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On a home tour, in a house to worship

IT ARRIVES LIKE A JURY SUMMONS, this card announcing the spring home tour. “Your shift: 6 p.m. to 8:15 p.m.,” the postcard says. “Did I really sign up for this?” I ask, studying the card.

Rule No. 1 in the suburbs: Never volunteer for anything. Once you’re a known volunteer, they come after you like fruit bats.

Rule No. 2?

“Wear comfortable shoes and dress appropriately,” the postcard says, and I’m always for that.

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This is a charitable event, which opens half a dozen of the town’s finer homes to public tours.

A good tour guide lends credibility to such an event. A calm, authoritative demeanor. A voice like brushed corduroy. An expensive blazer.

I, on the other hand, show up for my tour guide shift in a college sweatshirt and a pair of old Keds. I talk too loud, like a guy hawking cotton candy.

“Hi, I’m here to help,” I yell when I arrive at the house I’m showing.

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“Let’s put him down the hall,” the hostess says sweetly.

At the far end of the hall is the music room. It is conveniently out of the flight path of most of the tour guests.

Our hostess probably hopes it will be seen only by lost souls like me, who can’t keep up with the others in their group, who get fixated on some book or painting and suddenly find themselves abandoned. That’s the crowd she hopes I’ll draw.

“Welcome to the music room,” I tell my first guests. “This is a very special room to our homeowners....”

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From a prepared script, I tell them how the room is used for cello lessons. The homeowner is a renowned cellist. In fact, that’s a cello standing right there against the wall.

“At first, I thought it was a big guitar,” I confess. “But according to my script, it’s a cello.”

The home tour guests wander into this little room as if entering the Louvre. They marvel at the chintz slipcover. The window treatments. The wood floors. Walnut, I think.

“I love the distressed wood,” someone says about the floors.

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“I think they’re walnut,” I say.

“I knew someone once,” one guy says, “who led horses through his new house, just to distress the floors.”

At our own house, we don’t use horses to condition our new floors. We just keep having kids. It’s a different hoof.

But if you get enough kids -- say, two -- they can really distress a house. Just the way they fling their backpacks around can make it look like Lincoln’s cabin.

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“Welcome to the music room,” I tell the next group to arrive.

Fortunately, they are finding my little room at the end of the hall. Some I recognize. Steve and Tina. David and Julie.

They’ll stop and chat about how ridiculously nice this house is. No hand prints on the walls. No dog drool on the sofa.

“How do people live like this?” we wonder. “How come there’s no toothpaste in the sink?”

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“I wish our house was this great,” one friend says.

“I’ve seen better,” I lie.

By the second hour, I grow bored and begin to deviate from the script.

“Welcome to the wine cellar,” I say.

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“Where’s all the wine?” one wise guy asks.

“In the cello,” I say.

In my idle time, I notice that some of our suburb’s most presentable and accomplished residents share the same tour-guide shift.

I’m not going to name names. One is a real estate agent. Another is Coach Lorraine, from the softball team I pretend to coach. Everywhere I go, Coach Lorraine seems to show up. Like a guy with a black umbrella in a Bergman film.

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“How are you?” one of the other guides asks.

How am I? I’m suffering from a bad case of house envy, that’s how I am. The longer I’m in this castle, the worse it gets. It’s a chronic condition, house envy.

And at work, there’s something seriously wrong with my corporate AmEx account. Bad software, probably.

It’s the sort of workplace situation Joseph Heller used to write landmark novels about, packed with irony and frustration.

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That’s how I am.

“I’m fine,” I finally answer. “And you?”

“Fine,” they say.

“Have you seen the music room?” I ask.

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“No.”

“Well, have I got a room for you....”

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.


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