Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Bell Boy

It was the fall semester of my junior year and I was living next door to a church on the top floor of a four story apartment building that I shared with three other college students.  

A fogged and anchorless summer had left me scrambling for housing just days before classes started.  I should have known better than to consider Clinton Street.  It was too far from campus and its decaying store fronts  were haunted by pawn brokers, used furniture vendors and thin, husky throated barmaids.  Once a main commercial thoroughfare, it had fallen from grace and by the late 20th century was best known for an initiation ritual known as "The Clinton Street Run." Perhaps to illustrate the concept of the mind-body gap, packs of bright eyed college students would attempt to jog its length, consuming no less than one drink at each of the more than sixty bars along its course.  Naturally few survived to tell the tale.

So there was Cliff, Danny, Carbo and me.  We met the real estate broker in the Tub of Suds coin laundry on the first floor.  She gave us the key to the place, told us her knees were bad and that she would wait for us in the white Lincoln out front.  We climbed the wooden stairs single file.  Stacks of yellowed newspapers and heaps of black garbage bags cluttered the back porches.  Over flowing litter boxes, coffee cans full of cigarette buts and on the third floor, a set of brand new white wall tires with shiny silver rims.  An emphysemic hack echoed from behind a screened door and I could feel an unseen pair of eyes follow us up the last flight of unpainted stairs.

Carbo loved the place.  Seventy-five bucks a bedroom, free steam heat plus electric.  One month deposit.  Before I'd even had a look at the bathroom, Carbo had produced a deck of cards and we were cutting for rooms.  Carbo pulled a king and I got a duce.  So he and Cliff ended up with the two front bedrooms with the big south facing windows and Danny got the spacious digs off the living room.  I was left with what once had been the kitchen pantry, a tiny squat backed into the north east corner of the building.  The walls were covered with dark brown imitation wood paneling and there was a single, prison-width window that faced the solid brick wall of the Orthodox Catholic church across the alley.  Lucky me.

Carbo was Italian, but a northern barbarian must have soiled the purity of Carbonne family tree, for unlike his Sicilian brethren in Astoria, Queens, Carbo had light brown hair, a slight nose and a big white tooth orthodontia enhanced grin that could disarmed any prejudicial stereo types linking him to the kind of Italians made famous in the "Godfather."  But that is where the dissimilarities ended.  Carbo was a pure disco-dancing wise-guy in the making.  He wore shiny silk shirts open to his navel, gold chains with crucifixes, way too much cologne and was studying accounting, I assume so he could return home and go to work fixing the books of la famiglia's businesses.  

Looking back, I think Carbo must have suffered from ADD, for the only way he could concentrate when studying was with a looping eight track of Led Zeppelin's "House of the Holy" played at max volume on his Crazy Eddie mega watt stereo system.   We all knew when Carbo had a test coming up. His three foot high speaker columns and hundred pound tube amplifier would kick to life, sending visible concussion waves through the paper thin walls of the apartment.  Dishes would crash down from the shelves above the sink. Jake, Danny's little black mutt, would crawl under the couch, claw at its ears and whine.  Every widow in the apartment would rattle as if a squadron of F-15s were strafing the building.  And there Carbo would be, sitting at his tiny desk in the corner of his big room, a towel wrapped around his naked torso, chain smoking Newport's and pouring over depreciation formulas and amortization charts surrounded by a stack of accounting books.  I had tried banging on his door and screaming at him to turn it down.  We all had.  But Carbo would just rise from his chair, take a few striding gaites to the door, grin at you with his toothy smile and then push it closed in your face.  He never even pretended to touch the amp's volume knob. 

Carbo was big and Carbo was tough.  He stood about six foot two and was made of 220 lbs. of pure muscle.  He looked like a body builder, though I never saw him work out.  He also held a black belt in karate. Unfortunately his marshall arts training was all about fight and had nothing to do with meditation or spiritual balance.  

Like the rest of us, Carbo loved drugs.  He loved all drugs; ups, downs, pot, pills, whatever.  On the weekends (if they could actually be delineated from the weekdays) it was a black-beauty washed down with Budweiser, a cartoon of Newport's and a card game somewhere off campus.  How Carbo found those card games I'll never know, but he would come in at four or five in the morning and dependent on his mood, tear the apartment apart or cook himself some steak and eggs.  Then he would head to his front bedroom and crash.   He slept in what I called his Lone Ranger mask; a black felt eye blinder designed to ward off  ambient light.  Other than that he wore nothing.  

Many a morning, I would be in the bathroom taking a shower and Carbo, blinders pushed up on his forehead, would kick through the door,  plop down on the toilet and take a deadly smelling dump.  Nothing quite like the humidity of a shower mixed with the ordure of a toxic crap to start the day off right.  Carbo would have his ear-plugs in, so no amount of cursing from behind the curtain would disturb his communal evacuation.  

But Carbo's ear plugs were no match for God.   You see the real-estate broker in the white Lincoln never bothered to explain why the apartment, with its gigantic living room, spacious kitchen and free heat was renting so cheap. We just figured it was because it was on Clinton Street, the arm pit of the civilized world.  But there was more to it than that.  It was the  church, and not the shared parking accommodations or the inconvenience of the occasional wedding or funeral, but the church bells.  

On Sunday morning, this Catholic parish believed in reminding its congregation of its holy duties.  But there were no finely cast bronze knockers hanging high in the bellfry tower with Quasimodo swinging from vines of heavy hemp.  No, the bells in the church next door were different.  In fact they weren't bells at all.  They were actually electronically enhanced analogue recordings played through an amplification system fit for Shea Stadium and they were broadcast every quarter hour until mass at high noon.  

Through ringing ears, one could almost hear the Angels snicker at Carbo's mega watt stereo system and the searing, ear splitting, heavy metal music he played at such outlandish volumes; almost hear them laugh at this young man, curled up fetal-like beneath his mamma's pink down comforter, his ear plugs in and his Lone Ranger mask on with Sunday services approaching.

Sure, Carbo was big and he was tough but beneath his eighteen karat gold crucifix, Carbo was but another fatally flawed mortal, full of sin and rife with weakness.  

One Sunday morning as I was about to leave the apartment by the front door, I happened to glance over at Carbo's room.  I saw something move inside.  Move quickly.  Like an attack dog springing for the throat of an intruder.   I stepped cautiously into the front hallway and peered into the dun light of Carbo's room.  There he was, his back to me, buck naked, gluts flexed, spine straight, triceps bulging, standing before a wide open window, a few wisps of December snow drifting in on the lightest of breezes.  The Remmington 308 deer rifle he'd brought from home after Thanksgiving was pressed tightly against his shoulder, an eye glued to the scope and aimed directly out the window at the huge gray fiberglass speaker attached to the church tower.  It was exactly 8:30 a.m. and the recorded bells had just begun their wavering, mid-hour, magnetic-tape clanging.

"Carbo NOOOOOOOO!"  I shouted at the top of my lungs  "Danny's got a quarter pound of Columbian in his bedroom!!! You shoot out that fucking speaker and the cops will be all over us!!  What are you thinking!"

Carbo just stood there. Then I noticed his sculpted Roman butt cheek twitch.  Then his shoulders dropped a bit and the taunt muscles in his back relaxed ever so slightly. The rifle came off his shoulder and with his left hand he dumped it into the corner against the wall and with the heel of his right fist, slammed the upper section of the double hung window closed.  He didn't turn around.  He just tugged down on his Lone Ranger mask and sort of fell sideways onto the king size bed, the one he'd dubbed his off shore drilling rig.  He yanked the pink comforter up over his shoulder, buried his head into the pillow and immediately started snoring.

If the angels snickered, I didn't hear them.  I just pulled Carbo's bedroom door shut and under a long, slow, deep breath, whispered,  "Let sleeping dogs lie and bell boys rest."