The rent-free room on West 74th street came with strings attached, but I could live with that. I worked a double shift sitting behind the drab marble counter in the lobby every Friday from three p.m. until seven a.m. I greeted tenants going in and out and buzzed in their guests, invited and uninvited. For security I had a Louisville Slugger under the counter, which would have come in handy if Catfish Hunter showed up with a bucket of balls. He never did, but neither did anyone with malice in mind. The twelve story pre-war building had once been a fairly snazzy hotel, with maids, bellhops, a tailor, even a house detective. Imagine the Marx Brothers careening down the halls in bathrobes and you’ve got the picture.
By the time I arrived in 1985, one year ago, it had become a rather rundown building. A poorly maintained collection of apartments, with no amenities to speak of, just a dark basement laundry room and a rotation of security guys nodding off in the lobby. In exchange for my all-night double shift I lived rent-free in one of the five 8 by 10 maids’ rooms at the end of a dead-end hallway on the second floor. The rest of the rooms held storage and were padlocked. The formerly shared bathroom at the other end was mine alone.
My room was small but felt palatial compared with my previous residence. I had been a guest of the State of New York at the Woodbourne Correctional facility for three years. I was known as 81A2784. The 81 was the year of my incarceration, the A was for my type of felony and the numbers were just numbers. But I served my time and now I could leave my new room anytime I wished. I had a hot plate for making espresso and ate out most nights. I was a thirty-five-year-old legit citizen with a job. Even after a year outside it was hard to believe.
I was the house painter and plasterer by day, pushing my tools and materials throughout the building in a pilfered shopping cart. I was given a punch list every week with apartments that needed my attention. Not a bad gig. I had rescued the teenage son of the building’s owner from a mugging late one night on upper Broadway and the room and jobs were kind of a thank-you gift. The owner knew about my time served but didn’t care, and, though it didn’t take much to be a night watchman, I was a damn good painter. The real privilege of this job was the opportunity to get inside apartments for a close look at lives of quiet, and not so quiet, desperation. People and their habits have always interested me. It was all “grist for the mill” as my late mother used to say. I owned no mill and never fully understood what she meant until I began writing things down just for the hell of it. Maybe I would find my new self that way.
Most people feel secure in the privacy of their homes and behave accordingly. Nudity is more common than you might think. No one feels they have anything to hide, but they do. Given my relatively easy access (and an enormous steel ring of pass keys), a certain type of person could find ways to greatly benefit themselves, but I didn’t do that anymore. Nope, not at all.
I had been a professional thief for nearly fifteen years. I could enter an apartment or townhouse while the owners slept and it might be days before they noticed what was missing. By then I would have fenced it and any chance of recovery was nearly impossible. Junkies like to smash and grab, leaving a mess and usually end up getting caught. I was careful and knew all the tricks. I’ll mention just one: when entering an apartment while the owner was out, I turned on the radio or TV, not too loud, but just enough so that any noise I made wouldn’t alert the neighbors.
Playing by the rules since my release wasn’t easy. Like the saying goes, I was taking it one day at a time.
The rest of the building crew, Freddy the Plumber, Leo the Locksmith, Nate the Super, and all the other security guys used apartment numbers for identifying – and complaining – about the tenants. It was their code.
“Hey, Freddy, you see what 809 did to 212?”
“Hell, yes, but 703 put a stop to that shit!”
For some reason they never referred to them by name. I had my own ID system based on the tenants’ occupations. Apartment 409 was The Austrian Wig Maker For The Met. Number 602 was The Dope Crazed Film Editor. The small, elderly man in a dusty fedora and a black raincoat who passed through the lobby exactly twice a day, was number 305, The Gloomy Accountant. Having been inside his small apartment to patch and paint, I knew that his walls were crammed salon style with small, primitive sailboat paintings in vibrant, tropical colors. The old gentleman was quite proud of his work, giggling as he rushed about showing me the seascapes one by one as I finished up and gathered my tools. They were dreadful paintings, but I smiled and nodded, asking if he had been a sailor. He blinked twice and slowly replaced the last canvas on its hook. He then looked at me as if trying to decide if I was mentally deficient in some way and the gallery tour was suddenly over. I had somehow disparaged his artistic skills. He never acknowledged me again, in the lobby, the street or anywhere else.
At the other end of the spectrum was number 510, The Hoochie Coochie Cuban Lady, big, loud and caffeinated to volcanic levels. I was patching a hole in her bedroom wall that had the distinct outline of a high-heeled shoe when I heard her opening the front door. She had left for work only twenty minutes before.
“I’m still here, Carmen. This plaster has to dry overnight, okay?”
Someone, but not Carmen, spoke from the hallway.
“Oops, sorry, wrong apartment!”
I reached the living room just as the door was pulled shut. I opened it in time to see a girl ducking into the elevator. She could have been Carmen’s daughter but for the red hair. It was hard to tell the players without a scorecard in that building – who belonged and who didn’t.
The far end of the twelfth floor hallway had a powerful and curious odor. It instantly brought back disturbing memories of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus I attended as a child. On the lowest level of the old Madison Square Garden was a side-show complete with bearded ladies, strong men and assorted freaks. The unfortunate people on display were appallingly sad and frightening, but the worst part was the smell, an overpowering odor I associated with human deformity, disease and madness. Years later, I learned the smell was actually from the caged animals all stacked together, just out of sight from the loud, bizarre side-show.
That same odor greeted anyone stepping off the elevator at the top floor. It came from apartment 1212 at the end of the hall. The source was a Capuchin monkey belonging to an elderly Italian couple, Frank and Louise Calabrese (code name Tarzan and Jane). The monkey threw a fit the first time I showed up to do some painting, screeching and hurling itself against the side of its cage near the windows. Frank and Louise tried to calm it by cooing and pleading,
“Be nice to Phil, he’s Eye-talian!”
That reassured him somewhat. Louise announced she would make us all some lunch and the raging monkey instantly settled down, his tiny hands folded in his lap, eyelashes fluttering. I began to move furniture away from the walls and lay out my drop cloths, keeping my distance from the monkey. Frank was fully involved with an afternoon Mets game on his 18 inch black and white Zenith. The pre-cable reception was poor, but Frank’s homemade tin foil extensions on the antenna made it almost watchable as he white-knuckled the plastic covered arms of his Lazy-Boy. I moved toward the kitchenette to fill a pail with water but Louise stopped me and offered me something on a single paper towel as if it were Holy Communion. I held it carefully to keep three Ritz crackers from tumbling to the floor. Each one was crowned with a dollop of a mixture that was possibly deviled ham. Louise laid Frank’s paper towel on his lap and Frank thanked her without taking his eyes off a close-up of Lenny Dykstra dribbling tobacco juice from his bulging cheek. I stood where I was, amazed, as Louise brought another three crackers to the monkey who began to nibble at them like tiny pizzas. Was I about to eat monkey food? I wadded up mine in the paper towel and jammed it into my painter’s coveralls just as Louise turned around.
“Oooh, you liked it, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Ma’am, I sure did.”
Louise patted my arm as she headed for the sink. The monkey glared at me, holding his last cracker over his head. He slipped his arm outside the wire cage and frisbeed the cracker across the room where it stuck, deviled ham down, on the back of Frank’s sweater. Wrapped up in the game, Frank didn’t even notice. I went about my business as Louise settled in at the kitchen table to clip coupons.
The next day I found out just how good an arm that monkey had. I stepped off the elevator to find both Frank and Louise waiting to ride down.
“The door’s open, Phil, just let yourself in,” Louise chirped. “We’re going to the store.”
“The monkey’s okay if I go in alone?”
“Sure, sure, we told him you were coming,” barked Frank.
The elevator doors closed and they were gone. I approached their apartment door and nudged it open with my toe to peek inside. The monkey glanced my way and returned to jerking off in the corner of his cage. After setting up my tarps and ladder, I began to paint the crown molding I’d sanded and primed the day before. Working from the entry along the living room wall toward the windows took me closer and closer to the monkey. He paid me no mind even as I adjusted my ladder right next to his cage. I set my bucket and brush on an end table and bent to wipe up a paint drop from the floor. The monkey grabbed my brush and whipped it sidearm out the open window. We both watched it spinning in the sunlight, landing God knows where on the roof of the neighboring building. It was an expensive, brand new, 2-inch Purdy sash brush with boar’s hair bristles. The monkey looked up at me, his mouth a tiny “O” of fake surprise. I cursed him out loud.
