“A Great Lesson In Trust, Patience and Humility” (Part 2 of 7)
“Between you and me, I’d leave this on and tell ’em it was already like this, you know what I mean, Joe?”
OK, so if you do a shitty job, at least I’ll have my water on. I can wash my hands, piss in the pot, and allow myself a much more comfortable drive home – and not necessarily in that order!
I watched as Felipe mopped the floor. I hope the sweat dripping profusely onto the floor doesn’t interfere with the work of the amonia. Felipe seemed to be a pretty nice guy but he did talk a little too much and started telling me his life story:
“…and I work from seven in the morning til nine or ten at night. My wife takes the kids to church on Wednesdays and Saturdays and then we all go on Sundays, you know what I mean, Joe? My mother has a big piece of land in Trujillo Alto…you know where Trujillo Alto is? It’s a really big piece of land…I’m talkin’ like acres and acres, you know what I mean, Joe? She has a nice, big house too. She told me I could build a house on the land, but I would never be able to put it in my name or sell it, you know what I mean, Joe?…’cause she doesn’t want it split up or out of our family’s hands. And if I was to get divorced, she would want an agreement saying the property does not go to my wife for any reason…so, I decided maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, you know what I mean, Joe?”
“Is that any indication of your current relationship-status with your wife?” I asked with a smile. My joke went completely over his head and didn’t even slow his story.
” .. so after I leave here, I gotta go to another job and then pick up my wife and kids at church; I gotta full, day…you know what I mean, Joe?”
Yeah, but you got a really late start and you ain’t cuttin’ this one short, you know what I mean, Pedro?
I got really tired of listening to his constant talking and figured if I left, maybe he could concentrate more on his work. I needed some more sandpaper for the worktable I was building, so I decided to walk down to the hardware store to get some.
“Hey, Felipe….I need to go run a few errands. I’ll be…”
“Oh you need to leave? You just go right ahead. Don’t worry about me taking anything – you can trust me with your stuff. I’ll keep a good eye on the place while you’re gone, you know what I mean, Joe?”
I assumed I didn’t need to clarify this up front and was bothered by his bringing it up. Maybe he just thinks I don’t trust Nuyoricans…
“What time will you finish?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ll be here for quite a while, you know what I mean, Joe? Don’t worry about me – just go do whatcha gotta do, you know what I mean, Joe?”
Either he’ll rob me blind or l’ll find him asleep when I return. I didn’t have a good feeling. But, there was nothing to steal other than paints, brushes, and my tool box.
I got to the Hardware store and saw that it was closed. I’ll get a cup of coffee, I thought. The coffee kiosk in the plaza was closed as well. So was everything else. Discovery of Puerto Rico Day. They have laws to throw at you if your business is open today and you are not an employer of seven people or less. It was also raining. I picked a fine day to have my floor polished. And I don’t know what kind job this guy’s gonna do to say the least…
I returned to find Felipe hard at work. I was beginning to feel better. Mary came down to see what kind of work he was doing and to ask if he could do some work for her.
“Mira, chacho, como se llama?” Mary asked him.
“Me llamo Papo, senora.”
Papo! And you’re trying to get me to call you Phillip? This was amusing. ‘Papo’ is an endearing Puerto Rican nickname. I figured he was trying to disguise the fact that he was Nuyorican to Mary. I don’t think there are many Puerto Ricans in New York with the name, Papo. Of course, remember I told you earlier that Mary is an ‘escapee’ who lived in New York and later returned to the island?
They talked in Spanish for a few minutes. Mary seemed concerned that he would get away without giving her an estimate on her floors. She was probably figuring it was going to be difficult to get a hold of someone who did floors and she’d better grab the first willing soul, much like I had done.
Mary and I watched Felipe as he started working with the floor machine. As it whirled and twirled, Felipe was giving us the professional-floor-guy-narrative. He was extra careful to drop all of the you-know-what-l-mean-Joe’s out of his professional jargon. Mary would have been impressed, however, Papo kept letting the machine pull him around. He slammed into the tile baseboards as he talked and we both cringed with the tinkling, clinking sound the collisions made.
Papo seemed to know his shit; He pointed out spots where someone had tried to clean the floor with acid. He talked about how the white tiles were not really white, but off-white, or, bone-white. He made the disclaimer that he would not be able to get them sparkling white. Hmm…making excuses already, are you?
He told me, as Mary looked on, what really needed to be done to get the tiles really clean. This was the $250 treatment he presented originally.
“I’ll pay the $150 if you pay the balance,” I turned and offerred to Mary. She couldn’t beat that deal. I was being a pretty good tennant for spending money on her floors anyway! No way, José. But I didn’t figure she’d go for it in the first place.
Papo continued with the floors – and with his talking. Mary had already left. I was bored and wanted to get out of there again. There was nothing for me to do short of keeping Papo company – or better – provide him with an audience.
