Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Basement

Len Klein
Memory Sketch # 54
Saturday, December 21, 2002

In our parent’s house at 880 Saratoga Avenue, in Brooklyn, our family lived on the second floor. The first floor was rented by a family of four, the Arrow family. The house also had a rentable basement apartment that had been rented continuously for a time, but while I was in the Air Force, it had become more difficult to rent out the basement. A young men’s club had been renting it at the time I was discharged.

My brother, Arnie, and I had long planned to take over the basement apartment once I was relieved of Service. When that time came, we put the plan into effect. When we took over the place, we never fully renovated it, but we did put down a new tile floor in the living room. In the process of preparing for the new floor, we discovered a flow of water from a leaking pipe that had been corroding one section of the basement living room floor. The floorboards near the bathroom wall were soft and fragmenting. A sheet of metal had been put over the area to keep people from falling through. Arnie and Dad worked together to repair the leak, which had probably been running water for years. I assisted them the best I could and the situation provided my Dad and brother with an opportunity to make fun of the “college boy” with his book learning who doesn’t even know how to thread pipe.

Just inside the apartment front door, to the left, there was space under the steps in which we placed a desk. It was to be my study area. The desk we had was quite old and the wooden top somewhat warped. It had once been painted and the paint was in pretty bad condition. However, it was made of real wood throughout. I no longer remember where it came from or how it got into the basement. Anyway, we had to strip and repaint it and when it was done, I had my first desk. Everything was in working order. It even had that little pull out shelf on the right side, and a file drawer too. On the desk, I had my trusty Smith-Corona portable typewriter on which I had first taught myself to touch type. I had bought it while I was in high school and had it with me during my time of service. Now it was doing college work.

On the same side of the room as was the desk, we had built a rather long bookcase using twelve-inch deep boards. I didn’t have enough books to fill it so we had plenty of room for shelf stuff, little odds and ends that we had to put somewhere, and some plain old chachkies that we liked. For a while, I had my textbooks on the shelves with each one still wrapped in their bookstore covers. So that, to look at them, one could only see book after book with the same red and white book cover and the name “Barron’s” on each one. You could never find anything except by an elaborate search, but I felt that the books were well protected. It did rather defeat the purpose of shelving them in a library. When my cousin Maury Haykin called attention to what I was doing, I felt quite embarrassed, and removed all the covers.

There was one small room in the back of the apartment that my friend, Irwin Goodman, had hoped I would turn into a photographic darkroom in which we could both work. We had dreamed about it together before I went into the Service, but when I got out, I was no longer motivated to do it. I could see that he was very disappointed, and I felt sorry that I’d let him down, but I just couldn’t see setting up a darkroom that I was not going to use in any serious way. My attention and anxieties had turned to making it in Brooklyn College, and I really couldn’t afford any diversions. Arnie and I turned the room into a bedroom instead, hoping to have girlfriends over in some alternating order. Like the darkroom, the dream was never fully met, but it was partially achieved. I painted the walls pink and the ceiling a light blue. At the time, I thought it was so cool but now, especially since I have written about Maynard and his pink sweaters, it gives me the creeps to remember the room colors.

We had a working kitchen and bathroom with a stall shower. Arnie rebuilt the shower stall and even though it was small, it was quite pretty and nice to have. The pipes in the shower seemed to carry sound down from my parents apartment, so that one time, when Lorraine and I were crammed into the stall together, we overheard my mother cursing out Lorraine for sleeping over. I had never heard my mother speak like that so it was quite a revelation, but I felt sorry for Lorraine having to hear it. It was something that was not meant for our ears and kind of violated my parents privacy. Things like that one just keeps to oneself – well, not entirely. We did share it with friends, who from their own experiences could readily understand and we could all laugh about it.- the quaint older generation and all that.

The kitchen even had room for a table and chairs against the wall. The regular dining area, however, contained a junk pile that we never cleared out, and never saw any reason to keep a light on there. It was a really dark space and had no easily recognizable shapes, so it frightened anybody who passed by on the way to the kitchen. I remember that more than one girl did an involuntary cringe as she passed the sinister darkness.

