In New York City, there is a layer of resident that facilitates the lives of those too busy to actually live their own lives. This layer is larger and its owners more successful than one might suppose.
Rarely, for instance, do we enter or exit our building without finding an interchangeably short young Mexican with a bag of warm edible studying the intercom for a name that matches what is scrawled on his delivery receipt. The dispatchers who prepare those receipts have worse handwriting than doctors, a fact that furthers my belief that the delivery business is lucrative. The Mexican boys never wear glasses. The buttoned roster of the intercom is two feet above their heads. The listing of its seventy-five names is as random as the sequenced selection made by C’s ipod. (“Did you hear that? The ipod felt that Good Morning Baltimore should follow Ella’s Love For Sale which followed Ramblin Man. I so get it.”)
I flinch at the sight of delivered food. Even the prospect of sitting in a restaurant makes me itchy with guilt. The only reason I can countenance going to Jiffy-Lube for an oil change is the watching of the outrageously attractive crew of young black mechanics through the glass of the waiting room. Someday, I’ll be last in line at 5PM, and they’ll yank down the overhead doors and walking toward me as they unzip their greasy jump suits, they will say “We got your car covered, but you look like you might need some work”.
I am just the kind of guy who doesn’t like to spend money on services that I can perform myself. When my grandparents would describe the extreme tactics needed on 164th Street to scrape by during the Depression, I, a pre-schooler, made rapturous mental notes.
This has led me into some disasters, and maybe into some savings, and constitutes an energy that C, who mostly accepts the premise of the service sector, finds curious.
I once decided, after receiving a quote for sanding and urethaning five rooms of old oak floors, that I could save thousands by renting the sander and doing the job myself. We lived for years with the resultant bucolic hills and valleys of that floor, and I accepted, as the price of thrift, a two-month back injury and two lungs aspirated with dust from Depression era varnish.
There was the time I rented a roto-tiller with tines powerful enough to loosen the clay in front of our 1925 row house, allowing us to improve the soil and plant a perennial parterre. The neighbors were amused. More months of back pain. Nothing grew.
In that same house, rather than spend six hundred dollars for a skylight, I hacked a hole in the ceiling with a borrowed Sawz-All right up through the roof tar, and hammered together a plywood box topped with two layers of Plexiglas and silicon caulk. This cost one hundred and forty dollars. It may have leaked a bit, but only during rain.
Before installing that skylight, I thought it might be a good idea to insulate the ceiling while the gash was open. We discovered that the flat roof was composed of the original oak stretchers and a second set that ran a foot and a half above them. I learned that some dollars might be saved by blowing loose insulation into that space rather than rolling out the usual pink fiberglass batting. I rented the blower and got dozens of bags of the loose fluff. Oddly, the hose supplied with the blower might have been long enough to reach the roof of a hamster cage but it demanded the hauling of the goatish machine up onto the stepladder beneath our newly carved opening. C was assigned the task of squeezing between the rafters tangled in the hose while I steadied the ladder, and tore open bags of the sneezable grey shredding, feeding it into the howling machine while grumbling irritably and shouting things like “Be sure you reach all the way into the corners” and, “Are you finding any antique jewelry up there?” or, “Hurry it up. We are about to lose sunlight and we don’t have any more extension cords for the work lamp.”
In that same house, I scored, steamed and removed old wallpaper. Most of it. Some of it. The remains gave the dining room a postmodern palimpsest that no guest at our table was clever enough to praise. As Scripture says, a decorator is never appreciated in his own house.
In that same house, I tried to replace an old toilet.
When we sold the place, I triumphantly explained to C the concept of sweat equity and why this buy/fix/sell pattern might have to be repeated many times over the next several decades. We developed a script: I would propose a strenuous money-saving activity and rent the appropriate contraption. I would turn it on and within a few minutes injure my back. C would finish the job. Sometimes I would injure my back just getting the thing into my car. C got wise.
By the time we had acquired a top floor condo in Montreal with exclusive rights to the roof, C raised a brow without looking up from his Gazette and coffee when I announced that I could see no reason why we couldn’t build our own roof deck.
Two months later, with sketches in hand, at a lumber yard on the far side of Rosemont, I surrendered to the possibility that building anything in a foreign country, other than a reputation, might not be easy. Is that board ten feet or ten kilometers? C was visibly relieved when I asked one of those scruffy types who are always carrying things about such places with cigarettes clamped in their lip corners threatening sawdust if he could recommend someone who might want to build our rooftop deck. That is how we acquired the phone number of, and soon made the acquaintance of Monsieur Adelard Deslauriers, a stocky man in his late 50s (early 60s?) whose thick calloused hands had built lots of stuff and were now working a pencil stub as we stood in front of our building. This seemed to have been his first visit to this part of the city since it had become the Gay Village. He spoke no English and held his opinion of us in check, but the estimate he wrote on a scrap of paper and now handed to me made it clear that he saw accessible gold in the pockets of these two Americans.
He did not know with whom he was dealing, but one wordless and withering glance from me after I had seen his estimate made him snatch back the paper and express surprise over the extra zero he had mistakenly affixed to the number. We swiftly came to terms, and during the first week of July, Adelard and his crew of gorgeous Frenchmen fashioned hoists out of thick long rope and drew lumber up onto the roof for the construction of a fabulous deck while we slept from sun-up to noon just below the sound of their boots on the roof. Getting out of bed, and stumbling naked into the kitchen for coffee, made our sordid bourgeois lives transparent, as the toolbelted men peeked inside while passing by the sliders that led from kitchen to terrace to the stairs they had built to the deck. I heard one of them mumble “Ah, la vie en rose”, as we left the building dressed just like them but ready to promenade Ste Catherine Street, in search of more sociable “viande rose” indeed.
Those years (C laughs when I call them the hungry ones) are over, and as we begin a total renovation of our New York City pied-a-terre, I am watching with horror as money gushes out of my pockets, like blood from the wounds of a suspended savior or berserk water besting a southern levee.
Because we are there only on weekends, the project demands management that does not come cheaply, but really, given my convictions, I would protest forking over even a nickel for this Doing-by-Others. Here, I have no choice, and I have particular guilt over the fact of having to pay somebody for the demolition part of the project. Is there anything easier than the tearing down of stuff? Shame on me.
I protested the latest demand for cash, which came in the form of an email from a lady referred to us by our architect. Her name, which sounds like a rodeo cheer or like the sound kids make when their parents announce a trip to Orlando, is composed of two parts with no clues as to which one, if any, is the familiar half. She will expedite the approval of our application to the city building department. Apparently, without her service, an application might languish for months. What she does, in a nutshell, is walk the package through some offices, collecting the required rubber stamps. For this, she proposes the payment of exactly $1,000.
I am outraged, but feel impotently distanced from those offices during their weekday hours of operation. I jump on the net in search of others who provide this service, convinced that her price is inflated. I find them listed under either admissible spelling of “Expeditor” and “Expediter”, one fellow using both versions in his ad. I contact a few of them, but none of them return my call. These guys must be very busy, have ample work, be careless entrepreneurs, or, only take clients through architects’ referrals.
I call our architect to complain. He offers a justification.
“She’s really very good. She’s the only one I’ve used for years. You may find somebody a couple hundred dollars cheaper, but a lot of them just drop off the package and make excuses for the delays. She actually gets your approval in two days.”
His words make me feel confident about her delivery but inflame my resentment about paying a huge sum of money for a brief and mindless task. I calculate her potential annual income, figuring in the cost of kick back to architect and lunch for the rubber stamp guys, and I resolve that within a year, once we are full time in New York, I will become the fastest, most sought after Expediteur in the city.
So I knuckle under, but am buoyed when C comes home and tells me that he had spoken with her and that she had no problem knocking a hundred dollars off her price. I recalculate her annual income and it is still fantastic. Even better when you realize that she can carry more than one package at the same time. I'll start out as her apprentice.
Once this final approval is granted, the work will begin. The project management company we have selected is fine-tuning its proposal after a series of meetings at our place in which the project components are outlined.
“Please take out that section about painting the walls. If there’s one thing I know I can manage, it’s paint. And the metal clad doors? I’m going to want all their layers of paint removed, but it’s really something I can do myself with a can of Zip-Strip and some steel wool, so could you delete that as well, please? Same with the radiator covers. Why sell us new ones when I can take down the old ones to what is probably the original chrome finish.”
C gave me a look he has perfected over the years. I got up, opened a drawer and tossed him the checkbook, as I walked out of the apartment.
“I can’t watch this. I’ll be at Starbucks. Meet me there when you’re done spending Ourbucks.”