Growing up in a five-story walk-up in Greenwich Village in the sixties had its charms. The fact that it was the Village was enough to charm most people; this was the last of the Bohemian Village, and that made it very popular as a place to go for writers, painters, dancers, artists of any type, and some very famous ones called it home. In twenty-five years time, it would be re-engineered into an enclave of the very rich; sure there would still be artists, but not the starving kind. To be fair a lot of those millionaire artists settled there before they became millionaires and just stayed on living in the same neighborhoods, the only difference being now they own the buildings they live in. Good for them. One of my fondest memories is seeing a very young Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel sitting outside the Bagel luncheonette with Styrofoam cups of coffee and cigarettes, lost in intense conversation. They weren’t super rich then, but they were on the verge of it. And both still live in the same neighborhood they made it in (Scorcese’s Mean Streets would soon make both of them famous).
We, living on West 12th street, were not on the verge of any kind of affluence. We were just making ends meet, living in that building, not realizing how hip we would be considered a few years later. And I am sure that all of us, the young DeNiro and Keitel included, had to put up with a lot of what we did too; no hot water sometimes, no water at all other times, no heat, no garbage pick- up. These buildings were owned by absentee landlords; the owners wouldn’t be caught dead living there themselves. Instead, they hired what we called a Janitor; someone usually given the ground floor apartment for little or no rent provided they took care of the everyday needs of the tenants and the building itself; things like mopping the hallways, un-clogging drains, replacing faulty faucets and keeping the water and the heat coming.
Yes, heat. Usually, these buildings had ancient furnaces in the basement, with pipes running up to radiators in each apartment. Now there is nothing wrong with radiators; I still think they give the best heat possible and can warm a large apartment or home for hours after the furnace shuts off. The problem would arise when the said Janitor wasn’t on the ball and the furnace turned off for whatever reason, and those pretty radiators would become as cold as a grave.
Many a night I remember waking up realizing the apartment was frigid, the heat having gone off hours before, no one noticing its absence until we realized we were turning a peculiar shade of blue. That is the thing with renting an apartment; you just assume the heat will come back on when needed. But if you didn’t have a good Janitor watching over the place, oftentimes it wouldn’t.
And then what would we do? Call the Landlord? Call the Janitor? Go downstairs and try to find the lazy bastard? No.
We would bang on the pipes.
It was an old and honored tradition of tenants living in walkups in the city at the time. Dad would get a ladle or spoon from a kitchen drawer and wail at the pipes; if it was really cold and he was in a really bad mood, he would bring out the hammer, though Mom always had to remind him we just wanted heat, not a broken pipe. All through the building, you could hear everyone doing the same time, banging away and it made a weird kind of music as everyone had a different style of whacking a pipe. Some were short ratatatas, others were in some kind of cadence….one rap…wait…then two in quick succession. And then there were the wailers, and Dad was one of those. The hell with silly ratatats or making a tune; he wanted heat damn it, and watching him swing that ladle and slam it into the pipe, bending it of course out of any usable shape, I was reminded of a deranged John Henry, the steel-driving man of legend. Maybe he was taking out his aggressions and frustrations about his job, his lot in life, whatever on those pipes, but either way unless the Janitor was in another state, or had died without telling us, soon you would hear the hiss of hot steam coming up from the basement and soon those radiators were humming with heat.
I always thought it was funny that after a month or so of cursing the Janitor and banging on the pipes, come the holidays, everyone in the building gave him a tip, or a bottle of booze, or baked him some cookies. And that feeling of goodwill lasted just until the next time the heat went off, usually the second week in January, and then it was back to cursing the guy and banging on the pipes.
I remember years later when Leslie and I had moved to Park Slope in Brooklyn, even at that time a desirable place to be though nothing like the gentrified locale it is today, and the heat went off unexpectedly in our small apartment on Ninth Street just down from Prospect Park. I immediately went to the kitchen drawer and grabbed a large metal spoon and went toward the pipes. Leslie stopped me of course, reminding me that one didn’t do that in Park Slope; that behavior was from another time, another neighborhood. I reluctantly agreed and put the spoon away.
And we sat in the cold.
There is something to be said for the old ways of doing things.