The eight story apartment building was slated to be torn down to make way for the Anacostia Development Project. A new ball park for the Washington Nationals as well as millions of square feet of office, retail and condominium space were on its way sending much of the area's poor and low income population scrambling for affordable housing across the Anacostia to nearby southern Prince George’s County, Maryland.
But there were hold outs. If you had a long term lease and rejected a buyout there was only one thing a landlord could do. Let the property which was going to be demolished anyway rot in place with the tenant left to stew in the stubborn ‘principle of the thing’ with no heat and often no water or electricity.
This was the case with the square cookie cutter Bauhaus cube of a building before me. It reminded me of something out of Stanislaw Lem’s Futurological Congress when the protagonist’s drugs wore off and the desolate real world hung in tatters before him.
It was one of those drizzly, 90 degree heat 85 degree humidity DC days. And being a just a couple of blocks from the reeking Anacostia river wasn’t helping matters.
I drove up in my 12 year old 1984 Country Squire Ford Station Wagon with every power window non-operational and with a propensity for the brakes to lock up and catch fire because of all the extra weight I put on the back of this mechanical draft horse.
The parking lot was nearly empty. A man, booze, weed, crack, smack or all of the above?, lay sprawled on a sheet of cardboard in a handicap parking space, grinning and smacking his lips dreaming his take on utopia no doubt.
The windows on the ground floor had been broken out with only a handful covered in plywood. The front door was propped open. Several homeless people squatted in the lobby. There was no one at the front desk and the ragged remains of curtains flapped in a dank breeze that crawled through the broken glass.
There were four elevators. The first was filled with old bags of garbage, broken pieces of dry wall and what appeared to be a half-cannibalized golf cart. The floor of the second elevator was stuck askew on moorings with a sign ‘Owt ov Survis’ taped over the up/down buttons. The fourth elevator ditto was out of service if only because it appeared a family had moved into it. Several sleeping residents roused when I peered into its darkness. However, elevator three appeared to work.
One junkie had already claimed me for his mark and was hovering over my shoulder, tapping his fingers together like you see in old British movies and doing a little dance of anticipation. I did not disappoint. I asked, “Does this elevator work?”
“Yeah, boss. It works,” he answered.
“I need to go to all the way to the eighth floor,” I asked.
At this he hopped into the elevator and presumably pushed the button to the 8th floor while simultaneously holding the door open, laughing “It works, man. The fucker works. You comin’ boss.”
I said, “I’ll give you ten bucks NOT to call me boss anymore.” And I handed him a ten. “So what’s your name?”
“Andre,” my guide said. “”Well, I’m Carlo,” and we shook hands.
“Okay boss. Aways we go,“ he chuckled as the doors closed. Like a booster rocket the elevator shuddered and then began a ponderous upward ascent.
The lights signifying different floors were out. When the elevator stopped my assistant called “8th floor, boss.”
I groped down the darkened corridors looking for a sign, biblical or otherwise. Sure enough 810 formed out of the gloom. Now, I only needed to find 830. It was the corner apartment at the end of the corridor.
The door was swung open. I poked my head in and shouted hello at which a slender young woman came from the kitchen and thrust out her hand, “Hello. I’m Sandy. We talked on the phone.”
“Yes. Yes” I said. ”This is Andre. He helped me navigate this place.”
“Yes, I know Andre,” she offering no further elaboration.
“Andre, I’ll take it from here. I’m here to buy the books.”
“I’ll help you haul them out when you’re done, boss,” Andre offered.
“Only on one condition. Please, don’t call me boss.”
“Alright boss.” And he pulled from his pocket the ten I gave him and holding it in thumb and forefinger at both ends snapped it like a pistol shot and faded down the corridor.
The apartment was a shambles. Being on the top floor when the roof leaked it got the worst of it. A corner of the living room ceiling had caved in creating a waterfall effect down the side of the wall. Once again shredded curtains flapped in the moist breeze like filthy white rags of surrender. And the apartment, every room, every bit of space was strewn with books . Piles ran up the walls like thick vines. Closets were stuffed with volumes. Even the neglected, rancid kitchen and sewage caked bathroom were blanketed in books.
I’d seen this scenario many times before. It’s almost de rigeur for the best book buys. At least, for purchasing books that to me form the intellectual backbone of our culture and the core of my business model.
Sandy was the tenant’s daughter. Her father had worked at the US patent office until his retirement. Her mother taught in the DC school system and had died a number of years before. Her father had recently had a stroke and she had flown in from Seattle to arrange for his care. Now, she was anxious to return to her own family, husband and kids.
