JONATHAN CURELOP

 

To the Warehouse


Climbing out of the basement, Lou told me to wait for him out on the sidewalk while he called for a car. Lou was the live-in landlord and owner of this dilapidated Park Slope brownstone, a guy the neighborhood had nick-named The Gnome due to his diminutive size, unkempt appearance and shuffling gait. I had a soft spot for him, though; he'd arranged for me to live in the third floor apartment while the tenant was traveling overseas for a couple of months.

He'd been after me for weeks to help him with this venture, something to do with him being an ecologist. The offer of light clerical work had become a big mystery; he'd been dropping hints lately that he'd make it worth my while. Soft spot or not, I was beginning to have my doubts. This was my opportunity to escape, to tell him that I'd just checked my service and had to tend to an emergency. Anything would suffice, an audition, a friend in need. But I wanted the dough. Twelve bucks an hour didn't sound like much, but I'd been counting down the days until the third floor tenant returned.

Lou trotted down the stairs and stood very close to me. An injured unlit cigarette hung from his lips. He sipped from a darkened, crumpled Dunkin' Donuts cup. I imagined a stack of similar cups in his apartment, Lou rinsing and reusing them.

We endured a few moments of awkward silence together until I finally said, "You don't have a car?"

"They won't let me drive." He took the cigarette from his mouth and blew out invisible smoke.

They? I wondered.

He must have sensed my curiosity. "Wasn't my fault."

"What happened?"

He shook his head and said, "Long time ago."

The cab arrived. A beat up dark brown Century at least ten years old with an extremely thin Chinese man hunched over the steering wheel. Lou stepped in front of me and got in on the near side. I walked around the back. When I opened the door, I was greeted with a wafting scent of hamburger, gravy and body odor. I plopped down on the shiny fake leather interior and immediately rolled down my window as the car pulled away.

Lou scratched a wooden match against the bottom of his shoe and lit his cigarette.

"I got the feeling you were trying to quit."

He looked at me, the cigarette gripped between his lips, as though I might snatch it away.

"Toothpicks, gum, you usually don't light your cigarettes," I said.

He slowly took the cigarette out of his mouth and looked at it, twirling it in his fingers. "Some days I succeed. Some I don't." He switched his attention to the driver and said, "You mind if I smoke?"

"No," the driver said quickly. "No smoking."

"I'll keep it outside." Lou rolled down the window.

"No," the driver emphatically repeated. "No smoke."

Lou ignored the demand. A moment later, though, he caught a vicious look in the rearview mirror from the driver. He rolled his eyes toward me, then slid closer to the window. His head was extended outside like an excited dog. After a couple of blocks, he sputtered to the driver, "Right here, right here. Pull over. Key Foods, my fine Asian friend." He looked at me
and winked. "Time to shop."

The driver began to pull into the parking lot of the supermarket and Lou yelled, "No, no, not with all the others. Park here. Alongside the curb."

The driver did as he was told, shaking his head and mumbling. Lou bounded out and dashed for the sliding glass doors of the store. In his short absence, the driver muttered, "Damn smoke." I didn't respond.

Lou returned lugging two bags of groceries. He placed them between his legs at his feet. "Sorry I was so long," he said. "The heads need to be nice and hard."

He was referring to the many heads of lettuce and cabbage in the bags. Mixed in with the greens were several loaves of bread.

"Here we go," he shouted happily, the excitement and joy in his voice, his whole body, mounting.

I asked where we were headed and he spoke exuberantly.

"The product, my boy. CityGrow. An all natural, non-chemical, ecologically-minded growth product for plants. Gone are the woeful days of insecticides, of birth defects and cancers. It's a new day, young fella, a brand new day."

When the driver made a move to turn onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, Lou jolted forward in his seat. "No, no, no, no, no. No highways. Too many cars. Too much . . ." his hands shook vigorously in front of him as he searched for a word, ". . . noise, tumult."

"It'll take a long-"

"Doesn't matter," he sputtered. "We got time." He craned his neck and sang into the roof a perfect imitation of Mick Jagger: "Ti-i-ime is on my side — yes it is," then faced me and said, "You like the Stones?"

I nodded quickly.

The Century zigged and zagged for over a half hour through residential neighborhoods as Lou barked directions, then glided through massive parking lots of industrial parks until finally we reached the gate of a 10' high chain-link fence. Lou hopped out of the car and unwound a thick chain from the fence, no lock attached, and slid open the gate wide enough for the car
to enter.

After we drove through Lou joined us in the car. We passed a squat gray-bricked building, above which a yellow sign read in scratched faded letters, "ADMINISTRATION." Beyond the office building lay an endless sprawling tract of earth. The chain link spread out in both directions and probably enclosed the entire facility, though it was too large to see where it ended.

The yard essentially consisted of about a dozen stone and glass warehouses five stories high and a maze of parking lots winding around the structures. Though we weren't close to the buildings yet, it was easy to see that they were dilapidated and rotten with age, some of the walls partly gouged out.

We were barely out of the cab, my foot was actually still in the car, when the driver peeled away. It was then I noticed the earth, dried out and callused, flaking, as though nature had simply given up on it, left it for dead. I looked up and saw the Century escaping through the chain link gate.

Despite the open landscape, the place felt completely suffocating. Lou stood in the middle of it all, a broad smile across his face, nodding in contentment and staring up at the vast blue sky.

"God, I love it here," he said, the words climbing slowly from his throat, filled with awe.

"Really?"

"So...boundless," he said. "Like being in Idaho."

"Never been to Idaho."

"Me neither."

Lou led me behind one of the outer warehouses, saying, "That one's ours." About a hundred feet beyond lay a large grassy area scattered with a few trees, an oasis compared to everything I'd seen so far. The ground softened considerably as Lou stopped in front of a small garden about eight feet square. A wobbly wire fence surrounded it and divided it in half. On one side of the division plants grew feebly, breaking the surface, then petering out into shriveled tendrils. On the other side, however, plants grew in abundance, tomatoes, ucumber vines, the spidery growth of carrot greens.

It seemed strange that many holes, most of them a foot or two deep, pocked the earth all around the garden. A shovel and wheelbarrow had been left next to one of them.

Lou was looking down on the garden with the pride of a father, a creator. "There she is," he said deliberately, giving his words reverential, biblical emphasis. He pointed to the dried out plants and said, "Untreated," then to the others and said, "Treated. You see the difference?"

I nodded.

"That's me," he said. "CityGrow. Come." He gestured me to follow him to the huge garage-like door of the warehouse.

I did so, keeping my eye on the garden. It actually looked impressive.

Grocery bags still in hand, he struggled to open the heavy doors. I offered to help him with the bags, but he insisted, "No, no, I'm fine."

The doors screeched open. An unwieldy wooden staircase extended upward as soon as we entered. Before Lou shut the doors, exterminating all daylight, I saw that the first floor was made up of about ten compartments, a padlock securing each one.

"They got an elevator, but it takes forever."

Lou stopped at the second floor landing to set the bags down and stretch his fingers.

"Come on," I insisted, "give me a bag."

He handed one over, thanked me and we ascended the final three flights. Lou let his bag drop to the wide wood floorboards, reached for his ring of keys and clicked open the lock of a compartment. When he flung the door wide, a stench rushed toward us in mounting waves. I spun away, instinctively shielding my nose and mouth with my arm, though it did nothing to allay the attack.

"Jesus," I gasped. "You got dead animals in there?"

He looked at me incredulously, no sign of the reeking odor affecting him, and said, "They're not dead." He picked up both bags and walked directly to a lopsided folding table in the middle of the room where he started unloading the bags.

I crossed the threshold, my hand still covering nose and mouth, then walked briskly to a row of windows on the far side of the room and opened them all as wide as possible. I don't know when I first heard the clucking — when I entered the space, while letting air into the oven-like room - but it wasn't until I turned around and actually confronted the chickens that the sounds fully registered.

About a third of the loft was closed off by a floor to ceiling wire wall creating a cage along one side of the room. Inside the cage was a rooster the size and girth of a bear cub; it looked like it lifted weights. It strutted along the fence like a prisoner in solitary hungry for yard time,
then looked back at three hens about a third its size.

As Lou entered the cage and started collecting eggs in an old dented pail, I took in the rest of the room. Aside from a small office area, the walls were piled high with overstuffed burlap bags. Many of them were open, spilling dirt to the floor. On the table where Lou had placed the bags sat some kind of large sifting apparatus, along with a mountain of empty burlap bags. Against the back of the table leaned a plastic red snow shovel, the kind a child might use to help his father clear the driveway. A wheelbarrow filled with earth stood at either side of the table.

"When you start doing this on your own," Lou said while crouching over an egg, "you can take some of these for yourself."

I wanted to climb back down the darkened staircase. But I didn't know where I was or how I got there. I hadn't seen any phones on the way in and only had two dollars in my wallet.

Lou placed the egg bucket on the table and then grabbed a bunch of the bread. The chickens hovered around the gate, clucking wildly, anticipating lunch. He shoved a slice of bread into his mouth and flung the rest at the chickens. The produce was next. He rolled the heads into the pen, like a toddler bowling.

"Come on, come on." His words seemed connected to each other by a rubber band, tight, snapping. "Two's faster than one."

I grabbed a stack of bread from the table and started flinging the slices into the cage.

"No," he shouted. "Chomp some first. So the birds know it's okay to eat."

I ignored this suggestion; instead, I threw the rest of the loaf in, then lazily kicked a few cabbage heads through the door. The chickens attacked the lettuce and cabbage.

"Should we cut the lettuce?" I said. "Shred it or something?"

"Nah," he answered, standing in front of the open gate. "They like pecking at the heads. It's good for their beaks." He leaned against the pen and said, "They like it here. They like the food. Water and nutrients, everything they need is right there in the lettuce, cabbage and bread. I know. I've done research. Sometimes it gets cold or hot in here, but it don't bother them."

He grabbed the plastic shovel from the table and entered the pen. The chickens clucked in defiance, fluttering to separate corners. Lou slid the shovel along the perimeter of the cage, working inward, gathering the droppings from the entire pen into one hill. He took his time with this, enjoying the rhythm of the chore, then extended the shovel in my direction.

I imagined my father at my side, his pointed words in my ear: Well, Dale, you're thirty years old and you've been through some low points . . . deep abysmal lows. But I have to tell you, son - and by saying this I don't mean to belittle your personal tragedies - but standing here in this steamy smelly warehouse watching a stranger happily shovel chicken shit, I think you've just hit rock bottom.

No, I said to myself, this is not rock bottom. It's not low. Sure, it's weird, but I wasn't the one shoveling shit. In fact, spending the day with Lou is one of the best character study xperiences of my life. You couldn't get this at any price, even at Yale drama.

I turned away from Lou and for the first time noticed that one of the wheelbarrows was filled in high mounds not with dirt, as I'd first thought, but with shit from the cage. The barrow on the other side of the table was filled with dirt. And as I stared down at the soil sifter between the two piles I remembered the craters near the garden and pieced together what this poor, deluded man did here. Good god, I thought, if you mix manure into one patch of land and not another, of course the patch with the manure will yield better plants. Did he really think it so special?

"...no need for us to put in a full day, just wanted to show you the ropes a bit, tell ya what's expected of ya. When you come back later in the week, you'll have a nice new heap waiting. Full day's work. The manure takes time to dry out, but once it does, you just sift together the two elements, bag the product, that's it."

"That's a lot of shit," I said softly, staring at the heap in the cage.

"Well, that's the nature of the business. Once we get enough bags stockpiled, we'll show it around. I got a book on marketing somewhere in the basement. It's a dandy one. Hardcover."

"Great."

He grabbed the pail of eggs, locked the compartment and led me downstairs and across the cratered courtyard. I followed him into the administration building, where he used a pay phone just inside the doorway to call for a car. When it arrived, we climbed in the back seat and Lou asked the driver, "You mind if I smoke?"

"Sorry, guy," the driver replied. "They don't allow it."

Lou nudged me, giggling. "I don't even got a smoke. Sometimes I just like to fuck with 'em."

When we reached the apartment and were climbing the stoop, he said, "We should get downstairs straightened out right away." He was referring to the cellar, cluttered with decades' worth of old furniture and appliances. One of the hints he had recently dropped involved me clearing out the chaos and transforming it into an office for the CityGrow venture.

"Just have to go to the bathroom." I spent three or four minutes in the apartment, then stepped halfway down the basement stairs and told Lou, "I got a message on my machine. Gotta do a costume fitting. I won't get back until late."

"Well..."

"I'm sorry, but I have to go."

"Can I count on you for this?" He stood in the center of the floor, amid all of the furniture, old rolled up carpets and trash barrels - a dwarfish custodian, a curator of cast-off belongings.

"To be honest . . . I thought we agreed it was going to be filing."

His hands went up in the air. "Come on now, Dale. Filing's just part of it. A crucial part, sure, but just part."

"I didn't know about this CityGrow stuff . . . the chickens."

"Just forget it." He shook his head angrily, then sighed, disappointed, as though I'd abandoned him to join ranks with the army of naysayers, the tenants and neighbors who spent so much time mocking this small man.

"Hey, it's not like I -"

He dismissively waved me away.