They have never heard of the Sturgeon King, even though they might easily visit this small slice of piscean royalty for a lunch—excuse me, an appetizer—of an individual can of salmon or individual can of solid white tuna. It’s quaint, it’s charmingly atavistic, who the hell orders an individual can of salmon but a cat? Yet the menu items persist in their beautiful ignorance of things cutting-edge. The only thing likely to be cut here is a finger, on a jagged edge of tin.
They haven’t grown up here. They have grown up without snow, without Christmas trees in Rockefeller Center and the Rockettes and the fierce competition of holiday-themed window displays, but what they have not missed is the very visible fiduciary differences that have them sitting and eating steamed tamales on this stoop or that stoop while taking a break from painting the dining room where one day the King’s smoked sable will be served.
Not that it matters. Right now, today, this is their stoop. It has been their stoop since the low combustion of summer and with any luck it will be their stoop right through the high clouds of Easter. These things take time, or more to the point time can be taken with them. Luis has it all figured out. Gutting and remodeling, plastering and brickwork, has to be the best. Competitive, like the neighbors. Better than the neighbors. Luis takes pride in his work, in his temporary squatting rights, and this is why he sits on the stoop drinking beer long after the day is complete. He has put his sweat here, but not his hope. He knows he is a builder of someone else’s dreams. He takes his time with the cervezas, knowing that by spring he will be nothing but an illegal shadow. Now, though, the house belongs to him.
Last year, he tried his luck in Los Angeles. Everyone goes to Los Angeles first, there is plenty of remodeling and plastering and day jobs taken off the sidewalk. Here, in Manhattan, the weather is worse and no one has a swimming pool. For the past two months they have been sanding and sculpting, this sculpting the repair of some fat bouncy cherubs just that vulgar to stop a pederast in mid-ogle. They are taking their siesta and tamale on the fine autumnal stoop of Mr. Mindich, brownstone owner. Five bedrooms, blah blah, pre-war. There is still enough sun for them to have laborers’ tans, but the sun casts differently in the afternoon, leaving shadows long as fingers.
No one has met Mr. Mindich, although Mr. Mindich’s wife stopped by briefly to complain about a defective granite countertop that was to be installed in the kitchen. “Completely unacceptable,” she said, before asking anyone’s name or making it known that she was the lady of the spread and not just another floating personality from a team of architects and interior decorators and lighting designers. “Who is in charge here?” she frowned, lipgloss smile stretched tight as a rubber band, among all the wrong people and all the wrong clothes.
“Puta,” one of them whispers. There is no other explanation. It doesn’t mean anything really, the same way “cabron” means nothing. Two of them check out her ass, flat in Stella McCartney trousers. Blonde hair, puta.
“I want to know,” she continues, “who brought this granite in. There’s a chip.”
She doesn’t look as if she works for the INS, not with that lizardy purse. They learned that much back in California. That type of purse was usually set on a table in a foyer in Bel-Air like it was a religious icon. INS agents do not live next door to Aaron Spelling. Here, it dangles off the wrist of a right hand, which they understand is simply another way of exhibiting American good taste.
The blonde is very unhappy with their inattention. Three have gone back to squiggling electrical wires underneath the flooring, and another is chewing on a toothpick, revealing a gold tooth.
Luis steps forward. His English is better. He’s the one who started the habit of sitting and drinking beer on the stoop after the day’s work was done, breathing in the life of the building. When summer ended, some went inside to the living room and sat on the floor. It was their brownstone. They’d brutalized its walls and caressed it contours daily for eight weeks and weren’t going to give up command to a woman as thin as a wafer with hair the color of hay.
“Si, is there problem?”
She hadn’t expected to engage in conversation with the workers. Richard should have been here, she was paying him enough to oversee the damn thing. Richard had come highly recommended and had once consulted on, among other things, the renovation of the old Rita Hayworth apartment in the San Remo, below one of its matching, towering architectural nods to the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates.
“This,” she pointed out. “There’s a chip, a flaw, in the granite. Right here. It won’t do. Take it back.”
