Toni One must have started early for he was already rushing in and out with ladders and buckets and assorted tools when I arrived at the house at eight-fifteen the next morning. Not wanting to slow him down I avoided conversation by going straight up to the second floor apartment where I could wait for Carl, the first appointment of the day. I settled down in the second floor living room, my favourite room in the house – always has been, even then, before the Leonora business.
Similar to the one above this room enjoys three, eight foot, sash windows with wide sills and elegant louvered shutters, that looked out onto Jefferson. Below each window is a radiator, under a metal shelf, which I have always thought an intelligent compromise to the age old question as to whether to place the heat source, the radiator, nearest to, or furthest from, the largest heat loss, in this case the window. Keeping the radiator and window together eliminates the problems of localized heating, which in turn eliminates hot spots and draughts. On the other hand it is wasteful in terms of energy as much of the radiator heat goes straight out of the window. By placing a metal shelf over the radiator the vertical circulation of air is limited, and by closing the shutters the losses through the glass are greatly reduced. Clever engineers those Victorians.
Sitting there, watching the traffic, and the people coming and going from the subway, I couldn’t avoid wondering how it was when those shutters and shelves were new, and the gas lamps flickered white light on the New World sidewalks
The room above, that is the one on the third floor, is the same as this one except that it has a built in closet with a stained glass panel through which to borrow light from the main widows. Because the second floor room does not have a closet, it’s more spacious, and benefits from a natural alcove formed by the geography over the stairwell outside. With its high ceiling and elegant marble fireplace it makes an ideal sitting room that could house a library, or an office in the alcove. I thought seriously about living in this apartment myself.
Carl arrived right on time. A small, wizen man in a cloth cap I judged him to be in his early sixties, but he appeared so frail as to give me concern as to whether he had the stamina for the job. I limited the tour of work to be done to the penthouse and the second and third apartments because Toni One was already scraping and sanding on the parlour floor, and the lower ground floor was effectively still Frankie’s sister’s territory.
Carl nodded sagely as I pointed out the areas in obvious need of attention. Unlike Toni he was a still, silent, man who stopped to write careful notes before we left each apartment. At the end of the tour he had said little, but had filled three pages of his notebook which he consulted carefully as we stood in the lower hallway. I waited quietly while he considered.
“Not much to do in the Penthouse,” he said after what seemed and age. ”Two-fifty for the work, and thirty dollars for the paint.” He paused, flipped a page and added, “More on the third floor. Better leave that work until after the kitchen furniture is in. I don’t want to do that. I don’t do cabinet work. Three thirty for the walls, ceiling, and windows, plus forty-five for the paint. Second floor needs three men. Six hundred dollars, and fifty-five for paint. One coat of flat for the ceilings, two coats of semi-gloss for the walls and two coats of gloss for the woodwork.” Throughout this recital he kept his eyes on the notebook, and his voice remained flat, devoid of emotion. When he had finished he was perfectly still. He made no attempt to embellish or justify his estimates. He did not even appear to expect a reply.
The cost was a lot less than I expected, and I was tempted to hire him there and then, but I resisted. Firstly because Toni was already at work, and might prove to be as good as he claimed. Secondly because I wanted to hear what Jerry of Brooklyn Contracting, who was due tomorrow, had to say, and thirdly because I needed to check the price of paint. ”When could you start?” I asked, hoping to create some space before making a decision.
“Tomorrow if it rains,” he said. ”Next day if it don’t.” He offered no further explanation.
I assumed he had an outdoor job to complete, and was therefore likely to take a day out from my work when the weather improved. ”How long will it take?” I asked.
“Three, might be four, days.”
“Who’s paint do you use?”
“Some Ben Moore, some Dupont, some I gets wholesale.”
“Where do you buy your materials?”
“Depends. Most times Green Street Hardware, sometimes other places?”
“How do you want to be paid?”
“It don’t matter,” he said. ”I won’t cheat you; you won’t cheat me.”
That seemed fair. I liked him. ”I’ll call you tomorrow,” I said. With that he smiled for the first time, then left without saying another word.
Giorgio Canccinni of Brooklyn Kitchens and Baths did not arrive at 2 p. m. as arranged. While I waited in the hallway I could here Toni One crashing around with ladders and buckets to the incessant beat of his paint splattered boom box. If noise equated to productivity, he was making rapid progress.
At 2 -40 p. m. I went to the corner pay phone and called Brooklyn Kitchens and Baths. A woman answered. ”Yeh, waddayouwant?” I asked for Giorgio Canccinni.
“He ain’t here.”
I explained that he was not here either, and asked her to have him call my home number. I had to repeat the number twice as she could not hear the phone over the screams of unhappy child in the background.
At 3 p. m. Jimmy Artowski of Artowski Renovations arrived. He was in his late twenties, slim and agile, with quick eyes and a confidence I found disarming. He measured the space on the third floor where I intended the new kitchen sink and cabinet to be fitted, and listened while I explained about the placement of the refrigerator and stove. ”What size stove you getting?” He asked when I’d finished.
“Twenty inch,” I replied.
“Get an eighteen. Easier to lift and it discourages folks from cooking too much. You paying for the gas?”
