Smash Broadway Hit — DRILL BITS AND WINDOW BOARDS
November 1, 1999
Our neighborhood hardware store is on Broadway under the elevated tracks of the 1/9 Subway at the point where affluent Riverdale, where we have just settled, meets the real Bronx.
I waited a long time for a skinny young clerk to help me. People were calling him Flaco. Flaco was Hispanic — probably either Puerto Rican or Dominican. Not that it makes any difference which. It’s just that being able to make such a judgment is evidence of a full set of New York tools. I’d like to be so equipped.
Flaco went behind the counter and started handing me various sizes of masonry drill bits except the 1/4-inch one I had come for. After what seemed to be about a half hour of this, during which Flaco waited on other customers in addition to me, I began to ache with a deep longing to go behind the counter myself. If I could have gotten close enough to read the labels, the problem would have been solved. It was not to be, of course. Customers were not permitted within reading distance of anything smaller than a snow thrower.
Flaco handed me a 9/16-inch bit, and I said, “no, 1/4-inch,” and then the curtain rose on a rather fully developed little drama featuring an interesting new customer with a serious problem. I call it “The Helpful Hardware Man. A Parody.”
Everyone knew something was up as soon as she walked in. She was Anglo — badly bleached blond, chunky, and Anglo. Her problem had to do with a toilet.
“I flush it and the water goes down, but a lot of the uh…the uh… — you know, the stuff — stays up.” Just looking at her, I would not have thought she’d have the least bit of trouble saying the name of the substance that wouldn’t go down when she flushed. That reluctance supplied fullness to her character. Kept her from being flat.
Flaco, the helpful hardware Puerto Rican/Dominican played dumb. Maybe he wasn’t playing. He asked, “You mean like cigarettes?” I thought that an odd response, but then I was a stranger in those parts.
“Yeah and uh, you know…”
“You got to wrap the cigarette butt in a little bit of tissue, you know. It’s too light, so it’s gonna float.” He conducted this tutorial on the fundamentals of the sanitary sewer over his shoulder. His body was turned toward the display of drill bits.
At that point I was astonished by a sudden observation. The man was multitasking. In fact, as I looked around, I saw that every clerk in the place was multitasking. According to any number of social commentators — all of whom find it easier to get published than I do — multi-tasking is the special activity of top-of-the-heap type people, people who are burdened with smartphones and iPads. Those geniuses should spend some time in the Bronx.
The lady seemed to think she hadn’t been clear. She tried again. “But see nothing goes down but the water.”
“You got to use a snake then,” Flaco said.
A picture sprang to mind of this worn-looking woman jamming a plumber’s augur deep into the sewer line of the no doubt broken-down apartment building where she lived. She seemed to be looking at the same picture. Her eyes went blank for a moment, then she shuffled out, head down. It was one of those plays that without warning switches from light comedy to dark and sad.
I shook it off.
“That may be the bit I’m looking for up there on the second row,” I said helpfully.
At that moment the manager came stage center. Peter, according to his name tag, barged in with a Spanish-only customer who wanted information about some kitchen cabinets. Flaco, about whom I had come to feel somewhat possessive — having spent a good part of the afternoon trying to help him be reasonably effective in his work — was pressed into service. He left, though, so I claimed Peter.
Now, it should be kept in mind that the story of the woman with the toilet problem was but a play within a play. The principal play, which provides the frame for all others, is about me and my problems. Would I be able to purchase what I had come to buy? Would I leave the store still believing that I was a reasonably functional person? More important, would I get finished before the parking meter expired? (The fine is high — I think $55.) Most important — this was the real ticking-clock, time-bomb source of suspense — would I get out before I peed in my pants?
That little hardware store under the tracks was a great leveler. Given the experience I was having, I might as well have been poor.
Hoping to win a little respect, I went after Peter aggressively. I spoke loudly and called into action a form of expression that is a New York City specialty — the question form that seeks to elicit guilt along with information.
“You don’t have a 1/4-inch masonry bit?” I sounded as querulous and accusatory as a native. And he could not possibly have missed the elliptical part that followed — “you dumbass.”
“A what?” Peter frowned. I don’t think he liked questions. I’m sure he didn’t care for that particular one.
“A 1/4-inch masonry bit.”
“What?” He had gone to the loud bray of interrogatory sound that is another specialty of New York City speech.
“A drill bit for use on bathroom tile.”
“Oh. A masonary bit.” He awarded “masonry” an extra syllable, as in “missionary.” I asked myself whether that pronunciation was common in the Bronx or peculiar to Peter.
We were looking for the 1/4-inch masonary bit when the helpful Puerto Rican/Dominican hardware man and the Spanish-speaking lady re-entered from stage right. She had a question that was beyond Flaco’s ken. Was a particular cabinet included in the sale?
“It’s says on the flyer,” Flaco said.
“Read it again.”
The lady was mulling it over, when a newcomer — surprisingly, another Anglo — butted in. He was a middle-aged guy with Irish-tinted speech. His rosy cheeks and the broken capillaries on his nose suggested that he spent a good deal of time in the pubs on the next block.
“Would you have a knife for cutting window board?” he asked.
It was such a strange question that I ignored the way that he had interrupted the Spanish-speaking woman who had interrupted me. By my count I was three removes from where I needed to be to buy the drill bit. Being blessed with a high degree of intelligence, I realized that the slow pace of commerce in that shop was why I needed to pee so bad.
Tough. We were off and running on another little play, this one formed primarily around the question — what is window board? — and secondarily — “can you really cut it with a knife?” Everyone with ears to hear was sucked into the developing drama.
“Window board?” Peter asked.
“No. Window board.”
“No. Window board.”
We strained to focus. Every face bore evidence of the effort. Pity there was no photographer. It struck me as quite likely that it was in this store or one like it that method acting had been born. Had Stanislavsky shopped here? If I got another turn to speak, I would ask.
Finally, by some happenstance I don’t recall, it became clear that the Irishman was asking about a knife to cut a product named “Wonder Board.”
As soon as Peter understood that, he got right on top of things.
“Oh. Wonder Board.”
“Yeah. Window Board.”
“You need a tungsten blade knife.”
“I know that.” He knew that? “Do you have any?”
The Irish guy exited stage left, and shuffled off in the direction of a pub. Maybe he’d run into the lady with the toilet problem. They could drink together and take turns telling what a hard day it had been.
Finally, by buying a set of six masonary bits in various sizes, I obtained the ¼ inch size that I had gone through so much for. I made it home without getting a parking ticket or wetting my pants.
In solidarity with my shopping companions, I mixed a drink. I put some Camembert and crackers on a plate, and collapsed on the couch. Peewee the cat made a place on my lap, and we watched the sun go down behind the New Jersey palisades on the other side of the Hudson.
Life in this new neighborhood was going to be hard work.