Luis is a practical man. He lives in the Bronx, makes sure his Sunday clothes are clean, throws down a few bucks at Aqueduct, and is the ringleader of the stoop. For two months they have ripped and clawed out what looked pretty fine to begin with to turn it into something better, or really just something more expensive. This is a given. This is understood. A foil-wrapped tamale sits on the bare countertop. She asks that they please not eat inside the house again, because the smell, you know, the smell might get into the walls and remind people that other feet walked the floors and other hands smeared the walls. It’s best to look as if effort weren’t put in, even though everyone from W.59th on up knows that it was enough strain to cause a financial aneurysm.
“Sure, sure, “ he says, laying that accent on extra thick. The granite isn’t his to take back anyway. Taking it back is complicated and there is a chain of command for accomplishing it that starts with the interior designer and ends up in Richard’s lap. It isn’t as if he is going to have to put it in the back of his truck and haul it away, although it might make a nice coffee table with its invisible defect intact. It’s to be double granite. This is the piece that goes underneath. No one would see the chip, but she would know the flaw was there and that isn’t good enough. It would ruin the house. The Americans complicate things, or maybe it’s just the rich ones that do it, finding something wrong with nothing just so they can have something fat to say.
This is what has led to the late afternoons on the stoop and the refusal to give up sovereignty over the house until they have to. It is perfect as a shell. They have discussed this woman’s husband, Charles, the cabron, and imagined him as tall and blonde and pale as a bleached bone. And very, very rich. He won’t step foot in this reconstructed house until the work is done and Richard has given his okay. They will never see Charles in person.
“Hey, la rubia peligrosa!” Luis calls out when I come in hauling yet another bolt of mint-green silk. For today I am Richard’s bolt runner, or that’s what I call it, because no one knows what it means and it could denote something dangerous and fun. Bolt of a gun, bolt of a latch, bolt of fabric. I might be a mercenary, a locksmith, or a person who gets paid eight dollars an hour to drag fabric around to what Richard calls his “appointments.” I hate Richard. I think he’s a dick about that bathroom thing. I think I’m a psychic; I know when the material is not going to look right in its larger application and I know that I am going to fiddlefuck for six hours while this is debated. Not that I have any say or anything. If you ask me, I’d go for sage. Mint is so Sutton Place.
“Is Richard here?” I ask. I have to pee. Richard is nightmare on a bladder and the rule is you can’t use the facilities at the appointments.
“Not yet,” Luis says. Not jet.
The blonde, still fretting over the granite, animates at the sight of the fabric. “Is that my mint moiré?” she asks, and I recognize that hair and the special cadence used on the triple alliteration. I last saw and heard this in 1977, disappearing down a long hallway, wearing a tawny mink and my blue eyeliner. It is, I am horrified to see, Elizabeth Dore, she of the white Cadillac and freshman year nose and tit job. She is still wearing my eyeliner.
My own blonde job—box, drugstore, $6.99—wants to break off at the root, so fried is it in the face of the Diva of Dellplain Hall. That frostbite winter of 1977 I rode a lunch tray down a snow bank outside Liz’s window and the part of my thigh exposed by a rip in my jeans turned purple, then black. For a while, I was Liz’s Gentile pet, someone to soothe the horrors of a bad manicure, to collect her designer jeans from the dry cleaner, to admire her need for animal pelts against the January winds. But most of all I was there to tell Liz that she was beautiful. That was the easiest part of all. She was always nice enough to tell me I had a new zit right in the middle of my forehead. I loved her.
“What are you going to do if you drop out of school?” she had asked me, when I made clear that studying creative writing was killing my desire to create. “Marry a dentist?” She made “dentist” sound like an automotive mechanic. She had shuddered.
I told her I thought I would marry a Polish firefighter, but only because my mother told me that was what I looked like, the Polish firefighter’s wife. This was the only burst of creativity my mother ever had, and the recollection made me feel warm and safe and like I might want to suddenly hug her and announce, “Elizabeth, I’m Suzanne from Dellplain Hall!” but I knew I didn’t speak her language and in the intervening years had become a mute.
She instructed me to place the bolt on a worktable and asked me to have Richard call her about the chip and the fabric, in that order, because neither was going to work, and then she was gone. I’d be back enough times to see the new granite installed double so that the edge could have a loping, curlicue design carved in, and to breathe enough of her air to understand the stoop and how it is so goddamned hard to give it up to its rightful owner without a beautiful, hop-filled battle.
“May I eat that tamale?” I asked Luis.