Thursday, August 2, 2012

It Only Hurts When I Smirk: Gabe and Grace

Gabe resembled writer Henry Miller who is shown here.
 Even in the early eighties I knew the old duplex I lived in was an anachronism living on borrowed time. The urban blight of Dallas had steadily surrounded the 100-year old former farmhouse. I lived in the place for the final decade-and-a-half of its lifespan. The joint had a debatable bohemian charm, and was nicknamed the Fabulous Funnybook Shack of Power by Wezzo.
My retired landlord, Gabe, had owned and successfully managed a string of Dallas apartment units for over three decades. After he sold off those properties, this was to be his last toehold in Dallas. I moved in before starting a stint as a MFA student at SMU. My grad student pal, Paul, had moved out of the shack and into his fiancee’s McMansion in University Park. Gabe and Grace seemed tickled pink to have another young art student as their newest tenant.
“I broke every rule in investing when I bought this place,” he told me. Gabe was once a machinist. He’d learned his trade in New York City during the dirty thirties. His wife, Grace, was a sweet lady filled with musical talent and impish humor. She was born and raised in Dallas, and at one time, held a violin chair in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Gabe and Grace relocated from the Big Apple to Big-D in the fifties. Now, they’d retired, mostly to Daytona Beach.
Gabe, an energetic 70-year old, built a dividing wall in the farmhouse, turning it into two small units. He built a shower and kitchen in each half. Each unit had two doors. The FFBSOP was as out-of-whack as an amusement park funhouse. One night Davo declared that it was a truly spooky place that Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre would be proud to call home. Guests often got seasick the first time they came to visit. The place was insanely whopperjawed. If I’d dropped a baseball at the front door, it would’ve rolled to the back of the shack lickety split. There were few level spots or right angles to be found.
There was no wall insulation to speak of and the only air-conditioning I had came from a 2400 BTU window unit. The overworked beast made a loud buzzing rattle, and wheezed out only the faintest hint of a breeze that dissipated into nothingness five feet from the blower.
This rumbling behemoth would “cool” the house at night from a sweltering 95 degrees down to a barely-bearable 89 degrees. If you were weak-willed and ran the unit for a whole night, you’d be busted flat by a three-figure electric bill. Therefore the unit’s use was strictly rationed, as the last-straw “I can’t take it anymore” failsafe. The record-melting Summer of 1980 had over 100 days of 100-degree heat – it remains a legendary beat down.  A musty smell in the FFSOP, probably from black mold, was pervasive.
My apartment came furnished with Space Age bachelor pad “Googie”-styled tables, lamps, chairs, and a tall chest of drawers. The small gas stove and refrigerator might have been hauled of from the set of The Honeymooners. Every three weeks, I had to defrost the freezer compartment of refrigerator as it grew more clogged with hoarfrost.

A "Googie" style table.

Gabe laid out my apartment in true “shotgun shack” fashion –  three narrow rooms in a row. Up front there was the “living room” (a cramped storage space now jammed with funnybooks and artwork); next came the bedroom with its queen sized bed,  a closet, a chest of drawers, the TV/Hi-Fi setups, and the life-sustaining window unit. Lastly came the kitchen/dining room, with a small bathroom (and a door) branching off to the left of the narrow hallway that lead to the kitchen. The living room had a door, and I hung a blanket over the portal to the kitchen, so as to trap any cooled air in my bedroom.
In winter, the joint was heated by two old gas-powered wall space heaters, only one of which was vented. A 40-gallon hot water heater stood in the corner of the kitchen, next to the sink. The living room and bedroom had bilious wall-to-wall carpeting, while the kitchen and bathroom had dingy linoleum flooring.
The front of our duplex faced Oliver Street. It was dug in on a “half-lot,” and had a fenced-in side yard with a tool shed. Opposite this, on the other side of the duplex, was a semicircle turn-in “driveway” from the blighted alley. I’d park my car on this weedy patch of land, under two gigantic elm trees, next to my bedroom window. The front entrances of the duplex units shared a common wooden porch. A three-foot high wood slat fence, complete with a hinged gate, screened off the  “front yard” and a short sidewalk from Oliver Street. A second six-foot high wood slat fence separated the shack from an adjoining parking lot at the back of the low-rise that faced McKinney Avenue.
Believe it or not, the FFBSOP was a dream palace compared to the even more squalid “carport apartment” where I’d lived after graduating with my BFA in 1978.
The upside of the FFBSOP was cheap rent. I paid $100 (plus bills) every month to Gabe, for about 15 years. On the downside, I endured a host of hair-raising domestic dilemmas such collapsed clay plumbing, petty property crime, and pest control from Hell. I’ll save the brain-cringing tales of terror featuring roaches and rodents for my other yarns.
Gabe and Grace lived in their half of the duplex about a month and a half, twice a year, as they made a roundtrip roadtrip from Daytona Beach, to Dallas, and then on to Ft. Collins, to visit their son, Dennis. If anything broke while Gabe was gone for nine months out of the year, I had to either fix it myself (highly unlikely) or suffer until Gabe came back into town to fix things (almost always the case).
The thing was, the old shack was so out-of whack, that you couldn’t simply buy replacement parts at the hardware store. You usually had to machine, build, or sculpt the solution. A carpenter, electrician, plumber, or handyman all could have been on call 24/7.
While in town, Gabe seldom, if ever, spent money on his home projects. He put the “pack” in packrat, and would drag cast-off crap home just so he could use it. He was the Jack-of-All-Jury-Riggers. Gabe didn’t just “make lemonade out of lemons,” he whipped up a Lemon Drop cocktail -- using only the rinds.
The exterior of the Shack was painted a sickly “institutional” green. It wasn’t a rich, deep green, such as Forest Green, Peacock Green, Jewel Green, or Kelly Green, it was an unsettling hue; one you might find in a dehumanized WWII-era military base or prison compound. The Saccharin hue was fine for mint-flavored ice cream, but not so appealing for a house. Browsing online, I found a hue that’s a close match, named “Dewmist Delight.” Check it out. Gabe blew my mind when he scored a pile of abandoned vinyl siding the exact same tint as the old exterior. He re-covered the entire shack himself, for free.

Imagine a whole duplex painted in Dewmist Delight.
Gabe was into installing “home security measures.” He devised several after our lawn mower was stolen from the tool shed. He first hauled in bulky hunks of jackhammered road concrete and dragged them from his van (also painted the same green as the Shack) into the side yard. Then he stacked them loosely into six or seven inverted pyramids, with all the weight precariously balanced on the apexes. If a foolhardy trespasser jumped over the fence, leaping before looking, he would, it was hoped, jostle one of the unstable piles and snap his ankle like a dry twig.

Not quite an inverted pyramid and not concrete chunks, but you get the idea.
Imagine a 5-foot-tall pile.
Gabe screwed a wicked saw-toothed metal strip along the top edge of the tool shed door, If a burglar gripped the ill-fit door to wrench it open, he’d almost certainly rip his fingers open instead. Gabe showed rare restraint when he opted not to rub dogpoop (as an infectant) over the jagged metal teeth.
Gabe “hardened the target” further by running bailing wire from the interior of the door through numerous eyehooks to a hole he’d drilled through a pivoting metal plate. The plate held back a spring-loaded striking pin that, once released, would slam into a .22 shell and shoot it off. The bullet served primarily as a noisemaker -- but who knew where the slug might land? My friends were too spooked to examine the Rube Goldberg-like crimestopper.
I mentioned petty property crime earlier. Weirdness was always going down in the alley. Once, someone illegally dumped two blown-out sleeper sofas on my vacant “driveway.” I called Goodwill thinking they’d thankfully haul the castro convertibles off as a generous donation. It was not to be. Goodwill only accepted lightly used furniture, not pieces of junk like these.
Gabe and I dragged the sofas to the Oliver Street curb. The City of Dallas would eventually haul them off as part of their large trash pick-up service, unless they just issued a code violation instead. They sat there, rain and sunshine, for three months, as neighborhood eyesores. Meanwhile, Gabe dismantled the metal tubing skeletons of these sofas. We spent an afternoon flattening the ends of the tubing with five-pound sledges. Then we bolted the tubing to my living room window frames – voila, homemade burglar bars. “Swords to plowshares,” I thought. From property crime to crime prevention -- that was pure Gabe.
While in Colorado Gabe would collect old rocks, historic barbed wire, and fragments of abandoned railroad steel. He took two pieces of early-20th century railroad steel and built a deadbolt receiver “sandwich” for my front door. He'd noticed some scratches near the lock left behind by a screwdriver. The steel “bread” of this security sandwich was secured on either side of the door frame with 16-inch long bolts, washers, and large nuts. Gabe drilled holes in the hardened steel, fed the bolts through the “metal and door frame sandwich,” and hacksawed off their excess lengths on the interior side. Gabe added the washers and nuts, and then hammered the ends of the bolts so the nuts couldn’t ever come loose.
The last step was to caulk the bolt heads on the exterior of the door so no screwdriver or pry bar could get leverage. Short of a direct hit from pickup truck, the deadbolt receiver/doorframe would never be breached -- and maybe not even then. The wall might cave in, but the “sandwich” would probably hold. Sadly, the whole point of the security measure backfired when the fifties-era lock jammed and I couldn’t throw the deadbolt to open the door. I only had my alleyway door now.

Gabe was out of town, so I had to hire a skilled carpenter to build a new custom-fitted two-by-four and metal bracket door barricade. It cost about $400, all told (sadly, four months rent). When he returned, Gabe was impressed by this old-school “Katy, bar the door” gimmick, but still added a few minor modifications of his own.
While the front door was now totally “hardened,” somehow we neglected to shore up that second, dodgy alleyway door. After my apartment was burgled, Gabe was inspired to design his most diabolical home defense system yet. He electrified the alleyway doorknob with a transformer plugged into my kitchen’s 120 volt electrical outlet. Anyone who gripped the metal knob would find himself shaking hands with Reddy Kilowatt and performing an electric boogaloo. Dah-dah-dah-dit -- daah-dit. Dah-dah-dah-dit-- daah-dit.

Shake hands with Reddy Kilowatt'
 Although Gabe insisted the shock delivered wouldn’t be lethal, I wasn’t sure. Wary of potential torts, I chickened out. I didn’t have the guts to leave Gabe’s shock-trap connected. While I admired the genius behind Gabe’s mantrap, I couldn’t tolerate the risk of hurting a kid or mailman. When Gabe left, I secretly disconnected the transformer’s oversized alligator clips from the "Doorknob of Doom.”
Gabe and Grace lived like Spartans in their half of the duplex. Aside from an upright piano, a few chairs, a TV, and a card table, there was little decor. They’d play cards, read library books, watch TV, or Grace would play boogie-woogie on the upright.
When I went to my first visit in their half of the duplex, I was dumbstruck at the sight of their TV antenna. That’s right, the flippin’ TV antenna. Insted of installing it atop the roof, Gabe had hung a colossal RCA Outdoor 60-mile antenna upside down from the ceiling of his living room. Its mast was mounted with a swivel so that Gabe could spin the metal monstrosity freely in any direction until he at last achieved crystal-clear reception. He sacrificed his whole living room space to the glory of this antenna rig. He couldn’t have hogged up more space if he’d superglued a 8-foot tall Christmas tree up there. We watched a Victor Borge show on PBS, and Grace laughed in delight at Borge’s zany musical humor while I, in turn, laughed madly at Gabe’s antenna.

As I hope I have conveyed here, Gabe and Grace were more than landlords to me. They were like eccentric grandparents. Gabe, who’d suffered a heart attack or two, would often repeat his earnest dietary wisdom -- avoid a steady diet of hamburgers. “Don’t eat cheeseburgers, Don. The grease’ll block up your heart arteries. We didn’t know any better back when I was a kid, but now we do. Don’t eat too much red meat.” Grace would add retirement tips, “Start an IRA Don. You have to start saving for retirement early. Save your money and put the full $1,500 in, every year.” The sweethearts really had my best interests at heart.
I was fascinated, watching Gabe work on his projects. His homestyle fry-shaped fingers were blunted and misshapen from being mashed so many times from fabricating metal parts. However, they remained nimble, and he had fine motor skills that would rival a surgeon’s.
If you want to see Gabe for yourself, he appears in a bit part in the Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando Western, The Missouri Breaks, appropriately cast as a casket maker. The filmmakers wisely dubbed out his Brooklynese.  Gabe wore thin gold wire frame glasses and resembled the older Henry Miller. As it happened, he also looked like my dad.
Dad was handy at home carpentry himself. Unfortunately he had this horrible habit of blowing his stack and going absolutley apecrackers whenever a project hit a snag, as it always did. He’d yell and scream with furious, uncontrolled rage. My brother and I who were called upon to be his helpers were traumatized. We never knew exactly when “Mr. Hyde” was going to explode, just that he would.
Dad used to howl and cuss up a blue streak every time he used his hotglue gun. He had a technique where he would ignore the gun’s gluestick-feeding mechanism and impatiently jam the solid sticks into the red-hot heating element with his thumb. He’d push and push, harder and deeper, until at last, he’d scorch his thumb on molten glue.
My brother once accused him of being a masochist and doing it on purpose. Dad just laughed. Bullseye.
As a result of all these emotional outbursts by my dad, I developed what cognitive-behavioral psychologists term a “conditioned response” or “learned helplessness.” I developed an unshakable phobia of tools and any kind of repair work. By high school, I was petrified that I’d humiliate or hurt myself in the mandatory shop class. This loss of confidence was no doubt an early form of my social phobia.
As I watched Gabe tinker, I was flabbergasted that he never ever, not once, lost his temper. Since Gabe resembled dad, my "classical conditioning" kicked-in, and I’d secretly cringe and brace myself for a rant that never came. Eventually I was able to “desensitize” myself to a great degree by watching Gabe work so calmly.
Progress never sleeps, or so they say, and Gabe sold the FFBSOP in 1995. He offered it to me for $5,000, a pittance at the time. It was a generous offer, but I knew deep down, with my phobias, I’d never have the wherewithal to maintain the Shack. It would’ve cost a small fortune to hire tradesmen for the constant repairs. The door barricade alone had cost me $400. The City of Dallas was always slapping us with code violations, no doubt called in by realtors, who were drawn to the shack like buzzards to road-kill, eager to scarf down the half-lot and spit it back up for a quick profit.
Gabe sold the Shack to a young landscape architect who worked across the alley. I stuck it out for a while, but loud, low-life neighbors in Gabe’s old space made the Shack unbearable. After about a year, I jumped ship to Willetta’s apartments near Henderson and Ross Avenues.
By 1998 the FFBSOP was flipped and combined with the adjoining low-rise’s lot. Both places were scraped to make way for a new apartment complex. Without Gabe to tend to it, the 100-year old farmhouse finally gave up the ghost, cast into the Potter’s field of Dallas housing history.
Still, the FFBSOP, fond memories of Gabe and Grace, and the Shack’s uproarious hardships are still standing on a netherworld half-lot of my dreams.

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