“What time are you going to finish up?” I asked him. Not that I really want to rush your ass and make you do an inferior job…
“I should be through in ’bout an hour-and-a-half, you know what I mean, Joe?”
“Yeah, well I’m going to run some more errands; I’ll be back before then.”
”Take your time, Joe, I’ll have the floor lookin’ real good when you return. Oh, and can you pick up a pack of Winstons for me?…I’m about out.”
He gave me a five-dollar bill. There appeared to be at least ten cigarettes in his current pack.
“Oh well, at least you smoke the right brand,” I mumbled.
“Whadya say, Joe?” Papo looked up from his loud, whirly, twirly, wall-smashin’ machine.
“Oh, nothing…I’ll see you in a bit,” I said, as I stepped out into the rain.
I was glad to see my favorite bookstore open for the tourist trade. I know they employ more than seven people! But I’m certainly not complaining to the management. I’ll duck in here out of the rain and kill some time.
I wanted to be about ten or fifteen minutes early, so after browsing in the bookstore, I went over to the seedy bar across the street to buy a pack of cigarettes for my buddy, Papo. Inside were a bunch of tourists solemnly drinking and waiting for the rain to stop. They looked pretty sad. I asked a bartender for change for cigarettes. I think I woke him up from a nap.
“How much are cigarettes, anyway?”
“$2. 75,” the bored bartender told me.
Yikes! I thought. I’m sure glad I quit.
On the way back to the studio, I figured I saved ten-thousand-thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents from the time I quit smoking.
At the studio, Papo was fInishing up. He had put the stool and director’s chairs on top of the tabletop that I had just varnished earlier this morning. There was a big, fresh scratch on the table.
“Goddammit!” I said.
“What’s the matter, Joe?”
“You put the chairs on this table and it scratched the finish…”
He probably saw how unsquare it was and figured it was just an old worktable – which it will be sooner or later…you know, kinda like spilling heavy-duty barbeque sauce on your brand-new chef’s apron…
“Oh, I’m sorry, Joe…I can stay and help you sand it down and refinish it….”
“No, that’s OK,” I said as I looked around the two rooms at the little white marks all over the black baseboard.
“Did you make those marks?”
“Oh no, Joe…they was already there like that…”
Papo was a little sloppy and it wasn’t helping my opinion of the entire job.
He started packing up.
“OK, Joe, tomorrow you might want to put another coat of this wax down with a mop if you feel it needs it…”
Alright, pal, but this is coming off your bill!
“…and I’m gonna leave you this mop…”
Thanks! lt’s mine anyway.
“…and this bottle of wax to use again. And most important, don’t mop this floor with anything other than water, otherwise, you’ll take the wax off.”
The floor looked pretty good. I sort of wish I’d done it myself, especially as you’ll read later. Papo admitted that the floor wasn’t going to come as clean as he’d origjnally thought and I hoped he wouldn’t charge me as much as initially agreed. No such luck:
“Now, let’s see. . . how much do I owe you?”
OK, Wilbur…ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer!
“One-hundred-fifty dollars, less the fifty dollar deposit, Mr. Robert.”
I don’t know which I liked least, ‘Joe’ or ‘Mr. Robert’
“Alright, so I’ll make the check out to Felipe A-n-d-u-” I asked, but was quickly interrupted:
“Ay, Joe, all you got is a check?”
Here it comes….
“Well, I got this other job this afternoon and I need to buy some paints, you know what I mean, Joe?”
“Well, Pal, I got bad news…it’s Puerto Rico Discovery Day and you won’t find anything open selling paints.”
“Yeah, but I know a place where I can get some…can’t you go to the ATM machine or something?”
“Nope, sorry, can’t do it. But I can give you forty in cash and write a check for the remainder.”
“OK, whatever you got, I’d appreciate it.”
As I wrote the check and counted out the money, I looked at him eye-to-eye and said with a smile:
“You know, you make almost as much money as a doctor or a lawyer does.”
“What do you mean, Joe?”
“Well, you rent a machine for twenty-five bucks, work a couple of hours and pocket a hundred and twenty-five. And you have no major expenses coming out of that [except for the ad in the newspaper that all of the impatient gringos read.] You must have a Jaguar parked in your driveway.”
“You don’t think I did a good job?”
“No, you did a good job…I was just expecting it to take a little longer…”
He didn’t deem it necessary to defend the price of his work, nor did he seem the least bit offended.
“Hey, can you watch my stuff while I go get my truck’?”
The rain was coming down a little harder. As with most other streets in Old San Juan, my street has only room for one vehicle width, and because of the limited parking, you find it necessary to drop off or pick up your stuff while the traffic waits behind you. Then you go find a parking place, that is, if you’re coming and not going. Fortunately, my street is not very busy which allows you more time.
Felipe pulled up in his truck and got out to load the machine.
“Can you help me with this?”
“Sure,” I said and I started clearing space in his truck bed.
