I rented an apartment for myself four blocks away in Adams Avenue, an area not quite so developed as my block, but coming along. It was important, I felt, to be near my investment, but without actually living on the job because there is always the need to be able to go home at the end of the day – to shut the door on your problems and walk away, if only for a few hours. Besides the idea of irate tenants banging on my door when I was escaping into a rapturous repose with music, or food, or a lover, was unacceptable. So I rented a lower ground floor apartment from Brian, an Englishman far ahead of me in this game.
Licking my wounds from the brief encounter with Frankie’s sister I retired to the cool darkness of my lower ground floor apartment that was, if nothing else, spacious. Regardless of what I had said to Frankie’s sister I had yet to engage painters and repair people so I started to search for reliable contractors. A good working relationship stems from trust, and good communication, and even though you cannot tell if a relationship is going to work from the initial exchanges, you certainly know if it is not.
I dialled the first one.” This is Toni.” That was a good start, he answered in person, sounded up front, full of energy, probably in his twenties and raring to go.
“Hi,” I countered. ”I’m looking for a contractor to do some painting and repair work in Clinton Hill.”
“You got it. You won’t do better than me and Toni. We been working round here for four years now. We got reputations here. You ask anybody, anybody. We do good work. Great work. When you hire Toni and me you hire the best. The best.”
“Good,” I said. ”When can you come around and look at the job?”
“”You in a hurry?”
“Yes. I want action.”
“You got it. We’ll be there, me and Toni we’ll be right there, right away, today.”
“Today, or right away?”
“You want today, you got today. Wha’s the address, we’ll be there.”
I gave him the address and a phone number. ”So when can I expect you?”
“Expect me?” Said Toni. ”You can expect me today, soon today. When we say we’re gonna be there, we’re gonna be there. When we say today, we mean today. We’ll be there.”
“Yes, but at what time?”
“Time? You want precise time already? Okay, okay we’ll give you a time. How about two o’clock? Is that a good time. Is two o’clock a good time?” It was, but already the feeling that there was rather more enthusiasm than substance to Toni of Tonis’ Contracting was creeping through my veins.
The next three calls quickly moved me down the list as I chose not to deal with curt, or aggressively challenging, people, and certainly not with their wives shouting over yelling children, which left only one positive appointment for the next morning – Four others sounded okay, so I left messages and set off in search of lunch.
Turning into Madison Avenue and walking east, toward Smith University, the first block is extremely short, only two houses long, but they were magnificent properties with windows that were not only bowed, but were curved, with curved glass in curved window frames. Imagine the extra care that went into the design and construction to facilitate those curved windows. Without doubt these corner lots were prime; they were both deep and wide with entrances on two sides. The grand entrances were on the avenues, raised, with double doorways leading into a tiled foyers, which in turn opened to the upper house. On the streets were the narrow, lower staircases descending to kitchens, sculleries, and pantries, where those in service used to go about their work.
On the next block a shoddy grocery store with stunted bananas, and dull apples, displayed carelessly beside the entrance heralded the beginning of the commercial zone. Next to that a dusty locksmith that smelled of oil and high carbon steel. Across the street the was the first eatery called simply, Madison Coffee. The front was dull and narrow, with dirty windows, and it reeked of grease.
On the block after that the first corner was occupied by a chrome and glass edifice which managed to remain dull and glint-less behind purple and black drapes with a most uninviting shallow stairway to the entrance. It had all the trappings of a shady nightclub, a home to the lowered brim and turned up collar where women posed in dark hose and men talked through the side of their mouths. I moved on, and was about to cross the road when the word Larry’s, painted in red, three foot high, letters on an otherwise plain brick wall caught my eye. About a hundred feet off the main street a modest, varnished oak door was set into the wall beside the lettering – that was all. There was nothing else to catch the eye. There was no light, no grand windows, not even a menu board. Nothing. There was nothing to hint as to what Larry’s was, or what to expect inside. Yet it had to be a restaurant.
Opening the door I took one step down into a room about sixty feet square with heavy eastern rugs, painted brick walls, a large fireplace, an oak mantle, and a small bar of six or so stools under a separate, rather silly, thatched roof. As I approached the bar, the floor creaked beneath my feet.
