Green Street Hardware has that dry, sawn timber and linseed smell that reminded me of my grandfather’s shed. Galvanised trash cans filled with mops, brooms and rakes cluttered the doorway and something on the floor made a buzzer snarl in the back of the shop as I entered. I walked past bins of the kind of nails you buy by the pound, and boxes of screws marked brass, steel, and Japanned. Overhead the shelves reached to the ceiling and opposite the nails and screws were cans of paint, rubber compound, floor sealers, creosote, stains, varnishes, cleaning fluids, preserving fluids, detergents and disinfectants. A small energetic black man with a bristle moustache, who I later learned was called Jimmy, brushed passed and smiled, “Hi.”
“Hi,” I said, and would have continued the conversation but he was out the door before I could gather a thought.
I moved further into the store past rolls of plastic sheet, oiled paper, and assorted electrical fittings and was fast approaching a world of faucets, pipes and washers when a voice, deep, grave, but distinctly feminine said, “Can I help you?” I looked around trying to locate the owner. ”Over here,” she said.
I had been casting around for someone at eye level, or below, expecting I suppose to find someone standing, or sitting low behind the counter. Margaret was sitting down alright, but not where I expected to find her. She sat on a stool so high as to be amid the light fittings and lampshades. From there she could see throughout the length and breadth of her store. Sitting crow like in a long black skirt and a grey, heavy, knitted cotton sweater Margaret reminded me of a sketch I had seen of a Dickensian deacon overseeing a class of unruly boys. Her eyes weren’t black though, like the deacon’s; they were bright blue, and alert. The rest of her face was still, round, and sallow under her dark skin.
When my eyes finally found hers she smiled indulgently, revealing a mouth full of silver fillings. I admit to being surprised and feeling slightly bewildered, and must have had that look of uncertainty that comes with the realization of having been observed while daydreaming. From her high perch she must have seen that look a hundred times, yet continued to be amused by it. As she smiled wrinkles radiated around her face in a circular motion. I guessed her to be around sixty years old. She was Caribbean black with tight, curly hair cropped short, and although grey, it was died dark red. She was tall – even sitting down I could see she was tall and lean. She held a cigarette holder in her left hand and a coffee mug in her right. ”Are you Margaret?” I asked.
She took a sip of coffee. ”Uh-hu.”
“I’m Christopher Conroy. Just bought a house on Jefferson Avenue.”
“Uh-hu,” she said again, which left me with the feeling that she knew who I was long before I came in. She probably knew where I came from, how much I paid for the house and what I planned to do with it. I felt a bit like a small boy caught loitering in a lavatory.
“I need some trash cans,” I said.
“Do you have different kinds?”
“Perhaps you could show me. . .”
“Jimmy will fix you up,” she said. ”Take the cheap ones. Make big holes in the sides near the bottom, and keep them chained up. Do you have any chain?”
“Chain?” I said incredulously. ”Why would I want to chain up a trash can?”
“The kids steal them if you don’t.” She took another sip of coffee, then attended to the business of fitting a cigarette into the holder. She was not going to gush information; she was going to hand it out piecemeal, imperiously.
“To sell them.”
“What can they get for used trash cans?”
“Who buys them?”
“Some of the contractors.”
“What do they do with used trash cans?”
“They use them to mix plaster and sheet rock adhesive.”
“Eighty cents isn’t much for hauling trash cans around.”
“The kids ain’t doing nothing else.”
She had lit her cigarette by then and was looking around the store. I had the feeling my interview was nearing its end. ”I’d best get some chain then,” I said.
“Uh-hu,” she smiled, happy I suspect that I had come to the right decision. ”Jimmy will fix you up,” she said again. “When you want paint,” she added, “you speak to me.”
“Actually I want a painter. Do you know Carl Esposito?”
I smiled back and said no more. Brevity seemed the order of the day.
“Say hi to Elizabeth for me,” she added, as if it were an afterthought.
“I don’t think I know an Elizabeth.”
I put the intriguing thought of who Elizabeth might be behind me and decided to check on Toni One’s progress. On entering the parlour apartment I was shocked by what I saw. All three of the main rooms were a mess of ladders, paint, rollers and tools. Materials were scattered, literally, everywhere, and the walls and ceilings were completely covered in a flat, ghostly white, and hideously uneven, layer of paint. Much of it had dripped and run to globules on the wainscot, and disastrously, onto the polished wood floor. Toni One stood proudly in the centre of the chaos smiling. He had paint in his hair, down his face, over his T-shirt and jeans, and great daubs of it splattered his sneakers. A circus clown couldn’t have conjured up a more ridiculous character.
“How you doin’ Chris? It’s goin’ great yeh? Just about all covered. See you got some other guys in. That’s okay Toni Two’s a bit busy on another job. Gotta go help him later – lady gettin’ irate over in Park Slope. We’ll get done though – always do.”
“You’ve painted everything with ceiling paint,” I said.
“`S’right. Get nice even surface. That’s how it’s done. Don’t you worry.”
I did worry, and said so. ”You haven’t even done all the repairs. There are still cracks, and you’ve painted over some old picture nails.”
