Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Self Storage, Part Two

Self Storage, Part Two

Whenever I drive past Tony Greco’s house I think about the little pointy toed shoes, some of them two toned, and the expensive suits and hats in cardboard boxes sitting in the sewage leak under the house,

And also how he chased me out of his yard the last time I was there.

His walls were lined with boxes of dry food and cans of food and row upon row of dirty little bottles, each containing a single vitamin prescribed by a chiropractor named Dr. Deal.

I fixed his refrigerator once and was nauseated by the smell of well preserved food that had just been refrigerated so long it had lost its moisture and vitality. While I had my head stuck in the guts of the fridge, I heard loud moans from the other room. It sounded like an emergency so I extricated myself, dropped my tools and ran in to find him hanging upside down from a chair. He said that was just an exercise he did to improve the circulation to his brain. His kitchen counter was piled high with dirty dishes, and pots and pans. Everywhere in the house there were narrow paths winding in and out of boxes and stored furniture. The floor that was visible was almost covered with a carpet of discarded Kleenexes. A ceiling fan with one blade and one light hung over the stove. He loved pigeons so he fed them so the yard and house were covered with shit, feathers and dander. One of them flew in once and he broke one of the four blades with a broom trying to shoo it out, so I broke its partner blade off for him so it would be in balance.

Even his relationships seemed to be in storage. His wife had died shortly after his son was born. He turned out to be an unruly child and Tony traveled a lot so he paid some relatives to take care of him. Always doing the right thing, always noble at least in his own mind, always doing nice things for people, he took some refugees in and got robbed for his efforts, but his charity did not extend to the people he manipulated to do work for him. He’d befriended Charley when he was having trouble with the law, and got him released in his care.

“He’s a human being, deserves a chance.” Tony said.

That adventure worked out OK, for Tony, but Charley had to leave because he got tired of working day and night, moving boxes full of old light bulbs and electrical parts, vehicles and rotten lumber around, just for the privilege of parking his camper on Tony’s lot. It must have been hard for Charley to weigh the meaninglessness of that against breaking rocks in a prison yard. And the guard was now a tiny figure of a man with huge ideas about the value of his stored treasures. Realizing their actual value would have meant losing his self and all the time it had spent on earth. Tony always said that someday he’d get it all together, and follow the county fairs around the country again setting up temporary lighting. Verne took him out to the county fair once, and said Tony really had a good time, speaking to the Carnies in their own lingo and playing on his age & experience.

Several times the city cited him for the cars & vans in his yard and he’d get dressed up and go before the court and make elegant apologies and promises and get continuances and reduced fines. He enjoyed the attention, the fuss and bother, and the protocol and ritual of the court, and he obviously even more enjoyed telling people who offered to buy any of the old vehicles from him to go fuck themselves.

Verne used to work on the cars for him and his cooler and anything else that needed fixing and he’d get paid sometimes with a meal of canned goods or a boiled egg. I told Verne once,

“Careful you don’t get used.”

And he said,

“Used till you’re all used up!” Verne was tall and lanky, mechanically clever, cheerful and friendly. When he’d look up from an engine and see me, he’d shake my hand, pump it, grin showing a lot of bad teeth, and say,

“WELLLL, WELLLLL, missss STER DENNIS! How's missss STER DENNIS today?!”

He was in his late seventies and in failing health and his wife had diabetes. She often told me, when I called, asking for him,

“He’s supposed to be home, helping me.”

They had successfully raised eleven children. Melancholy as I tend to be, I was awestruck by his positive attitude as he toddled wearily around with his bad heart, fixing things. I was also awestruck by the uselessness of it, but that was only semi conscious in the beginning.

“It’s nothing but a headache working for old people” Verne said, “Tony told his son to just forget he ever had a dad. And you know that’s no good.”

Tony said he felt sorry for his son, and would tell him,

“You should take Vitamin C, and A and E for your acne.” And his son would say,

“You bug me.”

And Tony’d say,

“I’m just trying to help.” And his son would say,

“You bug me. Shut up.” And Tony’d say,

“Don’t talk to me like that. Get out of my house!”

“I WILL talk like that. And what’re you gonna do about it, huh?”

It would get physical then, and Tony’d tell him never to come back and that would be it for a year or so.

Once Verne arranged for some homeless people to clean out the front porch and Tony refused to pay, saying that Verne wanted to pay them too much and, besides, he said,

“I didn’t authorize the work.”

