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  • The first shop space I rented in the 1980’s, was on Broome and Centre Street, on the 5th floor. It was a small front room divided up by an older artist who worked in the back. The Police Headquarters, around the corner, was still vacant, as was the building across from it. Other than the San Genarro festival raging down the street or Chinese New Years full of firecrackers, it was a quiet neighborhood at night, once the traffic passing through from the highway to the tunnel had finally stopped.

    After a few years we got an offer to take over the larger, less expensive space on the top floor, with a small balcony. This time we rented directly from the landlord. His grandfather had built that building, and the ones surrounding it from a fortune he made on stockpiling and reselling tortoise shell for eyeglasses. We leapt at the offer and moved in.

    “One thing you need to do,” the landlord’s office told us, “is set up a garbage service.” They gave us a number to call, and I called that same day. No one answered and I left a message. By the end of the week I had called three times and left three messages. By the end of the following week they still had not returned my calls.

    We were building some solid wood cabinets and needed to plane the boards flat and then dimension them to size before joining them. This process generated sawdust. Bags full. A large pile formed in the back of the shop.
    “Call again?” my husband asked.
    “No,” I said, “I called enough.”
    “Well, what about this pile?” he asked.
    We did sneak a couple of bags out onto a neighbors pile, then we decided to fill up the back of our station wagon, a black Ford I had bought, for $500.00 and a painting, from a friend. We drove carloads of wood chips up to our apartment, in Washington Heights, at the opposite end of Manhattan.

    Two weeks later I was alone in the shop, wearing my blue apron with white polka dots, doing some finishing work.
    There was a knock on the door and I answered it, still wearing the apron and latex gloves.
    Two men were at the door. One was tall, with pocked skin, the other short and stocky, they had an unkempt look about them, like they were missing teeth. I had seen them around the building before.
    “I’m Umberto, and this is Petey,” said the tall one. “We’ve come about the garbage.”
    “Yes, I have been calling your office.” I said.
    “Let’s have a look,” said Umberto and they walked into my space.
    “Where’s all the bags?” asked Petey.
    “What do you mean?” I asked.
    “Well, it’s been a few weeks, you should have a lot of garbage, we need to see it and figure out what it’s going to cost to take it away.”
    I explained that we had needed the space- now filled with the cabinets I was finishing, and because they had never returned my calls we took our bags up to where we lived.
    “That’s illegal,” said Petey.
    Umberto nodded.
    “We’ll have to estimate what it was you had and charge you.”
    “You mean you don’t have set price?” I asked, getting nervous and feeling alone.
    “You want a set price? We’ll give you a price.” They named a fee that seemed crazy to me.
    “That’s more than my phone and electric. I can’t pay that, I’m a mom and popshop, were small. Thanks but I’ll get another service.”
    “There is no other service, this is our block.” said Umberto.
    Petey nodded.

    Then I got mad.
    I had done the math that morning while I set up my supplies to finish the library cabinets. I still needed a few days to sand, stain, shellac and wax the woodwork, we still had to wrap and deliver the sections, then assemble and level the piece as a unit. Our hourly wage on the bid- a set price, estimated in advance, slowly declined as the project went on. We had to complete this piece and start a new one in order to end the month on a break-even trajectory.
    I had spent days milling the wood, pushing boards over a spinning blade, one slip away from bloody disaster. After hours of this work - the process hypnotic, my head encased in earphones dulling the roar of the machine and my thoughts, the earphones pinching a nerve in my jaw so I worked with a snarl - I began to fantasize about sticking my hand into the triple mounted whirling metal blade. I worked with these horrific imaginings day after day.
    So here were these two small time garbage thugs straight out of central casting and me looking like some industrial housewife wearing a kitchen apron in a woodworking shop, my appliances not a friendly toaster or a gleaming mixer, but exposed and medieval blades housed in solid casings painted in industrial grey and yellow.
    I let out a blast of frustration, without a thought about the repercussions.

    “You don’t answer my calls and then you have the nerve to come weeks later and tell me how much garbage you think I had and what I should pay! I’ll pay twenty five dollars a month and no back charge, it’s enough already!”
    Umberto and Petey looked at me and I don’t remember if they smiled, or looked surprised but they did say that it was deal.

    After that they always said hello and were respectful.
    Even when I saw them with the super, and one of them had a baseball bat and they were going to one of the Chinese sewing shops on a lower floor, to see about an overdue payment.
    Years later the landlord had a new service and a new deal, included in the rent. Not long after that the rent went so high that just like the era of Umberto and Petey ended, so too did ours.
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