Clinton Hill

I suspected a chemical exchange of some sort was taking place when Leonora and her husband first came to inspect the second floor apartment of my Jefferson Avenue brownstone. He was at least ten years her senior, of worn, bloodhound, appearance complete with sagging jowls and bored, almost sceptical, eyes warning all that they trusted no one, and believed little of what he saw. A lawyer, he was dulled and dusty and if there ever was a youthful shine about him it had long since been abraded by years of tediously facile encounters with incredibly tedious, and certainly facile, clients. His shoulders sloped – not, as one might expect in one trained to remain seated and immobile for weeks at a time, with that angular elegance of repose to be found in a pile of fine, dry sand – No. Brad’s shoulders were unevenly bowed as clumps of stacked sod heaped disconsolately as if in preparation of an uneven foundation on a sloping hillside. His lumpy body said he did not want to be in the semi-subterranean living room of a foreign, rip-off, landlord who would probably screw his wife, and his resigned, distant, gaze said he was mystified as to why she would be spending $1,100 a month to live alone in an ugly, drug infested, area of Brooklyn instead of their bought and paid for luxury villa out along the Rockaways.

After a diligent reading, no doubt the result of many years exposure to the treachery found in such documents, he looked up and, to neither of us in particular, declared it was standard Bloomberg boiler plate. Turning to Leonora, who I suspect was already in the process of deciding how I could best be used, he said, “It says fuck you. He gets everything his way.” A comforting thought at the time, though one she proved entirely inaccurate.

“Should I sign it Brad?” She asked.

“If you want the apartment, sign it. It’s a standard New York lease. Bloomberg hasn’t changed this format in twenty years.”

She held the lease over the coffee table, as if still unsure, and gave him one last enquiring glance. He reached inside his jacket for his Mount Blanc offering it to her with a reluctant left hand. She accepted it, signed the lease, and wrote a cheque for the first and last month’s rent, and a half-month deposit. Sheepishly she handed me the cheque, then, as if as an afterthought, softly shook my hand. Her tortured face was racked with guilt, but there remained a tell-tale thinning of the lips that spoke of her determination to see this through. He held out a hand for his pen; his wife might be leaving, but his Mount Blanc would stay.

I walked them out to the street remarking airily on the pleasantness of the evening while feeling the warm glow of her cheque in my back pocket. As of that moment the building was fully rented. With any luck this first month would show a positive cash flow.

As Brad swung their Oldsmobile into the avenue and headed north toward the old harbour I followed, strolling down the broad sidewalk and inwardly hugging myself for being there; for having bought the house, spruced it up, and rented it out – a task completed, a dream coming true because for me Clinton Hill, with its wide boulevards and steep streets, had always spoken of far more than it actually is today. To have wandered the Jefferson Avenue sidewalks at the turn of the twentieth century when the five story brownstone houses were new, and hopes were high in the bright New World, would have been to witness the wonder of new beginnings in a fresh, clean, start-again-place. I still cherish visions of those early evenings as the mantles in the gas lamps took on their iridescent brilliance – spreading blue whiteness over the new sidewalks, beckoning the men from their offices of the Long Island Rail Road, itself already snaking greedily east into the growing suburbs.

Generously paved with huge stone slabs, and trimmed with granite curb stones and stylish iron lamp posts, the Jefferson Avenue sidewalls have faired well against the savage tests of time – a little of the elegance has been lost to the cracking of frosts, and the uneven etching of the acid rains, but most remains. To have walked these streets in the evenings when the black japanned iron fences were new, when the elaborate stained glass doorways shed flickering yellow light upon the stone staircases, would have been to share in the adventure, in the excitement, and the raw, youthful, thrill of a nation in the making. Had I bought my house on Jefferson Avenue then, instead of one hundred and twenty years later, those frantic moments of unbridled passion in the dust streaked sunlight of Leonora’s moving-in day would never have happened. The subsequent warm afternoon hours when she would change from a soft and gentle woman moving tentatively, uncertainly, into her new life, to one possessed of unbridled lust, would never have occurred. Had I bought the house when the New World was a mere babe, a fresh clean life in transparent pink, I might never have met Larry and Margaret, two people who were to be my guiding lights over the months to come. Certainly I would not have met Elizabeth for she could have no equal in any century. To suggest that Charles might not have died so tragically this evening might be stretching it – might be taking the imagination to its furthest borders, but it is possible, as all is possible. Our lives are, after all, at the mercy of strangers.

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