I sat on a stool and took stock. There were twelve tables covered with blue cloths. Each had a chrome and black central candle holder with a short, white, candle, and a simple silver, eastern coffee pot style vase for a single flower. Above each table mat black, bean can, lamps focused light precisely on the place settings. Not all the tables were lit. Long, blue and red, lengths of polished cotton broke up the otherwise boring painted brick walls, and there were two other entrances besides the one through which I had descended.
A man of middle height, balding head, fuzzy beard and entirely unprepossessing demeanour entered. He grinned cheerfully, his eyes flickering as if his mind were up to some mischief. ”Good afternoon,” he said extending a friendly hand.
“Good afternoon,” I returned. ”Are you open for lunch.”
“Certainly am. Can I get you a beverage?”
“A gin and tonic would be nice. Any chance you have bottled tonic water? Something not sweet, with a bit of life in it.”
“Oh, like a diet Schweppes or something?”
“Precisely,” I replied, my hopes rising of a decent gin and tonic.
“No. But it was a nice try. I don’t have a lot of call for gin and tonic. Those that do are more fussed with the gin than the tonic. I only have well tonic. Sweet, sticky stuff, almost no one drinks it.”
“Pity,” I said, my hopes dashed. ”Perhaps a half decent merlot.”
“Only half decent. You would do better with a pinot noir. I have some better half decent there.”
“I leave it to you.” I liked him, and I felt I could trust him to find something palatable in his cellar.
He rummaged around, found a bottle, uncorked and poured two glasses. Holding his up to the light where it appeared bright, polished, a little pale, but at least aesthetically appealing, he offered his glass for a toast. ”Peace, love, and brown rice,” he offered.
“Sounds like Berkley in the sixties,” I replied.
“Yes indeed,” he said. ”All through the Vietnam war. Spent those days helping Uncle Sam run a supply depot in Sausalito. It was hell.”
“Brown rice it is then,” I offered my glass, and we drank. He topped us up.
“That is pretty good,” I said of the wine.
“Not bad,” he said. ”Hungry?”
“Fairly. Do you have a menu?”
“Yes, but the lunch special is Fettuccini Alfredo.”
“Mmm, sounds a little heavy for lunch. Can I see a menu?”
“It’s a light sauce. I don’t make it too rich for the lunch menu. You’ll like it.”
“Never-the-less, a spinach salad, or even Caesar might be better.”
“The spinach was decidedly limp when I last saw it, and the tomatoes are not good. I can do a Caesar, not the best lettuce selection, did you want a little chicken or shrimp in it?
“Chicken Caesar,” I said, “that sounds fine.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, and headed off to the kitchen.
I sat enjoying the wine, taking in the ambiance of the little restaurant, and gently turning over the situation in my mind. Sarah would like the house. She would love the gleaming hardwood floors, and beautiful tiles in the lobby between the outer pair of doors, and the huge inner door on its magnificent hinges. She would not like the basement, with all that dirt, and I doubt she would have time for Henrietta. Her first move, I suspect, would be to oust Henrietta in exchange for something of her own, something she could control completely.
“Sorry about the delay,” said Larry. ”It’s taking a while to dry the lettuce. Brought you this a sampler while you’re waiting. ”With that he put a small bowl on the counter top.
“What is it?”
“Try it for me. I want to know what you think.”
He handed me a fork and I started in on what appeared to be fettuccini in a light white sauce. It was delicious; light, aromatic, slightly fishy, shell-fishy, but the important elements were in the sauce, in the wine, and the cream, and herbs were mostly Italian. I loved it. ”This is wonderful. So light. It’s delicious.”
“Good thanks. Would you like some more?”
“Are you kidding? Bring it on. It’s wonderful.”
He was back in seconds with a larger bowl, and a pepper grinder and Parmesan grater. ”Help yourself,” he said, and gestured that it was all mine, the food, the condiments, the wine bottle. It was a splendid lunch from which I had to check myself or the afternoon would disappear.
Replete, I wondered out in the bright sunshine of Madison Avenue feeling pleased at the discovery of Larry and his fine little restaurant. It was an unexpected oasis in what was an otherwise culinary desert. At the house I sat half way up the front steps watching the world go by and was feeling thoroughly comfortable in my new neighbourhood. It was three minutes before two o’clock.
