Frankie Marcellini, the previous owner, swore by Henrietta’s virtues, and assured me that she would never let me down. Well she did – quite often in the early days. That might have been because I did not understand her then. It might have been because the transition to a new owner was a traumatic experience for her, or it might have been because she just wanted to test my affection for her before settling down into regular service. Whatever the reason her behaviour in those early days proved inconsistent with the claims Frankie made for her, but then many of the things that Frankie claimed, at that time, proved inconsistent with reality.
Frankie revealed his true character the day we met and sat at his living room table discussing the value of the house over a glass of red wine. It was an excellent Amarone Classico that served warmth, and generated welcome feelings, under the ornate chandelier dripping with the elegance of another time. Frankie had been talking steadily, convincingly, that this was a house of which to become proud; that as a young man I was demonstrating remarkable foresight in purchasing such a wonderful building, and that the price was really quite immaterial, when he suddenly stopped. He switched, as if he saw no purpose in continuing on the current line, to an entirely new tack by recalling an incident involving a City Hall official. Leaning over the table, his face so close I could feel the heat, Frankie said, “‘Are you Jewish?'” It took a few seconds to realize he was not asking me, he was quoting the official from city hall. Leaning back and extending his up-turned palms he said. ”Am I Jewish?” I was about to answer that I did not think he was when Frankie continued. ”What was he asking, this man from the Brooklyn Office of Building Code Enforcement? Am I Jewish?” Still not sure of the answer, or if it was actually a question, I decided to keep quiet. Frankie said, “‘Do I look Jewish?'” That, I think, is what he said to the official. ”’Do I look Jewish? Does this look like a Jewish house with Saints and crosses on the walls? Is Frankie Marcellini a Jewish name?'”
“Am I Jewish.” Frankie went on. ”What he was asking was how much I would pay him to tear up the code violation report he’d put on the table – here – on this table where we’re sitting now. This man from the Brooklyn Office of Building Code Enforcement was enforcing a code of his own – A corrupt code; a taking and not giving code.”
Frankie paused then, poured more wine into his glass and sat back in his chair. ”That’s how it is here now,” he said looking up at the huge chandelier as if in search of an endorsement from a higher order.” Everybody’s on the take. Everybody wants something for nothing. Nobody wants to work anymore. Am I Jewish? What a question.” He drank his wine. I barely sipped. Alcohol dilutes money unreasonably.
“Half a million is a good offer for this house Mr. Marcellini,” I said. ”A lot more than you paid for it I’m sure.” Actually it was more than I intended to offer but I was in love with the place, and had allowed Frankie to bid me up during the uncorking of the Amarone.
“It’s nothing,” said Frankie, “nothing. A young man like you has a lifetime to make half a million. Maybe you already have, and you want to make more – why else would you be here trying to buy my house from under me? A whole lifetime of making money is in front of you. In another forty years of working you’ll make five, maybe ten, million.”
He looked at me then, holding me with his dark Italian eyes and pointing to his heart. ”Me. Me I still have a few years to go and I will not make another penny. Not another penny. My working days are done. My working life is all here, in this house. All my family was here, in this house. All my family – My mother, father, sisters, my own children. They were all here, in this house.” As he talked he waved his arms about in sweeping, Neapolitan gestures. Putting both hands on his heart he said, “I’m going to need every dime – every nickel, dime, and quarter, if I’m not to spend my days in poverty over there on Howard beach with those jackals and thieves who rip at the soft underbelly of the old. I’m going to need every penny for medical insurance, and for the upkeep of that flat walled box I’m expected to exist in for the rest of my days.”
He stopped then to gauge the effect of his theatrical performance with his eyes boring into me. I looked down, avoiding them; they were cunning old eyes. I sat staring at the white tablecloth with its delicate lace border wondering if it had been hand made in Italy. I was waiting for the drama to subside. He was waiting for my reply. Finally I said, “I’m sorry Mr. Marcellini. That’s all the money I have. Take it or leave it.”
He nodded, smiled, stood, and patted me on the shoulder. ”This old man has to leave it. I’m sure you are an honest man Christopher Conroy, but I have to think of my health care.” He sounded so genuine.
As I left Frankie Marcellini’s lovely old brownstone house that day and walked along Jefferson Avenue’s still magnificent sidewalk there was a slump in my shoulders; my feet were heavy. I wanted that house. It was to have been my new inamoratas. I wanted to cherish it and restore it to its former splendour and make it the love of my life. I was convinced that if I treated it well the house would repay me – if not financially, then surely spiritually. At the very least it would not desert me for a one and a half bedroom wooden lightweight out there in the land of nephews and nieces.
I should have been grateful that Frankie had refused my offer because it was a heaven sent opportunity to avoid the months of grief and frustration that was to follow, but I was not. Even though I was aware of the problems in those neighbourhoods; even though I knew there were constant thefts to, and burglaries from, the menagerie of cars lining my precious Jefferson Avenue, I still wanted the house. I knew those splendid houses are no longer single family units, that most were converted into flats to accommodate four and five far less affluent families than their predecessors, and I knew too, that like the cars the houses were regularly burgled by the even less privileged inhabitants of the nearby tenement blocks, and that television sets and video machines were constantly stolen and reappeared in the local used goods stores, and the walls and windows of the fine old houses were continually vandalized while lazy, ineffective, police officers lounged idly by. I was to learn that even the trash cans are stolen – that eighty cents was the going rate for a metal can in which contractors mix cement or sheet rock plaster – eighty cents toward a file of crack, or a line of coke. The turn of the century engineers’ dreams of a railroad from Flatbush to Montauk Point no longer fills the minds of men in contemporary Brooklyn. Visions of a vast paved highway from Prospect Park to Manhattan Central no longer challenge the ingenuity of bridge builders and architects. Hideous raised iron freeways and monstrous glass monoliths are the modern fare, and eighty cents for a trash can makes a down payment on a short trip to today’s promised land.
So I should have been happy that Frankie had refused my final offer, but I was not. I still held images of those pioneering days deep in my romantic soul and I was frustrated, a little angry, and desperately thinking of ways to raise more money. So was Frankie.