My Awkward Undercover Life Demolishing Housing Discrimination

I’ve always had a deep-seated fear of telling even the smallest white lies. So when I took a do-gooder job built on deception, the results were equal parts terrifying and hilarious.

I have never been comfortable with the casual lying that pervades social encounters. I’m sorry I’m late; traffic was a nightmare. I would happily attend your son’s bris if only it weren’t scheduled during my oral surgery. If your ex wants to date a bubbly polyglot who can’t consume an entire sandwich in a single sitting instead of you, then it’s his loss.

Even as a teenager my personal style was more one of willful disobedience than deceit. I was far more likely to stroll in after curfew with an anti-authoritarian swagger and no explanation whatsoever than to concoct a flimsy story about a flat tire or a chupacabra sighting. While much of the world accepts dishonesty as a necessary component of social exchanges, to me, it’s always felt exotic.

That’s why I was so intrigued when my friend Brad mentioned that a friend of his had worked as a housing discrimination tester here in L.A. The setup was this: A non-profit I’ll call the Southern California Fair Housing Association (I’ve changed the name of the organization and its employees to protect their privacy) sent in testers of varying ethnic backgrounds, representing a range of annual incomes and numbers of dependents, and compared their receptions by rental managers to see if some illegal form of discrimination was afoot. This was all back in 2002.

Here was my chance to gain some skill in an area where the rest of the world was already conversant. Instead of starting small, by deducting a birthday sushi dinner on my taxes or pretending I’d read all the works of Thomas Pynchon when I’d only read the first chapter of “V” three times without success, I would take it to eleven, weaving an elaborate story about my marital status, my multiple or lack of children, my profitable profession or crappy McJob — all for the good of humankind.

When I first called SCFHA, after being laid off from my cushy dot-com gig, I viewed working with them as a potentially amusing hobby and public service until I secured my next job, which I’d assumed would be within a few weeks. By the time they called me back six months later, I still hadn’t secured full-time employment, and the modest stipend they offered was no longer simply a secondary consideration.

Still, I was excited about my chance at government-sanctioned deception, the only one I had a real shot at since I was then on the cusp of exceeding the cutoff age for CIA recruitment. After a brief training session, I was dispatched on my first assignment at an apartment complex in Marina del Rey.

* * *

“You’re interested in the one-bedroom,” my supervisor Chrissy told me over the phone. “Remember, no matter how it looks, you like it, you want it.” That was the number-one rule — always act interested. Never reject them; only give them a chance to reject you.

“Okay,” I said, a little worried that I didn’t have the acting chops to pull this off. I was probably more painfully aware of my limitations as a thespian than I would have been if I were doing this in Detroit, say, or St. Louis. But this was L.A.

“What’s my story? What’s my name?”

“Use your real name,” she said. “You might have to show your ID.”

The reasonableness of her point did nothing to blunt my disappointment. I’d been looking forward to using an alias, maybe even contriving a sassy nickname. Ace. Skippy. Legs McGraw.

“What about my profession?” I asked. Here’s where I’d really show my skills. I was hoping for something way outside my area of expertise. Daytrader. Tugboat captain. Lion tamer.

Chrissy was clearly far less interested in these details than I was. I could hear her shuffling papers around as she answered. “Say you’re a graphic designer,” she offered, not giving it much thought.

“Okay,” I responded, disappointed again. But this is just the first time, a practice run, I thought. Once I get better at this I could be a South American diplomat, or possibly an archeologist just back from a jaunt in the Middle East. One step at a time.

“What else do I need to know?”

“Your annual salary is $45,000.” That is the kind of info that really mattered to the SCFHA. Testers were never privy to what the organization was testing for, exactly, lest it prejudice our interpretation of events, but I inferred the overall strategy. Track the reception of applicants whose real or pretend demographics varied in legally meaningful areas — race, gender, number of dependents — so a clear comparison could be made in terms of the prospective buyer or renter’s treatment.

Perhaps the other testers didn’t require these kind of biographical details to prop up their stories. Maybe they were all capable of filling in the blanks of their pretend lives on the fly. This was L.A., a city where everyone regularly shaves years off their ages and even the functionally unemployed refer to a recent bit part on “Law and Order” or a project they have in development at HBO. Self-aggrandizement is part of every Angeleno’s survival strategy, as instinctive as avoiding the 405 freeway during rush hour.