“Fuck you, monkey!”
As I left to retrieve my brush he was laughing and humping himself.
I hustled downstairs and across the street. I knew the doorman, who buzzed me in. I took the freight elevator all the way up.
I shouldered open the roof door, avoiding fresh patches of tar here and there. All I had to do was follow the Navajo White skid marks across the roof and past the water tank. My brush had come to a stop under someone’s lawn chair. That someone was stretched out on it sunbathing. She was a redhead and wore nothing but Ray Bans and a Sony Walkman. She was covered with a lovely dusting of tiny freckles, a towel rolled beneath her head, her shorts and t-shirt under the chair. My brush lay inches away, full of tar and ruined. I could faintly hear a tiny Al Green pleading for love from her headphones. I knew her from somewhere, but where? It was the red hair, which conjured up the Queen of Hearts, and then I got it. She was the girl who did “card tricks” in the bars all over the west side, fleecing half-drunk assholes who should have known better. We had never met, until now. Had I not been distracted by her nudity, I would have made her for the girl at the elevator weeks before.
I couldn’t simply reach under the chair and I didn’t want to scare her to death, so I stood there debating what to do. She turned her head a half-inch toward me, lifting off her headphones, and drawled, “May I help you with something?” A cool customer indeed.
“I came up for my paintbrush, under your chair,”
She tilted the Ray Bans up (big brown eyes) and leaned over to peer at the brush. “And how did your brush arrive under my chair?”
I couldn’t look at her so I stared at my brush. “Well, you would never believe it, really.”
“Try me. This is New York after all.”
“Well, I’m painting an apartment across the street and the people have a crazy monkey and when I wasn’t looking he whipped my new brush out the window.”
I sneaked a peek at her face. She smiled slowly and looked at me like I was both a liar and an idiot.
“That’s good, really good. What’s your name, painter man and what’s your game?”
“I’m Phil. No game at all.”
She stood (a perfect five foot five) and moved the chair aside with her foot.
We shook hands. I looked her right in the eye.
“Are you dressing me in your mind, Phil?”
“Am I what?”
“Are you wondering how I look with clothes on? If you are, meet me at the P&G Bar at eight o’clock.”
I left perhaps too quickly and without the brush, but it had been a long time since I chatted with a naked woman. I needed the safety and solace of my room.
I did as she suggested and she looked just fine with her clothes on. My new brush may have been ruined, but I made a mental note to thank the monkey anyway.
The P&G was loud that night and I did my best to ignore the sly looks I was getting from some clowns I knew at the bar. Marsha looked taller fully dressed: red high tops, jeans and a loose V-neck sweater that almost hid the luscious landscape I had seen earlier — just as lovely, with a confident air that I found very sexy. She smiled at me, truly glad to be there. It had been quite a while since an attractive female had given me anything but a cold dismissive glance. I was off my game, but maybe, just maybe, I could get it back.
After our meal she drained her final pint of Bass Ale and wiped her mouth with the back of her rather small hand. “I want to see your room.”
“It’s nothing, it’s just a room.”
“If it’s where you live, I want to see it.”
The last person to enter my room had been Mr. Klein, the building’s owner, when I first moved in. That was just over a year ago, but I had a good ale buzz and threw caution to the wind.
“What the lady wants, the lady gets!”
I paid the tab on our way out and we both swayed a bit rounding the corner to my building. Ronald the night man buzzed us in and stood up behind the marble desk. I waved to him and tried to steer Marsha to the back stairs but she broke away and approached Ronald with her hand out.
“Hi, I’m Marsha.”
Ronald mumbled something that was probably his name but I rarely understood a thing he said. He had the imposing, regal bearing of an African king (or the actor Paul Robeson), but the speech problem and his left eye that moved in its own wild circular orbit made him shy.
Marsha continued unfazed. “It’s really nice to meet you, Ronald. I’m sure I’ll see you around!” On that last part, she turned to me and winked, as if we shared a secret.
I wasn’t sure what it was, but that wink gave me a lift. It was only days later that I was forced to admit I had opened the box and let Pandora in.
We hauled ourselves up the stairs to the back hallway and I pointed out the shared bathroom as we passed it. I unlocked my door and paused to say something stupid about the disarray but Marsha shoved me inside right onto the bed and pulled the door shut.
