Someone Should Keep an Eye on Him

by

04/29/2015

Neighborhood: Union Square

Someone Should Keep an Eye on Him
Photo by Simon Durkin

“That’s it. I’ve had it.”

Staring at the dirt encrusted window I made up my mind to cheer myself up. After September 11, 2001, my job relocated from a building overlooking the World Trade Center to the industrial center of Long Island City – the old Bloomingdale’s Warehouse on a concrete hill overlooking the Long Island Railroad yards. I sat in a windowless closet dead center in the core of the immense building where it took thirty seconds to walk to the nearest window to see if it was light or dark outside. My space reminded me of Limbo.

Limbo is the place in Catholic mythology where lost souls take mail. As a kid they used to show us catechism slides in preparation for our first confession, communion and confirmation. Same slides were used for all sacraments. The nun would pep up the slides with a little bit of color analysis.

“Remember children, if you are not baptized a Catholic, God will never welcome you into Heaven. You will spend eternity in a way station.”

“A what station?”

“A way station. Limbo is a way station.”

“A gas station?”

Kids usually enjoy pursuing this line of questioning until it is stone dead but Limbo erased our curiosity. It was so boring the kids lost wind. The Limbo slide was a Twilight Zone drawing of a group of men and women in 1950’s styled dress clothes standing in the middle of a room with no windows looking up through a hole above the room where the ceiling should have been. Alone at night in my space, I’d imagine the ceiling lifting away and some brooding higher being staring down at me, drumming her finger against chin.

After 31 months in LIC we made a second temporary move. Our downtown building, 90 Church Street, was still under renovation. My business moved me to the center of my New York universe, 14th Street and Fifth Avenue. My building straddled the West Village, East Village, Union Square and Washington Square. I pinched myself.

My job was boring. The only thing making work tolerable was the location. I loved our building. I loved the neighborhood. The energy in the streets was palatable. The schools and media/arts in the area converged sending an electric charge through the air. Old churches with welcoming grounds, five minute walk down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square, my new iPod. I was getting in tune.

Unfortunately, the building owner was not in tune. Our lease was up in six months and cleaning our windows was not on his list of things to do. It drove me crazy to turn around at my desk and see my seven-foot high window loaded with gook. The lack of natural light made me sad. All that amazing people watching down there – I was losing a fantastic opportunity to daydream a portion of my day away. After several failed efforts trying to get building services to respond I determined, “I can do this.”

I’m mechanically challenged. As a boy, my parents paid me to leave our Queens apartment over the weekend. They planned to paint the apartment and did not want me anywhere near a brush or paint can. They came to that decision earlier when I used an entire gallon of paint to partially coat a small closet. Most of the paint ended up on the floor and my clothing. I finished up by painting myself into the closet’s back wall. My parents would not stir the paint till they were sure I had gotten on the subway to Manhattan. This hamstrung my home decorating development. I’ve decided to move once or twice in my life rather than deal with painting an apartment. If I walk past a hardware store with a Benjamin Moore sign I can feel the help looking out the window shaking their heads side to side. I am pre-judged. I walk the earth as Cain, never to know the satisfaction of a home project well done.

Up to three years ago, I‘d stare at a screw not knowing whether to turn it left or right to tighten or loosen it. My cousin Jimmy, god bless him, taught me a short poem, “Righty Tighty, Lefty Lucy”. I still mumble it under my breath when I introduce myself to a screw. When my daughter was five she said to her mom, “Someone needs to keep an eye on him.” This was her response to the crash she heard in the kitchen when my make shift ladder, a chair with a milk case on top of it, crumbled leaving me hanging from the cabinet over the sink.

Back on 14th Street, I stared at the window, studying the problem. It was heavy and huge. It could hurt me. I stood on the sill, gently swinging the window in to let it lie across my desk. The dirt and dust flew in with the breeze scattering my papers around the tiny office. Fifth Avenue roared below. The sound and the air felt good. I saw the caked up dirt and measured the assignment. I needed loads of paper towels and a bucket of water. It was five-thirty, the office was mostly empty so I took off my dress shirt and turned my garbage can over, enlisting it for bucket duty. Heading for the bathroom, I ran into my next-door office neighbor, Barry.

“What are you doing?”

“Washing my office window.”

“No kidding, I’d love to do that, but my window doesn’t swing out. It’s blocked by the wall jutting out. What are you using to wash it?”

“This garbage can and paper towels.”

“I bought a squeegee for cleaning my car windows today. Do you want to borrow it?”

“Absolutely, thanks.”

Filling the bucket with lots of water I returned to the window with my borrowed squeegee. It only took two passes of the squeegee to blacken the water. I was not clear on how the building would feel about me washing my own window. I decided to finish the job with the dirty water rather than chancing a run in with a security guard walking the floors. The squeegee had a one-foot handle that allowed me to clean most of the window but not the very bottom. There was no room on the side of the window for me to approach it that way. The only way to clean the bottom of the window was to let a little bit of water pour down the glass from the top and take the dirt off the glass on the pass. This worked well and my spirit lifted as I saw the dirt peel away like volcano lava. The water fell from the bottom lip of the window and spread out along the marble ledge outside my window. Here is where my alternate reality began playing tricks on me.

