Friday, September 01, 2000

My Cellar

Last night I dreamed I was in Paris. Maybe because I was watching this movie "The Man in the Iron Mask" with Leonardo DiCaprio. I got it at the library for free (my lowest possible watching category). Stunk.

My dream, wasn't a story dream. It was more like a collection of images and objects. A nocturnal knick-knack shop. I was floating in the middle of it, this face, that cafe, The pool in the Latin quarter, The globe at La'Villette, and of course, Celeste, surrounded in her atelier by the giant nudes she had painted of herself. Paris.

I awoke snug, in my four-poster bed. I was warm. I was cosy. I was mildly aroused. Then a distant odor made its way to my nose. It all came flooding back into my consciousness. The basement. There was a very bad smell down there. I pulled my beloved down comforter up over my head.

I can verify that my basement has not been cleaned since the 1890s. I have made photographs in case there is ever a legal inquiry. I found farming implements down there. I found a horse's bridle. The ancient putrid detritus that filled the corners was over six inches deep. For decades rain had been seeping in through the back wall. Everything that wasn't rusting was rotting. At one point some zealot, in a deranged effort to contain that growing horror, had boarded up the windows. Now the breakdown of all matter could continue unabated.

And yet there was life down there.

If you gazed heavenward, there was a forest of green-grey fungi, clinging to the ceiling looking like a still from a Mariner fly-by. Dancing in a feat of arial mastery, thousands of vicious red spiders had spun their webs. In an attempt to clear them I went to pick up an axe and the handle disintegrated in my hand. I was the last person to see it in its original form, and I was the first to see the mother creature, who had brooded inside, scurry off. Life festered underfoot too. In one corner was a pile of creosote panels. The top few crumbled, the bottom six had been turned into earth by a swarm of white worms.

We have rats up here which, when they perish, will leave behind larger skeletons then those displayed in the dinosaur wing of the Museum of Natural History. One of the buildings behind me is being cleaned out by the city. They are trying to get rid of these rats. Great black men, who can find no other employment, do the work. They play cards and fight and curse each other in my back yard thicket. Above them, numerous birds sing.

The other morning, I approached them. I stood around for awhile sizing them up. They can©ˆt be making much. Their shoes looked like they had been made in a Chinese prison. I pitched them an offer. "How'd you like to make a little side money?" I said. "$100 bucks to empty out my cellar." They sent the little squat one down to check it out. The one who never gets to sit at the table. The one with a sour face, always standing by the broken Ailanthus stump. I showed him the way. We came back and he told the big one the job was "ok". The big one wiped his mouth, wiped it on his greasy green shirt and squinted at his cards. "After I finish this hand we'll do it" he grunted, his impossible girth leaned back, straining the tiny, child's chair which bore his huge black ass.

They tore through that mess. They were rushing in an effort to beat out the foreman©ˆs return. So of course, something went wrong. Someone, somebody, must have banged into the live feed on the boiler. Water came pouring out the back and from every radiator up and down the house. I must have run those stairs a thousand times. Rescue Plumbing? They don©ˆt rescue people in Harlem. I called everyone I knew. Nobody, nobody, nobody could help. Finally I just had to start shutting things down. I turned every knob I could find in that jerry-rigged maze of pipe. As the water crested my shoes, it stopped.

After awhile the plumber showed up. He explained to me what was going on. I began to service the boiler regularly, emptying the rusted gunk that had built up inside the system for god knows how long. I had unboarded-up the windows, stopped the leaks and shoveled out bags and bags of rubble. I was starting to feel on top. Then the oilman came.

It was getting cold and I needed oil. The gage was on empty. I called the oilman. He figured that I had a 275 tank (everyone has a 275 tank) so I could take 200. He figured wrong. A big part of an oilmans job, it seems, is directing irate drivers around his truck. While he was busy doing this he missed the whistle. Gallons of oil flooded into my basement. Oil. Have you ever noticed that most detergents only promise to "fight" oil? they never say anything about winning.

For weeks, the house reeked of oil. If you stood still long enough, you could taste it.

Still, things are slowly shaping up. There's air down there now and when the sun is pointed right, light. The mold is dying. The stench of fuel has dissipated. I©ˆm still running around fixing radiators as they burble up brown goo, but you can hang out on the ground floor now, without having a fatal allergy attack.

For now, everything is ok.