“I’ve got to go out for about an hour. I’ll leave you to your work. Everything is for sale including the furniture and book cases.”
“An hour’s fine. It’ll take me far longer to go through everything. I’ll make a stack of the books I can use and pitch you offer. I can also recommend places for further sale or donation depending on what I can’t use.”
“Sounds fine,” and she disappeared down the dark corridor.
Except for condition, requisite roach shit and dampstaining, this was a scholarly book dealer’s gold mine, mining being the operative word as I dug through layer after layer of titles. There were odd volumes of the Bollingen Jung, A set of the Hogarth Freud missing the index and a couple of dust jackets, works by Oman, runs of Hegel and Husserl in translation and German, dozens of Loeb classics, Greek and Latin, a dozen titles by Runciman all hardback in djs, a run of hardback firsts of the travel writer Freya Stark, only the second group I’ve seen that extensive. Studies of archeological digs, railroad atlases and the odd regimental. Solid mathematics, physics and philosophy --- Von Neumann, Husserl, Gauss, Riemann, Wittgenstein, Godel, you name it.
Only one problem. Though mine was merely financial fueled by a quasi-spiritual love for such material, I wasn’t the first to gain sustenance from this well-considered collection. The rats, mice and roaches, as well as the rain, had claimed their share.
Despite the considerable vermin and weather damage, after about five hours of gathering and examining the volumes I thought I could use, Sandy and I agreed upon a price.
Leaving behind excellent material because of poor condition always haunts me. A volume with its corners nibbled away by mice or rats or a book caked inside with roach feces can only serve to make the other survivors that much rarer and not much more. Some books are just too far gone. And it always breaks my heart.
But I did still manage to buy 20 boxes worth and steer Sandy to a charity that would pick the others up if she threw in some furniture. Such is the lot and value of books in the culture at large. “Books? What else you got?”
So how to get them out. Five hand truck loads of 4 each. Will the lone working elevator hold? Should I load them all on at once and shoot the dice or put a few boxes on at a time and trust the elevator to make several trips.
I went down to my car and got my hand truck and some boxes. Andre again hovered.
“Andre? Do you think that elevator can make one trip with twenty boxes of books?’
“Books? You mean goin’ down boss?”
“Stop playin’. Yes down. And for Christ’s sake stop callin’ me boss.”
“No call ta swear in front of a church goin’ man, boss.”
“Church goin’ man,” I said incredulously.
“Well, you can believe what you want.”
“Ah! You didn’t say boss. Got you back on your heels, friend.”
“We ain’t no friends, boss.”
“I’ll give you another twenty to help me.” And I handed him a crisp Jackson.
“But we getting’ close.” And up to the 8th floor we rode on the vibrating elevator.
I wrote Sandy a check. I packed my boxes while Andre looked on. Then he held the elevator door open while I wheeled in the twenty boxes and prayed in my own way that we make it down the 8 flights.
On the way down, Andre asked, “What’d you pay that nice lady, boss?” So I told him.
“That’s all. This is a shit load a books,” he shot back.
“What the fuck do you know?” I countered.
Andre gazed off at the damp stained ceiling and half lit lights of the elevator. “Damn white people soon as rip off their own kind as they do a nigger. And they put their criminals on their money.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Jackson, boss. Motherfuckin’ Jackson fucked up the Indians. Right, boss?”
“No argument from me.”
We made it to the lobby. And I wheeled the books out as Andre helped me load them. Then he said, “Can you give me a ride, boss?”
I said, ”Depends. Where to? My wife’s alone back at our store.”
“Just a few blocks, boss.”
“Okay,” and we climbed into the wagon.
“How you roll down these windows, boss?”
“Sorry man. They don’t work. And there’s no air either.”
“Cheap ass motherfucking white boy,” I heard Andre sneer under his voice. “And grifted that nice lady too. And don’t think I’m not going to mention it to her, boss. Her daddy was a good guy. A smart guy. I liked Mitchell. Knew some shit. That was his name Mitchell.”
“Yeah, I know. Sandy told me. I made the check out to him.”
“So you ripped off my friend too? Huh boss?”
“Mitchell was tolerable at chess. You play chess?
“Where you want me to let you off?”
“Next corner, boss.”
“In front of that liquor store?”
“That’s right, boss. And don’t judge lest you be judged.”
“What after you just judged me a thief and a crook?”
“Well, boss, you is what you is.” And Andre and I parted company.