“That’s it then. Get an eighteen. I’ll fit an extractor for an eighteen. You save money all round.”
“To take out the old sink. Repair the walls. Change the pluming, fit the new cabinet, the extractor, put in a new window and shelf, repair and recover the floor. Twenty-three hundred.”
“That’s not a lot. The cabinet will be $400.”
“Oh, you’re supplying everything?”
“Sure. You don’t want to go shopping for sinks and cabinets and faucets and stuff do you?”
I had to admit that I did not. Still there was the question of the quality of the fittings and the colour scheme. ”What colour cabinet did you have in mind?”
“Brown wood finish.” What else, I wondered? “Steel sink, chrome mixer faucet, Swan or similar. Cream composite work top, and light brown vinyl Flexi-Floor. I’ll take it up the walls and inch or two so you get a nice watertight seal.”
“The floor will need to be repaired and levelled.”
“Of course. I do this for a living. A layer of Rubberoid floor leveller, and hardboard over the top before the vinyl. It’ll be nice.” He smiled, brimming confidence.
“When can you start?”
“Start stripping stuff out tomorrow. I’ll send a man over. Look about for the cabinets and sink next day. Say in tomorrow, out by Friday.”
“You’re on,” I said.
I left Jimmy making notes while I went to the phone on the corner to check my answering service. Giorgio Canccinni had not called. As I had no more appointments that day there seemed little point in remaining at the house so . . . having furnished Jimmy with a set of keys . . . I headed home, though not directly. I wanted to bathe in the local atmosphere – soak up more of the neighbourhood.
Rodan Street runs parallel to Madison Avenue, but is not so wide. Zoned strictly residential it displays a perfusion of small chestnut, cherry trees, and miniature elms. It is a cooler, darker place than either Jefferson or Madison avenues, and for the most part the houses are narrow, but none of the charm is lost – none of grace and elegance is skipped just because it is not a grand avenue. It is a peaceful street of elegant homes tranquil in its shade, which in turn provides succour and shelter to their inhabitants. To stroll at leisure along Rodan in the late afternoon is to enjoy the cool shade of a brook trickling excitedly beyond the busy open fields. It is an ideal path to take home because in passing it radiates its peace, slows both mind and feet to consider with care how the evening is to be spent – how the meal is to be taken, what company to seek. If my home was on Rodan, where I would be welcomed by its gentle bubbling at the end of demanding days, I would be content. I would walk home gladly.
Unfortunately neither Madison, or Rodan offer a grocery store with fresh vegetables, salads, soups, or prepared dishes. Pizza is popular, and can be had by the slice, pie, or box of assorted bits, but there is little else. There is no fresh food, whole food, organic food, gourmet prepared food, or even a decent restaurant to call for a take away. I wandered around three of the mom and pop’s, all of which specialized in canned soda, assorted jerky, cigarettes sold individually, awful coffee and the odd limp vegetable or banana. A liquor store furnished me with a bottle of Bombay gin, and heaven upon heavens, cans of diet tonic water. Retracing my steps only a little I rescued a pair of tired lemons from a corner store, then retired to my lair.
Ice, lemon, tonic that bubbled in the glass, and a wholesome gin was enough to lift my jaded palate and send me to Larry’s where the host found a rich, full bodied Burgundy to enhance his Alfredo – the day’s special.
Gerry of Brooklyn Contracting was sitting on the steps to the parlour floor eating a fried egg sandwich and supporting a brimming paper cup when I arrived at nine the next morning. He was a huge black man. ”Gerry?” I ventured.
He nodded through mouthfuls of sandwich and got up to follow me into the house. ”No hurry,” I said. ”Finish your breakfast.”
He swallowed hard and said, “S’okay. I can eat and walk and drink coffee at the same time. It’s chewing gum that throws me.”
We repeated yesterday’s tour of the three upper floors. Gerry did not make notes, and was talkative, but made some useful suggestions as we went through each apartment. In the penthouse bathroom he said, “You got a ventilation problem here. Look at these walls.” He indicated the tiled lining to the bath and shower area. They’re gone soft man. This place ain’t ventilatin’.”
“There’s an extractor fan,” I pointed out.
“Yeh, but where does it extract to? Let’s go on the roof and find where that fan comes out.”
I followed Gerry up the iron ladder next to the penthouse kitchen. He appeared to be in excellent physical shape and had no difficulty opening the heavy steel doors that folded vertically out on to the roof. Climbing through we emerged onto the top of the penthouse. The original roof level of the houses on the block was ten feet below us. From where we stood we really could see down to Dutch Harbour – There were no sailing ships. In fact there were no ships at all. With the growth of harbour facilities in Manhattan and New Jersey Dutch Harbour had long since fallen into disuse.
“Lookee here at that,” said Gerry advancing on what was originally a roof light and ventilation cover in one. It must have leaked rainwater into the room below at some time because it was now heavily caulked with a black, pitch like substance. The process certainly seemed to have been effective in keeping the water out. Unfortunately it also kept most of the light out, and trapped the air safely inside. There was another roof light further along that had been subjected to the same treatment. That one, we discovered, was immediately above the damp bathroom.
