Of Landlords and Cousins
My landlord visits our brownstone apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn at least three times a week to “fix” something. He is a saxophone player from the city of Odessa on the Black Sea in the Ukraine---a city I have never visited but feel a connection to because my grandparents were born there. Gregory is probably in his 40s---a pale man with a high reedy voice and an air of perpetual resignation. He emigrated from Russia about ten years ago, bought this house on a block populated by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and lived here for several years. Then he moved to Brighton Beach to be closer to his compatriots and to facilitate his saxophone playing. He practices on the beach and plays at Russian weddings.
When I call to let Gregory know that yet another appliance, toilet, door, or window in our once-grand apartment is broken he invariably shows up in a few days with a “cousin” who is a specialist in whatever repair needs to be accomplished. “This is my cousin Ilyosha the plumber,” he will say, introducing me to a stocky balding man with a thick Russian accent. They wander around the apartment together for a while, examine pipes, gesticulate, argue in Russian and then leave. “I’ll be back in a few days to fix it,” he tells me. Several days later he will be back---sometimes with Ilyosha, sometimes with another “cousin” who wants to take a look at the problem.
Eventually things get fixed, but rarely with new parts or in a way that improves the aesthetics of the place. We have a small backyard that was completely overgrown with morning glory vines and weeds when we moved in. I spent a couple of weekends clearing it out and planting every imaginable variety of bulb and flower—delighted to have some dirt to dig in after several years in an airless Manhattan studio.
However, getting to the yard is a feat undertaken only by the most intrepid urban gardener. From the back hallway, one must first unlock a hollow wooden door. Then a torn and rickety screen door opens into a musty “shed” that houses mysterious large equipment covered with moldy tarps that cannot be moved. Passage from the shed to the yard is accomplished through a flaking green painted door whose bottom half gapes open in ragged holes to admit leaves, snow, rain and occasionally stray cats. And lastly, the padlock on a creaking, rusted metal gate must be unlocked and the gate pushed open. Finally entry to this slice of urban paradise has been achieved! My daughter, who shares the house with me and my 18-month-old grandson (her baby), does not venture into the yard unless I have first opened all the doors. Most of the time she is content to gaze upon it from our kitchen windows.
“I’m putting a new door on the back,” Gregory announced one day. “My cousin will be here tomorrow to help me.” I went off to work the next day hopeful, excited even---imagining the ungainly collection of doors to my backyard replaced by a shiny new insulated, waterproof and completely intact real back door. I returned at the end of the day and quickly made my way down the long and narrow hallway leading to the back. The hollow wooden door was still there, followed by the torn screen door that flaps open with the slightest breeze. A “new” door was indeed in place, behind the screen, in all its glory. “Keep this door locked,” proclaimed an ancient tin plaque affixed to its peeling surface of cream-colored paint.
Alternately pulling and pushing on the door, and shoving hard on the ancient bolt lock, could indeed lock it. But locking it really wasn’t necessary. I found that out one afternoon when my daughter shut the doors and went upstairs to put the baby down for a nap, leaving me happily digging up weeds in the yard. “Our “new” door had been installed by Gregory and his cousin in such a way that it cannot be opened to get into the house if the interior door has been closed. After my cries for help went unheard for fifteen minutes, I finally had to crawl in through the kitchen window.
Our upstairs toilet is perpetually broken. It runs all the time and will not flush properly. A series of cousins have come and looked at it. Several toilet mechanisms, no doubt removed from other old toilets somewhere in the universe, have been tried but nothing has worked so far. The latest attempt will function properly in about a week, Gregory assures us, if we just hold the handle down and count to 8 every time we flush.»
Photo by Kristin Brenemen
All of these fix-it schemes were merely annoying until the evening that a huge chunk of my daughter’s plaster ceiling crashed to the floor. We heard a loud thud and assumed it was our noisy upstairs neighbors who seem to move furniture across their uncarpeted floors at all hours of the day and night. Angelica went up to bed some hours later to find her bed and room covered in plaster dust and a large, thick and exceedingly heavy piece of plaster lying next to her bed---in a spot where her son frequently plays.
I called Gregory on his cell phone early the next morning. “The ceiling fell in. In the front room, Gregory.” I reported. “You need to get someone here right away.” “Was anyone hurt? Is the baby all right?” he asked anxiously. Gregory has a small son, Igor, and he plays with my grandson when he comes. “Don’t go in the room. I’ll be there right away to take a look. I’ll bring my cousin.”
My daughter and I hovered in the doorway to her room inspecting the damage and anxiously awaiting Gregory’s arrival. “Does he really have a cousin that can fix this?” I wondered aloud as I surveyed the sagging remains of the beautiful, original plaster ceiling, detailed with flowers. I imagined acoustic tiles slapped haphazardly over the damage by a ceiling-expert cousin. We would never have another good night’s sleep in that house.
For the next week, a parade of cousins and contractors traipsed plaster dust through the house as they came in to look at the damage and offer estimates. Gregory was clearly torn between his desire to save a penny and his concern for our safety and his own liability if any further damage were to occur. In the end, he hired a fully insured and highly recommended contractor to repair the ceiling. Of course, cousins were not completely shut out of the process. One cousin walked around with a long pole and poked all the other ceilings in the apartment—checking for impending plaster falls. Another cousin, a trumpet player from Moscow, arrived to help move the furniture out of the room. Yet another came to clean the carpets. The whole process took two weeks, during which I slept on the sofa while my daughter shared my bed with the baby. But the contractors and cousins did a great job and saved the beautiful molded plaster flowers in the center of the ceiling.
The upstairs toilet, however, still runs.
“Give it another week,” Gregory pleads. “Hold it down for 8 seconds like I told you. It should work. Oh and by the way, my cousin is coming next week to take a look at the roof.”
Elena Schwolsky lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Her memoir in progress was named a finalist in the SheWrites.com Passion Project Non-Fiction Book Contest in 2010. An essay drawn from this book, "Searching for Piña in Havana," appears in the anthology Storied Dishes (Praeger, November 2010) and another, "Keeping Secrets," was published in the Reflections column of the the American Journal of Nursing in 2011. When not waiting for repairmen in her brownstone apartment, Elena teaches community health workers, works with Occupy/Ocupemos Sunset Park to improve her neighborhood, and writes.