April 04, 2009

The Brownstone

By Paul McGuire © 2009

In the summer of 2001, I crashed with my grandmother in Brooklyn for a couple of weeks after my wife kicked me out.

My grandmother was a very small yet feisty woman somewhere from the Benelux countries. We never really figured out where. She spoke English with a Flemish accent and was fluent in French, Dutch, and even German. Grandma never discussed her past, nor displayed a picture of anyone from her previous life. Not a word or a peep.

Nothing existed for her before 1944. She was very vague with that part of her life during the war in Europe. She left behind something so incredibly horrifying that she wanted to erase those connections to that past. The vastness of the Atlantic ocean was far enough distance for her to feel safe enough to establish roots and start over a new life in Brooklyn, where she met my grandfather. By the end of their first date, he asked her to marry him. They were married on their second date.

Grandma lived in a brownstone in Carroll Gardens on an idyllic block around the corner from an old Jewish bakery. On some mornings, the aroma of rolls and pastries could be smelled as far away as the subway five blocks away. My grandma lived on that street for as long as I could remember. One of my earliest childhood memories involved running down the tree-lined street towards Grandma's brownstone.

When I was a kid, I used to think that my grandparents owned the building. It turned out that my grandfather was like every other working class stiff.... humping a shitty job down in docks to pay rent to a shyster slumlord from Flatbush who bitched and moaned when you asked him to fix a leaky pipe.

My grandfather died in his fifties after a nasty heart attack. Despite the loss, grandma carved out a lively life for over two decades before her first stroke. Her health deteriorated and everyone in the family took turns looking after her. My sister Peg lived nearby in Park Slope and Peg ended up as the primary caregiver, something that she annoying reminded me every time we spoke. When my wife kicked me out after the credit card fraud incident, my sister suggested Brooklyn as the proper place to regroup. At the same time, she wanted me to watch after grandma while she went on vacation to Disney World with her husband and kids. I really didn't have a place to go and Peg's manipulation job worked. She successfully guilt tripped me into moving into the Brownstone for the summer.

* * * * *

I like dogs, but I hated Venus.

"Venus! Down! Now!" she screamed.

Venus is a feminine name suited for a loving lap cat that curled up on you and purred when you stroked its back. Yet in my world, Venus was an angry mutt that tried to bite my hand and/or cock off every time he was within a half a block of me. That dog had to piss more times than a bunch of sorority girls at nickel beer nights, and the owners constantly walked Venus.

The ornery canine belonged to the old hippie couple who lived in the brownstone next door to grandma. The husband was some sort of semi-famous horn player. He often gave after school lessons to students. Whenever I stopped by grandma's after school, we could hear the wailing sounds of kids who desperately needed more practice. He offered me a 50% discount on any sort of wind lessons; sax, trumpet, flute, and even tuba. I wanted to play guitar, all I ever wanted to play, but he did not offer up those lessons so turned him down.

My grandfather never liked the horn player too much. The old guy was a bit of a racist and used to complain about the loud late night parties when the horn player and his musician buddies would hang out in the backyard and drink and smoke and joke around.

"Those damn negroes are smokin' reefer again!" he used to shout out the window according to my mom.

My uncle Dom used to randomly blurt that out during family functions and everyone would burst out in laughter. It was our twisted family's way of remembering our beloved racist grandfather.

Venus was a mean dog and I always peeked out the front door to make sure he wasn't taking a whiz or a dump before I left the brownstone. I had stooped to a new low. I was 34 years old and afraid a dog while living with my grandmother who smelled like Ben Gay as sat on her couch and watched reruns of Dallas and Family Feud.

Grandma lived in the top two floors of a three-story brownstone. A 40-something guy lived in the basement apartment. He seemed like a nice guy. Quiet. Kept to himself. Perfect serial killer material. He always avoided eye contact and wore heavy jackets... even in the summer. Judging by his garbage, he ate a lot of pizza and I gauged that he was a NY Post reader by all the old copies that tossed out. He accumulated a week's worth of newspapers before he threw them out. The whiskey bottles? Empties appeared every third day. Her preferred Jack Daniels, and on the rare occasion, a bottle of cheap white wine. He kept odd hours but usually during the afternoon hours, I heard the echos of a typewriter. Old school. He was a writer of some sort and never quite figured out what.

My grandmother had a habit of going through his garbage... with his permission of course. The guy in the basement read a lot of magazines, or at least, he subscribed to a bunch. He always left them out for my grandma. Of course, grandma horded all of them yet barely read them. The three biggest arguments that I had with her involved throwing out the magazines. She insisted that she keep them because you never knew when someone else might need to do a school paper so something.

"That's what the internet if for Grandma," I said. "What are you really going to do with Esquire anyway? And do you actually read the Economist?"

During my morning dumps, I grabbed a stack of magazines and headed into the bathroom. During those twenty minutes, I thumbed through old magazines. Sometimes he had a couple of suspicious items like hunting gear catalogues, International Male magazines, and copies of the Christian Science Monitor.

Grandma put him on her "queer suspect list" like my cousin Frankie. She said that she had never seen him with a woman, so she had to suspect the obvious. A couple of nights before July 4th, I caught him with a call girl. My cell phone worked the best up on the roof and it was also the best place to smoke a blunt. I climbed up to the roof one evening admiring a batch of fireworks that a group of kids shot off. A black town car pulled up in front of the brownstone. A petite Asian woman stepped out and rang his doorbell. The car pulled off and twenty minutes later, it reappeared. The Asian woman walked out of the brownstone and hopped back into the car. My grandma's neighbor had a penchant for Asian Delights in-call service.

Paul McGuire is a writer from New York City.

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