In the spring of ’44 we had a sign in the window of our four-story Brooklyn brownstone that read Room to Let. As a ten-year old I wondered hard at the meaning of this strange message. “Room to Let” it said. Room to let what? I thought. I couldn’t figure it out but I was sure that Grandpa, who had hung the sign in the window, knew what he was doing. Yet I continually scratched my head whenever I saw the sign.
My uncle and his family had been occupying the top two floors of the brownstone, but early in the year they had moved to Virginia because he had been drafted. We were left with four empty rooms and because we needed the money, Grandpa convinced Grandma that we should rent out the upstairs rooms. By putting locks on some of the doors, two on the top floor and two on the third floor, he transformed our brownstone into a quasi-apartment house. Four rooms would be rented out, with a bathroom on each floor, two tenants for one bathroom. Even Grandma liked the idea. Mama would do the cleaning and provide clean sheets, pillows and towels. Each room would have a bureau and a bed. What else could they possibly need? Grandpa then figured out how much rent for each room and there you had it.
Our very first renter, third floor front, was mild-mannered Mister Giambologna who came with his own radio, records and record player. My sister, who was three years older and more clever than me, said his name was really Jim Baloney. So I started calling him that although he really didn’t deserve ridicule from two smart-alecky kids. He always paid his rent on time and out of respect always called my grandfather Don Peppino. Jim Baloney was a stand-up guy and because of him I was exposed to a wonderful new world of music. Almost all of the 78 records that he had carted with him, except maybe for two Carlo Buti records, were Polish mazurkas which he played over and over again. I had never heard that kind of music before and strangely enough I immediately liked it. Yeah, Jim Baloney was all right.
My grandfather rented the third-floor back to a middle-aged Norwegian sea Captain and his wife. They were nice people, usually quiet, mainly because Captain Olaf Olsen was out at sea most of the time. I noticed that he pronounced his name Ooo-laf instead of Oh-laf. Like the captain, his wife Helga was tall and thin and her skin was weather-beaten. As far as Grandpa was concerned, her only problem was turning the radio way up and then falling asleep. The captain was a quiet and generous guy who liked kids. I remember he once brought me back a wooden sword from some far off country because he knew I liked pirate movies. The Olsens were okay too, I thought.
Top-floor front were the Jamisons. Let me tell you, they were crazy people. They kept to themselves but they drank like sailors on shore leave after a long stay at sea. Mr. Jamison was a ruddy-faced guy with a bulbous nose and a pot belly that hung way over his belt. She was a timid, pale-faced, short and sickly looking lady in her fifties. We would hear them argue whenever they returned from the Palm Pines up Union Street. One night she was so drunk that Mr. Jameson had to drag her upstairs, pulling on her short body, legs first. He kept cursing her one step at a time.
Top-floor back was a strange little man, a Mr. Tedesco, who was blind in one eye, smoked smelly Italian cigars and walked with a gnarly cane. Always dressed in the same shiney brown suit and vest, he never talked to anyone but would quietly walk by pointing his cane at my sister and I. Most of the day he would hibernate in his room until nightfall and then he would appear like Count Dracula, and come down and sit on the top step of the stoop for about a half hour. We didn’t like him at all. He was creepy and not all right, we thought. When he walked by I would give him an Italian salute behind his back.
Because of the new system in the house, Grandpa had strict rules for us kids. We were not allowed to go upstairs unless told to do so. And we were not to fraternize with the paying customers.
At first all went well. The renters were generally quiet and cooperative and Grandpa was getting the rent on time. Everyone was happy. One afternoon, however, I was in the second floor bathroom and I could hear Mrs. Olsen upstairs in the hallway, knocking on Jim Baloney’s door. There must have been no answer because she quietly walked back to her room. After a while she tried again and Jim Baloney let her into his room. From then on while the captain was away, Mrs. Olsen routinely visited Jim Baloney. And I’m pretty sure they were dancing because we could all hear mazurka music and hard footsteps on the floor.
One afternoon Mrs. Olsen called down and asked for me to run to the corner deli for some bread and cold cuts. My mother said it was okay so I took off for the store. When I returned and went upstairs, I knocked but no answer. She had the radio on real loud. I knocked again a little harder. I then pushed the door open and called out “Mrs. Olsen?” No answer. I stepped into the room and saw her lying on the bed naked wearing only a see-through nightgown. Jim Baloney was playing mazurka music in the room next door. I stared hard for at least a long minute and then dropped the bread and cold cuts on the floor and quickly ran down the stairs. I never told my mother what I saw but I also never forgot it. I secretly hoped that I would be asked to go to the store again, but she never did ask.
Summer was almost over and I was back at school, this time in the seventh grade. I was pretty much gone during the day because of school so I wasn’t sure what was happening with the renters. I noticed, however, that Grandpa was becoming more and more irritable.
Curiously, the day the captain came back was also the day Jim Baloney disappeared. He was missing and none of the renters knew where he had gone. Also, he had left owing almost a week’s rent and Grandpa wasn’t too happy. He left behind his treasured record player and all those mazurka records. Grandpa figured he’d keep them until he got his rent money.
One afternoon coming home from school, I noticed two cop’s cars from the 78th precinct parked in front of our brownstone. A small crowd was also hanging out near the airyway, talking loudly and using their hands. A cop stopped me from going into the house. I was worried because I thought maybe my grandmother had had another heart attack. Finally my grandfather came out and scooted me into the dining room and told me to stay put. I could hear my mother who was upstairs crying. I overheard that she was the one who had found Mr. Tedesco on the floor in his room in a pool of blood. Mr. Tedesco had shot himself in his right temple with an old rusty 22 pistol, probably because of his blind eye and because he was alone and had nothing to live for. My mother was very upset and cried for days.
That was it for Grandpa! First the place starts smelling like a bar room, then it’s being turned into a dance hall and a bordello, and now a renter goes and blows his brains out. It was too much, what Grandpa called schifiu. Two days after the suicide Grandpa kicked the Jamesons out and then gave notice to the captain and his wife. Very soon the place was empty and back to where it had been in the spring. In a way I was sorry to see them all go, even poor Mr. Tedesco.
So Grandpa gave my sister and I the record player and all the mazurka records but told me never to play them in his presence. Also, I was told specifically never to put my ear next to the radio’s speaker otherwise I would go deaf. My sister wasn’t interested in mazurka music so she gave me her share of the records. From then on when Grandpa wasn’t home I listened to mazurka music and thought of mild-mannered Jim Baloney. And, of course, the naked Mrs. Olsen.