SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
August 23, 2009

Four Days in the Hole

 

About a month ago, my landlord mention in passing that at some point in the near future, a couple of contractors were going to show up to fix the front steps and re-do the pointing on the building facade. Old as I am, I still have no idea what “pointing” refers to, but given all the major renovations that’ve been going on here over the past year and a half, I took it in stride. I noted the heads-up and moved on. I’d have to keep my eyes open, though—work on the stoop meant that I’d be trapped in the building for a couple of days. I’d need to stock up on beer and food and smokes.

            The last time this happened, about ten years ago, I was surprised to come home from work one day to find a couple of guys slapping a new coat of brownstone cement on the front stoop. At the time they’d just started, so they told me I could still come in through the front door. As I ascended the steps, one of the men took my arm to help me over the top step and into the building. This threw me off balance (of course) and I plopped my heel right in the middle of the fresh cement.

            Then when I got upstairs, I discovered they’d been sandblasting while I was at work. My windows (of course) had been left wide open, so everything in the front room of my little apartment—from the bed to some mighty rare books—was coated in reddish-brown concrete dust. And the next morning when I tried to leave for work, I found that the front door and the entire stoop had been wrapped in heavy plastic sheeting like some half-assed Christo installation, apparently to prevent anyone from tracking through the wet cement.

The only other way to leave the building was through the ground floor apartment (where everyone was undoubtedly still asleep), so I squeezed around the plastic on the door, and carefully slipped over the railing, dropping my bag to the ground and dangling on the outside of the stoop, inching my way down the bannister until I was close enough to drop safely. It was a clumsy escape, one that left me a little scraped and sore and one that likely messed up the fresh cement, but by god I was proud of myself.

            I was much younger, more agile, and less blind back then, and knew it wasn’t the kind of stunt I’d be able to repeat now. At least now I didn’t have a job to force me outside. This time I’d just be prepared to hunker down.

            Well, when they did show up at about eight one Wednesday morning, they caught me completely by surprise. Before they could do too much damage I dashed out to the store and loaded up on several days worth of supplies. Everything would be okay. Once safely back in my apartment, I closed the windows and the blinds to keep the grit and peeping eyes out, and settled in for a couple of days of solitary.

            Early the next morning I crept downstairs and peeked out the front door to survey the situation. They’d scraped and chipped away all the old brownstone, but hadn’t done anything else. There was no plastic sheeting. The stoop seemed safe and wide open, so I ran out and picked up more supplies, just to be on the safe side, returning before they showed up to keep working.

            The next morning the same thing happened. The stairs were clear. This was gonna be a breeze, I figured—I had enough cigarettes and beer to keep me for five or six days.

            Then for the next five or six days, they didn’t show up. Or they showed up, but only worked for a couple of hours on the side of the building, not touching the steps at all. One day they showed up and loaded most of their equipment into a truck and disappeared.

            I wanted to stay prepared for whenever they might show again, but I was beginning to wonder when that might be. I still ducked out early for supplies and got back before they might show up, and stayed in for the rest of the day just to avoid being caught unawares. After about a week of this I started to relax. I came and went as I pleased.

            On Thursday night, Morgan and I planned to go out. There was a show in Manhattan we’d been wanting to see for awhile, and I wasn’t about to let the stoop situation get in the way, especially when there was no clear indication that anything at all was going to happen. Something told me it was inevitable, though.

            An hour before I headed out to meet Morgan, my landlord called.

            “I just wanted to warn you—these guys are going to start working on the front steps first thing tomorrow,” she said. “So you better make sure you have groceries.”

            “Oh no,” I said.

            I knew it I knew it I knew it.

            “What’s wrong?”

            I explained the situation to her—that I was headed into Manhattan and probably wouldn’t be back until the next afternoon.

“Oh,” she said, and explained that there wouldn’t be anyone to let me in on the ground floor after twelve—and they wouldn’t be back until six or seven. “So you either need to get back here before noon, or if you can’t, you might want to go get a drink someplace until seven.”

            While that second option was certainly feasible, I’d rather get back inside my apartment and get drunk there.

            “I guess I’ll just need to get back here before noon, then.”

            “You might want to pick up enough groceries to hold you for three of four days, too—it’ll take a couple of days, then they have to let it dry.”

            “Uh-huh.”

            So that’s what I did. Went to the show, then got up early the next morning and hangover be damned, rode back into Brooklyn, grabbed some more beer on the way, and got back to the house with ten minutes to spare.

            I’ve been locked in the apartment for three days now. It’s funny, when I’m free to come and go as I please I have little or no desire to step outside. The people out there bug the hell out of me. Once I’m told I can’t leave, however—when it’s physically impossible for me to leave—all I want to do is get outside, walk around, breathe some fresh air and greet the neighbors with a wave and a smile. Making things worse, I’m still keeping the windows closed and the shades pulled, and of course it’s been ninety degrees and humid this whole time. I still haven’t bothered to put in air conditioning, so I’m making the most of three fans. The garbage and the empties are piling up in a corner of the kitchen. I’m running low on smokes, and I only have two sixers left. After that, I suppose I can resort to the questionable bottles of Third World wine on the bottom shelf of the fridge, or the whiskey above the sink. The VCR died too. I’m bathing less carefully.

            I keep telling myself that I’ll be okay. I haven’t started hallucinating yet, and I haven’t started making friends with the rats. I’ve kept myself busy writing crap, pontificating, and pacing. I’m considering the possibility of rigging up a little basket on a string to dangle out the window, and asking my neighbor to go get me some smokes.

            On the bright side, this whole time I’ve never had to put on pants, and I haven’t felt the overpowering urge to kill strangers. I took a peek out the window after they left this afternoon, only to learn that they’d chained and barred the front gate shut. If I were as agile as I was ten years ago it would be no sweat—I’d just bound over it. Now, though, it might as well be the Berlin Wall. It’s possible, I’m told, that they might finish up tomorrow. But I’ll need to wait until tomorrow to see.

            I know that as soon as they’re finished, as soon as the stoop is free and clear and passable again, as soon as I can leave the house whenever the whim takes me, I’m going to find a thousand excuses to stay inside.

 

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