Real estate stager J. Michael Haithock’s family moved to Charlotte when he was just 14. He’s been a Charlotte resident ever since. Five years ago he and his husband Francisco sold their southside home for a 1967 brick ranch in East Charlotte. Together for 27 years, their lives have been a whirlwind of romance, immigration issues, working together, surviving the COVID-19 pandemic and giving back to the community through efforts like volunteering with the “Adopt A City Street” clean-up program run by “Keep Charlotte Beautiful,” where he was previously a board member.

What exactly is a stager?
A stager [is a person who] prepares a home for selling to make it presentable and to make an impression on whoever comes there, [so] they could see themselves living in the house, or the condo or AIRBNB. Typically, we stage houses, condos and townhomes; occupied and unoccupied. I once staged an occupied house where there were three kids all being homeschooled in the dining room. So we made that space into a dining room again.  

Staging helps sell a house quickly and generally helps the seller get more money; when everything aligns right, the price, the location in addition to the staging. It’s a great satisfaction to me. I You can spend a few hours or half a day, and when you’re done, you look at it and think, this is my canvas of art. [I’ve thought] get your pictures now, because it’s not going to stay like this.

It sounds a bit like decorating. 
It is, but it’s more than that. If it’s an occupied staging, we take furniture out, declutter and take things out of the basement. You fix a room and then say, don’t touch it.  

Stylistically, what’s trending right now? 
Definitely clean lines, a contemporary modern feel. Millennials are the buyers right now, and all good staging is minimalist. But you have to stage according to the house. You try to decorate with the style of the house to a degree. The house and the price of the house will dictate what you use. A house $550,000 and above will call for a different kind of furniture, something more high-end. 

Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your business?
Yes, it has; it was like a domino effect, cancellation after cancellation. That was rough because I had been self-employed since 2003 and doing okay. If I did hit a rough patch I found an extra gig. When I wasn’t doing staging, I was still helping people decorate their houses. Never had to borrow money, we just sacrificed and pushed through. But this was a different ball game. COVID meant I wasn’t working for my clients anymore. It was and is a little nerve-racking. Nothing has gone back to normal, not for me, unfortunately.

How are you managing? 
SBA loans, unemployment and temporary assignments. One [temporary assignment] was actually for a call center with the Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce. They were reaching out to small businesses to see how they could assist them.  But that was only temporary.  I’ve been lucky to have a few staging jobs come in, but it’s still rough.

How have you been staying sane through it all? 
I’ve been singing since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I’ve sung professionally, and I’m a huge Frank Sinatra fan. So, singing, zoning out by working in the yard and community service. Giving back helps because you’re not focused on yourself.  Focusing too much on yourself is what causes stress.  

What’s collaborating with your husband as a co-worker like? 
We get along well. He’s dependable, trustworthy and reliable. There’s a security and comfort to working with him.

Will you share with qnotes readers how you met?
We met on Valentine’s Day. It was a Wednesday in 1994 in a San Francisco club. When we met, I was not supposed to go to San Francisco. I went because a friend of mine planned to take his boyfriend to Las Vegas and San Francisco as a surprise. Three weeks prior to the trip the boyfriend broke up with him. My friend, George, didn’t want to waste the tickets and asked me if I wanted to go. I’d never been to Las Vegas or San Francisco, so I said yes. We stayed in the Castro district.

I went to a club called The Phoenix that evening, saw this guy dancing on the floor, started dancing with him, and then talking with him. About 10 minutes into the conversation, I realized English wasn’t his first language. My husband Francisco [Gonzalez] was visiting from Mexico City. He was visiting a friend of his who was HIV positive and not doing so well, so he was staying with his friend. During my stay, I ended up just spending time with Francisco. Lots of going out to eat, lots of miscommunication, lots of say that again and repeat that. Looking back now, it’s all very quaint and sweet though at the time it was a bit frustrating. 

After we spent three days together, and it was time to go, I wanted to keep in touch. He gave me his address and a neighbor’s number [because] he didn’t have a phone. So we arranged times to call each other and write to each other for over a year. Eventually… I invited him to visit me in the U.S. He arrived June 22, 1995 on a Monday with a little suitcase and never returned. 

Wow! What a love story.
It is, though for the first 20 years he was an undocumented citizen which made things very stressful. In 1998 he started the process of becoming an artist. An opportunity he didn’t have coming from an impoverished town in Mexico City.  

He took a printmaking class with a woman at Spirit Square who later opened her own gallery.  So, he went from Spirit Square to the gallery and later became a print maker, and then a gallery exhibitor with solo and group shows showing at The Mint in Charlotte, New York galleries and many others.

When did you get married?
When the [initial] rumblings were going on about same-sex marriage. At this point we had already been together 20 years. We knew that we didn’t necessarily need to prove anything, but we did it mainly because we wanted legal rights while living together. Medical things, the same things that are afforded to straight people, but also because marriage afforded him citizenship. We were married in Maryland on February 14, our 20th anniversary. When we came back to Charlotte we immediately started the process for him [to] become a citizen. That took a lot of time, in addition to a lot of money.  

The documentation of all the work and giving back he’d done helped. Francisco finally became a citizen on August 19, 2019. 

Inquiring minds who read qnotes want to know, what’s your secret for such longevity?
We’ve all heard it said before, but we’re good friends. I think respect, good friends and kindness [are the keys to longevity].  I never had any doubt that it would work because all of it just felt right. All of the boyfriends I had before him, which weren’t very many, were basically just a dress rehearsal.

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