Finding Firmer Ground

Around a million years ago Sarah decided to take what she called ‘The initiative our marriage needed’ – something, I suspect, she had gleaned from the glossy magazine pages that flashed unendingly before her as she thumbed them on the subway, at her desk, before the television, in bed . . . . ‘Taking the initiative’ in this particular case meant abandoning our life together. It was an act completely unprecedented at the time, although, in mitigation, we had bickered for the last two years over whether to live out on Long Island, near her family, or in the city, where I loved to feel the vibration of New York with its teeming life and its racing pulse – endless and relentless in its pursuit of innovation, creation and deliberation.

Sarah wanted to be on the island – somewhere along the Sunrise Highway between Lynbrook and Levittown so she could visit her parents and all the nephews and nieces that come with four very married, and extremely prolific, sisters. I hated it out there. I hated to sit in the traffic jams. I hated the shopping malls – the all-you-can-eat Italian restaurants where the sauces are either red or white; the four hour waits on the golf courses; two hour lines at the DMV; multiplex theatres; cicadas; nephews and nieces wherever you look . . . . I hated the whole jabbering, quibbling two million Catholic, Jewish, agnostic mass of it.

We had long ceased to argue over where we should live, settling instead for exchanging the odd salvo as each tried to come to terms with the other’s view. While this period of stewing in our differences was in force we remained in our original, one bedroom, apartment on a Hundred and Eighty-sixth Street in Queens that had absolutely no redeeming features except that it was neutral territory in that we both hated it there.

Then over an indifferent Chardonnay in the early evening sometime between now and the end of the Pleistocene Era, Sarah announced that she was leaving. She had found a pretty little shingle house in a tree lined avenue in Lynbrook, and was going to live there. In an attempt to understand what brought about this radical departure from the comfortable peace of our standoff I went out to see it. She was right; it was pretty. Red brick steps led up to the front door under a little porch with a pitched roof. Inside there was a living room, a dining room, a kitchen and a bathroom. Upstairs were one and half bedrooms, no bathroom. Below stairs was a large cellar where she could paint under the unstable arc lights currently cluttering the bedroom in the Queens apartment. Outside was a sweet little garden she said she could tend in the summer which begged the question about winter, but it passed unasked. It was alright but to give up our life together; to put our marriage at risk? I couldn’t believe she would split us up for that; we had been together a long time. We had shared many joys and some awful, foundation rocking, miseries, but they all bonded us; all of those experiences, the good and the bad, were adhesive. We were lovers and friends, rooted together, though not quite so firmly of late, but rooted all the same. We would work this out; we always worked it out.

I did not believe she would split us up even when most of the furniture disappeared and the cutlery drawer was reduced to three sets of everything. Her clothes disappeared from the closet, her bottles, sprays, jewellery, hair bands all disappeared from the vanity, and finally the bed went. The canvas foldaway remained. Nothing was said about the cars. She took the Mercedes. The Toyota was more convenient.

It was sometime after that, somewhere between waiting for Sarah to return and my starting a lengthy period of adjustment, that the decision came to buy the house on Jefferson Avenue. I told myself I needed to find a new meaning in life – a life which up until then had been spent solely in the pursuit of material wealth – that and sex I suppose. Well sex mostly actually, otherwise why would I have been in the pursuit of wealth? Certainly I did not seek power, nor did I have a firm understanding of those who did. The lust for power, I concluded, must be rooted in sex – although I was to meet some pretty un-sexy Brooklyn powerbrokers in the months to come.

I missed her. Of course I missed her, but I could live with that. I could get used to the loneliness, eating alone, going to movies on my own, even vacationing alone. We are, after all, alone most of the time. We are born alone, and we die alone. Loneliness is manageable. It was Sarah’s apparent disregard for our marriage that was hard to reconcile. Up until the moment of the indifferent Chardonnay our union was the cornerstone of our lives, the buttress of our very existence. Take that away and I for one am a cripple – devoid of support, both physical and mental. Where once was my right arm, my other mind, there was nothing – not just a hole, a great yawning chasm. It was devastation.

