Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Great guns

I went to look at a one-bedroom apartment above 96th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on a freezing January Saturday. I'd found it in the “Roommates Wanted” section of the Village Voice.

I was buzzed in at noon and a 50-something-year-old man named Frank opened the door to the dim flat on the second floor. We sat on rickety chairs around an aged wooden kitchen table with a ripped plastic yellow tablecloth covering it.

I was shy and disappointed, both in the apartment and its occupant.

Frank was friendly and got to the point.

“Where you from?”
“How old are you?”
“Where you living now?”
“In my brother’s place in Hoboken.”
“Do you have a job?”
“Planning to get one?”

It was 9 degrees out when I moved my books, clothes and guitars into the apartment the following Saturday.

The apartment was medium-sized by New York City standards, a seeming palace to others who lived in the city, and closet-like to suburbanites. Each of its windows faced an alley, ensuring no direct sunlight ever hit its occupants, and Frank indicated with pride his stuccoing of the walls and ceilings with joint compound to cure their constant chronic peeling. It was an amateur job, though, meaning Frank’s divots were so deep and sharp that one might scrape a knuckle bloody with a simple arm gesture while standing in the tiny foyer, or in the middle of the night when turning over in bed.

Frank, the son of first-generation working class Italians, was born and bred in Brooklyn. I had been raised in Westchester on a remote suburban road in a house with books. We were therefore foreigners to each other. He assumed I’d been raised a Jew and made occasional not-so-veiled mocking references to blowing the shofar and other Sephardic customs I had no knowledge of. He smoked Parliaments with the filters removed and my alarm clock when he was home was his early morning death-hack as he lit up upon rising.

He was a former actor who never made it past an uncredited part in a semi-hit 1971 movie. He eventually gave up acting and went into customizing and repairing handguns. His customers were cops and a parade of older guys who showed up to the apartment in the very early morning, men with deep voices and big bodies. Frank’s smithing shop was in a neighboring state, where he mostly lived, but he would come into the city to pick up and deliver pistols.

And what pistols they were! I had never seen a handgun up to then except in the movies, and I quickly learned to identify all the names, types, sizes and, after making some wide-eyed queries to Frank, what they could do to a person. When Frank was home by himself, he would always use the steel bar bolted to the front door and secured in a metal divot on the floor to fortify the entrance against blacks and Latinos, and against people who knew his line of work and might be interested in robbing him. He had good reason to fear; it was the height of the 80s crack epidemic and street criminals preyed on anything of the slightest value---wallets, purses, change in the center console of a car---to fuel their addiction. Each morning, residents of the neighborhood would emerge to see yet more cars on their block with windows smashed and sound systems removed.

Frequently Frank’s wares would be out on the kitchen table when I entered the apartment. .357 Pythons, Freedom Arms .45, Magnum Research Desert Eagle .50 and other weapons, enormous, deadly and gorgeous, greeted me upon entering the place. The secret knock was three times quick, a pause, and two slow. If any other knock was heard when we were both home, I was not allowed to answer the door. A pistol was loaded and thrust into the rear of Frank’s jeans as he approached the door and peeped through the hole. No one who wasn’t supposed to be there ever showed up, though, so he never had to pull the gun. If I came home and Frank was there, I had to wait for him to get up and undo the floor-bolt and open the door.

It took awhile, naturally, for Frank and I to become comfortable with each other and for Frank to be completely honest about what he did for a living. But as soon as I got used to seeing a cannon sitting open on the kitchen table, another would appear, and another and another, until finally I wasn’t scared of the guns or Frank. He wasn’t a mobster or a psycho, nor was he selling guns. He was repairing, bluing, maintaining and customizing them.

I had not been around any adult males besides my father and assorted bosses my entire life, and still thought of myself as a kid, the youngest kid, the one with the smart mouth who could do as he pleased and get away with it through precociousness.

The walls of the hallway were freshly painted when I moved in, and I took to leaving my bike leaned up against them instead of bringing it all the way into the apartment. Soon there were slight handlebar marks next to the door.

“Hey,” Frank said the next time he saw me. “I don’t want to give you a hard time, but don’t leave your bike leaned up against that wall, ok?”

I said I wouldn’t, and didn’t, until Frank went out of town again. Each time I knew he was returning to New York, I’d wheel the bike into my bedroom and try to scrub the wall, but the paint had a flat finish and you couldn’t clean it as well as semi-gloss. The mark visibly grew.

I went out one evening and, knowing Frank would appear sometime during the night, I’d left the bike in my bedroom. When I came home, Frank was asleep and there was a note taped to the handlebars:

“REMINDER---PLEASE KEEP BIKE OFF WALL”. I felt ashamed of myself. I’d tried to place the bike gently against the wall, so no further marks would be made, but I guess I hadn’t done a good job.

I knew the world of childhood was officially over; that this man had no reason to let me slide, about anything.

When Frank left for another three weeks, I again leaned the bike up against the wall as I pleased, with a rag between the handlebars and the wall. I got tired of that ritual, though, and finally stopped using the rag. I attempted instead to simply be careful. By now the wall was pretty black and I figured it didn’t make a difference.

One Friday evening I had returned from work, gently leaned the bike up against the wall and went out grocery shopping. When I returned I could see light coming through the peephole of 2G. I felt the color leave my face, and considered finding somewhere else to stay for the night. But I had groceries.

I knocked. I saw the peephole light dim for a moment, meaning an eye had been pressed against it, and I heard the steel bar being withdrawn from the floor. The deadbolt turned and the door was slowly opened.

Frank stood there with three pistols stuffed into the front and sides of his jeans, one in his right hand and a smoldering Parliament in his mouth, the smoke of which made him squint. He didn’t get out of my way so I could come in, but stood there a moment looking at me with bullets in his eyes. We both knew what the problem was.

He finally moved his body so I could get by, and I left the groceries in the hall while I rolled the bike into the bedroom. I never left it leaned up against the wall again, and neither of us ever mentioned it again.

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