“Think I should change them,” I asked Gerry.
He shook his head. ”Once you start messing with them things you could have water pouring in all winter. Better leave ’em alone. They ain’t leaking are they?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Better leave ’em then. Run a separate bit o’ pipe up and out the side. I can do that, won’t cost you much.”
The penthouse had been added long after the original house was constructed and sat, shed like, on what was once an elegant roof line.
“You gonna get trouble there for ever and a day,” said Gerry looking at a rainwater exit where the shed met the original roof. ”Rain gonna come down over the front of the roof here,” he pointed to the front sloping portion of the roof, “and carry dirt until it blocks that hole. Then it gonna pile up and pile up until it starts to soak into the roof and rot the whole thing away. Yessir, you gonna have trouble here alright.”
“Any suggestions as to putting it right?”
“Not unless you wanna tear down the penthouse. Shouldn’t never had bin built that way. Lookee here,” he pointed to the exit hole. ”Where that water goin’ from there? Under the penthouse? Why you wanna bring rainwater into the house? Everybody else spend all their time keeping it out. Don’t make sense.”
Walking to the back of the building we looked down on a walled area of the original roof that served as a roof garden. There was a rusting bicycle to match the one in the cellar, some sheets of glass, and assorted paint cans. Apart from that the area was dirty and dilapidated. Given a little work though, some potted plants, and perhaps some boards to walk on, it could be a pleasant place to while away one’s leisure hours.
“There see,” said Gerry pointing down into the walled area. ”Lookee there. That damn pipe in the wall is where the water comes out. Pipe must run through the apartment. Let’s go see.”
We descended the iron stairs back into the apartment and went in search of the rainwater pipe. ”There,” said Gerry pointing to a four inch square box section that ran the length of one wall of the kitchen. ”That where it is. Damn pipe goes through here, through the bathroom and the bedroom `fore it comes out the back there. Well at least they covered it in.”
“So that’s okay then?”
“Wouldn’t say okay. It ain’t got no slope on it. How the water gonna flush through if ain’t got no slope on it? Don’t make sense. Water gonna sit in there with the dirt. Sure as hell gonna block up and you won’t know `till the roof floods outside, or worse.”
“When the water come through downstairs. When the whole damn ceiling collapses and your wood floors get all fucked up with dirt and rain water. That worse.”
“I guess I’ll just have to make sure the pipe stays clean.”
“You bet your ass you should. `Cause it gonna be damn messy round here if’n you don’t.”
“Let’s talk about the painting and repairs,” I said.
“Thing is,” said Gerry, “there’s a lot of work in this house. Not that I mind doin’ it, but it gonna take a while `cause I work on my own. Don’t never hire nobody `cause it more trouble’n it worth. Had some good help in the past mind you, but most of `em not worth a bent nickel now. Alkies, hopheads, druggies, dropouts, the place is full of worthless bums. Nossir, no more. I work alone and I work slow, but I get it right. Take this here penthouse. This is a nice space. It aughta’ be done nice. Clean up that junk on the roof, fix up a vent in the bathroom, paint and repair all through, then maybe make a proper garden. Yeh, make the whole thing nice. Take me a week or more, but it’d be nice.”
“I’d work here for a hundred a day, you pay for materials.”
“When can you start.”
He treated me to a huge toothy smile, “Man I just started. Put it there.” He held up a big hand.
I took it and said, “Go get your gear. I’ll get you a key.”
Altogether it had been a good day. Toni was working industriously in the parlour apartment; I had hired Artowski Renovations for the third floor, and Gerry for the penthouse. I had more or less decided to hire Carl Esposito to do the second floor when I felt that a drink was in order.
“Perhaps a beverage, Sir,” said Larry as I settled onto the end barstool.
“Indeed,” I said. ”A gin and tonic would be perfect, but I can’t be bothered to go home. How about a strong bottled beer.”
“I did happen on some cans of diet tonic if you would care to try one in your gin.” He was grinning from ear to ear – his eyes sparkling with mischief.
“You old devil.”
“Are you dining with us tonight, Sir?”
“Perhaps a little pasta would be in order.”
“May I recommend the Alfredo?”
“Peace, love, brown rice.”
“Brown rice,” I acknowledged. ”And good contractors.”
“You been hiring contractors?”
“Yes,” I said. ”Three in fact, possibly another one tomorrow.”
“Did you check them out with Margaret?”
“Runs Green Street Hardware. She knows all the contractors round here. Come to that she knows just about everyone round here on account hers is the only place that keeps all the fixtures, fittings, and bits and bobs needed to keep these buildings in order. You shouldn’t hire anybody around here without checking with Margaret.”
“Now you tell me. Why didn’t you tell me about Margaret yesterday?”
“You didn’t ask me yesterday.”
I had not asked him about Margaret today, but it seemed pointless to continue. Certainly I was not going to let him quash my good spirits. It had been a good day, and periods of good humour, I’ve learned, are to be cherished, nurtured even. I ordered a second gin and tonic and tucked into my Alfredo. Had I known then what I was to learn the next day I would not have enjoyed the evening so well. Ignorance, in this particular case, was bliss.