“No! Not there,” he snapped. “We’ll put it over there!” he said, pointing to another area in the truck bed.
I didn’t know if he was antsy over the rain or the car behind us. Puerto Ricans don’t seem bothered by making others wait on them so, I knew it wasn’t the car…
As we lifted the machine into the truck, he seemed to have a change of mind and said: “Just put it down here – I can deal with it later.” He seemed impatient and nervous.
“Aren’t you going to talk to Mary?” I asked.
“No, Joe, she wants me to work with acid and I don’t do that.”
“Well, you should at least tell her so – she’s expecting you.”
“Well, give me her phone number…do you have a pen and something to write on?” he asked.
Now I was beginning to worry about the car waiting behind him. I quickly got paper and pen and wrote her number down and gave it to him.
“OK, Mr. Robert, thank you and I’ll call you tomorrow to see if everything is OK with the floor…hey, do you need a ride?”
I had most of my stuff in hand but I still needed to lock up. The driver of the other car looked impatient.
“No, that’s OK, my car is parked up the hill, in the opposite direction you’re going.”
“No, it’s alright – I’ll drive around; it’s no problem, you know what I mean, Joe?”
“No, it’s not necess-”
“Come on, Joe…I don’t mind…”
The other car had been there a long time. If it had been me, I would be pissed! I fumbled with the double locks and jumped into his truck.
“Well, I guess they’re wondering where I am at this next job. I’ll probably be late picking up my wife and kids at church. I might have to work tomorrow to make up for it. My wife doesn’t like for me to work on Sunday, you know what I mean, Joe? We usually go to church in the morning and at night on Sundays. My wife goes to church more than I do…but I have all this work to be done at the company…I never seem to have much free time, you know what I mean, Joe?”
He dropped me off and I thanked him for the ride. He said again he would call and check on me tomorrow.
I was glad to be rid of him.
Sunday, November 20, 1994,
The floors looked good. The studio was coming together pretty well. I spent the first part of my morning putting down another coat of wax on the floor as Felipe had suggested. Next, I moved everything back in place and painted another coat of varnish on the tabletop. As luck would have it, I spilled a few drops on my new, clean floor! While the table dried, I worked on one of the paintings I had started during the workshop. I worked in the studio all day.
Felipe called the house that afternoon as promised. I wasn’t home yet, so Vicky spoke with him. He just wanted to make sure the floor was OK. Good, professional, follow-up…probably ‘company’ policy…
Monday, November 21, 1994,
My studio, 9:00 am:
I continued work in the studio with a watercolor of La Casa Rosada, a pink Spanish colonial building behind the west wall of La Casa Blanca. Bathed in bright sunlight as I initially painted it on-the-spot, it was an exercise in letting light areas dominate the painting. Nearby palm trees left interesting violet shadow patterns across the harsh light reflected off the building. My vantage point was looking down from atop the west wall, perhaps twenty feet higher. I included the top of the wall in the foreground of the painting and framed the right edge with the cool, dark greens of tropical plants and vines climbing up a large tree trunk next to me. I did the majority of the painting on the spot. Despite the swarms of German tourists walking through La Casa Blanca’s gardens, I was interrupted only once when a skinny homeless man at the bottom of the other side of the wall asked me for money; I threw two quarters down to him; one landed in the dirt and he couldn’t find it. I directed him to the general area where it landed. He kept bugging me to help him locate it. When I am lost in a painting, as I had been, my concentration is very deep and I have a difficult time carrying on a conversation. This homeless man was pulling me out of this state of semi-meditation. I was about ready to throw a brick down at him.
Now I was back in the studio doing some final washes on the painting. Some were going to be pretty daring and could possibly ruin what I had so far. I liked the painting, so in order to preserve it as a sketch for a possible second painting, I went to get my camera out of the bottom-left drawer of the chest under the stairs leading up to the loft. ‘The camera bag was not there. Surely, I had it in this drawer…maybe I put it up in the loft when I was clearing everything off the floor. I went up to the loft and was frustrated by not finding it. I went back downstairs and looked all over. No camera. It has got to be here…I remember having my camera here in the studio! Could it be at the house? Well, maybe…But I don’t remember taking it home and I have a strong feeling this is the last place I saw it…
[Yes, if you didn’t already figure it out from the title, you’re finally getting an idea of where this story is going because just like you, my first thought was: That sorry bastard stole my camera!]No…He wouldn’t do that. It’s too obvious, besides, I have his home phone number, he advertises in the newspaper daily and they probably have his home address…I thought about another incident that had been on my mind for a few days and was really bothering me: My missing keys. One moming, a week or two earlier, we dropped off my car at the dealer for a service check. I pulled my studio and house keys off of the key chain and put them on another one to take with me. I dropped Vicky off at work and took her company loaner car, as her regular car was being serviced as well. So I’m going around, running errands with two keychains in my pocket. Later that day, I realized I didn’t have my key chain.