A Man of Small Volume by Gabriella De Ferrari

BOMB 60 Summer 1997
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Every morning, as far back as he could remember, he had walked the same street. He would wake up at 7:00 AM, pull on his pants, rumble for his keys and go to the corner store to buy the paper, milk, and fresh bread. He walked its length, only one block, on the way to school and later to his job as a cartographer. His earliest memory went as far back as when he was six years old. It was the wet morning when he accompanied his father to work on the tugboats. He and his father knew the street well. Its sounds at this hour were all too familiar. As they turned to the west they could see across the Hudson River to the coast of New Jersey. They spent the whole day on the water, the men that worked with his father were noisy and did not pay him much attention. He sat at the very back of the boat and observed the banks of the Hudson. His attention was directed to the tall buildings that stood erect as if fighting to get closer to the sky. Manhattan, he thought to himself, could sink from the weight of so many structures. When he and his father returned home his mother was waiting for them with a meal of hot soup and hearty bread. “He is a real sailor,” his dad would say. He was proud of himself for having elicited such a comment. Two weeks later his father was killed when docking the boat. A new man, nervous at the wheel, crushed his father with his own boat. He never returned to the river.

He was an only child and a lonely one. His father worked long hours and his mother was a nurse. They were hardly ever home at the same time. They ate their meals and slept at different times. Occasionally his father would make for him paper boats with which he played in the bathtub until they sunk. His mother left him notes explaining his tasks. From an early age it was he who picked up the groceries at the corner store and vacuumed the house once a week. Only on Sundays did he spend any time with both his parents. They were tired and slept late, still they took him to church and to Aunt Edde’s for dinner. There were a lot of other relatives at Aunt Edde’s. It gave him headaches to hear so many people talking at once. But he was happy to go there because of Aunt Edde. She was his father’s sister. His mother told him to be nice to her because she was an “old maid.” She never married because she lived home and took care of her father who had a nervous breakdown after his wife died. From the tone of his mother’s voice he assumed that Aunt Edde was very sad, however, Aunt Edde seemed happy to him and he liked her in spite of her odd looks. She wore her red hair neatly piled up on top of her head, it looked like a nest which rose above her tiny and pale face. She was short and stocky, her body firmly planted into her thick legs. She dressed in soft materials in shades of lavender. Aunt Edde was always smiling and hugging everyone and she smelled very sweet. Her house was bright and filled with plants, it felt as safe as Aunt Edde herself. He also liked going there because of Aunt Edde’s book. It was a big brown book that she kept on a small table next to where she always sat. Because no one ever opened the book, and because Aunt Edde frequently dusted it with her lace handkerchief, he assumed there was something secret about it.

His next most vivid memory of the street was on the way back from his father’s funeral. He wore his first suit. His body felt strange inside it, but when he saw himself in the mirror he smiled. The street on that day was a blaze of sun. Everything stood out in stark silhouette against the bright light. He squinted his eyes and looked around him. He was surrounded by strangers. People shook his hand and women kissed him. He felt uneasy, suffocated by their presence. Only the street felt familiar and secure. When everyone left he walked the length of the street several times. He regained enough tranquillity to go back inside the house, and sit silently at his mother’s side. From that day on, he walked the street several times every day when he came back from school. He began to make mental notes of every detail in the street. He bought himself a little book and drew pictures of the houses, and the trees, and the flowers in the window boxes. At the bottom of each picture he added his own notes, mostly about the details he was not skillful enough to draw.

Soon, after his father died, his mother brought a new man into the house. He did not like her new husband. He was unusually tall and somber and stayed home all day. When his mother came home from work, he insisted she cook elaborate dinners. His mother looked tired all the time, and the only moments he got to be with her alone was on his way to and from Aunt Edde’s. One day when the grown-ups were in the kitchen, in a moment of courage he opened the brown book. Aunt Edde must have suspected something for she came out and asked him what he was doing. “Please,” he whispered, “May I look at your book?” “Only if you wash your hands first,” she replied. Although his happiness was diminished somewhat by the realization that the book had always been accessible to him, the book became one of his few pleasures. From then on he helped himself to it, like finding water in a desert, before dinner every Sunday. He never stopped admiring the beautiful brick and stone arrangements that were reproduced on its brittle yellow pages. His aunt explained that her father, his grandfather, brought this book with him from the old country a long time ago. He was a mason and from looking at the brickwork in the book he had learned some of the designs that had made him successful in his new country. The book fit with his interest in the street and inspired him to be more observant. He began to study the brickwork of the houses, the layout of the cobblestones and the odd designs of the manhole covers.

Aunt Edde was the only one who ever fussed over him. She loved to cook and always encouraged him to eat more. When it was time to go home she would stuff a bag of peanuts in his pocket. He kept them under the cushions in the window seat and every day when he finished his homework he ate them as snacks, as he watched his neighbors return home at the end of the day. He tried to imagine what went on behind the closed doors.

He walked the same street on his way to kindergarten, to grade school, and to high school. He never went to college. When he was about to finish high school his Aunt Edde invited him to lunch in a fancy restaurant and in the middle of lunch offered to pay for his education if he would become a cartographer. He went home and looked up in the dictionary for the definition of the word. He liked the idea of making a living making maps. It seemed to him a grander version of his note keeping. He never asked Aunt Edde the reason behind her choice of profession for him. He assumed she knew what was best for him. She proved to be right. He had a natural talent and did well. After graduation he got a job with a company that made maps for amateur sailors. He worked alone in a small cubicle. His life did not change much. He bought himself an elaborate camera and began to take photographs of the street.