Verne would take Tony shopping because Tony’s license had been revoked because he ran into people’s lawns, telephone poles and parked cars. Before they went, there had to be a planning session of where they would go first and last and in between. It couldn’t be too early because Tony needed to shave and get dressed.

“Couldn’t you go without shaving?” Verne asked.

“No, it’s too HUMILATING!”

So he’d shave and get decked out with his two tone shoes, a suit and his little fedora with a feather on top and a cane, and he’d parade into Big Lots, The Dollar Store, or the other bargain stores like that. Sometimes they’d stop and he’d treat Verne to a two dollar meal at Whataburger as payment for a day’s work on the old cars or the cooler. Tony would tell me how Verne would take things like the cooler apart and just leave them for days, and laugh about it condescendingly.

I arranged to have social services get him a new water heater and he refused to throw away the old one. I had to run the water heater on propane because he’d had an argument with the gas company over thirty years ago and couldn’t get over it and couldn’t ever stop repeating the story to me. I changed the orifices and the pilot, but the burners still got all sooted up but it seemed OK for the time being. There just wasn’t time to get it totally converted. I hauled propane bottles for him. It was at least ten times more expensive than just settling with the gas company but I understood it was the principle of the thing for him.

And coming by late at night to change the propane bottles, I’d hear the Lawrence Welk Program going on the old Black and White TV, and one night, the song:

“I love those dear hearts
and gentle people
who live and love in my home town
because those dear hears
and gentle people
will never ever let you down.”.

After I’d worked a few jobs for him, I talked to Verne and Charley about the contradictions and frustrations. Verne just said,

“You’re one of us now.”

I’d been installing a furnace under his house, but the sewage and mold smells were making me weak with allergies. I said I’d have to clean up the mess before I could do any more work. He said he’d get some guy to do it cheaper, but that never happened. When I gave him a partial bill after doing a lot of the work he said,

“O that’s awful steep” and didn't pay.

“Yeah,” Verne said, “hard for us old fellas to get used to the way prices change. I remember in the thirties how we used to shuck corn and pull beans for $8 a day and was glad to get the work”

And I let it go figuring somehow I’d make up for it once it was done or chalk it up to experience and community service. But I gradually recognized that I was running out of chalk, and experience and community at the same time, and finally decided that all communication had broken down between us and I gave up on the job and got involved in work that actually paid the bills.

Months later, I came by once, to get something for Verne and saw him sitting outside in a makeshift chair, almost upside down again. I said hello, he rose up a little, looked at me like he didn’t recognize me and asked who I was. When I told him, he said,

“So you’re Dennis Williams?”


“So you’re Dennis Williams?”


Then he went into a diatribe about how I’d burned out the burners in his water heater, which I knew had to be a misdiagnosis by some self important counterman, because the flame didn’t have enough oxygen to burn propane, much less steel. And he said I’d charged him too much for time I spent out running around when I left my helper there to dig a ditch. And then he said,

“Now you ponder that.” in a fatherly tone. Then he asked what I had to say for myself, and I said,

“I think we’re too far apart to be able to have a conversation.” Then his face got very red and he said,

“You’re a crook, you’re nothing but a crook“

He started screaming and came at me with his fists. He was a wizened up 92 year old man so he was no threat, except to himself and since I seemed to be exacerbating that threat, I left for good. I think he was hurt that I hadn’t come by anymore so he just sat and mulled things over, figured out ways to make it all my fault, and threw me in the pot with the gas company and the water company and the other evil villains who didn’t care enough about him.

Pieces of the story come back to me all over again every time I pass his house, all painted up, with the junky old cars and trucks hauled off, along with the one that ran, his Cadillac. It looks clean and neat and kind of empty now.

And Yeah I think , maybe I coulda worn a respirator, maybe I coulda just cleaned it all up and charged him for it as part of the bill, and maybe I coulda gotten a propane valve for the water heater, but he was supposed to have fixed things up with the gas company so I could run the furnace and the water heater on natural gas...SOMETHING was supposed to happen and nothing ever did because everything there was stuck in the past.....and it wasn't good for me to be stuck in a situation where I was doing shitty work because there wasn't enough money to do things right. .

And I think to myself as I drive on, you can’t tell a proud, vain, stubborn old fool how wrong he is….for the same reason, I suppose, you can never win an argument with a dead man.


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