“I can get a little loud sometimes,” she warned, pulling her sweater over her head, then leapt on me like a kid at a pillow fight. We kissed hard, our breath reeking of onion rings, but it didn’t matter one bit. I don’t recall how long I was there, but I became lost in the land of Marsha.
I had learned that when I was covered with sweat nothing beat a cool late night breeze from the airshaft outside my single window. I had dozed off and slowly realized I was alone. I was spent in a way I had forgotten was possible. It was luxurious. I heard the toilet flush down the hall and for no good reason decided to feign sleep just as Marsha stepped back into the room. She moved soundlessly, even in the pitch dark. Like a real pro. I heard a Zippo lighter flick open, and from the light of the flame saw that she was crouched over my milk crate of record albums.
I wondered if it was my lighter, the one I lost two months ago.
“Hey, Phil, you got any Hank Snow?”
“You mean the old rockabilly guy?”
“The one and only.”
“I doubt it, that’s mostly jazz. Dexter Gordon, Monk, Coltrane.”
“Jazz doesn’t get any better than that, but I like a twangy guitar now and then.”
I reached for the gooseneck lamp and switched it on. Marsha snapped the lighter shut.
“Is that your lighter?” I asked.
She tossed it into the air and caught it behind her back.
“It is now, found it under the tub in your bathroom.”
She crawled onto the bed and looked at me sideways.
“How come you don’t have a record player?”
“Haven’t gotten around to it.”
“The city is full of them. I’ll get you one.
She glanced at my four walls and scratched her nose.
“Your room is nice but kind of, well, beige. It could really use some bright color.”
She tossed the lighter onto her pile of clothes and pinned me to the mattress, her face an inch from mine.
“Leave the light on this time, Phil, I want to see you.”
I wondered if she had any clue what kind of guy she was now screwing silly. I suspected she didn’t care. I had to decide what to do about her. She smelled good, but smelled of trouble, too, more trouble than I wanted at that point in my new life. Had I lost my edge? Was I being hustled? Even if Marsha was taking me for a ride, I decided to lie back and enjoy it.
The light from the airshaft was growing soft and rosy as Marsha pulled on her jeans and sweater. That made it about 6 am. She laced up her high top Keds, put her fists on her hips and gave me a wicked grin.
“Aren’t you going to see me to the door, Paint Man?”
Still lying on the futon, I returned the grin.
“Just turn around, it’s right behind you.”
Marsha blew me a kiss, opened the door and flipped me off on the way out, with a sultry taunt. “You know where to find me.”
I yawned and stretched, ready for another hour of sleep. I had not felt so relaxed in years, from the neck down that is, but my brain was working fast. As I drifted off I remembered that the cons call high top sneakers “felony shoes.” They were a help if you had to climb a chain link fence quickly, and they were quiet too. I fingered a fresh bite mark on my shoulder and wondered where this thing would go. Her card trick hustle was certainly not her only game, but not knowing didn’t bother me that much Would the next night be at her place, in the building around the corner, where I found her on the roof? I had to swallow a lump in my throat as I imagined us as a normal happy, and horny, couple.
I switched on the hotplate and waited for the espresso maker to start hissing and looked around my room. It was beige as Marsha said and bore an unfortunate resemblance to my former residence. Maybe I could paint one wall magenta and another burnt orange or even bright yellow. Music would help, too, but there was no logical place to put a turntable and an amplifier. I would have to rig up some shelves low enough to reach the dials but high enough not to bump my head on it. I got tired just thinking about it and looked up at my old poster of Dexter Gordon, blowing his tenor sax at the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen. Maybe I could get one of those little Walkman tape players like Marsha had and listen while I worked.
The next few days were insanely busy. Apartment 611, The Obese IBM Secretary, had died in her tub while the water was running. It leaked down the walls all the way to 511, 411 and 311 before anyone knew what was happening. Two guys from Walter B. Cooke used the freight elevator to roll her out through the lobby leaving a trail of bath water that dripped from the black body bag. I spent three days just cutting open apartment walls so they would air out before I could make repairs. No Marsha sightings, but I kept my eyes peeled whenever I left my building.