I was different. The last time I can recall flat-out lying for strategic reasons was in the first grade when my teacher went around the room asking everyone to identify their ethnic heritage. Bruce, the boy I liked, reported that his family was English. When she got to me, I claimed I, too, was English.

This whopper accomplished nothing. The suggestion of our shared Anglo-Saxon heritage did not pique Bruce’s interest. So, while I like to think of my innate honesty as virtuous, maybe I don’t lie because I don’t think it will get me anywhere.

I went to see the apartment manager at the appointed time and he greeted me warmly, leading me to the one-bedroom apartment I’d expressed interest in. With its freshly-painted walls and newly-shampooed carpet, it had the look of a Home Depot ad — both pleasant and indistinct, the rental equivalent of a perfectly edible but forgettable chicken dinner at a wedding. Beige walls, frosted sconces, crown molding. An apartment beyond my means — the real me, at least.

“We had new appliances put in,” the manager said, enthusiastically opening and shutting the stove and refrigerator doors so I can admire them. “State of the art.”

I assume the nonplussed expression of a successful professional woman. “Looks good,” I said. “Nice lighting.” Important for all the color correction I’d undoubtedly be doing.

“We just replaced the medicine cabinet,” he said, cracking open the door to the bathroom. “The tiles are just a few years old.”

“Great,” I said, trying not to seem overly enthusiastic. I figured someone making a decent salary isn’t likely to drool over a newly-installed medicine cabinet. My actual bathroom, by contrast, in my converted garage in Venice, doesn’t even have a sink in it.

“So, what do you do?” he asked.

Here was my chance to get into character. “I’m a graphic designer,” I said. “Mostly freelance,” I ad libbed.

“Oh, yeah?” he asked. “So’s my cousin.”

Uh-oh. This could get dicey. It had been years since I’d opened Photoshop. I ran through all the fonts I knew. Times Roman. Cabria. Helvetica. Keep it casual. You got this. I’m suddenly relieved Chrissy had the foresight not to go with lion tamer.

“What kind of work?” he asked. “Entertainment?”

Though I recognize this now as mere small talk, at the time I thought he might be looking to poke holes in my story.

For my first few assignments, I feared every landlord and rental manager attempted to sniff out testers as part of their routine, and if they were successful, they’d launch into a pre-planned diatribe about their commitment to diversity in housing and ask if I knew any multi-racial families with quintuplets who were looking for a building in a good school district.

I did everything I could to avoid suspicion. Focus.

“A lot of corporate stuff,” I said. “Websites. Sometimes print materials.” That had the advantage of sounding plausible as well as boring enough to discourage further probing.

The manager nodded enthusiastically. “The rent’s no problem for you, then?”

“No,” I said dismissively. Please. “I usually clear about $45,000 a year.”

He nodded, satisfied.

As soon as I realized I was neither going to be felled by lightning or subject to a citizen’s arrest for impersonating a graphic designer, I was able to ponder the larger societal implications of my actions. Sure, housing discrimination is a serious issue, and if this kind of subterfuge can help stamp it out, I don’t think a lot of people would object. Still, had this man figured out my ploy and called me on it, I would have felt shame. I was lying to him about everything: my motivation for being there, the details of my life, even, by implication, my adeptness with the entire Adobe product line. Furthermore, I was wasting time that could have been spent finding a real potential renter. Did this seemingly affable man really deserve this? Was he actively excluding African-Americans or the elderly from moving into this bland but pleasant apartment complex? As with all my assignments, I would never know for sure.

“Thanks so much,” I said, shaking his hand at the end of his tour. “I’m really interested. It looks like a great place.”

He handed me an application, which I slid into my purse. “I’m going to fill this out later and mail it in,” I said.

“You should do it fast,” he said. “These units are going very quickly.” Whatever the reception of the wronged party that prompted this investigation, it was clear that the new and improved Nancy Matson would be welcomed here with open arms.

