Frankie called two days after his dramatic performance in the parlour to say that he would accept my offer of $500,000. He did not state it as simply as that of course. He was at pains to explain that his acceptance of my offer stemmed from his social consciousness – that he saw in me the seeds of a man of great integrity, one, who, in the fullness of time, would be of immeasurable service to the Jefferson Avenue community. To that end he was prepared to part with the building that had been home to his family – all his family, and their dreams, disappointments, successes and tragedies for over fifty years – at a price he would not have considered from a lesser man. In short Frankie was bestowing a great favour upon me. Only much later when the searches had been completed, mortgages raised, contracts drawn, and the time and date for the closing had been arranged did he add that I should cover the cost of his agent.
Despite the financial penalty of backing out so late in the proceedings I refused. I dug my toes in and point blank refused to accept this last minute adjustment as he called it. It would have cost me another $30,000, an intolerable imposition. I was already tired of the new Brooklynite. I was tired of the continual lies and exaggerations and unfounded claims of virtue. There was no virtue in this second generation Italian who wined and sublimed me with his endless rhetoric. It was bullshit. I was under a continuous barrage of tests. Everyone was out to score, and they had not the slightest qualm about how long it took, or the consequences; they just had to score a point. It was the ancient machismo to be found in the old Latin families, and for now at least, had to be treated the old way. So I told him no, absolutely, imperatively, irrefutably, over my dead body, no.
That should have been the end of the matter. I would never have walked down Jefferson Avenue again and might well have conducted the rest of my life in a sane and reasonable manner, only the agent, Tim Reiseller, called to say he was prepared to negotiate his 6% commission in order to please his client. He settled for $10,000 cash. What a helpful chap.
Unbeknown to me at the time other agents were settling for lower fees on the promise of seat on this train stoked by investors, and driven not only by the new men of vision, but also by the new, no-holds-barred, type of liberated women of vision. Had I known that; had I understood the tide events taking place below the disparate surface of Clinton Hill in King’s County I might not have been so solidly cool. As it was I thought I was lucky, that my gods were at the helm and steering my boat immaculately.
In England, where all my previous housing transactions had taken place, the purchasing process culminates on what is known as the completion date. That is the day when the property is said to have officially transferred to the new owner. It is not an event. It is just a day like any other except that at a nominated time the property is deemed to have been transferred to the new owner who may then collect the keys from the solicitor’s office.
In Brooklyn I came face to face with a phenomena known as ‘The Closing.’ This is a gathering of interested parties in a room hired for the purpose of signing documents, shaking hands, and slapping backs. In short a machismo ceremony in which the biggest liars, and the most accomplished cheats, parade the process for their contemporaries to witness. In this particular case it was in a room for which I was to pay, filled with people I was to pay to be there. I was then, and remain to this day, confused as to the necessity of what could only be described as a salt-in-the-wound event.
My lawyer, Bill Sullivan, was there, as were Frankie’s two lawyers. Also in attendance was a recorder from the Brooklyn Records Office, a representative from the Historic Homes Title Company, Tim Reiseller, who had come to collect his $10,000 in cash, and a representative from the Dime Savings Bank, which was to finance the transaction. All these people had billed time to be there drinking coffee, munching doughnuts, and in two cases, puffing cigars at my expense. There was something primal, and decidedly unhealthy, about the whole ritual. For all the world I was not only the lamb on the altar, but I was also paying for the church, the sacrificial knife, and all the sectarian ministers. I could not wait to get out of there.
When it was over, and I was nearly $520,000 worse off, I went to the house. I was anxious; my new business was under way and I had to start on the road to generating income – besides I wanted to walk by it, just to be sure it was still there. It was, and despite the frustrations of the closing I felt a surge of pride at the sight of that magnificent building. Regardless of the changes that have shaken the backbone out of many of the inhabitants over the years, Jefferson Avenue, its buildings and their settings, retains much of its original grandeur.
My house, a wide brown-stone graced with an elegant flight of stone steps had twelve foot double entrance doors with huge engraved glass panels that led to the outer hallway of the raised first floor. From the top of the steps I could look north to see down to Dutch Harbour where clippers, baquentines, and square-riggers once docked. Never mind that the recycling plant and the Brooklyn Queens Expressway now obscured the view, I could still see the old harbour, and feel the lively, vibrant hum of the new world adventure. For those who could not share my vision of the old Brooklyn there were electricity and telephone cables, cable TV, and alternate parking from which to draw comfort – redeeming features all, over the flickering gas lamps and aromatic horse droppings of old. Certainly this was as fine a Jefferson Avenue as any home owner had ever enjoyed. Standing on my top step that day I swelled with pride at owning something so solidly worthwhile.