We also had a full size metal closet that we had acquired from Uncle Israel during one of his office clean-outs. The closet served as our pantry and we filled it with cans of Chef Boyardee products. The stove in the kitchen was stuffed with empty coca-cola bottles awaiting a trip to the store for the deposit money. Obviously, we did not do much cooking downstairs, at least not until Lorraine began to come down. Then she insisted that we clean up the kitchen area so she could cook stuff. She made the most wonderful bacon, cooked western style, constantly turning the strips and draining off the fat. They were served up soft and delicious on warm bialys clad with melted mozzarella cheese. We don’t eat that way anymore, but even the memory is delicious. When my Mom made bacon, she simply burnt the shit out of each strip so that when you bit into it, it just crumbled. Of course, we ate it anyway.

The walls of the kitchen area were painted in a style that almost defies description. Whenever we painted anywhere, in the living room, the shelves there, the bedroom, I took all the remaining paint in the bottoms of the cans and shmeared it on the kitchen wall. There were large irregular patches of unharmonious colors looking like they were just plopped onto the wall, which of course they were. I called my effort, the Rorschach style of wall painting. It was interesting to look at because while we were having our coffee with bacon-cheese bialys, we could see in the wall all our mishagas come to life. Most people have mishagas that’s off the wall, but we were different.

In the short hallway before reaching the door to the apartment, we set up red and green signal lights to indicate whether it was safe to come in. We were dreaming of all sorts of sexual encounters that were in our future, just waiting for us to make them happen in our basement boudoir. Oh yes, the short hallway, between the outside front door and the door to the apartment, we painted flat black. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but scared the hell out of most people who came through it.

Since I studied in the living room and that’s where we had the TV, I had to go into the television cabinet and interrupt the audio lines running to the speaker. I attached a long audio wire that enabled Arn to watch the soundless set while wearing headsets. Of course, it was funny to hear him laugh into the silence while he was watching and I was reading.

While trying to studying at my desk one afternoon, the personal daemons that seem always to object to my intentional activities were in considerable agitation and I kept reading the same lines over and over again, getting nowhere. I tried reading aloud and that helped a little; I tried pacing the floor while reading my text, and that helped even more. While pacing in front of the bookcase I suddenly became aware of my books, only they appeared differently in my mind. Always before books had been associated with my mother, but just then they appeared to connect me to my father. Just as my father, a plumber, had his tools, so I, a plumber of the mind, had mine, only they were books. My books were my tools and I was like my father, a worker making people’s lives better. I began to cry, a joyful cry that didn’t want to stop; it was cleansing my soul and felt light and free. Connection made me free, not distancing or separation, but connection to my father. So simple it seemed yet so powerful in its effect on me that I was amazed. After the crying subsided, I studied easily and absorbed everything. For a week afterward I heard everything spoken in class with a clarity that I had not had before, and read my assignments smoothly. The usually uphill struggle to learn became an easy downhill slide. I was light and sharp, and I loved it. A week, it lasted for about a week, then it started to disappear and I was back to my usual ways, but with something retained from the experience. It was as if I had gained a taste of what I could be like if some of the inner fears and conflicts could be resolved.

We bought a thirty-inch speaker and Arnie built a speaker box out of three-quarter inch plywood to house it. It was huge. We painted that flat black too. Arnie hooked it up to his Heath kit audio equipment, which he had built himself, and we really could get some loud sounds out of that set up. Once we turned it up to see what it could do, and we drove our neighbors clear out of the house. We resolved not to do that ever again.

In the living room, we had an old couch that may have been my parent’s before we acquired it. We used it to watch the television set. The couch had a wooden frame looping around the back of it, so that whenever anyone put his or her head back it hit the wood and that didn’t feel good.

We were able to put an air conditioner in the living room and a small casement air conditioner in the back bedroom. These made the summers much more livable, and it was more pleasant for people to visit. Although it was somewhat dark in our basement apartment, we did have a lot of space.

There was one day during a deep snow of winter that we heard a knock at our door that surprised us. Opening the door, we were confronted with the Abominable Snow Man. It was covered with snow, wearing a hood from an Army fatigue jacket beneath his long Army raincoat, and hazardous weather goggles with the rest of the face wrapped in muffler. It’s khaki pants were tucked into huge boots and there were large gloves as well. Although at first we didn’t recognize him, but his voice gave him away even coming through his disguise – it was my cousin Dan. He had just completed the two-mile walk from his house to ours through the snow blizzard.

No comments: