I Thought So - A Book of Epigrams

The Residential Theory Of Relativity (work in progress)
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The Residential Theory Of Relativity (work in progress)
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                                      The Residential Theory of Relativity

                          “There must be more to life than having everything.”
                                                                        Maurice Sendak

We begin with a visit to a home that occupies a high floor in a building on the top of a steep hill. The elevator door opens and I am in the couple’s large foyer. They must have more than 8,000 square feet. There are large windows on all four sides and nothing to block their views. It’s more like being in an airplane than in a building. It’s a clear day and I can see mountains far to the north of the Golden Gate, Mt. Diablo thirty miles to the east, and the entire San Francisco peninsula, with the breakers of the Pacific to the west and the smooth waters of the bay to the east.

This isn’t a million dollar view, it’s more like a ten million dollar view. If I was God I’d buy a place like this from which to keep my eye on the sparrow, and decide who will be inscribed in the Book of Life next year. Looking at some renovation plans I lose track of the number of bedrooms and baths. But enough of the rich and famous, what interests me here is a matter of contrast with another property on my itinerary.

Some investors have asked me to survey the plumbing and heating in a small Tenderloin building they’re thinking of buying. Being extremely cautious, they want me to look at absolutely everything. This old narrow brick building, in this small city of rapid changes of scenery and fortune, is only a few blocks away from the vast apartment, although several hundred feet lower in elevation.

There are twenty-three dingy little studio apartments, a drugstore and a large printshop. I start at the top and work my way down. Standing on the roof in a drenching rain, the place seems tiny, maybe 30 by 80 feet. It occurs to me that the entire building would have about the same amount of space in it as the aerial mansion a few blocks up the hill. I climb up on the parapet and look down to the busy street far below. This is a Babylon of a neighborhood with recently arrived families from Asian countries, gay bars, massage parlors, drunks, druggies, crazies, depraved persons, prostitutes of all sexes and races including indeterminate, respectable old people and all kinds of odd little businesses like a store that sells only feathers and another that sells only seashells. There is a bookstore with a sign on the front:
                                Books for less than the price of a politician.

In the basement, cozy by the warmth of the huge old asbestos- encased boiler, the cheerful old super has a tidy little workshop decorated with yellowing pinups of balloon-breasted women. He has amused himself by carving an elaborate design into the wooden board on which he keeps all the building keys.

The drug store is a rare remnant of once common neighborhood pharmacies, now almost all replaced by national chains. Narrow aisles, a profusion of goods and the Asian owner at work in a glass enclosed booth at the back. Perhaps compounding herbal remedies of ancient wisdom and efficacy unknown to the west. A densely populated neighborhood in which few residents have cars can support all kinds of local businesses long vanished from the suburbs, such or small corner groceries, narrow counter greasy spoons serving breakfast, burgers, or an ethnic take out like a nearby Philipino place where everything on the menu is deep fried but tasty.

The drug store originally would have had a very high ceiling, but an unmarked mezzanine floor with an obscure entrance has been added between the first and second stories of the building. The sole employee of the printing business occupying this space is the harried owner, who rushes about with his tie tucked into his shirt. As owner, he must feel obligated to keep up appearances by wearing a suit. But as the sole printer he must be careful to avoid a lonely death by getting his tie caught in the clattering offset presses.

There is an assortment of old printing, trimming and binding machines among the modern machines. To my inexpert eye, some of them look like they belong in a museum. He must have bought or inherited a very old business and is either nostalgic, or hasn't had the money to upgrade the equipment. In his office, checks and bank statements are arranged in a fan on the carpet. They are starting to get scattered. There is a friendly, tailless cat. The bathroom is filled with ink cans and stacks of paper. Machine parts litter the floor. Most of what he prints are church bulletins and advertising flyers.

I loved to visit these small, almost hidden, workshops. For me they represented the skills and independence of an older way of life that combined business acumen and craft. They often serviced a narrow need and a small clientele, and sometimes did not even have a name, advertise, or deal with the public at all. There are a multitude of them in any city, and in the suburbs, making things like clever moving displays for store windows, stocking parts for old stoves, or restaurant equipment, rebuilding car parts for mechanics, making custom cabinetry, moldings or staircases, church organ parts, assembling the parts for massive electrical panels, compounding barrels of commercial liquid soaps, caning chairs or repairing old pinball machines. Sometimes I would see a workshop in which the owner slept in a room in the back, or in a loft bedroom, and there would be an improvised kitchen with a fridge, microwave and hotplate.

They might be re-upholstering sofas, making sauces, roasting coffee, sewing stuffed animals, applying specialized finishes or restoring old cameras for collectors. They were seldom on the street or in store fronts where you would note their existence, but in old commercial buildings on alleyways, or in sprawling complexes of small industrial buildings amongst freight terminals and rail yards.

Some were in homes. A piano tuner converts the ground floor of his house into a workshop for rebuilding pianos, a stained glass craftsman turns a small house into his workshop. I had a relative who gutted the entire first floor of a long narrow Chicago house for his transmission repair shop, which he and then his son ran for fifty years.

After the print shop I began my tour of the apartments with the super. The most poignant resident was a dignified, very elderly woman. Her room was almost bare. Nothing but a bed and a few clothes, some soaking in the bathtub. Seeing her standing in the middle of her nearly empty room I realized how much old people and clutter go together. An old person should be surrounded by photos and knicknacks, the accumulations of a lifetime. I wondered what had happened to her possessions. Had they been lost in a fire, was she a refugee, or had she fled the home of an abusive daughter? I wish I had been able to question these people as to how they had ended up in these rooms.

Another rather bare room was inhabited by an elderly man who had worked for a college athletic department. His only decor was a wall of plaques, awards and certificates of appreciation for long years of service. It didn’t seem that the college’s appreciation included much of a retirement plan. Or had he made the mistake of coaching fencing instead of football?

A large Asian family, with a lot of stuff, but very organized and neat, was living in one of the smaller rooms. They were the only residents who had a stack of sacks and cans of groceries, which I could see, because there were no kitchen cabinets in these rooms. How many American families would have the self-discipline to live like this without rapidly descending into squalor? This might have been the inauspicious beginnings of their lives as Americans, but seeing them, friendly and cheerful, I can imagine a house in their not distant future. I would have loved to take them on a tour of my wealthy client’s place up the hill, just to see their expressions.

A friendly, portly man had a well-furnished, larger corner room filled with books, paintings and prints. There was a curved bay window overlooking the busy rainy Tenderloin intersection. I said his view reminded me of Paris (actually a certain painting of Paris, unlikely I will ever see the real thing). And yet, although he had managed to create some charm -- waking, cooking, eating, reading, entertaining, sleeping -- these four walls were his world. But what did I know of his life? Perhaps to him it was a refuge, a haven, his paradise on earth. He had a place in the center of one of the world’s great cities, a short walk from theaters, downtown, Chinatown, galleries, and many inexpensive ethnic restaurants. The street life at night was not pleasant, but it was busy enough to be relatively safe. He had the only room I entered that I could imagine living in without constant thoughts of suicide.

Most of the apartments had the sad dinginess of a life of total defeat. The kitchen sinks were sinking through their rotten particle board counters, the tiny bathrooms with leaks and peeling linoleum, the plaster crumbling and cracking, half the rooms only had dirty windows looking into a dark airshaft.  It would have taken the will of a Hercules and the ingenuity of a Carl Larrsen to make pleasant surroundings out of these places.

Why is it that some of us live out our lives in dank cells and others in enormous apartments wth twenty rooms? Did the rich work harder than the poor? The couple in the vast apartment had a look of entitlement that proclaims inherited money. Are the rich smarter than the poor? Money buys education and culture, but I doubt that it buys intelligence.

America has much greater disparities between wealth and poverty than other advanced industrial nations, but that’s not something we give much thought to. To us it seems perfectly normal that some Americans have fifty billion and others not a bean. Of the wealthiest one percent on the planet, about a quarter are Americans like my zillionaire clients -- and yet, a few blocks away, here I am touring these squalid rooms. I’m no ideologue, but it seems unfair that within a few blocks one family occupies as much space, and incomparably nicer space, than twenty-three others a few blocks away. But as Einstein theorized, everything is relative to the position of the observer. If my point of view was the huge apartment up the hill, perhaps I might feel differently.

Will this ever change? I doubt the Tenderloin residents will ever attempt to storm the Bastille of Nob Hill. Although they would see such places on television, or in films, I doubt that they would make the connection to the lives that are being lived just above them. And do we not worship the rich in this country? Books containing the wisdom of a Warren Buffet or a Bill Gates always do well. We fill Congress with members of plutocrat families such as the Kennedys, Bushes, Gores, Kerrys and Rockefellers.

As a nation we are comfortable with inequality in just about all matters, from medical care to travel, to access and influence over our elected representatives, to how many square feet one inhabits, and whether it is furnished with Monets or with cockroaches. As the alderman of my Chicago ward often said in response to questions about services, “As the Bibles says, the poor shall always be with us.”