A steady traffic pattern became clear as the lights, scattered up and down the blocks, cycled the cars and trucks along Jefferson Avenue. From below ground you could hear the occasional rumble of the R-train, after which you need wait less than a minute for people to erupted through the sidewalk at the corner of Rodan Street. Most walked north, past my house on their way to Smith University which started its sprawl just one street away on St. James Place. A wonderful mixture of races – their faces round and yellow, long and white, black, brown, coffee . . . hair trimmed, heads polished, long black sheens of South East Asia, and swarthy, Caucasian shadows came up from the subway but all passed hurriedly, as if late. Everyone, it seemed, needed to leave the subway quickly; no one hung around its dark approaches as they would a railroad station, or bus depot.
At two forty-five I tired of the hard step. The pasta was long digested and the soothing effects of the wine were lessening. Leaving the doors open I went into the parlour floor apartment to preview what needed to be done there. Without Frankie’s furniture and drapes it was much brighter. I did not realize until then that there was a window in the back wall of the inner parlour which looked out to the yard and the back of the houses on St. James Place. It was not a wonderful view; in fact it was bad. The wall between my yard and the house next door had started to bow half way down and the whole thing sloped outward, as if it intended to fall, but was not in a hurry. Maybe it would go over about eighty years from now. I could see junk in the yard, and the rear fence was reduced to only three pieces of angle iron and a few solid wires carelessly linking them. Other yards appeared in similar condition, even the telephone pole in the yard behind was falling over; it looked as if it planned to go much sooner than the wall.
Inside the house was grander, and seemed easier to restore, although the back window frame was black with dirt. Frankie must have had a drape across it for years, or he surely would have done something before it became so bad. The wood floor was impressive, deeply polished and patterned with a border created by the clever use of different woods. Each corner featured four different materials. It was a masterpiece in marquetry.
The fireplace was a plain, simple affair for a hearth of its period with a smooth cement hood and a small opening to an unimaginative grate. An excellent pair of French doors, each with twelve panes and supported on fine brass hinges opened to the front room. Here was a splendid, though not too pretentious, white marble fireplace set around a curved opening. Again the floor was a wood masterpiece leading you into the room towards the huge sash windows that filled the front wall. Light poured through from the west, flooding the whole area back to the narrow corridor at the rear and the kitchen, bathroom, and back bedroom.
Originally, I imagine, this front room was accessed from the double doors to the hallway that were now sealed closed, and was the principal reception, or drawing room. The French doors would be to separate the inner room, possibly the dinning room, from the main area. The rear corridor, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom would have been added later when real estate land was becoming scarcer. What was now the entrance door to the parlour apartment, with its ugly perfusion of locks, dead bolts, chains, and peep hole, was likely the access from the downstairs kitchen to the dinning room.
There was not that much in the way of painting to be done on this floor. It was dirty though; the windows were disgusting, and would need washing and scrubbing several times before the paint could be freshened. The walls, too, were in need of a wash down, small repairs and removal of nails and frame hooks, and a fresh coat of quality, washable, paint.
There was little to be done with the kitchen. It was a narrow, squeezed in thing with squeezed in furniture, a cheap stove, and a disproportionately deep sink of stainless steel. The electrics appeared dangerous with a long power strip precariously fastened on the lower part of the window frame.
The bathroom too, needed only a little work, but was of better quality and workmanship than the kitchen. It featured a deep tub, with well engineered shower fittings. The walls were tiled in cement to chest height and the floor was made from fine small tiles, or stone, in the manner of a mosaic, and although there was no pattern, it had been ground and polished to a high finish that seemed to have warded off the stains and wear of the years extremely well.
I liked the rear bedroom. It had a three section window, each at about 120 degrees to the other so as to form a bow in the back wall and provide lots of light. The walls and woodwork were all in reasonable condition, with no apparent cracking or splitting, although the paint was tired and dirty. Everywhere was dirty.
Toni One’s arrival was announced by a rumble up from the sidewalk that became a crash against the front door. He slowed to a bull’s rush around the hallway and the first flight of stairs. ”Mr. Conroy. Yoo dere Mr. Conroy? Hey, hey,” he called half way up the first flight. ”Hey, dere, Mr. Conroy, yoo ‘dere?”
“Toni?” I ventured. He was a clean cut six foot three muscle man in his early thirties wearing what were once white working pants, and a pristine white T-shirt that declared ‘Toni’s Contracting’ in red lettering across his chest.