“I definitely will,” I responded. I had settled so deeply into my adopted persona by the end of my visit I no longer felt like I was lying. Was this what it is like for pathological liars? Do they possess this maladaptation, the ability to spout out whoppers without the slightest hint of raised blood pressure, and that’s how they get through the barrage of falsehoods they produce all day? If you are so deep into it that you almost believe it, does it even count as lying at all?

I remembered the feeling from all those years before, when I said my family was English, betraying both my Italian and Polish heritage — saying it with such certitude that I believed it myself. I swear to God, for a moment there I thought my ancestors might have come over on the Mayflower itself.

* * *

There was another level of deceit I had to participate in: a lie of omission. I couldn’t tell anyone about my job in housing discrimination testing.

“Absolutely no one,” Chrissy warned me. “Your friends and relatives might know landlords or apartment managers. You have to keep what you’re doing a secret.” At first, that was fine by me. It felt great being totally undercover.

In reality, it was more of a pain in the ass than anything. I’m the kind of person who revels in a pithy anecdote and yet here I was, completely deprived of the ability to use my housing discrimination stories in conversation. It would be one thing if everyone knew I had a secret life but understood they couldn’t be privy to the details for security reasons. Then I would at least get some credit, in an I-dated-Tom-Cruise-but-have-been-paid-off-by-the-Scientologists-not-to-talk-about-it kind of way.

As it was, everyone took me for a semi-employed layabout with no real prospects — an opinion that wouldn’t have been radically altered with the knowledge that my mail intermittently featured a $35 check. But still.

I remember one particular time I was arranging a social outing with a friend.

“How about this afternoon?” she asked me.

“Can’t do it,” I said, trying to sound as mysterious as I could. “I have a previous engagement.” I figured she’d be alert enough to pick up on the uncharacteristic vagueness of my answer and would pursue the matter further. If she were crafty enough through a series of insightful questions, and my one-word answers happened to unearth the truth, I couldn’t be held responsible for that, could I? We undercover types can’t be accountable for having intelligent friends.

“Okay. How about Friday?” she asked, oblivious to my internal dialogue.

“Whatever,” I said, annoyed. “I guess Friday’s fine.”

While I did resent being sworn to secrecy for the petty personal reasons I’ve already detailed, it wasn’t until about a month into my job that I became aware of a more serious possible downside to my undercover status. I was given the assignment of going door-to-door one evening in a poorly-lit apartment complex in Inglewood, not one of the city’s safer neighborhoods, to ask residents a series of questions about their treatment at the hands of management. The building was a two-story utilitarian complex built in the 1960s, boxy and covered in dirty stucco. The second story had a concrete walkway and metal handrail that led to each of the apartments’ front doors. The complex featured a pool, which I presumed was cleaned with limited frequency and enthusiasm, as is the custom here. In the twenty-plus years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I have never seen anyone actually swimming in one.

“Hi,” I’d say, finally getting someone to answer their door. “I’m from the Southern California Fair Housing Association. Is it okay if I ask you a few questions?” Few people greet a random stranger knocking on their door with excitement, and these people were no different, though they generally complied once I’d identified myself. “Has the manager been responsive to your needs?” I asked them. “Have you had any notable incidents with him?”

I wasn’t getting much in the way of responses, and it didn’t take me long to realize the folly of what I was doing. Not only was I alone in an unfamiliar neighborhood, knocking on the doors of a few dozen perfect strangers, any of whom, for all I knew, hovered just behind their peepholes with an axe in each hand. I was doing so as stealthily as possible because the object of my inquiry lived downstairs. If he found out my mission, I did not know how he’d react.

Furthermore, none of my friends or family had any idea where I was. If I didn’t return, at some point the SCFHA would realize I was missing, but how much effort would they make looking for me? Would they call a few times and then simply write me off as a flaky worker, letting the matter drop, denying my friends and family this crucial clue as to my whereabouts while I was indoctrinated into some cult or my body was left decomposing at the bottom of the scum-covered community pool, weighted down by an abandoned futon? Was this a sacrifice I was willing to make to insure that people of all ethnicities had the equal opportunity to move into this place?

I’d have to say no.

