The Landlord’s Uncle

by

02/24/2019

Neighborhood: Bowery, Lower East Side

 

The door to my apartment building is the color of the rough red wine men drink in small towns in Italy. In fact, Mr. Chinnici, who lives in my building, might look at home in a café in a Mediterranean village, drinking claret from a water glass. He wears a sooty, mushroom-colored cap; the whites of his eyes are jaundiced by age or perhaps by what he has seen. 

The mailboxes in our building have been a disaster for years, rusted open, labels long gone, so I am not sure of this man’s true name. I call him Mr. Chinnici because the man with the red hair in Shapiro’s Hardware downstairs told me he was the uncle of our landlord, Joe Chinnici. This was before Shapiro’s went out of business, before they stretched the big, yellow Closing Sale banner across the plate glass window on the Bowery side of the building. I used to ask advice of the man with red hair at Shapiro’s. He explained how to use small pieces of a woven material underneath a layer of plaster to patch the cracks in my living room wall, and how to unclog the drain in my bathtub. He would spell out the steps of each task without making me feel embarrassed by my ignorance. I liked him because of his rusty red hair. He seemed Irish and familiar to me; he could have been a Carty or a Sheehan from my hometown in Massachusetts.

I don’t speak to Mr. Chinnici, just a quick nod if I pass him on the staircase. He is neither friendly nor hostile, but instead preoccupied, sorting through his own thoughts. He gnaws the short stub of a cigar, tucked in the corner of his mouth. If he is heading up to his apartment on the second floor, when he reaches the landing, he is greeted at his door with the excited yapping of a white blur of a dog. I have never seen him outside with the dog.

Someone puts trim little packages on the sidewalk next to the doorway to our building. That’s where the trash goes: oil-stained brown paper bags from the grocery store, dark green plastic trash bags, and heavy black rubber barrels from the hardware store. Because my building is on the corner where Bleecker and the Bowery meet, some people act like our trash pile is a community-wide garbage heap.

The kids who hang around across the street at CBGBs need a place to throw away their garbage. The bodega where they buy their beer and chips is right next to Shapiro’s. The management put in Plexiglas partitions to keep the wild-eyed junkies away from the cash register. I am humbled by the way I am treated at the bodega. The counterman catches my eye, flicks the switch that unlocks the metal grated door, and I am allowed into the back, without so much as a word, to get my Bustelo, the bitter espresso I cannot live without. The men who wait restlessly in line to buy a pint of Night Train look at me as though I were a princess.

The little packages piled in neat ceremonial mounds near the trash bags are made of newspaper about the size of the ten-ounce bag of ground coffee that I buy, smaller than a brick, but larger than a deck of cards. They are wrapped like presents, and tied with strips of torn fabric. A line of frayed threads travels up and down both sides of the narrow swatch. The fabric is not fashioned into a bow, but in a sturdy knot that leaves a dapper inch or two of tail. The impression is still gift-like, but to me, slightly masculine.

As a child, a curious and easily intoxicated little girl, I yearned for a party with a piñata; failing that, I wheedled loose change from my parents to spend for the grab bag at the church fair. For a quarter or two, I could reach into a sack and pull out a surprise package. It might be jacks and a ball, or a jump rope, or a box of crayons. I liked all those things, of course, but what I liked most was the moment just before my hand closed around the mystery.

This is what I think: it must be Mr. Chinnici who leaves the packages in the trash. When I see him on the street or on the stairs, he usually has The Daily News or The Post tucked under his arm. In the late afternoon, I imagine him in his apartment, the light fading. He reads his newspaper, and he makes it last well into the evening. Maybe Mr. Chinnici spends an hour or two doing the Jumble, or the Find-a-Word labyrinth, or maybe he studies the baseball stats, keeping track of the few Italian boys who still play for New York teams. And then, after a supper of soup or beans, he tears the newspaper into page-size rectangles that he adds to the stack he stores under the kitchen sink.

In the morning, even before he lights his first cigar, he cleans up after his dog. The habit of economy or a long-forgotten aesthetic impulse informs the precision of his routine: he deposits the night’s offering onto a sheet of newspaper, and then neatly ties the packet with a ribbon of cloth, saved from a worn-out shirt or an old pair of pajamas.

He walks down the flight of stairs, swings open the wine-dark door, and shuffles along the few feet of sidewalk to his destination. He adds his small treasure to the trash pile with a smooth dip to the left, a kind of genuflection, and pauses briefly to catch his breath. The landlord’s uncle then turns on his heel and heads back upstairs.

***

Susan T. Landry is a writer and an editor. For life-blood money, she is a medical manuscript editor, editing articles for medical journals; and for pleasure and less money, she is also an editor of other writers’ stories. She founded and managed an online literary journal about memoir, called “Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie,” which is no longer publishing; Susan previously edited the print journal, “Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir.” She lived in NYC for many years, and on the Bowery from 1978 to 1991. Susan now lives in Maine.

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§ One Response to “The Landlord’s Uncle”

  • Tracy Yucikas says:

    I enjoyed reading the story. The title itself wears a solid austere simplicity, even tho it could be algorithmicized as “The [possessive-noun-form] [kinship-noun]”.
    Lower east-side NYC stories always get my attention, and this one did not disappoint, with flavorings of Little Italy. It reminded me of something familiar, even tho I can’t pin it down. Friday evening and ‘why not comment?’

    Excellent piece of writing, thank you 🙂

§ Leave a Reply

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