I walked through the outer vestibule with its black and white harlequin floor tiles, and the shiny brass mailboxes that house the call buttons for the five apartments, and opened the large inner door, with its huge engraved glass panel, to the inner hallway where a towering Peer Mirror in an ornate mahogany frame filled the wall at the bottom of the main staircase. The hats, coats, and umbrellas that graced those racks and hooks around that magnificent mirror over the years would surely make an interesting collection today. There were none there of course. Nor would there be in the years to come for it is now an apartment building – anything left there would likely be stolen.
I was about to enter the parlour apartment when the sound of voices, of a television and of people moving around, came up the narrow stairway that led to the lower ground floor. I had not started renting it yet; who could be in my building? I descended the narrow staircase with the strange sensation that I had either been dreaming up to this moment, or was dreaming now, because there was nothing in the events of the past week that would lead to this scenario.
Nearing the bottom of the stairs I met a fat man attempting to come up. He was wearing carpet slippers, greasy, baggy, pants and an undershirt. ”Excuse me,” he said stepping back off the stair to let me pass. When I reached the bottom he did not say any more. He just lumbered off up the stairs as if he had been doing it for years – as if it was the most normal thing in the world. I was too surprised to speak.
Through the open door to the lower apartment I could hear the sound of crockery clattering in the kitchen, and the inane ranting of a commercial from a television set. As I stood there wondering what to do about these unexpected inhabitants the fat man returned. ”Excuse me,” he said again, and pushed past me into the apartment.
“I’m the new owner,” I said, hoping to elicit some explanation from him.
“Gottcha,” he said and, smiling, closed the door.
For a few seconds I stood there wondering what to do; as from two o’clock that afternoon I was the owner; this was my house. People were living in my house and I did not know who they were. I turned to the adjacent door, opened it, fumbled for the light switch, then descended the filthy staircase to the even filthier basement in the hope, I suppose, of deciding what to do about my uninvited guests.
The basement was not only filthy; it was full of junk. Piled against one of the brick pillars that held the supporting arches of the house was an assortment of old doors. There was about a dozen of them in various sizes and colours. Frankie must have thought them too good to throw away. Next to the doors was a trunk, the old fashion kind with corroded metal hasps. It, too, was filthy. I had no desire to look inside. Next to that was a small door to an inner closet. Tentatively I opened it, peered inside to see paint cans, broken light fittings, two worn out brooms and assorted curtain rails. As with the trunk, I was not tempted to enter.
On the other side of the basement was the oil tank. It was a black, sinister, affair surrounded by open cans of black oil and discarded filters. Beside it was a bicycle. It had flat tires and judging by the layer of grime upon the saddle and handlebars it had not been used in years. There was also a broken garden chair, a dilapidated child’s high chair, and a pile of faded hard cover books.
A metal door led into the furnace room. On entering I came face to face with Henrietta, for the first time seeing her not just as part of the house, as I did when walking around with the building inspector, but as herself. She was green, and magnificent in her industrial revolution certainty standing straight, and solidly unopposed as the indisputable heart of the building; she was, for all the world, a paragon of selfless integrity.
On her inside cover was a plate declaring that she was a product of the Henry Clarimore Furnace Foundry, of Cincinnati Ohio, and capable of producing 250,000 British Thermal Units of heat every hour. On the front of her iron heat exchanger was a dial indicating the pressure within, and a controller to adjust the working temperatures. When she was installed by her Victorian designers Henrietta could circulate hot water through all the radiators in the house simply by virtue of the fact that heat rises. She had no need of electricity then. When extra rooms were added to the house, extra devices had to be added to the plumbing to accommodate them. Not least of which was a one horse power electric pump that now lurked grotesquely under a heavy layer of dirt laded cobwebs behind the firebox. It was the last item in the return pipe that brought the cooled water from the radiators for Henrietta to re-heat, and re-circulate. Only she could no longer do it alone. The pump had to be running for the water to reach Henrietta, its very presence compromised her.