“Mr. Conroy?” He descended three stairs without apparently touching them, and stepped up to me with his hand extended. ”Mr. Conroy I’m Toni. Busy day today, but I said we’d be there, and I am here. Toni Two had to deal with another client. You know how it is; people get a little touchy sometimes. So anyway I am here like I said and ready to help you out. This here is a nice house, this your house? It should be, this is a nice house. We could do some nice work here Toni and me. We’re the best, the very best, ast anyone, anyone, yoo ast anyone.”
It was three-fifteen by my watch. I could see little point in mentioning that he said he would be here at two. The result would likely be five or six minutes of mitigation followed by another two or three minutes reassurance that his work was of the highest order. I led him into the parlour apartment where he started again.” This is nice. This a nice apartment. Yoo can get good money for this apartment. You wanna rent it right?”
“That’s the idea.”
“When yoo want this done. When yoo got somebody moovin’ in?”
“I want to clean this place up right away, and give it a fresh coat of paint. Then I can let it.”
“Let it? Let it what?”
“Yeah, rent it, right. Let it? You speak funny, yoo know that?”
“And yoo gotta accent. What kinda accent that? Where yoo from?”
“England? Yoo from England? Yoo English right?”
“Thas funny. Let it. We don’t let nothin’ ’round here. Less we let it alone, or let go. We do that. We let alone, or let go. We don’t let apartments. We rent ’em.”
I let it go, and led him through the apartment to the front window. ”Here’s what I want done,” I started, but he interrupted immediately.
“This floor’s good. This is a good floor. You wanna look after this floor. Don’t want no scuffing and paint spilled here.”
“The windows are the worst for dirt,” I said, ignoring his comments, concentrating solely on putting my message over. ”I need a good cleaning job, and a fresh coat of good quality paint.”
“Oh we only use quality materials, me an’ Toni. We use the best, we do the best. Thas the way are, me an’ Toni. You don’t have to worry about quality with me an’ Toni.”
I pushed on. ”Let’s stay with white. Semi-gloss or silk finish on the woodwork, eggshell on the walls, and flat for the ceiling.”
“Yoo don’t have to worry about that with me an’ Toni. We know all about paints, an’ what goes where. You don’t to worry ’bout none of that.”
“The important thing is preparation. You have to get this grime off the windows in particular. But the walls have to be cleaned too.”
“Look, Mr. Conroy, let me tell you somthin’. We are professionals, me and Toni, this is what we do. You want a nice job in here. We’ll give you a nice job. Yoo don’t have to worry about washin’ this, sandin’ that. We know what to do. Jus tell us when to start.”
“When can you start?”
“We can start anytime. Anytime yoo want we can start.”
“How about tomorrow?”
“Fine. We can start tomorrow. We can start today. Right now. You want us to start, we start.”
Ok, but we haven’t talked money. What are your rates?”
“We’re very reasonable, me an Toni. Yoo ast anyone. We do nice work at reasonable prices. Ast anyone. Yoo don’t need to worry about money with me an Toni.”
“But what do you charge. You have an hourly rate?”
“No. We don’t work like that. We get paid for the job. We’re gonna do a nice job in here – right through this apartment. We’ll do what needs doing. Thas how we are, we do what needs doin’ an yoo get a nice job.”
“I have to know what you are charging, and I have to know what you are doing.”
“Yoo know what Mr. Conroy, yoo worry too much. Yoo don’t have to worry. Me an Toni do the worryin’. Thas what we do. Yoo just worry ’bout the rentin’. The rentin’ and the lettin’. Yoo let us worry ’bout the paintin’. Hey, thas funny you lettin’ us worry ’bout the paintin’, while we lettin’ yoo worry ’bout the lettin’. Get it. Thas funny.”
“I have to have some idea of what I’m into. I can’t just let you start working without knowing how much I am spending. Give me a figure at least.”
“Ok, ok. I’ll tell what we’ll do. We’ll start workin’. Right away we’ll start workin’, and yoo can see what were doin’, and how we’re doin’ it. You don’t like what we do, don’t pay us nothin’. Nothin’. Thas the way we are. We do good, always we do good and you’ll be happy, truss me, yoo’ll be very happy. You ain’t happy, don’t pay us nothin’. Yoo hear me, nothin’.”
I gave up, and agreed to let him start, which induced another round of reassurances about the quality of the work, and an understanding that I should call him Toni One, and his brother Toni Two. Their father’s name was Toni apparently. He would call me Chris as we were now business partners.
I admit to some minor misgivings as I handed Toni a key, but he was bubbling, raring to go, and brim full of confidence, so why not?