“That ain’t nothin’,” said Toni One at his dismissive best, his motor running up to speed. ”Ain’t nothin’ to worry about there. I can pull those nails anytime. Some of them cracks is best painted first, stops the plaster from soaking up the filler – know what I mean?” I knew what he meant. He meant he was trying to fill cracks with cheap paint.
As I wondered through the apartment more and more horrors were revealed. He’d painted over broken putty on the windows, deposited paint on the glass, allowed it to run into cracks in the wainscot and even put ceiling paint on the radiators and valves. I was fuming. Rather than have it out with him there and then I decided to cool off, calm down, and consider the best line of action. I left without saying any more, walked to the corner pay phone and checked my answering service. There were no messages.
I went back to the house to find Gerry was working steadily in the large living room of the penthouse. He had covered the floor with drop cloths which he had taped to the wainscot to keep them in place. The three eight foot sash windows had been sanded and the dry putty scraped out. He was standing on a tall step ladder carefully filling a large crack in the ceiling. ”How goes it?” I said.
“No trouble,” said Gerry. ”Ain’t no trouble here. This is a nice room. It gonna be even nicer.”
That was gratifying. I wondered how long it would take at $100 a day to become “even nicer” enough.
In the third floor kitchen another horror story awaited. The old sink had been removed, or rather ripped out, taking huge chunks of the wall with it. A young man with long greasy hair wearing filthy jeans and a Grateful Dead T-shirt was smashing the sink with a club hammer. I watched in terror as fragments of thick, glazed, porcelain flew in all directions, chipping at the walls and threatening injury to anyone, or anything, within range. One of the windows was already cracked. All the peace I developed by walking to the phone and subsequently bathing in by Gerry’s calm competence quickly evaporated. ”Who are you,” I asked.
The greasy young man looked up, annoyed I think that I had interrupted his spiritual connection the destruction of the sink. ”What?”
“I’m the owner,” I said. ”Who are you and why are you doing that?”
“Can’t carry a big sink like this down three flights. Gotta break it up.”
“Do you work for Jimmy Artowski?”
“Work for him. Nah. I sub for him sometimes.”
“Yeh,” he said somewhat belligerently, “like now.”
“Well I didn’t employ you, so I suggest you stop work until I talk to Jimmy.”
“Wassamatter? You don’t like what I’m doin’?”
“That’s right,” I said, standing my ground. ”I don’t like what you’re doing, and I don’t like the way you are doing it.”
“Suits me if I don’t do it. Ain’t no fun working up three floors with no elevator. And the price was lousy anyway. You want me to stop, I’m outta here. I got better jobs to do all round Brooklyn.”
“Fine,” I said.” Be sure to mend that window before you leave.”
He did not mend the window, but he did leave without causing further damage. I had to be grateful for that. People management, I was beginning to learn, was not my forté.
When I returned to the parlour floor Toni One had also left, which was regrettable, because I was ready to fire him. I assumed he had gone to relay my outburst to Toni Two working at the house of the lady in Park Slope. He would undoubtedly return because his ladders, tools and frightful handiwork were all still in the apartment. Perhaps he would bring Toni Two with him, then I could fire them both.
I retired to the cool of the cellar and was reminded of all the junk that had to be taken from there. The only area that was remotely tidy was Henrietta’s fireproof enclave where she stood in cast iron certainty. As I stood admiring her solid lines my mind wandered to the men who had put her there. Were they young men? Had they any education? How did they live? In tenement houses like the “Projects” not two blocks away, or in a shanty town down near the harbour? Perhaps they had been born here, or on the ships on the way over. How many women, I wondered, gave birth on the crossing from the old country. How many children survived such births?
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of raised voices in Frankie’s sister’s apartment. Frustrated I stepped out into the August sunshine. Even that seemed suddenly oppressive. Frankie had left me with a cellar full of junk and his unsolved family matters. I confess to being angry and was tempted to call and give Frankie the benefit of my feelings, but I have long since learned not to pick up the phone in that state of mind. So I sat outside on the upper step and watched the world go by until my feelings came under control.
A train must have arrived at the subway station because people were spilling up from the hole in the sidewalk. Most were dressed in business clothes, toting briefcases and shopping bags, and were the usual mixture of African black, Caribbean black, Oriental, Caucasian and Latino. An elegant, Hispanic skinned woman in a red cotton dress with a black collar and a patent leather belt caught my attention as she slowed her pace to look at me. I smiled. Her eyes narrowed slightly and her lips parted just a fraction in acknowledgment as she passed my gate. She stopped and unhooked the gate to the house next door. When she had turned, and closed the gate behind her, she looked at me again as, if deciding whether of not to speak. ”Hello,” I said helping her out.
“Hello,” she replied. Her voice was rich, musical, definitely Caribbean. ”Are you the new owner?”
“For my sins,” I said. ”I took possession on Monday.”
She lowered her bag and moved toward the iron fence dividing our front yards. ”I’m Elizabeth McKenzie. This is my house,” she said indicating the broad fronted building next door.
I bounced down the steps to offer my hand. She was lovely. Caramel skin, warm red lips, wonderfully white teeth and if that dress was not being exceptionally deceptive, a figure I was not going to tell mother about. Her hand was cool . . .