In my little bit of down time, I would jog around the reservoir in Central Park. Coming back in the rain that Saturday afternoon, I spotted two guys in cheap sport coats in the lobby talking with Nate the Super. The older one was in a wheelchair, but they were clearly both cops. Old habits die hard and I turned on my heels and went back out into the rain until they left the building. Sure enough, they got into a double-parked Crown Vic. The tall Black cop took the folded up wheelchair and shoved it in the trunk. Then they drove up Broadway.
In the lobby I stood dripping rainwater and shivering while Nate the Super told me that someone had picked the locks on all ten washers and driers in the basement laundry room and made off with a heavy load of coins. He cussed out a half dozen tenants he suspected and I knew there would be a wildfire of accusations and finger pointing. I planned to stay out of it if I could. Trouble was, it was my job to collect the coins once a month and I was two months behind. That would not look good. With my record I would be tops on the list. Ex-cons rarely get a break. They could put me back inside before I could say “Oh shit!”
Even so, I wasn’t all that worried until I started up the stairs and heard Nate behind me, “Yo, Phil, Mr. Klein wants to see you first thing Monday morning.”
Back upstairs, I stripped off my rain soaked sweats in the bathroom and hung them over the tub. I padded naked down the hall to my room and discovered a paper shopping bag hanging on the doorknob. I tossed it on the bed and finished toweling off. In it was a small flat square, about 10 by 12 inches, gift wrapped in red paper and tied with a silver bow. Written on it was a note, “Some color for the Painter Man.” I tore off the wrapping and laid it on the bed. It was an oil painting of a pair of sailboats leaning hard to port on a windswept harbor beneath purple mountains and electric green palm trees. I knew where there were nearly forty paintings just like it.
I also knew who had taken nearly three hundred in coins from the laundry. I sat on the bed for quite a while wondering what to do. I felt responsible. Ripping off a worthless painting that was an old man’s pride and joy was wrong. My moral compass was relatively new and unused, but I let it point the way. Besides, I needed it to save my own ass. I got dressed in a hurry and headed to the building around the corner.
The doorman buzzed me into the lobby on 75th street. He was happy to see me, or at least glad for some company since the Mets game had been rained out. He even turned off his transistor radio as I approached his desk.
“Phil, how you doing, man?”
“Not bad, Chico. I need to find someone in the building. Can you help me?”
“Sure man, just give me a name.” He flipped open a thick directory and waited.
“I only have a first name, Marsha.”
He laughed and said, “You mean Marshall with two ’els.’ He’s a young maricon from Texas who don’t like Puerto Ricans!”
“No, that wouldn’t be it. I’m looking for a girl with short red hair.”
“We got no Marsha, but maybe she live with somebody else. Try 7B, that’s Mr. Simon. Go ahead and take the freight elevator.”
No Marsha in the building. None. I felt like an asshole and recalled her last words to me:
“You know where to find me!”
I took the elevator straight to the roof and stepped outside. It had stopped raining and sunlight slashed down through the clouds like Klieg lights at a Hollywood premier. I walked to where I had met Marsha. There was no lawn chair and no brush and the paint marks had been washed away. It was quite possible that I would never see her again. I slowly walked the roof’s perimeter, awed by the enormous and beautiful city that was my home. It sparkled in the fresh, rain scented air. Somewhere out there was a girl with my Zippo in her pocket. I took in the vast Manhattan skyline. The dark green Hudson River flowed silently south. Maybe I got off easy. All she’d done was swipe my lighter and use me to gain entry to the building. But her other activities could land me back in the tank. I was furious, and scared too. My straight life was just beginning and I wanted it to continue. At least that’s what I’d been telling myself since my release. I could have found her and turned her in, but where would that get me? I admired her nerve; it was like my own before they put me away. She had enough for both of us. If she wanted to play Bonnie to my Clyde, she might come looking for me. After all, she promised me a record player.
The sun broke through, lighting up all the rooftops. I was determined to find my way in the city, and remain a free man. I looked over at my building and spotted the monkey curled up in the one corner of his rusty cage that was being warmed by the sun. Cages weren’t good for anyone. That much I knew. I don’t know if he saw me, but I waved and wished I could have set him free.
Philip DiGiacomo is a former painter and actor from New York. Twenty years ago he moved west to a bluff on the Pacific Coast Highway where he writes, reads and sometimes races an old Porsche.
© 2016, Philip DiGiacomo