It was no surprise then that I should to turn my attention to something so solidly gravitational as a one hundred and twenty year old brownstone building deep in the heart of old Brooklyn. Not one of those singular, elaborately castellated, or conical turret fortresses erected by the nineteenth century eccentrics to dot the landscape, but a rugged piece of permanence anchored solidly in a row of other pieces of permanence to form a solid block amid more solid blocks. It was an elegant home amid many other elegant homes built by clear thinking men of vision when America was young, and fresh, and building for a future that would in its self be both fresh and visionary.

Built high on Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill the house commanded views down to Dutch Harbour where sailing ships from Europe, South America, and India unloaded tea and coffee, spices, calico, fine French furniture, and Austrian crystal for the nouveaux riche of the New World. The foundations were laid on bedrock, the walls built of stone, and the steel and pipe work came from the foundries burgeoning along the industrial north-eastern highways where, deep in the embryonic heartland, Henry Clarimore built his foundry. From rough, pig iron, Henry cast heavy pipes, gutters, railings, and furnaces to fill the needs of builders in Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York. He maintained his customer base by diligence – by careful smelting, accurate casting, and prompt delivery. His furnaces were built to function endlessly, tirelessly, without complaint or praise throughout the fierce winters that came howling out of the Canadian wilderness, annihilating in their progress lesser furnaces, bringing them to their knees in one, or two, short, unrelenting, seasons. Henry Clarimore’s furnaces however, were never found wanting; they were tried and tested under the unrelenting hammer of the raw mid-western winters. Manufactured from high grade iron, cast with unbending integrity, and tested to twenty times their normal working pressure before being released to the builders of excellence to be integrated into homes for the discerning, homes for the sagacious, homes for the visionaries, Henry’s furnaces were the Cadillac’s of the industry.

It was in this stable, out of a premium cast that was the result of a perfection of design and constant modification, that Henrietta, a fine, 250,000 British Thermal Unit creation of incredible wisdom and integrity, was created. Queen of the crop, she found her way to Brooklyn, there to bond on Jefferson Avenue with a building that would prove her equal.

It was probably Henrietta’s presence, her enduring marriage to that magnificent six story brownstone, that sealed my conviction that the house was right for me. Placed solidly in the centre of the basement floor she was positioned to heat the house from top to bottom. Confident in her credibility, simple in her demands, she asked only a regular supply of filtered oil, and a good head of water – two requirements the house could comfortably fulfil while the sun burned, and gravity continued to serve on the planet. It was a brilliant union of hearth and home, one that no man in his right mind would attempt to put asunder – although one man did. One misguided immigrant did create a serious threat to the relationship.

In 1933 Enrico Nardone insisted on adding extensions to three of the upper floors to accommodate his ever expanding family. A dangerous move, one in which the house threatened to outgrow Henrietta thus creating an imbalance that threatened the union of hearth and home. The increase in floor space made unreasonable demands on her – demands with which she was not designed to cope – demands she would have been well within her rights to refuse to accommodate for they were not the demands of an architect or engineer. They were demands born in the madness of the owner’s relentless proliferation – his needless insistence on procreation. Yet Henrietta hung in there, puffing out the extra heat, keeping the extra occupants warm through those barren winters of the New World regardless of wars and recessions, booms and depressions.

She must have inherited all of Henry Clarimore’s veracity for not only did she prove to be tough and reliable under the pressures brought about by Enrico Nardone’s foolishness, she also demonstrated great intelligence by flatly refusing to pump hot water up into the fancy new penthouse when it was added by Enrico’s successor in 1941. It had no right to be there. It over-extended the plumbing, spoiled the skyline, and unbalanced the whole neighbourhood with its ugly, square, protuberances. The man who added this hideous edifice did so to accommodate his sister’s growing family – a foolish accommodation, for which I was to pay dearly.

When Henrietta received her new firebox she was one hundred and twenty-one years old. There was no way of knowing if she had new fireboxes before because the one she had was eroded to the point of translucence by years of exposure to searing flame – a phenomenon that was dramatic to witness at night, but a bit disturbing to live near – leaving no trance as to its origin. For a while, just a short while, Henrietta’s substitution was under consideration; the spectre of a lightweight steel affair with all the modern accruements that would burn, neat, clean gas arose and was appealing. It would have eliminated the chores of monitoring the oil, cleaning the filters, and maintaining the tank, but it would have meant throwing away a hundred and twenty year union. It would have meant a separation of hearth and home. It would have reduced my values to those of Sarah.

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