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LIVING IN THE WORLD'S MESSIEST APARTMENT WHICH IS ALSO VERY COLD
Thursday, 27 Sept '01
My Grandma Zella M. is 94 today! She'll probably go for a long walk, play some cards and dine out with her friends.
Have I shown you this picture yet? Bkid and me with the powerful towers behind us, Jan 2001. [photo taken by, and hocked from, Red]
ON MEETING FRANK DI MARTINI
Tuesday, 25 Sept '01
I first heard Frank DeMartini's somewhat nasely voice on my answering machine last winter. He left his assertive message in response to a sign in the window of John's car, which I was trying to sell. He was very interested. I scribbled this in my notebook next to his name: very interested.
I called him back, one of the three numbers he left: work, home, cell; we agreed to meet for a test drive. It was early for me to be up and out, 6:50 am. I walked to the end of my block, turned left, followed the numbers 3 houses in, and rang the doorbell of an old beautifully restored Brownstone there in Ft.Greene, Brooklyn.
Frank had been so eager to talk on the phone, so overtly friendly and available to contact at any hour, that my mind had decided he would be a bachelor. Maybe forty. Obviously a career man, and specifically, a lawyer. He was aggressive. But the assertiveness of his phone manner was balanced by a warmth in his voice. But I was preparing myself for a lawyer.
The man who answered the door at 6:50 that morning didn't wrap his coat around him, tuck his bag under his arm and head out to the car with me, as I had planned this test drive going. Get it overwith. Let him talk me down 200 dollars, give him the keys. Done.
Instead, he was in a suit, (I knew it!) but still in his sock feet. He didn't seem rushed, but he wasn't ready to go, so he invited me in through a thick red curtain which hung in a semi-circle around the door, like in a nice restaurant, to keep the cold outside air from blowing in. Nice touch, I thought. It was February.
With some reluctance I followed him past the foyer, through a large parlor with exposed wood beams and old refinished wood floors (Nice, I thought), into the kitchen at the back of the house. My brain complained "Um, this is my time, my time is important and precious, Frank De Martini, and just because you're, like, a fancy lawyer doesn't mean my time isn't as important as yours." And I went on internally "We had arranged a time..." It didn't help that I had decided he was a lawyer.
In the kitchen I'm greeted by a family finishing breakfast before a school day. Frank introduced me to his son, Dominick, whose enourmous bright eyes (obvioulsy his father's) were buried in some math homework and a bowl of cereal. His daughter finished her OJ. They offered me some juice. His wife Nicole was quiet, demure, busy. She had a European accent. As I sat down in the kitchen with this group of strangers, I witnessed Frank interacting with Dominick, helping with his homework. I warmed up. Relaxed. I was the foreigner in this domestic scene. My life in NYC was spent working with single web designers, all in their twenties, all younger than me, not one of us was married. I was never exposed to adults interacting with their children. I was intrigued. My schedule seemed less important than this: a moment in the life of a family.
So they finished, and we went for the car. Frank walking fast, talking fast. "He's type A," I'm thinking. He wants to drive the car to his mechanic in Brooklyn Heights, and I say "Why don't you just take the car, I'll jump on the train here and head to work. I trust you, I know where you live." Frank wouldn't allow for this. He wanted the company, wanted me to accompany him, wanted to chat. He wasn't uncomfortable with me, a stranger, at all. Driving, we're stuck in traffic, and Frank shares many details of his life. He's so forth coming that I open up, too.
Your house is beautiful.
Yes, I know. I bought it 20 years ago for 20 grand.
That was when Ft.Greene was a scene of murders and muggings nightly, when Myrtle Ave was called Murder Avenue.
I never got mugged though.
But his neighbors did. He attributed his immunity to his confident walk and to how he held himself. He's not a huge man, but he's sturdy. He wore a scarf around his neck. Somewhat stately, yet approachable, yet definitely fiery. He could be your best friend, I thought, or he could be a total asshole.
He had been a student at Pratt when he bought his Brownstone for something like 20 grand. It was a structural disaster. He renovated it. He's an architect.
"I thought you were a lawyer," I confessed with a teasing laugh. He mocked great insult, also laughing. I was a little bit charmed. I wanted him to buy this car, but this isn't how car sales are supposed to go. You don't become this friendly, you just talk brakes, clutch, fenders. Do some negotiating, and hand over keys, title, goodluck. But not with Frank. I don't think he ever met a stranger. He'd talk the mugger out of the crime.
Frank was a practicing architect until the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, when he was brought in to do some bomb-damage assessment there. A short term gig turned into a passionate career change. I think he described his new role as the mayor of the city that is the compound of buildings of the WTC. He spoke enthusiastically of the towers and of his decision to stay on because they so fascinated him. I learned there were 5 levels of underground development, a near-complete city beneath the sidewalk.
We dropped the car off at the mechanic, got a cup of coffee together (light and sweet), and walked to the A train to commute into the city together. The days following involved some results from the mechanic, some phone calls back and forth, and his low-ball offer on the car which actually insulted me ($300??).
I declined his offer and sold the car to some other neighbors, who were very grateful to buy the car. They loved the car and paid what I asked. They felt they got a good deal and gave me great relief to have sold it. But I don't remember their names. I don't remember their faces. I wasn't invited into their homes, didn't learn of their passions. They didn't make any impression on me.
But Frank De Martini made an unforgettable impression on me. I can still hear his voice and his flat accent, see his largish nostrils. He was the only person I knew who worked in the WTC, and I had been wondering about him since the planes crashed into them and they collapsed into what we call Ground Zero, and "the rubble". I opened my notebook and found his phone number there, but couldn't ever dial it.
Then finally I saw his name in the New Yorker last week, and as I read the blurb I held my breath, and held out hope. I read about how on the morning of September 11, after dropping Sabrina and Dominick off at school, he had just finished sharing a cup of coffee with his wife in his office on the 88th floor of the North tower when the first plane hit. I read about how he made sure she got out of the building, directing her and others to a safe stairwell, and then stayed behind to help some injured people. I felt he was too sturdy to perish, I could see him answering the door when I rang his bell... And then I read on, and learned that after a sleepless Tuesday night, Nicole never heard from Frank again. And then I wept, again, for the 6,339+ people who never came out of that building. They now have a face which I know. They have a face of laughing, sparkly eyes, salt and pepper hair, bushy eyebrows and aggressive friendliness. And as Frank made such an impression on me after only a brief interaction, I know he will live on long in memories of the people who knew him well, or had only just met him.
You can read one such memory of him, written by his friend and neighbor, online here in the New Yorker, by Amitav Ghosh.
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Strapless Jeans Dress on a downtown train. [enlarge]
On S. Kent Avenue, Bklyn [enlarge]
I got some thing from some folks...
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