I love film and I love architecture. Sometimes these two subjects dovetail in my mind and what I see in film becomes my reality. I love Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Their astonishing stunts tickled me to no end. Anytime I saw a city scene in a silent film or an early talkie I assumed it was all taking place in my world, Manhattan. Walking a skyscraper’s ledge, hanging from a clock or tip toeing a plank bridging two building roofs. It all took my breath away and it was all happening in New York (not true, but what did that matter to me). I was mesmerized. As a boy I’d roam Manhattan looking up at the tall buildings. I’d daydream about what building belonged in what film and if it didn’t belong in that film, didn’t it look just like the building that was in that film? It got to the point where I stopped looking up. It no longer mattered. My mind was made up. Further viewing was not required.

I was convinced all tall buildings between 14th and 23th Street on or near Fifth Avenue were built by insurance companies. Each had been used as a location in some old film involving a treacherous escape, rescue or pursuit. How could I forget Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in “Safety Last”, or Oliver Hardy hanging by a telephone wire outside a top floor window. All these buildings had elaborate ornamentation – spires, towers, big face clocks, columns, pillars, reliefs, gold roofs, chevrons, cupolas, and more. Some were stone wedding cakes with a complex series of ledges starting at the mid floors leading up to the top floors kissing the sky. Armed with my fuzzy celluloid-driven view of the local building architecture, I ill advisedly approached my cleaning chore with faulty data.

As the water dripped off the window onto the outside ledge I gave no thought to its final destination. My building was built around the time of the Great War in the last century– the water-spilling out my window onto the ledge would of course move onto another ledge, then another ledge then another ledge till all the water was dispersed or evaporated. I was on a high floor. My building had many tiers below me. I was sure of this based on my movie memory rather than me ever performing an actual visual assessment. Say for instance me standing in front of my building and looking up. This never happened. What was the point?

Pleased with the way the window was beginning to look I continued pouring the black water on the window. This was going so well I got caught up in the moment and figured what the heck and emptied the entire bucket onto the window. High floor, many ledges, the building would soak it up on the way down.

My bucket empty I soaked up the water on the glass with paper towels. I was beaming, thinking to myself, “Mom loved a clean window, she’d be proud of me.”
I threw all the dirty paper towels in the bucket and began walking to the bathroom to wash up. When I came back to my office a security guard and a building engineer bounced in right behind me.

“What are you doing?” they screeched. I knew the answer but shut up. They were not here to congratulate me on a job well done. Plus, I still had the bucket and the squeegee sticking out of it under my arm. My non-response encouraged their curiosity.

“WHAT ARE DOING? YOU SOAKED SEVERAL PEOPLE IN THE STREET. YOUR WINDOW IS RIGHT OVER THE BUILDING’S ENTRANCE.”

I stared at the two men thinking, the great thing about life is the potential to learn something new everyday. The problem is sometimes you learn the new thing on the wrong day. Now if I learned a day before I washed the window that my office was right over my building’s Fifth Avenue entrance, and that same day learned my office window’s ledge had no sister ledge beneath it, then I would have developed a different plan for washing my window. Much to my chagrin, neither the security guard nor the building engineer was interested in life’s potential or the order in which I learned new things.

I stood stupid in my wet T-shirt absorbing their taunts and blows, “You can’t do that?”

“It’s against building regulations.”

And each of them added my all-time favorite Dad question.

“What were you thinking?”

I almost answered, but convinced myself I was having an out of body experience and that this was happening to someone else, not me. I stood there, arms hanging at my sides, till they wore themselves out.

Thomas R. Pryor’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, A Prairie Home Companion, New York Press, Underground Voices Magazine, Opium Magazine Online, Our Town, The West Side Spirit and Ducts. His memoir, “I Hate the Dallas Cowboys – tales of a scrappy New York boyhood,” was published October 2014 (YBK Publishers). His short stories are published in Thomas Beller’s, “Lost and Found: Stories from New York,” Larry Canale’s, “Mickey Mantle – Memories and Memorabilia,” and Three Rooms Press, “Have A NYC 2.”
Pryor’s blog: “Yorkville: Stoops to Nuts,” was chosen by The New York Times for their Blog Roll. Thomas appeared on PBS’s TV series: “Baseball: A New York Love Story,” NBC’s “New York Nonstop,” television show and radio’s “This American Life.” For five years, Thomas curated a monthly storytelling show, “City Stories: Stoops to Nuts,” at the Cornelia Street Café that Time Out Magazine, The New York Daily News and CBS News praised. His photography portfolio, “River to River – New York Scenes From a Bicycle,” was released in 2012 (YBK). The Cornelia Street Cafe hosted an exhibition of his photography in 2013. NBC TV, New York Press/Our Town Downtown and NY 1 TV highly recommended the exhibit and his portfolio. You can view and purchase his New York City prints online at
Thomas R. Pryor Photography. Pryor’s newspaper column ran in Our Town and The West Side Spirit and his weekly radio show was featured on the Centanni Broadcasting Network.

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