Journey Man IV
A Carpenter’s Story
By Daniel Foster
My friend Francois was a member of the family that owned one of the world’s foremost luxury fashion brands, so he moved in high circles. His girlfriend Roberta was remodeling her condo apartment, he said, and she needed someone to help her with some carpentry items. He gave me her number and I arranged to meet with her at her Fifth Avenue apartment.
I drove in to Manhattan from New Jersey and found a parking place for my car. The doorman at Roberta’s apartment allowed me in and I rode the elevator up to her floor. There were a number of painters working in the oblong foyer and the hallway outside her apartment. Roberta answered her door and showed me around her place.
She needed help with extending the jambs on her front door and service door by a fraction of an inch to align the wood perfectly with the surface of the plaster. This was in preparation for the application of linen to the wall surfaces, which would run smoothly onto the wood and stop precisely at the inside corner of the wood. She hadn’t been able to find anyone who was capable of doing this. I said I could and we arranged for me to get started.
I returned a few days later with my tools to do the work. I had quite a time, as was usually the case in Manhattan, finding a parking place. I pulled my toolbox from the station wagon and proceeded to the building entrance. I was stopped by the doorman, who informed me that I wasn’t to come in this way. I was to use the service entrance in back.
It’s hard to say why it is so demeaning to be disallowed entrance to the front door and to be directed to the service entrance, but it is. Perhaps it’s because the doorman takes a certain pride in his station, which is clearly above yours, because he’s there and you’re headed for the service entrance. The message is very clear that you are a step down from the residents and they shouldn’t have to be exposed to you.
There are carpenters who go to great ends to avoid the degradation of the service entrance. I once saw a toolbox created by a Manhattan carpenter who carefully outfitted a large guitar case to house his tools, thereby enabling him to go in the front door.
In the few days I worked on the doors at Roberta’s apartment I got to know the painters who were working on her foyer and hallway. They were union painters from Brooklyn and they were doing the most beautiful paintwork I had ever seen. They painted a color on the wall and let it dry. Then they painted another color over the first and let it dry. Then they sanded the wall very carefully, allowing the base color to come through the second color in a seemingly random pattern. Then a third color went on and was allowed to dry and then that coat was sanded to reveal the colors beneath in a random pattern, with the colors fading in and out in color and intensity. It was gorgeous, like pastel clouds. It remains the most beautiful paint job I have ever seen.
I had never met union painters before. These guys were very professional, in the best sense of the word, and were serious about their trade. One of them was younger, related to one of the others, and he was delighted to be entering the union. He saw a successful life ahead, provided by his ticket into the union.
So it was Roberta and the doorman and the painters and me. Everybody had their position. Welcome to New York, I guess.
I did the work on Roberta’s doors by planing the jamb surfaces smooth and then gluing and screwing additional strips of wood to them. When the glue was dry I removed the screws and cut the wood nearly flush to the surface with a saw and then planed it perfectly flush, letting the rear of my plane ride on the surface of the plaster as the blade shaved the wood. It was a meticulous, but not too difficult, job. The painters thought it good work and they would be applying the linen, so I felt good about it.
When I had completed the doors Roberta asked me to do some trimwork inside her apartment. The interior designer, who was just helping because he was a friend of hers, would be coming by and she wanted me to meet with him and get direction on what I should do.
Her designer was easy to work with. I was to apply casings to some doors and also build some shelves into a hallway niche. He and I looked at each of the tasks and discussed the details. I offered some ideas that he liked and I was impressed with the clarity with which he viewed everything and with which he expressed what he wanted.
I commented later to Roberta that I thought her designer was very good. “I’m glad you think so,” she said. “He’s the best in New York.” I learned later that she wasn’t kidding. Albert Hadley really was the best in New York. I would experience again, multiple times, how pleasant it can be to work with the very best. They don’t try to impress. They don’t have to. They’re interested in the work and the outcome and they value good ideas from others and teamwork. Lesser designers and architects often attempt to elevate themselves by demeaning the contributions of others.
After I had completed the interior work Roberta asked me to make sense of her storage area in the basement. Each of the residents had a caged area there to store their suitcases or skis. It was the Fifth Avenue version of a garage or attic. There was a collection of 2x4s and some plywood from which Roberta wanted me to create the ultimate storage area, she said. I think she wanted hers to be the best in the basement.
I don’t remember what I created in that cage in the basement. It wasn’t a pleasant place to work and whatever I created was not destined to be appreciated by many, if any. I was alone down there, and neither inspired nor happy. I created some flexible, efficient storage of some kind and that was about it. Roberta made quite a fuss over it and declared it the benchmark against which others would be compared. Hers was the best carpenter around, she declared.
Roberta took an interest in my life. She was intrigued by the fact that I was a single parent with four kids. We had conversations that included her ideas about places I should consider living, where work might be good and the environs a good place for kids.
She asked me to bring the kids by one day, which I did, and she took us all out for lunch. We went to a restaurant that she boasted of as having the best hamburgers in the world and she treated us all. I think the kids liked it, but I was amazed at how expensive the meal was and I really couldn’t enjoy it. She spent $80 on hamburgers and fries for us. That was a lot of money in 1985. I know she just wanted to be generous, but the whole time I felt ashamed that I couldn’t afford to spend money like this myself on the kids. It just made me feel inferior.
After that I allowed myself to slip out of the glamour of Fifth Avenue. Perhaps I should have stayed and played the game, but I just couldn’t do it. The whole time it just made me feel worse about myself, not better. And other work was calling.
I haven’t been through the servants’ entrance since.