July 9, 2009
Gary Becker, in limbo...
Kingston Avenue is a quiet, tree-lined street north of the zoo, bordered on both sides by small, well-kept homes, with neatly trimmed lawns. I pulled up in front of the one with a For Sale By Owner sign in the lawn, a flooring company's van in the driveway and a plumber's van parked by the sidewalk.
I walked toward the open garage, where a man was inside, staining three new closet doors. "Hello," I said. The man stopped his work, took off his gloves and came out to greet me. "Hello," Gary Becker replied, shaking my extended hand.
Racine's former mayor is remaking himself, just as surely as he is remodeling the little house at 1019 Kingston Ave. Barely six months after his resignation from office in disgrace -- a week after his arrest on child sexual enticement and pornography charges -- he appears trim, healthy and in good spirits. He's kept off the weight he lost two years ago, before his last election campaign. He still has the closely trimmed grey beard, the broad smile, a hearty laugh.
He was wearing sneakers, jeans, a baseball cap from Kenny's Bar and Grill and a black-t-shirt commemorating the 61st Festival d'Avignon, a memento from a happier time in 2007, when he led the city's delegation overseas to mark the 50th anniversary of Racine's sister city relationship with Montelimar, France.
Becker's delegation-leading days are gone forever, but he seems none the worse for his change in circumstances. Political opponents, and citizens hoping to hear he's leading a miserable life, wallowing in self-pity as the legal process plays out -- his next court appearance is July 16 on a motion to suppress much of the evidence against him -- will be disappointed. Becker's doing OK.
He's been keeping busy all along -- at first working in the dry cleaning business he built from scratch in 1991 -- "I learned as I went along." -- into a five-store chain. He sold the last of the stores, the one on Durand Avenue, in June. Now he's embarked on another career: refurbishing a home bought in foreclosure. "My brother is my partner," he said, referring to John Becker's role as "banker" in the transaction. But Gary Becker is providing the sweat equity -- 10-12 hours a day, he says -- as the home bought for $75,000 is transformed inside and out.
Becker has no formal training as a home remodeler, but neither does he have an aversion to hard work. "You do everything when you have a small business," he says. "Painting, installing, grunt work. It doesn't take a genius to call a plumber, an electrician or someone to sand the floors."
"I love doing this," he says, ticking off the improvements he's making to the house: new doors, new light fixtures, the floors all sanded, new paint, new basement windows, new sink and toilet in the bathroom. "Every piece of hardware will be brand new." ... on and on he goes. "This home is either looking like a million bucks when I'm done, or I'm not yet done. By next week, it should be looking like a brand new home.
"The nice part of doing this," he says, "is that there's a beginning , a middle and an end. Never had a job like that before."
Becker is comfortable talking about the house project, but understandably unwilling to talk about the events that brought him to this place. "My lawyer would kill me for talking to you," he says, making clear that some subjects are strictly off limits, or off the record: the case against him, his relationship with his family, with city officials and the aldermen he worked with for years.
Still, he allows, "The support from family and friends has been phenomenal."
"I feel good," Becker, 51, says. "People ask how I'm doing and I say, 'I feel good,' and they say, 'No, really, how are you?' When I start feeling bad I think: I'm not a baby in Darfur. I've got a roof over my head and a job and friends. I don't lose a lot of sleep.
"I've learned that what other people think about me is none of my business. Whether it's good, bad or indifferent, it doesn't mean a thing." Nor, he says, will he lose any sleep over the abuse we both expect will be thrown his way because of this article. (I'm here, in fact, because of an anonymous tip that Becker has introduced himself to neighbors and that they are concerned because several teen-aged girls live nearby. Becker says the neighbors he's spoken to have been friendly.)
Becker says he's taking care of himself, keeping off the weight by eating better, "regularly working out at the Y, and meditating." He says he quit smoking "back in October, and through all this I never picked it up again."
The only city issue he's willing to talk about on the record is the somewhat controversial Nic Noblique sculpture bought under his watch for Uptown, and recently installed on Washington Avenue. "The sculpture is fine," he said, "But I don't know when the rest of that corner is going to be done. I hope that's not the end of it." As for critics of the sculpture itself, he shrugs. "Art's art. Some may love it; someone else may hate it. That's the fun."
We talked a bit about the mosaic he had Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar install on two Uptown walls last summer -- how they've remained intact despite predictions they'd be vandalized. "You've gotta have faith in people," Becker said. "Look at the Adirondack chairs downtown. They said they'd be gone by now (stolen), but every one of them is still there."
Becker gives me a tour of the house. He points out the tree in front. "I planted that. I threw my back out, doing it. It's a red maple, the biggest I could fit in the trunk of my car." He stoops to pull some weeds from the lawn, and to point out the new landscaping around the house, and the lean-to over the back door that he'll remove. There's nothing wrong with it, except aesthetically it doesn't fit the architecture.
He looks up on the roof and points to an ugly roof vent. "There isn't anything I know (about this house) that isn't right. I'm going to climb up on the roof and spray paint that vent, and take the TV antenna down."
Inside, the newly sanded living room floor awaits its finish coat, the bathroom is still gutted to the studs, but Becker is happy because there's room for a recessed medicine cabinet. In the kitchen, he shows off the new Corian counter and sink; in the bedrooms, the new fans and lighting fixtures, new outlets throughout. He's power washed and painted the basement's walls and floors. The house was built in 1947, he says; he knows this because the date was stamped under the lid of the toilet tank.
Today's plumber is loading up his van, and Becker asks him, "How much do I owe you, young man?" The bill is $128 and Becker writes him a check. "I couldn't leave a slow-running drain for the next owner," Becker says. "I'd rather make a couple grand less than have the young people who buy this cussing me."
Becker realizes that home remodeling may be a short-lived career. "The foreclosure business won't last forever," he says. Still, he and his brother are planning to inspect a few more houses this afternoon, looking for his next project. "Entrepreneurs aren't like gamblers," he says. "SC Johnson can spend a fortune on a start-up, and fail, and survive. But a small start-up business can't. The housing market sucks right now. What am I doing swimming upstream?"
Outside again, Becker stands uncomfortably for a picture. "I haven't posed for a picture in so long," he says. He ticks off the few houses in the neighborhood that are for sale, comparing them to the one he will be selling. One is more expensive than the $129,000 he is asking; another is smaller than his house's 1,285 sq. ft.; anther has only two bedrooms to his house's three; another has "grass that's waist high."
"The only reason I agreed to talk to you," he says, smiling, "is to get free publicity to sell this thing. Send me a buyer!" We watch a woman coming down the street, pushing a carriage with two toddlers; she stops at one of the houses for sale and takes a brochure from the Realtor's box out front.
When she gets close, Becker calls out, "Are you looking for a house?"
"I have a house," she replies. "But this is a better neighborhood. How many bedrooms does yours have?"
Interested in a newly refurbished house? Call 414-651-6538.