by Christopher Bacas
When the real estate agent parked in front of the office it was dark; an August day dwindling to eighty-five humid degrees. Air conditioners whirred and dripped from upstairs windows. He got out and stood by the stairs, tie and shirt collar crisp and taut above his suit jacket. In waves of steamy funk, his rectitude and wardrobe contrasted our clammy sandals, shorts and sundress. We entered the railroad first floor of a row house. The entryway was dark, on the right, two bare work desks. Next off the hall, a dining room table with neatly tucked, high backed chairs. The manager, Michael, handled the lease. Our agent sat quietly.
We’d been at these tables before. Something always derailed the deal. Once, ready to sign, Beth mentioned I was a musician. That manager slid the lease out from under her hands. Then, he hustled her out of the building. Another management office, Orthodox-run, gave us keys and an address to visit. When we got there, the front door of the brownstone swung back. Inside,a battered staircase listed to the right. Up the stairs, smells of stewing meat, garlic and ammonia. Boleros blasted through a chipped door. The third floor unit was wide open. On the door, the marshal’s eviction notice peeled under a graffiti tag. Inside the unit, moretags covered every wall. Garbage bags, smashed appliances and shards of glass spread the floors. In the bathroom, a dead bird swam with crack vials in a scarred tub. The toilet, a cornucopia of trash. I laughed at first. By the time I got to the car, anger dripped out of my pores.
“It looks great!”I told the young Orthodox woman in the office.
She was blasé; never bothering to look up while pulling a clipboard with paperwork affixed.
“You need to fill out an application. We need three references, six months of pay stubs and twelve months of cancelled rent checks. There’s a credit check,too. Forty dollars.”
I spit out “Place is a DISASTER! Garbage and graffiti everywhere. Dead animals! The front door doesn’t have a lock.”
She spoke evenly; more statement than question:
“Yaw not in-ter-ested”
I looked at Beth.
“Let’s get the fuck outta here”
After paying too many of those credit check fees, we decided to get them refunded. Inside a small office on Ninth street in tony Park Slope, a lone woman typed behind the counter. It was evening. I asked for our agent by name.
“She’s out with a client”
“Will she be back tonite?”
“I don’t know. Maybe not. It’s late”
“We wondered about our credit report”
“Yes?” “Possible to see it?”
“Why do you need to see it?”
“It’s our report. We paid for it”
“I don’t know where they are”
“What’s in that file cabinet?”
“Contracts and leases”
“Mind if I look for our credit report?”
“It’s probably not there”
“Can I look, anyway?”
“I don’t have a key”
I vaulted the counter and pulled each handle on the cabinet. The frame flexed and rattled, but all drawers stayed locked. The woman picked up an office phone and pressed out number.
“Police emergency….. Yes. A man is trying to break into…”
I hopped the counter again and ran out the door. Beth had the car started. We pulled out and drove toward the expressway.
After we signed the lease and paid, Michael put keys and a business card on the table. Two names: an LLC and his own; six syllables ending with -is. Michael was defintely Greek. The LLC was our address. We thanked him. The agent shook my hand. Relief surged into my legs. I joined a club not by completing a course of study or apprenticeship, but by outlasting twin cudgels: anonymous hostility and intimate indifference. We mentioned the issues in the apartment: bathtub caked with grease and crud, windows sagging from worn springs, severed phone line protruding like a rodent tail. We moved late September day. Our windows still drifted away from their locks. The phone cable spewed copper filament. The super had poured acid into the tub to remove the slime. He’d plugged it first. The acid pooled emerald around the drain, removing a swatch of glazing. As the water ran., the gash bled iron filings. I asked the super about the tub.
“Chief, we gonna need a tetanus shot just to take bath.”
“I put de acid, mon. Leave it. Bud de acid burn. I didn’t do nutting. De acid burn.” He tilted his head back.
After the fourth call, Mike didn’t give Beth time to talk, he cut her off and said the super would handle it. She explained the super had used acid and damaged the tub. Super already said he couldn’t patch it. We would hire someone ourselves and take it off the rent.
“No! Don’t do that. I’ll send somebody.”
“I don’t trust that. Your workers do a lousy job.”
“I have a guy who does all my jobs; Billy. He’s great. You’ll see. He’s going to call you.”
Later, my phone rang.
“Yeah, Mike say call you. This Cortelyou road, number five?”
“Ok. Look I coming over. You need bathtub and stuff?”
“What time are you…?”
“You home tomorrow?”
“I have to go..”
“I come ten. Ok?”
“Ok. See you ten”
Billy knocked on our apartment door at 10:45. Somehow he got into the building lobby himself. The buzzer and intercom droned and crackled, but never actually worked. I expected Paul Bunyan. He was barely five feet tall and slight.
“My friend, what can I do for you?”
He squeezed my hand and grinned widely. I showed Billy the bathroom. Beth picked up the story, making sure he knew we weren’t responsible for the tub and had been dealing with it for weeks.
“Yes, my friend, we gonna make real nice. Real nice tub for you. Tiles and everything real nice. Like new!”
I walked out with Billy. In the lobby, he turned to me.
“Your wife, she is a nice person, really nice. You are lucky guy, my friend.”
“You are like me.”
I didn’t say anything.
“We are same.You know…same people.”
“My father’s people come from…”
“You know what I mean. Euro-pee-an. We are same”
He thumbed his chest and extended a finger ET-like, then backed down the stairs, and turned around through the door. Billy returned the next day at 10. A Mexican guy followed him in. Billy didn’t introduce him. They walked past me into the bathroom. With one arm draped over the guy’s shoulder, Billy pointed and poked while he explained the job. The Mexican guy watched stonily.
“Paisano, we gotta take down this wall. Nice lady needs new tub. I’m gonna bring you, Paisano. So just make sure you’re ready by one, two o’clock for tub. Do nice clean job for them. Ok? You got it, Paisano?”
The Brooklyn-ness of it all: a Greek, managing a West Indian building, sends a Turkish handyman and Mexican helper he calls “Paisano” to fix a tub destroyed by a Grenadian super in an apartment rented by a Pennsylvania Dutch lady and her mongrel musican boyfriend.
On his way out, Billy noticed a ceiling fan, still in box, next to the couch. He gestured at it with his paper-bagged beer.
“My friend, you want I put that up for you?”
“I’ve never done anything like that, I…”
“Don’t worry. I do.”
“We’ll pay you for…”
“NO, NO, I do for you and your wife. No pay. NICE people!”
“Ok. What kind of beer you drink?”
“Budweiser. My friend, the best!” He slid the brown paper, revealing a red and white can.
“Ok. I’ll put a case in the fridge for you”
“NO, no freedge! No cold. Ok, my friend?”
“You got it” A few hours later, Billy came back with the tub. He and Paisan wrestled out the old one and wheeled in the new one. Afterwards, Billy grabbed a warm Bud and went to work on the ceiling. As he removed the fixture, a deluge of brittle plaster fell on his head, inducing a coughing jag. The wiring was nearly 90 years-old and needed finessing. After moving two tubs and standing on the ladder for two hours, Billy finished the job, unfazed. I thanked the fellas.
“My friend, where is your wife?”
“She’s beautiful, my friend. You lucky man. Beautiful!”
“I’ll tell her you said that”
“Tell her, please. Thank you, my friend!”
Paisano pulled up the tarps, swept, then he and Billy took beers for the road. As he passed, Paisano nodded at me with a half-smile. Eight or nine crushed cans tottered on the kitchen counter.