Recently, during a cold snap, the pipes froze in the upstairs bathroom of our house in New Jersey and the water caused the beautiful metal ceiling I installed eight years ago in my kitchen to fall down. I had spent a solid six weeks of my life making that boring-ass 1980’s kitchen into my dream 1939 kitchen and had ordered the pressed brass ceiling from a company in Canada and installed it myself. But now it’s just a twisted pile of metal on my front porch. The best laid plans of mice and men. Or of rats and men. The whole thing got me to thinking.
This most recent “disaster” in my life reminded me of another “disaster” which happened a long time ago, back in the 1970’s, when I was single and living by myself in New York City. There were many disasters in my life back then, and this is but one of them.
This is a true story.
The faces have changed with the passage of time and the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
I had paid the $3,000 in “key money” a few years before, for the rights to illegally occupy a rather primitive storefront loft on Grand Street in New York City’s emerging “artist community” and I had moved right in, in the light of day, along with my girlfriend, Shirley, and her dog, Zoe, but by the Spring of 1978, the three of us had long since gone our separate ways– she to a loft a few blocks South, on Beach Street, in Tribecca (triangle below Canal Street)–and she took her dog with her, so when the ceiling collapsed that Friday morning in 1978, as I sat reading the Classified Section of the Village Voice, it was all on me—as it always is in life.
It had been one of the first things I noticed about the place that I liked that June when we rented it. It was a thousand square feet of pressed tin, a full eleven feet high– but someone long before had painted it light green.
Practically the first thing I did after drinking a few beers and sweeping up the red clay dust the potter had left behind was to borrow a stepladder and buy several gallons of silver paint and a couple of brushes, and like some more famous artists before me had done, I, too became a painter in Soho, although they didn’t call it that then.It was the “South Village.” And over the next twelve years or so I was to live there, a lot of things went South.
The building itself still stands, an old law tenement, four stories above a store, built probably in the late 1880’s. The place is a Chinese Laundry now, “G&G Cleaners.” An odd coincidence, though not Chinese, my parents were in the laundry business and my children’s names are Grant and Grayson.
It was around ten o’clock in the morning and I had taken the day off from work. I was reading the newspaper while waiting for a friend to arrive for a visit when I heard a sound I had never heard before. An odd sound. I can only describe it as sounding like small pebbles–the kind you might expect to see in the bottom of a child’s aquarium–dropping onto a painted white plywood floor in the middle of the room in which I sat.
Except there were no pebbles and no child’s aquarium attached to the metal ceiling eleven feet overhead.
What was attached to the ceiling were three rather large flourescent lights of 1940’s vintage which had been there for decades and into which I had installed colored flourescent lightbulbs in my own version of a Dan Flavin artwork. There was also a 25,000 BTU gas-operated heater with a fan which hung from the ceiling by two cast iron pipes mounted directly into the wooden joists through small holes cut in the tin. The heater, which I installed at my own expense, provided the only source of heat for the entire space and was rather unsightly but in no way contributed to the disaster which was now only minutes away as I sat reading the newspaper.
I heard the noise again, a slight variation of the earlier noise of the pebbles dropping onto the painted plywood floor and this time I put down my newspaper, got up walked a few feet to the window, looked out and saw a man unloading something from the back of a truck parked across the street at John DeLorenzo Iron and Sheet Metal Works. Obviously the noise of the pebbles was coming from that truck.
It’s funny how the mind will find an explanation, no matter how implausible for something it cannot understand. Satisfied that I had solved the mystery, I went back to my chair, sat back down, picked up the newspaper and continued reading. Suddenly there was a polite knock at the door.
My friend had arrived.
As I arose from my chair to answer the door I heard and saw to my utter shock and amazement what I can only describe as a sudden, unexpected, loud crashing noise accompanied by nothing else other than the sudden detachment of a large section of metal ceiling, which, now escalating in intensity under its own weight, proceeded in a destructive wave some fifty feet toward the rear of the space, ripping down the gas heater, fluorescent lighting fixtures and covering every square inch of floorspace, chairs, lamps, drawing table, magazine rack, potted plants, boxes of books and everything else I owned in twisted metal, plaster rubble, wood lath, old rags, scraps of clothing and newspaper, bent nails, dead rats from the 1920’s and 30’s and the soup bones they pilfered from the immigrant families who had once occupied the small apartments upstairs.
All this and more lying freshly deposited, below a noxious cloud of black dust and the dirt of a hundred years which now settled slowly upon me.
I was only saved from injury or perhaps sudden death because after a little more than half of the ceiling had collapsed and came to rest upon the floor, completely blocking out the sunlight from the front windows it supported itself from further collapse.
In the darkness and dust, I was somehow able to pry the fallen ceiling aside and make my way through the dried out soup bones and dessicated carcasses of century-dead rats, and half stumble and fall in semi-shock across the unpainted top of the tin ceiling and plaster rubble on top of it to finally open the door and greet my friend, the look upon whose face I shall never forget. “What happened?”, she asked. “The ceiling fell in.” I answered. As we stood there on the steps just outside the apartment looking at each other, she explained that she had just knocked on the door when there was, “this tremendous crash from inside and a cloud of dust emanated from under the door.” She needn’t have been surprised, I had told her before that she had an effect on me.
I called the landlord, an artist and collector, and to his credit, he came rushing down in a cab and stopped a passing city garbage truck and paid them fifty dollars in cash to go in and rip out what they could and in fifteen minutes time, they had hauled that twisted metal ceiling away. His insurance company settled with me for three hundred dollars.
Along with the help of a good friend from work, a couple of brooms and a dustpan and a mop and a box or two of black plastic bags, by the end of the weekend we had the place livable again.
Good enough for an artist anyway.