The pump though, was merely the beginning of her modification. By the time I came into Henrietta’s life she had collected a whole orchestra of valves and pumps and cocks and switches to conduct in order to ensure those in her care were not only kept warm, but also had a good supply of hot water to cleanse themselves. Like her consort she had come a long way over the years, and was doing far more work than Henry Clarimore ever intended.
Closing the metal door to Henrietta’s inner chamber behind me I returned to the reality of the filthy basement. I was particularly annoyed at the sight of it because Frankie agreed to remove all the junk before the closing. He had also agreed that the house should be vacant. I had been too polite, or naive, or stupid, to check if that was the case before signing documents and had paid the price. Had I played the game correctly I would have checked on all this, and would have been in a position to strut my stuff at the closing and emulate my new peers. ”Hold on there Frankie,” I would have said. ”One cotton picking minute there before you light that there cigar.” Heads would have turned, jaws would have dropped, folks would have sat up and listened as I eased it all out like a fifties movie star. ”See it says here in the contract that the house is to be delivered vacant and the cellar to be cleared out.” Then I would have paused to let all that sink in before continuing.” I went to check that your end of the contract was fulfilled Frankie, and guess what?” Eyebrows would have risen, Frankie would have looked down, or stared straight at me. For sure he would not be looking at the other men. He would be wondering what was to come. ”Well I guess you slipped up there Frankie,” I would roll on. ”But . . . so as not to hold things up, just to keep things moving along, I hired a couple of guys with a truck . . .” Pause for effect again. Why don’t you come on in here boys.” With that a couple heavies would have rolled in. ”This here is Mr. Marcellini, boys. Frankie why don’t you tell the boys here what you want them to do with the stuff on the truck.”
Frankie would have started to recover so he might have managed something like, “Exactly what have you got out there boys? Some old doors, some paint cans . . . ? Stuff like that?’
“Yeah, yeah they got that,” I would stepped back in to hold the forward ground. ”How clever you are to remember Frankie. And of course the old geezer and the woman we found hanging around. Couple of derelicts squatting in there, in the lower ground apartment Frankie. Can you imagine that? Squatters already with their own junk furniture. But the boys fixed that. . . .” And so it would have gone and I would have risen to the level required of a Brooklyn business man swaggering about the closing, cutting the ground from under lesser men. I tell you the word would be out not to mess with Chris Conroy. He da man.
Well I did not. I just took my lumps. Irritated, probably with myself, and determined to right some of the wrongs I climbed the dusty stairs and rapped firmly on the ground floor apartment door. Immediately I was confronted by a thin, sharp nosed, woman who told me she was Frankie’s sister.” Frankie said we could stay until the end of the month,” she said, as if in anticipation of the anger welling within me.
“I’m afraid Frankie no longer has that authority,” I replied as gently as I could under my rising anger. ”He made no mention of your being here, and I have contractors coming in to paint and repair over the next few days.”
“That’s okay,” said the man in the undershirt appearing behind her. ”We can get around them.”
“That’s not the point,” I said. ”You have no business here. The property became mine this morning, and it was to be vacant. You have to leave right away.”
“Our new apartment isn’t ready until the end of the month. Where do you suppose we go,” said the sister? She made it sound as if it was my problem.
I had neither the foresight nor the patience to deal effectively with the situation that day. Had reason prevailed I would have walked away and let the lawyers sort it out, but I didn’t. My anger spilled over; I let them have both barrels in language I thought they would understand.
“Suddenly your accommodation is my problem,” I said. ”How come? I had no idea you even existed until five minutes ago, and now your accommodation is my problem? What has happened in the last five minutes? Has the world started to turn the other way? Has Christ climbed down off the cross? Has the Pope married a hooker? I don’t know you, how come you ask me about where you should stay?”
The woman was the first react. ”Don’t you blaspheme in this house,” she screeched. ”Don’t you dare talk about the Pope like that. We are honest people. We are proper Catholics. Don’t you come here with you disrespectful ways. You’re a Nazi, that what you are. You are a Goddammed Nazi.”
“Let me get him,” said the fat man half struggling behind her.” Let me punch the fucker’s lights out.”
“No, no,” she continued. ”Don’t you do anything. Don’t do anything his lawyers can get you for.” Turning to me she screeched again, “You just get out of here Adolf, get out of our house. You will hear from our lawyer. We’ll sue your dirty mouth.” With that she pushed the door hard shut.
That set the tone that was to endure over the coming weeks, and in the process lay the foundation for what subsequently happened when Florka and Rosa made their presence felt.