Whenever America gets in trouble, a hero named Joe seems to step forward. Think Joltin' Joe, Broadway Joe and GI Joe. The American common man wears the name as a badge of honor. Think Joe Schmo, Joe Six-Pack and Joe the Plumber. • Even now, as a recession-weary America slogs through a jobless recovery, as the real estate market descends south of Hades, as all boats sink on a low economic tide, another Joe rides to the rescue: St. Joe. • Yes, that St. Joe: St. Joseph, husband of Mary, earthly father of Jesus, head of the Holy Family, Patron of the Church, protector, carpenter, mensch. Long honored as patron saint of households, Joe has added a line to his resume: seller of houses, patron saint of real estate agents.
Here's why I care: Just before the housing market collapsed, my wife and I bought a house owned by our daughter, who was about to move and get married. We were happy to pay her on the high end of the scale, $149,000 for a cozy (meaning "small") house in a tidy (meaning "older") neighborhood in St. Petersburg. We bought it as an investment.
What we thought would become a bonanza, of course, has turned into a burden, so we've put it on the market. We listed it at $129,000, but our agents said that price was too high for the neighborhood, especially given the low prices on foreclosed houses, so we're down to $119,000. That seemed low until we heard that a friend's bigger house in a better neighborhood had sold for $99,000.
Enter St. Joseph.
There is a tradition or superstition, depending on your outlook, of burying a statue of St. Joseph in the front yard of the house you are trying to sell. The liturgy requires internment upside down — head down, feet up. A refinement requires the seller to wrap the statue in plastic, face Joseph toward the street and plant him under the For Sale sign. St. Joseph takes no commission for completing a sale (no wonder the conventional agents love him). You merely exhume the statue, clean him up a bit if necessary, and place your new home under his enshrined protection.
It worked for our daughter Alison in Atlanta. It worked for our friend Pegie — once in Canada, once in Florida. It brought business to our friend Deb Hartigan, who for more than a decade owned KKringle, a Christmas shop in St. Pete Beach. It makes sense that you could buy a Joseph statue at a Christmas store, but here's the rub: He usually comes as part of a nativity scene or creche, some of which can cost more than a few shekels.
So where to find an affordable Joe? My wife, Karen, searched online and found several websites devoted to celebrating the cult of St. Joseph, and making a buck or two along the way.
The first listing on the search engine belonged to St. Joseph Statue, stjosephstatue.com. "The solemn tradition of burying St. Joseph in the earth began hundreds of years ago in Europe," claims the site. "During those times, an order of nuns prayed to St. Joseph . . . when they needed more lands for convents. The Sisters were encouraged to bury their St. Joseph medals in the ground." Medals evolved into statues.
This site — and the others — must be seen to be believed (and I do so want to believe). It carries the slogan: "the underground real estate agent kit." In this kit, you will receive not just a sand-colored, 4-inch statue, but also "instructions, prayers, and history; a cloth tote bag for storage; a protective plastic burial bag; a complimentary bronze home listing." You get free shipping on all orders. Your blessed underground real estate agent can be yours for the miraculous price of $9.95, though you can pay more for upgrades.
The St. Joseph Statue company, of which I am now a customer, was created in 1996 by a California real estate man named Phil Cates. His photo shows a smiling man with fluffy hair and a goatee. Though he looks like he might have once played rhythm guitar for the Beach Boys, he is an example of another iconic American figure: the optimistic, enterprising salesman.
Cates' little company now sells more than a quarter-million St. Joe kits — produced in America at low cost — per year. Do the math. Over 15 years, that's a lot of simoleons.
On the phone, Cates sounds funny, fervent and self-deprecating. He grew up Lutheran, not Roman Catholic. He understands the quirkiness of using a saint as a front man and the weird vibe sent off by a business phone with the exchange BURY-JOE.
He points out that he offers customers a free listing on his website. "With 6,811 current listings, that's a lot of sold homes thanks to Joe," he wrote in an e-mail. I assumed that his business would be one that could swim against the low economic tide, but he says this is not the case. He points out that people close to foreclosure may not be able to afford the 10 bucks for a kit; and he knows that in good times greedy investors plant Joes to gain the highest profit.
It may sound as if I'm making fun of all this, but that's not my intent. Catholics of a certain age will remember wearing medals of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers. When the church demoted Christopher from saint to legend, the medals began to disappear, at least until the hijackings of 9/11. I now keep one in my suitcase. A little magical thinking can help soothe the soul.
To the credit of some St. Joseph websites, they link the user to all kinds of testimony, from ardent believers to dogged skeptics alike. Neither of those clubs would want me as a member. Count me, instead, as a hopeful and practical agnostic. I look at it as placing a $10 bet. If the statue doesn't work, we are out a tiny percentage of the asking price.
We all need a little practical magic to survive drowning on a low tide.
When he is not trying to sell his house, Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, the school for journalists that owns the St. Petersburg Times.