Soon after he got his job, his mother told him that she would sell the house and move to New Jersey with her husband. She explained to him that the street was now very fashionable, and that she had been offered a lot of money. She also told him that part of that money from the sale would be his. He spent the whole week in desperation and missed a lunch at Aunt Edde’s for the first time. Next Sunday he confided his problems to Aunt Edde. Three weeks later, she found him a small basement apartment at the very end of the street. It had a small window with a partial view of the sidewalk. He had wished for one with a view from upstairs. Aunt Edde explained to him that this was all he could afford. He bought it, and moved in.

It took him no time to get used to his new life. He liked being alone without the silent presence of his stepfather and the oppressive tiredness of his mother. He was proud to be the owner of a tiny piece of his street. However, the street began to change. Brickwork was washed, doors painted, lobbies modernized. The storefront that had been empty ever since he remembered became a bakery selling delicate sweets that saturated the morning with tender scents. All these changes kept him busy. When his vacation approached he turned down Aunt Edde’s invitation to go on a cruise and stayed home to continue his work.

His notes were becoming more detailed. Lately, he had begun to add his own comments to the changes that were taking place. He wrote on the day the neighbors had painted their front door green. It was a muddy shade of green. His eyes could not take the offense. The beautiful monotones of the street had been disturbed. He also noted the window boxes that were appearing almost every day. A new baker took over the bakery kitchen, he had difficulty describing the differences between the new and old aromas emanating from the store. Changes were happening very fast and he had a hard time keeping up with them. He wrote on long rolls of paper, which he then carefully cut into three-inch squares.

As he reviewed his work he could not stop himself from admiring the beauty of what he had recorded. The pictures showed two rows of nearly identical houses fronted by sycamore trees. He marveled that the houses and trees could be so perfectly in tune. Even the heights of the trees were in tune. The cobblestones were neatly laid out, the curves of the steps that led to the houses echoed one another. Everything in his street was orderly and harmonious. Whenever he left the street and wandered into other neighborhoods he speculated on how people could live in the disorder caused by buildings of different styles and heights. Nowhere else had he ever encountered such perfection as on his street and it always made him happy to return there. He was proud to be the keeper of his street.

Toward the end of his vacation photographs and notes stood in large piles around his apartment. He decided the time had come for him to catalogue them. He figured out a system to catalogue his recordings. He devised a color plan. Good changes he coded in green, bad changes in red, unimportant changes in blue. When a stack of notes was five inches high, he tied it with thin copper wire and began a new pile. Soon he had so many little bundles that he invested in a file cabinet. He locked it.

One spring day, the cleaning lady informed him that she had planted his small window boxes with geraniums instead of mums. He yelled at her. The woman, who had never sensed anything but indifference from him, burst into tears. Many hours later, when he calmed down, he apologized to her. “I was very used to the mums,” he said. Next Sunday, when Aunt Edde gave him a packet of mum seeds he realized what a ridiculous blunder he had made. From then on he stayed away on the day the cleaning lady came, and for Christmas he gave her a geranium plant. This episode he fully described in one of his notes. It was written in red and underlined in blue.

He never ran out of things to write; as a matter of fact he did not have enough time. Time became so scarce that even his coffee breaks at work had to be spent writing. His file cabinet filled up. It frightened him that the red section was the largest. Nevertheless he persevered in his task.

Late one winter he was taken ill. The doctor told him he needed to take time from work. He spent several weeks at home and devoted his time to complete the cataloguing of his collection. One afternoon he decided to re-read his earliest entries. When he finished he went out into the street. The brightness of the day blinded him. As his eyes adjusted to the light, details emerged from the silhouettes. He saw nothing that matched the description he had just read. He walked from house to house searching for familiar clues. He walked more and more slowly. Everything began to blend together: an odd sequence of blurred objects. He began to feel free and light. He looked ahead and no longer noticed the elements that made up the street. He looked up at the sky, it was blue. A clear and beautiful blue. He felt happy.

He no longer wrote about what he saw. From then on, he began to write about what he imagined could happen next. In keeping with the spirit of the street he kept his changes small. When Aunt Edde died she left him the big brown book. The book inspired him to search for the most beautiful and decorative aspects of the street. Working and dreaming a better and lovelier street gave him a happy sense of anticipation, and contributed to his long life. Now he added new notes to the old ones without distinguishing between the two. His image of the street became one seamless whole. By the end of his life the green pile was as large as the red one.

Many years after he died, his small apartment was converted into a garage to house a couple’s brand new Cherokee Chief. The volumes fell into the hands of the wife who was an urban archeologist. When her book, The Visionary Street, was published, she won an award from her professional association.

Gabriella De Ferrari is a writer and art historian. Her most recent book, Gringa Latina: Woman of Two Worlds is available from Kodansha.

A House by Gabriella De Ferrari
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BOMB 60, Summer 1997

Featuring interviews with Barry Le Va, Jane Dickson, John Lee Anderson, Lydia Davis, Judy Davis, Peter Greenaway, Roger Guenveur Smith, David Del Tredici, Alfred Uhry, and David Armstrong.

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