I finished the task at hand, but I vowed to phase out my testing as soon as my financial situation allowed.

Thankfully, I soon got more regular work. My final assignment was at a trailer park in El Segundo. As per usual, my supervisor never told me what the potential source of discrimination was, but considering the aged population and the fact that I was trying to secure housing for me, my pretend husband, and our fake toddler, I could connect the dots pretty well.

“We’d want a double wide trailer,” I told the sixty-something park manager as we spoke in her office. I’d grown bolder by then, more elaborate in my stories. I had picked up the term “double wide” from a TV show. “Are there many children here? Our son’s about two and it would be nice if there were other kids around.”

“A few,” she said. “It’s mostly older folks.” She felt around on her desk for an application, and, finding none, reached behind her to the filing cabinet and pulled one out of a manila folder. I grabbed it and it took her a few extra seconds to let go. “What did you say your husband did?”

I’ve often thought, in the pre-Internet days, it would have been hilarious to go to bars and claim to be the U.S. poet laureate, since virtually no one would ever know the actual laureate’s name. You could talk about the struggles of being a working poet, maybe throw out a few lines of something you were working on, letting it trail off meaningfully. You could share some fake intimacy about Maya Angelou. I never really thought, back then, I’d have the ability to pull it off, but by this point, I thought, hell, I absolutely did.

At that moment, though, my confidence slipped. The manager gave me a searching look, the one I assumed I’d be on the receiving end of since I started this gig. Up close, she looked worn, wrinkled, tired. She’d had a hard life, I was sure. She knew I had no child, no husband. She knew I didn’t want to live at that trailer park. She saw me for who I was: a single, underemployed, childless professional who was here on a do-gooder mission that did nothing but waste her time.

“He works in a supermarket,” I said, sticking to the script I was given, but delivering my lines poorly, like a last-minute understudy at community theater. “He’s a manager at a Ralph’s.” Her eyes held mine.

Language is meant to be a means of conveying ideas, information. To believe what someone is telling you, based solely on their word, is an act of extreme vulnerability. That’s why people who have been cheated on inevitably say the same thing: it’s not the sleeping with someone else that’s the worst part, it’s the fact that you pretended you weren’t, day after day after day. It’s the fact that you told me you were just friends when you weren’t, said that you were at work when you weren’t. It’s that you pretended you still loved me when you didn’t. When I said I trusted you, it meant I trusted you to tell me the truth.

She broke off eye contact with me, and my moment of fear passed. I’d been wrong. Hers was not a searching look of recognition but a dead stare, the kind you give someone after a long day. She didn’t see through me; she’d barely been listening at all.

“I’m really interested,” I said, repeating the mantra of the housing department. “I just have to talk to my husband.”

“You talk to him and let me know,” she said, sliding her file cabinet drawer shut with a bang.

No one at the bar would give a shit if you’re the poet laureate or not — if you were lucky enough to get someone to listen to you at all.

I remember reading Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. She applied for a series of low-wage jobs so she could write about the experience of a series of short stints as a service worker. She worried initially when she made the big reveal about what she was doing that her co-workers would be upset she’d misled them. When the moment came it was accompanied by an anticlimax, each time, with her co-workers and supervisor simply wondering how they were going to cover her shifts after she quit.

That doesn’t mean the truth doesn’t matter.

Maybe it doesn’t matter if you lie about the accident that didn’t happen that made you late to your friend’s anniversary party, or shave a few years off your age on your online dating profile to better attract a mate. What matters is that you have a line, and the line isn’t that far out, and whatever it is for you, there is a line you won’t cross.

At the conclusion of each assignment, I was required to write a blow-by-blow description of everything that had happened, everything I observed, and everything that was said, with every bit of editorializing wrung out of it. I wrote as free of assumptions and interpretation as I could, in the service of honesty. Manuel greeted me with a firm handshake in the lobby. He described the amenities in detail, noting the pool hours. He asked if I had trouble parking, and mentioned the unit came with two tandem spots. I had serious qualms about lying to the faces of potentially innocent apartment managers, but I felt perfectly comfortable with the absolute truth required for the post-visit documentation. A woman in the office said my reports were the best they’d ever received.

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