew most of the vendors. Each Saturday he drove his truck to the flea market and bought, at cut rate, appliances and other things to keep an undisclosed number of rental properties habitable and attractive. His holdings also included businesses in other cities. Jeff came to Colorado with the clear objective of being wealthy. He went to college and took courses to help him understand money. His goal was to have assets of at least 10 million dollars before the age of 40, which he said would enable him to fund “serious” expansions. Jeff had a job that paid him well, yet he lived in an unassuming apartment and drove a truck that needed a paint job — just to make it presentable for the car wash. He was not ostentatious. I occasionally went shopping with him, and one day I helped him unload at a house he used exclusively for storage. On that day he also told me a story about two of his other friends:

He was driving West on I-70, heading in the direction of a new life. Whatever he once owned was behind him. Nightfall and a snowstorm were in his path. About an hour out of Denver he saw a hitch hiker. Her tattered coat and a falling thermometer were enough for him to offer her a ride. They didn’t ask questions for a few miles, both of them seeming to concentrate on keeping warm in a truck that was on automotive life support. Finally, he introduced himself as Bob. She said friends called her Bonnie. He smiled and said, “Two B’s or not two B’s, and the question is, where are you heading?” She answered, “Anywhere from where you met me back there.” Now they were warm enough to laugh. As they approached the outskirts of Denver, it was time to declare intentions. Neither of them had an address. Both of them were homeless and hungry; time for them to decide where to sleep and where to eat. Their combined resources were sufficient for another tank of gas and a maximum of four meals at a cheap restaurant — from the children’s menu. It was settled. Their home would be his truck. Everything they now owned fit between two bumpers, and the nerve center of their lives fit between the dashboard and the rear window. Overnight he admitted that he had a knack for fixing things. She said some of her best meals were cooked on a hot plate. The next day, Saturday, Bob and Bonnie drove to the flea market. That was where Jeff observed them buying appliances that probably didn’t work and other things that the vendors almost gave away, rather than take them back home.

By the third Saturday, Bob and Bonnie had their own booth at the flea market, selling items they had cleaned and repaired. Their inventory and industry impressed Jeff. He asked for the location of their shop or home. They had neither. The trio left the flea market together, with arrangements that benefitted all parties. Bonnie and Bob were offered rent -free housing in the storage house, in exchange for ensuring that everything in Jeff’s inventory was in working order, and that they would repair or replace what was needed in his rentals. Jeff told me their story twelve years after their first meeting. He also said that Bob and Bonnie now owned more rentals than he did.

On another day Jeff and I had lunch. As he drove me back to my office he honked his horn and waved to a man exiting a house. Bob was leaving home; the magnificent house on the corner.

Bonnie and Bob owned the key.

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